GMs, owners reluctant to jump into shallow free-agent pool head first

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A visual comes to mind as it relates to the most unique of NBA free-agency periods that has unofficially begun. Picture a pool surrounded by the league's general managers and owners, all of them turning left and right to see what the other is doing while peering down at the water with a shared look of trepidation.

This is a pool party, after all, so someone will have to jump. But with big men Nene, Tyson Chandler and Marc Gasol waiting for them in the deep end and the talent level of free agents so shallow compared to last year's class led by LeBron James, no one is in the mood for a cannonball just yet.

"I think what you're seeing is that nobody considers anyone in this free-agent market to be a clear-cut, franchise guy that we have to do everything within our power to get," said one agent with a client near the top of the mediocre mix. "No one wants to be the first to give that stupid, crazy contract and have that article saying what a sham the lockout was."

As a result, the third day of talks between agents and teams came and went without any major news of a big-name player leaning hard in the direction of a particular team. While oral or signed agreements are not allowed until Dec. 9, after the tentative collective bargaining agreement is ratified, a mutual understanding of some sort is still possible. But the pace has been even slower than expected.

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More than a dozen sources who spoke with said the countless discussions have been exploratory, with agents setting financial parameters and teams slow to respond with any sort of counter offer. They discuss the respective fit and the player's mentality, and attempt to gauge the level of interest from each side.

The feeling-out process is due, in part, because there isn't even ink on the CBA yet -- let alone dry ink -- and teams are still learning what the changed landscape means for their options. Some teams must decide whether they want to use the new amnesty clause on a player, or make another move to free up salary-cap space for a signing.

"[But] you have to judge the interest on the other side," Warriors general manager Larry Riley cautioned on Thursday. "How would you like to let the air out of all your tires, say 'OK, I'm going to get a new set of tires,' and then all of a sudden the only tires left are worn-out ones. Those things are continuously being evaluated, and to the point of stressfully evaluated."

More than that, though, the hesitancy is also rooted in the fact that no one wants to dive head first into the shallow talent pool first.

According to sources, Nene, Chandler and Gasol all set their early asking prices in the neighborhood of maximum-contract territory, starting at $14.8 million for Gasol, $17.7 annually for Nene, and $20.7 million for Chandler. There is plenty of crossover in their respective lists of salary-cap-friendly suitors, with the Nets, Rockets and Warriors appearing to be the hungriest shoppers, and the Pacers and Trail Blazers strolling the big man aisles as well.

The Nuggets are hoping to hold onto Nene, but it remains to be seen at what price since he is an unrestricted free agent. The Grizzlies, meanwhile, have made it clear they intend to retain restricted free agent Gasol but are reportedly facing competition from the Pacers. And despite the Mavericks' obvious need to hold onto Chandler to keep their title-defense hopes alive, the 10-year veteran told this week that he plans on being with a new team once training camp begins.

The non-cap-friendly contenders are hoping to get involved as well, with the Heat and Mavs mulling their big man options.

But if and when any or all of the top-tier free agents land their max money, the ripple effect will be great and the already-long list of bloated contracts may see a spike this season.

"[Are] there going to be some people who are overpaid?" Riley said. "We acquiesce to that. We do believe that there will be some people who get overpaid. If it's the right person, we might do that.

"But there aren't many of them, and to make a mistake right now with this roster would set us back, so we have to evaluate that very carefully."

By dipping one toe in at a time.