Utah Jazz and Dream Team III forward Karl Malone was walking
down an Atlanta street last Friday afternoon when a fan called
out to him, "Hey, Karl, I haven't looked at the news since this
morning. Anybody make a hundred million yet?" The fan was
referring, of course, to the free-agent frenzy that has gripped
the NBA since the new collective bargaining agreement between
the league and its players became official on July 11. Signing
a pro basketball contract used to be the equivalent of winning
the lottery, but not anymore. Now it's like winning the lottery
and the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes and breaking the
bank in Vegas all at once. Fifteen years ago Magic Johnson's
25-year, $25 million contract was considered a whopper, but
compared with the mountains of money that recently have been
piled at the doors of some free agents, $25 million is a
molehill. Last week center Shaquille O'Neal turned down a deal
from the Orlando Magic that would have paid him $21 million in
the contract's first season.
You thought athletes' salaries could no longer shock you? Sure,
the Chicago Bulls gave Michael Jordan a reported $25 million to
sign again, but they are only on the hook for next season.
Consider the figures in the following multiyear deals. O'Neal:
$120 million over seven seasons from the Los Angeles Lakers.
Forward Juwan Howard: $98 million over seven seasons from the
Miami Heat. Guard Gary Payton: $85 million over seven seasons
from the Seattle SuperSonics. Assuming the Heat re-signs center
Alonzo Mourning, who is expected to get at least $105 million
over seven seasons, Miami will have committed $239 million to
just three players, the third being P.J. Brown, a nice young
forward whom you may not have heard of. (He played last season
for the New Jersey Nets.) Brown signed a seven-year, $36 million
contract with the Heat last week. Nothing against P.J. Brown,
but...P.J. Brown? What's going on here?
"It's not about the money," O'Neal insisted last Thursday at the
news conference announcing his move. But of course it is all
about the money. With more than 150 free agents, including an
unprecedented number of stars, on the market this summer, owners
and team executives saw that they could dramatically remake
their teams by spending a lot of money while cleverly
maneuvering to stay under the salary cap of $24.3 million per
club. "Get used to it, because this is the way it's going to
be," says Jerry West, the Lakers' executive vice president of
basketball operations. "The top players are going to be paid
their worth. This is where we are."
But where exactly is that? "You can't tell the players without a
scorecard," says non-free-agent forward Charles Barkley of the
(at last check) Phoenix Suns. "Guys change teams every day. I'm
not going to know who I'm playing against every night until they
walk in the arena." In all this confusion, everyone is asking
questions, the first of which is usually:
1. Has the league gone stark, raving mad?
Not really. The NBA generates $3 billion a year in merchandising
income, has TV contracts worth $1.1 billion over four years with
NBC and Turner Sports, and its popularity is growing around the
world. Even the Atlanta Hawks, one of the few clubs in the
league with weak attendance, were able to dip into their coffers
for $56 million over five years to sign a free agent--center
Dikembe Mutombo, formerly of the Denver Nuggets. The money is
there to be spent, not only on the stars but also on second-tier
players such as Brown and Chris Gatling, who received about $22
million over five years to leave Miami for the Dallas Mavericks.
"Owners didn't get rich enough to be owners by paying their
employees more than their business could afford," says Malone.
2. O.K., so the haves will have more. What about the have-nots?
The people who almost certainly will suffer are the marginal
players. For instance, the New York Knicks renounced (renounce
is the latest NBA catchword; it means to announce that you have
no intention of signing a player on your team who is eligible
for free agency) the rights to seven players to find the cash to
pay free agents Chris Childs, the point guard the Knicks lured
from the Nets with a six-year, $24 million contract, and Allan
Houston, the shooting guard who left the Detroit Pistons for $56
million over seven years. New York also added to its payroll
forward Larry Johnson, who earns an average $8.1 million per
year and was acquired from the Charlotte Hornets in exchange
for forwards Anthony Mason and Brad Lohaus. Even those renounced
Knicks who catch on with other teams will see their salaries
drop, perhaps to near the league minimum of $247,500.
