View Full Version : It's time for summer blockbusters

06-29-2003, 11:53 AM
Scott Howard-Cooper: It's time for summer blockbusters
The free-agency period, which begins Tuesday, promises to have a significant impact.

By Scott Howard-Cooper -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 a.m. PDT Sunday, June 29, 2003

Drama, finally.

The Finals, competitive if unwatchable, are over, and the draft passed without major developments, other than Chris Kaman being picked by the Clippers and the 2008 free-agent class in turn getting its first intriguing center. But interest arrives just in time. For now, though, the '03 market opens Tuesday with two headliners, Jason Kidd and Jermaine O'Neal, and, more importantly, the depth for the potential of countless plot twists that could affect even teams that decide to sit this one out.

That would be the Kings planning to keep a low profile as the primary West competition pushes forward with aggressive plans. The Spurs will bid for Kidd and O'Neal with a glutton's mind-set, knowing they just won a championship and have the cap space to sign either. The Mavericks, the other West finalist, will need a sign-and-trade to land Kidd but will also be proactive in the ongoing pursuit of anything resembling an interior presence in the very free-agent market filled with veteran big men. The Lakers will have the same mid-level exception, projected to be worth approximately $4.8 million, to find a power forward or another big guard.

Except that in a summer set to be dominated by the hype and the marquee names, the overlooked factors will be as dominant. There will be front-office debate about the best young point guard available, contrary to the publicity windfall surrounding Gilbert Arenas. There will be a relatively unknown center who will get calls to become a major piece of the puzzle. There may be a critical and emotional timing issue in one landmark decision.

Even the subplots run deep. Keon Clark, who might have been the fourth big man in Sacramento if Scot Pollard had a healthy 2002-03, has until Monday to decide whether to become a free agent. His call only affects the likelihood of the Kings using their mid-level exception and the possibility of the Nuggets and Jazz making him offers to become their starting center. Utah is a much greater player than most realize. Denver could be quieter than expected.

At no place is flying below the radar more apparent than at point guard. Kidd is a level unto himself -- he said he will visit San Antonio, Dallas and Denver in addition to considering staying in New Jersey -- and Gary Payton is a unique situation as a veteran needing to sign in a win-now situation. Among those with a longer shelf life, though, there is the season-long parade that Arenas is about to dictate his payday, and then there is reality.

The decision between Arenas and Andre Miller is as challenging as it is a contrast. Of greater certainty is that it's closer than most understand.

Arenas is the hot ticket. He just averaged 18.3 points, 6.3 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game, was named Most Improved Player and showed star quality. But he has had the one season. Before that, it was a good finish to his rookie campaign, which came after the same league let him go all the way to the second round of the draft.

Arenas had moments of pouting with Golden State, and while his talent is acknowledged, executives are divided whether he showed himself in 2002-03 to be a long-term All-Star or was just putting up big numbers on a lottery team.

Miller is the one coming off a Clippers season. He just gave away millions with a 2002-03 of poor shooting and bad decisions. But he has had the one bad season, with special dispensation from other teams that it came in that organization, where no one gets out alive. Before that, it was three years of impressing with his sound play, aggressive style and continued upswing in Cleveland. He did the impressive in putting up big numbers on a lottery team, including leading the league in assists on a club that finished 16th in scoring.

San Antonio will pursue Kidd but no other point guard except possibly for a reserve role. That leaves Denver and Utah as teams with a need at the position and spending power. Miller has been silver-plattered to the Jazz because he played at the University of Utah, a flimsy reasoning even in an era of nonexistent trades being handled as concrete possibilities. Likewise, Arenas has been linked to the Nuggets under the general impression that they are the only ones who can afford him. Everyone is wrong.

Utah has been considering Arenas all along and could pay, and Denver is attracted to Miller as well as Arenas. It's true distributor vs. scoring point, proven over time vs. potential one-hit wonder. Arenas' agent signaled Denver when he said his client wouldn't sign a contract starting at less than $7 million. That demand priced out Golden State because the Warriors can't go beyond $4.8 million to match on their own restricted free agent, except that it was likely also an undecipherable message. There's a difference between having the money and being fiscally irresponsible with other positions to address, so the Nuggets won't go that deep, giving Miller the added bonus of potentially being more cost-efficient.

