Moses Malone has spent much of August playing pickup basketball at Houston's Fonde Rec Center. Lee Fentress has spent much of it vacationing in Maine. That is all you need to know about the state of the NBA's free-agent market. Malone was last season's Most Valuable Player and is—or at least should be—this season's most coveted free agent. Fentress is his lawyer, which means he should be sorting out offer sheets instead of trimming sheets on Penobscot Bay. But what was supposed to be a summer of bidding has become a summer of biding and, as a result, Malone probably will not be jumping ship.
Oh, he will get good money to stay in Houston; at last report Fentress and the Rockets were discussing a multiyear deal calling for up to $2 million annually. But Malone hasn't received even one offer sheet from another NBA club, and a certain Hewlett-Packard 3000 computer can't figure out why.
The computer is in the offices of National Economic Research Associates, Inc. in New York's World Trade Center, near where two of the world's tallest buildings post Manhattan up low. Lou Guth, a NERA senior vice-president who usually pores over the arcana of antitrust law, frequently pulls up a chair to the HP-3000's terminal and converses with it. Listen:
Tip tip tip, tip tip tip. Guth taps out RUN NBA on his keyboard.
Whhrrrr. Tictictic. Hmmmmm. The computer issues a greeting on its CRT screen: "Welcome to NERA's NBA Free-Agent Market. You can select any leading NBA player and see how much he would be worth to a team that you choose." Guth, who has a vague resemblance to Gabe Kaplan, twitches his mustache contentedly.
"Before choosing your player," the machine goes on, "make a philosophical choice about what characteristic (defense or offense) you feel is more important and the program will value a player's contribution to a team accordingly."
So Guth taps out "offense," then raps out " Malone." Within seconds, the Free-Agent Market Simulator (FAMS) spits out a table listing the increase in each NBA team's attendance if it were to sign Malone (see page 55).
Pressed, FAMS will say more: that the New Jersey Nets, for instance, would improve their 1981-82 44-38 record to 66-16 next season with Malone and draw 5,695 additional fans per game. If each new spectator generated $12.50 in ticket, parking and concession-stand revenue, Malone alone would mean almost $3 million mo' at the gate.
If so, why has Moses gone untouched in the free-agent market? Despite Houston General Manager Ray Patterson's repeated insistence that Ma-lone is The Franchise, Fentress says, "Moses' desire to stay in Houston would seem to exceed their interest in keeping him." And the Nets, big losers when San Antonio matched their $650,000-a-year offer for Center Dave Corzine and traded him to Chicago, haven't been heard from. Nor have the Knicks. Nor the Lakers. Nor anyone else. Also, there has been little interest in other NBA free agents—and through last weekend just two of the league's 23 first-round draft picks had signed.
All of which makes the players suspicious. Their basic collective-bargaining agreement with the NBA is up for renewal, and among the proposals management has broached were the elimination of guaranteed contracts and the institution of a "salary moderation plan." A week later Commissioner Larry O'Brien said that the league's franchises are "collectively suffering very severe financial losses." The owners, whose payrolls eat up more than 70% of their gross receipts (for hockey it's 65%, baseball 40%, football 38%), may have already begun their own salary moderation plan by not bidding on free agents. If so, the players say, it's an illegal conspiracy, and they're prepared to file an antitrust suit.