3. Is this summer's rush on free agents going to become the norm?
There won't be as many high-profile players on the market every
off-season, but there will be enough year in and year out that
radical face-lifts of the sort the Knicks gave themselves won't
be unusual. Next season's crop of potential free agents includes
Jordan again, New York center Patrick Ewing, Suns guard Kevin
Johnson, Jazz guard Jeff Hornacek, Magic guard Nick Anderson and
Portland Trail Blazers forward Clifford Robinson. Two summers
from now the pool will grow because of the provision in the
collective bargaining agreement that allows players to become
free agents after their third season. Thus last season's
rookies--including guards Jerry Stackhouse of the Philadelphia
76ers and Damon Stoudamire of the Toronto Raptors, and forwards
Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Joe Smith of the
Golden State Warriors--will be able to shop their services.
4. Which teams are the biggest winners?
The Lakers, the Knicks and the Heat. Landing O'Neal makes L.A.,
which won 53 games last season but lost to the Houston Rockets
in the first round of the playoffs, a more serious championship
contender, even though it had to trade three productive
players--center Vlade Divac, forward George Lynch and guard
Anthony Peeler--to create room under the cap for Shaq. West
dealt Divac to Charlotte for 17-year-old guard Kobe Bryant and
all but gave away Lynch and Peeler to the Vancouver Grizzlies.
The key cap magic that West performed was making room for O'Neal
without renouncing the rights to the Lakers' own free agent,
starting forward Elden Campbell, who re-signed with L.A. for
seven years and $49 million. And come January, when renounced
players can re-sign with their former teams, the Lakers may be
further bolstered by swingman Magic Johnson, who while doing
color on an Olympic basketball telecast last Saturday ruminated
about coming out of retirement (again).
When the Knicks announced on July 14 that they had acquired
Childs, Houston and Johnson, they immediately transformed
themselves from an aging, punchless team to a younger,
offensively more potent (if defensively less rugged) one.
Houston, who will start ahead of John Starks, is a rising star,
the reliable shooter New York has needed for years, and Johnson
will lift some of the frontcourt scoring burden off Ewing. Now
that Orlando is Shaq-less, the Knicks should emerge as the most
formidable Eastern Conference challenger to the defending NBA
champion Bulls. Both teams could be pushed by the Heat, whose
nucleus now includes Howard, Mourning and point guard Tim
5. What did the winners do that other teams didn't?
They looked to the future. West, Knicks general manager and vice
president Ernie Grunfeld and Heat coach-president Pat Riley were
the first to plan by clearing salary-cap space. Last season
Riley traded with contracts in mind rather than bodies, picking
up players such as Gatling and Hardaway, who would be free
agents at the end of the season and thereby would give him room
to maneuver under the cap. Grunfeld dumped forward Charles Smith
and his $3.3 million contract on the San Antonio Spurs at
midseason for Lohaus and free-agent-to-be Willie Anderson.
Anderson was one of the players whose rights the Knicks
renounced last week to clear salary-cap space.
6. Which is the most depressed NBA city these days?
It's a tie between Orlando and Washington. Guard Anfernee
Hardaway, O'Neal's teammate in Orlando and on Dream Team III,
was downcast after hearing about O'Neal's decision to leave.
"I'm not going to tell you we can still win a championship,
because I just don't know," Hardaway said. "This is bad."
Howard was almost as important to the Bullets and to D.C. as
O'Neal was to Orlando. The Bullets' front office saw Howard and
forward Chris Webber as the linchpins of a resurgence, one that
would come to fruition in 1997-98 with a new nickname (the
Wizards) and a new arena, which will be harder to fill now that
Howard is gone.
7. Since teams can offer their own free agents any amount of
money to re-sign, why are so many clubs losing their stars?
