The Dallas Mavericks had to settle for a road victory Saturday night. It was not a Winner Gets Wallace night ... largely because of the low-profile billionaire in attendance at Portland's Rose Garden.
Just when it seemed Portland was prepared to make the most anticipated move of the NBA's trading season by dealing Rasheed Wallace away, Blazers owner Paul Allen -- not Dallas counterpart Mark Cuban -- had the biggest influence on Saturday's trade talks between the clubs. Sources close to the discussions told ESPN.com that, at Allen's insistence, the Trail Blazers suddenly prefer to keep Wallace.
It was just days ago that Portland general manager John Nash was quoted as saying that a deal before the league's Feb. 19 trading deadline is "likely." Allen was subsequently quoted as saying that he was wrestling with the question of "trade or not to trade" the controversial free agent-to-be. Blazers players have since urged management to either make the swap or stop shopping Wallace, with the team -- looking increasingly paralyzed by the uncertainty -- in the midst of a 1-8 skid that has resulted in Portland's worst start (16-22) since 1976.
Although there is still plenty of time before the deadline for another philosophical shift -- and sweetened offers for Wallace -- it appears that Allen's preference is to give the 'Sheed Era one more shot. The Mavericks, sources said, were informed Saturday evening that Portland will not accept a package of Antawn Jamison and Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Separate sources indicate that the Mavericks are not willing to make a move for Wallace unless Abdul-Wahad is included and are now prepared to move on with their season as the roster stands.
"It sounds like everything with Dallas is dead," one source said. "The owner wants to keep 'Sheed."
John Nash and Mavericks president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson met before the game. After their meeting, it was announced that Wallace would play for the first time in five games, after sitting out four in a row with what was listed as a sprained left ankle. Wallace scored 24 points, but the Mavericks held on for a 108-104 triumph despite playing without injured point guard Steve Nash ... and with Nelson replacing his father, Don, as Mavericks coach after the elder Nelson's early ejection.
Had Portland been willing to accept an offer of Jamison and Abdul-Wahad for Wallace, it would have run counter to the club's long-running insistence that it will not accept a package of long-term contracts in a Wallace. But with the Blazers' season slipping away -- jeopardizing a run of 21 consecutive playoff appearances that means a great deal to Allen -- sources said Portland's position was softening.
Portland, which has made no secret of its attempt to clean up the team's image and reconnect with its famously loyal fan base, is said to be fond of Jamison's character and his potential to pair with Zach Randolph in the Blazers' frontcourt. That's why, according to sources, the Blazers clearly prefer Jamison to Dallas' Antoine Walker, even though Walker's contract expires after the 2004-05 season -- in time for Portland's expected return to the free-agent market in the summer of '05.
Yet it looks as though Jamison's positives and any need for a shakeup won't prompt the Blazers to absorb the contracts of Jamison (who has four seasons left on a six-year deal worth nearly $80 million) and Abdul-Wahad. The Frenchman also has four years left on his contract, although ESPN.com has learned that the final two seasons of Abdul-Wahad's deal are only partially guaranteed: 75 percent of his $7.3 million salary in 2005-06 and 50 percent of his $7.9 million in 2006-07.
Earlier in the week, when apprised that Nash had described a forthcoming Wallace trade as "likely," a skeptical Cuban dismissed that as that as a tactical move by Blazers. "Trolling for trades," Cuban called it.
It remains to be seen if the Blazers will be able to attract better offers than the Dallas pitch over the next month. San Antonio is known to have a strong interest in Wallace, but the Spurs have also been unable to assemble a package to entice Portland. New Jersey had discussed a swap featuring Kenyon Martin for Wallace as far back as last summer. Sources say that Detroit, another club that fancies Wallace, has pulled out of the 'Sheed Sweepstakes until the summer, as the Pistons are unwilling to move any of their core players with no guarantee of re-signing Wallace.
Atlanta's Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Cleveland's Zydrunas Ilgauskas have much friendlier contracts than Jamison's, but there are drawbacks with both as well if Portland chooses to pursue a Wallace deal for either of those players.
Abdur-Rahim, like Jamison, has never played a minute in the playoffs, but the Hawks' forward has also never played on any winning team. Jamison, meanwhile, has enhanced his reputation somewhat by accepting a sixth-man role without complaint in Dallas in an effort to fit in with one of the league's top teams.
Ilgauskas' contract, like Abdur-Rahim's, runs through 2005, which appeals to Portland because that's the crucial offseason when the Blazers hope to have sufficient cap room to pursue free agents. Yet there are still concerns about Ilgauskas' long-term health and mobility after years of foot problems, along with serious doubts that conservative Cavaliers owner Gordon Gund would be willing to put Wallace on the same team with LeBron James.