Five burning questions and answers about the future of the Dallas Mavericks in the wake of a Game 5 loss in Houston that made it four straight seasons without reaching the second round of the playoffs since winning a championship in 2011:
1. Do the Mavericks regret their Dec. 18 trade for Rajon Rondo?
STEIN: With the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to say that the Mavs wish now that they would have passed on the opportunity to acquire a polarizing former All-Star who generated skepticism about fit before their trade call with the league office wrapped up.
The Mavs, though, won't be saying anything of the sort.
This Rondo Gamble couldn't have worked out much worse, but these sorts of dice rolls are the go-to move in Dallas for the Mark Cuban regime. They don't build teams through free agency or the draft in Big D. They swing for the fences in the Transaction Game and count on the presence of Rick Carlisle and Dirk Nowitzki to make these risky plays pay off.
And sometimes they roll a 0, with Rondo having only slightly more of an impact in his time as a Mav than Lamar Odom.
Yet the reality is that, as beautifully as the Mavs' offense was flowing before Cuban surrendered Brandan Wright, Jae Crowder and a future first-rounder to land Rondo, they weren't going to win a championship with that squad. Defense and rebounding were massive concerns with the Mavs' pre-Rondo construction. Rondo, they thought, would help in both areas.
He wound up helping in neither, but no less an authority than the reigning Godfather of Dallas sports continues to say that he's glad Cuban swung big.
"If you can get a player like Rondo," Nowitzki told reporters in Houston after the Mavs were eliminated, "I think you go for it any time."
2. So there's no chance Rondo will be back in free agency? And what about Monta Ellis?
The market is murky for Rondo as well, but this much is clear: Dallas isn't part of it.
The Rondo era in Dallas thus ends after 46 regular-season games and averages of 9.3 points, 6.5 assists and 28.7 minutes per game, lowlighted by his 35.2 percent shooting from the line.
(In the playoffs, if you insist, Rondo played two games and averaged 9.5 points and 3.0 assists in 18.5 minutes per game before he and the Mavs essentially parted company two games into the Houston series.)
Ellis' future, by contrast, is far more complicated.
Word is he's not looking to leave Dallas, where he remade his reputation with last season's strong showing before this season's ups and downs, but Ellis also has the ability to opt out and become a free agent after playing for the (relative) bargain price of $8 million (and change) in each of the past two seasons.
Passing on the opportunity to test the market and see if he can land a more lucrative annual salary might be hard to resist. The Mavs themselves, according to our own Tim MacMahon, are working through their own conflicted feelings about Ellis' future with the club.
It's too early, then, to definitively forecast whether the Mavs will have a completely new starting backcourt next season. Or just half-new.
3. What should we expect from the Mavs in free agency after some high-profile whiffs in recent summers?
That's your question?
They are going big-name hunting, folks.
Sources say that the Mavs, undaunted by any previous whiffs, have already identified at least two prime targets they intend to pursue in July: Dallas native LaMarcus Aldridge and former Texas A&M center DeAndre Jordan.
And sources say Mavs officials believes they will have a shot at one or the other.
Aldridge is expected to attract serious interest from, among others, San Antonio, New York and the Los Angeles Lakers. Jordan will have a similarly long list of suitors, though there would suddenly appear to be a better chance of Jordan's incumbent team (Clippers) persuading him to stay than Aldridge's, with the signals starting to intensify that the All-Star power forward is leaning toward leaving Portland after eight seasons.
How would Aldridge fit as a Mav when he plays the same position as Dirk Nowitzki?
What would Jordan's arrival mean for the future of unrestricted free-agent center and Mavs emotional compass Tyson Chandler?
Both are excellent questions.
The Mavs, though, seem intent to forge ahead in pursuit of the biggest names they can realistically chase starting July 1 and figure out the rest later.
4. How many more seasons will Nowitzki play?
He will play for at least two more seasons.
Just like it says on his contract.
For all the aches and pains he's endured at 36, as well as the obvious struggles to move his feet defensively as fast as he'd like, Nowitzki averages 21 points and 10 rebounds against the Rockets.
Nowitzki, having just completed his 17th season, continues to be the Mavs' best player.
But that's an undeniable issue at this stage of his career. Nowitzki needs (and actually longs) to be carried now, after shouldering the responsibility of a franchise cornerstone like he has for so long.
How much longer does he have to wait for the day when he's the Mavs' second- or third-best player?
In the second half of the season, after Nowitzki was yet again Dallas' lone All-Star representative, Mavs newcomer Chandler Parsons began to emerge as a difference-maker in his own right. Parsons was then felled by a knee injury that, according to MacMahon, might well require microfracture surgery after he tried to play through it in the series opener against the Rockets.
Fact is, though, that Dallas would chase Aldridge and Jordan even if Parsons were fully healthy. Aldridge played his high school ball in the area and could be billed as the natural heir to Nowitzki's position if the Mavs -- despite the uncertainty all over their roster -- could persuade him to come home. And Jordan is the sort of hyperathletic, defensive-minded center who works best next to Nowitzki ... as Chandler memorably proved during the 2011 title run.
5. How much will it cost to keep Al-Farouq Aminu?
The Mavs don't want to ask.
They're surely afraid of the answer after the way Aminu stepped up against the Rockets after Dallas' late-season injury crisis forced the 24-year-old into the starting lineup.
On the list of things that went right for the Mavs in the 2014-15 campaign, Aminu's development and subsequent postseason emergence have to be right at the top. They signed him to a minimum deal, convinced as far back as July that he'd be an absolute steal, then reveled in his athleticism and versatility ... qualities that really stand out on such a veteran team.
The Mavs never get to draft as high as Aminu was taken in the 2010 draft (No. 8 overall by the Clippers). It's imperative that they find a way to keep him once Aminu opts out of the final year of his two-year contract to return to free agency.