At last on Thursday night, the final decision came down and the last of the top 10 free agents in this ballyhooed class of 2010 came off the board.
When the New York Knicks decided to deal David Lee to Golden State, the rest of the NBA could get back to the business of filling out 2010-11 rosters with the remaining 140 or so free agents. Sure, there was that other decision by that other guy during a one-hour TV special that radically shifted the balance of power in a stronger Eastern Conference to the new power trio on South Beach.
The Dallas Mavericks actually provided the final clue Thursday afternoon that LeBron James might indeed bolt Cleveland to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami when Dallas and center Brendan Haywood came to terms on a six-year deal.
The Heat were interested in Haywood but would only have the cap space to get him if James signed elsewhere.
So Miami got its man (men) and, well, so did the Mavs. Haywood isn't splashy, but the 7-footer is a necessity. With Erick Dampier on the trading block and his eventual return uncertain, the Mavs had to have a competent big man to compete with the Lakers, Spurs, Nuggets, Rockets, Thunder and Trail Blazers in the Western Conference.
Without salary cap space, but armed with some key trade assets, it was mostly wishful thinking that the Mavs could woo one of the prime three free agents to demand a trade to Dallas and provide a second superstar alongside Dirk Nowitzki. The next tier has been snapped up, including Amare Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer, Joe Johnson, Ray Allen and, lastly, Lee.
Realistically, the Mavs admit, they never really had a shot at any of them.
So, what's the next move for a club that has no cap space and is desperate to improve upon three first-round exits in the past four years?
Free-agency options are limited. The Mavs hold the midlevel exception (worth $5.765 million) to bestow upon one player or to split among two or more, as well as the biennial exception (about $2 million) and minimum contracts.
There are plenty of names on the market that would prove to be tweaks to the roster more than game-changers, but the Mavs will be active in luring players of need into the fold.
"It's like fishing," Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson said. "We literally have all kinds of lines out there."
Top needs are another big man, and that might or might not be Dampier, who the Mavs still hope to trade for a significant piece. Dampier's $13 million, non-guaranteed contract is a major trade asset.
The Mavs don't have to be in a hurry to cash in that chip. They can wait for the free-agent cash to settle, see who goes where and then deal with clubs interested in lowering their salary-cap figure and/or getting out of luxury-tax territory.
One such team is Minnesota, which has made it no secret that power forward/center Al Jefferson is on the market. The Mavs inquired about Jefferson before the draft. He's the type of low-post scoring threat the Mavs have never had, and perhaps he just became even more attractive because his defensive shortcomings can be masked by the 7-foot Haywood.
The wing position is another need. The Mavs believe Rodrigue Beaubois' increased role will add a dynamic missing in recent years, but Dallas would still like to add more players who can create and slash, or spot up and drain 3s. The Mavs have shown initial interest in 6-7 Los Angeles Clippers swingman Rasual Butler, who averaged a career-high 11.9 points and made $3.9 million last season.
Another option could be Orlando's Matt Barnes. Mavs fans remember the heavily tattooed 6-7 swingman as a major defensive annoyance and a big-shot maker in the 2007 Golden State playoff debacle. Barnes played for Orlando last season and averaged 8.8 points and 5.5 rebounds. He earned $1.6 million and will be seeking a raise.
The market will dictate realistic options. Athletic wing Travis Outlaw would have been a prime target for Dallas, but the New Jersey Nets ponied up a five-year deal worth $7 million a season, more than the midlevel exception. Power forward Al Harrington would be intriguing, but he will likely command a larger salary. Could Miami's Udonis Haslem, who made $7.1 million last year, slip into the midlevel exception?
The Mavs took care of their top two priorities, coming to terms with Nowitzki last week and Haywood on Thursday. Now, it could be a slow burn as Dallas evaluates the rest of the free-agent field and works the phones for an appropriate deal to cash in the Dampier chip.