- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Those are really the biggest winners in the Free Agent Frenzy of 2004 ... along with those two pedestrian centers (Adonal Foyle more pedestrian than Mark Blount, obviously) who now belong to the $40 Million Club.
Those first five lads mentioned above are the role players who, over the past two weeks, have received six-year contracts starting at the mid-level exception of nearly $5 million. Over the previous two summers, only 12 players in the whole league came away with a team's full mid-level exception. Last summer, only Juwan Howard scored a full mid-level for more than four seasons.
For a breakdown of the winners and losers at the team level, almost three weeks into the frenzy, read on:
Denver Nuggets. Kiki Vandeweghe's latest coup just might have turned the Nuggets into the West's deepest team. There's no debate when it comes to frontcourt depth, since no one else, Detroit aside, has a forward rotation to match the tandem of Carmelo Anthony and Kenyon Martin, with either Marcus Camby or Nene starting alongside them. When you consider that the Nuggets didn't have to sacrifice the shooting of Voshon Lenard to make room on the payroll for K-Mart and to keep Camby -- and when you learn that trading Nikoloz Tskitishvili could still create enough cap room for Vandeweghe to go after Portland restricted free agent Darius Miles -- you have to say no team had a better July.
San Antonio Spurs. Lakers fans must hate the Spurs more than ever. While L.A.'s would-be dynasty was disintegrating -- at least in part because Shaquille O'Neal, Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant all wanted big raises -- the opposite happened in South Texas. Bruce Bowen opted out of his contract and took less money in exchange for a longer contract. That enabled the Spurs to comfortably re-sign Manu Ginobili and then import Brent Barry to replace the departing Turkoglu. With Barry's shooting, the Spurs maybe don't blow that 2-0 series lead over the Lakers in the second round.
Phoenix Suns. The Suns arguably overpaid for Steve Nash, but they had to. Nash didn't want to leave Dallas, so Phoenix knew its only shot was offering far more money than Mark Cuban to lure the little Canadian back to the desert. While it's true that a six-year deal worth $66 million ($60 million guaranteed) is steep for a 30-year-old, Phoenix has finally reversed the club's history of losing great lead guards by reacquiring an All-Star floor leader they drafted in 1996. Signing the Clippers' Quentin Richardson to an offer sheet, meanwhile, isn't as good as getting a big man like Mehmet Okur. Yet if the Clips choose not to match, Phoenix will have a surplus of swingmen that would allow it to peddle Shawn Marion to, say, Golden State in a sign-and-trade for Erick Dampier. Or something similar.
Utah Jazz. Following the Suns' lead, Utah overpaid for two free agents: Okur and Carlos Boozer. Yet you needn't anticipate any apologies for the $118 million it spent to put those two alongside Andrei Kirilenko and the recovering Matt Harpring ... or for Utah's role in Boozergate. The Jazz have had to hear for decades how free agents will never come to Salt Lake City. This offseason is Utah's revenge, and the Jazz also retained Gordan Giricek and Carlos Arroyo.
Miami Heat. I just don't see why so many folks around the league feel the Shaquille O'Neal deal was a loss for both teams. Miami has revitalized its franchise from a business sense, managed to trade small for big and wound up with a center who still dominates more than occasionally ... without parting with Dwyane Wade. Sounds like a winner to me.
Detroit Pistons. Typical Joe Dumars. Very quietly, the champions have only gotten stronger. Rasheed Wallace will be re-signed any minute, Carlos Delfino was extricated from his European obligations as quickly as the Pistons could have hoped and adding Antonio McDyess as a low-cost, short-minute replacement for Okur was a masterstroke. Look out, league. When you figure that Darko Milicic is going to be a contributor next season, the only problem I see is how Larry Brown is going to find minutes for all these guys.
On the border
Houston Rockets. Only reason the Rockets are here is because they've signed neither of their top two choices at point guard (Fisher and Barry) and because the roster still has holes. Focus strictly on the Tracy McGrady trade and you have to like the concept of putting a Kobe-type -- with something to prove to his detractors -- next to Yao Ming. I also think Howard will contend for the mythical Comeback Player of the Year award (the NBA doesn't have one, remember) now that he'll be partnered by a legit center.
Los Angeles Clippers. There is no adequate consolation prize for finishing second in the Kobe Sweepstakes, especially if Donald Sterling decides to let Richardson walk. Yet it still proved a rather glorious two weeks by Sterling standards, since it was the Clippers' increasing viability as a destination for Bryant that helped convince the Lakers to trade Shaq. "The Clippers scared me," Bryant said at his news conference Thursday night, meaning that even he wasn't ready for how comfortable he became with the idea of defecting to the Lakers' co-tenants. The Clips scared the Lakers plenty, too.