Miller is also a restricted free agent but, because of a salary-cap technicality that gives him a different standing than Arenas, the Clippers can match offers to any amount. Whether they will is the source of front-office debate. Elton Brand probably won't get an offer sheet because they will match, and chances are good he wouldn't accept one anyway when the alternative is to stay in L.A. another season and then become an unrestricted free agent. But Miller was such a disappointment that the Clippers don't want to tie themselves to a six-year contract. That same strategy will be considered as teams negotiate with Lamar Odom and Corey Maggette, two others who are restricted.

Utah has other pressing timing issues. Karl Malone will consider leaving for the Lakers -- his first choice -- Mavericks, Kings, and then the Spurs on a pecking order one spot below, but the Jazz will need to know soon. If he's gone, it can use the money. If he stays, with a pay cut, it will have some to invest. But if Malone ponders over time, he will take up so much of the salary cap with an unresolved situation that Utah won't be able to sign anyone. In the end, the Jazz might be in the very uncomfortable position of having to decide whether to end the relationship by renouncing the Mailman, although surely only after management had some indication about his plans.

Malone, O'Neal, P.J. Brown, Tyrone Hill, Juwan Howard, Brad Miller and Alonzo Mourning are the best known of the veteran centers and power forwards, with a good chance that Miller will stay in Indiana and possibly Howard in Denver as well. Michael Olowokandi, once the hottest young center on the market, will get some attention -- from the Spurs and Nuggets, among teams with money, and several others with the mid-level exception that could offer the security of a longer contract. But Minnesota's Rasho Nestervovic, without nearly the fanfare of the other bigs, will be pursued.

The Spurs and Nuggets have Nesterovic on their list, while the Timberwolves hope to retain him. Nesterovic, who correctly signed a one-year deal in Minnesota to become unrestricted this summer, is solid and emerging, and he won't break the bank, making him an ideal package. There's less drama that way.

And one
Free agent Mateen Cleaves, starting over after two seasons with the Kings at the end of the bench or on the injured list, is planning to play for the Raptors' summer-league team in Long Beach as the first step in trying to earn a contract anywhere. Toronto offers an opportunity and a connection. New coach Kevin O'Neill is good friends with Tom Izzo, Cleaves' coach at Michigan State, former college teammate Morris Peterson is the starting small forward, and it's close to family and friends in Cleaves' native Michigan. Most encouraging, though, is that the Raptors had only one point guard consistently in the rotation, Alvin Williams.
* The Clippers were without a coach for the draft for the third time in six years and now could lose the one name with credibility in a timing issue as contract talks drag out. Mike Dunleavy is intrigued by the young, athletic roster, or at least the one in place before the free-agent jailbreak of the next 13 months. But he will also become a leading candidate in Atlanta as soon as the sale of the Hawks is completed in what remains a fluid situation. Dennis Johnson remains a possibility in Los Angeles, but general manager Elgin Baylor wants someone with NBA experience beyond finishing last season as the interim coach.

* On the other hand: Three teams were without a general manager for the draft. Or at least 2 1/2 since the Hawks could retain interim Billy McKinney. But the Wizards will sweep the front office as Wes Unseld takes an indefinite leave of absence and other brass gets purged as final remnants of the Michael Jordan era, with Ernie Grunfeld leaving Milwaukee to take over within days. The Trail Blazers, meanwhile, continue the search to replace Bob Whitsitt. Wayne Cooper, the Kings' vice president of basketball operations, had two interviews. But attention in Portland has appeared to turn to Chris Wallace, the Boston personnel boss until Danny Ainge was hired after the season, and John Hammond, the No. 2 man in Detroit.

* The Nuggets held their second annual open tryout Saturday in the Pepsi Center parking lot, with approximately 350 dream chasers from five countries and 42 states and the District of Columbia expected to attend, for a goof or another chance. It's a public-relations bonanza but also legit. Three players will get invitations to Denver's rookie/free-agent camp, and one from that group will play in the Long Beach summer league. Jimmy King, a former Chris Webber Fab Five teammate at Michigan, was selected in 2002. The biggest names this year are DeJuan Wheat, who has played with the Timberwolves and Grizzlies, Jason Anderson, who played on Florida's 1994 Final Four team, and JaRon Rush, once a major prospect at UCLA.


06-29-2003, 09:12 PM
that nuggets thing sounds really cool.