Welcome to the NBA's version of the Last Chance Saloon. Also known as the waiver deadline.
For veteran players searching for a ring, this is their last chance to wind up on a roster on which they can possibly win a championship this season. And for teams pursuing a title, this is their final opportunity to make a move to bolster their roster for the playoffs.
To review, any player on an NBA roster waived after March 1 is ineligible for the playoffs, making Sunday an important milestone. With the trading deadline already past, it means teams can add only players who were either recently waived or out of the league entirely for them to be available during the postseason.
While that latter category still contains one or two juicy longshots (most notably former Hornet Jannero Pargo), the action is with the former group.
Two quality veterans were bought out just before the deadline Sunday -- Joe Smith and Drew Gooden -- and now are free to sign with contending teams, setting the stage for a mini-bidding war among this season's unusually small field of genuine contenders.
They also present an interesting dilemma for the team in the driver's seat, the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Boston Celtics have a full roster and the Los Angeles Lakers are unable to offer much in the way of playing time, leaving the Cavs as the unquestionable prime destination for free-agent big men. That's especially true since they also can offer the most money -- a prorated share of their midlevel exception worth $3.5 million, according to ESPN.com's Marc Stein -- and a starting gig until Ben Wallace returns from a broken fibula.
The situation is rich with irony, however. The Cavs started Gooden at power forward for the first half of last season, then swapped him and Larry Hughes for Smith and Wallace at the trade deadline. Both players are familiar with the Cavs' system, then, and since each is represented by agent Dan Fegan, that's a wash too.
What it ultimately comes down to, it seems, is personal preference. Oddly, both players fared much better as Bulls than Cavaliers a season ago, most notably Gooden. On paper, it seems a clear choice: Gooden is younger and has outperformed Smith in player efficiency rating every season except 2007-08. However, that may be more than offset by Smith's penchant for taking charges juxtaposed against Gooden's rep for forgetting plays and losing track of situations.
In fact, it has appeared for days that Smith would be headed to Cleveland just as soon as the Thunder bought him out. Which would take care of one of the dominoes.
And that would leave us with another interesting situation: Where does Gooden end up? We haven't heard much talk about destinations for him, perhaps because it was unclear whether the Kings would reach a buyout agreement with him. Yet the appeal is obvious for contending teams in need of scoring and, especially, rebounding.
So let's narrow down the list. It's not hard, actually. Boston has a full roster, L.A. has little chance of meaningful playing time, and the Cavs would be off the list too once they added Smith.
That takes us to the league's second tier of contenders, which looks roughly like: San Antonio, Orlando, Houston, Utah and perhaps Denver.
Of those, we can safely eliminate Utah (which simply has no need for another power forward) and probably Houston too (it has several decent big men and is up against the luxury-tax line).
There's a good chance that money knocks out two other teams. Orlando is a possibility given its paucity of frontcourt reserves and Gooden's previous history there, but I'm not sure how seriously people take the Magic's chances of contending since Jameer Nelson went out. At any rate, the Magic have used their midlevel and biannual exceptions this summer so they can offer him only the veteran's minimum.
Denver offers similar pros and cons for Gooden. The Nuggets have a thin frontcourt where he'd almost certainly earn minutes, but are pinned against the tax line, making it unlikely they could offer more than the minimum.
Do the math and one destination emerges as the most likely: San Antonio. The Spurs can give him a piece of their midlevel exception (about $1.5 million through the end of the season), a realistic path to a conference finals appearance at the least, and a chance to earn big chunks of minutes (Kurt Thomas and Fabricio Oberto have been found wanting all season).
The only problem, it seems, is saying it out loud: Drew Gooden on the Spurs? Really? The guy who's known for mental errors and has a medusa beard, signing on with the league's must buttoned-down, no-nonsense outfit?
But the logic on every other level is too strong to dismiss it. The Spurs have done this dance before, remember -- think of Cap'n Jack in 2003 -- and no matter what it will be only the second-most eyebrow-raising waiver pickup this winter (take a bow, Starbury).
And in this case, the Last Chance Saloon metaphor couldn't be more fitting. For a San Antonio team trying to squeeze one more title before what will likely be a wholesale restructuring around the Duncan-Parker nucleus in 2010, there's really not much choice -- they need to belly up to the bar and drink whatever's on tap, so to speak, because this is the only way to match up in the playoffs with the L.A.s and Utahs of the West.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.