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MFFL
07-13-2001, 09:39 AM
Luxury of Stockton might be too taxing
By Marc Stein
Special to ESPN.com


We regret to report that fans of the NBA's All-Admirable Team might have more to fear than David Robinson fouling up his pristine image.
It would be hard to imagine the Jazz without Stockton.

It's not just the center, sadly. The summer could get just as messy for our beacon of point guards, too.

All the attention, understandably, is focused on San Antonio, where Robinson is apparently backing off his promise to accept a significant wage cut. This time last year, Robinson was flying in heroically from Hawaii to sway Tim Duncan away from Orlando. This summer, The Admiral's unthinkably hard-line negotiating stance must be making Duncan wonder why he stayed.

In Utah, meanwhile, a similar scenario is possible -- even though it's not generating any hoopla. John Stockton has also been asked to accept a hefty reduction in pay, with no guarantee that he will. Watching the Robinson saga for the past week, preceded by Hakeem Olajuwon's demoralizing attempts to force his way out of Houston last spring, should serve as a sufficient warning to all.

That warning: Take nothing for granted.

Not even little Stock, who, like Robinson, has been essentially unrippable as a human being since he came into our lives. Even more than Magic Johnson or Bob Cousy or Oscar Robertson, we have come to see Stockton as synonymous with the act of providing for others. So, naturally, we expect the game's all-time assist king to happily give up millions to make his owner happy and keep Utah out of the luxury-tax bracket.

Now to see if that actually happens. Utah already has 10 players under contract for next season, including the en-route Russian rookie Andrei Kirilenko, to push its payroll over the estimated salary-cap ceiling of $42.7 million. The luxury-tax threshold should fall between $53 and $56 million, which leaves the Jazz roughly $10-13 million to re-sign Stockton and make any other additions before the dollar-for-dollar penalties kick in.

Stockton, remember, earned $11 million last season -- which ended with a nightmarish collapse from 2-nil up against Dallas in the first round. That series, more than anything that has happened to the Jazz in the past half-decade, was the most clear evidence yet that the slowest-shutting window in sports is finally slipping on Stockton and Karl Malone. The fogies need dependable help if they want to keep playing, but that would require Stockton to cut his salary in half. Just like the Spurs have asked Robinson.

Larry Miller, you see, has made it clear that he will not pay one cent of luxury tariffs.

"No matter what that means," Miller said last month.

Which means we're looking at a couple of outcomes, unless Miller changes his stance. Either Stockton takes the reduced wages, leaving room for the re-signing of Danny Manning and the pursuit of Mitch Richmond. Or Stockton retires at 39, since, unlike Robinson, there won't be any flirtations with other teams. Detroit? Chicago? The Clips? The one guarantee we feel comfortable making is that Stockton would rather stop playing before leaving Wasatch Country.

Yet what if No. 12 really does retire? Jazz insiders certainly don't expect it, but it can't be totally ruled out. Should Stock indeed elect to walk, Utah then would have to entertain the course of action it still doesn't even want to contemplate -- trading Malone away for prospects and starting all over.

Robinson will continue to hog the headlines for now because Stockton -- a perennial summertime recluse -- has told Miller that they'll deal with the contract in September. Miller recently shared that Stockton's parting words for the off-season were "count me in," but that's only somewhat settling. Every time Utah courts another free agent this summer -- and they've talked to Richmond, John Amaechi and Bryant Stith, among others -- management has to factor in Stockton's projected salary.

And hope they've projected it right. We'd like to assume that Stockton and Miller have at least discussed ballpark figures ... but you know where assuming got us with Admiral Robinson.

Around The League

The one draft-day story you probably missed: Yao Ming, the would-be No. 1 pick, was actually in the States on Kwame Brown's night. In what some might regard as Chinese draft-watching torture, Yao could be found in Dallas on June 27 training with his national team -- and forced to decide whether or not to tune in to the TV broadcast of an event he wasn't allowed to enter. Yao, though, unexpectedly joked about his plight, without revealing whether he did watch. "Are you saying that I will not be taken No. 1 next year?" he quipped through an interpreter. "Is that your question?" The 7-6 center was also asked to predict who might go No. 1 in his place, replying: "I only know [Duke's] Jason Williams, and he's not in the draft, either."

One factor that makes Utah's budget projections (and everyone else's) so tough: The exact luxury-tax threshold might not be known until January.

Just so you know, David Robinson had the league's third-highest salary as recently as three seasons back. Last season, at $14.7 million, he was No. 7 on the earnings list. Given that he'll be 36 in less than a month, is $7.5 million really so unreasonable?

After at least eight seasons in the league and four with the same team, players who are re-signing with their current employers can negotiate a no-trade clause. That's what has snagged the Knicks' negotiations with Allan Houston, but the truly amazing part is that this doesn't come up more often. No-trade clauses are a baseball animal, seen very rarely in the NBA. Perhaps Houston, if he's successful getting a no-trade from New York, will start a new trend.

One of the more interesting free-agent fantasies in circulation: Dallas wants to split its $4.5 million exception on Tim Hardaway and Mitch Richmond -- both of whom are intrigued by a move to the Cuban revolution -- and then invite Chris Mullin to sign on for the minimum. Or, if Mullin prefers, to join the Mavericks' expansive coaching staff. Did someone say Walk TMC? The Mavericks are also the first team to publicly express interest in Seattle restricted free agent Ruben Patterson.

The NBA Players Association has convened this week for its annual summer meetings ... in the Bahamas, yet again. They can be found at the palatial Royal Atlantis Hotel on Paradise Island, where seven gold-winged houses and cascading fountains adorn the entrance, dunking their heads back in the sand. Enticing as the retreat sounds, don't forget that it comes at a time when the majority of the league's 150 free agents are scrounging for scraps -- because owners have stopped spending in fear of the luxury tax. Just a hunch here, but we're guessing that some of the guys might not be all that interested in debating David Stern's proposed age limit of 20. Not when they're suddenly looking at an unofficial hard salary cap. Billy Hunter's chief goal at the negotiating table with Stern in 1999, besides saving the season, was keeping Stern from instituting a hard cap. Isn't that basically what the league has if the Blazers, Knicks and Mavericks are the only teams willing to exceed the tax?