With training camps near, several key players still unsigned
Posted: Tuesday September 14, 2004 11:11AM; Updated: Tuesday September 14, 2004 11:55AM
Stromile Swift (left) and Rodney White (right) are looking for a home for their high-flying acts this season.
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images
Call it the calm after the storm. July brought us a flurry of superstar swapping, but over the past few weeks the NBA has seen about as much action as Erkel. Most teams' rosters are set for the coming season and the top free agents inked their deals a long time ago.
But there's something funny in the air this year, and it's not that cloud from North Korea: With just three weeks to go before training camp opens, several players don't have contracts for the coming season yet. And we're not talking about scrubeenies such as Amal McCaskill and Jacque Vaughn, who already have contracts. These are key players that are free. The list includes guys such as certain Hall of Famer Karl Malone, sharpshooter Jon Barry, and up-and-comers like Stromile Swift and Rodney White.
So what gives?
One explanation is that nearly all teams have run out of salary cap room, and those that have it are saving it for a rainy day (next year for Atlanta, 2006 for Charlotte, when hell freezes over for the Clippers). However, nearly every club has at least a veteran's exception to throw around. At that price, several unsigned players will be extreme bargains. Here's a look at the best of the bunch:
Stromile Swift: Now is the time to pounce on Swift. He's a restricted free agent, and the Grizzlies have claimed they'll match any offer. However, last week the Grizzlies matched Cleveland's offer to Frankensteinian center Jake Tsakalidis, putting Memphis into luxury tax territory. Any money they use to match an offer for Swift will cost the Grizzlies twice as much once the tax is figured in. That may give them pause when they consider matching an offer for a guy who plays the same position as Pau Gasol does and whose basketball IQ had wags nicknaming him "None Too."
Nonetheless, Swift is worth the money. He is a hugely talented forward who has crazy hops and is a good mid-range shooter. He's way too good to ride the pine but that's what he'll be doing if he stays in Memphis. The Atlantas and Charlottes of the world should be coughing up an offer sheet for several million a year and calling the Grizzlies' bluff, but they haven't shown any inclination yet.
Karl Malone: Malone is in a different situation from the other players on this list -- he has several teams clamoring to sign him but has yet to decide which team will be most helpful in his Sisyphean quest to win a championship. The smart money is on the two Western favorites, San Antonio and Minnesota. The Spurs are keeping a roster spot warm for Malone to add some smashmouth to their finesse attack, while the T'wolves reportedly sent Kevin Garnett to make an impassioned sales pitch in which he studiously avoided using the word "Olowokandi."
Rodney White:How to sabotage your career: Chapter one, page three. Last week, White allegedly decided to celebrate the expiration of the ban on assault weapons by getting a few friends together to shoot guns from a moving vehicle. For maximum impact, he chose the nation's capital as the shooting range. Brilliant. Teams that might have had an interest in him aren't just backing away, they're moonwalking. That's a shame, because White is a point-producing machine capable of averaging close to 20 a game in the right system, and he's undervalued because he was stuck behind Carmelo Anthony last season. If he cuts out the Soldier of Fortune routine, he could be the steal of free agency.
Keon Clark: Teams completely forgot about Clark because he only played two games last year due to an injury to one of his pea-sized ankles. He got a two-year deal for the mid-level exception two years ago and is still the same player he was then. Although Clark may sign with Cleveland this week, the fact that he was the Cavs' second choice behind the aforementioned stiff Tsakalidis says it all. Wherever he ends up, he'll be taking a pay cut.
Jon Barry: It's awfully strange that in such a shooting-starved league, Barry still doesn't have a roster spot for next season. Barry continues to do an odd tango with the Nuggets, who want to re-sign him but aren't anxious to give a guy in his mid-30s multiple guaranteed seasons. That could provide a window for a more shooting-desperate team (say, Cleveland or Philadelphia) to pull the trigger, sending the big-beaked basketball nomad to his ninth pro team.
Marcus Fizer: Fizer was recuperating from a knee injury much of last season and was so far down Scott Skiles' depth chart that, in an NBA first, he was waxing nostalgic about the Tim Floyd years. However, in the final two games Fizer exploded for an average of 26 points and 18 rebounds. He's always been undersized for a power forward, but he can get points in the low post. Despite the lack of attention teams have paid Fizer thus far, he should fit in somewhere as a poor man's (not to mention poorer) Corliss Williamson.
Speaking of Contracts...
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Now that free agency has largely run its course, it's extension season in the NBA, as players heading into the fourth year of a rookie contract can extend their deal. Most fans consider this about as exciting as televised chess, but it's important. Several of the biggest management blunders in the past few seasons have been made not in free agency, but in the awarding of overly generous extensions to undeserving players. Inevitably, this forces teams to bend over backwards to unload the guy, sometimes within the same year.
For instance, Wally Szczerbiak's six-year, $65 million extension forced T'wolves owner Glen Taylor to fork out some serious wampum in luxury tax to keep his team contending in the West. Golden State chose the other alternative when they mistakenly gave Antawn Jamison a max extension, eventually prompting a series of trades to get out from under the crushing obligation.
We probably won't see many mistakes this year, because the 2001 draft was so underwhelming that few players are in position to get sizable extensions from their teams. Still, a few teams face important decisions. The Nets already shelled out $78 million to keep Richard Jefferson, while Memphis continued the questionable trend it started with Mike Miller, Jason Williams and (ahem) Michael Dickerson by extending Shane Battier for close to $40 million.
The Griz will take center stage again as they negotiate a deal with Pau Gasol, the best and most consistently goateed player from the 2001 group. With a player of this quality, the basic strategy behind extensions is that the player agrees to sign for slightly less than the max in return for the security of having a big bucks contract in place a year early, while the team does the same to avoid having to a match a max offer the following summer. It should eventually play out that way with Gasol, but the deadline isn't until Oct. 29, so there's plenty of time for hemming and hawing until a deal gets sorted out.
Most of the others will play a wait-and-see game. Zach Randolph was the best bet to get a large deal until his latest brush with the law. Since the Blazers have been getting a little too familiar with the Oregon penal code in recent seasons, Portland's brass now may wait until next summer and see if Randolph can behave.
Several of the other top 2001 picks -- Kwame Brown, Eddy Curry, Tyson Chandler, Vladimir Radmanovic, Joe Johnson and Brendan Haywood -- certainly are talented but have thrown in too many space cadet moments for teams to risk a hefty investment. Golden State probably would be happy to extend Troy Murphy and Jason Richardson, except that it will cut into next year's cap space, so they would seem to be better off playing a waiting game.
That leaves two key players to watch: Jamaal Tinsley and Tony Parker. The two point guards were the last picks of the first round in 2001 but could end up opposing each other in this year's Finals. If the Pacers and Spurs are smart, they'll both work something out this summer to avoid a substantially higher price tag a year from now.