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Thursday, December 8, 2011
Updated: December 9, 8:52 AM ET
Dirk Nowitzki realistic about Mavs

By Jeff Caplan
ESPNDallas.com

DALLAS -- Dirk Nowitzki met the local media in a basketball setting Thursday for the first time since the June championship parade, a few hours before the free-agent hailstorm started to rumble.

The NBA Finals MVP already knew storm clouds were overhead.

Tyson Chandler: Just about gone to the New York Knicks. Caron Butler: Gone to the Los Angeles Clippers. J.J. Barea: Soon to be gone to a team to be determined.

Dirk Nowitzki
Dirk Nowitzki doesn't expect the Mavs to be favored to defend their NBA title, but he noted that they weren't favored last season, either.

The Dallas Mavericks' brain trust -- owner Mark Cuban and president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson -- did not plan to match what Chandler would receive elsewhere (reportedly four years, $58 million).

Their other five free agents were also offered one-year deals -- take it or see ya -- with the allure of crucial cap space for the summer of 2012 to better navigate the future under the new rules of the CBA. It comes at a cost: leaving behind key members of the title team and a frustrated fan base still basking in the glory of the championship.

Nowitzki, perhaps Chandler's biggest fan -- the man who heaped constant praise on the fiery, 7-foot-1 defensive stalwart who changed the team's defensive culture overnight -- didn't roar with anger or sound down or even get the least bit snippy as his title team was being chipped away around him on the eve of training camp.

Instead, and perhaps to be expected, Nowitzki got introspective.

"Hopefully he's going to come back, but if not we wish him the best of luck," Nowitzki said. "I always say, when Devean George was here, and obviously he won it with the Lakers, I saw him hug somebody at half court almost every game and I was like, 'What are you doing every game hugging somebody?' He said once you win a championship it's like a bond, it's like family forever. It bonds you forever and that's the same case here.

"Tyson is going to be family no matter where he is and he will always be close to us."

Shortly after the Chandler-to-New York bombshell dropped, Butler left town on a three-year, $24 million deal with the Los Angeles Clippers. Barea is narrowing his options, and odds are he will be in some other team's training camp by this weekend.

"It's tough. He's been great for us, just instant offense off the bench. Even in the Finals, we started him. He looked great," Nowitzki said of his little buddy. "He was a big part of us winning. Just his improvement in decision-making over the years was fun to be a part of, fun to watch. We'd hate to see him go. He's been a friend off the floor, but like I said, it's not a dream world.

"In a dream world we would keep everybody and bring in Dwight, CP3 and Deron next season. But, that's just not how it works in this business."

No, but Cuban is banking that he can attract one of those big three: Dwight Howard, who ESPN.com's Marc Stein reported Thursday the Mavs made a play for in a sign-and-trade with Orlando; Chris Paul, who could be on his way to the Los Angeles Lakers via trade; or Deron Williams, who has said he won't leave Brooklyn if the Nets pull off a deal for Howard, the most dominant center in the league.

The future is sketchy and filled with risk. And that's talking the summer of 2012, and nothing of the 2011-12 season that is now just 17 days from tipping off with a Finals rematch against the Miami Heat.

"It's a hard one [decision] to make," Nowitzki said of either bringing the team back and locking into contracts or stripping it down for a potential star-studded summer plunge. "It's not a decision I'd want to be a part of. Donnie and Mark are obviously looking at what's best for the franchise and for the future. Obviously, we all know we're old. So looking at the next three, four, five years, maybe they want to get some fresh legs. But it's a tough decision to make. I don't want to be in their shoes."

The strangest training camp of Nowitzki's career is set to open at 1 p.m. Friday, also the time when free agents can officially sign deals. The Mavs have 10 players under contract and nine will be at the AAC (Rudy Fernandez is expected to arrive over the weekend after visa issues delayed his arrival from Spain) for the first day of workouts.

Suddenly the deepest team in the league will be searching for answers. Brendan Haywood will slide into the starting center spot he was promised before Dallas made the trade for Chandler last summer.

Four of five starters will be 32 or older, assuming Fernandez, 26, starts at shooting guard. If Jason Terry is forced back into the starting lineup, the average age of the Mavs' five starters shoots to 34. That's a crew that must navigate a 66-game season in 123 days that includes 20 back-to-backs, one back-to-back-to-back and a series of ridiculously busy stretches.

Fernandez, Corey Brewer, Dominique Jones and Rodrigue Beaubois are now the names that could determine if the Mavs are good enough to defend their title. Is help on the way? Not much. Consider Brian Cardinal a prime target to re-sign on a one-year deal, and former lottery pick Brandan Wright tops the Mavs' list of outside free agents.

"With a schedule like that, you're going to need a good bench, you're going to need some scoring, you're going to need some fresh legs," Nowitzki said. "You're going to need Roddy, hopefully healthy, back. Those guys off the bench are going to be big, giving us energy and freshness. We'll see how it works."

Nowitzki has always billed himself as a realist, even a glass-half-full kind of guy. Maybe that's a good thing as he prepares to defend the franchise's first title with a team that could feel rather deflated before the first workout without its culture changer in the middle and its spark plug off the bench.

Yet, when one might expect Nowitzki to be a bit glum after last season's tremendous chemistry led to unprecedented success, he offered a glimmer of hope for a team he still anchors along with Jason Kidd, Terry and Shawn Marion.

"You can never say what's going to happen. Nobody would've said last year that we would've had a chance, especially after I went down and Caron went down," Nowitzki said. "Looking at the season now, we don't even know who is going to be here. We're just going to have to wait and see who we bring in, who we sign. I think there are still a lot of trades being talked about.

"The big guys might team up in one of the big markets. If that's the case, I think we're not going to be the heavy favorites. But we weren't last year either and we still found a way to fight together and have a good team and fight through some stuff and come out on top. We'll just have to wait and see what happens."

Some of it happened later Thursday. More will come as the lockout is soon to be lifted and the Dallas Mavericks forge ahead in a bold, new direction.

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.