Nowitzki will return, other vets in limbo for MavsSan Antonio Spurs' Kawhi Leonard, left, defends against a drive to the basket by Dallas Mavericks' Shawn Marion, right, in the first half of Game 6 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series on Friday, May 2, 2014, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
DALLAS (AP) -- The last time Dirk Nowitzki was a free agent in the offseason, Dallas won the championship the next year.
Now the Mavericks and their star have to figure out how far they are from title contention after giving top-seeded San Antonio a tougher test than anyone expected in the first round only to get blown out in Game 7.
The big German says it's ''tough to say'' where the Mavericks stand following a return to the playoffs a year after their 12-season postseason streak ended. Part of his reasoning is whether fellow veterans Shawn Marion, Vince Carter and Devin Harris come back.
''After the '06 season when we lost the finals, I thought we were going to go to the finals the next three, four years straight,'' Nowitzki said. ''And it took us basically five years we go back there again. You can analyze this, analyze that. You never know what's going to happen until you see the roster for next year and see how the other teams have stacked up.''
So here's what the Mavericks do know: Nowitzki will re-sign. It's just a question of how much salary-cap space Dallas will have left when he does.
''I'm pretty sure I'm not going to sign Kobe's deal. Unfortunately,'' Nowitzki joked in reference to the two-year, $48.5 million extension in November, when Kobe Bryant was still coming back from knee surgery. ''We'll find a good way where I feel respected for what I did and where we still have enough money left for us to get great players in here.''
The best model for Nowitzki's new contract is probably longtime rival Tim Duncan, who has spent his entire career in San Antonio. He signed a three-year, $30 million deal in 2012 - not long after his 36th birthday - and has the option on the final season in 2014-15.
''The big 36,'' as Nowitzki called it, is coming next month. Marion will be 37 Wednesday, and Carter turns 38 midway through next season. Yet all three played at least 76 games this season, and each brings an important component.
Nowitzki is still the leading scorer, and has been for 14 straight seasons. Marion is the best defender on a team that doesn't have many. Carter brings energy and leadership off the bench, and had a strong series against the Spurs.
''That experience and that know-how and the fact that those guys are such good players, it's going to give a team like us a starting point every year,'' coach Rick Carlisle said. ''We want to bring back the nucleus of guys.''
The Mavericks actually have a nucleus after starting the past two seasons without one. Monta Ellis, who had two 29-point playoff games against the Spurs, and Jose Calderon are locked up as starting guards after coming in as two of nine new players on the roster.
Samuel Dalembert has one year remaining on his deal, and showed flashes of being the defensive-minded center Dallas needs. That leaves Marion as the only current starter not guaranteed to be back in 2014-15.
''If we come back with familiarity, I think we hit the ground running as opposed to trying to implement guys in different roles,'' said Harris, who originally agreed to a three-year deal last summer but had to settle for one year after the extent of a toe injury was revealed.
Ellis had to settle for less money, too, and responded with his best season shooting since he was a 24-point scorer in Golden State. He dominated in the fourth quarter of several big games late in the season, including a win in Dallas that forced San Antonio back home for Game 7.
Still, Carlisle said Ellis can make ''quantum leaps'' as he gets ready for his 10th season. For president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson, that starts with Ellis making his jumper a better complement to his ability to get to the basket.
''If he can make that midrange jump shot on a consistent basis, I don't know how you guard him,'' Nelson said. ''He and Devin, the way they opened things up for us in the playoffs was a big key to our success and the way they opened things up for Dirk.''
It was better than a year ago, but the Mavericks are still waiting for their first playoff series win since taking the title in 2011.
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