After years of worrying there may be no season at all, team executives were suddenly opening up their gyms to welcome back their signed players and negotiating with free agents while trying to make sense of a new collective bargaining agreement as it was being finalized. Here are some of the ins and outs to consider as teams, agents and players look forward to the dual Dec. 9 opening of training camp and free agency.
That's right, half the league has access to more than $5 million in space, enabling them to outbid rivals that are over the cap and offering the mid-level exception. Note that these numbers, which are in millions, refer to potential space that can be fully accessed if the team loses or renounces its own free agents.
• Sacramento: $26.2 million• Denver: $25.8• Indiana: $21.0• New Jersey: $16.2• Washington: $13.3• L.A. Clippers: $13.1• New Orleans: $12.6• Detroit: $8• Toronto: $8• Golden State: $7.1• Houston: $6.9• Charlotte: $6• Minnesota: $5.5• Milwaukee: $5.3• Memphis: $5.1
• Tyson Chandler. Never mind the more punitive luxury tax that will take effect in 2013-14. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban knows his team would not have won the championship without the defensive leadership of the best center in franchise history, and he isn't going to let Chandler leave -- especially because Chandler wants to return. There will be other ways for Dallas to deal with the new taxes rather than to cut off its hope of defending the championship by letting Chandler leave.
• David West. Can the Hornets -- who are owned by the NBA and seeking a buyer -- afford to re-sign him? Or can they afford to lose him amid rumors that Chris Paul is also on his way out as a potential free agent next summer? That is the first issue, and the unusual circumstances of the franchise makes those questions difficult to gauge.
West has been viewed as a likely target for Indiana, but a well-informed league source insists that the Pacers may not be seeking a big-money starter at power forward in order to create 25 minutes or more for Tyler Hansbrough. That doesn't mean there won't be suitors for West. The Kings should be desperate for his leadership alongside second-year center DeMarcus Cousins and third-year point guard Tyreke Evans, and the Nets should covet his frontcourt presence as they try to persuade Deron Williams to re-sign. Though West is 31 years old and coming off major knee surgery, he has a lot going for him, including All-Star production and constructive experience that could be vital to any number of teams -- including the Hornets, who must decide a dual approach to West and Paul. Do they start over entirely, or try to keep West as a sure thing, or cling to the unlikely hope of re-signing both stars?
• Marc Gasol. The Grizzlies' 26-year-old center is a traditional big man with low-post skills and upside. He'll be coveted by a large number of teams, but his status as a restricted free agent gives Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley the right to match any offer. Based on Memphis' rise to the final eight of last season's playoffs, as well as Heisley's preemptive moves to re-sign Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph, Gasol is likely to stay put.
• Nene. The large market of suitors includes (in no particular order) the Pacers, Nets, Rockets, Warriors, Heat and Mavericks. The Nuggets are unlikely to outbid that group for their 29-year-old center, who provides a physical presence and is highly efficient offensively. Nene and West are the top two high-profile free agents who may leave.
• Jason Richardson. If the Magic use the amnesty clause on Gilbert Arenas and release him, then they'll have more resources to re-sign Richardson and, therefore, have something to show for the trades they made last winter. If not, then Richardson's talent in the open floor and his three-point range should be intriguing to a number of teams, including the shooting-poor 76ers.
These players will receive their money, though it may be deferred over the years ahead. But it won't count against the team's salary-cap payroll in the short term.
• Gilbert Arenas. By dumping the $62.4 million he is owed over the next three years, the Magic will drop more than $12 million under the luxury tax. He is the most likely of all candidates. Conclusion: AMNESTY.
• Brandon Roy. Chronic knee problems have limited the Trail Blazers' 27-year-old star, who is owed $15 million this season and as much as $68.7 million over the next four years. The Blazers need to extend Nicolas Batum and decide whether to re-sign Greg Oden, but shouldn't they be patient before giving away Roy for nothing? Why not play him this season to have a better understanding of his value after he spent the past offseason in extended rehab? At the very least there would be more hope of receiving a bigger offset next summer from the larger number of teams available to bid for Roy. But the patient approach is unlikely to be pursued in Portland, where no one is empowered to challenge owner Paul Allen with strong basketball advice. At least the fans will know who to blame for this one. Conclusion: AMNESTY.
• Rashard Lewis. The option makes no sense here, even though Lewis is owed $43.8 million over the next two years. But if the Wizards should let him go, they'll need to spend $24 million on new players this season to reach the newly increased minimum payroll figure of $49 million. That's an invitation to make a lot of bad decisions on short notice. The Wizards are already well under the cap as it is. Instead of paying all of that money in return for zero production and the uncertainty of replacing him, why not hold on to Lewis, add new players around him to steadily rebuild the team and then next year either put him out to amnesty, trade his expiring contract or benefit from the expiration of his $22.7 million salary in 2013? Conclusion: NO AMNESTY.
