Posted Jun 30 2010 7:52PM
DALLAS -- That tire screech you heard from Dallas was Donnie Nelson's pickup truck pulling up at DFW's international gate. Ok, maybe it wasn't that dramatic.
But it was close.
The Mavericks general manager and personal Dirk Nowitzki recruiter found himself in line at the ticket counter waiting to book passage to Germany when his over-worked cell phone rang. At the other transcontinental end was the reason Nelson was buying a ticket to begin with.
The franchise leading man and freshly-minted free agent was informing the franchise, "Hey, wait there. I'm coming to you." Nowitzki told Nelson he was returning to Dallas on Thursday, along with advisor Holger Geschwindner, and would meet to begin negotiations on a new contract. The meeting is expected to take place at Nowitzki's house sometime Thursday.
If the scenario above seems somewhat hard to believe, it's because it is. That Nelson would leave for Germany without any assurance that Nowitzki would be there and that Nowitzki would call Nelson about an hour before boarding a flight smacks at a lack of communication at best and serious disorganization at worst.
"It's Free Agency 101," Nelson joked from the airport. "It's weird, wacky, fun and frustrating all wrapped up in a bundle of madness."
Nelson, though, insisted the last-minute change of itinerary was actually a positive. Instead of sitting on a plane and crossing the Atlantic for much of Wednesday, he "could get on the horn at [12:01 a.m. ET] and start making calls." Conspiracy theorists quickly suggested that Nowitzki's return to the States makes it easier for other teams to wine-and-dine the 7-footer like the other marquee free agents, but Nelson didn't appear worried by outside interference.
He reiterated that Nowitzki is the Mavericks' highest priority in free agency and having the 2007 MVP sealed, if not signed, is the kingpin for any grandiose plans Dallas has in store for the immediate future. Any remote or realistic shot at putting together a sign-and-trade for LeBron James or Dwyane Wade or Joe Johnson or any other Alpha Male is rendered pointless without Nowitzki's return.
No one is headed to Big D if the Big D flees town.
"Everything else hinges on this," Nelson said. "I don't think there are many free agents out there that are going to want to come to a Dallas-less Dirk."
Even with Nelson staying stateside, the Mavericks are mounting a coast-to-coast operation to beef up the roster and keep another big man in place. Billionaire owner Mark Cuban is stationed in Los Angeles, one of the epicenters of player agents. Johnson, the Hawks free agent and one of Dallas' main targets, is meeting with prospective teams in L.A.
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle will be on the East Coast at free agent center Brendan Haywood's door one minute after midnight. Acquired in the same blockbuster trade that brought Caron Butler to Dallas, Haywood split time with Erick Dampier last season. The Mavs are essentially promising the starting job to Haywood if he returns.
"That's just a natural progression of that position," Nelson said. "Those two guys, as a one-two punch, are a pretty formidable center tandem, but I think it would just be, like I said, just a natural progression for Haywood to step into that role."
Dampier's non-guaranteed contract ($13 million) and Butler's expiring deal ($10.6 million) are two of Dallas' biggest chips in any potential sign-and-trade. Mavericks forward Shawn Marion, a former teammate of Johnson in Phoenix, told NBA.com he would help recruit Johnson if asked to.
The Mavericks, though, are taking a cautious approach to courting other team's free agents, including Cuban's bid to set up a meeting with LeBron. Since a sign-and-trade is needed for any contract above the mid-level exception, Dallas has to work with the free agent's former team to get a deal done.
"We don't have any cap room, so we've go to move in concert with teams in sign-and-trades, and that's what you probably won't see us going to other players' doorsteps," Nelson said. "It's not going to happen because it's got to be a three-way situation.
"It's got to be right for that specific player's agent, it's got to be right for that team and that team may choose to not do business with us. That's a possibility."
Nelson simultaneously exuded confidence and some nervousness at the prospects of getting a commitment from Nowitzki. In a similar position with Steve Nash six years ago, the Mavericks took a nonchalant approach to re-signing the All-Star point guard. Nash, insulted by Dallas' eventual offer, shocked most league observers by signing with the Suns.
Determined not to make the same mistakes again, Nelson said the Mavericks wanted to show Nowitzki the "kind of respect that he's earned." Part of that respect is discussing with Nowitzki the strategy the organization has in place for this summer and getting his input on possible roster moves. Dallas doesn't have a contingency for life without Nowitzki next season.
"There's no backup plan," Nelson said. "We're going to get him."
On the financial end, Nowitzki is eligible for a four-year contract worth approximately $96 million. It's been suggested that Nowitzki may be willing to take less money to help Cuban's quest to land another A-lister. Nowitzki can also negotiate a no-trade clause. Terms and finances aren't going to be an issue, Nelson said.
"Mark doesn't mess around with the big deals and, yes, we're not going to mess around with this," Nelson said. "More than any other player since I've been here, certainly, he has been the face of this franchise. You don't play around with those situations."
Flight arrangements are a different story.
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