Putting the Free in Free Agent

Meet the '03 free agents. They were in the right place, but it must have been the wrong time.

Never before have so many good players chased so few bucks as will these 40-plus free agents, 13 of them former All-Stars, who go onto the open market this summer. That's because only four teams, the Spurs, Nuggets, Jazz and (ha) Clippers, can offer anything more than a contract starting at $5 million a season.

Get set for a new era in free agency: The Big Guys Discover (Gulp) There's No Place Like Home.

This started in the summer of 2001 when Chris Webber, who had spent a season encouraging bidders in an effort to get back to the bright lights, discovered he had no better option than Sacramento and re-upped.

Last summer, the modest class of '02 didn't have a single player who got more than the $4.5-million veteran's exception.

Now, as the salary cap shrinks and teams try to avoid the luxury tax, the star-studded class of '03 is also finding few options and turning its face homeward, marquee player by marquee player.

Tim Duncan is set in San Antonio. Last week Jason Kidd, who'd vowed to test the market since arriving in New Jersey, renounced his promise "Come July 1, I'll see what the Alamo has to offer," announcing he's now "100% to stay."

There are two hallmarks of the new situation:

* There will be no earth-tilting moves, as when the Lakers signed Shaquille O'Neal.

* There will be some bargains.

Bidders are few. The Spurs, $14 million under the cap after David Robinson retires, will be the prime destination, and all negotiations will depend on which way the Spurs decide to go.

Denver will have $12 million but has to persuade players to help rebuild from Square 1.

Utah will have $19 million but will have to use it to re-sign its own free agents, or start over.

The Clippers will have $28 million but will use it to re-sign their own players, they continue to insist.

Give These Poor Big Guys a Home

Gary Payton, Milwaukee -- Sen. Herb Kohl, who's selling, can drop below the luxury-tax threshold by letting him go, saving Payton's salary, $12.6 million, plus $5 million in luxury tax and making the Bucks eligible to share in the players' escrow money. This would add more than

$20 million to next season's bottom line and make it easier to lure a buyer to the tundra.

For his part, Payton has said of Milwaukee, "It's only two months."

The Spurs are thinking about Payton too. Otherwise, it's Denver, where he says he won't go, a sign-and-trade, a pay cut or Winter Wonderland.

Gilbert Arenas, Golden State -- There have been few darkhorses like him. A shooting guard drafted in the second round in 2001, he's now one of the league's best young point guards and the Warriors' franchise player. But they can only offer him $4.5 million without dumping someone and have already struck out trying to move Erick Dampier's $7.9-million salary and Danny Fortson's $5.9-million deal.

Denver would max Arenas out, but his father says our Valley Guy out of Grant High in Van Nuys doesn't do cold weather. Right on, dude.

Jermaine O'Neal, Indiana -- He looked set to stay, but that was before the bottom dropped out of the Pacer season. If he's on the market, the Spurs will be interested.

Michael Olowokandi, Clippers -- After a lost season, his price dropped like a rock but, as they keep saying in the stock market, we may have just put a bottom in. The Spurs were hot for him, switched to Kidd but now must rethink Olowokandi. They're determined not to give an unproven player $100 million just because they have it to spend but may yet come up with a number he and they can agree on.

Brad Miller, Indiana -- Also expected to stay but could be a fall-back position for the Spurs. He's not a star but he was an All-Star -- if only in the East. As he proved in Indy, he can make the right team bigger and better.

Karl Malone, Utah -- He goes into a tizzy every summer, but unless he outdoes himself and takes $4.5 million in Dallas, he'll be back at the same old pop stand with his little buddy, John Stockton.

Rasho Nesterovic, Minnesota -- A less-accomplished but still developing 7-footer, he's expected to stay.

Old Favorites Priced to Move

Juwan Howard, Denver -- He has had one major problem the last seven seasons, he was overpriced at $105 million. That will be corrected.

Scottie Pippen, Portland -- He's such an obvious fit for Phil Jackson, the Laker coach even acknowledges it, flirting with the tampering rules. Under normal circumstances, Paul Allen would pay anything to keep him from the Lakers but now faces an astounding $100-million projected loss, with an $87-million payroll coming back, meaning another projected loss of $80 million to $90 million.

Of course, before the Lakers, who are creaky enough, take on the 38-year-old Pippen, they'd better make sure that this time they consider ...

Keon Clark, Sacramento -- He flew under the radar last season, which included a marijuana arrest while he negotiated with the few interested teams. He was ignored by the Lakers, who gave their veteran's exception to Devean George; the Mavericks, who pursued Rashard Lewis, and the Spurs, who saved their cap space for this summer. In the meantime, Clark has been a $4.5-million bargain for the Kings.

Clark is 28, a 6-11, shot-blocking dervish with surprising offensive skills, so the thought of his playing alongside, and backing up, O'Neal is intriguing.

Alonzo Mourning, Miami -- He's planning a comeback but was so erratic in his last one, a Heat team that looked like an East power didn't make the playoffs.

Jerry Stackhouse, Washington -- While bashing Kwame Brown, Michael Jordan also said a few things that reflected on Stackhouse, so he'd better not tempt Jordan by opting out.

P.J. Brown, New Orleans -- A 6-10 power forward who defends and averages 10 points and 10 rebounds is well worth $4.5 million.

Dale Davis, Portland -- Higher-maintenance than Brown and not as skilled, but he's stronger and can play center so he'll get offers.

Reggie Miller, Indiana -- An Indy folk hero, he wants to finish up there and the Pacers want to keep him.

Derrick Coleman, Philadelphia -- Going on 36 with his legs gone, he has actually, if belatedly, developed a good enough attitude to play. The 76ers will try to keep him, but it'll be interesting to see if they offer him anything like his current $9.4 million. And if they don't, what the old mercenary does.

Eric Piatkowski, Clippers -- The Lakers need shooters with the court sense to play in a reading offense. He'd be so happy to stay in town, let alone with a real team, he might take the $1-million veteran's minimum.

Restricted Free Agents:

The Clipper Smorgasbord

The members of the 2000 draft class are eligible for restricted free agency, with their teams retaining the right of first refusal.

Of course, all of the good ones have been re-signed, with the notable exceptions of Atlanta's Jason Terry, Detroit's Rip Hamilton

General managers drool at the mere sight of the Clippers, but if players want the security of a long-term deal, they have few options but to stay. If the Clippers do what they're always saying they will, they'll actually sign someone this summer.

What they'll have, if they keep everyone except Olowokandi, is another question. With him, they were huge. Without him, they'll be ordinary size.

Elton Brand -- His agent, David Falk, yearns to take him on the market next summer, but Brand wants to stay. (I know, I can't believe it, either.) The Clippers won't go for any sign-and-trade demands and if anyone makes him an offer, they'll match.

On the other hand, they have enough problems signing players when Donald T. Sterling is the only impediment in negotiations.

Lamar Odom -- Sterling retains a soft spot for Odom, who made such a splash as a rookie, and will match on him too.

Corey Maggette -- Maybe only hard-core fans and NBA people noticed in this lost season, but this super-athlete is happening. You'd assume they'd match on him, but let's not forget who we're dealing with.

Andre Miller -- I'd guess they won't match on him, since the organization was disappointed in him -- and vice versa -- and they have a bargain at the position in the promising Marko Jaric.

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