DALLAS -- As Dallas Mavericks players and coach Rick Carlisle lined up to declare their indifference for or to feign complete ignorance of "The Decision" and the Miami Heat's dastardly plan to stockpile superstars, one player stepped forward to speak the truth.
"I had to [pay attention]," center Brendan Haywood said. "I was a free agent myself. No one signed until he signed."
He, of course, is LeBron James, the most sought-after free agent in NBA history. During the prolonged courtship between several select franchises fortunate enough to meet with the King, Heat president Pat Riley visited Haywood at his Charlotte, N.C., home shortly after Mavs coach Rick Carlisle met Haywood there at the opening bell of the free agency period and promised him the starting job.
Haywood arrived in Dallas the previous February as part of the deadline deal that also brought Caron Butler and DeShawn Stevenson for Josh Howard and others. The Mavs decided they needed to re-sign the 7-foot veteran. Miami was really his only other option in terms of being able to pay a competitive salary.
There was just one catch: If James signed with Miami, the Heat's spending money would dry up. If James stayed with the Cleveland Cavaliers or signed elsewhere, he could join the Heat.
"When you’re a free agent, everybody you’re talking to is serious because you really don’t know," Haywood said. "Things can change in a blink of an eye."
And then they did. James made his decision and Miami was out on Haywood, who quickly signed a lucrative contract with the Mavs. He said he's kept an eye on what has become the most hated team in basketball.
"Everybody follows them," Haywood said. "They’re on TV all the time."
In that case, Haywood knows that the Heat aren't big on centers, which is why Riley paid the 7-footer a visit in the first place. Lumbering centers Zydrunas Ilgauskas (has played in nine of 15 playoff games) and three former Mavs, Erick Dampier (inactive for all 15), Juwan Howard (six games) and Jamal Magloire (three games), are non-factors.
So, does Miami's lack of a traditional center threaten to limit Haywood's impact? Such matchups often limited his minutes or took him out of the rotation altogether during the regular season. Haywood has played his most impactful basketball of the season during the playoffs. His statistics (3.4 points, 4.4 rebounds) don't detail his defensive paint presence, and lately he's even started to make his free throws.
"I’m not worried about that. Right now we’re just worried about trying to win games," Haywood said. "You don’t get to the NBA Finals and worry about minutes. I can still get on the floor. They still have Joel Anthony, Udonis Haslem, Magloire. They still play bigs, and I’ve guarded Chris Bosh in the past. If I can go out there and play guys like Amare Stoudemire and Blake Griffin, I can go out there and play Miami’s bigs, as well."
Carlisle said Haywood will get his minutes (he's averaging 16.6 minutes a game), and Chandler, who has battled fouls as well as his emotions recently, said there is a place for Haywood against the Heat.
"Yeah, definitely so," Chandler said. "I think we've got to impose our will on them. As big guys we’ve got to control the paint, and we can’t try to conform to whatever they try to play."