Five burning questions and answers about the immediate future of the Dallas Mavericks in the wake of the Game 7 loss that clinched their first-round exit to San Antonio:
1. How long will it take the Mavs to get over the hammering they got from the Spurs in the deciding game?
It obviously won't be instantaneous. The Mavs shamed the skeptics by playing so well for the first six games of the series, probably as well as they've played in any six-game stretch all season, but then surprised us all again in the finale with their inability to keep up after giving San Antonio such problems.
The Mavs thought they had a real shot to steal Game 7 on the road with the Spurs theoretically burdened by all the pressure. But the hosts couldn't have played freer or with more force, ensuring that, from start to finish, this was a series no one expected. Most pundits, remember, had forecasted the West's reigning champs to cruise in five or fewer games.
With time, though, Dallas should be able to take a measure of solace from the way it lifted its overall play from the regular season and made the most of Rick Carlisle's creative scheming on D. The Mavs always believed their No. 8 seed was a false reflection of this group's ceiling and believe so with only more conviction after the way -- to use Gregg Popovich's word -- they "confounded" the Spurs.
"We walk away from this disappointed, certainly, but not dismayed," Carlisle said.
It's the proper perspective after a season in which supposed free-agent consolation prize Monta Ellis looked better than ever, emerging as a willing and effective pick-and-roll partner to Dirk Nowitzki. And the way several role players have snapped in around them -- particularly newcomer Jose Calderon and returning Devin Harris alongside holdovers Shawn Marion and Vince Carter -- has the Mavs convinced that they've re-established a core they can start adding to for the first time since their championship season in 2010-11.
2. How will the Mavs approach Dirk Nowitzki's free agency?
The buzzword around town since the Mavs' first-round exit is continuity. Carlisle says Dallas wants to take a page out of the Spurs' book and keep as much of the current group together as possible.
That obviously starts with Nowitzki, who returns to free agency with his 36th birthday looming. Much like in 2010, when he was scarcely mentioned with the league's other marquee names available, it's widely assumed that he's going nowhere and realistically won't even consider outside pitches.
The bigger question with Nowitzki is what sort of pay cut he'll take in the name of trying to leave the Mavs with sufficient flexibility to add a difference-maker or two. The risk for Nowitzki is that he'll almost certainly have to sign first -- to remove his cap hold from the Mavs' book -- with no guarantee that they'll be any more successful landing their top targets than they were in either of the previous two offseasons.
The working assumption is that Nowitzki will re-sign for at least $10-12 million annually, similar to Tim Duncan's current contract with San Antonio and Kevin Garnett's last deal with Boston before being dealt to Brooklyn.
“We’ll find a good way where I feel respected for what I did and where we still have enough money left for us to get great players in here," Dirk says.
3. Do the Mavs have any shot at forcing their way into the hunt for LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony?
The short answer: They intend to find out.
Dallas did not make the short list of teams given the chance to sit down with LeBron in the summer of 2010, but that didn't stop Mark Cuban from lobbying LeBron's people behind the scenes. Rest assured that the Mavs will run out that ground ball again, just in case.
When it comes to Melo, meanwhile, what you hear is that the Mavs are quietly optimistic they will be on that short list of teams granted a face-to-face visit with the New York Knicks' scoring machine, just as they were with Dwight Howard last summer. The sense in Big D is that Melo will give them a legit look.
It's another ground ball that the Mavs are obligated to run out because Nowitzki is still their best player, which is something team officials acknowledge is too much to ask of the future Hall of Famer after 16 seasons. So the Mavs are bound to pursue Melo until they're told they have no shot, because players of that caliber are rarely available and are hard to get when they are.
Some inevitably will wonder how well Melo would actually fit. Nowitzki says he can play with anybody, but you have to ask: Are their games really different enough? The Mavs, furthermore, are already an elite offensive team. They need a dependable goalie at the rim first and foremost, along with infusions of speed and toughness, then more shooting. Little of that falls within Melo's skill set.
The Mavs, though, have to start thinking about their post-Nowitzki existence. Dallas’ Mr. Reliable, like it or not, can’t play on forever. Which is why, if they have any shot at Melo, they’re obligated to explore it.
4. Which other players will Dallas pursue in free agency?
The most interesting whisper, at this early stage, is that the Mavs intend to be at the front of the line to try to reacquire Tyson Chandler should the Knicks make their defensive anchor available via trade.
Letting Chandler go remains the most fiercely debated aspect of Cuban's decision to break up the Mavs' championship team, but word is they'll indeed pursue what many will regard as an overdue reunion.
On the subject of using their cap space to upgrade via trade as opposed to outright signings, Milwaukee's Larry Sanders remains another potential target after an absolute nightmare season. Monta has never been better since the Mavs imported him from Milwaukee; could life with Nowitzki, Carlisle and Cuban have a similar effect on Sanders?
I initially thought, along those same lines, that the Mavs would be among the teams willing to take the Lance Stephenson gamble this summer, but sources familiar with the team's thinking say that's a dice roll Dallas isn't willing to entertain.
The more likely wing target in free agency, sources say, is far more dependable Luol Deng.
5. Which of the Mavs' current free agents are they most likely to retain?
There is some concern that Marion and Carter -- Marion especially -- will generate outside interest at numbers that cut dangerously into the Mavs' $30 million-plus of projected cap space.
Marion and Carter are both very happy in Dallas and both want to stay, but it could get tricky.
The Mavs also have to re-sign Harris as well as DeJuan Blair -- who played with the sort of physicality in the San Antonio series that we don't often see from this team -- but Dallas' ability to bring everyone back surely depends on how much is spent on new arrivals.