DALLAS — Just two summers removed from hoisting the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy above their heads, the Dallas Mavericks head into a longer than expected offseason hoping to construct another title-contending team.
Alongside Mavericks proprietor Mark Cuban, the responsibility of rebuilding a roster capable of competing with the NBA’s upper-echelon teams will fall on the shoulders of president of basketball operations and GM Donnie Nelson. And with much work to do to surround 11-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki with a talented supporting cast, Nelson and the Mavs’ front office are already preparing to hit the offseason running after missing the playoffs for the first time in 13 years.
“Well, we certainly weren’t expecting this,” Nelson said after the Mavs’ season came to an end following a 41-41 season. “This time of year, you know, we’re gearing up for the playoffs, so this is an out-of-body experience for all of us. We’ve got some work cut out for us. We’ve got a big summer moving forward and we don’t expect to be here having this same situation next year at this same time.
“They’re all important,” he added as the Mavs approach yet another pivotal summer. “Every year that we go to construct a team it’s the same thing. Whether it’s Dirk at the beginning of his career or it’s Dirk towards his mid, you build a championship team and a team that contends to go deep into the playoffs to the best of your ability every year. We’ve got some different challenges. You know, again, it’s not like the good old days, where there’s all kinds of financial freedom and you can just sign checks into the wind. There’s soft and medium and hard situations that are going to be restrictive, again. That’s a good thing for the league overall and we’re looking forward to putting everything to the test this summer, because it is going to be a big summer for us.”
Finishing the season with nine expiring contacts, the Mavs currently will only return Nowitzki, veterans Shawn Marion and Vince Carter and a trio of rookies. Still, after a strong close to the roller-coaster season to avoid a losing record for the first time since not making the playoffs in the 1999-00 campaign, the Mavs and Nelson could look to return some of their familiar faces while trying to solidify a team that often lacked chemistry during the grueling 82-game stretch.
But which, if any, of the players from this year’s roster will be returning is a question yet to be answered. And as the Mavs try to maintain a locker room of character, they will also attempt to bring in new faces capable of elevating the franchise back to the peak of the basketball mountaintop.
“I don’t know the answer to that and like anything else it depends on what’s out there and available,” Nelson said when posed the question of who will return to next season’s squad. “It depends on what avails itself and what doesn’t. We want to be flexible. We want to be opportunistic. Those are things that have played well for us in the past. We do like a lot of the guys in that locker room. We just got done with interviews and our feeling is that yes, there are guys that we would love to have back. But we’re in an upgrade league. That’s what we are, and it all depends on what’s out there. And obviously every player in that locker room is going to have decisions to make, too. But, you know, a great group of guys and an absolute pleasure to be with, in terms of our veterans. You know, we’ve got young guys that have shown some real promise. You know, if we had a little bit more runway, I don’t think we’d be sitting here right now. We do like those kind of guys in our locker room, and professionals and character guys are what we’ll look to build with.
“Personally, I think we ran out of runway,” he continued. “Look, nine new faces and an injury to our best player, those aren’t excuses but they are factors to where we’re at. And I think if you take our last chunk of the season and if we had a little bit better and a little bit smarter play, we could have finished some of those games. I think a lot of the things that went in the right direction during the championship run went in the wrong direction and maybe it’s a law of averages. Maybe it’s the stars, I don’t know. But I do know that we’ve got a bunch of character guys that gave it their very best and we didn’t get the job done, so we will not be back with the same exact team but there are some gems in there that I think we would absolutely welcome back on this team.”
Looking to explore long-term contracts on the free-agent market, several Mavericks, including second-leading scorer O.J. Mayo and backup point guard Darren Collison, will test the waters to gauge their value. Still, Nelson remains confident that the Mavs will be able to return in the fall better than before, exploring all of the Mavs’ options as well to treat the Dallas fans to a show next season.
“You know, we’ve all been through the ups and the downs. Lots of new faces, 30 games without Dirk, and then when Dirk gets back, life with Dirk, and that affects everything from the top on down and the juggling of rosters. And so the professionalism by which these guys have handled themselves, and not just the veterans but a lot of the young guys, too. And O.J. is front and center. These are guys that aren’t finished products. They’ve gotten better. I think a lot of those guys have really helped themselves in terms of their upside certainly. From Collison to O.J., right down the list, there’s guys that have had learning years I guess is the best way to put it and have gotten better and put themselves in real good position for the future, whether it’s here or it’s someplace else. But I think the thing that jumps out is the ‘C’ word and that’s character. I think if you look even at the end when we were mathematically eliminated, you had a group of guys that stepped up and finished strong. We finished on a high note and those are things that we can take into the summer,” an encouraged Nelson explained.
However, perhaps more importantly, after beginning the season without Nowitzki for the first 27 games of the year following preseason arthroscopic knee surgery, the Mavs will attempt to add more talent around their franchise player to lighten his load. And armed with financial flexibility and a lottery pick in June’s draft, Nelson says the Mavericks are primed and positioned to make an offseason splash in order to do just that.
“Again, we’ll be opportunistic,” Nelson concluded as he heads into the summer. “We’re going to be very aggressive and that’s already started. And our hope is that whether it’s many or one or two or three, that we’ll be able to raise the level of talent on this team and put ourselves in a position like we’ve been used to in the past.
“We’ve got six guys under contract. We’ve got three veterans and three young guys, and we’re in pretty short order going to try to address all of those available positions. … It’s free agency, it’s draft, it’s trade, and so we’ll turn over every rock in attempt to get where we need to be, which is not where we are right now. My gut is that we’ll be as aggressive, if not more so, than we’ve ever been. Whether that’s drafting, acquiring, free agency, trade, we will turn over every rock. Believe me.”