DALLAS (AP) — Dirk Nowitzki is ready to be a free-agent recruiter for the Dallas Mavericks. He's planning to hang around the draft room, too.
Even before a 12-season playoff streak officially ended, the 7-foot German was saying his franchise faced a critically important summer in finding another star or two for a run at a second NBA championship.
Dallas dismantled key pieces of the 2011 title team, then had revamped rosters filled with one-year contracts in consecutive seasons. The first ended with a first-round playoff sweep, and the second didn't even make it that far.
The Mavericks got to .500 with a season-ending win over lowly New Orleans on Wednesday night, but Nowitzki, owner Mark Cuban and president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson — among others — made it clear that wasn't nearly good enough.
"The pressure's on Mark and Donnie to get this franchise back to where it belongs," Nowitzki said. "They know that."
Nowitzki, the franchise leader in every major category, has always been willing to help pursue free agents, but this year is different. And it doesn't really have anything to do with Dwight Howard and Chris Paul being on the market.
The 34-year-old star is running out of time to win titles, and he's coming off a season that never really had a chance because he missed the first 27 games after knee surgery. He's also married and expecting his first child, so his summer stint in Germany will be a little shorter than usual.
"I would have probably been here regardless, knocking on Cuban's bunker suite every say, seeing what he's got cooking," Nowitzki said.
Before free agency and trades, though, there's the draft. The Mavericks are in the lottery for the first time since 2000, the year Cuban bought the team.
"I'll be in the war room for the first time on draft day and see what that experience is like," Nowitzki said. "I heard they order pizza and stuff and sit there and talk basketball. So I'll fit right in."
The Mavericks are watching the playoffs for the first time since Nowitzki's second season in 1999-2000 because their roster didn't fit. Sure, they lost basically half the season waiting for Nowitzki to come back and then trying to integrate him into the lineup. Yes, they played at a 50-win pace once he was settled.
But Dallas never stopped finding ways to lose.
The Mavericks did it early in Charlotte, blowing a 15-point lead and letting the Bobcats get a critical offensive rebound on a free throw in the closing seconds. An identical rebounding breakdown in Denver late in the season cost them a chance to hand the Nuggets just their fourth home loss of the season.
"I think if we'd had a little smarter play we could have finished some of those games," Nelson said. "I think a lot of things that went in the right direction during the championship run went the wrong direction and maybe it's the law of averages. Maybe it's in the stars."
Maybe they need more stars.
O.J. Mayo had a rough finish to his first season as the focal point of defenses. He picked up the scoring slack while Nowitzki was out — highlighted by a 40-point night in a big road win at Houston — but dropped off sharply late in the season.
Carlisle was hard on him in practices and meetings all year, and finally ripped Mayo publicly after he scored two points on 1-of-6 shooting in a loss to Memphis that ended Dallas' shot at a winning season. Still, Carlisle said he would welcome back Mayo, who plans to opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent.
"I spent more time with him this year than probably any player I ever had," Carlisle said. "With him, I'm a little like a Little League dad. I want him to do well so badly, that sometimes it gets the better of me."
Carlisle was equally hard on point guard Darren Collison, who ended up in Dallas after Jason Kidd changed his mind about returning and signed with the New York Knicks instead. Collison was strong early, lost his starting spot twice to 30-something guards brought in midseason and became an effective change of pace off the bench. Collison enters the offseason as a restricted free agent.
Along with Collison, centers Elton Brand and Chris Kaman were among the nine players with expiring contracts for Dallas. Brand is actually more suited to power forward but played a lot in the middle because Kaman's defensive shortcomings kept him on the bench more than the Mavericks thought he would be. Collison and Brand are more likely to return than Kaman, but all three could be gone.
"There will be probably a lot of changes, but it's hard to predict now," said Nowitzki, who became the 17th player with 25,000 career points in a win over New Orleans on the final weekend. "We can probably use help in every area on the court, so there's work to do."
An invigorated Vince Carter will be back for a third season after a strong year that included matching a career record for 3-pointers that he set 12 years ago with Toronto. So will Shawn Marion, who had another strong all-around season.
Those three veterans — with 44 seasons between them — are entering the final years of their contracts, and there's no telling who might be around them. Cuban vows that he'll spend every waking hour trying to find the right pieces.
"We maximized the first generation of Dirk's golden years to win a championship," Cuban said. "We'll do our best for the second generation of golden years and then the next generation and the next generation until he's out of golden years. That's all we're trying to do."
They're doing it with Nowitzki's help this summer.