After right steps, Mavs need major strides

SAN ANTONIO -- This season cannot be described as a success for the Dallas Mavericks.

The franchise’s standards are far too high for that. As Dirk Nowitzki said after a scintillating first-round series with the San Antonio Spurs ended with the Mavs on the wrong end of a Game 7 rout, the standard was set in 2011, when the Mavs won a title.

So a 49-win season and pushing the West’s top seed to seven games can be a source of pride but isn’t a success in Dallas. However, it’s a big step in the right direction for a franchise whose arrow seemed to be pointing down after its dozen-year playoff streak ended last season.

The Mavs’ front office must make major strides this summer to give Nowitzki, an All-Star at age 35, a legitimate chance to chase a title during his golden years.

"I think if we keep this team together, we’re going to make a lot of noise next year," said Monta Ellis, last summer’s desperation signing, who proved a lot of people wrong by establishing himself as an electrifying sidekick for Nowitzki.

That’s the message owner Mark Cuban delivered to the Mavs in the AT&T Center’s visitors locker room after Sunday’s 119-96 loss. He stressed how much the Mavs value continuity after making major roster changes the past three offseasons.

The Mavs like their core. They want to keep it intact as much as possible and hope to re-sign Vince Carter, Shawn Marion and Devin Harris, key role players who are entering free agency, to reasonable contracts. Oh, and Dirk, too, but that’s just a matter of agreeing to the details of a deal that’s likely to end up resembling Tim Duncan’s discount contract (three years, $30 million).

"Mark and [president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson] and I all agree that the more continuity we can have going forward, the better," coach Rick Carlisle said. "It’s one thing that [the Spurs have] done so well here for so many years, so we’ll work to get back as many of these guys back as we can. We’ve got a lot of free agents. I’d love to have them all."

But the Mavs’ front office, which will have more than $30 million of cap space when free agency opens July 1, isn’t fooling itself into believing that this veteran-heavy roster just needs a little time to develop into a legitimate championship contender. The Dallas decision-makers are well aware that the Mavs need major boosts of length and athleticism.

Time is of the essence, considering the franchise player turns 36 this summer.

"Ultimately, the year we won in 2011, that’s the standard now," said Nowitzki, the Mavs’ unofficial assistant GM. "We obviously have high expectations. The fan base does, the organization does. We want to get back up there. However we need to do it, whatever needs to be done, Mark and Donnie are going to probably do it. We’ll see what happens."

The Mavs might not enter the summer with a clear-cut plan. It’s not like last year, when the Mavs were on a mission to get a superstar to join Nowitzki and missed out on Dwight Howard and Chris Paul.

Dallas would certainly like to be involved in the Carmelo Anthony derby but not if he demands a super-max deal with a starting salary of more than $22 million. The Mavs will have interest in Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe and Washington Wizards center Marcin Gortat, but it’ll likely be extremely difficult to woo them away from their current teams, particularly with Bledsoe being a restricted free agent. Cleveland Cavaliers small forward Luol Deng, whose defensive ability and toughness appeal to Carlisle, will likely be near the top of the Mavs’ wish list. (Indiana Pacers shooting guard Lance Stephenson, on the other hand, will not be.)

The Mavs will be flexible and ready to react to the market. That’s how they ended up with Ellis, who was something like Plan Q for Dallas last summer and exceeded all expectations this season, giving the Mavs confidence that he can be a foundation piece.

And the Mavs will aggressively explore the trade market, as usual. Is there a Tyson Chandler-type deal to be made? (Hey, how about trying to trade for Chandler if the New York Knicks go into rebuilding mode?)

Those are the kinds of discussions they’ll have at the American Airlines Center over the next couple of months as the NBA playoffs continue in other cities.

The talk at the AT&T Center on Sunday, at least for the visitors, was primarily about being proud of what the Mavs accomplished this season with a roster primarily made up of newcomers.

"It was a good year," Nowitzki said. "We said in October that we wanted to make the playoffs in the highly competitive West. It was tough to get in, but we made it and we made the best team in the regular season work hard. We pushed it to seven games. We just didn’t have enough left in the tank at the end."

It’s the front office’s job to find reinforcements this summer while keeping the Mavs’ core intact.