"That's been there a long time," Nowitzki said with a deep sigh.
Guard Jason Terry recently got an even more permanent reminder of the Mavs' mission. That trophy is tattooed on the inside of his right bicep, with room left to add the date if/when the Mavs win the franchise's first NBA title.
That's a lot of optimism for a franchise that has won a grand total of one playoff series in the four seasons since letting a 2-0 lead slip away in the NBA Finals. Another trip to the Finals seems far, far away for the only franchise in NBA history to reel off 10 straight 50-win seasons without multiple titles, much less one.
"Look, we've got a lot to prove," coach Rick Carlisle said. "I don't think you come out here [right before] the season and talk about how optimistic you are. This team's got a lot to prove. We know that, and that's a challenge we're looking forward to."
But there are folks in downtown Dallas eager to pump some sunshine. They'll point out that the Mavs were the Western Conference's No. 2 seed behind the Los Angeles Lakers last season and provide reasons to believe they'll be better this season.
"I think the West is always tough, but we feel good about where we're at," said Donnie Nelson, the Mavs' president of basketball operations. "Who knows when the smoke clears? I don't know how many quote-unquote experts will have us beating LA in seven, but I think we're right there in the thick of the teams that are being talked about in the upper echelon in the West."
There are a few reasons why these Mavs might be more than just another 50-win team that can make vacation plans for mid-May.
Rodrigue Beaubois: The guard had many breathtaking moments as a rookie, even though he was in and out of the rotation all season. Now, Carlisle is committed to giving the Mavs' most athletic player a significant role once he recovers from a broken foot, which shouldn't be too much longer. Beaubois will probably end up starting at shooting guard. He's a potential 20-point scorer who has the ability to create his own shots and flourishes as Jason Kidd's high-flying, sweet-shooting backcourt partner.
Caron Butler: He didn't make the impact the Mavs hoped he would after arriving in a midseason trade from Washington. He responded by dropping about a dozen pounds while working out with renowned personal trainer Tim Grover. He should be more comfortable after going through a Dallas training camp and playing the vast majority of his minutes at his natural position of small forward instead of shooting guard. The Mavs need Butler to be the well-rounded, efficient player who was an All-Star in 2007 and 2008.
Tyson Chandler: He's not the superstar the Mavs hoped to acquire this summer to pair with Nowitzki. However, if he can stay healthy, the 7-foot-1 Chandler is an upgrade over Erick Dampier. Chandler is by far the most athletic center the Mavs have had, giving them defensive flexibility and an excellent offensive finisher.
Now, let's be brutally honest: The Mavs are at least one major move away from really being a threat to the Lakers. Nowitzki hints at that when he says they have a four-year window, which is the length of the $80 million contract he signed this summer.
If the Mavs make that move, count on some combination (or all three) of Beaubois, Butler and Chandler being involved. Beaubois is an intriguing young talent who comes relatively cheap, with three seasons remaining on his rookie contract. Butler ($10.8 million) and Chandler ($12.6 million) have massive expiring contracts that will be attractive to cost-cutting teams.
Count on the Mavs being a constant in the pre-trade deadline rumor mill once again after making blockbuster deals during two of the past three All-Star breaks.
"We're in a constant state of probe," said Nelson, whose team features only two players (Nowitzki and Terry) that remain from the 2005-06 Finals team. "That being said, don't look for anything on the horizon here. We're not going to do anything that's lateral or a little above lateral. If something great presents itself, Mark [Cuban] obviously has shown the propensity to pull the trigger at any time. But we're not looking for reasons to change."
Without a significant change for the better, don't look for the real championship trophy in the American Airlines Center any time soon.