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Time to panic in Dallas?

A conversation about where the Mavs should go from here.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Jonathan Tjarks: Dirk Nowitzki came back on Sunday, but it didn't make a big difference, as the Mavs were run out of the gym by the Spurs in an uncompetitive 129-91 rout. Couple that with a heart-breaking OT loss to Oklahoma City last night and the Mavs are now at 12-17 and in 12th place in the West. The situation isn't all that surprising given how long they played without their only All-Star, but it still feels like making the playoffs is going to be an uphill battle. Is it time to panic in Dallas? Or can Dirk carry them back into the top 8? How do you see the rest of the season playing out?

Willie Funk: I don't know if panic is the right word at this point. Given the roster Donnie Nelson put together during the offseason and draft, it's hard to be excited about the future -- immediate or long term. This isn't a playoff team with or without Dirk. He is an all time great offensive player, but he's not LeBron James. He's not lifting this team to the playoffs during the toughest part of the team's schedule. Carlisle doesn't play the right players, but manages the game well enough that the team won't totally fall apart. Realistically I see the Mavs mustering enough wins to drop themselves to the bottom of next year's lottery. It's time to start thinking ahead. The question is, what can be done to fix things?

Tjarks: So I see we're going straight through the stages of grief to "acceptance", which, after watching Dallas "play" Miami and San Antonio, is fair enough. The first thing to do is take inventory on this roster: what assets do the Mavs have? As far as I can see, it's Dirk -- a PF who (if healthy) should play at an All-Star level indefinitely but is a liability on defense, Marion -- a starting-level SF with maybe 1-2 years left and Mayo -- a starting level SG who can be a 2nd/3rd option on an elite team that can hide his defense. Every other veteran is a rapidly depreciating asset or is Darren Collison. Among the young players, you have two real assets -- Brandan Wright (who will be a UFA at the end of the season) and Bernard James. Jared Cunningham might be a combo guard off the bench in a few years. At first glance, unless you're dealing Dirk, nothing else on this roster is getting you much. Or am I missing something?

Funk: The only thing you're missing is Mayo opting out after this year and demanding money a third option who struggles to create his own shot doesn't deserve. The roster is pretty much devoid of moveable assets. No talent, no expiring contracts. It all makes me wish we'd moved Roddy B before Carlisle ruined him. But this brings us to the next problem -- the cycle of mediocrity the Mavs are moving towards. With Dallas likely finishing around 10 in the west, you're looking at a pick between 10 and 14, not exactly a position that'll get you real help from a pick or trade. Furthermore, I can't say I have a lot of faith in the team's talent evaluators after this last draft and Carlisle is one of the worst in the business at developing talent given his preference for consistent mediocrity. I almost feel too negative, so I'd welcome a more optimistic take.

Tjarks: Yea, that's a very pessimistic and plausible scenario. Double ouchies! I'll try to bring some sunshine: I think, even if Dallas has to overpay Mayo, they aren't that far away from being a 50-win outfit. They're just a quality starting PG and C away from having a good starting 5! PG you can take care of in the draft, as long as Carlisle drops his "I refuse to deal with young player's mistakes" bit. Look how many quality young PG's are in the NBA right now -- it's the most plentiful position in most drafts. This year, I think Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State), Michael Carter-Williams (Syracuse) and Trey Burke (Michigan) can all walk in and start on an NBA team, ala Damian Lillard. Center is where it gets tricky. Looking around the NBA, there will probably be two starting-quality centers available this off-season -- Sam Dalembert and Tiago Splitter. That's the most plausible path back towards respectability my opinion. Medium-term, with Dirk, Mayo and a quality young PG, you're fishing for another Tyson Chandler.

Funk: I pretty much agree actually, but it all comes down to whether one of those guys is available when the Mavs go on the clock. Smart and Carter-Williams aren't great shooters, but great distributors -- really not a bad fit with the projected lineup in Dallas. On the other hand, I'm wary of most free agent centers. Outside of Omer Asik, the backup center who can't get minutes is that person for a reason. Tiago Splitter is not a starter in the association, point blank. And the scary thing is how huge a blow a big contract for a guy like him would be after overpaying Mayo. The team can't afford to do another Shawn Bradley-Evan Eschmeyer-Eric Dampier-Brendan Haywood mega deal.

Tjarks: The Asik situation isn't that uncommon. You can't play two centers at the same time in the modern NBA, so guys can get stuck as backups. Same thing happened to Gortat in Orlando. I think you are selling Splitter short: look at his per minute averages, he's skilled enough to finish around the rim and hes big and athletic enough to be passable defensively. That's a solid two way center. Agree with you on Dalembert -- he's valuable only for his athleticism, so that's a bad long term contract as he goes deeper into his 30's. One thing Dallas needs to do with the rest of this season is see what they have in James and Wright. Giving Kaman and Brand minutes is only going to get you beat and they'll be worse next year, not better.

Funk: Playing Elton Brand over Wright doesn't make much sense. Another brilliant personnel move by Carlisle. As for center situation, Gortat and Asik are exceptions to the rule. Most Jason Collins types have that role because they're about as nice as Jason Collins. In terms of player evaluation, I'm very much partial to what my eyes see over advanced statistics. You could see that Asik could play in Chicago and it's fairly apparent Splitter can't. Regardless, the Mavs need a big man who can protect the rim and get boards with any conceivable lineup they'll be trotting out this year or next. Kaman's clearly not the answer and, sadly, Tyson Chandlers aren't exactly an abundant commodity. At this point, Dallas fans hope for the present and future are pinned to the creativity of a front office that's been fairly inept of late.

Tjarks: It really all does come back to Tyson Chandler. There's no reason Dallas couldn't have the same team New York does now and be a title contender for the next few years instead of what we have today. Perhaps this team will serve as a warning for coveting two birds in the bush (Deron Williams + Dwight Howard) rather than valuing the one in hand. Here's the scariest question of all: at what point do you have to start thinking about moving Dirk and starting over? The worst place to be in the NBA is running along "the mediocrity treadmill" -- fluctuating from the 7-11 spots in the standings, not good enough to be a playoff threat and not bad enough to get elite talent in the draft. As you've been pointing out, that's exactly where this thing seems headed.

Funk: I don't see Dirk going anywhere. All logic aside, I just don't feel like they'll move the only recognizable Mav in franchise history. From a GM's perspective he's a one franchise dude. Hypothetically, it'd be interesting to see what he'd fetch in a trade. He's a hundred years old and his body's started showing signs of age, but his game is one that will ate as well as anyone's in the game as a 7' jump shooter. To trade him, you'd have to get a lot in return -- a decent veteran, some young talent and a relatively high first round pick -- but at his age I just don't see it happening. It's far more likely the team elects to supplement the current roster and try to rebuild around Dirk for one last go at it.

Tjarks: I agree that's what they're going to try to do. They just don't have many options and they don't have a lot of time to left to rebuild around him. Realistically, I think you're looking at next year's trade deadline. If things haven't turned around at that point, it might be time to begin the post-Dirk era. Oh well. At least we'll always have 2011.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.