With future uncertain, Mavs rue missed opportunity

Editor's note: New season, new Stein Line. Now, Marc Stein's NBA report can be found every weekday during the playoffs.

DALLAS -- Over and over came the same word from Steve Nash.


The way the Dallas Mavericks' season had just ended, Nash kept saying, will spook him and other Mavericks all summer, and not only because of the eerie irony that saw the San Antonio Spurs doing the rallying in the fourth quarter and Dallas doing the collapsing.

It will torment Nash and others here because the Mavericks know the opportunity that was missed Thursday night. They know that Don Nelson, who has never coached in the NBA Finals, had never been closer. They know that much can and probably will change between now and November -- all over the league, not just for Nellie and the Mavericks -- which is why they were scrapping so hard to try to win a championship today.

"I can put a smile on my face right now and be proud of what we accomplished," Nash said. "But I know deep down inside that I'm going to have a lot of nights rolling around thinking about how close we were. It's going to haunt me, but such is life."

Until they fell a quarter short of forcing a Game 7 in San Antonio on Saturday night, many Mavericks saw it as a charmed life. Nick Van Exel said again, after the Spurs' 34-9 finishing stomp netted a 90-78 victory, that he believed Dallas was a team of destiny, ever since it survived the Portland series in seven games and then took out a Chris Webber-less Sacramento in another seven-gamer. Michael Finley echoed Van Exel's theory, saying: "I think this was our year. Everything was mapped out for us to go to the Finals."

The Mavericks believed it even after losing Dirk Nowitzki to a knee injury, having won Game 5 and controlling three quarters of Game 6. The Mavs believed it even though, in the end, they didn't win a home game in this series and didn't win a game against the Spurs in which they missed more than one free throw.

They also understand the scary consequences of not advancing to the Finals and winning it now, even if Nelson, as expected, comes back as the Mavericks' coach. San Antonio is going to sign at least one marquee free agent, which means the Spurs could well be champions in a couple weeks and a lot scarier next fall. Sacramento will come back with a healthy Webber and figures to find a way to make the league's deepest roster even deeper. The Los Angeles Lakers, meanwhile, shouldn't have a sense-of-urgency problem next season, when a humbled Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant will be trying to restart a dynasty.

"I bet every team in the West," Nash suggested, "gets better."

Sobering Realization No. 2, courtesy of Finley: "For players, you always want to add to your team without subtracting. But in this day and age, you usually have to subtract when you want to add."

That was Finley's way of saying that he knows the Mavericks' Big Four core remains at risk for dismantling. The preference, of course, is to add a legitimate inside presence and a Bruce Bowen-like perimeter defender via free agency, without breaking up the Nowitzki-Nash-Finley-Van Exel quartet. But if the $5 million salary-cap exception can't fill the holes …

If everything snaps together neatly, Cuban and Nelson will reach a quick agreement on coaching contract that spans at least two seasons. Then they will focus on charting a free-agent course that leads to the signings of, say, Alonzo Mourning (whom they've always lusted after) or Scottie Pippen or P.J. Brown. Or two of them, if the Mavericks are really fortunate.

Yet, as Finley explained, NBA veterans know the reality. They know it won't be easy for Cuban to sign the free agents every contending team is chasing, which means he'd have to explore other means for upgrading the team.

"Man, I'm just happy to be here right now, to be honest with you," said Van Exel, explaining why he no longer sweats trade rumors after nearly being sent to Miami in February for Brian Grant. "That's why each year is important. Any good team can get broken up. The (1998) Bulls got broken up. While you're there, you've got to make the best of it."

Said swingman Raja Bell: "We were playing for all our futures."

Cuban, though, is not adverse to continuity, in spite of his shuffle-the-deck reputation. Cuban, remember, rejected the Grant deal and did not make a midseason trade for the first time since he assumed ownership control of the franchise. It also appears his preference is to preserve the foundation of a group that just transformed its reputation with a 20-game playoff run.

After 82 games, Dallas was widely regarded as the Worst Sixty Win Team Of All-Time. After 102 games, Dallas was widely lauded for its grit -- for winning two Game 7s and then giving the Spurs more trouble, without Nowitzki for three games, than the Lakers did.

The Mavericks struggled all series against the Spurs' withering defense, but actually won two games largely because of its own maligned D. When they needed to, the supposed softies played a lot of "playoff basketball," when lots of folks said this style could never succeed in the playoffs.

Van Exel was a big part of that; Nowitzki and Finley both insist that Dallas couldn't have won either of the first two series without his outside bombing and edgy example. Those efforts made an impression on Cuban as well.

"Leadership," Cuban said, "means as much to me as rebounding."

The haunting part is that, late Thursday night, the Mavericks were knocked suddenly from the brink of another Game 7 straight into an off-season of uncertainty. No one knows what would have happened in a Game 7, and no one knows exactly what happens next. Nelson's return was endorsed by all of the Mavericks' big names, but both Nowitzki and Finley acknowledged that a roster shakeup could also lead to a coaching change.

"If this team stays intact, he's the only guy to coach us," Nowitzki said. "If there's going to be some roster moves, then that's a different thing."

Nelson deferred all questions about his future until Friday, when he meets with reporters for a season wrap-up session. As he left the interview room, Nelson encountered Cuban in a hallway and stopped for a hug.

"Sorry Boss," Nelson said.

It wasn't an apology. The coach and the owner were commiserating. Consoling each other. With so much to gain, and some hard days ahead, this fall from ahead was a hard loss to take.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, send Stein a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.