• Baron Davis. If the Cavaliers have an immediate plan to use the $8 million in cap space they would gain by putting out Davis' $13.9 million to amnesty, then the move makes sense. But the Cavs are more likely to be patient, considering the dearth of talent on the market and the large number of teams with far greater cap space. More likely is that Cleveland will wait until next summer, when the exclusion of Davis' contract can create room for more than two max free agents. Why make the decision now? The presence of Davis gives the Cavaliers options to engage in a trade. Conclusion: NO AMNESTY.
• Luke Walton. The departure of his contract will amount to $11.5 million in tax savings for the Lakers over the next two seasons. There has been talk of using amnesty on Metta World Peace, but the Lakers are hoping that new coach Mike Brown will rejuvenate the player formerly known as Ron Artest, whom he used to coach as an Indiana Pacer in better times. Conclusion: AMNESTY.
Let's start with a reminder to these and other teams: The lockout was supposed to create a new era of financial wisdom and responsible signings by NBA franchises.
Yet the days ahead promise no such thing. The minimum payroll has risen $5.5 million since last season, which means every team has to spend at least $49 million on players in 2011-12. It has to be spent on a free-agent class that is lacking in star power. It has to spent in competition with a large number of rival teams, it has to be spent quickly during this abbreviated signing window, and it has to be spent before anyone has a full understanding for the new rules and all its nefarious loopholes and consequences.
"I think it's going to be chaos," a GM told me this week.
Will teams instantly and alarmingly prove they are capable of managing their money wisely under these circumstances? We will find out shortly.
• Sacramento ($26.2 million in potential cap space). The Kings have two potential superstars in Cousins and Evans, but that potential won't be fulfilled unless they are surrounded with leaders to show the way. The Kings should be looking at the likes of West and Shane Battier to create a professional environment in which those stars can mature and thrive. The money needs to be spent on players who will play meaningful roles so that their advice in turn will be meaningful.
• Denver ($25.8 million in potential space). The Nuggets appear to be focused on rebuilding around their young players and draft picks. They need to spend $17 million this season to reach the league minimum, but this does not look like the year they'll make a big move.
• Indiana ($21 million in potential space). They can spend some of their money now and some more next summer, after another $10.3 million has expired with the departures of James Posey and Dahntay Jones. The Pacers endured a lot of pain while clearing the space that enables them to compete today, and they enter the signing window with a deep, young roster that has a lot of promise. Believe it or not, they can actually afford to be selective.
• New Jersey ($16.2 million in potential space). Having traded for Williams, they now must get him to re-sign. The Nets need to use their space to make a big signing or an even bigger trade that will give Williams reason to believe the Nets can compete in the East against Miami, Chicago and the rising Knicks.
• Washington ($13.3 million in potential space). The Wizards don't need to spend their money all at once. Give John Wall another season to improve and continue to surround him with young talent, then check back in 2012. This is one of those teams that could suddenly look quite attractive.
• L.A. Clippers ($13.1 million in potential space). They don't need to be big spenders now. Why not see if their cap space can be put to better use next summer for the potential free-agent class of Paul, Williams and Dwight Howard?
• New Orleans ($12.6 million in potential space). Too many move parts to predict here: West's free agency, Paul's impending free agency, the potential sale of the team and the NBA's interim ownership -- the Hornets could wind up making any number of moves.
If you're looking to win now or pull a young team together to win later, players like these should be at the top of your list.
• Tayshaun Prince. He is one of the most versatile players in the league, he has championship experience and he is low-maintenance. If the Pistons don't keep him, he'll be coveted by a number of contenders or up-and-comers.
• Caron Butler. Butler is more than a two-time All-Star. When he was injured last season with Dallas, he worked frantically on the last-shot hope of returning in time for the playoffs. It didn't happen, yet he remained plugged into the Mavericks emotionally -- a team-minded quality that should be valued as much as his talent.
• Shane Battier. As he approaches what may be his final contract, Battier is a sure thing who makes every team better at both ends of the floor. The same goes for fellow free agent Grant Hill.
• Joel Przybilla. Injuries have set him back the last couple of years, but Przybilla's rebounding, shot-blocking and defense are valuable. He doesn't need the ball to help his team win.
• Brian Cardinal. As one of the most positive-minded teammates in the league, Cardinal is always ready to play. Plug him in and he'll knock down threes and take charges to aggravate the opponent, as he did for Dallas in the 2011 Finals.