- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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DALLAS -- The Dallas Mavericks’ grand rebuilding plan is still in place.
The Dallas front office remains determined to acquire an in-his-prime superstar to pair with Dirk Nowitzki. The Mavs’ brass is confident that will happen while the big German is still an elite player.
It’s a lot easier said than done, as we’re reminded by Dwight Howard’s Wednesday night appearance at the American Airlines Center in a Houston Rockets uniform. The plan started with three firm targets -- Chris Paul, Howard and Deron Williams -- and Dallas struck out over the past two summers.
How can the Mavs pull off such an optimistic plan at this point? Heck if they know. Not right now, at least.
“Superstars win in this league,” said Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson, although he’s pleased with the performance of summer consolation prizes such as Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon. “That’s not lost on us. ... This summer, I can’t sit here and tell you a hard-and-fast game plan, because we won’t know until we hit the battlefield, so to speak.”
That’s primarily because nobody knows whether this will be a bumper crop of free agency or if there will be slim pickings when it comes to superstars on the market this summer.
The Mavs will be positioned to offer a max contract again this summer, when Nowitzki, Shawn Marion and Vince Carter come off the books, with Nowitzki vowing to re-sign at a significantly reduced salary. The question is whether there will be anybody worth offering a max deal.
Several marquee players have the right to opt out of their contracts, a list that includes LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony, among others. If the stars don’t test the market -- or simply decide to re-sign with their current teams, as Nowitzki has vowed to do in Dallas -- then Luol Deng could be the biggest name available among unrestricted free agents.
No disrespect to Deng, a two-time All-Star small forward whose ability to score and defend would make him a good fit in Dallas at a reasonable price, but adding him to the Mavs wouldn’t make Nowitzki the second-best player on the roster.
“It’s one of those deals where there are no cut-and-dried easy answers until you see what the available pool is, what position your team is, and then there’s the added uncertainty of a lot of guys coming up for a contract this summer,” Nelson said.
Maybe Deng will end up being the best possible alternative, but signing him wouldn’t qualify as a success in the quest for a superstar.
“We’ll see,” Nowitzki said when asked if he’s confident the plan to make him a sidekick will ever come to fruition. “There’s usually three ways to get better -- the draft, free agency and via trades. We’ll just wait and see what happens.
“But, as far as I’m concerned, I’m just trying to make the playoffs this year. Everything else is kind of secondary to me. We missed the playoffs last year, which was disappointing to watch it from home, so that’s really all where my focus is at. Everything else we’ll figure out this summer, I guess.”
For the Mavs to be a major buyer in the trade market, they’ll have to accumulate assets. (Ellis might end up in this category.) They’d have to be awfully fortunate to strike gold in the draft given that they’re likely to be picking somewhere in the teens again.
The best option for the Mavs might be gambling on a restricted free agent, making an offer that might be perceived as overpaying.
Young players such as Indiana’s Lance Stephenson and Phoenix’s Eric Bledsoe aren’t nearly accomplished enough to be considered superstars at this point of their careers. Could they develop into that caliber of player with Rick Carlisle’s coaching and the Mavs’ culture? How much could the Mavs offer to make it worth it to find out -- and prevent their current teams from exercising their right to match?
Those are the kinds of questions that will be discussed in great detail by the Mavs’ decision-makers leading up to the July free-agency period.
There are no more easy answers in Dallas' superstar search. The three original prime targets picked other options, but the Mavs’ optimism remains intact. A second-place finish in free agency is like finishing for last, but there’s no doubt elite players see Dallas as a destination worth considering.
“We’re confident because [of] the fact that this is a market that players want to come to,” Nelson said. “There’s lots of great reasons. We know that, so waiting for the right opportunity is key. It’s a decision that is made within the organization, but it also depends on what’s out there.
“We know that Dallas is an 'A' market. We know that it’s a place that people want to come to. It’s just picking the right time.”
And getting the right player to pick them. That’s the really hard part.