Talent-Thin Field Enters Cash-Poor Free Agent Market

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 1, 2008

An NBA free agent class that is limited on all-star talent entered a market at 12:01 this morning that is even more limited on cash.

With the Washington Wizards agreeing to terms with Antawn Jamison before he became an unrestricted free agent and hoping to soon re-sign Gilbert Arenas, the pool of unrestricted free agents is considerably weaker than some past years. The main exceptions are two players who opted out of contracts last night: Los Angeles Clippers forward Elton Brand, who opted out of a $16.4 million contract, and Golden State Warriors guard Baron Davis, who gave up $17.8 million.

"After a great deal of soul-searching, Elton is hoping that he'll give the team enough financial flexibility to make the moves necessary to become a serious playoff contender," said David Falk, Brand's agent. Falk said Brand's intention is to re-sign with Los Angeles.

There is, however, a solid group of restricted free agents because several members of the 2004 draft class failed to secure contract extensions last summer. Philadelphia's Andre Iguodala, Atlanta's Josh Smith, Chicago's Luol Deng and Ben Gordon, Charlotte's Emeka Okafor and Toronto's José Calderón headline that group.

Teams are free to sign restricted free agents to offer sheets, but their current teams have the right of first refusal, with one week to match those deals. Contracts cannot be signed until July 9, when the league's moratorium on trades and signings expires.

The problem for most players is that there is little money to go around.

Only three teams have considerable room under the league's salary cap to make a run at a top-line free agent -- Philadelphia has about $11 million to work with after extending qualifying offers to Iguodala and Louis Williams; Memphis could have anywhere between $12 million to $15 million available; and the Los Angeles Clippers have close to $25 million after Corey Maggette and Brand opted out of their contracts yesterday.

Of those teams, the 76ers are the only team that is likely to spend. "We will be active July 1," 76ers General Manager Ed Stefanski told reporters in Philadelphia last week.

Most of the remaining teams are limited under the collective bargaining agreement to signing one player to a contract equal to the average NBA salary -- roughly $5.8 million -- even if they already are over the salary cap. With teams able to go over the salary cap to sign their own free agents, few players can move around without the benefit of a sign-and-trade deal in which a team signs one of its free agents and immediately trades him to another club.

NBA general managers have become more frugal in recent years, and few players signed big-money deals last summer -- Orlando's Rashard Lewis was the only player to top $100 million. That trend is expected to continue this summer, although New Orleans's Chris Paul, Utah's Deron Williams, Milwaukee's Andrew Bogut and other members of the 2005 draft class are eligible to sign lucrative contract extensions with their respective teams. Paul and Williams are expected to receive maximum contracts worth about $90 million over five years.

Arenas, Brand and Davis were the only all-star talent to opt out of an eight-figure contract in hopes of a bigger payday. The remaining selection of unrestricted free agents is limited to Maggette and role players such as Boston's James Posey, Sacramento's Beno Udrih and New Jersey center DeSagana Diop.

The New Jersey Nets traded Richard Jefferson to Milwaukee for Yi Jianlian and Bobby Simmons before the draft. The move isn't expected to help the Nets this season, but it cleared ample salary cap space for the team to pursue a big-name free agent in 2010, when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh could enter the open market. League-wide speculation has James headed to the Nets in two years, given his friendship with Nets minority owner and hip-hop mogul Jay-Z.

"It's funny to me that people look at it that way," James said about the rumors over the weekend in Las Vegas, where he was training for the Olympics with Team USA. "Ain't nobody making moves . . . to get good in two years. You're trying to get better now. Everybody knows my future but me, huh?"

© 2008 The Washington Post Company