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Mark Heisler ON THE NBA

Putting the Free in Free Agent

April 06, 2003|Mark Heisler

Meet the '03 free agents. They were in the right place, but it must have been the wrong time.

Never before have so many good players chased so few bucks as will these 40-plus free agents, 13 of them former All-Stars, who go onto the open market this summer. That's because only four teams, the Spurs, Nuggets, Jazz and (ha) Clippers, can offer anything more than a contract starting at $5 million a season.

Get set for a new era in free agency: The Big Guys Discover (Gulp) There's No Place Like Home.

This started in the summer of 2001 when Chris Webber, who had spent a season encouraging bidders in an effort to get back to the bright lights, discovered he had no better option than Sacramento and re-upped.

Last summer, the modest class of '02 didn't have a single player who got more than the $4.5-million veteran's exception.

Now, as the salary cap shrinks and teams try to avoid the luxury tax, the star-studded class of '03 is also finding few options and turning its face homeward, marquee player by marquee player.

Tim Duncan is set in San Antonio. Last week Jason Kidd, who'd vowed to test the market since arriving in New Jersey, renounced his promise "Come July 1, I'll see what the Alamo has to offer," announcing he's now "100% to stay."

There are two hallmarks of the new situation:

* There will be no earth-tilting moves, as when the Lakers signed Shaquille O'Neal.

* There will be some bargains.

Bidders are few. The Spurs, $14 million under the cap after David Robinson retires, will be the prime destination, and all negotiations will depend on which way the Spurs decide to go.

Denver will have $12 million but has to persuade players to help rebuild from Square 1.

Utah will have $19 million but will have to use it to re-sign its own free agents, or start over.

The Clippers will have $28 million but will use it to re-sign their own players, they continue to insist.

Give These Poor Big Guys a Home

Gary Payton, Milwaukee -- Sen. Herb Kohl, who's selling, can drop below the luxury-tax threshold by letting him go, saving Payton's salary, $12.6 million, plus $5 million in luxury tax and making the Bucks eligible to share in the players' escrow money. This would add more than

$20 million to next season's bottom line and make it easier to lure a buyer to the tundra.

For his part, Payton has said of Milwaukee, "It's only two months."

The Spurs are thinking about Payton too. Otherwise, it's Denver, where he says he won't go, a sign-and-trade, a pay cut or Winter Wonderland.

Gilbert Arenas, Golden State -- There have been few darkhorses like him. A shooting guard drafted in the second round in 2001, he's now one of the league's best young point guards and the Warriors' franchise player. But they can only offer him $4.5 million without dumping someone and have already struck out trying to move Erick Dampier's $7.9-million salary and Danny Fortson's $5.9-million deal.

Denver would max Arenas out, but his father says our Valley Guy out of Grant High in Van Nuys doesn't do cold weather. Right on, dude.

Jermaine O'Neal, Indiana -- He looked set to stay, but that was before the bottom dropped out of the Pacer season. If he's on the market, the Spurs will be interested.

Michael Olowokandi, Clippers -- After a lost season, his price dropped like a rock but, as they keep saying in the stock market, we may have just put a bottom in. The Spurs were hot for him, switched to Kidd but now must rethink Olowokandi. They're determined not to give an unproven player $100 million just because they have it to spend but may yet come up with a number he and they can agree on.

Brad Miller, Indiana -- Also expected to stay but could be a fall-back position for the Spurs. He's not a star but he was an All-Star -- if only in the East. As he proved in Indy, he can make the right team bigger and better.

Karl Malone, Utah -- He goes into a tizzy every summer, but unless he outdoes himself and takes $4.5 million in Dallas, he'll be back at the same old pop stand with his little buddy, John Stockton.

Rasho Nesterovic, Minnesota -- A less-accomplished but still developing 7-footer, he's expected to stay.

Old Favorites Priced to Move

Juwan Howard, Denver -- He has had one major problem the last seven seasons, he was overpriced at $105 million. That will be corrected.

Scottie Pippen, Portland -- He's such an obvious fit for Phil Jackson, the Laker coach even acknowledges it, flirting with the tampering rules. Under normal circumstances, Paul Allen would pay anything to keep him from the Lakers but now faces an astounding $100-million projected loss, with an $87-million payroll coming back, meaning another projected loss of $80 million to $90 million.

Of course, before the Lakers, who are creaky enough, take on the 38-year-old Pippen, they'd better make sure that this time they consider ...

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