By Ben Golliver
The Mavericks have lost eight of their last nine games and are tracking towards their first lottery appearance since 1999-2000. Owner Mark Cuban is taking out his frustration on a familiar target, the league's referees, while 34-year-old franchise forward Dirk Nowitzki is simultaneously working himself back into form after knee surgery and turning one eye towards the future.
Dallas' plan entering the season was pretty straightforward: maintain maximum flexibility heading into the summer of 2013 so that the front office could build around Nowitzki, who will make $22.7 million in 2013-14 in the final year of his contract. The Mavericks signed, claimed or traded for Chris Kaman, O.J. Mayo, Dahntay Jones, Darren Collison and Elton Brand without necessarily committing any dollars to them after this season.
Dallas is just 13-21, though, in 12th place in the Western Conference and already 5.5 games out of the eighth seed. If the goal as the 2011-12 season developed was to sneak into the playoffs and make some noise following their 2011 title, the sights are even lower this season. The Mavericks don't seem to have the firepower to compete with any of the West's top-five seeds; a playoff appearance would almost certainly end as abruptly as their sweep at the hands of the Thunder in the first round last year.
Nowitzki, then, can be forgiven for his fairly pessimistic outlook towards the Mavericks' free agency plans next summer, as reported by ESPNDallas.com.
"It's going to be tough now," Nowitzki said after the Mavs' home overtime loss to the Western Conference cellar-dwelling New Orleans Hornets. "I always liked to think you don't want to build your franchise on hope.
"We hoped for Deron [Williams] last year. We hoped for Dwight [Howard]. Why would he leave the Lakers? To me, it makes no sense. He's in a great situation. Why would [Chris Paul] leave? [The Clippers are] the best team in the league probably right now. They're probably the deepest team. So are you going to hope that we get something? Maybe Cuban has something up his sleeve. Maybe you have to take a chance on a bad contract to get him in here and make something happen. I mean, I don't know. That's something we'll have to see this summer."
There aren't many NBA superstars who could get away with this type of frank, cup-is-half-empty assessment without being accused of throwing their management and ownership under the bus. Given that Nowitzki's commitment to the Mavericks is unquestionable and his relationships with everyone from Cuban on down are excellent, his tough talk comes across more like a reality check rather than comments detrimental to the team.
While Nowitzki would seem to still have years of productive play left in his career, assuming he is able to get back to total health and fitness, he also understands better than anyone exactly how painstaking it is to build a true contender. Prior to his 2011 title, Nowitzki won just one playoff series in the previous four seasons combined. His previous trip to the Finals in 2006, ended in controversy and hard feelings. Prior to that, he was bounced five straight times from the playoffs, advancing as far as the Western Conference finals just once. To summarize: Nowitzki has led 12 teams that have won 50 or more games and only three made truly deep playoff runs.
All of that winning, especially the 2011 title, couldn't feel further way at this point. Consider how long the core of the title team had been together prior to finally getting over the hump. Nowitzki was in his 13th season with the Mavericks; Jason Terry was in his sixth season with the Mavericks; J.J. Barea was in his fifth season with the Mavericks; Jason Kidd had spent three-plus seasons with the Mavericks since a midseason trade in 2007-08; Shawn Marion, Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson were all in their second seasons with the Mavericks. Tyson Chandler was the most important newcomer and he was the piece that tied together the defense and put the collective over the top. The lesson of the 2011 Mavericks was that a title team that gets everything right just doesn't assemble overnight.
It's understandable, given that recent history, that Nowitzki would conclude that starting from scratch in assembling a collection of championship-type puzzle pieces to put around him would be a years-long process, something that might take longer than a single summer to fix. It's also understandable that he would look to the Mavericks' lack of success in landing big-name free agents -- as well as the shallow pool of available free agents likely to move next summer -- with a very skeptical eye. And, finally, it's understandable if he is looking at his own recent injury history and concluding that he might not have another four or five years left in his body to allow a long-term rebuild time to fully germinate.
This is heading, quickly, towards a patience test for Cuban. What happens if he strikes out in the summer of 2013 as he did in 2012? Does he have the stomach for another season similar to this one? Will the flexibility he has placed a premium on during the new collective bargaining agreement era prove to be as valuable as he expects, allowing him to cherry-pick quality talent from teams unable to pay stiff luxury tax penalties? Or will that strategy more or less blow up in his face or take too long to play itself out? They are all tough questions with no easy answers and it's no surprise at all that Nowitzki himself would already be pondering them.