- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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The NBA opens for free-agent business one minute past midnight Friday.
The wide-open NBA.
Miami's stunning ascent from a 52-win regular season to a championship, with an aggressively assembled team that even Pat Riley admits was built for the now, is likely to spark a flurry of bold moves this summer. From contenders and even noncontenders.
After the most unpredictable playoffs in memory, it makes sense. Teams in both conferences are bound to believe more than ever, as Riley (now triumphant and vindicated) did last summer, that ambitious additions to the roster -- if they're the right gambles -- can lead to big things.
Bracing for another busy offseason, then, here are five things to watch for (just for starters) ... along with the usual reminder that signings and trades can be verbally agreed to but not officially finalized until July 12.
1. An Allen Iverson trade
There's one small consolation in circulation for any Philly fanatics dreading the increasingly inevitable departure of Allen Iverson:
By the time this deal actually happens, after so much speculation already, maybe it won't be so shocking.
That'll naturally depend on the package Philly ultimately receives in return and where Iverson lands. Yet it's safe to say the city is firmly on high alert, awaiting the official word that their li'l Answer is headed elsewhere. Widespread knowledge of serious Sixers-Celtics talks before Wednesday's draft has given everyone a chance to get used to the idea that Iverson will not be with the Sixers come October ... and that there'll be at least one summer blockbuster this free-agency season.
The Stein Line view holds that Iverson won't/can't wind up in Boston, no matter what you've heard. Seriously. How could the Sixers possibly trade away Iverson -- a more controversial move than shipping out Charles Barkley -- to the Celtics? The Celtics?
I've run this past a few unattached executives and the reaction is pretty much the same every time. Trading Iverson is a rough, tough sell in any circumstances. Trading him within the Eastern Conference and within the same division doesn't make it any easier. Trading him to your archrival is unsellable ... unless Paul Pierce is the return.
And he's not.
The problem? Boston seems to want Iverson more than anyone else, believing that an Iverson-Paul Pierce tandem not only can work -- since Pierce and Antoine Walker did -- but also can thrust the Celts into contention. That's why Boston is trying so hard to recruit a third team to make the deal more palatable for the Sixers and is ignoring anyone saying this is all crazy talk.
Another big reason: I'm told that GM Danny Ainge has been an Iverson fan for years. AI apparently has the Michael Jordan brain type and Ainge's reliance on and devotion to brain-typing is well-documented.
Yet another factor to help Boston's cause: Atlanta and Memphis, two of the more sensible Iverson destinations, aren't exactly in prime bidding position.
The Hawks, as noted here for years, are desperate for a dynamic winner/entertainer in the Michael Vick mode, because that's what the city's hard-to-get NBA customers want and expect. The Hawks also have a coach (Mike Woodson) who knows Iverson (as a Sixers assistant) and the pieces to make Philly an offer (starting with signed-and-traded free agent Al Harrington) that wouldn't require a third team.
The Hawks, though, are gripped by ownership uncertainty. Ousted co-owner Steve Belkin might be on the verge of reclaiming control of the franchise from the seven owners who forced him out, but it's unclear how long it will take to settle that battle in court. So it's hard to imagine, no matter which faction ends up in power, that the Hawks will be sufficiently stable this summer to make a real Iverson play.
The Grizz, meanwhile, probably ruled themselves out -- if they were ever seriously interested -- by surrendering Shane Battier in a draft-night trade with Houston to acquire the rights to Rudy Gay. Grizz boss Jerry West, who has resisted Battier overtures for years, would have been forced to part with his favorite swingman if he hoped to pair Iverson with Pau Gasol and land the ticket-seller Memphis so badly needs. He opted for Gay instead.
We'll see who else materializes as an Iverson suitor. But there's one last thing to ponder here until the next twist: How much fun will that first prac-tiss in October be if the Sixers, after talking so much trade, can't consummate an Iverson deal before training camp commences in Spain? Did someone say international incident?
2. An even bigger trade?
Don't get greedy.
