NBA executives have never faced a group of restricted free agents like this before. Unrestricted, sure, while bracing for next July and the unrestricteds who will prompt the mother of all spending sprees, nay, the octomom of all spending sprees. But for the restricteds, who mostly negotiate aware that the original team will match any reasonable offer sheet, this is the unique moment.
The original club almost always flexes the right of first refusal. It's why a lot of front offices don't even bother negotiating with prime restricted free agents -- the execs are hammering out a deal that will be matched away from them in about 17 seconds. It's a fool's errand. And the chances of two or three valuable restricteds moving the same offseason, forget it.
Except for this summer.
The planets have aligned in a strange way. The Knicks are banking money for 2010, when just maybe they will have a passing interest in LeBron James. (Shhhhhhh. It's a secret.) The Jazz don't want to go into the luxury tax to sign a third big man who may or may not contribute more than the starters already down for big money. The Bucks just spent a lottery pick on a projected replacement at point guard. The Hawks haven't even been on the same court in the same continent as one of their free agents in 14 months. All set against the backdrop of economic meltdown.
These unusual developments could lead to the most unusual development yet: highly regarded restricted free agents changing teams. Here are four possibilities, in alphabetical order:
• Josh Childress, Hawks: His startling decision last summer to take a reported $20 million (after taxes) over three years from Greek club Olympiakos, rather than simply using the offer to threaten Atlanta the way most others would have done, was not simply a money grab. Childress is smart and mature and interested in the world and all along would have been the kind of guy to immerse himself in a new life while appreciating a cosmopolitan existence.
But Childress can get out of that contract this summer and return to the NBA (he must decide by July 15), and that presumably has been his hope all along, to be an important player here instead of Greece. Not only that, interest is relatively high as teams consider the circumstances that create the possibility the Hawks will not match: They have fellow small forward Marvin Williams (restricted) and starting point guard Mike Bibby (unrestricted) as free agents, they reached the second round without Childress, and they have an unpredictable, unstable ownership situation. No one knows how the Atlanta bosses will respond, only that it would not be a surprise if they let him go.
• David Lee, Knicks: Any other time, this is an automatic match, and maybe it doesn't even get far enough for an intruder to dictate terms. Maybe New York offers a big deal early in free agency as a preemptive move. Lee led the league in double-doubles last season at age 25 and is a building block, not part of the problem there.
But this is not any other time. The Knicks have spent years getting away from long-term deals to build a war chest for the summer of 2010, and a Lee contract would cut into that. Same thing with Nate Robinson, likewise restricted, except that Lee will command more interest and more dollars from outside. Even the mid-level exception could make them wince.
The Knicks could soon face a major decision, with the options being to sign Lee, or wait to see if he accepts an offer sheet and match it rather than lose a commodity for nothing, or wait to see if he gets an offer sheet and don't match to keep all the 2010 money safe, or do a sign-and-trade that would still keep them away from large contracts. There's also the logical two-step plan: sign or match because it would be foolish to let him go for free and know Lee's salary can always be cleared in trade before next summer.
• Paul Millsap, Jazz: Utah got forced into a corner Tuesday, when power forward Carlos Boozer reversed his previous stand and decided to not become a free agent, and center Mehmet Okur also stayed in his contract. The decision on the three big men evaporated into the unwanted position of the decision on one, a call that doesn't allow the Jazz to let Boozer walk and retain Millsap with a smaller price tag.
The Jazz did not want to go into the luxury tax, but keeping Millsap, on their own or by matching an offer sheet, will push them far over the line and require a trade at some point to dump salary. (Any takers for Andrei Kirilenko with two years and $34.3 million remaining? Anyone?) Outsiders negotiating with Millsap will hope to turn Utah's precarious financial situation into an opening.
• Ramon Sessions, Bucks: He's not a franchise-changing free agent, but his production his first two seasons (11.6 points and six assists in 27.3 minutes over 96 games) gets people wondering how good the former second-round pick would be as a regular starter. That would have been the case no matter what. Then Milwaukee used the No. 10 pick on Brandon Jennings, another point guard, and Sessions was perhaps that much more available.
It will take a big number to scare the Bucks away from matching, and that kind of money may not be in play in this economic climate. They would rather sort through trade possibilities for Sessions or Luke Ridnour than let Sessions go for nothing.
