With negotiations between Mitch Richmond and the Washington Wizards at a stalemate on the eve of the free agent signing period, there are signs that the team's leading scorer last season will not return.
Richmond has grown disenchanted with the pace at which negotiations have progressed and is not as eager to re-sign with the Wizards as he was just weeks ago, according to several sources and friends close to Richmond.
The Golden State Warriors, for whom Richmond began his career in 1988, are willing to trade and renounce enough players to create more than $7 million in salary cap room to lure Richmond back to the West Coast. Although that would be $5 million less than the first-year salary Richmond seeks from Washington, the Warriors are said to be willing to give Richmond a four-year contract that includes a signing bonus.
The six-time all-star guard, who came to the Wizards before last season along with Otis Thorpe for Chris Webber, has asked Washington for a four-year contract with a beginning salary of $12 million, according to two sources with knowledge of the negotiations. Last weekend the Wizards offered Richmond a three-year deal worth $10 million a season, a figure that will not be increased any time soon, one team source said.
Richmond's agent, Mike Sharpe, and Wizards General Manager Wes Unseld have not spoken since July 23.
Under NBA rules, teams have been allowed to negotiate free agent deals and trades but Sunday is the first day contracts can be signed.
Sharpe said he thinks the Wizards' strategy is to prolong negotiations so teams interested in Richmond will grow tired of waiting and pursue other free agents, leaving Richmond little choice but to re-sign with the Wizards. Richmond, 34, and Sharpe have said that they do not want to wait too long and that Richmond would sign elsewhere for less money.
Other than Golden State, though, only the Chicago Bulls have shown interest in signing Richmond as a free agent and that being only for one season. Richmond said he would not sign a one-year contract to play for the $2 million salary cap exception that all 29 teams hold under terms of the league's collective bargaining agreement.
The Seattle SuperSonics, Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers and Indiana Pacers have explored sign-and-trade deals for Richmond.
For such a transaction, Washington would have to sign Richmond first and the team acquiring Richmond would have to create enough room under the salary cap to absorb his salary. Since most teams are well over the cap, pulling off a sign-and-trade would be difficult, numerous agents and general managers said.
And because Richmond would earn far more than the $2.5 million he earned last season, he is considered a base-year free agent. As compensation in a sign-and-trade, Washington could only receive a player or players whose salaries total just more than half of what Richmond signs for.
The Wizards are not expected to be active in the first few weeks of free agency, which likely will be the case with most teams around the league.
Toronto, Chicago and the Los Angeles Clippers are the only teams with significant room under the salary cap with which to sign prominent free agents such as guards Penny Hardaway and Terrell Brandon and forwards Vin Baker, Gary Trent and Lorenzen Wright. Once those teams have made their moves, the next tier of free agents will either re-sign with their teams or sign for a $2 million exception elsewhere.
In addition to the $2 million exceptions, the majority of teams, including Washington, have a $1.1 million exception available. After that, teams at or over the salary cap can sign players only for minimum salaries.
A number of the nearly 200 free agents could end up with few options, said player agent Steve Kauffman, who represents Wizards Chris Whitney, Ben Wallace and Lorenzo Williams.
"There's going to be a lot of players shocked because there's no market out there for them," Kauffman said.
Washington Coach Gar Heard said he believes some decent players, hopefully big men, will not get what they seek elsewhere and will settle for the Wizards' $2 million and $1.1 million exceptions.
It is unknown if Washington has any players targeted for those slots.
"Hopefully we'll be getting some calls from some good players in need of a job," Heard said.
Washington free agents Otis Thorpe and Calbert Cheaney apparently do not fit into the team's plans unless they are willing to accept lesser salaries, according to a team source. But if the team loses Richmond, that could change.
If Richmond leaves via free agency, rookie Richard Hamilton and veteran Tim Legler would be the only shooting guards under contract. Cheaney, the team's 1993 first-round draft pick, could be an option to start or back up Hamilton.
Should Richmond leave and the team not re-sign Cheaney, who has drawn interest from several teams, Washington likely would have to spend at least one of its exceptions on a shooting guard, instead of using both to bolster its front court.