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Old 06-18-2003, 05:26 PM   #1
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Default Another bit of speculation from ESPN

West's best all looking to get better

By Scott Howard-Cooper
Special to ESPN.com

The San Antonio Spurs beat the New Jersey Nets in six games to win the NBA Finals. Tim Duncan was great and David Robinson got his deserved storybook farewell. (Wanted to make sure word got around. You obviously weren't watching.)

That takes care of the past. Now, the future.

Any talk of a potential dynasty in San Antonio -- traditional chatter after a championship, but especially with so much of the foundation built on youth -- is terribly premature because no one can even say for sure who the second-best player will be when camp opens. And that, if it's still Tony Parker, whether there will continue to be days when the enigmatic point guard is the sixth-best Spur. Put it this way, though: 28 other teams wanting to be them isn't just a mid-June thing.

Michael Olowokandi, right, could be David Robinson's replacement in San Antonio.
Two teams that won 50 games are positioned to make a major addition in the offseason, and the Pistons got there by the luck of the Ping-Pong balls to get the No. 2 pick. The Spurs got there with a clinic in cap management and talent evaluation. So it is that the rest of the league will be sweating out the summer, except in New Jersey, where the priority is to start breathing again after Jason Kidd was so noncommittal about his Nets future.

All eyes will still be on the West. San Antonio has unheard of clout for a defending champion. Los Angeles has a wake-up call. Dallas has Mark Cuban and a positive playoff statement. Sacramento has the motivation of "What If?"


The same four, of course. The powers of the conference and the league all have major decisions ahead, making for a compelling offseason that will lead into another season of everyone chasing the same quartet.

Starting, appropriately, with the pace car.

The Spurs could have as much as $16 million in cap space to sign a free agent or, it should not be forgotten, to facilitate a trade. They will lose one player in the top seven in minutes, Robinson, and at the same time have major spending power because Gregg Popovich, the coach and former personnel boss, and rising-star general manager R.C. Buford have made every trade, draft pick and signing since 1999 with this moment in mind.

Derek Anderson was sent to Portland in a sign-and-trade when he held out for a contract that would have cut deeply into the available space, with Steve Smith coming in exchange because his deal expires after this season. The first-round pick in 1999, Leon Smith, was traded on draft night to get the Spurs out from under his guaranteed contract, not to mention delivering the second-round choice that became Manu Ginobili. Robinson's new contract was timed to run out now. Steve Kerr, Danny Ferry and Kevin Willis, other veterans, can also come off the cap.

"It's what I've lived 2 years for," Buford said. "But there's also a real calming influence that you're prepared."

The Spurs could sign one star to a maximum contract. They could instead sign two good players to less than the max, the most unlikely of the possibility. They could hold off on everything if their top choices aren't available and then be $12 million under the cap next July, but 2004 isn't a promising free-agent class, the greatest teases coming in that Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett own options to hit the open market.

Kidd, for the backcourt, and Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal, to replace Robinson at center, are the priorities. One or the other. Kidd has wobbled on his commitment to a New Jersey future, and the Pacers have said they intend to re-sign O'Neal, with the leverage of being able to give him a seven-year deal, one season longer than any other team. The Spurs will counter by calculating the difference in life without a state income tax.

Refusing to get sucked into the Kidd-or-Tony Parker debate that has played out all season and spiked at the Finals, San Antonio would play them together, Kidd being a superior distributor and defender and Parker being a better shooter. That would also give the Spurs enough backcourt depth -- Parker, Kidd, Stephen Jackson, Ginobili -- to consider trading for a center. But if Kidd stays in New Jersey, they will not pursue another free-agent point guard, except possibly as a reserve.

It's different in the frontcourt. While the presence of Parker, inconsistent but filled with potential, is an enviable safety net at the point, the retirement of Robinson puts an urgency to finding another big man. If O'Neal remains a Pacer, attention turns to Elton Brand, Michael Olowokandi, Rasho Nesterovic and, possibly, Karl Malone.

The two Clippers come with conditions, though. San Antonio won't give Brand, a restricted free agent, an offer sheet, since the team is aware, like the entire league, such a move would be misspent energy. Los Angeles will match. It is likewise possible that Brand won't sign with anyone and instead return to the Clippers for one season and be unrestricted next summer, at which point they will be powerless in his future.

The departure of Keon Clark would force the Kings to dip into the free agent pool.
That was Olowokandi's approach a year ago. He is unrestricted, but he's also coming off a disappointing season of injury and frustration, reducing his value. San Antonio might offer a one-year deal ballparked at $8 million and lure Kandi by saying he can use 2003-04 to make a definitive statement about his future and then get the major payday next summer with the cap room that carried over.

The first step is for Duncan, a potential free agent, to decide his future. He isn't going anywhere, but a salary-cap technicality means the Spurs need him to decide first whether or not to opt out, either for an extention or a new deal. Besides, having his situation resolved as a statement to the other free agents.

The other three teams don't have nearly the options. Dallas, the challenger in the conference finals and the top challenger in the state, will have the mid-level exception (with a projected value of approximately $4.8 million) and a need for an inside presence. Good timing. This is the summer of the free agent bigs. Years of Malone flirtations finally will be out in the open, though he also has strong interest in the Lakers, Kings and, a step down, the Spurs. Now he and the Mavericks don't have to get mutual acquaintances to pass those notes back and forth in study hall.

The Lakers are in a similar situation -- only the mid-level -- but also hold interests that are much more varied. P.J. Brown would be ideal as a consistent defender and rebounder to ride shotgun in the paint with Shaquille O'Neal. Gary Payton is the kind of big guard Phil Jackson prefers -- a scorer, ball-handler and defender who's still playing at a high level. And Malone as the third option on offense? Puh-lease. His ability to play on the perimeter means there wouldn't be a bottleneck inside with O'Neal.

The Kings are the great uncertainty. They are about to take an $18 million luxury-tax hit and indicating that the mid-level will go unused this summer. It's not a final declaration -- last July came with a similar intention and then Keon Clark was still available on a low-risk, short-term deal -- but as co-owner Joe Maloof said, "Probably we wouldn't do it. Then we're like $22 million over the threshold. You saw the depth and the talent we had this year, and we didn't even play them all. There's a point of overdoing it. Probably not would be the answer. But there's always the chance that if the right player comes along, we would make a move."

They feel like the roster is only in place and that things would have been different this season if only Chris Webber's ankle had been, too. The big decision belongs to Clark, whether to opt out by June 30 and put his $5 million for 2003-04 on the line on the belief he could get more elsewhere. If he leaves, the Kings will be more inclined to become a summer player, planning for the future and all.

What a today is about to unfold.

Gimme Two - One's just not enough.
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Old 06-18-2003, 08:13 PM   #2
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Default Another bit of speculation from ESPN

Man Buford seems like a sharp dude. Waiting all that time for this money, I doubt he is going to spend it foolishly if they miss out on 1A or 1B. I say they hold a lot of there money if they don't get prime meat. Maybe hold that money for next year with Elton Brand. Brand will probably sign a one year contract with the Clippers, so that he can be an unrestricted free agent. next offseason, brand will want nothing to do with the Clippers and the Spurs might be standing there with open arms. It is giving me bad dreams already.
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