No matter how close the Suns and Warriors seemed on the Amar'e Stoudemire blockbuster, and those semantics are open to debate, it was a long shot all along because Stoudemire was not going to give Golden State any certainty he would stay beyond one season. No certainty, no deal.
Stoudemire can miss the playoffs without leaving Phoenix, an organization and a city he likes. Though not against a trade, he is not going to commit to another team beyond 2009-10 if the destination has little chance at a championship within a season or two, people close to the situation report. In another important consideration, Stoudemire wants to remain at power forward, his natural position. The Warriors flunk both categories -- they're definitely not in contention and would need him to play center since Andris Biedrins is among those ticketed for the Suns in the proposed deal, even if labels mean nothing in the zany Don Nelson system.
Stoudemire has the hammer because he can become an unrestricted free agent after one season. If Golden State trades for him and Stoudemire bolts in the summer of 2010, it suffers a massive setback, out at least the three players it took to do the deal and then Stoudemire as well. The front office in Oakland, understandably, will need some positive feedback from Stoudemire before jumping and that isn't coming.
An extension would remove the risk. Stoudemire does not want to be a Warrior, though, and feels he can get the same megacontract in a year while also picking his destination. In the meantime, he is eligible for a new contract at any time, according to an NBA official familiar with his contract, rather than having to wait until August as previously reported.
There were no talks between the Warriors and Stoudemire or agent Charles Grantham, and those conversations would have taken place if a trade had been close. Reports persist that the Suns thought they had a deal on draft night for Biedrins, Brandan Wright, Marco Belinelli and Stephen Curry, but that is not clear to both sides. Golden State had Curry at the top of its wish list and was surprised to see him available at No. 7. In fact, when the Timberwolves surprised everyone by taking consecutive point guards at Nos. 5 and 6, Warriors general manager Larry Riley walked around the draft room and exchanged congratulations with other ecstatic members of the personnel department and said, "We got our guy." The Arizona Republic reported the Phoenix basketball operations department likewise erupted in cheers when Curry was on the board at No. 7 and said it had the Davidson scoring machine atop the list of players to take to complete the trade.
Whether it was a major miscommunication or a classic bait-and-switch, the Warriors declared that Curry was off the table. Whatever momentum the deal had came to a halt. Golden State says it won't move Anthony Randolph or Curry, Phoenix simply can't deal Stoudemire for Biedrins, Wright and Belinelli, and there everyone sits, likely to look for new trade partners.
• The decision by Joe Dumars to unexpectedly fire Michael Curry as Pistons coach reflects just as badly on Dumars as Curry. One of the top executives in the game had to know a young, inexperienced coach would have difficult moments during a rookie season, especially as a veteran roster dealt with the upheaval of the Chauncey Billups-Allen Iverson trade and the frustration of turning into a losing team, yet Curry went from one of the brightest coaching prospects to done after one season. It would not have been so strange if the news came soon after Detroit's first-round elimination against Cleveland. Coming June 30 was strange.
• On the other hand, the Spurs were the benefactors of the biggest draft-night drop: That DeJuan Blair, once considered a possibility for late in the lottery or the teens, lasted until No. 37 is an unexpected payout for a team without a first-round pick. Blair had obvious red flags as a 6-6 power forward with a history of knee problems and conditioning issues, but he is quicker than most realize, passes, sets bruising screens and will be tireless on the offense boards, a major San Antonio weakness. Said an executive in another front office: "There are an awful lot of 6-8, 6-9, 6-10 guys who aren't going to want any part of him. The bigger guys won't be happy to see him come on the court."
• Still to be determined in Memphis is whether No. 2 pick Hasheem Thabeet and Marc Gasol can or will play together in a double-center lineup. The other option is platooning until someone wins the job outright, except that the Grizzlies have a major investment in Thabeet and need to get him minutes and have Gasol coming off an encouraging rookie season (11.9 points and 7.4 rebounds) and need to see if he turns into something special. Besides, the Grizz have an opening at power forward.
• Some party. Today marks the 10-year anniversary of the Maloof family's closing on the purchase of the Kings, an occasion marked by the popularity of likable brothers Joe and Gavin Maloof in constant decline in the city they once owned and facing a greater collective crisis than any ownership group in the league. Once among David Stern's shining examples of fan support and stability, Sacramento just finished last in the league in attendance, changes coaches in fast-break fashion, has personality issues in the locker room and still can't get close to an arena deal. The last three years have seemed more like 20.
• About that Yao Ming-to-Cleveland trade speculation ...