As far as full-circle redemption goes, you couldn’t find a more potent prospect: Dirk Nowitzki, 35 years old and seven removed from the wrong side of the Golden State Warriors’ legendary upset in Round 1 of the 2007 playoffs, leading his Dallas Mavericks to an equally colossal coup over the San Antonio Spurs.
Sadly, Dirk's most humiliating passage would boast no fairy-tale epilogue, as the Spurs cruised to a 119-96 Game 7 win and a date with the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference semifinals.
Dirk and the Mavs marshaled a valiant effort—that much is indisputable. What lingers, however, is the simple, obvious question: Does Dallas have the talent—and more importantly, the time—to cobble together another contender?
That Rick Carlisle could spur his team to within an off night of upending the 62-win Spurs betrays just how tenuous Dallas’ playoff berth really was: Following a surprising 36-23 start that put them squarely in the postseason hunt, the Mavs stumbled down the stretch before eventually beating out the Phoenix Suns for the West’s No. 8 seed in a final-weeks, three-team tussle that also included the Memphis Grizzlies.
Had one more game gone awry, we’d be speaking about Nowitzki and company not as noble Cinderellas, but as the past-prime underachievers—the perfect franchise landscape on which to set off the bombs of rebuilding.
Here’s the good news: With only $31.3 million in salaries slated for the 2014-15 season, the Mavs—led by open-wallet owner and roundball rabble-rouser Mark Cuban—are in a fantastic position to make a splash in this summer’s much-anticipated free-agency market.
We know about Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, four max-level players who will have the chance, albeit to varying degrees, to opt out of the final year of their respective contracts.
Unfortunately, the list of free-agents-to-be also includes the following: Vince Carter, Devin Harris, Shawn Marion and—most pertinently—Dirk Nowitzki.
In other words: short of Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon, the whole of Dallas’ core.
Now, Nowitzki has intimated on more than one occasion that his goal would be to re-sign—and ultimately retire—with the Mavericks, a gesture made most recently back in late January:
Now that I already reached my goal (of winning it all), I really want to finish my career in Dallas. But saying all that, I don't want another year next year with the same as this year, (with) the frustration and playing for the eight or nine seed. I think we all know that this is a very big summer for us. (Mavericks general manager) Donnie (Nelson) knows. Cuban knows. We want to get back to the championship level.
Mired as the Mavs are in a Western Conference certain to improve, these are ambitious musings indeed, making Dallas’ free-agent foray all the more critical.
Indeed, Cuban will no doubt be eyeing a plethora of potential targets. On that note, Pau Gasol, Lance Stephenson, Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry and Gordon Hayward are the obvious cream of the mercenary crop.
To return, Nowitzki will need assurance that at least one of these pieces, along with a good grip of Dallas’ own free agents, can be realistically reeled in.
How cavalier Cuban can be will depend heavily on whether Nowitzki—who’s certainly earned one last lucrative payday—is willing to eschew the route taken by Kobe Bryant, who, back in November, signed a two-year, $48.5 million extension beginning next season (via CBS’ Matt Moore).
Still, even if Dirk agrees to come back at something of a discount, it’s unclear just how enthusiastic some of the upper-echelon free agents will be to hitch their wagons to a 36-year-old ground-bound forward with more than 48,000 minutes on his treads.
Even Ellis, fresh though he is off an impressively efficient season, is nowhere near the elite-level second option paramount to any serious contender.
But as Bleacher Report’s D.J. Foster surmised back in March, all things considered, you’d be hard-pressed to pinpoint pastures more pristinely green than North Texas:
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.
In the end, Foster concludes that Cuban’s only real option at this point—and in a full-on zag to an apparent league-wide zig—is to make one last lunge for those ever-fleeting second fiddles.
After all, the gambit struck gold once before, when Jason Kidd, Tyson Chandler, Jason Terry and Marion served as the sturdy spokes to Nowitzki’s gleaming wheel, resulting in the franchise’s only championship banner in 2011.
But that was three years ago now—an eternity in light of the league’s increasingly youthful landscape.
Can the Mavs reconstruct a true contender? The short answer is yes.
The long one, however, requires a list of caveats and conditions longer and more drawn out than a Dirk Nowitzki turnaround and an even more minuscule margin for error.