Although the Dallas Mavericks are within striking distance of the playoffs in the Western Conference, many fans are already looking ahead to this offseason.
The fact of the matter is that the Mavericks have been a disappointing team any way you look at it, and even if they were able to sneak into the postseason, they likely wouldn't last past the first round.
Alas though, there is hope for the Mavs this offseason. With only five players under contract for next season (two of them being rookies), Dallas has an opportunity to string together new talent for next season and beyond.
The Mavericks must decide how they want to spend their cash. Last year in free agency, the Mavericks relied too much on Deron Williams or Dwight Howard coming to Dallas, and they had to scamper to find a suitable roster before the season began.
Here you can see Dirk Nowitzki's frustration as he talks about not being able to sign Deron Williams last offseason.
The question that has to be asked, though, is where exactly should the Mavericks spend the cap that they do have this offseason?
In order to answer that, one must first look at how the team has performed in 2012-13.
With 17 games to play, the Mavericks are currently 31-34, three games behind the eighth-place Lakers in the West.
The Mavericks are playing much better as of late but just haven't been able to string together any sort of consistent play this season.
For every three-game winning streak they've been on, another four-game losing streak seems to follow.
Dallas has had to pull together without a 100 percent healthy Dirk Nowitzki, a roster largely made up of has-been players on their last legs as professionals and unproven young players who have yet to completely find their niche at the NBA level.
That doesn't mean the Mavericks don't have talented players. Nowitzki is still a superstar, O.J. Mayo could be one in the near future, Vince Carter has seen a resurgence that few expected, and others such as Shawn Marion, Darren Collison and Chris Kaman have had their moments this year.
Still, the fact of the matter remains that the Mavericks just don't have enough to make a serious push with this roster.
One area that the Mavericks totally struggle with is defense.
Dallas is the fourth-worst team in the NBA in terms of opponents points per game, giving up nearly 102 per game.
Dallas' defense has killed them in close games, as time after time they have been unable to get big stops in key moments.
Dallas also is one of the worst rebounding teams in the NBA. The Mavericks get out-rebounded by 3.3 per game, the third-worst margin in the league.
The Mavericks also have gotten inconsistent play from their bench. Vince Carter has been great as the sixth man, but most of the other bench players have been very hot and cold.
Brandan Wright and Roddy Beaubois have flashes of being huge contributors, but then will not play for games on end, or play poorly.
Rookie Jae Crowder started off hot but has found it difficult to adjust to the speed of the NBA game. Elton Brand has shown that his age is getting the best of him.
Other players, like Bernard James, Mike James, Jared Cunningham, and Anthony Morrow, have been largely ineffective.
Dallas must improve all three of those areas if they are going to make the postseason next year.
So where do the Mavericks start this offseason?
Well, first things first, the Mavericks have to decide which, if any, players who are under expiring contracts they want to bring back for next season.
The most obvious is O.J. Mayo. The Mavericks were able to steal Mayo for just over $4 million last offseason, but although Mayo has a player option, it's highly unlikely he would come back for that amount of money.
Mayo has posted 16.9 PPG to lead the team this season. Although Mayo has cooled off in a big way, he is still one of the teams top scoring threats and is capable of going off at any time.
Mayo won't get as big of a deal as he might be expecting, but $4 million won't be enough for the Mavericks to re-sign him. Still, if Dallas is smart, they will give Mayo a reasonable contract to keep him in Dallas for the next several years.
Mayo has shown that he is capable of putting the team on his back; he did it the first third of the season while Dirk Nowitzki was down with injury. If Mayo's given more time to adjust and room to grow as a scorer in Dallas, he could pay big dividends in a few seasons for the Mavericks.
Darren Collison also is a player the Mavericks may want to bring back. Collison has certainly had his ups and downs this year, but he is still a young player who is making strides at the toughest position in the NBA.
If Collison was able to cut down on his turnovers and shoot more consistently, two areas which are highly changeable moving forward, he could be a dynamic point guard.
Other than that, the Mavericks could probably do without any of their other players entering free agency. If they can get Elton Brand or Chris Kaman to come back for cheaper than their potential market values, it may be worth it, but only if they were serving in backup roles.
They may want to give Bernard James a short-term contract to see if he develops, but other than that, it would seem that the rest of the Mavericks roster will be playing elsewhere next season.
From there, the Mavericks must try to fill their other needs that I previously mentioned.
The first thing they need to do to is lock down the middle on defense and improve rebounding. To help them, they will need to go out and sign one, if not two, high-quality big men to play down low.
On the top line, there is always the chance that they sign Dwight Howard. Howard's struggles have been well-documented, and if he opts to test the market, he could see Dallas as a potential fit.
Andrew Bynum is also out there. If he is healthy enough and Dallas is willing to pay, Bynum could be a godsend for them in the middle.
However, both of those options are more pipe dreams than realities. We have seen before what happens when the Mavericks invest their entire offseason in signing superstars, and it has led to where we are today.
If they play their cards right, the Mavericks may be able to sign multiple All-Star-level players. While they may not be superstars, they can still put the Mavericks in the mix in the West.
In terms of big men, Al Jefferson, J.J. Hickson and Nikola Pekovic are three names that immediately come to mind. They are highly capable scorers and bruisers in the paint whom the Mavs certainly will be able to afford if they use their money correctly.
Beyond that, in the next level, a Timofey Mozgov or Tiago Splitter could be a nice fit to play center.
Here is a list of the top rebounders in the NBA who will be free agents this season. Dallas would be wise to sign a name from this list.
After they sign a big man, the Mavericks have to look at adding another point guard to the mix. While it is smart of them to re-sign Collison, they need to add a backup who can play competently and also provide some competition.
Brandon Jennings would not be a backup, but he may still be someone the Mavs may want to go after instead of Collison. We all know how great of a scorer Jennings can be, but the question the Mavs have to ask is would he fit in with Dallas' system, and would he share the ball enough to keep Dirk and the rest of the roster happy.
Below him, I look at Jarrett Jack and Jose Calderon as players Dallas should target. Both are double-digit scorers who can also get their teammates involved. Plus, while they would be competing with Collison, he can also learn tricks of the trade from those veteran players who can help him develop.
Finally, Dallas must look to improve its bench in all areas. I already mentioned a backup point guard and big man, but they also need to target other bench guys who can help fill up their holes.
Matt Barnes is a glue guy for the Clippers who could be a nice fit off the pine. Marquis Daniels is a former Maverick and would bring more defensive intensity to the perimeter. Josh Howard could return to the team where he had the most success and try to put his career back on track. Larry Sanders is also an underrated big man who eats up glass.
These are just some of the free-agent names this year that the Mavericks can look to invest in this offseason.
While signing all of these players obviously won't happen, Dallas has issues it needs addressed that can only be fixed through free agency or trades.
Dallas has a lot of cap space, but it needs to make sure it uses it wisely and locks up some of these players for more than just one year.
If the stars align and a superstar comes to Dallas, than the Mavs can go from there and build the team around him and Dirk Nowitzki. However, Dallas has more problems than just one player can fix.
If Dallas spreads out its money and gets a variety of effective players, it could end up helping them more than just landing one big name.