By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"I told Mark from Day One that his hand was good by me," Nelson says. "There's no paperwork at all."
Nor, despite his team's horrible hiccups, is there any call for his resignation.
In most franchises, winning 67 games in the regular season only to lose a first-round series to an underdog eighth-seed coached by your former Godfather would be the ultimate humiliation. But in Dallas, it only exacerbated the pain from Miami.
"When you get your arms around the cup but don't come away with it, it takes some time to get your swagger back," Nelson says. "The next season we won 67 games, so I'd say we got over it. Doesn't mean we don't think about it, or we're not motivated by it."
0:49: Missed 15-foot jumper,
Terry— Heat 94, Mavericks 93.
0:42: Missed free throw, Posey
(Terry foul)— Heat 94, Mavericks 93.
0:42: Made free throw, Posey—
Heat 95, Mavericks 93.
0:33: Driving layup, Harris—
Mavericks 95, Heat 95.
0:09: 21-foot jumper, Gary
Payton— Heat 97, Mavericks 95.
While the Mavs focus on this season and next, the NBA is already salivating and strategizing over the summer of 2010. That's when the delicious free-agent crop could include LeBron James, Wade, Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire, Paul Pierce, Tyson Chandler, Manu Ginobli, Joe Johnson, Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, Steve Nash and Michael Redd. Oh, and Nowitzki.
"It's a factor," Nelson says. "You want to be as good as you can be now, obviously. But you've also got to maintain your financial flexibility for '10. Everyone's lining up for that."
This summer—for a relatively puny yield including Kidd, Bryant, Carlos Boozer and Ron Artest—most teams will be thinking outside the box and negotiating upside-down, signing players to one-year contracts and attempting to trim salary-cap fat for '10. A "nuclear winter," Cuban predicts.
"But I'm not even saying that we're definitely going to have cap room for '10," he says. "If everybody else is looking one direction, we'll look the other."
Just in case, the Mavs passed on trading Howard for the Nets' Vince Carter, partly because Carter has a $17 million salary in '10 and Howard has a team option that season.
Whatever their approach, the Mavericks must improve their talent evaluations and personnel decisions. For it's not their ying-yang play that makes 2010 and beyond appear sketchy, it's their lack of young players.
While the Texas Rangers trumpet their No. 1-rated farm system with an embarrassing amount of hubris, the Mavs' sustained six—Nowitzki, Terry, Howard, Kidd, Stackhouse and Erick Dampier—will each be in their 30s by the end of next season. Of their younger players, only forward Brandon Bass, guard J.J. Barea and Wright have flashed the potential to be reliable contributors on a playoff team.
The lack of a firm future is enough to place Nelson's tenure under the microscope, if not in jeopardy.
Handicapped by a combination of Dallas' success and trades resulting in unfavorable draft positions—the Mavs have had only three first-round picks this decade, none in the top 10—Nelson has nonetheless whiffed with seven top selections, while hitting on only one, Howard ('03). Though Wright—considered an afterthought in the Kidd trade—is temporarily flourishing as starting shooting guard, the Mavericks have also failed to secure the successor to Michael Finley after his '05 release.
This season's acquisitions of Gerald Green, Shawne Williams and Diop, inexplicably given a five-year, $33 million contract and since traded, have also flatlined. The Mavs have their first-round draft pick this summer—again likely to be in the bottom one-third—but no selections in '10.
"Nobody bats 1.000," Nelson says. "I don't like to grade myself, but I never claimed to be an A. Hopefully I'm not an F."
Again, all the more reason to win big now.
"I like this team," Nelson says. "We're versatile. We've got great chemistry. We've got a lot of guys playing in their prime."
But if his Mavericks come up short again this season and next, will Nelson survive? While his big moves may keep the Mavs in position to win short-term, his failure to upgrade the roster's periphery puts them, and possibly him, in long-term limbo.
"I love this city, this team, this franchise," Nelson says. "They'll have to kill me to take me away from here."
Already etched on his tombstone: Here lies the man who discovered Dirk.
"I still think about losing that chance," Nowitzki says. "Sometimes I wish we could go back to Game 3, or even that whole week in Miami. Just try it over again, you know?"
0:03: Made free throw, Nowit
zki (Haslem foul)— Heat 97, Mavericks 96.
0:03: Missed free throw,
Nowitzki— Heat 97, Mavericks 96.
0:01: Made free throw, Wade
(Nowitzki foul)— Heat 98, Mavericks 96.
0:01: Missed free throw, Wade—
Heat 98, Mavericks 96.
As important a role as he played in getting the Mavs to this point, Nowitzki will be a bigger focal point of where the Mavs go from here.
He's the face and the fabric of the franchise. Nelson's legacy—he was the first to recognize Dirk's talents as a teenager and was responsible for convincing the Mavericks to acquire him in 1998—rests on the giant German. Aside from various injuries that have temporarily sidelined Nowitzki, Cuban has never entered a game as Mavs owner without him being offensive options 1 and 1a.