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Sunday, July 4, 2010
Now comes the hard part for Mavs

By Tim MacMahon
ESPNDallas.com

As Dirk Nowitzki took the scenic route from Germany to Dallas, the Mavericks' brass never sweated, at least not in public. President of basketball operations Donnie Nelson declared complete confidence that they'd sign their superstar to a four-year contract sooner than later.

That deal got done a few days into free agency, with Dirk agreeing to give the Mavs a hometown discount with a four-year, $80 million contract that he'll sign when permitted on July 8.

Now comes the difficult part: increasing the chances that the best player in franchise history will win a championship. Expect plenty of perspiration, because the pressure is on the Mavs' front office to follow through on its promise.

Dirk went out of his way to aid Mark Cuban in the mission, taking more than $16 million less than he could have demanded with a max contract. That doesn't give the luxury-taxed Mavs any wiggle room under the salary cap, but it raises Cuban's financial pain threshold as he works to improve Dirk's supporting cast this summer.

It also sends a strong symbolic message to potential stars that might join the Mavs: Dirk's sole goal is to get a ring. The egoless superstar is more than willing to sacrifice to accomplish the only thing missing from his surefire Hall of Fame résumé.

And Nowitzki trusts his billionaire buddy and Nelson, the man most responsible for originally bringing Dirk to Dallas a dozen years ago, to help him get it done.

All Cuban and Nelson could promise the cornerstone of Dallas' decade-long run of 50-win campaigns is that they'd do everything in their power to get a legitimate superstar to pair with Nowitzki. That was enough, based on the relationships built between the superstar and his bosses over the years and the sweet-shooting, 7-foot German's strong sense of loyalty.

Under Cuban, the Mavs have consistently been as aggressive as any NBA team in terms of trying to upgrade. Winning percentage is much more important than profit margin for Cuban, as evidenced by the whiny lawsuit recently filed by Ross Perot Jr., the man who made a fortune selling a laughingstock franchise to Cuban but doesn't like the spend-to-win business model as a minority owner.

Yet the Mavs have never attracted a marquee free agent, even though Cuban has earned a reputation as the ultimate players' owner. The closest they've come is serviceable but overpaid center Erick Dampier and small forward Shawn Marion, a four-time All-Star who is a role player at this point of his career.

The Mavs have made many blockbuster trades during the Cuban/Dirk era, but none have delivered a legitimate co-star in his prime to Dallas. The closest Nowitzki has come to that kind of partner was best pal Steve Nash, but the point guard's peak came after he left Dallas for Phoenix, perhaps the only time Cuban made a mistake by not spending enough money.

Now that Dirk's deal is done, Cuban & Co. can step up their pursuit of potential sign-and-trade targets with the perennial All-Star power forward joining future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd on the recruiting committee.

But it might be too optimistic to even consider the Mavs long shots to land one of the three free agents -- LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh -- who would immediately make the Mavs a legitimate threat to the Los Angeles Lakers' three-peat hopes.

The Mavs are armed with assets to deal, headlined by Dampier's evaporating $13 million deal, a batch of expiring contracts that includes Caron Butler's $10.6 million salary and electrifying young guard Rodrigue Beaubois. However, it's much more likely that the Mavs will end up adding a complementary piece or two with their midlevel exception after whiffing with their swings at the elite free agents.

The Mavs' major remodeling will probably have to come in the traditional trade market.

Who might they land? Who knows? The only guarantee is that one of the NBA's most creative front offices will give it their best shot.

Getting Dirk to declare his renewed commitment to Dallas -- at a discounted rate -- meant the Mavs avoided disaster. Cuban and Nelson have much work to do to make the summer a success.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.