DALLAS – Dirk Nowitzki bounced down the steps, smiling wide and greeting each media member with a handshake. He joked about his short hair, showed how his twice-wounded left middle finger is healing and enjoyed the perk of holding a news conference while teammates sweated through conditioning drills.
Hey, it's good to be the reigning NBA finals MVP.
Yet as excited as Nowitzki is about trying to defend the championship he brought the Dallas Mavericks, he's also curious about who is going to defend it with him.
Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea are free agents and probably won't be back. It's not even clear how much of a push Mavs owner Mark Cuban is making to keep them.
Chandler is the most important because he "changed the whole culture defensively for us," Nowitzki said. The problem for Dallas is that's why Chandler is among the most coveted of all available players.
Caron Butler is already off the market. He's headed to the Clippers, a person familiar with the situation has told The Associated Press. Barea has gone from saying he couldn't imagine leaving to expecting to sign elsewhere.
Cuban appears loathe to offer the long, lucrative deals needed to keep those guys. He seems to prefer freeing up salary cap space, and avoiding a huge luxury tax bill, for the first time in his tenure.
He and general manager Donnie Nelson may be making a risky tradeoff, at least in the eyes of his fan base. The swap: Giving up the chance to try repeating with the same nucleus for the chance to land Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Deron Williams and-or others in the next crop of free agents. Part of the gamble is that the players they want could be dealt in the next week, or any time this season, and never hit the market.
"It's not a decision I'd want to be a part of," Nowitzki said. "Donnie and Mark are obviously looking at what's best for the franchise and for the future. Obviously we all know we're old. So looking at the next three, four, five years, maybe they want to get some fresh legs."
Nowitzki recalled the heady days in June, when the Mavs rallied to beat the Miami Heat in the finals for the first championship in franchise history. They returned home for a parade and celebration 31 years in the making. During a private moment, players all said they wanted to stick together and try doing it again.
Then came the lockout.
Negotiations, and anything else between players and management, were forbidden. Nowitzki said the only contact he'd had with Cuban since the lockout hit came at the ESPYs, and it was brief. ("He was sitting somewhere else," Nowitzki said, smiling as he set up his zinger to the boss: "I was sitting front row.")
Having a title makes it easier for Nowitzki to take a wait-and-see approach. Had the Mavs just been denied again, he — and probably Cuban, too — would be fretting about the dwindling number of prime years left in the 33-year-old German's career.
"As a player, you've won it once and you'd obviously love to have the same crew back and defend our title that way," Nowitzki said. "But we understand that it's a business."
Last summer, Nowitzki went through the business end of things as a free agent for the first time in his career. When he decided to stay in Dallas, he took $16 million less than a maximum contract so the club would have a better chance to sign a quality supporting cast.
"I guess I didn't take less enough," Nowitzki said, laughing. "I still got a decent deal out of it so maybe it wasn't enough cutback."
Another reason for Nowitzki's calm is that he's seen Cuban do this before.
Nowitzki didn't like losing good buddy Steve Nash, then Michael Finley a year later, but the Mavericks ended up going to the finals without them in 2006 and had one of the best records in league history in '07. The same front office team of Nelson and Cuban rebuilt the roster again to get Chandler, Jason Kidd and the other key players that won it all in '11.
"We know that Donnie has the knowledge and Cubes (too)," Nowitzki said. "They're going to make the right decisions for this team."
AP Sports Writer Andrew Seligman in Chicago contributed to this report.