The Dallas Mavericks may have a few nice pieces on the roster, but the full rebuild process won't begin until Dirk Nowitzki is ready to retire. With that in mind, the next and only step in Dallas' current plan is to attract the best talent possible in free agency, regardless of anything else.
That's not to imply that the present roster or Nowitzki are a hindrance to the future, but rather to clarify that the Mavericks haven't been building for the future over the past few offseasons, despite their best efforts to bring in a supplementary young star. This is a veteran-laden team led by a 35-year-old forward, after all, so the window for success is understandably short.
While you could argue that the Mavericks might have been better off shutting the window for contention prematurely and getting peak value via trade for guys like Shawn Marion, Vince Carter and maybe even Nowitzki, this is the path that Mavs owner Mark Cuban chose.
It's pretty easy to justify, really, since Nowitzki is the franchise's biggest star and one of the best players in NBA history. It certainly wouldn't feel right to see him playing in another uniform, especially when he's performing at such a high level still, with per game averages of 21.5 points and 6.1 rebounds.
Following this path has created some issues on a roster level, however, as players like Deron Williams and Dwight Howard have looked elsewhere in free agency to teams with younger and perhaps more promising cores. The Mavericks have instead been forced to either punt a year or go with solid but not franchise-altering options like Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon instead.
That the Mavericks have remained in the playoff picture in a tough Western Conference despite whiffing multiple times on bigger players in free agency is a testament to Nowitzki and head coach Rick Carlisle, arguably the two best assets the Mavs have at their disposal.
Even if Dallas fails to have much success this postseason, this offseason once again is going to provide them with another chance to add major talent. The only difference now is that Nowitzki himself will be a free agent, which opens the door for a few possibilities.
Nowitzki, of course, will almost certainly stay where he's been his whole career, but he may be willing to come back on a discount in order to help the Mavs better recruit talent around him. Here's what Nowitzki said about that last year to Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com:
"At this point of my career, it's all about competing and winning," Nowitzki said. "It's not about money. Obviously, Cuban took care of me for a long, long time. I always tried to pay him back by hard playing and being here for this franchise, so I don't think we're going to fight over money. I want to compete over these last couple of years. That's going to be the goal."
"I guess that's something we need to look at next summer when it gets to the point, but I'm sure it will be a significant pay cut," said Nowitzki, the lone constant on the Mavs' roster during the 12-year postseason streak that was snapped this season.
This presents the Mavericks with an interesting decision, however. If Nowitzki comes back for two more seasons, should Dallas be willing to sign players in free agency to deals longer than that?
A lot depends on the player, naturally, as I'm sure Mark Cuban would be just fine with having LeBron James around in the post-Nowitzki era. Realistically though, it's hard to see if the Mavericks are willing to operate in such a short window and pass up on players who want long-term deals.
Maintaining financial flexibility going forward didn't seem like much of a priority this past offseason for Dallas, though, as Calderon was signed through the 2016-17 season. He'll be 36 on the last year of his deal, and Nowitzki should be done in the league.
The $7.7 million Calderon will be due isn't enough to break the bank by any means, and he can always be dealt at some point, but it is interesting that Dallas would sign a veteran player to a deal longer than Nowitzki's likely career-span. More contracts like Calderon's might make starting a full rebuild process, like what's happening in Philadelphia, a little more difficult.
Then again, the contract that Monta Ellis signed would lead you to believe that the Mavericks were very concerned about future cap room. Ellis will have a player option worth $8.7 million for the 2015-16 season, which seems like a much friendlier length than Calderon's, especially since he's the younger player.
Ellis in particular has proven to be a great fit with Nowitzki, as they've combined to form one of the deadlier pick-and-roll attacks in all of the league. Here's what Nowitzki told Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated about Ellis:
"I knew he could score and everything," said Nowitzki, "but the thing that surprised us the most is his playmaking ability off the pick-and-roll. He'll get in there, get our 5s involved, get our shooters involved, give me a lot of open looks every night. He makes my game a lot easier.
The trio of Calderon, Ellis and Nowitzki is paying dividends, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, where the Mavericks are fourth in the league in offensive efficiency. Here's Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated explaining how that has happened:
In Monta Ellis, the Mavs acquired a much-needed dribble penetrator, capable of compromising defenses from within. In Jose Calderon, Dallas found a lethal perimeter marksman and heady, low-risk orchestrator from without. The pair contrasts beautifully on offense, though even at their best seem to only reinforce Nowitzki’s value as an offensive centerpiece; for all that Ellis and Calderon offer as shot creators, the 35-year-old Nowitzki remains the bridge between them, and the true, efficient engine behind one of the league’s very best offenses.
With only $28.2 million in guaranteed salary next year, not including Nowitzki's upcoming deal, the Mavs are lined up to be one of the more serious free-agency buyers this offseason and will have max cap space once again.
The pitch for incoming free agents will be enticing: There's no state tax in Dallas, there's a solid offensive core in place with Nowitzki and Ellis, Carlisle is one of the best coaches in the league and Cuban has shown he's willing to spend to field a contender. There's an awful lot to like here, both for young players and veterans. With Nowitzki occupying less room on the books, this might be the best chance Dallas has had at a star yet, even though it's hard to say how many actual stars will end up being available this offseason.
Either way, it seems unlikely that the Mavericks will simply kick the can down the road and wait until the 2015 offseason, as Nowitzki is short on prime years, and the Mavs have already felt the sting of that in the past. Ellis and Calderon signaled that those days of being patient were pretty much over, so it would be a surprise to see Dallas take anything but a "best player available right now" approach to free agency, particularly with how this offseason's signings panned out.
Ideally, the players signed by Dallas this offseason would line up with the salary schedule of Nowitzki and Ellis more than Calderon, but certain sacrifices might have to be made in order to truly maximize the talent around Dirk in his last few years. It's a delicate balance, but if a player too good to pass up is available only for a long-term deal, Dallas shouldn't hesitate to pull the trigger.
With most teams, I'd advocate more careful financial spending and planning for the future, but Dallas should go for broke this offseason. They owe it to Nowitzki, particularly if he takes a major pay cut, to hold off on worrying so much about the future.
Essentially, the next step for Dallas isn't to rebuild at all, but instead, make one more final push for a title before a new era begins naturally.