By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
When you awoke Thursday morning, something probably felt weird.
It should've, because—barring a last-minute contract agreement—for the first time since the spring of 1998 Dirk Nowitzki isn't a Dallas Maverick. After a 12-year career, the greatest player in the history of the franchise is a free agent. As of Wednesday night at 11:01 he is no longer Dallas' property, able to sign and play with any team in the NBA.
The Mavericks, of course, are praying and planning that his status is more a temporary, inconvenient technicality than basketball Armageddon. Nonetheless...
"It's a concern, sure," Mavericks' general manager Donnie Nelson said.
While NBA free agency commences with a mad, momentous scramble for superstar free agents such as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, make no mistake which player sits atop the Mavericks' wish list: No. 41.
"If I need to go to Antarctica to get Dirk, then you'll see me at DFW Airport in a parka," Nelson said. "The big German is our No. 1 priority. We've got a lot of plans, a lot of dreams about how this summer can play out. But everything hinges on Dirk being a Maverick, and I'm confident that will happen."
Relax. It's not as dicey as it sounds.
After another successful regular season that featured 55 wins and a Southwest Division championship, the Mavs splatted in a first-round playoff loss to the San Antonio Spurs. Nowitzki, drafted as a 19-year-old by Nelson a dozen summers ago, exercised an option and voided the final year of his existing contract to become a free agent. But his motivation was two-fold. To test the free-agency waters? Sure. That's where Nelson's "it's a concern" comes into play. But more so to allow a re-structured, new contract that would not only keep him a Maverick, but also create more financial flexibility for the team as it attempts this summer to recruit him more help.
While Dallas can't even comprehend basketball without Nowitzki, his team and teammates are also assuming he'll stay with the only franchise he's ever known.
"Well, as a player you want to feel wanted," Mavericks point guard Jason Kidd said last week after a practice for a baseball charity game in Frisco. "He'll get a lot of attention, but we all feel he's not going anywhere."
Said Nelson late last week, "I don't want to even think about a scenario that doesn't involve him."
Assuming the perennial All-Star and former Most Valuable Player re-signs, the Mavericks can turn their attention to improving a roster that for a decade now has been great in the regular season, but not quite good enough in the post-season.
That process begins immediately as the Mavs court the most lavish free-agent crop in the history of the NBA. James will be the first domino to fall, setting in motion a chain reaction of moves that could dramatically alter the landscape of the league or simply result in a giant tease, with the biggest names in the game staying with their current teams.
While the Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat and New York Knicks promise to aggressively pursue James, Nelson cautioned Mavs fans not to discard the possibility of a superstar landing in Dallas. With three first-round draft picks, a deep roster and the $13 million, non-guaranteed contract of veteran center Erick Dampier as succulent bait, the Mavericks will likely be involved in a trade rather than a straight up free-agent signing.
"With players like this you can't dream big enough," Nelson said. "We plan on being a player in any and all scenarios, starting right at the top."
Regardless of whether they acquire a marquee name, they are already a better team now than they were when they walked off the court after losing Game 6 in San Antonio.
Silly me. I went to last week's NBA Draft—the foreplay to the real yadda yadda—prepared to remind Mavericks fans that their team's first-round pick belonged to the New Jersey Nets, another casualty of the 2008 Devin Harris-for-Jason Kidd trade. While the Mavs sat in mothballs with only the draft's 50th pick, the Spurs at No. 20 took Oklahoma State shooting guard James Anderson and the Nets at No. 27 nabbed Xavier shooting guard Jordan Crawford.
Uh-oh, we cringed. For years the Mavericks have desperately craved a No. 2 guard with some physicality. A player who can put the ball on the floor, create his own shot and get to the free-throw line. Seems like forever that Dallas has needed an option other than Nowitzki who could produce a basket out of a shot-clock time crunch, and into the late 20s of this draft, those types of players were vanishing faster than David Copperfield's assistants.
Enter the owner. And another reminder: Money won't solve all your problems, but it'll damn sure get you closer to where you want to be.
"Mark is the MVP of our draft," Nelson said.
Instead of sitting idly at No. 50 and signing some white Euro that we'd never see in America, much less a Mavs uniform, Cuban bought himself a draft. He wrote a $3 million check to move halfway up the board, trading cash for South Florida shooting guard Dominique Jones.