Simple fact is Mavs must play better

DALLAS -- If you're looking for a warm, fuzzy viewpoint on the defending NBA champions letting the trade deadline pass without making a move, keep a wide berth from the Dallas Mavericks' speak-his-mind sixth man.

"Not a vote of confidence at all," Jason Terry grumbled after Thursday's ugly 101-96 win over the sorry Charlotte Bobcats. "We already know that management told us they're playing for next year, but everybody in this locker room is trying to win this year and see what happens."

In case you couldn't tell -- and, if that's the case, just ask him -- Terry is pretty annoyed by the probability that he'll be moving on from the Mavericks after eight seasons in Dallas. He'd prefer to retire here and schedule a ceremony soon thereafter to hang his jersey from the American Airlines Center rafters, but the reality is that he has 21 games plus the playoffs remaining on his contract.

Terry wanted a long-term commitment and didn't get it. No wonder he has such short-term perspective.

That's fine. The Mavs' front office won't worry about hurt feelings as long as the team puts forth the kind of effort it will take to contend again.

More on that in a few moments. For now, let's get back to the long-term outlook around these parts.

The Mavs' plan to create as much cap space as possible this summer has been apparent since owner Mark Cuban opted to let Tyson Chandler and other key contributors to the franchise's first championship run leave in free agency after the lockout. The Mavs will have the bait for a "big fish," as president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson put it after the least dramatic trade deadline expiration since Dallas became relevant in the NBA again.

In a perfect world, the Mavs will remodel their roster around free agent All-Star point guard Deron Williams and Dirk Nowitzki a few weeks after another championship parade ends at the AAC.

Terry can twist words all he wants -- or just make them up -- but none of the decision-makers in Dallas consider this season a meaningless step toward being able to shop in the free agency market.

If that were the case, Cuban wouldn't have flipped the trade exception acquired from the Knicks in Chandler's sign-and-trade deal into the reigning Sixth Man of the Year. The return on investment for Lamar Odom has been lousy to say the least, but the fact that Cuban was willing to leap back over the luxury-tax line to get a veteran with championship pedigree is proof that the notion that the brash billionaire has essentially forfeited this season is foolish.

"I'm too old to sacrifice a season," said Nowitzki, the only Maverick whose roster spot is guaranteed next season. "I've never looked at this as a wasted year."

Added Nelson: "We feel like we're in a little bit of a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too [mode]. We have a product that can contend this year and then, come summer time, we can be active out in the market."

The Mavs' roster will likely look a lot different by the end of July. But, like it or not, it's set for the rest of the season, barring the unlikely scenario of adding a veteran who receives a buyout.

The Mavs' front office and Terry might not agree on much at this point, but they share the confidence that this crew is capable of contending again.

If that's going to happen, however, the Mavs need to play a heck of a lot better than they have since the All-Star break.

The Mavs stumbled out of the break with a stretch of basketball that caused flashbacks to the pre-Cuban days when this franchise was the laughingstock of professional sports. The Mavs had the built-in excuse of playing nine games in 12 days, but it's still pathetic to go 2-7 with losses to the West's four worst teams.

The NBA scheduling gods gave the Mavs a little get-well gift this week, bringing two terrible teams to town. The wins over the Washington Wizards and Bobcats weren't things of beauty, but they at least stopped the bleeding.

"A win is a win at this point," Nowitzki said with a sigh.

The wins will be few and far between if the Mavs don't play much closer to their potential the remainder of the season. The schedule grind isn't bad the rest of the way, but no team has a stronger strength of schedule down the stretch than the Mavs, who face playoff teams in 15 of their final 21 games.

The Mavs can get away with sleepwalking for the first quarter and a half against the Bobcats, a team so bad that only the 1992-93 Mavericks (11-71) have had a larger average margin of defeat in NBA history. Dig a 14-point hole against the Spurs or Lakers or Magic or Heat -- teams that are on the Mavs' schedule in the next two weeks -- and it's a heck of a lot harder to climb out of it.

Just a suggestion, but the Mavs might want to conjure up something resembling a sense of urgency while preparing for the playoffs over the next month and a half.

"We need all the warriors back," Nowitzki said, alluding to injured, intense guard Delonte West and banged-up-again big man Brendan Haywood. "Need a little momentum going into the playoffs. That'll be good. Our goal has definitely got to be make the playoffs, get hot at the right time and play our best basketball like we did last year."

Nobody in the locker room expected help to come before the trade deadline, so it was no surprise that it passed without the Mavs making a move.

Just what that means, well, that's open to interpretation.

"I think the message is clear," coach Rick Carlisle said. "Mark and Donnie feel that the team we have is a good team, a capable team. We know that we have to ramp things up and play better."

Terry has a completely different take on the faith the front office has in this roster. There is no debating, however, that the Mavs need to play better to have any hope of another parade in downtown Dallas before the wooing of D-Will begins.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.