Dirk-Nash reunion harder than it sounds
Obstacles to Suns stealing Mavs' star away in free agency are considerable
It's what hoops-loving locals would undoubtedly regard as their doomsday scenario.
And it's out there for widespread consumption now thanks to ESPN's own Bill Simmons, who, via his Twitter feed Sunday, broadcast the question quietly dreaded in Big D since it became known that Dirk Nowitzki intends to opt out of the final year of his Mavs contract June 30:
"Is a Nowitzki/Nash reunion looming in Phoenix?"
Yet it's also a question that, as of June 1, has to be answered with a pretty firm "no."
Many things would have to change in the month remaining before this summer's free-agent frenzy to give hope to the romantics out there and shake the widespread belief that Nowitzki will soon be getting a new four-year deal from the only team he's ever known. As Steve Nash himself conceded Sunday when asked by Phoenix reporters about the feasibility of a second pick-and-roll marriage to Nowitzki: "I always assume that he's going to re-sign in Dallas."
Which will continue to be the safe assumption unless the following four developments occur over the next four weeks:
1. Nowitzki's negotiations with the Mavericks unexpectedly go awry.
It's well-established by now that the Mavs are resigned to the fact that Nowitzki will join the most celebrated free-agent class in league history by opting out.
What perhaps hasn't been made clear is that the Mavs have the rest of the month to not only keep alive their faint hopes of a three-year extension that would prevent Nowitzki from becoming an unrestricted free agent for the first time but also to clarify the exact terms needed to secure a verbal agreement from Nowitzki on a four-year deal shortly after the horn sounds on the long-anticipated Summer of 2010 at 12:01 a.m. on July 1.
Team sources indicate the Mavs' new No. 1 goal -- since they concede that an extension before July 1 is highly unlikely -- is securing a verbal commitment from their franchise player on the first day of free agency. A quick commitment from Nowitzki is crucial to the Mavs' hopes of convincing LeBron James or anyone else of prominence to press for a subsequent sign-and-trade to Dallas, since the opportunity to play with Nowitzki is the Mavericks' No. 1 selling point to prospective newcomers.
"Dirk can opt out," one source said, "but the Mavs can already have basically agreed on a deal with him when he does."
And there have been no indications to date to suggest that Dallas and Nowitzki won't reach that point.
It is worth noting, though, that Nowitzki's decision to opt out does expose the Mavs to scenarios they'd rather not imagine, however remote they might seem. So the onus is on Dallas to sell Nowitzki on its plans to find him more established roster help to secure that commitment, especially if the Mavs are intent on convincing the leading scorer in franchise history to take what owner Mark Cuban has described as a "different deal."
The Mavs can offer a four-year max to Nowitzki worth $96 million but remain hopeful he'll be amenable to a four-year pact that starts at a lower figure than the $21.5 million he was originally scheduled to earn next season, which would result in luxury-tax savings that Cuban has said will make it easier to absorb additional salary in Dallas' subsequent offseason dealings.
Granting such a discount would be an undeniable sacrifice from Nowitzki -- since he'd almost certainly command a four-year max contract worth $93 million from teams such as New York and New Jersey if he fielded pitches on the open market -- but Dallas is banking on Nowitzki's oft-stated desire to retire as a Mav and his faith in Cuban and president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson after the trio's decade-plus together.
2. The Suns rewrite their offseason game plan.
Suns managing partner Robert Sarver announced Sunday that he thinks the chances of re-signing Amare Stoudemire are higher than the 50-50 figure consistently quoted by the power forward throughout the playoffs.
Nash, Suns coach Alvin Gentry and swingmen Grant Hill and Jason Richardson are among the prominent figures in the organization who, since Saturday's elimination loss to the Lakers, have publicly urged Sarver to keep the team together.
Sources close to the situation, furthermore, told ESPN.com that talks on a contract extension with Stoudemire's agent, Happy Walters, are scheduled to resume later this week after being placed on hold while the team was making its unforeseen run to the Western Conference finals.
None of the above guarantees that Stoudemire will reject the expected interest from Dwyane Wade's Heat and Mikhail Prokhorov's Nets, who have been identified by the same sources as the two teams most likely to sign him away. But the implication is clear.
Letting Stoudemire walk without compensation is an outcome Phoenix wants to avoid, despite any down-the-road concerns about Stoudemire's surgically repaired knees, as well as his well-chronicled issues as a rebounder and defender. A big reason: Stoudemire's departure alone wouldn't create the sufficient salary-cap space to pursue Nowitzki or anyone close to that caliber as an Amare replacement.
Stoudemire averaged only 6.0 rebounds per game in the conference finals and got the bulk of the blame for the Suns' defensive woes in Games 1 and 2, but he's just 27 and was also clearly one of the most potent forces in the league after the trade deadline, connecting with Gentry like he never had with any of his previous coaches and helping Phoenix vault to No. 3 in the West. The Suns, if they're going to let him go, naturally want to be sure they can replace him.
3. Phoenix trades Leandro Barbosa to a team with salary-cap space without taking any salary back.
Simmons didn't include this wrinkle in his Sunday tweet stream on a whim. Trading Barbosa to, say, Oklahoma City for a future second-round pick makes tons of sense for the Suns, who would suddenly have an estimated $17 million in cap space if Stoudemire indeed signed outright with Miami, New Jersey, etc.
Which theoretically might be enough to get them into the Nowitzki bidding.
Sensible as all this sounds for Phoenix, someone out there has to be willing to take on the final two years of Barbosa's contract ($7.1 million next season and $7.6 million in 2011-12) without sending any salary back to the Suns. Our initial research into teams with cap room that could accommodate the Suns -- such as Oklahoma City, Sacramento, Minnesota and Washington -- didn't turn up any volunteers.
4. Nash eventually convinces Nowitzki to take less money from the Suns than he could get in Dallas.
This is the long shot that, if the first three hit, you could readily envision despite the fact that Nash, at 36, is four years older than Nowitzki and would also have to convince him he has four good seasons left.
Even after six seasons apart -- and limited interaction during those seasons while playing in different time zones -- Nash and Nowitzki still regard each other as family. Don't forget that Nowitzki was chosen by Nash and his wife, Alejandra, to be the godfather to their twin daughters.
Although they've often attempted to downplay what-if thoughts over the years, it would be only natural for Nash and Nowitzki -- who on their own landed on the short list of league MVPs who haven't won a championship -- to at least occasionally wonder what might have happened had they never split, and what they still might be able to achieve. Nowitzki's name hasn't been mentioned once in all the chatter about the supposed free-agent summit Wade wants to convene, but you have to figure he'd undoubtedly listen to a serious pitch from Nash if the Suns got in position to make one.
Yet it seems far more likely that Cuban, before the Suns managed to get in such a position, would (A) assemble an appealing sign-and-trade deal built around Erick Dampier's cap-friendly contract to revitalize the aging supporting cast around Nowitzki, (B) remind Nowitzki of all the history they share and how much more aggressive Dallas has been spending-wise than Phoenix over the years, and/or (C) scrap the concept of a "different deal" if he gets any sense that an outside suitor is getting close to him.
So we repeat: A month can be a fairly long time in this league, but lots would have to happen before the question Simmons tossed out becomes a pressing question. L-o-t-s.
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNDallas.com.