Bet on Garnett testing free agency in '04
With no contract extension, Kevin Garnett will make Wolves fans worry by testing free agency. Also, find out who'll be trying to make deals this offseason, what the Blazers are up to and why the Spurs spent so wisely.
Editor's note: As he does every week during the regular season as part of "The Stein Line," ESPN.com senior NBA writer Marc Stein gives his take on things in "Slams and Dunks."
Fearless Prediction Time ...
Apologies to all my friends in Minny, but I'm fearlessly predicting that Garnett will opt for free agency in July, even if you could guarantee right now that the Wolves finally reach the hallowed hardwood of Round 2 in the playoffs.
That doesn't necessarily mean he's going to leave Minny. That doesn't change the fact that Garnett has been as proud of playing for "Sota," as he calls the place, as anyone could reasonably expect, given the Wolves' 0-for-7 history in the first round and the thin teams he has been repeatedly asked to carry.
It simply figures that Garnett, as we just saw with Jason Kidd, will want to exercise his right to look around and be wooed and explore how another team or two operates. Kidd talked seriously with San Antonio and Dallas, and Tim Duncan had the same inclination in the summer of 2000, flirting with a move to Orlando the first time he was a free agent.
It's just a warning, Wolves fans ... albeit a warning team insiders indicate is in line with Garnett's thinking. Even with the most talented roster in franchise history, and even though the incumbent team always has a huge advantage when it comes to keeping a free agent, it's going to be a long 12 months in Sota waiting to see if Garnett re-signs. Just as it was for skittish Nets fans, and just as it was for fearful Spurs fans before them.
The new game finds teams like Phoenix, which is well into luxury-tax territory, peddling a last-year contract like Tom Gugliotta's to teams with significant salary-cap space, such as Utah and Miami. By most estimates, the Suns could save $28-33 million in salary and luxury-tax penalties (and rebates) if they can convince, say, the Jazz to take on Googs.
If Utah or Miami elects to participate in such a trade, the idea is to fill out the roster for this season while stockpiling a pick or two for the future and, most importantly, preserving flexibility for another run at free agents (or more of a blockbuster trade) next summer. The hangup in any deal will inevitably deal with the draft picks Utah or Miami is offered.
"You don't think the luxury tax is effective?" one West executive said. "Teams are throwing picks at those teams so they can (facilitate trades to) avoid the luxury tax. And you know how much we all covet picks."
Golden State is another potential trade partner with last-year players to peddle: Chris Mills ($6.6 million), Bob Sura ($6.3 million) and Adonal Foyle ($4.4 million). Of course, the Warriors have been trying to move those players for months, in an attempt to create the salary-cap space that would have enabled them to hang onto Gilbert Arenas.
With Arenas just days away from formally joining Washington, it could be Sacramento that tries to hook up with Utah or Miami to move out a player or two. Keon Clark ($5 million) and perhaps Lawrence Funderburke ($3.6 million) are available, after the Kings' recent three-team trade with Indiana and San Antonio netted them Brad Miller's new $68 million contract.
Houston could likewise ease its tax burdens by moving Glen Rice ($9.6 million) to a team with cap space, and Memphis has two last-year contracts (Wesley Person at $7.7 million and Brevin Knight at $5 million) to pitch in hopes of either reducing next season's payroll or landing a bulky center.
Last summer, the seemingly innocuous dumping of Erick Barkley to Chicago saved the Spurs well over $2 million net in luxury-tax payments they didn't have to make and luxury tax/escrow distributions they didn't lose. The champs wound up owing just under $200,000 in luxury taxes after winning their second title in five years.
Then there are the omens that keep adding up. Assuming it can convince Steve Kerr to put off retirement and play one more season, San Antonio will also be able to make the claim that it has the two players -- Kerr and Horry -- who have combined to participate in the NBA's past 10 championships. Horry won rings with Houston in 1994 and 1995 and three with the Lakers from 2000-02. Kerr won three straight championships with Chicago from 1996-98, then two in the past five years with the Spurs (1999 and 2003).