The crop of free agents that may be available after the 1997-98 season is being hailed as the best since, well, last year. Along with established stars like the Magic's Penny Hardaway and the Bulls' Scottie Pippen, it includes such budding franchise types as the Timberwolves' Kevin Garnett, the Nuggets' Antonio McDyess, the Grizzlies' Bryant Reeves, the Warriors' Joe Smith and the Raptors' Damon Stoudamire. Drafted in 1995, the latter players were in the first class affected by the '94 collective bargaining agreement, which limited the length of a rookie's contract to three years. The question now: How many of these future superstars will actually change uniforms?
"It's going to be real interesting with the younger players," says Rockets vice president Carroll Dawson. "Some might feel a certain loyalty to the team that drafted them." Which ones will be available may become clearer soon. The collective bargaining pact allows a team to offer a contract extension to a player after his second season. Already Stoudamire has indicated that he would prefer to stay with Toronto, and Minnesota has expressed confidence that it will re-sign Garnett.
On the other hand, Smith said last week that he'll wait until his three-year deal is up before he decides whether to stay put or to test the open market. Nets G.M. John Nash has changed his roster by 40% since the start of the season, partly to clear salary cap room for the '98 free agents. "Some of the big names might not be there, but a number will be," Nash says. "And it only takes one or two guys to significantly improve your team."