In many cases it's just poor negotiating. Washington wanted
desperately to keep Howard, and Detroit wanted almost as badly
for Houston to stay. But each club erred by making a low first
bid and assuming it would have a chance to sweeten the deal when
it saw what other teams were offering. Pistons officials were
upset that Houston accepted the Knicks' deal without giving them
a chance to match it. But "if they think Allan is going to come
running back to them with every offer," Houston's agent, Bill
Strickland, warned three weeks ago, "they're making a huge
However, factors beyond the control of the teams that lost their
free agents also figured in, factors that have to do with the
advantages of large markets over small. Orlando couldn't compete
with the entertainment opportunities Los Angeles offers actor
(Kazaam) and rapper O'Neal. Detroit didn't have a high-profile
fan like film director Spike Lee to appear in a video
encouraging Houston to sign with his team, the way New York did.
The little-known Childs found out quickly what moving across the
Hudson River could do for a player's visibility. Within days
after Childs signed with the Knicks, GQ magazine called about a
8. Whose bank account ballooned in this free-agent bonanza even
though he won't score a single point next season?
Agent David Falk--whose clients include Gatling, Jordan, Howard,
Mourning, Mutombo and point guard Kenny Anderson--negotiated an
estimated $356 million in contracts for those six players in the
space of a week before leaving for a European vacation last
Thursday. We're guessing Falk didn't fly coach. His most notable
accomplishment may have been the seven-year, $50 million
contract he negotiated for Anderson with the Blazers. (As of
last weekend the deal was on hold pending conclusion of the
trade of Portland point guard Rod Strickland to Washington.) As
one of Falk's rival agents put it, "If Falk convinced them Kenny
was going to get anything close to that somewhere else, Falk's
worth every penny he makes."
9. What is the riskiest signing so far?
The Knicks took a gamble by putting their team in the hands of
Childs, a point guard who just three years ago was playing for
the Miami Tropics of the United States Basketball League and
trying to bring his alcoholism under control. After being
confronted by Tropics owner-coach John Lucas, Childs checked
himself into a Miami rehab facility, and he says he has not had
a drink since June 26, 1993. His skills no longer dulled by
alcohol, Childs averaged 12.8 points and seven assists last
season. The Knicks like his toughness as much as his quickness.
But they have to be concerned about making such a long-term
commitment to a player who has had only one successful NBA season.
10. Is there anyone the average fan should root for?
The best candidate is guard Bryant Stith, who re-signed with the
Nuggets for five years and $22 million even though the Pistons
offered $25 million over the same period. "My mother asked me if
I wanted to play for money or did I want to play for a team with
all my heart," Stith says. "I really wanted to play for Denver
from my heart. This team gave me my start. I'm the captain
here." Stith is one of the few free agents who have any right to
insist that it's not about the money.
THE NEW ORDER
Below, based on information from agents and league sources, are
the NBA's top salaries (in millions) last season and the
projected top salaries next season of those players signed
through Sunday. Possible additions: Reggie Miller, who was being
wooed by the Pistons and his current team, the Pacers, and could
receive as much as $8 million next season; Alonzo Mourning,
expected to re-sign with the Heat for an average of about $15
million a season; and Dennis Rodman, who was negotiating to
rejoin the Bulls for upwards of $6 million.
1. Patrick Ewing KNICKS Michael Jordan BULLS
2. David Robinson SPURS Shaquille O'Neal LAKERS
3. Clyde Drexler ROCKETS Elden Campbell LAKERS
4. Chris Webber BULLETS David Robinson SPURS
5. Joe Dumars PISTONS Juwan Howard HEAT
6. Danny Manning SUNS Dikembe Mutombo HAWKS
7. A.C. Green SUNS Hakeem Olajuwon ROCKETS
8. Shaquille O'Neal MAGIC Chris Webber BULLETS
9. Derrick Coleman NETS/SIXERS Gary Payton SONICS
10. Hakeem Olajuwon ROCKETS Horace Grant MAGIC