DALLAS Job One in piecing together the Mavericks' free agent puzzle is figuring out how much... and how long... to pay Dirk Nowitzki.

He'll be entering his 17th season. Nowitzki said he'll play for a reduced rate after making $22.7 million this year.

'We have a bunch of free agents again; you really don't know where this francise is going to go,' the German superstar said. 'We hope it is going to go up, but we'll just have to wait and see.'

Whatever happens, it all begins with Nowtizki and then everything else falls in line.

'I don't know what's going to happen as far as how much money we can pay him, but whatever it is, it won't be enough,' said Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle.

Nowitzki said he wants the Mavs to get back to the standard set in their championship season of 2011. The question is: Who do you put around Dirk in the twilight of his career, given that several key cogs for the Mavs this season that will be free to sign elsewhere this summer?

Shawn Marion, the best defender on a defensively-challenged team, says he loves Dallas, but he'll weigh his free agent options.

Vince Carter hit the biggest shot of the Mavericks post-season run when he beat the buzzer to propel the Mavs over the Spurs in Game 3 of the series. Carter played well as the Mavs' sixth man, and says he'd love to return.

'I wanted to show my teammates... the organization... Mavs fans... I love this game, and I'm going to play hard, I'm going to do whatever I need to win,' Carter said. 'The age thing means nothing to me, because my desire and love of the game shines through.'

Other free agents include guard Devin Harris, who after foot surgery came back to provide quality depth in the playoffs, as did forward DeJuan Blair.

Whatever moves the Mavericks make, they'd like to slow down the turnstile that has ushered in 17 new players over the last two years.

'It's really about spending your money wisely,' said Carlisle, 'making sure you can get as much bang for your buck with the guys that you sign, and making sure those guys fit together.'

Sounds easy when it's anything but. Building a championship contender never is.


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