- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Dallas Mavericks free agent Tyson Chandler will meet face-to-face this week with officials from the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets and New Jersey Nets, according to sources close to the situation.
Negotiations with the Mavericks have stalled, prompting Chandler to tell ESPN.com on Wednesday night: "I really think I'm going to be on a new team come training camp."
With little movement in the talks in the days since, sources say that Golden State, Houston and New Jersey have emerged as the most serious suitors for Chandler, who is widely credited with changing the defensive culture in Dallas and combining with Mavs mainstay Dirk Nowitzki to spark the franchise to its first-ever championship.
The Rockets and Nets also remain at the forefront of the chase for Denver Nuggets free agent Nene -- along with the Indiana Pacers and Nuggets themselves -- and are likely to meet with the Brazilian big man as well in the coming week. Sources stressed that the Mavericks, meanwhile, continue to keep an open dialogue with Chandler in hopes that a deal can still be struck.
The NBA notified teams over the weekend that direct contact between team executives and free agents is permissible as of Monday at 10 a.m. ET. Free agency is scheduled to begin in earnest Friday, which the NBA has announced as the first day teams will be allowed to make signings and trades, pending ratification Thursday of the tentative labor agreement between owners and players struck Nov. 26.
Sources said Sunday that the teams involved are most likely to make visits to Chandler as opposed to the 29-year-old traveling to the various cities. With free agency so compressed this month after the 149-day lockout, most top free agents are expected to adopt the same approach as opposed to traveling extensively before training camps open, which is also scheduled for Friday.
The Mavericks, according to team sources, have always viewed re-signing Chandler as their No. 1 offseason priority, but it's believed they want to do a deal in the $10 million range annually, in hopes that they can keep maximum financial flexibility in the summer of 2012 to have the requisite salary-cap space to bid for top free agents for the first time in the Mark Cuban era.
Sources say Dallas is determined to make a run at Dwight Howard, Chris Paul or North Texas-native Deron Williams next summer and fears that matching the offers Chandler is expected to receive from the Warriors, Rockets and Nets will take the Mavericks out of the market for the big names before the process even starts.
As one of the league's oldest teams and with Nowitzki as its lone certifiable All-Star, Dallas privately concedes that it has to start looking to the future by trying to find a younger cornerstone player -- like Williams -- who can help Nowitzki transition to more of a co-starring role. The Mavs' big quandary, however, is that the presence of Nowitzki on the roster in July 2012 without Chandler as his frontcourt sidekick might not be enough to tempt the league's top free agents, given that Nowitzki will be 34 next summer.
One source with knowledge of Williams' thinking, for example, told ESPN.com earlier this week that the All-Star guard was unlikely to choose the Mavericks in free agency -- despite his local ties and appreciation of Nowitzki's game -- without Chandler in place as well.
The Nets are likewise chasing Nene and Chandler hard in hopes of upgrading their roster sufficiently to convince Williams to re-sign with them next summer before the team's long-awaited move to Brooklyn.
ESPN.com reported earlier this week that the Nets are prepared to offer Brook Lopez and two future first-round picks, while also absorbing the onerous contract of Hedo Turkoglu in hopes of convincing the Orlando Magic to deal them Howard, but the Nets have also forged ahead with the pursuit of Nene and Chandler to ensure that they land a top-flight big man, figuring that signing either one would also only enhance their collection of trade assets to offer the Magic for Howard.
The Warriors might have to use the forthcoming amnesty clause on guard Charlie Bell or even center Andris Biedrins to create enough cap space to win the bidding for Chandler, but they arguably rank as the strongest current threat to sign him away if the talks between the Mavericks and Chandler don't take a U-turn. Awash in scorers, Golden State is looking for a defensive-minded anchor to complement Monta Ellis, Stephen Curry and David Lee, establishing Chandler as the best fit in Oakland of the available centers. Houston, meanwhile, simply needs a top-flight center after the retirement of Yao Ming and continues to press hard for Nene or Chandler.
Chandler maintains that staying in Dallas has always been his first choice, but he expressed disappointment in Wednesday night's interview that the communication between the sides was minimal from the end of the NBA Finals in mid-June and the June 30 deadline for a contract extension. The Mavericks maintain that they were reluctant to talk about an extension before July 1 because no one knew how drastic changes to the NBA's collective bargaining agreement would be at that time.
The best estimates in circulation suggest that the Mavericks would only have roughly $5 million in cap space for the summer of 2012 if they match the offers Chandler is getting on the open market, even if Dallas' other free agents -- such as Caron Butler and Jose Juan Barea -- are all let go. To have the needed cap space to bid for a player of Paul's or Williams' caliber in July 2012 if Chandler is retained, Dallas would likely need to set free either backup center Brendan Haywood or forward Shawn Marion through the amnesty clause, bid farewell to 2012 free agent-to-be Jason Terry and perhaps even be forced to send away younger prospects like Corey Brewer or Rodrigue Beaubois in trades that bring back no salary.
Chandler, 29, was acquired by the Mavericks in July 2010 in a deal with the Charlotte Bobcats, co-headlined by Erick Dampier, but he was widely billed at the time as a consolation prize after Dampier's cap-friendly contract failed to get Dallas in the bidding for the league's marquee free agents (Miami stars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh among them) through various sign-and-trade offers.
Yet Chandler wound up meshing with Nowitzki better than anyone anticipated, supplying length, athleticism, rim protection and a brand of vocal leadership that no big man who previously lined up alongside the eventual NBA Finals MVP had ever provided in Dallas.
After missing nearly 70 games over the previous two seasons through injury, Chandler wound up playing in 74 regular season games and finished third in the league's Defensive Player of the Year voting. In the Western Conference finals, Chandler helped Dallas to a 4-1 series win over the same Oklahoma City Thunder team that traded for him in February 2009 and then rescinded the trade one day later because of concerns about a toe injury.
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com.
22hMatt Walks, ESPN.com