When the National Basketball Association's new collective bargaining agreement was signed in March, team owners believed it would bring an immediate end to the enormous salaries that had left the league with year-end losses of more than $17 million.

They were wrong.

The agreement, which puts a salary cap on each team, establishes team minimums and gives the players a guaranteed percentage of the gross revenues, won't go into full effect until after the upcoming season. With the opening of training camps less than a month away, a host of free agents and rookies have used this last fling under the old system to strike it rich.

"It's the last year of real freedom, so people are taking advantage of it," said Joe Axelson, general manger of the Kansas City Kings. "I don't think this was foreseen."

Only 17 of the 67 players who became free agents at the end of last season have signed new contracts, but many of them at least doubled their previous salaries and only three are with different teams.

"The salaries may be higher, but people are paying the money to keep their own players, and there's something about that that makes it easier to take," said Axelson.

Of the 17 free agents who have signed, only Harvey Catchings of Milwaukee, Calvin Natt of Portland, Len Elmore of New Jersey and Sly Williams and Marvin Webster of New York presented their teams with offer sheets. Only Elmore, going to the Knicks, ended up with the team that made the original offer.

The Chicago Bulls signed Catchings, a journeyman power forward, to a two-year, $275,000-a-year offer sheet that the Bucks matched.

The Trail Blazers planned to keep Natt all along, and when the Cleveland Cavaliers signed him to a six-year, $4.5 million offer sheet, they matched it.

The Boston Celtics offered both Webster and Williams three-year, $450,000-a-year contracts as part of the sometimes heated battle over one of their free agents, Kevin McHale. The Knicks matched both offers, then traded Williams to Atlanta.

"When we agreed to the right-of-first-refusal thing back in 1976, we realized that the player may have to stay with his original team, even if he didn't want to, but at least we had economic freedom and we felt at that time that that was the most important thing," said Larry Fleisher, one of the sport's top player agents and head of the players association.

The big winners so far in the free-agent market have been McHale, Natt, New York guard Rory Sparrow and San Antonio forward Mike Mitchell.

By playing the Celtics off the Knicks, McHale went from less than $200,000 a year to $1 million a year for the next four years.

Sparrow went from making $90,000 last year to $500,000 for each of the next four years, simply because the Knicks couldn't afford to be without him. Their turnaround last season came after acquiring him from Atlanta.

Mitchell was re-signed by the Spurs to a five-year, $700,000-a-year contract.

Among the yet-unsigned free agents, the most sought after are Los Angeles center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Cleveland guard World B. Free, Kansas City guards Larry Drew and Mike Woodson and New Jersey guard Darwin Cook.

Abdul-Jabbar sought $2 million a year for two years, but Dr. Jerry Buss, the team owner, offered $1.2 million. After talking with Chicago and Atlanta, Abdul-Jabbar and his agent, Tom Collins, compromised on a two-year, $1.6 million offer from the Lakers, which Abdul-Jabbar is expected to accept shortly.

Free, Cook, Woodson and Drew are still free agents and haven't presented their teams with an offer sheet, nor have they begun negotiations.

"There's no question we'll retain both Drew and Woodson," said Axelson. "That's why they haven't had any offers. We made it known all along that we were going to sign them, so people have stayed away from them because they know they'd be negotiating with our money and with no chance of getting the players."

It isn't only the free agents who are raking in the cash. Eleven of the 24 first-round draft selections from the June draft have signed, and they, too, have signed for far more than their counterparts in past years.

Virginia's Ralph Sampson, the first player selected, became the highest-paid rookie in NBA history when he signed a four-year, $5 million contract with the Houston Rockets.

James Worthy, last year's top pick, was signed by the Lakers for about $500,000 a year.

The players picked second through 10th haven't signed, but the 12th player selected, Arkansas guard Darrell Walker, signed a four-year, $1 million contract, almost unheard of for a player selected that late.

Rutgers forward Roy Hinson, picked 20th overall by Cleveland, signed a five-year, $955,000 contract.

"With the signing of the new contract, the teams have more of a feeling of stability, so they're paying the high prices," said Fleisher, who also negotiated Walker's contract.

"I don't think the signing of Walker for what he got will throw everything out of whack because it was a special situation. The Knicks want to get off to a good start and they felt it necessary to have Walker signed and in camp and playing in the summer as quickly as possible. Because of that, we may have gotten a little more for him than we might have been able to otherwise."

The Knicks, perhaps the richest team in the league, are also one of the shrewdest. They studied the collective bargaining agreement closely and know its intricacies as well as any other team, and have used that knowledge to restructure the team into what could be one of the strongest in the league.

As part of the collective bargaining agreement, five teams--the Knicks, Nets, Lakers, Seattle SuperSonics and Philadelphia 76ers--had their salaries frozen at current levels for the upcoming season. This means that if they sign free agents, they have to reduce the total team salary by cutting or trading other players to make room for them.

The Knicks' salary cap included salaries paid to injured players Toby Knight and Campy Russell, who have been released, thus giving them approximately an additional $1 million to play with. They gained about $350,000 more when they re-signed Williams and traded him to Atlanta for Rudy Macklin, who is making only $100,000.

Under terms of the agreement, a team can go over its cap only if it is to sign one of its own free agents, which the Knicks did.

"Maybe some guys are signing for big money right now, but that will change," said Washington-based agent Bill Pollak. "It will follow the Hollywood plan, where Robert Redford gets $3 1/2 million and the other actors are working for scale. The disparity will stay the same as it is now, with the teams at the top of the cap trying to stay right at it and the teams below the minimum struggling to get to it."