It was less than two weeks ago when the Mavericks entered the playoffs as the No. 7 seed, but a trendy pick in the bottom half of the Western Conference bracket.
Now after being whipped 4-1 by the Rockets and eliminated in the first round for third time — and one playoff miss entirely — since winning their championship in 2011, the Mavs are definitely on the spot.
Team owner Mark Cuban has stated often that his goal is to get Dallas back into title contention before the retirement of franchise icon Dirk Nowitzki, who’ll turn 37 in June.
None of the big moves the Mavericks made for the 2014-15 season got Dallas an inch closer. The signing of free agent Chandler Parsons ended in the pain and disappointment of a knee injury that shut him down after one game of the playoffs and now will require surgery. The December trade for point guard Rajon Rondo simply blew up in the Mavs’ faces. First Rondo had an on-court argument with coach Rick Carlisle in February and then threw another petulant snit in Game 2 of the playoff series, prompting his bench and then claims of a back injury.
“There was a lot of ups and downs,” said center Tyson Chandler, who returned to Dallas after having been sent away after the 2011 title. “I can’t say there weren’t a lot of distractions.
“When you start training camp, your goal is to always win a championship. You always want to fight and give yourself a chance.
“So any time you’re less than, it’s always disappointing and you’ve got to do what it takes in the offseason to continue to pursue.”
Now those pursuits by Cuban and general manager Donnie Nelson will have to be bold and bigger this summer if Dallas is to return next season in a Western Conference that is only getting stronger with the emergence of the Pelicans and what should be the return of the Thunder with a new coach.
“We’ve got to get healthy,”Carlisle said.
But then he also noted that as many as 11 Mavericks could be free agents this summer. Nowitzki has two seasons left on his contract.
At 32, Chandler will be one of those free agents and will have to decide if he wants to commit to the franchise that wouldn’t commit to him in defense of the championship. He’s healthy, engaged and surely will draw interest from teams that could put him much closer to the top of the standings.
Rondo finished the regular season as the starting point guard, but Carlisle made it clear he won’t be back.
“We traded a lot of pieces for a point guard that’s not with us right now,” Chandler said.
Guard Monta Ellis could opt out of his contract and most seem to think he will in order to pursue a long-term deal.
If Ellis ($8.7 million) , Al-Farouq Aminu ($1.1 million) and Raymond Felton ($4 million) all opt in for next season, that would cut down on the money available to lure big-time free agent help. Dallas will surely make a run at forward LaMarcus Aldridge. But if the Trail Blazers star does want a return to his native Texas, options in San Antonio and Houston would get him closer immediately to playing for rings than in Dallas.
The NBA Draft will bring just the No. 21 and 52 picks.
“We’ll see what happens this summer,” Nowitzki said. “I know we’ve got a bunch of free agents again. We’ll just see what happens. Mark and Donnie, as always, are going to look to make this franchise better.”
The clock is already ticking on what will have to be a busy summer in Dallas.