Posted May 1 2010 11:20AM
DALLAS -- Dirk Nowitzki left open the possibility of opting out of his contract. Erick Dampier is one huge trade chip. Caron Butler could be on the move, too. Brendan Haywood, a free agent.
Change is going to come in Dallas. The extent should be severe considering the fallout from another first-round flameout. Is it really possible to bring this group back for another run?
"I like our team a lot," Rick Carlisle countered after completing his second season at the helm.
The Mavericks began this postseason with the grandest of expectations, only to leave after six unfulfilling games. Technically, they were upset by San Antonio, a seventh seed knocking out a No. 2, but anyone who witnessed the series realizes the better team won.
There's an argument to be made that Dallas had more talent. Starting with Nowitzki and Jason Kidd, the Mavericks loaded up for a title run by bringing Shawn Marion on board last summer and Butler, along with Haywood, at the trade deadline.
The use of that talent by Carlisle and the inconsistencies that sprung up against San Antonio, while untimely, weren't without precedent. The Mavericks were plagued by slow starts throughout the season and against the Spurs, forcing too many frantic comebacks.
The Mavs had the NBA's most single-digit wins with 34, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Despite having the league's fourth-best record (55-27), Dallas' point differential (2.72) checked in at 12th. So many close games left little margin for error.
Grinding out so many nights led to added minutes for the oldest team in the league. Kidd appeared to run out of gas some at the end of the regular season and didn't have much in the tank against San Antonio. The Spurs effectively shut down the 37-year-old playmaker with constant pressure from the younger and quicker Tony Parker and series hero George Hill.
Kidd was hardly the only issue. Jason Terry, the 2009 Sixth Man of the Year, couldn't find his stroke and was nonexistent in the finale Thursday. Butler had the second-best series behind Nowitzki, but he dealt with the ignominy of being benched for the entire second half of Game 3.
Marion was also on Carlisle's yo-yo of minutes. Dampier went from starting the first four games to not playing in the fifth. Reserve guard J.J. Barea was counted on to bail out of the team some nights and made little more than a cameo other nights.
And then there was Game 6's near hero, as Carlisle dusted off Roddy Beaubois. The electric rookie keyed the rally from Thursday's horrific start and continued to attack in the third as Dallas briefly took the lead. Carlisle then inexplicably left Beaubois for the first nine minutes of the fourth with the season hanging in the balance.
"These have been tough decisions all year," Carlisle said.
The Mavericks didn't find a stable rotation throughout the season or the series. Carlisle prefers to keep it that way, using different players based on matchups and feel. He believes it keeps the second unit mentally sharp and ready by not settling on a consistent substitution pattern. From the outside, the practice of yanking players in and out of the lineup looks like chaos.
That the Mavericks won 55 games, claimed the Southwest Division and the second seed is evidence that they were capable of so much more. Their 13-game winning streak shortly after the Butler trade brought hope. Mark Cuban and general manager Donnie Nelson routinely said this was the best team during the franchise's current 10-year run of 50-win seasons and playoff appearances. Even better than the 2006 NBA Finalists.
The West, though, is that much better, too.
"No one in the Western Conference is less than a two seed," Terry said. "The Lakers are obviously No. 1 and everyone else is even. This matchup wasn't about where you were seeded. This matchup was about which team came out and wanted it more. I give the Spurs a lot of credit because they were the hungrier team."
For the third time in four years, the Mavericks are one and done. Such an early boot happened only once in the previous six years. Dallas also has the dubious distinction of being the only franchise to lose as a No. 1 and 2 seed since the league went to the current 16-team bracket in 1984. Both losses also came in the best-of-7 format, which was introduced in 2003.
Terry called the season a "failure." Cuban recycled an old line that every team other than the champions tied for last place. The billionaire, though, appears to believe in the team's foundation, however it may be appear to be crumbling.
"We've got a great base," he said. "We'll have a chance to work with each other. You can see some of the uneasiness, because we haven't had a full season to play together and that showed a few times. But we'll pull all the pieces together and we'll go at them again next year."
Nowitzki's return is the first piece. The former MVP can forgo the last year of his contract at $21.5 and join this summer's celebrated free-agent class. While he's always stated his preference to remain with the only franchise he's ever played for, Nowitzki cast some doubt on his future after the latest heartbreak.
"I wanted to obviously have a long playoff run and go for my dream again," Nowitzki said. "Now it's obviously too shocking and too disappointing. I haven't really thought about anything about my future yet. I guess I've got some time now to think about some stuff and think about my options."
The chances of Nowitzki bolting are slim. What he wants is help. The Mavericks need an explosive scorer capable of creating his own shot. Nowitzki specifically mentioned LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Others have speculated that Joe Johnson would be a good fit.
Whether or not Dallas can pull off such a deal is iffy. The Mavericks do have Dampier's contract to use ($13 million unguaranteed) in a sign-and-trade. Butler is entering the last year of his contract at and Terry has two years left. Both are potential trade assets with deals in the $10 million range next season.
Cuban reiterated his support for Carlisle, who has a 7-9 playoff record with one series win. Nelson said the team plans on bringing both Haywood and Dampier back if possible. Beaubois is expected to take a much bigger role, which could push Terry out.
"We're going to be opportunistic and do our very best to put the best team on the court," Cuban said. "That's never going to change."
Even if it is coming.
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