NBA signing season tips off

150 free agents hit market with Richmond, as done deals are few

August 02, 1999|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

It was the official beginning of the NBA's version of an open air market, the day when free agents could begin signing contracts and trades could be made. But a day that began with high anticipation ended with great speculation of what will occur in the coming days.

Will Mitch Richmond's stay with the Washington Wizards end after just one year? Is Penny Hardaway's career with the Orlando Magic over? Will overweight Vin Baker depart Seattle? Those are some of the major questions as more than 150 NBA free agents hit the market yesterday, shopping around for new teams and the best contracts.

Karl Malone took care of his business early yesterday, signing a four-year, $67 million contract with the Utah Jazz that will likely ensure he ends his career with the only team he has played for. The two-time NBA MVP, who turned 36 on July 24, signed his deal on Saturday at 10: 01 p.m. Mountain time, or 12: 01 a.m. Eastern time yesterday, which was when the wheeling and dealing was officially allowed to begin. Perhaps the Jazz was concerned about a change of mind from a player who, before last season, had vowed never to play for Utah again. The first year of the contract will pay Malone $14 million, the maximum allowed under the collective bargaining agreement approved earlier this year.

"It means in a sense that what your mom told you was right," Malone said at a news conference yesterday. "If you work hard and dedicate yourself to something, you'll be rewarded.

"I have one goal now, and that one goal is to win the NBA championship," he added. "It started 14 years ago. I'm not saying it's going to happen, but I'm going back to training right now."

The New Jersey Nets also wasted little time in reaching an agreement with Keith Van Horn, who signed a six-year, $73 contract extension yesterday. Van Horn has led the Nets in scoring in both of his years in the NBA, averaging 20.5 points and 7.4 rebounds those two seasons.

"Keith is obviously one of the premier young players," Nets general manager John Nash said in a conference call. "It was an automatic, quite frankly. We said from the beginning, there was no mystery about the fact that Keith is one of our more important players, and so from the first opportunity we had to talk to him and his representatives, we wanted to do everything in our power to maintain his services."

The Philadelphia 76ers quickly re-signed point guard Eric Snow and small forward George Lynch.

Also yesterday Toronto and Indiana completed a draft-day deal, with the Raptors sending first-round pick Jonathan Bender to the Pacers in exchange for veteran forward Antonio Davis.

The fifth pick of the June 30 draft, Bender is a 6-foot-11 forward out of Picayune High School in Mississippi. He was the highest draft pick taken out of high school since Kevin Garnett was chosen fifth by the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1995.

Davis, 30, played the past six seasons with the Pacers.

He could be the starting power forward for the Raptors if last season's starter, free-agent Charles Oakley, fails to re-sign. One rumored sign-and-trade deal has Oakley and small forward Tracy McGrady going to Orlando in exchange for Hardaway.

While displaying obvious slippage in his game, Hardaway may be the top free agent as he opted out of the final three years of his Magic contract after last season. Along with Toronto, the Los Angeles Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers and Phoenix Suns are said to be interested in the 6-foot-7 guard who feuded with coach Chuck Daly last season.

Another highly sought after free agent is Richmond, whose stay in Washington may be brief. While Richmond, 34, is seeking a deal worth at least $12 million a season, the Wizards are reluctant to part with that much money for a player who recorded career lows in scoring (19.7 points a game) and field-goal percentage (41.2 percent) on a team that finished 14 games below .500.

But those numbers haven't scared off other teams, as the Pacers, Lakers, Miami Heat and Golden State Warriors have all expressed an interest in the six-time All-Star.

Seattle appears to be focusing all of its free-agent attention on Richmond, and might free up as much as $9 million for the 6-5 shooting guard who made $2.5 million last season.

Seattle also is likely to re-sign Baker, coming off a career-worst season after coming into camp overweight. Baker was still carrying the extra pounds while representing the United States in the recent Olympic qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico.

In a deal that will probably be made official today, the Atlanta Hawks will continue to revamp their team by trading All-Star guard Steve Smith and backup Ed Gray to Portland for Isaiah Rider and Jim Jackson. The Hawks, swept by the New York Knicks in the second round of the playoffs, dealt point guard Mookie Blaylock to Golden State before the draft.

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