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Going to market (cont.)

Posted: Monday July 2, 2007 1:05PM; Updated: Wednesday July 4, 2007 12:01PM
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Five teams facing hard decisions

Detroit Pistons: What Joe Dumars decides to do with Chauncey Billups will dictate the immediate course of the franchise. Re-sign Billups for the large contract he wants and it is status quo, with coach Flip Saunders trying to coax an inspired performance from a team that thinks it knows better. If Billups finds the grass -- and cash -- greener elsewhere, then there's little reason to keep this group together, not without Billups there to keep Rasheed Wallace's emotions somewhat in check, not without Billups to provide an offensive spark when no one else on the roster seems capable.

Cleveland Cavaliers: With the rest of the East believing it is only a play or two away from replacing Cleveland as conference champs, and with LeBron James' ability to become a free agent in 2010 underlining the franchise's need to improve every season, maintaining what young talent it has is vital. Keeping restricted free agent Anderson Varejao, however, won't be easy. Committing $7-10 million a year for a 24-year-old big man whom coaches love may be tough for a team that didn't have a single draft pick in 2007 and could have trouble adding any new blood if it retains Varejao. Swingman Sasha Pavlovic also is a free agent, and while he may come a little cheaper than Varejao, it still would take a heavy toll on the Cavaliers' future flexibility.

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Miami Heat: Time was free agents would take a discount to play for a ring with Shaquille O'Neal. Having Pat Riley in the front office, and eventually on the sidelines, didn't hurt either. But with Riley's tenure as coach almost a gametime decision each night and Shaq's creeping age and growing litany of injuries, the Heat may find the veterans they once counted on attracting headed for Phoenix or Dallas instead. Perimeter threat Jason Kapono didn't wait 24 hours until reportedly agreeing to a $24 million deal with Toronto. Alonzo Mourning has delayed his decision on returning until he sees how the team, and more important, Riley's coaching future, shapes up. And Dwyane Wade may miss the early part of next season as he recovers from surgery on his separated shoulder. Winning the East doesn't require a roster loaded from top to bottom, but it does require a little more hunger, a little better skill than what the Heat showed last season. Those elements can be found on the open market, but they may not come as cheaply anymore for a team with limited budget options.

Golden State Warriors: Neither Matt Barnes nor Mickael Pietrus will serve as the ultimate determinant of this team's playoff hopes for 2007-08, but they both played key roles in playing defense and bringing energy last season. And they are both free agents. The early word is that coach Don Nelson is leaning toward re-signing Barnes, whom Nellie gave his first real chance for extended minutes. But vice president Chris Mullin has be mindful of his budget, with promising Monta Ellis and Andris Biedrins set to become free agents next summer, and if the cost of either of those players is keeping an intangibles guy such as Barnes, well, that seems an awful high price.

Los Angeles Lakers: Kobe Bryant wants out; that's clear. But he might stay if the Lakers can get him some help to at least get out of the first round. The problem is that the Lakers don't have any room under the salary cap to add any of the many free agents who would help. They also have little talent other teams would want in sign-and-trade deals, unless you count 19-year-old center Andrew Bynum, who is the only player the Lakers would like to keep almost as much as Kobe. Yet, if his video rant is to be believed, Kobe couldn't care less if the Lakers dealt Bynum. This isn't going to end pretty unless Mitch Kupchak can demonstrate the kind of creativity he has yet to show as the Lakers' GM.

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