The curious fall of the Dallas Mavericks has both been highly criticized and well-documented. Such is inevitably the case when an owner and general manager willingly surrender core elements of a title-winning team, and doubly so when said owner and general manager whiff on the free agent target that was supposed to bring the franchise's salvation in the following summer. Tyson Chandler is gone, Deron Williams is still in Brooklyn (or in London, for the moment, but you get the point), and the future of the Dallas Mavericks is uncertain indeed.
The initial decision to let Chandler (as well as J.J. Barea, Caron Butler and DeShawn Stevenson) leave in the 2011 offseason as free agents has proven to be quite controversial, but more important than retrospective breakdowns of that pivotal choice is an understanding of where things might be going for Dallas. The Mavericks are far too flexible and clever to be limited to a single plan, and even in the wake of their free agent miss, they're still positioned fairly well to maximize what remains of Dirk Nowitzki's playing days.
Here's a look at the different elements of the Mavs' approach at this point, with acknowledgement of the fact that the breadth of options eventually available to Dallas makes it exceedingly difficult to pin down a precise retooling path.
Keep competitive and keep Dirk happy
Dirk Nowitzki is the furthest thing from a high-maintenance superstar, but he's an exceptionally driven player nearing the end of his NBA career. Nowitzki readily admitted back in May that he was "too old" for a rebuild, and sadly, he's right; if the 34-year-old were to submit to a multi-year process that gets the Mavericks back on track, it's unlikely he'd be able to play a significant role by the time Dallas returned to the title hunt. The fact that Nowitzki acknowledges the limitations of his age only makes it all the more pressing to cobble together a roster in a hurry, both to keep Nowitzki content in Dallas and to take advantage of his considerable talents.
With those goals in mind, Cuban and Nelson have gone about assembling a team that stands to be quite competitive this season, and have done so without at all tampering with their long-term flexibility. Elton Brand, O.J. Mayo, Darren Collison, Chris Kaman, and Dahntay Jones were all brought in on short-term deals to solidify the Mavericks' place in the Western Conference playoff picture, and while that crew isn't good enough to make a contender out of these piecemeal Mavs, they're far superior to a rather dismal alternative. Keeping the franchise's collective head above water is important, even if the kind of moves that Cuban and Nelson have made don't take Dallas all the way back to the promised land.
Keep the cap sheet clean
This is perhaps the most important of all. Dallas' strategy centers around financial flexibility, and though Nowitzki alone is on the books next season for $22.7 million, Shawn Marion, Vince Carter, and Jared Cunningham are the only other Mavs with guaranteed salaries for the 2013-2014 campaign. That in itself isn't notable—Dallas is hardly the first team to clear out cap space—but the fact that the cap sheet remains so clean after making so many offseason additions certainly is. Talent capable of sustaining a winning team typically can't be had for a single-year salary commitment, and yet by biding their time, working through sign-and-trade scenarios, and selling mid-tier free agents on the possibility of playing in Dallas, Cuban and Nelson were able to perfectly meld a winning preference with a cap-conscious outlook.
Aim for Dwight Howard
Dallas isn't banking its entire future on the fate of Dwight Howard, but as the free-agent-to-be most strongly linked to the Mavs, Howard certainly has a role to play in this particular narrative. Zach Lowe of SI.com's The Point Forward did a fantastic job of breaking down the possibility of Howard landing in Dallas, while also debunking the notion that the Mavs would somehow have the cap room to sign Howard and another star (presumably Chris Paul) while retaining Nowitzki. The idea is very much impossible unless Howard and a co-star agree to take considerable pay cuts, but that doesn't necessarily mean that Nowitzki and Dallas alone won't be enough to make Howard a Mav.
One of the more worrisome aspects of Dallas' free agent pursuits is the flip side of their current cap picture; in clearing out so much salary to make room for a Howard-sized chunk, the Mavs have gutted their roster and left very few assets to entice a big-time player to town. Nowitzki is a nice draw, but a star on the decline and one who—based on his past comments—could consider an early retirement. All of that said, Dallas has, for some reason, been on Howard's list of preferred destinations throughout this entire process. A close reading of a dizzying bunch of rumors and reports points to Howard being less interested in competitive cores and more intrigued by certain cities, all of which favors the Mavs.
Ride the waves of opportunism
Few words arise as frequently in the Maverick vernacular as "opportunism" and its grammatical variants. The very concept lies at the core of Cuban's organizational philosophy, and guided Brand, Mayo, Kaman, and Collison to Dallas despite the team's lack of tradeable assets and an unfavorable free agent market. This is simply a front office that fully understands how to maneuver both under and over the salary cap, and does well in finding creative ways to navigate the teambuilding process. That's far more rare than it should be, as even some of the more effective management teams in the NBA get by on far less technical savvy.
It's on the basis of that ingenuity that we can say that this isn't all about Dwight Howard—just as it wasn't all about LeBron James and Dwyane Wade when the Mavs' front office scored Tyson Chandler for Erick Dampier's expiring contract in the summer of 2010. Clever front offices are constantly arranging and rearranging teambuilding possibilities, and while acquiring a player like Howard would be an incredible shortcut in the effort to construct a contender, it isn't the only path that leads to that end. There will be other stars on the free agent market both next summer and beyond, other players in Howard's position attempting to engineer a trade to a specific destination, and surely other attractive candidates available via trade and sign-and-trade.
The options are plentiful to those who have cap room and assets to spare, and the Mavs have some decent, movable assets for the moment and plenty of space going forward. All that's left to be determined are the specifics of what's available when; in the NBA, so much comes down to having the right pieces and cap openings at the right time, and though Dallas has done well to position itself in the most general sense possible, opportunism relies on terribly specific contexts and outcomes. It's those factors that currently have the Mavericks at their mercy, and while that isn't an ideal arrangement by any means, it's simply one possible outcome in a league where so many teams chase a far smaller number of star players.