The Houston Rockets will match Philadelphia's $13.2 million offer sheet to Moses Malone and will be in no hurry to trade him, General Manager Ray Patterson said yesterday.
Malone, in an interview with a Houston radio station, said none of the $2.2 million annual salary for six years will be deferred. The new contract will make Malone, a 6-foot-10 center and the most valuable player in the National Basketball Association last season, the highest-paid salaried athlete in America.
The amount of the offer sheet, which was signed by Malone Wednesday night, was confirmed by a spokesman for the Rockets.
The Rockets can sign Malone and keep him on the team, they can match the 76ers' offer and then trade him to another NBA team, or they can work out a deal with the 76ers. The latter is considered unlikely because Houston reportedly feels the 76ers would not offer near enough for a player of Malone's stature.
The Rockets received a copy of the offer sheet about 9:30 a.m. yesterday. By mid-afternoon, Patterson and Charlie Thomas, the team's new owner, had agreed to meet the terms.
The shock was that none of the money is deferred -- that whoever picks up the contract must pay the full $2.2 million each season.
"It's real, it's not deferred," Malone said yesterday in a telephone interview with Houston radio station KIKK from Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where he is on tour with a group of other NBA players.
"There is not much else I can say about it. All the money is in cash," he said.
Malone said he never wanted to be a free agent and had hoped to reach an agreement with the Rockets.
"They've (the Rockets) been telling me that whatever anyone offered, they were going to match it. Now they've got an offer sheet, and it's up to them to make a decision."
It didn't take the Rockets long to reach a decision.
"We have no choice but to match it," Patterson said. "There is no doubt we have to sign him, then make a judgment. You just can't give up a major asset for nothing."
At 28, Malone is at his physical peak and has improved his scoring average each season. He led the league in rebounding (14.7 per game) last season for the third time and was second in scoring behind San Antonio's George Gervin with a 31.1 average.
The Rockets offered Malone $1.9 million a year earlier this summer, so, in fact, they had to increase their offer only by $300,000.
Now that Houston has agreed to re-sign Malone, there is no rush to trade him, particularly to Philadelphia. Although the total contract calls for $13.2 million, the yearly commitment is $2.2 million because the Rockets can trade him at their discretion.
After Harold Katz, owner of the 76ers, announced Thursday he had signed Malone to an offer sheet, he said he didn't think the Rockets would match the offer.
"This is a good business deal for Philadelphia, but I'm not sure it's a good deal for Houston," he said. "Malone already has drawn the fans in Houston. We have extra seats to fill because we don't sell out. He'll put more people in the seats and that justifies the cost. Plus, they can't surround him with the players we can."
Katz went on to say that if Houston matched the offer, he would be willing to talk trade with the Rockets. However, Coach Billy Cunningham said that his five starters -- Julius Erving, Caldwell Jones, Bobby Jones, Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney -- are untouchable.
The 76ers have three first-round draft choices next year, including Cleveland's. If the Cavaliers, winners of only 15 games last season, finish last again, their pick would be No. 1 or 2 overall, meaning whoever holds it would have a 50-50 chance of getting Ralph Sampson, the University of Virginia's 7-4 center. Cunningham also said he didn't want to give up that choice.
"It may be very difficult to make a deal with the 76ers," Patterson said, indicating that he would rather look elsewhere. By making so many demands, Philadelphia appears to have alienated the Rockets.
The 76ers would have to include Caldwell Jones and Cleveland's draft choice before the Rockets even would start listening, said a source close to the team.
Patterson now can sit back and wait for his phone to ring. If Malone continues to improve, as he has every year, he will be just as marketable next summer. When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar retires, Jerry Buss, owner of the Los Angeles Lakers and perhaps the biggest spender in the league, might call.
Philadelphia now is in a bind. The 76ers recently traded Darryl Dawkins to New Jersey for a first-round draft choice and $700,000 and are left without a physically imposing center.
Erving, upon hearing of the Dawkins deal, said the 76ers would be in trouble with a starting front line of himself, Caldwell Jones and Bobby Jones. "We'd be the All-Skinny team," he said. "That would be a tough row to hoe."
If the Rockets refuse to deal with Philadelphia, the 76ers will have to get another center if they hope to challenge Boston for the Atlantic Division title.
Meanwhile, Malone can continue his European tour, content with the knowledge that he will be the highest paid salaried athlete in the country next season, wherever he plays.