If Karl Malone is planning a free-agent tour of San Antonio, he'd better book his reservations in advance. Because they can offer potential signees not only the maximum salary but also the chance to join a Tim Duncan-led title contender, the Spurs could be this summer's hottest attraction. While they have long coveted Nets point guard Jason Kidd, the precocious play of 20-year-old Tony Parker may alter their wish list. "We keep hearing that Duncan wants to play with a big guy," says a Western Conference executive, "so they could use some of the money to sign a center like [the Timberwolves'] Rasho Nesterovic or [the Clippers'] Michael Olowokandi to replace David Robinson, then add a wing player like [the Clippers'] Corey Maggette with the rest. But it's all going to depend on how well they do in the playoffs." If Parker plays poorly, Kidd may become the higher priority.
Last week Kidd said he was "100 percent" sure that he'd re-sign with New Jersey, but would-be suitors aren't so certain. The decisions made by San Antonio and Kidd will be the key ones when the free-agent market opens on July 16—unless the Timberwolves lose again in the first round of the playoffs and put Kevin Garnett in play. Here's an early look at the pivotal teams in the marketplace, their potential salary-cap space and what they're shopping for.
CLIPPERS ($28 million).
Eight of their players will be free agents this summer, but rival G.M.'s believe Los Angeles is mainly interested in re-signing Elton Brand, Maggette and Lamar Odom (who may come cheap because of his two violations of the NBA's drug policy in his four-year career).
NUGGETS ($18 million).
They want point guard Gilbert Arenas, who can earn no more than $4.6 million if he re-signs with the Warriors. How they spend the rest of their money will depend on the draft lottery; by getting the rights to LeBron James, Denver could suddenly become attractive to top players.
JAZZ ($18 million).
If Malone leaves and John Stockton retires, look for the Jazz to make a raid on the Clippers, with point guard Andre Miller and Maggette as primary targets.
HEAT ($7 million).
The conventional thinking is that Miami will try to sign Olowokandi to replace Alonzo Mourning (who's also a free agent and is planning to come back next season, provided that he continues to recover from his kidney ailment). But Pat Riley is intrigued by Odom and Gary Payton.
BUCKS (over the cap).
With the team for sale, owner Herb Kohl is unlikely to add to his payroll by re-signing Payton. In that case Pay-ton's best offer may be a $4.6 million exception, which, coming from Portland, could fit the Glove.
PACERS (over the cap).
Indiana is expected to pay whatever it takes to re-sign Jermaine O'Neal. But can the Pacers also afford to keep 37-year-old Reggie Miller, who earns $12 million?
LAKERS (over the cap).
They could spend their $4.6 million exception on Malone or Scottie Pippen—or try to persuade both to split that dough for the high life in Beverly Hills and a run at a title.