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Phil Taylor
July 29, 1996
In big-bucks bidding, new Laker (and movie genie) Shaquille O'Neal and other top NBA free agents conjured staggering riches
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July 29, 1996


In big-bucks bidding, new Laker (and movie genie) Shaquille O'Neal and other top NBA free agents conjured staggering riches

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Below, based on information from agents and league sources, are the NBA's top salaries (in millions) last season and the projected top salaries next season of those players signed through Sunday. Possible additions: Reggie Miller, who was being wooed by the Pistons and his current team, the Pacers, and could receive as much as $8 million next season; Alonzo Mourning, expected to resign with the Heat for an average of about $15 million a season; and Dennis Rodman, who was negotiating to rejoin the Bulls for upwards of $6 million.



1. Patrick Ewing



Michael Jordan



2. David Robinson



Shaquille O'Neal



3. Clyde Drexler



Elden Campbell



4. Chris Webber



David Robinson



5. Joe Dumars



Juwan Howard



6. Danny Manning



Dikembe Mutombo



7. A.C. Green



Hakeem Olajuwon



8. Shaquille O'Neal



Chris Webber



9. Derrick Coleman



Gary Payton



10. Hakeem Olajuwon



Horace Grant



Utah Jazz and Dream Team III forward Karl Malone was walking down an Atlanta street last Friday afternoon when a fan called out to him, "Hey, Karl, I haven't looked at the news since this morning. Anybody make a hundred million yet?" The fan was referring, of course, to the free-agent frenzy that has gripped the NBA since the new collective bargaining agreement between the league and its players became official on July 11. Signing a pro basketball contract used to be the equivalent of winning the lottery, but not anymore. Now it's like winning the lottery and the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes and breaking the bank in Vegas all at once. Fifteen years ago Magic Johnson's 25-year, $25 million contract was considered a whopper, but compared with the mountains of money that recently have been piled at the doors of some free agents, $25 million is a molehill. Last week center Shaquille O'Neal turned down a deal from the Orlando Magic that would have paid him $21 million in the contract's first season.

You thought athletes' salaries could no longer shock you? Sure, the Chicago Bulls gave Michael Jordan a reported $25 million to sign again, but they are only on the hook for next season. Consider the figures in the following multiyear deals. O'Neal: $120 million over seven seasons from the Los Angeles Lakers. Forward Juwan Howard: $98 million over seven seasons from the Miami Heat. Guard Gary Payton: $85 million over seven seasons from the Seattle SuperSonics. Assuming the Heat re-signs center Alonzo Mourning, who is expected to get at least $105 million over seven seasons, Miami will have committed $239 million to just three players, the third being P.J. Brown, a nice young forward whom you may not have heard of. (He played last season for the New Jersey Nets.) Brown signed a seven-year, $36 million contract with the Heat last week. Nothing against P.J. Brown, but...P.J. Brown? What's going on here?

"It's not about the money," O'Neal insisted last Thursday at the news conference announcing his move. But of course it is all about the money. With more than 150 free agents, including an unprecedented number of stars, on the market this summer, owners and team executives saw that they could dramatically remake their teams by spending a lot of money while cleverly maneuvering to stay under the salary cap of $24.3 million per club. "Get used to it, because this is the way it's going to be," says Jerry West, the Lakers' executive vice president of basketball operations. "The top players are going to be paid their worth. This is where we are."

But where exactly is that? "You can't tell the players without a scorecard," says non-free-agent forward Charles Barkley of the (at last check) Phoenix Suns. "Guys change teams every day. I'm not going to know who I'm playing against every night until they walk in the arena." In all this confusion, everyone is asking questions, the first of which is usually:

1. Has the league gone stark, raving mad?

Not really. The NBA generates $3 billion a year in merchandising income, has TV contracts worth $1.1 billion over four years with NBC and Turner Sports, and its popularity is growing around the world. Even the Atlanta Hawks, one of the few clubs in the league with weak attendance, were able to dip into their coffers for $56 million over five years to sign a free agent—center Dikembe Mutombo, formerly of the Denver Nuggets. The money is there to be spent, not only on the stars but also on second-tier players such as Brown and Chris Gatling, who received about $22 million over five years to leave Miami for the Dallas Mavericks. "Owners didn't get rich enough to be owners by paying their employees more than their business could afford," says Malone.

2. O.K., so the haves will have more. What about the have-nots?

The people who almost certainly will suffer are the marginal players. For instance, the New York Knicks renounced (renounce is the latest NBA catchword; it means to announce that you have no intention of signing a player on your team who is eligible for free agency) the rights to seven players to find the cash to pay free agents Chris Childs, the point guard the Knicks lured from the Nets with a six-year, $24 million contract, and Allan Houston, the shooting guard who left the Detroit Pistons for $56 million over seven years. New York also added to its payroll forward Larry Johnson, who earns an average $8.1 million per year and was acquired from the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for forwards Anthony Mason and Brad Lohaus. Even those renounced Knicks who catch on with other teams will see their salaries drop, perhaps to near the league minimum of $247,500.

3. Is this summer's rush on free agents going to become the norm?

There won't be as many high-profile players on the market every off-season, but there will be enough year in and year out that radical face-lifts of the sort the Knicks gave themselves won't be unusual. Next season's crop of potential free agents includes Jordan again, New York center Patrick Ewing, Suns guard Kevin Johnson, Jazz guard Jeff Hornacek, Magic guard Nick Anderson and Portland Trail Blazers forward Clifford Robinson. Two summers from now the pool will grow because of the provision in the collective bargaining agreement that allows players to become free agents after their third season. Thus last season's rookies—including guards Jerry Stackhouse of the Philadelphia 76ers and Damon Stoudamire of the Toronto Raptors, and forwards Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Joe Smith of the Golden State Warriors—will be able to shop their services.

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