Some renewed hope surfaced Saturday in the ongoing Jason Kidd trade drama, leading officials from both the New Jersey Nets and the Dallas Mavericks to believe that there is a chance their endangered deal can be saved.
Yet with no deal done, going on four days after the clubs reached an agreement in principal on a trade that would send Kidd back to his original team, it's getting harder to classify this as a mere drama.
"This has been more like a mini-series," said one source close to the process. "But I think it's still alive. There's talk."
Kidd himself told reporters at All-Star Weekend in New Orleans, referring to Nets president Rod Thorn: "I talked to Rod [on Friday night] and all I can say is that they're still talking."
But the latest discussions, sources say, have not resolved the obstacle that arose Friday, when the Mavericks informed the Nets that they no longer want to include Jerry Stackhouse in the trade. It's a stance Dallas has clung to whether or not it still fears reprisals from the league office regarding quotes from Stackhouse on Wednesday which gave the impression that the teams had already arranged for the Nets to immediately buy out the 33-year-old's contract so the Mavericks could re-sign him after a 30-day waiting period.
The Mavericks are still insisting on putting Trenton Hassell into the deal in Stackhouse's place. But sources say New Jersey remains resistant to the substitution, presumably because Hassell's guaranteed salary in 2009-2010 ($4.4 million) is more than twice as much as Stackhouse's guarantee that season ($2 million) and because Hassell might be less amenable to a buyout than Stackhouse. The long-term financial implications of taking back Hassell are thus less appealing to the Nets than the original deal with Stackhouse, even though both players would appear to be coming from similar salary brackets on paper.
Sources say there are some encouraging signs, however, that the league office will allow Dallas to resolve one major issue by plugging in a signed-and-traded Keith Van Horn in place of Devean George.
It was George who first turned this into a saga by unexpectedly blocking the trade Wednesday when both sides were already operating as if it was a done deal, citing a little-known league rule that prevents certain players with one-year contracts from being dealt without their permission. Although he announced earlier this month that he wanted to be traded without a promise of more playing time in Dallas, George has resisted numerous attempts by both teams to get him to change that stance.
The retired Van Horn, though, is eligible to be signed-and-traded to help make the salary-cap math work in a manner similar to the Los Angeles Lakers calling on the retired Aaron McKie to help them complete the Feb. 1 acquisition of Pau Gasol. Sources say Van Horn, who last played in the 2006 NBA Finals for the Mavericks, would net more than $4 million for his participation.
Yet there are uncertainties in Van Horn's case as well. League sources say that the Gasol trade would not have been approved had McKie, who was working as a volunteer assistant coach in Philadelphia when the Lakers summoned him, refused to report to the Grizzlies to at least make himself available to play. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has acknowledged that Van Horn would have to go to New Jersey and undergo a physical if he's included in this transaction, but it remains unclear how long he'd have to stay with the Nets.
Joel Litvin, NBA president of league and basketball operations, is one of the lawyers who will help commissioner David Stern make that ruling if a Kidd-to-Dallas deal finally does get submitted for league approval. Litvin acknowledged Saturday night that adding a player like McKie or Van Horn to a trade -- players who have retired without sending an official retirement letter to the league and whose rights have not been renounced by the last team they played for -- is examined on a case-by-case basis.
"If the guy gets there and 20 seconds later he gets cut and the guy is 55 years old, that's not going to pass muster," Litvin said. "If the guy played last year, reports [to his new team] and plays and practices, that will. Somewhere in between is a line that I can't define, [which requires the case-by-case review]."
At his annual All-Star Weekend news conference, Stern left little doubt that a Kidd-to-Dallas trade in any incarnation will be subjected to a deeper-than-usual examination after all the issues that have arisen since Dallas agreed to send Devin Harris, DeSagana Diop, Maurice Ager, Stackhouse, George, two first-round picks and $3 million in cash to New Jersey for Kidd and Malik Allen. Stern revealed that both teams had already been "spoken to" because of the Stackhouse flap.
But Stern also seemed to open the door to the possibility that Stackhouse could be reinserted into the trade and that Dallas indeed would be able to re-sign him in 30 days, adding to the renewed sense from both teams that there's still a chance they can reach a new agreement before the regular season resumes Tuesday.
"Even though I don't want to give Stackhouse and the Mavs their defense too easily, things happen," Stern said. "[Stackhouse] certainly is allowed to do that in terms of [going] back after 30 days. The big issue is whether there's [already] an agreement to do it. And speculating about it doesn't make it an agreement, even if you were either one of the teams and wish he hadn't spoken."
It would seem that each of the teams still has ample motivation to find a solution after going this far, even though George's almost certain exclusion means that the trade could wind up being more expensive for both clubs than it was the first time. New Jersey can't be relishing the prospect of forging ahead with a frustrated Kidd if a solution can't be found before Thursday's trading deadline, just as Dallas -- which is believed to be the Nets' only realistic suitor for Kidd -- won't want to try to reintegrate Harris after sending a clear message to its young point guard that he's not as fit as Kidd to lead the Mavericks to a championship.
A solution at this point, though, would appear to mean Dallas relenting on its Hassell position and putting Stackhouse back in . . . or New Jersey agreeing to take Hassell.
Cuban, who has been largely pessimistic in his public statements since the deal collapsed, did concede Saturday that the talks are alive even if the maiden construction involving George is considered "dead."
The status report Friday from one source close to the proceedings was ominous: "I'd have to say it's going away."
"We're exploring," Cuban said.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.