The Dallas Mavericks are running out of time.
With Dirk Nowitzki set to play in his 16th NBA season, there are only a few more years in which Mark Cuban's Mavs can expect to get elite production from their veteran star. That means any dreams of championship contention better become reality sooner than later.
Unfortunately, based on the Mavericks' current roster, "sooner" seems out of the question.
Dallas struck out again on the free-agent market this past summer, failing to land any of the top available talent. Armed with a consolation-prize backcourt in Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon, the Mavs figure to be respectable in the 2013-14 season, but certainly won't do more than make a quick first-round exit in the playoffs.
Neither Ellis nor Calderon are even average defensively, and there's no way that Samuel Dalembert is capable of erasing enough of their mistakes for the Mavericks to rate as a playoff-caliber defense this season. Per ESPN, the Mavs checked in at No. 20 in the NBA in defensive efficiency a year ago. Based on their offseason additions, don't expect an improvement.
But just because the Mavericks don't have what it takes to chase a ring this season, don't rule them out of contention after another summer of roster additions. Plus, it doesn't look like Nowitzki will retire without another real championship run.
Cuban offered the following nugget of optimism in an interview with Norm Hitzges of KTCK-AM in Dallas (as transcribed by the The Dallas Morning News):
I don't see Dirk walking away from the game anytime soon. Dirk really wants to come back and send a message to everybody that he's got a lot left. The thing about Dirk is he's skill driven. He's basketball-IQ driven, he's wins driven. He's not driven by athleticism. As long as he stays healthy, he could play for a long time.
Implicit in that quotation is the understanding that the Mavericks aren't quite ready for prime time right now. Why else would Cuban focus on Nowtizki's ability to play well into the future?
Technically, Cuban is right: Nowitzki's game is going to age very well. Shooting doesn't tend to disappear over time, and as long as the German can stay in one piece, he'll be a very valuable offensive player. Plus, Dallas' championship hopes will get a nice boost when Nowitzki, who'll make more than $22 million this season, takes a pay cut on his next contract.
That team-first attitude should help the Mavs attract a big name on the market next summer.
But what kind of players should the Mavericks target in an effort to construct a championship contender around Nowitkzi? The big man's unique offensive skills make him a pretty easy guy to play with in any style, but for the best evidence of how to build a title team around Dirk, it might be a good idea to study the way Dallas did it in 2011.
That version of the Mavs won a ring by playing terrific defense (No. 7 in the NBA in defensive efficiency, per ESPN) and shooting the lights out (No. 4 in the NBA in true-shooting percentage, per ESPN).
Numbers aside, Dallas stuck to a pair of key strategic principles on each end. Defensively, it filtered everything toward Tyson Chandler in the middle. On offense, the ball hopped all over the place, forcing defenses to scramble until there was a breakdown.
With shooters everywhere, the Mavs enjoyed a ton of terrific looks from long range and capitalized on out-of-position defenders by getting to the line far more often than such an athletically limited team should have been able to.
Based on this model, it makes it seem like there's a place for Calderon on a future championship contender in Dallas. In something like Jason Kidd's old role, he could space the floor, run a few pick-and-rolls with whichever big man the Mavs land next summer and generally move the ball to open shooters when he's covered.
Ellis' role will be trickier, as he's best suited to assume Jason Terry's job as a high-scoring sixth man who might not even see the court if the matchups aren't right. It's been a long time since Ellis took a back seat, but that's what he'll have to do to maximize his value to the team.
Obviously, the biggest unknown in all of this is the Mavericks' future free-agent haul. As presently constituted, the Mavs don't have the talent to win a title—or even come close. But with the right additions next summer, that could abruptly change.
Without knowing who'll exercise early termination options, it's difficult to speculate on the potential talent that might become available. If LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony opt out, you can bet that Cuban will do his best to ensnare one of them.
But we know that guys like Pau Gasol and Zach Randolph will be available. If Nowitzki re-signs on the cheap, Dallas will easily have the money to sign someone from that list and go after another big name.
Look, Nowitzki is good enough to be the best player on a title-contending team, but the pieces around him have to fit in a way that resembles that 2011 club as closely as possible. That might not be an easy mix to duplicate.
So perhaps it's time to think about the potential for Dirk to assume a secondary, supportive role in the same way that Tim Duncan has with the San Antonio Spurs. Duncan will always be the most iconic piece of the perennial contenders in San Antonio, but the Spurs have really been Tony Parker's team for a few years now.
Assuming Dallas can land a superstar next summer, the Mavs' best chance to build a contender around Nowitzki might be to move him down the pecking order behind another No. 1 option.
It hurts to even think about something like that if you're a Mavericks fan, but it might be the fastest way to get the team back to the league's upper echelon.