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Where do the bucks stop for Brendan Haywood?

Jul 2, 2010, 11:42 AM EST

Depending on how you classify players like Amar’e Stoudemire, Brendan Haywood is likely the top center in this free agent class. He’s a skilled defender and a seven-footer who can finish open opportunities; in the NBA, that’s a combination that brings a serious paycheck.

Now that the games have begun, Haywood is being pursued from a number of interesting angles. On the one hand, there are the incumbent Dallas Mavericks, the team that traded for Haywood mid-season. At the time, it was made clear that the Mavs’ real target in the Josh Howard trade was not Howard’s replacement, Caron Butler, but the defensive big man who could help to anchor the Dallas D. Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson even said as much. However, Brendan may not have been feeling the same love by the end of the playoffs, after he and Rick Carlisle butted heads on a few occasions.

Still, Dallas can offer Haywood more money than any other team over the cap by using his Bird rights. While other contenders are throwing Brendan the full mid-level exception, Dallas is expected to offer around $8 million per year. That’s a substantial difference, particularly if the Mavs sign Brendan to a long-term deal.

The competition is pretty intense, though, and a lot of Brendan’s decision likely hinges on how the top tier of free agency shakes out. The Cleveland Cavaliers have expressed their interest in bringing in Haywood to replace Shaquille O’Neal, a move that really only makes sense for Brendan if LeBron James is still on board. A sign-and-trade seems to be the Cavs’ only option; they began free agency technically under the salary cap (which means no mid-level exception), yet their cap holds will prevent them from making any serious plays for Haywood’s services.

Plus, wouldn’t it be a bit weird for Haywood to play alongside a once reviled opponent in LeBron James?

The Miami Heat have also contacted Haywood, which presents a far more interesting opportunity. While it’s still unclear whether LeBron would really want to return to the Cavs, it seems as though someone of note is going to end up with the Heat. Dwyane Wade is resolved to bring a notable free agent to South Beach, and even if it’s not LeBron or Chris Bosh, it could present a great opening for Haywood. The other center options are slim, and Brendan could likely do a lot of good (and make quite a bit of coin for himself) playing alongside, say, Wade and Amar’e Stoudemire. That free agent trio doesn’t quite have the drawing power of a the James-Wade-Bosh supergroup, but it’s the foundation of a contender: an MVP caliber wing, a high-scoring, offensive-minded forward, and a big center with a mind for defense.

Haywood has also caught the eye of the reigning Eastern Conference champs, and given the Celtics’ success over the last few seasons, I’d expect that they could at least keep Haywood on the line. But again, the only realistic option for Boston is to use their full MLE to sign Haywood, and for a player who hasn’t really had a big NBA payday of yet, that may not be enough. A. Sherrod Blakely of CSN threw out the idea of a sign-and-trade for the retiring Rasheed Wallace, who could subsequently be bought out. I just don’t see the angle for Dallas. If Haywood is going to walk anyway, why would the Mavs agree to take on additional salary (even if it is just a smaller chunk of Sheed’s total salary) just to see him go?

Ultimately, total dollar amount is even more important to a player like Haywood than it would be to a James or Wade, who not only have plenty of years ahead of them, but endorsement opportunities galore. Brendan’s already 30, and this could be his last substantial NBA contract. That should motivate him to sign with the highest competitive bidder, even with other intriguing options on the table. Unless the Heat, Cavaliers, Celtics, or others can put together a package to rival the Mavericks’ potential offer financially, the odds are Haywood re-signs in Dallas for a deal worth more than the MLE.

UPDATE 11:57 AM
: According to Steve Kyler of HoopsWorld, the Detroit Pistons are also offering Haywood their full mid-level exception. However, they’re the Pistons. They’re obligated to pay the dynamic duo of Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva almost $80 million through ’13-’14. Need I say more?

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