Commentary

Mavericks want to keep it together

Champs want to retain free agents, but labor strife could put plans on hold for a while

Updated: June 20, 2011, 9:04 AM ET
By Jeff Caplan | ESPNDallas.com

DALLAS -- The opening odds to win the 2011-12 NBA championship show the Dallas Mavericks behind either three or four teams -- with the defeated Miami Heat topping all charts -- and anywhere from 10-to-1 to 7-to-1 to repeat.

First-time champion and self-assured Mavs sixth man Jason Terry, not unexpectedly, disagrees with the slotting. The franchise's lone title sure didn't come easily, yet Terry said one hurdle stands in the way of another parade through downtown Dallas.

[+] EnlargeTyson Chandler
David J. Phillip-Pool/Getty ImagesThe Mavs want to re-sign center Tyson Chandler, but labor uncertainty could put any negotiations on hold for a while.

"The lockout is the only thing holding this team back," Terry said Tuesday while donning a white NBA Finals bathrobe and dark shades and wielding a stogie during the team's exit interviews. "Hey, you know what? If they lock us out 'til January, it would be a shorter journey. But I know nobody is going to pick us again next year, and rightfully so. But we'll love it. We like the underdog role. I believe if we have the same team coming back next year, we're going to be tough to beat."

That, of course, is the rub: Will the Mavs have the same team?

That's the plan, according to team president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson. But there's no guarantee. Imagine the NBA champs without 7-foot-1 center and free-agent-to-be Tyson Chandler? Dirk Nowitzki would rather not.

"Tyson, to me, turned everything around this summer when we signed him," Nowitzki said. "Looking back now, that was almost a key signing. His positive energy, his defense, I think, is what turned this whole thing around. I mean, every big game down the stretch, we did it with defense.

"Obviously, we'd love to get a deal done with Tyson and keep him here in the long run. I've never played with a center as athletic, as quick, and able to cover that much ground and play with his energy. He was a pleasure to play with."

Chandler, whom the Mavs traded for last July, will have options. So will size-defying point guard J.J. Barea. His exemplary postseason will earn him interest from numerous teams and offers potentially more lucrative than the Mavs might be willing to pay.

Then there's Caron Butler, Dirk's "Tonto" as Nelson dubbed the pre-injury Butler after the second-round sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers. On Tuesday, Nelson called the rehabbing Butler a part of the team fabric.

With a near-certain lockout to put the kibosh on signings until a labor deal is reached, this could be one long, hot summer of inaction and uncertainty for a team eager to keep its championship pieces together.

"I told Dirk," Terry said, "while we're waiting can we go in Donnie Jr.'s office right now and start negotiating? Some checks will be bigger than others, but we've got to keep this thing intact."

If they do keep it intact -- and let's assume Butler's surgically repaired right knee returns to full strength and even Rodrigue Beaubois turns the corner -- can the Mavs do for a second consecutive season what took 31 years to do the first time?

No one thought they could it this season, as Terry hasn't forgotten.

"Going into the playoffs, everybody looked at it like, 'We want to play the Mavericks,'" Terry said. "And we're like, 'Do you really? OK.'"

Brendan Haywood said the Mavs will wear a bull's-eye next season, as all champs do. Dallas became just the seventh team to win the title in past 21 seasons. The Bulls with a three-peat; the Rockets with a repeat; and the Lakers -- a three-peat and a repeat -- have successfully defended titles in that time.

It is interesting that the majority of this season was spent talking about -- and even from inside the Mavs' locker room -- how this was the best chance for the Mavs' ringless veterans to win it all. Now that they have, a cursory examination of the NBA landscape suggests that discussion of a return trip might not just be the champagne talking.

In the Western Conference, the Phil Jackson era is over in L.A. and the San Antonio Spurs flamed out in the first round as Tim Duncan transitions into a less dominant role. Kevin Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder stand, at the moment, as the greatest threat, with an eye on the improving Memphis Grizzlies.

In the East, the Chicago Bulls must add shooters around MVP Derrick Rose. The Boston Celtics grow longer in the tooth. The Heat must repair LeBron James' psyche and swap out older ancillary parts for younger ones with more size and skill.

A repeat? Well, there's nothing wrong with Dallas setting the bar high, there's no other choice when defending a title. But with time running out on the current collective bargaining agreement, the Mavs might have to wait indefinitely to know which key cogs will return.

"Hopefully, we can enjoy this first one," guard Jason Kidd said. "Management, [owner Mark] Cuban -- he's never going to sit still. He's always going to try to make his team competitive and find a way to defend the title.

"I mean, we have a great group of guys. Again, we might be a little bit older, but we'd love to have the same team back."

For now, sit back and settle in for one long, hot championship summer.

Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.

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