We keep writing this but you keep asking us, so we repeat for the umpteenth time: Minnesota is not trading Kevin Garnett.
Not to a contender or noncontender. Not now, anyway. Not yet. Not before the season starts.
That won't change unless Garnett demands a trade and, by all indications, he won't. The Wolves, in turn, want to take one more stab at building around him despite two straight seasons out of the playoffs. Teams that called to inquire about Garnett's availability in conjunction with the draft were told not to waste their time, sources said.
The same, according to NBA front-office sources, applies to Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal. Anybody but O'Neal is the latest word from Pacers officials. Ditto for Pierce in Boston.
Iverson, then, is the only franchise player presently on the market.
Even Seattle's Rashard Lewis, from the next tier, was mentioned at draft time only because the talks involved Phoenix's Shawn Marion. Lewis isn't being "shopped." I'm hearing that the Sonics will consider a Lewis deal only if they're getting back Marion-level talent.
That's not to say this market lacks intriguing trade candidates. The Warriors have an array of trade chips and are a lock to move someone notable in a bid to shake up their roster, since they persist with coach Mike Montgomery. That someone is most likely power forward Troy Murphy.
Milwaukee's Jamaal Magloire and Utah's Carlos Boozer add some variety and depth to the list of available big men. Denver, meanwhile, continues to aggressively shop Kenyon Martin, ambitious as that is given Martin's enormous contract.
Rewind to Iverson and that's five trade contenders in the $10 million-a-year range, with the Clippers' Corey Maggette ($7 million) not far off.
You'll hear other recognizable names, too, given the so-so nature of the free-agent class. Trades figure to supply most of the offseason excitement, which means heavy doses of speculation but no shortage of real-deal chatter, either.
3. The $80 million dash
All are eligible for five-year contract extensions this offseason worth around $80 million.
Repeat that figure out loud a few times and you'll know why we've continually advised fans in Cleveland, Denver, Toronto and Miami to stop fretting. There is no uncertainty here.
The four best players from the 2003 draft will sign maximum contract extensions well before the Oct. 31 deadline. Look for all four to sign this month, actually.
Yes. That includes LeBron, who was never looking to leave on-the-rise Cleveland.
At their ages especially, you don't turn down max money to wait two more years for unrestricted free agency. You take the money immediately and then, if you want a change of scenery later, you tell your agent to figure it out.
That should be clear by now, after two months of Bosh -- who's facing a climb to contention in Toronto better measured in years -- telling anyone who asks that he'll sign his extension as soon as he's legally able to do so on July 12.
With Darko Milicic, Chris Kaman, Kirk Hinrich and Josh Howard -- arguably the next-biggest cluster of names from the class of 2003 -- there's some uncertainty. It's a safe bet that one (or more) of those gems will not have an extension secured in time for opening night.
Yet when it comes to the Fab Four, it'd be wiser to bill it as a race. Who will sign first? Who will be the first to verbally commit between Saturday and July 11? Will any of them actually let their employers sweat until August, just for fun? These are the pertinent questions.
4. Where the actual free agents go
You've probably heard by now that this isn't the best free-agent crop in history. Maybe so, but that won't stop phones from ringing at 12:01 a.m. Saturday to open the bidding. As stated at the top, too many teams feel too close to championship contention to sit back. Plus, there should be a frenzy feel to this free-agency season thanks to the trade possibilities alone. Promise.
A few starting points before the buzzer sounds:
• In its quest to re-sign Ben Wallace, Detroit is deeply concerned about only one team: Chicago. The Bulls are believed to be the only club of the five out there with salary-cap room that Wallace would consider. And with a rich four-year offer, Chicago might have a real shot at stealing him away. The Pistons, by all accounts, are reluctant to offer Wallace anything longer than a four-year deal, albeit with a starting salary that exceeds $11.5 million to make Big Ben their highest-paid player based on annual wage.
