- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Free-agent forward Dirk Nowitzki arrived in Dallas after all on Thursday night, after changing his travel itinerary for the third time in a 48-hour span.
As the Dallas Mavericks announced earlier Thursday, Nowitzki did detour to New York after leaving his native Germany, which allowed him to pay a quick visit to the offseason home of former teammate and close friend Steve Nash.
But Nowitzki's longtime adviser and personal coach Holger Geschwindner insisted that the trip changes stemmed solely from a "tight" schedule to plan the trip, as opposed to claims that Nowitzki preferred to avoid the hoopla of a fan rally at the airport that had been arranged for him.
"We came in today like we always planned and this was the only schedule that worked," Geschwindner told ESPN.com after he and Nowitzki landed at D/FW Airport after 10 p.m. local time. "We flew into New York because we have to go back through New York for a [sponsor commitment] in Hamburg when we go back to Germany."
Referring to worries around town that Nowitzki adjusted his plans to meet with the New York Knicks or another team before getting to Dallas, Mavericks president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson said it was the club's strong belief that there was "no ulterior motive" for the New York stop. The plan now that Nowitzki is here, Nelson said, is to try to complete weeks of negotiations in "a more discreet fashion."
Local media members were told that Nowitzki's arrival had been pushed back to Friday, so the latest audible did allow him to land in relative peace before his expected face-to-face meeting Friday with team officials. The Mavericks hope to finally secure Nowitzki's verbal commitment on a new four-year contract that can go as high as $96 million and can include a no-trade clause.
The Mavericks' dream scenario, according to sources with knowledge of the team's thinking, starts with securing Nowitzki's pledge to re-sign on July 8, when players and teams are allowed to execute new contracts, and then make him a central voice in their efforts to recruit the league's top free agents via sign-and-trade offers.
The abrupt change to Nowitzki's originally scheduled Thursday daytime landing, however, did spark some concern -- albeit mostly outside the organization -- that the leading scorer in franchise history might have the urge to field someone else's free-agent pitch before getting to Dallas.
Since it became apparent in mid-May that Nowitzki would be opting out of the final year of his contract to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time, Mavericks management has consistently conveyed confidence about re-signing Nowitzki. Yet one team source acknowledged Thursday that there will be an unavoidable level of anxiety until that actually happens.
News of Nowitzki's meeting with Nash is also bound to unsettle Mavericks fans, who remember Phoenix swooping in to sign away Nash on the first day of free agency in 2004. But Phoenix's salary-cap situation is such that the Suns couldn't make a competitive bid for Nowitzki even if Amare Stoudemire leaves them in free agency, especially after they came to terms Thursday night on a five-year deal with big man Channing Frye.
Sources with knowledge of the brief Nash/Nowitzki reunion nonetheless insisted that it wasn't a recruiting visit, since Nowitzki and Geschwindner are regarded as family in the Nash household after the close bond they struck as teammates in their six seasons together in Dallas. Nowitzki is also the godfather to Nash's twin daughters.
Nowitzki and Geschwindner wound up making a flight out of New York on Thursday night before Mavericks teammate Jason Kidd -- heading East on a separate trip with his family -- arrived. That scuttled a dinner they were going to have had Nowitzki been forced to stay overnight.
Although sources with knowledge of the Suns' thinking say there would be serious interest on their part to go after Nowitzki if they had the financial flexibility, they simply don't. Getting close to Dallas' offer likely would have required Stoudemire signing elsewhere, cutting ties with Frye and trading Leandro Barbosa to a team with the salary-cap space to absorb Barbosa's contract without sending any salary back. But moving Barbosa would appear to be far more complex than it sounds given Miami's struggles in similar circumstances to shed the contract of the No. 2 overall pick in the 2008 draft, Michael Beasley.
Nowitzki's range and deadly perimeter touch would seemingly mesh perfectly alongside the slashing likes of LeBron James or Dwyane Wade, but his first-time foray into free agency has generated very little buzz around the league, largely because his return to the only team he has ever known is so widely expected around the league.
Nowitzki's close relationship with owner Mark Cuban as well as his deep Dallas roots after 12 seasons give the Mavericks big advantages in retaining him. That's despite the fact that Nowitzki, at 32, clearly needs an elite sidekick after six fruitless seasons carrying a largely starless roster without Nash, which won't be easy to acquire despite Dallas' decent cache of trade assets.
The reflex retort from Nowitzki's bosses, though, is that they have zero shot at pulling off a sign-and-trade deal for any of the marquee free agents unless they have a verbal commitment and recruiting presence from Nowitzki.
"That's why this is our No. 1 priority," Nelson told ESPNDallas.com earlier this week. "If, for whatever reason, this becomes a swing and a miss, then we have to rethink everything."
"The honest answer is we're hopeful and optimistic that what we think is going to happen is going to come to fruition," Nelson said of reaching terms with Nowitzki. "But we don't know."
Yet most of the signals in Dallas aren't nearly that pessimistic. The team scrapped the idea of a welcoming committee at the airport after Thursday's unpredictability, but the Mavericks have gone ahead with a "DFW Digs Dirk" campaign replete with an official website and song. A downtown building will flash "DFW Digs Dirk" in lights for the next week, according to a team news release, with a mayoral proclamation to be issued "once Nowitzki has re-signed with the team."
Cuban, meanwhile, returned to Dallas on Thursday after spending the week in Los Angeles shooting a cameo role on HBO's hit show "Entourage."
Sources say that the possibility of Cuban meeting with prospective free agents such as Joe Johnson and Stoudemire in L.A. was never a huge
priority for the team, because the Mavericks acknowledge that they are only a sign-and-trade contender for elite free agents and that those players are naturally more apt to meet first with teams with salary-cap space.
Sources have maintained since November that the Mavericks will make every attempt to convince James to push for a sign-and-trade to Dallas, despite Cleveland's insistence that it will not take part in a sign-and-trade and James' widely reported interest in possible moves to Chicago, Miami, New Jersey and New York.
The Mavericks entered free agency still believing they have an outside shot at landing James, although one source conceded earlier this week that Dallas is no more than a "dark, dark horse" in the LeBron sweepstakes.
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com.
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