Atlanta Hawks. Getting K-Mart to choose Atlanta over Denver was a fantasy, but at least the Hawks made a decent run at it. The sign-and-trade for Al Harrington, by contrast, was a better-than-expected resolution to Stephen Jackson's unsurprising departure. And with its leftover salary-cap space, Atlanta can still pursue Dampier or Miles if it wishes ... or listen to trade offers from teams looking to offload salaries to a cap-room team (such as Denver with Tskitishvili) ... or save it for more of a blockbuster trade down-the-road and/or next summer's open market.
New York Knicks. The Knicks haven't achieved anything concrete besides making the short list of teams to earn a make-your-pitch invite to Orange County from Bryant. But they continue to be as aggressive as any team in circulation, pursuing Chicago's Jamal Crawford, Cleveland's Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Dallas' Antoine Walker in various trades. After the Scott Layden era, you have to like Isiah Thomas' ceaseless efforts to get something done.
Chicago Bulls. Like the Knicks, they were a fringe participant in the Kobe Sweepstakes. The Bulls also haven't been able to strike a palatable sign-and-trade deal with New York for Jamal Crawford. The good news? Chicago is about to sign one of the better international free agents available: Argentina's Andres Nocioni.
New Jersey Nets. Maybe they'll find another Richard Jefferson with the three future first-round picks they received from Denver for Martin. In the interim, Rod Thorn has to calm a fuming Jason Kidd, who can't believe new owner Bruce Ratner was unwilling to keep the Kidd-Martin-Jefferson trio intact. Thorn also must convince Jefferson to re-sign, which just became more challenging with K-Mart leaving amid rumblings about further cost-cutting. Sadly for the Nets, last July's presence in the WINNERS section is already ringing hollow, for a variety of reasons. There is concern about Kidd's recovery from knee surgery just one year into his new deal. There is remorse about gambling on Alonzo Mourning with a fully guaranteed four-year deal, because a non-guaranteed contract -- or the long-shot gesture of Mourning walking away from the money when he realized his body wouldn't cooperate -- might have made Ratner willing to spend more on Martin. Worst of all, there is the strong possibility that the Nets misread the future, amid growing belief that there will be no luxury tax applied after next season. If the latter is true, re-signing Martin might not have been as expensive as Ratner fears. Oh, yeah: To further muddle matters, there are whispers that Mourning is getting serious about a comeback.
Cleveland Cavaliers. Once Boozergate erupted, Cleveland became a guaranteed loser. The Cavaliers, from that point, were either going to lose their second-best player without compensation ... or, sources said, they were facing a league investigation and likely punishment (for a pre-arranged deal) if Boozer reversed field again and decided to return. As if that lose-lose scenario isn't depressing enough, Boozer's criticisms of coach Paul Silas on the way out have sparked suggestions that unhappiness is commonplace in the Cavs' locker room. The only solace: Silas has always been good with players, so you bet on him to resolve any discord.
Dallas Mavericks. Nash bolted to Phoenix less than 24 hours after the free-agent frenzy commenced, setting a depressing tone in Big D that infuriated coach Don Nelson while flooring the rest of the city. The disappointment is even deeper now that Shaq, after identifying Dallas as the place he wanted to go most, wound up in the East. Chances are the Mavericks will continue their makeover by swinging another big trade or two between now and February, with some $20 million in expiring contracts (Walker and Christian Laettner) to peddle. Yet it remains to be seen what Nash's defection does to the Mavericks' reputation among fellow players. There was already trepidation among some free agents about coming to Dallas because of the Mavs' tendency to shop everyone in trades except Dirk Nowitzki. Mark Cuban's reluctance to guarantee Nash more than four years and $36 million, after years of free spending, rocked the industry. If he was set on giving Nash no more than a four-year contract, Cuban could come to regret not offering $50 million-plus for that span ... an offer Nash says he would have taken.
Los Angeles Lakers. You probably know by now where we stand on this one. While true that keeping Shaq and Kobe and Phil Jackson together would have been exceedingly expensive and a virtual commitment to ongoing chaos, the feeling here remains that the Lakers didn't get nearly enough for O'Neal. Not enough size. No established All-Stars. No more financial flexibility than they would have had by keeping the old gang together. In a perfect world, Shaq would have consented to a pay cut and Kobe would have reached out to the other sides of the triangle to seek a truce and Jerry Buss would have listened to the reason coming from his basketball people about breaking this thing up too quickly. Not in Lakerland, though. That kind of stuff, apparently, only happens in San Antonio.
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