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THE NBA: 1995-96 : This Season Might Be Big, but Next Year's the Capper : Pro basketball: It's set up to be a free agent free-for-all, with some of the biggest names flooding the market.


The elephants are on the move and the big top will never be the same.

Last summer's War Between the Lawyers produced a new NBA players' contract whose impact can be summed up in three words: Everything just changed.

The Lakers, who didn't know where they were going to have to go to find their next great player, now may be able to buy one. They are in position to get nearly $10 million under the salary cap next summer, when the most incredible shopping binge in NBA history is expected.

The Charlotte Hornets are in a cold sweat at the thought of not being able to re-sign Alonzo Mourning and are shopping him frantically around the league. So far, there are no takers. But talks continue.

Mourning can be a free agent next summer, courtesy of the new contract that eliminated restricted free agency and the Hornets' right to match any offer. In the old deal, players had to complete two contracts before they were free.

Now Mourning, Shaquille O'Neal, Dikembe Mutombo, Juwan Howard and Gary Payton, who have completed but one, will be free to accept bids with Michael Jordan, Reggie Miller, Dennis Rodman, John Stockton, Kenny Anderson, Clyde Drexler, Kevin Willis and Tim Hardaway, whose contracts will be up.

Then there's the 1997 class: Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing.

The stars who built this league--Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird--had one thing in common: None was ever a free agent. In the next two years, there will be a Dream Team or two on the market.

The anticipated results:

--A free-agent scramble next summer.

The salary cap is going from last season's $16 million to next season's $24 million. Since the late '80s, most teams--and all the good ones--have been "capped." But now, at least 17 are poised to get below it next summer. Several, besides the Lakers, can get more than $5 million under.

--A season dominated by speculation.

Players won't be free until July 1, when teams can pay their own free agents anything, regardless of the cap. Until then, the players' contracts are in force and raises are limited by a new 20% annual cap.

--The big ones are going to eat the little ones.

Teams will be as good as their ability to recruit free agents, benefiting glamour franchises in major markets with lots of cap room and, perhaps most important, good players already on the roster. As the Lakers learned while chasing Horace Grant, players go where they think they can win titles.

Let's look at a few situations:


If people think Jerry West has done a good job up to now, wait till they see his payroll.

The young players who staged last season's turnaround have all been signed long-term at reasonable prices--except Elden Campbell, who will be a free agent--giving the team the ability to drop $9.3 million under the cap next summer.

As anyone knows, the Lakers need a big player, and if he happens to be a star, so much the better. Although they are obliged by the tampering rules to keep it to themselves, they will have keen interest in Mourning and Mutombo.

If that doesn't work out, how about the Admiral in '97?


They can re-sign Allan Houston and Otis Thorpe and still probably get $2 million to $3 million under the cap, or lower if they let Thorpe go. He will be 34 next summer. They have a coming young team led by Grant Hill. Coach Doug Collins says this season is about recruiting.


By letting Kevin Willis and some small fry go, it can get $6.8 million under, which is one reason Pat Riley went there to coach. Hornet and Denver Nugget officials are grumbling about tampering but have nothing to go on but a mild Riley quote:

"The only teams that are getting to the finals all have that big guy. What we're really planning for is the opportunity to get and acquire someone for next year."


Glenn Robinson, Vin Baker and a chance to go $6.3 million under.


Maybe they shouldn't have signed Larry Johnson to that $7-million-a-year extension, after all.

Two years later, they face a dilemma: sign Mourning to a bigger contract, which would have them committing $18-20 million each year to two players, or let Alonzo go.

Negotiations for a new contract have already broken down over Mourning's new asking price: $12-13 million a year. Mourning, who used to say he wanted to stay in Charlotte, is now saying nothing. The Hornets are being offered fire-sale packages in trade. Mourning missed a practice Wednesday and wasn't on the team's charter to Chicago Thursday, flying by himself later. If you're a Hornet fan, it's not too soon to panic.


If O'Neal were interested in leaving, the balance of power would tremble for real, but right now he sounds as if he's staying.

"I don't see him leaving the situation he has," says his agent, Leonard Armato. "I don't see any reason why he won't spend the rest of his career in Orlando."

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