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Money's tight

Bulls guard Ben Gordon was sitting at his locker before a game recently when he was asked about his ongoing contract extension talks.

"How many guys from our [draft class] have signed?" he asked, curiously. "It doesn't seem like too many."

Gordon obviously has been paying attention. So far the class of '04 has seen just three players ink new deals: Dwight Howard, Devin Harris and Kevin Martin.

It's a significant difference (at least so far) from a year ago, when 15 of the 29 first-round picks -- including seven of the top eight -- reached agreement before the season started.

Why is the class of '04 lagging behind?

Two lottery picks suffered serious injuries (Shaun Livingston, Robert Swift). Several others (Rafael Araujo, Luke Jackson, Sebastian Telfair, Kris Humphries, Kirk Snyder, Dorell Wright, et al.) haven't done anything. Most of the rest are just finding out the market isn't good.

Teams have until Oct. 31 to reach deals on extensions. If they don't, the player can become a restricted free agent next summer. Even then, however, the team would still have control because it would have the right to match any offer.

With only a few teams expected to be under the salary cap next summer, there probably won't be a big market for free agents. Most teams are going to drive a hard bargain with their '04 rookies right now. Because any contract they sign would be guaranteed, those players are going to be asked to give up some money in return for the security of a longer-term deal.

In other words, a guy like Gordon is going to have to decide whether he wants to take the sure thing now or take his chances on the market next summer. Howard ($85 million over five years), Harris ($45 over five) and Martin ($55 over five) opted for the former. So far most of Gordon's '04 peers have not been ready to do that just yet, but some will surely come to terms in the final hours leading up to the deadline.

Here's a look at some of the key unsigned members of the class of '04:

Emeka Okafor, Bobcats, No. 2 pick Bobcats co-owner Michael Jordan has said he wants to re-sign the 6-10 forward/center, the 2005 Rookie of the Year, but so far no deal has been reached. Will the Bobcats be willing to go into the $70 to $75 million range for a player with Okafor's history of injuries?

Ben Gordon, Bulls, No. 3 The 6-2 guard and former Sixth Man Award winner has blossomed into a 20-point scorer, meaning he probably wants a deal better than the five-year, $47.5 million package Kirk Hinrich signed a year ago. More likely, it will take something similar to that of Sacramento's Martin. But with teammate Luol Deng (see below) also due for a hefty extension, can the Bulls afford both?

Shaun Livingston, Clippers, No. 4 The point guard is still rehabilitating the devastating knee injury he sustained in February. The Clippers naturally will wait to see if he can make it back before signing him to any contract.

Josh Childress, Hawks, No. 6 The Hawks say they want to keep the 6-8 small forward but Josh Smith is also due for an extension, and he's a higher priority. With Marvin Williams at his position and Atlanta's unsettled ownership situation, Childress could be stuck. Look for the Hawks to take their chances and let him become a restricted free agent next summer.

Luol Deng, Bulls, No. 7 This 6-8 forward and rising star has played himself into a big deal, possibly in the $60 million range. Like Gordon, however, he might have to wait for the payday. With Ben Wallace and Hinrich already on the books for big money, the Bulls are going to be careful about every dollar here on in.

Andre Iguodala, 76ers, No. 9 Like Deng, the 6-7 Iguodala is a promising small forward with similar production (18.2 points and 5.7 rebounds a year ago) who would be a hot commodity on the open market. Talks between his agent, Rob Pelinka, and the Sixers are ongoing.

Al Jefferson, Timberwolves, No. 15 He could be in for a near max deal after averaging 16 points and 11 boards last season. Plus, as the main piece in the Kevin Garnett trade, Wolves vice president Kevin McHale can't afford to let the 6-10 power forward get away.

Josh Smith, Hawks, No. 17 Like Jefferson, he could be in for a big payday because of his status as a key piece of a rebuilding team. But the Hawks also have Marvin Williams due up next year, and it's unclear how much management is willing to invest right now.

Jameer Nelson, Magic, No. 20 The little point guard from St. Joseph's has been handed the keys to the Magic offense under new coach Stan Van Gundy. The Magic might hold off and make sure Nelson's the man for the long haul.

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