Where do the bucks stop for Brendan Haywood?

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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?

Giannis Antetokounmpo announces he will not play for Greece in Eurobasket

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Giannis Antetokounmpo said had big plans to play for the Greek national team this summer, taking his country back to the top of the European ladder at EuroBasket (they had won the tournament a dozen years ago).

Instead, a sore knee will keep the Greek Freak out of EuroBasket. He made the announcement on his Facebook page.

Antetokounmpo had missed all but one of Greece’s early EuroBasket tune-ups due to a sore knee. That, understandably, concerned the Bucks, especially with his four-year, $100 million contract extension about to kick in next season.

Antetokounmpo is in China promoting shoes, but said he on Facebook he took a physical while there and was not able to complete the exercises due to pain.

“It is by far the biggest disappointment in my career. I must deal with the problem,” Antetokounmpo said in the Facebook post (written in Greek).

Within hours of the post going up, the Greek basketball federation released a statement slamming the Bucks and Antetokounmpo, saying they had done an MRI of his knee and found no damage.

“The simultaneous report by the Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo himself, by phone and social media from faraway China, and not by the appropriate official manner, of his inability to join the national men’s team saddens us … but is not surprising… A series of indications … had convinced us of the existence of an organized and well-staged plan by (the Bucks), with the full knowledge if not encouragement of the NBA that put the athlete on the spot and forced him to announce today that he is no longer part of the men’s national team.”

Great, just what the world needs, another conspiracy theory.

While NBA teams generally are not huge fans of their stars playing in national team tournaments (due to the injury risk), teams cannot stop a healthy player from playing. Antetokounmpo said this was his decision because he is in pain and has to think about the upcoming NBA season.

Whatever the Greek Federation believes internally, slamming the player and his team publicly like this is one good way to make sure he will not want to play for them in the future. He’s got knee pain, they are saying “you’re fine, walk it off, ” and that must have Antetokounmpo and the people around him wondering if the Greek Federation has his best interests — or theirs — at heart.

Akron store already selling “Stay Home 23” shirts, hats as LeBron decision looms

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We’ve seen this movie before.

There is all sorts of buzz around the league that LeBron James has one foot out the door in Cleveland. While people around LeBron denied he the rumor he is “100 percent” leaving, good luck finding any league source who thinks he is staying put next summer. Nothing is set in stone, his options — including staying — remain open, but we’ve all been down this road before.

The hometown fans are going to do their part to urge LeBron to stay.

Fan sentiment has some pull with LeBron (he came back to win the city a title). However, what matters more is a sense of a plan to keep the Cavaliers as title contenders for the coming years — and that is more than just Dan Gilbert paying the tax. The Cavs did nothing this summer that got them closer to beating Golden State, and while they swung for the fences with Paul George, what they really needed was wing defenders and athletes, and they didn’t get those either. Luc Mbah a Moute signed a one-year deal for the minimum somewhere else. Instead, Cleveland overpaid Kyle Korver.

Despite all that, the Cavs remain the team to beat in the East. If Cleveland gets to the Finals — LeBron’s eighth in a row — and they win or make it close, he may see staying as his best option. A season can be a lifetime in the NBA in terms of shifting attitudes. Still, I wouldn’t bet the rent on it.

Marshall Plumlee gets camp invite, partially guaranteed contract from Clippers

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The Los Angeles Clippers have 14 fully guaranteed contracts on their roster, plus a partial guarantee for DeAndre Liggins (who likely is on the roster opening day). They also are pretty much set at center with DeAndre Jordan and Willie Reed (plus when they go small they can play Blake Griffin there, something I wish they’d do a little more).

That said, Doc Rivers — just a coach now — needs bodies for camp, so in comes former Duke star and Knick Marshall Plumlee, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Plumlee played in 21 games for the Knicks last season, logging a total of 190 minutes. He bounced between New York and the D-League Westchester Knicks, when down he averaged 12.3 points and 9.8 rebounds a game.

He’s not making the Clippers’ squad (barring injury), but he could show well and get noticed by other teams. Over the course of a season, there will be a need for bigs as guys go down injured, Plumlee is getting a chance to show how his game has developed. And he makes some money in the process.

Kawhi Leonard is smiling, and that confuses Manu Ginobili (PHOTO)

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Much like Kevin Durant, it appears that Kawhi Leonard is having a great summer.

In fact, this appears to be the Summer of Kawhi Smiling. Which, according to one of his longtime teammates, is a bit confusing.

When the Spurs posted a photo of Leonard with a big old grin on his face to their Twitter feed recently, San Antonio legend Manu Ginobili responded asking the team whether something was up.

Specifically, Ginobili said that he had seen more photos of Leonard smiling in the past two days then he had in six seasons as a teammate.

Via Twitter:

You can leave an anonymous tip about why Kawhi Leonard is smiling so much by contacting the produce manager at your local H-E-B.