DALLAS -- This is unfamiliar, uncomfortable territory for Mark Cuban.
It's the first full season of his ownership tenure in which the Dallas Mavericks are finished before the playoffs. He hopes it will be the last such season.
"I've always said there is one winner and 29 other teams tied for last," Cuban said via email Thursday morning, hours after the Mavs were officially eliminated, ending a 12-year playoff streak. "Our goal is to win championships, so it's disappointing to not win. But we will come back and get better next year."
This will be a big summer for the Mavs, as Dirk Nowitzki has said dozens of times as Dallas' dozen-year playoff streak neared its end.
So was last summer, but the Mavericks had to settle for essentially constructing a temporary supporting cast of players on expiring contracts or willing to sign one-year deals. That definitely wasn't the plan when Cuban made the difficult post-lockout decision to let Tyson Chandler and other key championship pieces depart Dallas via free agency.
The ideal situation would be adding a superstar who could take the burden off soon-to-be-35-year-old Nowitzki. When the Mavs opted to create significant salary-cap space for the first time in the Cuban era, they did so with the belief that Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and Deron Williams would all be on the market last summer.
Paul and Howard never became available, as they were traded to the two Los Angeles teams. They'll be free agents this summer, but the odds of their leaving L.A. are roughly equivalent to the Mavs' odds of winning the draft lottery. The Mavs had their shot at Williams, but Cuban opted to go to L.A. to film a reality show instead of participating in the face-to-face recruiting pitch, later saying the Mavs were better off without Williams anyway.
So the search for a major talent upgrade will continue this summer.
"Trust me, we want to do that," Cuban said Wednesday evening, referring to giving Nowitzki a legitimate co-star. "If you've got the guy who's going to say, 'You know what, I'm going to come to the Mavericks no matter what,' let me know."
The only promise Cuban can make about this summer: "We're going to be opportunistic and do the best we can."
With all the expiring contracts on the roster, the Mavs are positioned to be major players in free agency again. That cap space and Cuban's willingness to take on significant salaries in what he deems to be the right circumstances -- the proposed deadline deal that would have delivered Paul Pierce to Dallas being an example -- also make the Mavs potentially attractive trade partners, especially for financially motivated franchises that fear the looming luxury-tax spikes.
The Mavs have built-in future financial flexibility with the contracts of Nowitzki, Shawn Marion and Vince Carter scheduled to come off the books in the summer of 2014. Nowitzki has said that he intends to sign for two or three more years, indicating that he'll accept significantly less than the nearly $23 million he'll make next season.
The Mavs' mission this summer: Make major steps in the rebuilding process, putting together pieces of a roster that will give Nowitzki a chance to contend for another championship and the Mavs to be positioned for post-Dirk success.
"We maximized for the first generation of Dirk's golden years to win a championship," Cuban said. "So we'll do our best for his second generation of golden years and then the next generation and the next generation until he runs out of golden years.
"That's what we're trying to do. Hypothetically speaking, if Dirk wasn't hurt and we're in the hunt for a fifth or sixth seed, you're asking me different questions: 'Hey, you guys put together a decent squad, what do you have to do to take it to the next level?' That's the way it goes."
You are what your record says you are, Cuban admits. The Mavs are not a playoff team for the first time since 2000, when a certain outspoken season-ticket holder bought a franchise then considered an NBA laughingstock in the middle of the season.
It's been an amazing ride for the Mavs since then, but they crashed this season, coming off a first-round sweep that served as a weak title defense. Can Cuban & Co. get the franchise back on track in the coming months?