Yet I'm still betting big that Wallace stays, even though he's hired high-powered Arn Tellem to find opportunities via sign-and-trade if necessary. Big Ben remains the face (and hair) of the modern-day Pistons and I struggle to imagine him playing for anyone else. I'm guessing he struggles to imagine that, too.
No less a source of intrigue, to me, is what happens with the Pistons' $5 million mid-level exception. There are rumblings that Sacramento's Bonzi Wells is willing to take a pay cut to reunite with former Blazers buddy Rasheed Wallace and provide the jolt Detroit needs after crashing out of the East finals. That would be an undeniable steal, especially after seeing how much Wells hurt San Antonio in the first round of the playoffs, but the Pistons also crave a point guard who can push the pace -- not a Chauncey Billups specialty -- and are said to be high on the list of New Orleans-Oklahoma City's Speedy Claxton.
In the dream-scenario event that they both become candidates for the $5 million exception, Detroit would have an interesting choice to make: Wells or Claxton. You'd figure then that the Pistons would have to sign Wells and use their smaller exception ($1.7 million) to pursue Pistons alumnus Chucky Atkins or Bobby Jackson for the backcourt.
• A full column devoted to the summertime challenges facing the Clippers is available on ESPN.com's Free Agency page. The condensed version: Sam Cassell is a free agent, coach Mike Dunleavy is entering the final year of his contract and long-suffering Clipper Brand-wagoners fear that Sam I Am won't be retained and/or that Dunleavy won't be extended. That would be problematic because Cassell and Dunleavy, along with Elton Brand, were widely regarded as the main catalysts in the Clippers' breakthrough season.
Adding to the Cassell intrigue is the Lakers' alleged interest. One theory reverberating in the Staples Center hallways suggests that the 36-year-old, if he receives no more than a one-year offer from the Clips, will spite them by signing a multiyear deal with the glamorous team in the building, even though the Lakers' starting price can't rise above $5 million mid-level. Lakers skeptics dismiss the viability of that theory, figuring that Cassell's camp wants that notion out there merely to put pressure on Clippers owner Donald T. Sterling.
My take? I don't think Cassell is kidding. Kobe Bryant and Sam I Am would be a rather nasty combination, and Phil Jackson is certainly lusting for some additional veteran know-how after Kobe's kids couldn't finish off Phoenix after taking a 3-1 series lead.
Then there's this variable: Word is that Cassell is hiring David Falk to handle these negotiations. Which is either good news for the Clips, since Falk also represents Elton Brand, or a clear signal that Sam I Am will not be settling for a one-year deal.
5. What the NBA finalists do
Dallas will be active right from the start, maybe more active than you'd expect for a team that just went to the Finals for the first time ever. Activity is probably a good thing, though, for a team trying to gain some distance from the biggest Finals collapse in league history ... and for a team that has to outlast San Antonio and Phoenix just to have another shot at the title.
Free-agent guard Jason Terry has told teammates that they can expect him to re-sign as early as possible, but the Mavs -- who also hope to sign Howard and Dirk Nowitzki to contract extensions -- still plan to pursue Toronto's Mike James in a sign-and-trade. Mavs coach Avery Johnson is a fan of James' toughness and confidence and likes the idea of playing James and Terry together.
The issues? The Mavs are planning to offer Marquis Daniels in a sign-and-trade for James, having concluded that Daniels' future is elsewhere, but the Raps are cool on the swingman, believing they'll get better sign-and-trade offers. Issue No. 2: James, 31, is seeking a five-year contract, and the Mavs are unlikely to offer more than three years. With James expected to attract plenty of interest in the West alone, Dallas could be forced to look elsewhere in its search for better playmaking and another shooter.
As for the new champs, I'm really focused on only one of their free agents. Alonzo Mourning, Gary Payton and James Posey are certainly important, and the Heat will have to address their bench and advancing age to hold off next season's long list of challengers, but Riley's return is the story.
If the Heat really want to repeat, they have to start by re-upping the coach who molded this team into a unit, outsmarted us all and turned up the intensity on this summer.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
Free agency is here. Marc Stein has five things you should be on the watch for this offseason.