By SCHUYLER DIXON
AP Sports Writer
DALLAS — Dirk Nowitzki is willing to hop on a plane at a moment’s notice. Mark Cuban won’t have “Shark Tank” tapings that interfere with recruiting.
The Dallas Mavericks and their star player and owner are ready for a run at Dwight Howard when free agency opens late Sunday night.
It’s been two years since the Mavericks dismantled key parts of their only championship team in the name of salary cap space. They are a summer removed from getting spurned by point guard Deron Williams — while Cuban was on the set of his reality TV show — in their first big pitch with money to spend.
If Howard does the same thing, Dallas isn’t planning to wait another summer to give Nowitzki some help so the 35-year-old German can try to remain relevant in the championship picture for his last couple of years as an elite player.
“We made it clear to everybody that we’re exploring different options,” Cuban told reporters during practice for Nowitzki’s celebrity baseball game Friday. “It’s just not one approach. Last year it was one-year deals because we wanted to get to this year, not just because of the big names but there were other names that we really liked. This year it’s not going to be about one-year deals.”
A second straight season with a bundle of expiring or one-year contracts cost Dallas a 12-season playoff streak when Nowitzki missed the first two months after knee surgery. At his age, he might need a headliner more than a sidekick, but he definitely needs one or the other.
“If Dwight or whoever says no, we’ve got to have some other options,” Nowitzki said. “We don’t want to get too excited for one thing.”
First things first, though — and that’s Howard. Cuban said meetings are already set in Los Angeles with “a couple of different players.”
Howard’s future with the Los Angeles Lakers appears much murkier than point guard Chris Paul’s potential return to the Los Angeles Clippers. That’s because the Clippers grabbed coach Doc Rivers from Boston in a deal that cost them a future first-round pick.
Nowitzki has already reached out to Howard by phone, and knows what can happen when he has a defensive-minded center around the basket. That was Tyson Chandler in 2011, when the Mavericks won the title but chose financial flexibility over bringing back Chandler on a long-term contract under the new labor deal.
Dallas hasn’t won a playoff game since, and is now remaking the roster for the third straight year.
“I guess he’s just weighing out his options,” Nowitzki said of his conversation with Howard. “He didn’t really say anything newsworthy. I’m sure he’s got a couple of meetings set up for whenever that might be and hopefully the Mavs are one of those teams and we’ll go from there.”
If Howard doesn’t return to the Lakers, Dallas, Houston and Atlanta — his hometown — are considered the most likely destinations. Players can’t sign before July 10.
The Mavericks signaled during the draft Thursday night that free agency is their first priority by trading down twice to save cap space. They ended up with the 18th pick in Miami point guard Shane Larkin, the son of Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin, and like him enough that they could keep him.
With or without Larkin, the Mavericks have more work to do to clear enough room to give Howard a maximum contract in the range of $20 million for his first season. President of basketball operations Donnie Nelson says the team can get there, and that cap maneuvering was why 2012 first-round pick Jared Cunningham, another point guard, was included in draft-night dealings.
“The financial piece of it is pretty critical at this juncture,” Nelson said after the draft. “We’ve got to go into the offseason with the decks clear and clean.”
The Mavericks have just seven players on the roster, Larkin and second-round pick Ricky Ledo of Providence included, and only two starters in Nowitzki and forward Shawn Marion.
Larkin and Ledo don’t figure to start, so Dallas presumably is still looking for front-line players at point guard, shooting guard and center after the experiment of Darren Collison, O.J. Mayo and Chris Kaman didn’t work last season. Mayo looks like the only one of those three with a remote chance of returning, and even that is unlikely with him expected to get better offers.
“We’re trying to accumulate high-quality, high-energy, high-motor, skilled players to put around Dirk Nowitzki,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “We’ve got to enhance his ability to do what he does and we’ve got to enhance the opportunity to keep him playing as long as possible because he loves to play and he’s great. So that’s a priority, and it will continue to be one this summer.”
With or without Dwight Howard.