The Dallas Mavericks always knew that this was a possibility.
Armed with gobs of cap space and locked in on a pair of stars long ago deemed worthy of maximum contracts, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, the Mavericks took a tremendous hack at the 2013 free-agent crop. And, as even the best sluggers in baseball do more often than not, Dallas came up empty.
No Paul, no Howard, not even the salvageable parts of Andrew Bynum's injury-wracked 25-year-old body. If the Mavericks have a star on their 2013-14 roster, it will be the same one that's led the team for more than a decade now—Dirk Nowitzki.
Never mistaken for an athletic specimen, the 35-year-old marksman has aged better than most of his basketball brethren. A seven-footer who's mastered the art of the turnaround jumper is a matchup problem despite the fact that it's getting tougher to notice the jump portion of that shot.
His 2012-13 season was delayed by a bad wheel that cost him all of November and nearly the entire month of December, but he still found his way to 19 20-plus-point outings in his abbreviated 53-game run. His soft stroke has kept him within striking distance of that coveted 50/40/90 slash line, and his glass work (6.8 rebounds per game) and generosity (2.5 assists) fell close in line with his career marks.
Whether he can still fill the role of best player on a good team remains, at best, a mystery or, at worst, a fantasy. He needs plenty of help if he plans on hoisting another Larry O'Brien NBA Championship Trophy before leaving the game for good.
It's hard to imagine Jose Calderon, Monta Ellis, Devin Harris (who Mark Cuban told Dwain Price of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram will be signing with the Mavericks after all) and Samuel Dalembert emerging as those missing pieces to Mark Cuban's puzzle.
The analytical crew can sit this one out. A simple look at those players' per-game averages from 2012-13 says everything you need to know about the Mavs' offseason haul:
You can search for the superstar numbers here—Cuban and Co. surely are—but they're just not there.
Ellis' scoring average is nice, but he's an inefficient volume scorer who stands out as a defensive liability during the rare times when he finds his way to that end of the floor. Calderon's great for ball protection (1.7 turnovers per game), but he gives away the points he helps create and then some defensively. Harris and Dalembert are serviceable veterans, but the Mavericks were hoping for something much greater than serviceable.
Still a fruitless summer, at least in terms of adding star power, won't be enough to drive Nowitzki from the only American city he's ever called his hoops home.
Even though he has all of the tools to become an ideal ring chaser—instant-impact ability, production freed from Father Time's grasp, motivated by more than dollar signs—such a drastic decision seems out of his character.
It's not that he's OK with mediocrity. In fact he told USA Today midway through last season that the last thing he'd want is the another frustrating year of playing "for the eight or nine seed."
With his own impending free agency casting an ominous cloud over the 2013-14 season, why then would he decide to stick around with a team that, on paper, hits its ceiling somewhere around the No. 8 seed out West?
For one thing, the Mavericks are no longer operating in wait-and-see mode. The slew of one-year contracts that littered Dallas' transaction log last summer have been replaced by multi-year deals.
Calderon signed on for four seasons with the Mavericks. Ellis got a three-year deal, while Dalembert received a two-year contract. Harris had worked out an agreement on a three-year deal before a toe injury put the brakes on those talks, but it's possible that his annual salary may come down a bit while the contract's length remains the same.
In other words, Dallas has a plan now.
Nowitzki has players he can grow with; coach Rick Carlisle can start figuring out the best ways for those players to complement the 7-footer.
Ellis, and to a lesser extent Harris, can take some of the scoring burden off Nowitzki's shoulders. Dalembert can be the rebounding, shot-blocking big body that Nowitzki needs at his back. Calderon can strike the always delicate balance of managing the many offensive egos on the roster.
Maybe it's not enough to push the Mavericks back into the championship chase. But it's a definitive blueprint that Nowitzki can use to see what life would be like if he finished his NBA career in the same place that it started, which has always been his preferred path.
Loyalty is such a rare trait in today's professional sports world, but Nowitzki's devotion was rewarded with a championship ring and the 2011 NBA Finals MVP award. His legacy could actually be damaged by another title if the subsequent banner-raising took place anywhere other than the American Airlines Center.
For someone whose wardrobe has never wavered throughout his 15-year stay in the world's most fashion-conscious league, Nowitzki has the chance to be a true trendsetter for his All-Star peers.
Maybe it's wishful thinking on my part, but I can't see him giving that opportunity away.