- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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One source close to the situation, however, concedes that Dallas is no more than a "dark, dark horse" in the James sweepstakes.
The Mavericks will enter free agency at 11:01 p.m. local time Wednesday night with the clear-cut No. 1 objective of re-signing star forward Dirk Nowitzki, who will opt out of the final year of his contract to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career.
Team sources re-confirmed over the weekend that Nowitzki, as reported by ESPN.com in mid-May, will formally notify the Mavericks and the league office of his decision to walk away from next season's $21.5 million salary before Wednesday's deadline to do so in his current contract.
The Mavericks' dream scenario, according to sources with knowledge of the team's thinking, is securing a verbal commitment from Nowitzki on a new four-year deal early in free agency and then pursuing top free agents -- starting with James -- through sign-and-trade offers. The most Dallas can offer Nowitzki is a four-year contract worth $96 million because the league's over-36 rule prevents them from signing the 32-year-old to a longer deal.
Sources said Sunday that Dallas fully expects James to first meet face-to-face with the teams that have the requisite salary-cap space to sign him outright away from Cleveland in addition to another marquee free agent.
ESPN.com reported Friday that James' first meeting in Northeastern Ohio will be with the New Jersey Nets, with ESPNNewYork.com reporting Saturday that James will also sit down Thursday with representatives of the New York Knicks.
James is also expected to field in-person pitches from the Chicago Bulls -- who are increasingly considered the favorites to sign him by executives and agents leaguewide -- along with the Miami Heat, Los Angeles Clippers and the incumbent Cavaliers during the first few days of free agency.
But the Mavericks, sources say, are confident that they will also be granted a turn to make their pitch directly to James in Ohio, thanks largely to the high regard members of James' inner circle have for Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and James' close relationship with Mavericks guard Jason Kidd.
Although he would not discuss specific names, citing league rules against publicly courting free agents before July 1, Kidd acknowledged in an interview Friday with ESPN Radio's Ben and Skin Show in Dallas that he will be at the heart of the Mavericks' recruiting efforts.
"Yes, my phone bill will go up," Kidd said.
Kidd added that the Mavericks' big selling points to free agents will be the presence of Nowitzki as an MVP-caliber sidekick -- based on the assumption that Dallas will re-sign him -- and Cuban's proven willingness to keep spending to improve a roster that has not been gutted like Chicago's, Miami's and New York's.
Kidd joked in his radio interview about the Mavericks, besides Nowitzki, having "another character called Uncle Sam," referring to Cuban's historically aggressive spending. The most recent example came Thursday, when Dallas paid the league-maximum $3 million to acquire the No. 25 overall pick from Memphis to draft University of South Florida guard Dominique Jones.
Another expected element of Dallas' presentation is the prospect of moving a handful of regular season games to the glitzy Cowboys Stadium in nearby Arlington, which attracted a crowd of more than 100,000 for the NBA All-Star Game in February. James is a longstanding Cowboys fan and Cuban has a strong working relationship with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who would undoubtedly relish the spectacle of James playing games in a Mavericks uniform in his palatial new stadium.
The Mavericks, sources said, also intend to register their sign-and-trade interest in Dallas native Chris Bosh and Atlanta Hawks guard Joe Johnson as soon as they are allowed to do so Wednesday night, acknowledging that securing James' signature is an extreme long shot in spite of all they can offer James.
Sources said Dallas is also among the teams that have made repeated calls to the New Orleans Hornets throughout the season regarding the availability of All-Star guard Chris Paul, despite the fact that the Hornets consistently say that they won't even entertain the idea of trading Paul.
As for Nowitzki, Kidd expressed confidence last week that the Mavericks will secure a verbal commitment from the leading scorer in franchise history before July 8, which is the first day free agents can actually sign new contracts.
"Sometimes as a player you want to feel wanted," Kidd said Thursday at a charity event for his foundation. "He's always felt wanted here, but maybe this could be some weird way of being appreciated by other teams. There's nothing wrong with that because he's probably one of the top five free agents or top four, top three. He's good.
"He'll get a lot of attention, but we all feel he's not going anywhere."
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com.
Dallas is no more than a "dark, dark horse" in the LeBron James sweepstakes, according to a source.