By most accounts, the Dallas Mavericks are having a good summer. The team drafted Dennis Smith, Jr., who looks to be a future star, and had great runs in both the Orlando Pro and Las Vegas Summer Leagues. Despite all that success, there’s still a piece missing. Dallas has yet to re-sign center Nerlens Noel.

It’s no question that the Mavs want to retain Noel. They wouldn’t have made a midseason deal to acquire the restricted free agent if they didn’t have future plans in mind. As recent as last week, with the Mavs taking on the Miami Heat in Summer League, Noel sat on the sidelines, a couple of seat away from Harrison Barnes, taking in the action. Head coach Rick Carlisle even came and sat next to him for a while. They were all smiles.

A lot can change in a week, though. There’s now a report, from the mouth of Noel’s agent, Happy Walters, that the two are “very disappointed” at the way negotiations are progressing with the Mavericks.

According to Walters, he and his client are “still waiting on a serious offer.”

This should all be taken with a grain of salt. Walters is working in the best interest of his client and is trying to gain as much leverage as possible, sweetening whatever deal Noel receives. That’s his job. But if that serious offer is a max contract, then the chances of it coming are slim. The Mavs clearly haven’t offered one, and there are only a few teams around the league with the cap space to do so. Since Dallas can match any offer Noel gets, there’s little incentive for other teams to try and sign him away.

So, why haven’t the Mavericks signed Noel to a max deal if that’s ultimately what he wants? For starters, the team isn’t going to hand out money if it doesn’t have to. Last summer’s salary cap explosion is in the rearview mirror so teams don’t have to pony up max or near-max contracts for midgrade talent.

Dallas Mavericks forward Nerlens Noel (3) dunks a basket against Milwaukee Bucks guard Tony Snell (21) in the fourth quarter at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Second, Dallas is looking at next summer.

I can hear the groans already. It’s true, though. Dallas likely doesn’t want to sign Noel to a max contract because they want to have the financial flexibility to chase free agents next summer. That’s the thinking behind Dirk Nowitzki taking a two-year, $10 million contract and why Dallas traded for Josh McRoberts, whose $6 million deal expires at the end of next season. Adding to that, Seth Curry, Yogi Ferrell, Devin Harris, and Salah Mejri all come off the books next summer. Wesley Matthews has a player option but he will likely exercise it to stay with the team. Even with Matthews remaining on the payroll, the Mavs will have a lot of money to work with. They’ll have even more if Noel signs for less than the max.

When you take a look at next year’s free agents, it’s understandable why the team would want to have as much money as possible available. There will be a lot of talent on the market. Let’s start with Seth Curry, though. A lot of speculation about the Mavs’ plans has centered on clearing space to sign him. He’ll be 27 when free agency rolls around, but if he duplicates or exceeds his production from last season then re-signing him to a bigger contract is a no-brainer.

It also wouldn’t be surprising if the team came to terms with Yogi Ferrell if he fills the backup point guard role admirably. If they do retain him, he’ll likely garner a manageable amount. Then there’s Dirk. The second year of his current contract is a team option. At this point, no one knows when he’s going to call it quits. But at $5 million, he isn’t putting a dent in the salary cap.

It’s not the players currently on the Mavs’ roster that will make the biggest noise next summer, though. Some of the NBA’s biggest names are candidates to take their talents elsewhere.

Before digging into who the Mavs may want, let’s make it clear who likely isn’t coming to Dallas. No, the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony probably won’t be donning Mavericks blue any time soon. Even if someone crunches the numbers to show you how Dallas can land them, don’t buy into such hucksterism.

But there are a few players that make sense for Dallas to pursue. Someone like Avery Bradley can give the Mavs a defensive presence at the wing. Bradley is also more than capable of knocking down outside shots. Then there’s the Milwaukee Bucks’ Jabari Parker, who has a player option next summer that he can exercise to seek a bigger contract. He’s currently recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee and won’t be back until the All-Star break, which will give teams pause, but at 23, he still a talent that will be hard to look past.

These players aren’t the reason the Mavs are clearing the cupboard for next summer, though. And while there will be rumors that the Mavs are interested in signing James or Durant (because duh, who wouldn’t want them?) there’s one player who stands out as a prime target for the Mavs: DeMarcus Cousins.

DeMarcus Cousins could be a prime target for the Mavs next offseason. Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Cousins is currently entering the final year of his contract, worth $18.1 million. If the New Orleans Pelicans fail to make the playoffs again, then Cousins might be prone to listen to offers from other teams. So, if the Mavs are looking to throw max money at someone, this is their guy. Not only have there been rumors of the team’s interest in Cousins for years, he fits the mold of literally every player they chase in free agency. They chased Dwight Howard. They chased DeAndre Jordan. Next summer they’ll chase Cousins. A dominant center is the Mavericks’ white whale.

The Mavericks haven’t resigned Noel because they could see him as a potential backup center come next summer. Right now, that seems to be playing into the Mavs’ negotiating tactics. That’s not to say that the two sides won’t reach an agreement at some point. At the very least, Noel has until October 16 to sign a qualifying offer with Dallas worth around $6 million. A multi-year deal being inked in the coming weeks seems far more likely than that, though. And when it comes, Noel’s re-signing will continue the Mavericks’ good summer. But, based on how the team positioned itself, the Mavs want next summer to be great.