NBA dialing, dealing starts July 9 Bullets' big challenge is to keep Howard

June 30, 1996|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

TC One minute past noon.

Juwan Howard suggests that on the day he becomes a free agent, that's when the Washington Bullets should call him if they want to retain his services.

"If the Bullets want to keep me," the All-Star forward said after his final game of the season, "they better get started at 12: 01."

Ron Grinker, who represents backup center Jim McIlvaine, also suggests the Bullets call then if they want to keep his client.

"Jim likes Washington, but this is a business decision, not an emotional decision," Grinker said. "There will be an opportunity for the Washington Bullets at 12: 01."

The 12: 01 they spoke about was to come tomorrow, when 160 NBA players -- including some of the top names in the game -- were to become unrestricted free agents. But with the NBA and the players' association agreeing Friday to a new collective bargaining agreement, free agency has been delayed until noon on July 9.

You can bet that at 12: 01 that afternoon, phone lines among team personnel will be tied up as the flurry of activity begins.

Want to buy a dream team starting July 9? Michael Jordan is available (the bidding starts at $18 million per season). Shaquille O'Neal will be on the market, possibly searching for some new digs on the West Coast with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Other top players available include Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning, Denver Nuggets center Dikembe Mutombo, Orlando Magic forward Horace Grant and Indiana Pacers guard Reggie Miller.

The availability of the most impressive group of free agents in NBA history is the reason teams made deals to get in position for this summer. The New York Knicks could have as much as $9 million to dangle in front of money-hungry players. The Lakers, their sights set on O'Neal, have $10 million to spend. And a midseason trade freed up as much as $13 million for the Heat.

"We put ourselves in a position to have a lot of flexibility," said Miami coach Pat Riley.

So, who's shopping for whom? Until July 9, teams can't contact agents to talk about specific players. Violators face a heavy fine for tampering. Still, it's no secret that the Lakers have a strong interest in O'Neal, or that the Phoenix Suns would like to see Mutombo in their uniform next season.

Among those superstar names, Howard might be the most sought-after free agent of all. David Falk, Howard's agent, said late in the season that Howard would be "the hottest commodity" in the free-agent market. The Heat, the Knicks, the Detroit Pistons and the Lakers are among the teams who have expressed an interest in the 6-foot-9 forward.

Howard made $1.7 million last season, his second in the league, and could earn an average of more than $10 million with his new contract. He said he would return "if the Bullets stepped to the table correctly." That job is in the hands of general manager Wes Unseld, who faces the first major challenge in his new job.

"I don't know if anxious is the word to describe it, but I look forward to hopefully getting this done as soon as possible," Unseld said last week. "Juwan can make that happen. Juwan is an intricate part of what we're trying to do. We need him here, and we'll do what we can to see that he stays here."

Though Howard is the Bullets' top priority, it can't be their sole focus if they want to retain McIlvaine and point guard Robert Pack.

McIlvaine, who returned to the Bullets last season after the team matched a $900,000 offer sheet from the Minnesota Timberwolves, will be highly sought-after in a league short on quality centers. Despite averaging 14.9 minutes a game, McIlvaine finished 10th in the league in blocked shots (2.08 per game) last season. Projecting his blocks over a 48-minute game, McIlvaine's 6.7 average would lead the league.

The bidding for McIlvaine will start at $3 million per year, said Grinker.

"I don't have any question that will be a very safe starting figure for someone like Jim McIlvaine," Grinker said. "He's not some untrained rookie. You have your first tier of [free-agent] centers like Alonzo [Mourning], Dikembe Mutombo and, of course, Shaq. And then all eyes are going in the direction of Jim McIlvaine. He's a special player."

The Bullets also have to address their point-guard situation, where Mark Price, Brent Price and Pack are free agents. Mark Price, limited to seven games last season because of injuries, is unlikely to return. Brent Price could re-sign as a reserve guard.

If the Bullets go shopping, Kenny Anderson and Derek Harper are the best point guards available. There have been rumors that Falk may try to get the Bullets to sign Howard under the condition they also sign Anderson.

Should the Bullets try but fail to sign a free-agent guard, they could lose Pack, who averaged career highs of 18.1 points and 7.8 assists before a nerve injury in his right leg limited him to 31 games.

Pack's asking price also might top $3 million per season.

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