Free agents a tough fit under salary cap for most NBA teams

Mid-level exception likely option for clubs

Bryant is class of group

Pro Basketball

July 04, 2004|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

The NBA's free-agent period, which opened Thursday, is not nearly as long or as ballyhooed as those for Major League Baseball or the NFL, but is no less vital to the 138 players who are available, or to the 30 teams.

Tucked in among the list of players are a fair share of has-beens, never-weres and aspiring hopefuls, to be sure. But there are enough gems to make this one of the most interesting free-agent periods in recent memory.

However, with most teams at or near the league's salary cap limit, expected to come in around $44 million when it is calculated later this month, not many clubs can be completely active. Many will be able to offer only a mid-level exception slot, which will be around $5 million a year.

Teams can exceed the cap to re-sign their own players, but the latest collective bargaining agreement, which expires after this season, limits the length and dollar amounts of contracts for most players.

The Denver Nuggets, who will have nearly $26 million in cap room, are expected to be the major player in this free-agent period. The Nuggets, who reached the playoffs last season with rookie sensation Carmelo Anthony (Towson Catholic), have already made overtures to players and might drive the market.

The Utah Jazz, with more than $30 million in cap space, has some interest in playing the game, but Salt Lake City has not historically been a particularly desirable landing place for NBA free agents. While Atlanta is an offseason home to many NBA players, the Hawks, who have about $25 million to play with, are thought to be a second-level choice for most free agents.

The jewel in the free-agent crown is Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers. The 6-foot-7 guard, a five-time All-NBA selection, is widely acclaimed as the best perimeter player in the game, and he has opted out of his contract. Under league rules, he can command a contract in excess of $100 million over six years from any team in the league, other than the Lakers, who can give him a seventh year and pay him $130 million.

Bryant's talent is such that even the notoriously cheap Los Angeles Clippers, who have about $15 million in cap room, are said to be interested in making a run.

"We've had initial conversations. We've spoken to his agent," Clippers executive vice president Elgin Baylor told the Los Angeles Times. "As far as Kobe's concerned, let me say this: We're willing to do whatever it takes to get Kobe. We feel Kobe will be a tremendous upgrade for us and he would fit in very well with our young, talented players, and so we will have more talks."

Besides the fact that Bryant is facing sexual assault charges in Eagle, Colo., and could be convicted and sentenced to a prison term, the Lakers have pledged to do whatever it takes to keep him. That apparently includes trading center Shaquille O'Neal, whom Bryant has feuded with, and signing Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski for the coaching vacancy left when Phil Jackson, whom Bryant also fought with, was let go after the NBA Finals.

Among the other marquee free-agent candidates available are Golden State center Erick Dampier; San Antonio guard Manu Ginobili; New Jersey forward Kenyon Martin; Clippers guard Quentin Richardson and Detroit forward Rasheed Wallace. Ginobili, Martin and Richardson are restricted free agents, meaning their original clubs can retain their rights by matching whatever offer sheets they receive.

The Nets, recently purchased by a new ownership group, are said to be considering a sign-and-trade deal with Martin.

Steve Nash, the Dallas Mavericks point guard, reportedly has agreed to a five-year, $65 million deal with the Phoenix Suns, though players are technically banned from signing contracts until July 14.

On the next level of free agents are Seattle's Brent Barry and his brother, Jon, currently with Denver; Utah forward Keon Clark; Chicago guard Jamal Crawford; Sacramento center Vlade Divac; Lakers guard Derek Fisher; Minnesota guard Troy Hudson; Portland forward Darius Miles; Detroit center Mehmet Okur; Memphis forward Stromile Swift; Washington center Etan Thomas; and San Antonio forward Hedo Turkoglu. Of this group, Crawford, Miles, Okur, Swift, Thomas and Turkoglu are restricted.

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