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Cornering the market on boredom

Don't expect a lot of significant action in free agency

Posted: Monday July 2, 2007 2:28PM; Updated: Tuesday July 3, 2007 11:58AM
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Rashard Lewis may be the biggest free agent to change teams this offseason.
Rashard Lewis may be the biggest free agent to change teams this offseason.

Remember back in the summer of 2000, when then-free agents Tim Duncan and Tracy McGrady were the subject of intense college-style recruitment by NBA suitors?

The Magic flew Duncan and his girlfriend in on a private jet. They dazzled T-Mac with a video extolling the virtues of the Magic Kingdom.

Even stodgy Bulls GM Jerry Krause got in the spirit of the times, dispatching Benny the Bull and a brass band to O'Hare Airport to greet McGrady on his visit to the Windy City.

The NBA sure could use some of that right now.

It seems the last few years the free-agent fun and zaniness have pretty much dried up.

There have been some notable exceptions: The Bulls last year pirated Ben Wallace out of Detroit after a secret visit from GM John Paxson and coach Scott Skiles. Three years ago the Suns swayed Steve Nash to bolt the Mavs and take his magic act back to the desert.

But for the most part, the combination of a lack of marquee players available, a dearth of teams with cap room and the dreaded luxury tax has conspired to throw a wet blanket on the free-agent scene.

"I think everything goes in cycles," Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld said. "Some years you have more [marquee players] than others. It's just like the draft. Some years are better than others."

This year's free-agent signing period, which officially kicked off Sunday, definitely is shaping up as a quiet one.

Other than Vince Carter, Chauncey Billups and Rashard Lewis, there are no obvious high-impact players available. Carter (Nets) and Billups (Pistons) are widely expected to re-up with their respective teams on July 11, the first day contracts officially can be signed. And Lewis reportedly has agreed to join the Magic.

Meanwhile, only a handful of teams have any room under the salary cap to go out and bid on free agents.

The Magic (as much as $15 million before the Lewis agreement), Bobcats ($9 million), Bucks ($7.6 million) and Grizzlies ($7 million) appear to be the only clubs that can offer more than the mid-level exception (around $5.5 million) available to all 30 teams. The Bulls and Sonics also might be able get over the mid-level figure slightly, depending on the final cap figure (which won't be known until July 11).

But all these teams would have to renounce key players to get any significant room at all.

If they keep the guys they have, they drop off the list of potential spenders. This means, basically, that there is little or no market for the kind of high-priced deals seen in the past.

"The way the system is set up, the better free agents usually stay with their teams," Grunfeld said. "Also, more and more teams are concerned about the luxury tax.

"It doesn't mean there won't be movement. It's just that teams will have to use the mid-level exception."

To be sure, some free agents will find ways to get to preferred destinations via sign-and-trades. In fact, the real hot-stove excitement this summer figures to be in this area as some big names like Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Jermaine O'Neal and Pau Gasol could be on the trade block. Depending on what happens with them, it could open up some possibilities for existing free agents to be included in packages.

The Bulls, for example, might be able to use free agents Andres Nocioni and/or P.J. Brown in a sign-and-trade package for a low-post scorer. The Bucks perhaps could sign Mo Williams and deal him to the Hawks or some other team that needs a point guard. If Anderson Varejao proves too costly for the Cavs, they might be able to trade him for help somewhere else on the roster.

But apart from a few of these deals, there just doesn't seem to be much buzz surrounding this year's crop.

It is possible as well that part of the NBA's depressed market has to do with the fact that so many teams have been burned in recent years. Other than Shaquille O'Neal (in '96) and Nash ('04), very few big-money free agents have paid obvious dividends for their clubs.

Last year's crop was pretty much a disaster. Peja Stojakovic signed a $64 million deal with the Hornets, only to miss most of the season with injury. Wallace got $60 million from the Bulls but couldn't get them over the hump. A slew of players got all or most of the mid-level exception only to have little or no impact with their new clubs, including Vladimir Radmanovic, Tim Thomas, Jared Jeffries and Nazr Mohammed.

"I think a lot of teams are going to be more careful," said one Western Conference GM who wished to remain anonymous. "With the luxury tax, you can't afford to make mistakes."

So go ahead, NBA fans.

Trim the hedges. Mow the lawn. Wash the car.

It's going to be a quiet summer. The only fireworks you're liable to see in the coming days might be at the Fourth of July barbecue.