Now that the Dallas Mavericks have come up short in the Deron Williams sweepstakes, the team is left scrambling for options in a barren free agent market without many impact players.
But while the easy choice would be to get the band -- Jason Kidd and Jason Terry (who can't officially sign with the Boston Celtics until next week) or maybe even Steve Nash -- back together, Dallas has to move on. If the Mavericks are going to win another championship with Dirk Nowitzki, it will have to be with a younger and more athletic team around him and a star center in the middle.
Even with Williams in the fold, Dallas wouldn't have contended for a title this season, not with the glaring hole Tyson Chandler's departure left at the center position. That's why the team needs to keep their powder dry for 2013, when the two best centers in the NBA -- Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum -- are set to become unrestricted free agents.
Howard doesn't have many options left now that Brooklyn has spent their cap room on Williams, Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace. The Orlando Magic are unlikely to agree to take on salary if he leaves, which means he can't force a trade to the Nets, who would need to send overpaid veteran players on long-term contracts back to Orlando in any deal. And after all that's gone down in the Magic Kingdom in the last year-and-a-half, as well as the team's lack of young talent or roster flexibility, it's hard to imagine him staying.
If Dallas retains its cap space, the Mavericks would be Howard's only suitor who could offer him the chance to play with another bonafide superstar. Now that the Hawks have cleared out a bunch of cap space, Atlanta, his childhood home, has been mentioned as a possible destination, but Williams' decision shows that the lure of a home-town is overrated to NBA stars.
The biggest concern for Howard watchers in Dallas is a possible trade with LA, as they have the one player (Bynum) who would interest Magic and are big and glamorous enough as a franchise (unlike the Houston Rockets) that they could convince Dwight to stay long-term. And while his relationship with the Magic has become one of the biggest story-lines in the NBA, Bynum isn't on much better terms with the LA Lakers. He openly clashed with the Lakers front office and coaching staff last season as the team continued to allow Kobe Bryant to throw up 25+ shots a game.
The next season shouldn't be much of an improvement: LA is a capped out team without much room to upgrade their roster around Bynum, Pau Gasol and Kobe. That will allow teams to double Bynum inside and give Kobe the leeway to continue firing up fade-aways. Bynum, meanwhile, will continue to receive the brunt of the criticism for the Lakers struggles in a city where Kobe is a living legend.
In free agency, Dallas could offer Bynum the chance to play with Dirk, one of the league's most unselfish stars, whose game complements Bynum's rather than replicating (Gasol) or overshadowing (Kobe) it. A 7'0 who shoots 3's and a 7'0 who can dominate on the low block would be the most unstoppable 1-2 punch in the NBA; there isn't a team in the league with the personnel to defend a true inside-outside attack like that.
All that said, there's obviously no guarantee any of it will work out. Bynum has lived in LA since he was 18 and no one could have predicted Howard would opt-in to his contract last season at the trade deadline, which remains one of the more baffling decision in recent NBA history. However, that's the corner the Mavericks backed themselves into when they allowed Chandler to walk last December.
If Dallas has no chance of contending this season, there's no point in bringing back Kidd, Terry or Steve Nash and signing guys on the downside of their career like Chris Kaman. Not for a team with no chance of making the Western Conference Finals. Dallas has some young talent on their roster -- Brandan Wright, Rodrigue Beaubois as well as rookies Jared Cunningham and Bernard James -- it's time the team started developing them to see who can be a long-term fit here.
At this point, there may not be a need to amnesty Shawn Marion or Brendan Haywood (although Haywood is now a liability on most nights). That's a bullet the team should be saving for a legitimate free agency score like Williams, Howard or Bynum. For now, they should limit themselves to one-year deals on interesting players like last year's signings of Delonte West (who should be brought back on a reasonable contract) and Wright. That means gambling on talented young players who have never found the right fit (Anthony Randolph) or guys looking for a second chance (Brandon Roy).
A starting five of West, Roy, Marion, Dirk and Wright, with Beaubois, Cunningham, Vince Carter, Randolph and Haywood off the bench, wouldn't be a threat in the West, but they would be an exciting and competitive team who should make the playoffs. More importantly, it would keep Dallas flexible enough to make the type of improvements that would actually make a difference next summer.
Playing for free agency in 2013 could end up being as fruitless as it was in 2012, but it's still a much better chance of competing for a title than squandering the cap space the team has painstakingly built around Dirk in the next few weeks.