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Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Mavs' plan to reload hits major detour

By Jeff Caplan

The Dallas Mavericks showed championship center Tyson Chandler the door in December to roll out the red carpet for homegrown All-Star Deron Williams in July.

Yet, after seven months of fan hand-wringing over the inglorious dismantling of the title team and this week's incessant, Xanax-fetching rumors and tweets on the supposed leanings of the sought-after point guard, the free-agent door whacked the Mavs' recruiting team back to Dallas empty-handed and scrambling to activate Plan B or C or whatever comes next.

Dirk Nowitzki
Dirk Nowitzki won't have Deron Williams as his sidekick in Dallas next season.

On Tuesday at 6:03 p.m. CT, Williams took to his Twitter account to announce a decision that all at once electrified the Brooklyn-bound Nets and demoralized a Dallas fan base sensing imminent despair.

Meanwhile, locked in a Los Angeles television studio some 2,800 miles from the Big Apple, billionaire owner Mark Cuban, the most visible and vocal owner in the game, couldn't escape the reality of network TV to personally seal the most critical deal of his tenure.

Across the Atlantic taking in Wimbledon, Dirk Nowitzki, the 14-year face of the franchise, deserves an explanation as to why the hometown discount he granted in 2010 and chased with a championship, tears and champagne has somehow spiraled into the nightmarish departure of the flame-spitting center he so admired and a front-office failure to reel in the big fish as advertised.

And presumably somewhere in Moscow, Mikhail Prokhorov, the mostly invisible yet undeterred Russian billionaire owner of the Nets -- Cuban's foil who is always on guard to swap barbs in the media with his American counterpart -- now holds the ultimate one-up.

He's got D-Will.

Williams will accept a five-year, $98 million package to become the face of the newly minted Brooklyn Nets. The Mavs, limited by a new collective bargaining agreement that Cuban has publicly and repeatedly disparaged, could offer a max of $75 million over four years.

Amazingly, less than 13 months after swilling $90,000 champagne on South Beach, the celebration has turned to desperation. After Williams announced his long-awaited decision, Cuban is left with his lone superstar and coveted cap space, but no star to shower it upon.

On Monday afternoon in New York City, Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson, head coach Rick Carlisle and special assistant Michael Finley met with Williams for approximately two hours. As they presented how shrewd decision-making, Nowitzki's greatness and a family culture had produced a decade-plus run of contending, the Nets were pulling off a deal to land Joe Johnson and his massive contract, a move fiercely debated among the media for its merit but one Williams apparently green-lighted.

Mark Cuban
Mark Cuban was working on "Shark Tank" in Los Angeles while the Mavs were making their pitch to the Deron Williams.

After Williams' decision, Nelson wasn't eager to talk about it and Cuban emailed that he will "discuss and review all the decisions, approaches and our strategy once we get through free agency and have our team set."

Tuesday's loss was another demoralizing setback for an organization that has scuttled about since turning LeBron James into a June choke artist. First was the decision to dismantle the team and restructure the payroll under the CBA's harsher penalties for luxury-tax offenders. Lamar Odom embarrassed the franchise, and ultimately a very strange season culminated with the first sweep in the dozen-year Nowitzki-Cuban playoff era.

So now what? With a two-superstar lineup unlikely for the coming season, how do the Mavs -- with at least eight roster spots to fill, excluding last week's three draft picks -- put a contending team around Nowitzki as he heads into Year 3 of his current four-year deal? Nowitzki expressed concern after the playoffs. One can only wonder what's racing through his mind in faraway England.

"Concerned? Yeah, we need to get better. That's my only concern," Nowitzki said after the first-round wipeout by new Western Conference power broker Oklahoma City. "As the Mavericks, usually we pride ourselves over the last decade not to play for the seventh seed or the eighth seed or just to make it into the playoffs. Our goal was always to be obviously one of the top four in the West, get home court and make a deep run. That was always our goal. It's not just making it into the playoffs."

The Mavs will make a run at Steve Nash, knowing he has a $36 million offer from Toronto on the table and that the New York Knicks are trying anything to get him in a sign-and-trade. Late Tuesday, reports had the Lakers making a serious attempt to pair Nash with Kobe Bryant.'s Marc Stein reported that Dallas is also interested in Knicks restricted free agent Jeremy Lin and that they might not be as high on Goran Dragic as other teams.

Earlier Tuesday, more sour news came down as Jason Terry, the longest-tenured Mav outside of Nowitzki, was closing in on a three-year pact with the Boston Celtics. He wanted to give the Mavs a chance to match, but they chose not to, ending a wildly entertaining and sometimes infuriating eight-year run.

Future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd, the starter at point guard since his arrival in a trade from the Nets in February 2008, is mulling interest from the Mavs and Knicks.

Whatever happens now, short of a miracle trade to acquire Dwight Howard before the start of the season, nothing will equal what Williams could have delivered -- instant excitement and sure-fire contention during Dirk's remaining seasons.

Now the plan for next season could also be one similar to this past season's: filling out the roster with minimum contracts to keep the cap space safe for a summer pursuit a year from now.

But there's no escaping that this was the summer for landing the big fish, for loading up and maximizing Dirk's twilight years, even as Cuban repeatedly swatted away such suggestions heading into the offseason. Nelson, the first to espouse the "big fish" game plan, even backed off the importance of bringing Williams home, prior to the start of free agency when asked if the mission was big fish or bust.

"Noooo," Nelson said, drawing it out for effect, as if to say don't be ridiculous. "No, look, I'm looking at a board that's filled with names. There's lots of guys at every position, so I wouldn't quantify it as that at all."

But it was. How then to quantify this disappointment? Nowitzki didn't seem to have his mind on those other names Saturday night at his charity baseball game, just hours before the free-agency period was set to open.

"It seemed like last December when we made the decision to let J.J. [Barea] and everybody go, and Tyson," Nowitzki said, "that we're putting basically all our eggs in one basket."

Criticism of Cuban for breaking up the championship team will ramp up. He could have opted to keep Chandler and go after talented but smaller fish this summer. But the endgame was clear: Get a star this summer and shoot for another -- Howard -- next summer to build a monster "Miami West."

Cuban, the unordinary owner who rarely misses a meaningless midseason game at home or away, will get creamed for being stuck in L.A. filming "Shark Tank" and missing the chance to look Williams in the eye.

And so with D-Will history, the inscrutable Howard and Chris Paul are lined up as the next free-agent saviors a year from now, when Dirk turns 35.

Break out the red carpet and call the network to reschedule.