Dirk Nowitzki might as well have dragged a huge Help Wanted sign with him to his postgame news conference Saturday night.
He tried to carry the Dallas Mavericks to a dignity-saving win, scoring 34 points in Game 4, but the 33-year-old Nowitzki couldn’t do it. The Oklahoma City Thunder overwhelmed the defending champions, or at least what’s left of them, completing the sweep with a 103-97 comeback win at the American Airlines Center.
The fourth-quarter collapse, when the Mavs’ 13-point lead evaporated, illustrated just how far the Mavs have fallen since celebrating the franchise’s first title in Miami Beach’s Club Liv 10 months ago.
James Harden, the Thunder’s third-best player, almost outscored the Mavs by himself with 15 points in the final frame, only one fewer than the Mavs managed while wheezing to an ugly finish to a forgettable season. Nowitzki scored more than half of the Mavs’ points in the quarter, although he made only one of eight shots from the floor, with no other Dallas player striking significant fear in the Thunder.
It’s somewhat miraculous that the Mavs won a championship with Nowitzki serving as the only superstar. It’s as clear as a glass backboard that it won’t happen again for the Mavs as Nowitzki nears the end of his prime.
It remains to be seen whether owner Mark Cuban and president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson can recruit that kind of talent to Dallas this summer. If they fail, the Mavs will be stuck on the mediocrity treadmill for at least another season.
“We need some guys that can make plays for themselves,” Nowitzki said. “That’s pretty obvious. If you look at all the top teams now, they at least have two [or] three guys that you can just throw the ball to and they do their thing.
“If you look at OKC, that we just lost to, it was [Russell] Westbrook in Game 1 and Game 2, it was [Kevin] Durant last game, and today they just throw it to Harden and he goes off. If you want to be an elite team in this league right now, you have to have at least two or three guys that can just go off at any time.”
The Mavs have one and an aging supporting cast. That explains why they’re one-and-done.
Jason Terry has always been a sidekick, not a superstar. And his 11-point, 4-of-12 shooting performance was probably his last in a Mavs uniform.
With Terry’s contract among the several expiring deals on the Dallas roster — plus the availability of the amnesty clause, most likely to be used on big man Brendan Haywood — the Mavs are set to have significant salary cap space for the first time in the Cuban era.
There has never been more pressure on Cuban, who stripped down the title roster by letting several key free agents walk after studying the new, more restrictive collective bargaining agreement, than there will be in July.
Cuban likes to consider Nelson and himself to be the smartest, savviest, more creative front-office tandem in the NBA. If they don’t convince Deron Williams to bolt Brooklyn to come home, they better be.
But Cuban insists this summer isn’t D-Will or bust in Dallas. Never mind that after the Mavs didn’t make a move at the trade deadline, Nelson declared that the Mavs were positioned to land a “big fish” in free agency. And there is only one big fish remaining after Dwight Howard opted to commit, contractually at least, to the Orlando Magic for one more season.
But Cuban, who still hopes to flip Lamar Odom and his buyout-included contract for something of value, claims that it’s impossible for any player to be considered Plan A for the Mavs this summer. That’s because he says the Mavs have yet to set their plans and intend to take a reactive approach.
“We’ll make our judgments depending on what we see in the market,” Cuban said. “We’ll learn a lot leading up to the draft as assets change. We’ll learn a lot with amnesty. We’ll take that information, we’ll digest it and we’ll do our best. That’s what you’ve got to do.”
Added coach Rick Carlisle: “This summer will be long, so there will be plenty of time to plan things.”
Cuban also has to make a decision regarding the head coach after Carlisle’s contract expires. It would seem like an easy call to bring back the coach of the only title team in franchise history, but who imagined after last season that the Mavs wouldn’t make a competitive offer to Tyson Chandler?
Then again, the new CBA has no bearing on who will wear a suit on the Mavs’ bench. And it won’t matter who is coaching unless significant upgrades are made around Nowitzki.
“What has to happen? I’m not quite sure,” Nowitzki said. “We would love to get Kobe, Wade and LeBronin here, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think it’s too early to look at free agency now. We just lost in the first round. We’ll just kind of have to see how it all plays out.”
The Mavs’ attempt to repeat is over, not that it really ever started. Now the ball is in Cuban’s court.