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Trade clock ticks for players' union, too

Editor's note: As part of "The Stein Line" every Monday, ESPN.com senior NBA writer Marc Stein takes you around the league for the latest news in "Coast to Coast."

The trading deadline is 17 days away, so we know what you want to see.

Trades.

Problem is, almost everyone in the league is trying to do the same thing these days -- stockpile expiring contracts largely for the purpose of dropping below the luxury-tax threshold. As Hawks general manager Pete Babcock told our own David Aldridge recently, both teams in a trade can't end up with expiring contacts. "Somebody," Babcock noted, "has to take the larger contracts back."

It's yet another obstacle in modern NBA business that will give the Players Association plenty to discuss during its annual gathering at All-Star Weekend. Luxury-tax fears have severely curtailed free-agent spending and are now impacting teams' willingness to make trades. Player movement, as a result, has grown increasingly more restrictive, which leaves Billy Hunter and his union with seemingly only one option.

The league can opt out of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement in the summer of 2004, but it makes more sense than ever for Hunter to propose a long-term extension of labor peace in exchange for either the abolition of the luxury tax -- or a cap on how much tax one team pays, since the league is unlikely to back off the luxury tax.

More teams than ever, according to two GMs we spoke with, are on course to lose money. The salary cap was lowered from $42.5 million to $40.3 million entering this season -- the first drop since the cap was introduced in 1984 at $3.6 million -- and initial projections suggest the ceiling will drop again next season because of declining revenues. That raises the likelihood that teams will have to curtail offseason spending further to avoid tax penalties and the multimillion-dollar rebates that go with staying under the tax threshold.

Even if the league doesn't opt out, the current CBA expires in the summer of 2005. Extended labor peace, then, is clearly the most attractive commodity the union can offer team owners in exchange for conditions that would lead to a more active marketplace. Not exactly the sort of trade to get Joe Fan worked up at the water cooler, but something has to happen in the near future to preserve the art of making the kind of trades we all like to see.

Here's why Big Z isn't off limits, as he should be
Cleveland is one of the teams that puts a priority on tax avoidance, which explains why center Zydrunas Ilgauskas -- a newly minted All-Star -- is surprisingly not an untouchable.

Cavs GM Jim Paxson is telling teams he doesn't want to trade Ilgauskas, in an era where quality centers are so scarce, but it's not totally Paxson's call. Ilgauskas has two seasons and $28 million left on his contract, and his trade value is higher than ever after playing in 62 games last season and making the All-Star leap this year on famously fragile feet.

If the Cavs are offered a last-year contract or contracts in exchange, the suspicion is that owner Gordon Gund will be more than tempted. If that's indeed the case, Cleveland needs a new owner as much as Atlanta.

More names, but they're not biggies
What else is out there? Atlanta's Theo Ratliff continues to generate the most serious speculation, with legitimate interest from Philadelphia and Orlando, but the impediment is (surprise!) money. Ratliff has two years left on his contract at $21 million and hasn't totally recovered from his season-plus of hip woes. Not a combination that entices most owners.

Philly continues to be a trade player because Derrick Coleman's $9.4 million salary is a last-year salary. Seattle will part with Kenny Anderson, another last-year guy at $9.1 million, if you take on the four years and $24 million left on Calvin Booth's contract. Golden State would love, as always, to jettison Danny Fortson, but Fortson's deal still has four years to run at $24 million.

Chicago's Marcus Fizer, meanwhile, was starting to build up some good trade value when he was hit with a double whammy. On Wednesday night, Bulls coach Bill Cartwright launched a stunning missive by calling Fizer an "(expletive) embarrassment" for repeatedly complaining to referees in a road loss to the Clippers. Last week's suspension flurry is probably the only thing that prevented the stately Cartwright's unprecedented public critique of a player from becoming a huge national story. But by Friday, the story had been supplanted by a new Fizer crisis -- a season-ending knee injury suffered against Portland.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, send Stein a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.