Pole position helps, but ultimately the only thing that matters is who takes the checkered flag.
Separating from a crowded field won't be easy for the Mavericks—especially when this race may amount to nothing more than another bike ride through South Beach, waiting for Pat Riley to retool—not rebuild—the Miami Heat roster.
The massive odds stacked against them shouldn't matter to the Mavericks, though. Not when the potential reward is an in-his-prime, four-time MVP who's already in the "greatest of all time" discussions.
Dallas has to make its best possible recruiting pitch to attempt to bring James on board.
How might the Mavericks go from the back of the pack to breaking the tape at the finish line? By making sure James knows exactly what kind of advantages they can offer.
The Mavericks won 49 games this past season, only five fewer than James' Heat. Considering the heightened degree of difficulty Dallas faced in the fully loaded Western Conference, one could argue the gap between the two teams was even smaller.
Dallas more than held its own in a seven-game slugfest with the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs. That's a claim none of San Antonio's other playoff opponents could make—not even the Heat.
After six games of their opening-round series, the Mavericks and Spurs were deadlocked at three games apiece. Dallas even held the scoring edge in those first six contests 612-603.
The Spurs eventually survived that series, then later destroyed James' Heat in the championship round:
All of that boils down to this: The Mavericks were legit last season and have improved their on-hand talent since. They brought back former Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler in a six-player exchange with the New York Knicks, markedly improving the strength of their sales pitch.
"It makes us real players for LeBron [or] Carmelo [Anthony]," a team source told ESPN Dallas' Tim MacMahon.
Assuming Dirk Nowitzki re-signs as expected, the Mavericks could form one of the league's fiercest frontcourts featuring him, Chandler and possibly James. While Dallas will likely need to upgrade its backcourt after giving up Jose Calderon in the trade, it still features an explosive scorer and capable creator in Monta Ellis.
As MacMahon sees it, the Mavericks can already offer James more support than his current club:
Go ahead, pick the pair of sidekicks you’d prefer to play with:
DUO 1: A shooting guard who averaged 19.0 points and 4.7 assists while missing 28 games due to health issues and the need for preventative rest, and a perimeter-shooting 6-foot-11 guy who averaged 16.2 points and 6.6 rebounds.
DUO 2: A shooting guard who averaged 19.0 points and 5.7 assists while playing every game, and a perimeter-shooting 7-footer who averaged 21.7 points and 6.2 rebounds.
It's not as if the Mavericks' pitch stops at Nowitzki, Chandler and Ellis, either. They still have shot-blocking big man Brandan Wright on the books, plus the available roster spots to add even more pieces to the puzzle.
They could fill those with their own free agents like Shawn Marion, Vince Carter, Devin Harris and DeJuan Blair. Or, they could look through the NBA's bargain bin for ring-chasing veterans who see championship potential in a James-Nowitzki-Ellis-Chandler nucleus.
The team would have options, but the key contributors are already in place. Based on what Ellis and Nowitzki did last season—and what Chandler and Nowitzki accomplished in leading the Mavericks to the 2011 title—there's clearly plenty of talent here before fleshing out the rest of the roster.
There's also a clear pecking order, with a spot at the top already earmarked for James.
The Spotlight Is His...
...But the on-court responsibilities wouldn't have to be. That's a balance James could have a tough time finding elsewhere.
While James might deserve top billing wherever he goes, securing it could be a different matter.
The Chicago Bulls already have a former MVP and face of the franchise in Derrick Rose. The Houston Rockets boast perennial All-Stars James Harden and Dwight Howard. The Los Angeles Lakers still belong to Kobe Bryant, unless his health completely removes him from the equation.
All three clubs could discover with time that James should be their most prominent player, but he could skip that process entirely in Dallas. The Heat, remember, didn't hit their championship stride until Wade accepted his place as Robin to James' Batman.
James is not even a member of the Mavericks yet, and Nowitzki has already offered control of the franchise.
"C'mon, you can have the keys to the city [of Dallas]," Nowitzki said of his recruiting pitch to James, via Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports. "It's all yours."
The Heat have already offered that to James, but it's come with a heavy price.
He's had to do everything on the floor for Miami. This past season, he led the team in points (27.1), rebounds (6.9), assists (6.3) and steals (1.6). By the championship round, he was the only weapon left in Miami's arsenal. He paced the Heat with 28.2 points in the series. The next-best scorer was Dwyane Wade (15.2).
The Mavericks are built to lighten to James' load at both ends of the floor.
Nowitzki is still one of the league's most potent scorers, putting up nearly 22 points a night last season while flirting with a 50/40/90 slash line (.497/.398/.899). Bosh's ability to step away from the basket has allowed James' efficiency to soar. The King shot a career-best 56.5 percent from the field, then upped the ante with a 56.7 percent success rate this past season.
Bosh has hit 161 threes over his entire 11-year career. Nowitzki connected on 131 of them last season alone. If James wants to play with a stretch big, he'd have a hard time finding a better one than the Diggler.
Ellis can create his own offense from anywhere or set the table for his teammates. Defenses can't ignore him, nor can they let up on Carter (11.9 points per game), Marion (10.4) and Harris (7.9) should they decide to return.
James is a willing passer, so he'd surely take advantage of the weapons around him. When he calls his own number, though, he would have to like the type of spacing he would find.
At the opposite side, Chandler can provide the rim protection James hasn't had with the Heat. The former had a disappointing 2013-14 campaign and still finished with more blocks (1.1 to 1.0) and a lower field-goal percentage against at the rim (51.5 to 52.4) than Bosh, via NBA.com's SportVU player tracking data.
James could take more chances crowding ball-handlers or plugging passing lanes with a player like Chandler behind him. James could also potentially take on easier defensive assignments with Marion and Jae Crowder around to do the heaviest lifting. Crowder, according to 82games.com, held opposing 3s to a paltry 11.5 player efficiency rating this past season.
James could have it all in Dallas without having to do it all. That's how good it could be now, and it might get even sweeter going forward.
Future Flexibility and Market Appeal
Spending has never been an issue for billionaire Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. That will be for the club as it potentially builds around James now and adds more weapons in the future.
Dallas, according to ESPN.com, will have approximately $26.5 million in cap space before working out Nowitzki's discounted extension. The Mavs shouldn't need to slash any salary in order to put a max offer in front of James.
That's the good news for today. The great news for tomorrow is that Chandler's arrival opens the door for Dallas to make another superstar run next offseason.
"He will be a free agent again next summer," Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News explained. "That means the Mavericks figure to have maximum money in 2015 to pursue free agents again. And next summer's crop could be huge with Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge and Marc Gasol headlining that class."
Would a top-shelf free agent follow James to Dallas next summer? To phrase that another way, would someone want the chance to share the floor with the best player on the planet in a warm-weather major market that has no state income tax?
Is that even a question that needs asking?
"Dallas isn't a bad place to be," Chandler said, via MacMahon. "It's not a hard place to sell."
Especially not for an avid Dallas Cowboys fan like James.
The Mavericks have a number of compelling pitches they can make to James. Only time will tell if he's willing to hear them out.
For now, though, Dallas only needs to find its way to the starting block. It might not win this race, but it will certainly lose if it doesn't bother to run.
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