- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN.com
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DALLAS -- For 48 minutes Sunday afternoon, it seemed as if nothing had changed. In the NBA, with the Lakers and the Mavericks, and for the two superstars who have led them for most of the past two decades.
Dirk Nowitzki was finally back to his old form after knee surgery, with a brilliant 30 points and 13 rebounds. Kobe Bryant matched him shot for shot, going for 38 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists, and ultimately got the win, 103-99, as the Lakers stayed within two and a half games of the Houston Rockets for eighth place in the Western Conference.
It was the kind of thrilling back-and-forth game between two teams that have won three of the past four NBA championships. But when you looked up at the standings afterward, reality set back in.
The Lakers and Mavericks aren't the class of the Western Conference anymore. They're fighting for eighth place -- and, in Dallas' case, the chance to shave again.
Bryant and Nowitzki are 34 years old. Both have another year left on their current contracts. Their windows to win another championship are closing.
"Once you've won it all and had that feeling," Nowitzki said after the Mavericks fell 4 1/2 games behind the Rockets with 27 to play. "You don't want to play basically for the eighth seed two straight years."
Fortunately for Bryant, that is where the similarities end. His team has struggled this season, but not for a lack of resources. And if Lakers management sticks to its current plan of spending whatever it takes to make another run at a championship while Bryant is still here, you figure he'll have every opportunity to try it again next season.
"This is one of those franchises, they really take care of their own," Bryant said of the financial commitment the Lakers made to him, by agreeing to foot a $100 million payroll -- the highest in the NBA -- so he could chase another title at the back end of his career.
"They make it a family atmosphere. For those who sacrifice for this organization, play hard for this organization, and commit to them, they really do a good job of returning that favor."
Nowitzki's fate is far less certain. Dallas owner Mark Cuban has already made the tough financial choices required by the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement that the Lakers are either ignoring or putting off.
"We made some business decisions, obviously, we all know about, so we'll see what we get out of this," Nowitzki said of Dallas' decisions not to re-sign key, but aging and expensive, members of its 2011 championship squad (Tyson Chandler, Jason Terry and Jason Kidd).
"Obviously this year [the Lakers] let it all hang out. The Lakers, the Knicks and Brooklyn -- those are the three teams that didn't really care about the luxury tax. I think all the other teams are trying to find a way to be a good team right around the salary cap -- maybe a little bit over but under the luxury tax because the luxury tax is going to be brutal here, especially next year.
"Those three teams don't really care, it seems like. Everybody else, you saw this trading deadline, don't want to take money back. So everybody else is going to try to find a way to have a good team right under the luxury tax."
Cuban had his reasons, of course. Those players were getting paid for what they did in their early-to-mid 30s, but couldn't be counted on to maintain that level of play into their mid-to-late 30s.
He also positioned the Mavericks to be suitors for the top free agents in the 2012, 2013 and 2014 classes. He missed on Deron Williams last summer. He'll indubitably make a run at Dwight Howard this summer, although as Nowitzki notes, ''he's got Shark Tank (Cuban's reality TV show), so maybe he decides not to film July 1 this time."
Still, there's a reason Cuban's comments this week on the wisdom of using the amnesty clause on the final year and $30 million of Bryant's contract struck such a nerve.
He's right. Rationally speaking, the Lakers should consider it. Bryant's salary alone takes up more than half the Lakers' salary cap and puts them 42 percent of the way to the luxury tax threshold.
But Cuban also is wrong because of the value Bryant brings to the Lakers' brand on and off the court. He's the star attraction. The guy who puts butts in the seats every night both at Staples Center and on the road.
It's more than that, though. Paying Bryant, and paying a star-studded roster like the franchise seems committed to through next season, is also part of the Lakers' brand. They'll spend to win. And they'll sacrifice, as Bryant noted, to reward those who have sacrificed for them.
"That's the one thing you really have to love about the Lakers, is that no matter what, it's all about winning," Lakers forward Antawn Jamison said. "They've shown that in the past and definitely by the moves they made this offseason as well."
Nowitzki means just as much to the Mavericks.
"I'll take a hit for a season rather than get rid of Dirk," Cuban said in a radio appearance with ESPN Dallas 103.3 on Friday. "That's just it. I've made that commitment to him over the years, and he's returned that commitment."
It's a different kind of commitment from the one the Lakers have made to Bryant, though. They're not just paying him well, they're paying -- and in many cases, overpaying -- a roster around him to give him a better chance of closing out his career with another title.
Nowitzki is surrounded by a good group of veterans, but mostly by the guys who were available after Dallas missed on Williams. The Mavs' $61.1 million payroll is above the salary cap but below the luxury tax threshold.
A big reason the Lakers are able to do that, of course, is they signed a new television contract with Time Warner Cable Sports Net that could be worth up to $5 billion over the next 20 years.
"Whenever the commissioner or any team talks about the CBA, they talk about Dallas and Tyson Chandler, Dallas and Dirk. You have to use examples," Cuban said before Sunday's game. "Fans, it's not their job to understand how the CBA works. You have to use examples. I was clear in saying that it was a hypothetical. But it was a good example because they have a high payroll with the highest-paid player in the league."
Cuban didn't stress the Lakers' TV deal when he spoke openly about the idea of using the amnesty clause on Bryant. If his aim was to help explain the new CBA and why teams make the decisions they do to fans, he should've.
It's the reason the Lakers can put their money where their hearts are. Why Bryant should have every opportunity to chase another title before he retires. And why Nowitzki has to hope Cuban can reel in a big fish this summer, instead of simply hosting Shark Tank.
Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki are their teams' superstars and both deserve good endings.