Let's Make a Deal
The Blazers are supporting Brian Grant in his free-agent job search
Marcus Camby was worried about his future with the Knicks when he arrived at their practice facility for a workout a couple of weeks ago. Trade rumors had been flying for weeks, and he was trying his best to ignore them, but when he walked into the locker room he was greeted by the most immediate source of his concern: 6'9" free agent power forward Brian Grant—or a huge poster of him, anyway—in action in a New York uniform. It had been left behind during the team's lavish and highly publicized recruitment of Grant a few days earlier.
"It was one of those things you stand next to and measure yourself against," the 6'11" Camby says. "It was bigger than me."
The wooing of Grant has turned into one of the more intriguing episodes in this blockbuster, free-agent summer. It began with Grant's surprising decision in June to sacrifice the four years and $42 million left on his contract with the Trail Blazers in hopes of joining a team that could give him more playing time. Grant's minutes were limited last season by injuries to his left knee and right foot, which coincided painfully with the emergence of Rasheed Wallace as one of the league's premier power forwards. After stalling all but four games for Portland in 1998-99, Grant played a bit role in the playoffs last spring, including duty as an undersized backup center trying to guard Shaquille O'Neal in the conference finals. It was the kind of season that Grant doesn't want to experience again.
"My phone would ring quite often late at night," says Grant's agent, Mark Bartelstein. "He needed to express his frustration. The team was doing well, but he wasn't contributing the way he wanted. Usually you're getting calls like that from a guy in the last year of his contract, wondering what he's going to make next year. Here's a guy who's set financially for the rest of his life, and I would be on the phone with him, talking things out He wants to earn what he's being paid."
On Aug, 1, when teams are allowed to sign free agents, Portland could offer Grant a raise to the maximum $86.7 million over seven years. It is not out of the question, considering the muscular frontcourt security Grant provides and his esteemed place in the community. (He won the NBA's J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award in 1998-99.) "The Blazers take care of their players," says a leading NBA agent, a competitor of Bartelstein's. "They aren't going to punish Grant for becoming a free agent."
As of Sunday the only team with cap room to sign Grant to a viable deal was the Bulls, who, with co-Rookie of the Year Elton Brand and top draft pick Marcus Fizer, surely don't need another power forward. The only way for Grant to move elsewhere would be in a sign-and-trade, which would open up playing time in Portland for power forward/center Jermaine O'Neal, who underlined his trade demands by refusing to play for the Blazers' summer-league team.
"If Brian was going to go somewhere, we figured it was probably going to happen in a sign-and-trade, and in that case Portland could benefit too," Bartelstein says. "It was one of those situations that might work out for everybody. When you're a player like Brian who has a relationship with an organization that appreciates what you've done, a team with whom you can talk openly, that allows you to look around and see if there's a scenario out there, that's better for everybody."
Grant, 28, was scheduled to meet this week with the Pistons, but their interest will probably diminish if they close a deal with free-agent power forward Ben Wallace of the Magic. That leaves the Knicks as the front-runner. Which players Portland might acquire in return is unclear—a third team could well be involved in a sign-and-trade—but one New York official warned that the Knicks didn't intend to deal Camby for Grant, which would be a lateral exchange of one re-bounder for another. Both Camby and coach Jeff Van Gundy say their relationship has improved after a rocky start two years ago. A deal makes sense only when you consider the teams' playing styles: Camby is at his best in a fast-breaking game, which Portland employs, while Grant is better suited to the half-court style of the Knicks.
Camby wants to play out the remaining five years of his contract in New York. "I'm using the rumors as motivation," says Camby, who hopes to have recovered from a right knee injury by the end of August. "It makes me want to get in the gym right now and work on my game." Still, he can't help but read the writing on the wall. On July 13 Camby showed up for his first workout of the summer only to find that the gym was locked and no Knicks officials were on hand to open up. "I found out later that they were on their way to the airport to meet Brian Grant," he says.