Notes: Some restricted free agents could be ripe for the taking
This could be a rare time when top restricted free agents change teams
The Knicks (David Lee) and Jazz (Paul Millsap) face tough decisions on restricteds
More notes: What happened with proposed Amar'e trade?; Spurs get draft help
NBA executives have never faced a group of restricted free agents like this before. Unrestricted, sure, while bracing for next July and the unrestricteds who will prompt the mother of all spending sprees, nay, the octomom of all spending sprees. But for the restricteds, who mostly negotiate aware that the original team will match any reasonable offer sheet, this is the unique moment.
The original club almost always flexes the right of first refusal. It's why a lot of front offices don't even bother negotiating with prime restricted free agents -- the execs are hammering out a deal that will be matched away from them in about 17 seconds. It's a fool's errand. And the chances of two or three valuable restricteds moving the same offseason, forget it.
Except for this summer.
The planets have aligned in a strange way. The Knicks are banking money for 2010, when just maybe they will have a passing interest in LeBron James. (Shhhhhhh. It's a secret.) The Jazz don't want to go into the luxury tax to sign a third big man who may or may not contribute more than the starters already down for big money. The Bucks just spent a lottery pick on a projected replacement at point guard. The Hawks haven't even been on the same court in the same continent as one of their free agents in 14 months. All set against the backdrop of economic meltdown.
These unusual developments could lead to the most unusual development yet: highly regarded restricted free agents changing teams. Here are four possibilities, in alphabetical order:
Josh Childress, Hawks: His startling decision last summer to take a reported $20 million (after taxes) over three years from Greek club Olympiakos, rather than simply using the offer to threaten Atlanta the way most others would have done, was not simply a money grab. Childress is smart and mature and interested in the world and all along would have been the kind of guy to immerse himself in a new life while appreciating a cosmopolitan existence.
But Childress can get out of that contract this summer and return to the NBA (he must decide by July 15), and that presumably has been his hope all along, to be an important player here instead of Greece. Not only that, interest is relatively high as teams consider the circumstances that create the possibility the Hawks will not match: They have fellow small forward Marvin Williams (restricted) and starting point guard Mike Bibby (unrestricted) as free agents, they reached the second round without Childress, and they have an unpredictable, unstable ownership situation. No one knows how the Atlanta bosses will respond, only that it would not be a surprise if they let him go.
David Lee, Knicks: Any other time, this is an automatic match, and maybe it doesn't even get far enough for an intruder to dictate terms. Maybe New York offers a big deal early in free agency as a preemptive move. Lee led the league in double-doubles last season at age 25 and is a building block, not part of the problem there.
But this is not any other time. The Knicks have spent years getting away from long-term deals to build a war chest for the summer of 2010, and a Lee contract would cut into that. Same thing with Nate Robinson, likewise restricted, except that Lee will command more interest and more dollars from outside. Even the mid-level exception could make them wince.
The Knicks could soon face a major decision, with the options being to sign Lee, or wait to see if he accepts an offer sheet and match it rather than lose a commodity for nothing, or wait to see if he gets an offer sheet and don't match to keep all the 2010 money safe, or do a sign-and-trade that would still keep them away from large contracts. There's also the logical two-step plan: sign or match because it would be foolish to let him go for free and know Lee's salary can always be cleared in trade before next summer.
Paul Millsap, Jazz: Utah got forced into a corner Tuesday, when power forward Carlos Boozer reversed his previous stand and decided to not become a free agent, and center Mehmet Okur also stayed in his contract. The decision on the three big men evaporated into the unwanted position of the decision on one, a call that doesn't allow the Jazz to let Boozer walk and retain Millsap with a smaller price tag.
The Jazz did not want to go into the luxury tax, but keeping Millsap, on their own or by matching an offer sheet, will push them far over the line and require a trade at some point to dump salary. (Any takers for Andrei Kirilenko with two years and $34.3 million remaining? Anyone?) Outsiders negotiating with Millsap will hope to turn Utah's precarious financial situation into an opening.
Ramon Sessions, Bucks: He's not a franchise-changing free agent, but his production his first two seasons (11.6 points and six assists in 27.3 minutes over 96 games) gets people wondering how good the former second-round pick would be as a regular starter. That would have been the case no matter what. Then Milwaukee used the No. 10 pick on Brandon Jennings, another point guard, and Sessions was perhaps that much more available.
It will take a big number to scare the Bucks away from matching, and that kind of money may not be in play in this economic climate. They would rather sort through trade possibilities for Sessions or Luke Ridnour than let Sessions go for nothing.
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