Thursday January 20th, 2005

After two years of limited free-agent movement, agents were shocked by the lavish contracts handed out this summer to the likes of Brian Skinner (5 years, $25 million), Brian Cardinal (6 years, $38 million) and Adonal Foyle (6 years, $42 million). This new trend represents a change in priorities: Now that stars such as Kenyon Martin (seven years, $92 million) are no longer receiving maximum deals, middle-class players are finally cashing in via the $4.9 million free-agent exception that is available to all teams that are over the cap. "What this tells me," says one prominent agent, venturing a controversial point amid the union's negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement, "is that this might be a better system than we thought."

One theory for the spending spree: After cutting back on payroll while replacing dozens of coaches over the last two seasons, GMs are now feeling the heat to improve their rosters as a matter of self-preservation -- else they become next in line to face the guillotine.

Last week at the NBA's Las Vegas summer league, GMs were split over whether the spending would lead to a luxury tax next summer. "I don't think so," one GM speculated. "The contracts that kill you are those $15 million salaries, and we aren't seeing many of those anymore."

Brian Cardinal ... His surprise signing by Memphis has led to suspicions that GM Jerry West will package Shane Battier in a sign-and-trade for Erick Dampier or another big man.

Carlos Boozer ... Under duplicitous circumstances, the third-year power forward's move to Utah (6 years, $68 million) has turned the Jazz into a playoff team.

Stephen Jackson ... When Reggie Miller retires next summer, the Pacers may hand his position over to Jackson (6 years, $42 million), for whom they shipped Al Harrington to Atlanta.

Brent Barry ... By accepting a salary cut to move to San Antonio, the former Seattle guard gives the Spurs a wealth of experience, clutch three-point shooting and the ability to play both positions. Look for him on the floor in winner-take-all situations.

Steve Nash ... The Mavericks lost their engine and their identity by letting Nash accept $53 million for five years from the Suns. From a point guard rotation two years ago of Nash and Nick Van Exel, the Mavs are now counting on rookie Devin Harris, who didn't play up-tempo at Wisconsin, and Marquis Daniels, who isn't a point guard. Unless Dallas makes a significant move, the up-and-coming Suns might challenge the Mavs in the standings this season.

Kenyon Martin ... By dealing three first-round picks for New Jersey's All-Star power forward, the Nuggets emboldened their front line without letting go of the future first-round pick of the Wizards they own, which is only top-3 protected in the 2006 draft and will be completely unprotected in 2007. Although a solid move, the Nuggets remain a one-dimensional team. They have yet to address their need for a low-post scorer in the half-court offense when San Antonio, Minnesota and other leading defenses shut down their transition game.

Just six months ago, the members of the upcoming Southeast Division (set to debut this fall as part of the NBA's realignment to six divisions) -- Atlanta, Charlotte, Miami, Orlando, Washington -- promised to be an embarrassment with no teams playing better than .500 and Orlando stuck with the worst record in the league. Then the Heat got hot and surged to the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs before further upgrading with its trade for Shaquille O'Neal. Orlando turned its dismal performance and the Tracy McGrady trade into a young, athletic mix of veterans and rookies that may contend for the playoffs this season. Even the expansion Charlotte Bobcats should be tougher than expected after trading up in the draft to grab Emeka Okafor with the No. 2 pick. With the moves, the Southeast now looks superior to the perennially strong Atlantic, which was emasculated by Martin's departure from New Jersey.

After hearing assumptions that he wouldn't pay big money to keep disgruntled center Mark Blount, ever-unpredictable Celtics GM Danny Ainge retained the free agent with a $42 million deal over six years. "Ideally, I wanted to sign him for three or four years," Ainge admits. "But Mark was a priority for us, his market value was six years and that's what other teams wanted to pay him."

Contrary to speculation, coach Doc Rivers says he didn't demand that the Celtics retain Blount. "The only thing I kept saying to Danny was, 'Assets, assets, assets,'" Rivers says. "When I talked with Mark, I liked what he told me. He kept talking about defense and, even though everyone told me he would not be back, he kept telling me that he wanted to be a Celtic. I told Danny and the owners, 'Here's a guy that wants to be in Boston.'"

It's been a surprisingly good summer for Ainge and the Celtics, whose three first-round draft picks in June have been the talk of the summer leagues. Particularly impressive has been Al Jefferson, the No. 15 pick from Prentiss High School in Mississippi, who has shown the scoring instincts of an old-school power forward and should contribute as he learns to play defense.

The play of guards Delonte West (selected No. 24 in the draft) and Tony Allen (No. 25) has led to speculation that second-year point guard Marcus Banks is on the trading block. While Ainge denies that Banks is available, the GM is infatuated with his new guards. "Right now Delonte is our best shooter," says Ainge. "No," answers Rivers, "Paul Pierce is. I told Danny, 'You fall in love with your rookies.'"

But there is no doubt how Rivers feels about Allen. "Before Danny signed me on as coach, I told him, 'All I know is if Tony Allen's around, wherever I am I'm taking him (in the draft),'" Rivers says. "Danny said, 'He's my guy, too.'"

Rivers wants Allen to develop a mid-range jumper in the mode of Richard Hamilton. "I don't care about that long-range stuff," Rivers says. "I hope that every single kid in the country watched Rip Hamilton and the way he plays. Tony is so quick that he can get to wherever he wants to on the floor." Allen can beat his man off the dribble, but he needs to be able to finish the move by pulling up for a 15-footer. Says a rival NBA scout who watched Allen at the Orlando and Las Vegas summer leagues: "If he develops a jump shot, he could be an All-Star."

Congratulations to the Trail Blazers for packaging Dan Dickau and unhappy big man Dale Davis to Golden State for Nick Van Exel, who not only fills out their backcourt but takes pressure off first-round pick Sebastian Telfair to contribute as a rookie. Still, other issues remain. Agent Aaron Goodwin is putting the heat on Portland to trade veteran power forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim, whose minutes will come mainly at small forward alongside Zach Randolph. While Rasheed Wallace made that shift to accommodate Randolph last season -- yet received little credit for it in Portland -- Abdur-Rahim will not move so quietly. He is threatening to go public with his complaints as he enters the final year of his contract, and he may not report to training camp. "I've asked him twice not to say anything," says Goodwin, "but he's terribly unhappy. He didn't ask to be traded to Portland, and he doesn't want to be there." Goodwin says he made two visits to Portland last season to lift Abdur-Rahim's spirits ... Several rivals are hoping that Cleveland will be willing to move Zydrunas Ilgauskas in order to find a replacement for Boozer, but the center isn't available. The Cavs are far more interested in extending Ilgauskas, who is in the final year of his contract ... The Las Vegas summer league (sponsored by Reebok), which made its successful debut last week, will grow from six clubs to 14 next summer to become a potentially permanent fixture. Many in the league believe it will become an offseason convention for teams to not only develop young players but to monitor informal workouts with veterans who will be more than happy to spend a week or two Vegas ... Looking for an international scout? American forward Wendell Alexis, who recently completed an 18-year career in Europe, spent last week in Las Vegas introducing himself to teams. "I could help a team scout for talent right now," says Alexis, who has won championships in four European countries.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.