Free-agency preview: Small forwards

Luol DengAP Photo/Mark DuncanLuol Deng is one of the few players in the league as defensively versatile as Shawn Marion.The Dallas Mavericks hope to finally land a big fish in free agency.

They also firmly understand that they’re in a long line of teams trying to sign LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony. Put it this way: The Mavs had better odds of getting Deron Williams or Dwight Howard the last couple of offseasons than signing one of the superstars available this summer.

Mavs Free-Agent Targets

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The Mavs are on a short list of teams that have the cap space to offer a full max contract to either of the available in-their-prime, future Hall of Fame small forwards, but several teams can maneuver to create room. And the superstars’ current teams can trump offers from anyone with contracts featuring an extra year and more than $30 million. Plus, don’t assume that the Mavs would be willing to give Anthony a full max offer with a starting salary of more than $22 million.

The Dallas front office isn’t approaching this summer with a big fish-or-bust mentality. They’ll have strong Plans B, C, D, etc. in place, particularly at small forward.

One of those is re-signing Shawn Marion, the Mavs’ best defender and rebounder over the last five seasons and a critical piece of the 2011 championship puzzle. There is strong mutual interest in Marion’s return, although it is uncertain whether the 36-year-old “Matrix” would be enthusiastic about staying in Dallas if the Mavs envision him as a reserve.

The Mavs are optimistic that they’ll re-sign sixth man Vince Carter, who plays the majority of his minutes at small forward.

A look at some of the Mavs’ other small forward options in free agency:

Luol Deng: There’s a lot to like about the 6-foot-8, 29-year-old Deng. He’s one of the few players in this league as defensively versatile as Marion, but he’s seven years younger and a much more productive offensive player at this point of their careers.

As Rick Carlisle said when Deng came to Dallas with the Cavs last season, any coach would love to have Deng on their roster due to his toughness, intelligence and talent.

The question is what the Mavs — and other teams — are willing to pay for a player who was arguably overworked in Chicago and has a concerning recent injury history.

Deng has missed more than 10 games in five of the last seven seasons. After leading the league in minutes per game in 2011-12 and 2012-13, Deng played only 63 games last season, dealing with a nagging sore Achilles tendon throughout the year.

His production plummeted after the Bulls traded him to Cleveland in January, as he averaged 14.3 points and 5.1 rebounds while shooting 41.7 percent from the floor, all well below Deng’s career norms. That can be partially attributed to a lack of a comfort level on a team that had a long list of problems, but there is reason to be concerned that Deng’s decline has started prematurely.

Deng reportedly turned down the Bulls’ offer of a three-year, $30 million extension before being traded. He made $14.3 million last season and is said to be looking for offers in that range. Like Monta Ellis last summer, Deng is likely to be disappointed with the market for him.

The Mavs, assuming they don’t strike gold with a superstar, would still love to land Deng at the right price. They got good value by signing Ellis to a three-year, $25 million deal after he slipped through the free agency cracks last season.

If Deng ends up in Dallas, it’d likely be for a similar deal.

Trevor Ariza: The 6-foot-8 Ariza, an athletic journeyman who started in the playoffs for the Lakers’ 2009 title team, is coming off a classic contract year.

His 14.4 points per game marked only the second season in his career in which he averaged more than 11. His shooting percentages (45.6 from the floor, 40.7 from 3-point range) were significantly higher than his career norms. He set a new career high with 6.2 rebounds per game.

Was that a breakout season at 28? Or was that the best Ariza has to offer? That performance for a Washington team that advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals ensured that Ariza will have several suitors, including the Wizards, but he should still be less expensive than Deng.

Paul Pierce: The Mavs almost pulled off a trade for the future Hall of Famer before the 2012 deadline. They’ve never shied away from old former All-Stars, and Pierce could be a fit in Dallas at the right price and under the right circumstances.

His All-Star days are in his past, but Pierce is still a quality starting small forward. At 36 years old, the Celtics legend averaged 13.5 points and 4.6 rebounds in his lone season for the Brooklyn Nets last year.

Gordon Hayward: Hayward, who averaged 16.2 points, 5.2 assists and 5.1 rebounds as a 23-year-old last season, has as much upside as any small forward in free agency who doesn’t own an Olympic gold medal. He’s also a restricted free agent and part of the long-term plans for the Utah Jazz.

Al-Farouq Aminu: The Mavs probably like Aminu more than most. Perhaps the two best performances of his career — a pair of 16-point, 20-rebound nights — came against Dallas.

Aminu, the eighth overall pick in 2010 and part of the package the Clippers gave up to get Chris Paul, hasn’t lived up to his draft billing, averaging 6.5 points and 5.5 rebounds in his career. But he’s a 6-foot-9 athletic specimen who turns only 24 in September and could be good value if, say, the Mavs gave the the room exception that went to Wayne Ellington last season.

Mike Miller: You can never have enough shooters, and Miller is lethal from long range and has hit a lot of big shots in his career, including for two title teams in Miami. The Heat used the amnesty clause on him last offseason in large part due to durability issues, but he miraculously managed to play all 82 games for the Memphis Grizzlies, where he was a minimum-salary bargain. If Miller is available for the minimum again, several playoff contenders should be interested.

Caron Butler: “Tuff Juice” has a lot of fans in the Mavs’ organization from his brief stay in Dallas. He’s never been the same player since suffering a serious knee injury in what ended up being his final game in a Mavs uniform, but he was a quality midseason, minimum-salary pickup for the Oklahoma City Thunder last season. At 34 years old, if he’s willing to play for the minimum, Butler could be a quality bench player for the Mavs.

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