4. Which teams are the biggest winners?
The Lakers, the Knicks and the Heat. Landing O'Neal makes L.A., which won 53 games last season but lost to the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, a more serious championship contender, even though it had to trade three productive players—center Vlade Divac, forward George Lynch and guard Anthony Peeler—to create room under the cap for Shaq. West dealt Divac to Charlotte for 17-year-old guard Kobe Bryant and all but gave away Lynch and Peeler to the Vancouver Grizzlies. The key cap magic that West performed was making room for O'Neal without renouncing the rights to the Lakers' own free agent, starting forward Elden Campbell, who re-signed with L.A. for seven years and $49 million. And come January, when renounced players can resign with their former teams, the Lakers may be further bolstered by swingman Magic Johnson, who while doing color on an Olympic basketball telecast last Saturday ruminated about coming out of retirement (again).
When the Knicks announced on July 14 that they had acquired Childs, Houston and Johnson, they immediately transformed themselves from an aging, punchless team to a younger, offensively more potent (if defensively less rugged) one. Houston, who will start ahead of John Starks, is a rising star, the reliable shooter New York has needed for years, and Johnson will lift some of the frontcourt scoring burden off Ewing. Now that Orlando is Shaq-less, the Knicks should emerge as the most formidable Eastern Conference challenger to the defending NBA champion Bulls. Both teams could be pushed by the Heat, whose nucleus now includes Howard, Mourning and point guard Tim Hardaway.
5. What did the winners do that other teams didn't?
They looked to the future. West, Knicks general manager and vice president Ernie Grunfeld and Heat coach-president Pat Riley were the first to plan by clearing salary-cap space. Last season Riley traded with contracts in mind rather than bodies, picking up players such as Gatling and Hardaway, who would be free agents at the end of the season and thereby would give him room to maneuver under the cap. Grunfeld dumped forward Charles Smith and his $3.3 million contract on the San Antonio Spurs at mid-season for Lohaus and free-agent-to-be Willie Anderson. Anderson was one of the players whose rights the Knicks renounced last week to clear salary-cap space.
6. Which is the most depressed NBA city these days?
It's a tie between Orlando and Washington. Guard Anfernee Hardaway, O'Neal's teammate in Orlando and on Dream Team III, was downcast after hearing about O'Neal's decision to leave. "I'm not going to tell you we can still win a championship, because I just don't know," Hardaway said. "This is bad."
Howard was almost as important to the Bullets and to D.C. as O'Neal was to Orlando. The Bullets' front office saw Howard and forward Chris Webber as the linchpins of a resurgence, one that would come to fruition in 1997-98 with a new nickname (the Wizards) and a new arena, which will be harder to fill now that Howard is gone.
7. Since teams can offer their own free agents any amount of money to re-sign, why are so many clubs losing their stars?
In many cases it's just poor negotiating. Washington wanted desperately to keep Howard, and Detroit wanted almost as badly for Houston to stay. But each club erred by making a low first bid and assuming it would have a chance to sweeten the deal when it saw what other teams were offering. Pistons officials were upset that Houston accepted the Knicks' deal without giving them a chance to match it. But "if they think Allan is going to come running back to them with every offer," Houston's agent, Bill Strickland, warned three weeks ago, "they're making a huge mistake."