- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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So just where will Joe go now?
Fortunately for the skinny forward with that innocent-no-more name, Joe Smith has options. Much more appealing choices than his cheat-sheet partner, the Minnesota Timberwolves, who might actually be forced into trading Kevin Garnett down the road if they hope to have more than a two-man team -- or see a first-round draft pick -- during the next five seasons.
Smith's either/or decision isn't nearly that nerve-wracking. No one out there can slip him $80 million on some under-the-table parchment, but teams are already lining up to snatch Smith from the Wolves. Which, of course, would deliver another body blow to the Twin Cities, the nation's capital for flat-lined basketball programs.
A look at the suitors and their chances:
Heat: Smith ain't Alonzo Mourning, but he's not Duane Causwell, either. No surprise, then, that Miami is praying for a speedy grant from the league office on that medical exception due in the wake of Mourning's lost season. That exception, which would be valued at $3.9 million, would give Miami a huge advantage over the other leading contenders, who at best can offer a $2.25 million slot. Question is, will the Heat be granted the exception in time? If so, Pat Riley should have a real shot at Smith, with decent money and lots of minutes to pitch. Brian Grant will almost certainly have to play some center for the Heat, which creates a starting-lineup opening for Smith between Grant and Anthony Mason. Smith started only nine games last season, which naturally makes you wonder why the Wolves were so intent on destroying the future of their franchise to put an illegal contract agreement on paper with him.
Knicks: New York and Miami, inseparable rivals. The Knicks might need Smith just as badly as Miami after giving up big for small (oops) in the Patrick Ewing/Glen Rice extravaganza. A $2.25 million exception is also the best New York can do, but Smith's agent, Dan Fegan, has described New York as "a situation that would suit him." It would certainly suit Latrell Sprewell, who's already lobbying his old Golden State buddy. How badly do the Knicks need Smith? Maybe his presence would distract Spree from the fight over the ball on the perimeter with Allan Houston and Glen Rice. A tad more seriously, the 6-10 Smith can occasionally masquerade as a center in the centerless East. In the West, Smith barely has the body for power forward.
Mavericks: Few pundits around the country have mentioned Dallas as Smith's next home, and that could be a big (D) oversight. The Mavericks are in with a real shout for Smith, because they also offer a cozy future in addition to the $2.25 million. Don Nelson is a Smith fan who, with his typically quirky Nellie vision, sees him as a starting small forward that would allow Dirk Nowitzki to play at his preferred power-forward spot. Furthermore, Smith knows that with three seasons of good service in Dallas, he can recoup his lost millions from moneybags owner Mark Cuban. Maybe the biggest factor: Fegan's close ties to the organization. There has been a steady pipeline of Fegan clients to Dallas the past couple summers, starting with Leon Smith. Yes, Fegan was the first of Smith's many agents and almost routed Shandon Anderson to the Mavericks before the Rockets got him. Fegan did deliver Howard Eisley and Donnell Harvey to Dallas and also represents Dale Davis, who reportedly listed Dallas as one of his preferred destinations before Indiana shipped him to Portland.
Pacers: Here's yet another perennial East beat that could use a little veteran assistance. Smith won't remind anyone of Dale Davis, or Antonio Davis, but Reggie Miller won't mind one bit to add a veteran who's at least in the same zip code of Miller's generation. Indiana, after all, is at present relying on this less-than-inspiring quartet for a contribution at center: Sam Perkins, Zan Tabak, Terry Mills and Bruno Sundov. With Jalen Rose sidelined to start the season, Smith would fit in nicely alongside Miller and all the kiddies: Austin Croshere, Jermaine O'Neal, Jonathan Bender and Al Harrington. Like each of the teams listed above, the Pacers have already made their interest known publicly. It merely depends which of these four Smith likes best.
Lakers: Miami, even if it doesn't get the Zo relief in time, still has its $2.25 million exception available, just like New York, Indiana and Dallas. The Lakers do not. Best LA can do is extend its $1.2 million exception, which stretches out to roughly $2.5 million in a two-year deal. Of course, the Lakers also provide a pretty reasonable opportunity to win a ring, which could at least somewhat soften the sting of all that Smith has lost -- namely, his Larry Bird rights. The Lakers swung and missed in their bid to land several power forwards over the summer, from Christian Laettner to John Amaechi to Mo Taylor. Getting Smith for such a pittance would make up for those disappointments, and no one would blame Smith for being tempted. Shaq and Kobe need plenty of help, if you haven't noticed; Horace Grant and Mark Madsen are the power forwards otherwise. If money isn't Smith's main motivation, tough to pass this one up.
Bulls: If money is Smith's motivation, the Windy City will be his next home. History, however, doesn't exactly favor the Bulls, does it? Bags of cap room couldn't prevent Eddie Jones, Glen Rice and Tim Thomas from ultimately spurning Jerry Krause after saying they were interested. Chicago again has the most disposable cash -- some $6 million in cap room for the rest of the season -- but why would Smith want to go to a rebuilding cold-weather team so much farther behind than the Wolves? Right, he probably wouldn't.
Timberwolves: Unlike the Clips, who have a Chicago-like chunk of cap space to dangle, the T-Wolves have nothing. A league-minimum $611,000 for the rest of this season and the promise of a long slog through the snow for the next half-decade. Unless they -- gulp -- trade Garnett or maybe Terrell Brandon and completely start over, the Wolves will be over the cap through 2004, with only exceptions to either pay Smith or scour the earth to find KG some help. Without his Bird rights, Smith has no financial incentive to remain with the Wolves -- in spite of his pre-punishment declaration Tuesday that he'd like to stay so as not to hurt "myself and the team." Stern, obviously, wants Smith anywhere but Minny and has made it extremely uncomfortable for the player to display his loyalty to a franchise the imploded on his behalf. This is a stock-options deal. Slap a one-day call on the Wolves -- if Joe doesn't immediately recommit, short 'em. Slide them to the back of the bus.
Again, at least Smith has options. His team, meanwhile, should be OK in the short term, with Garnett and coach Flip Saunders still around to keep the Wolves close to No. 8, but no one in the Twin Cities will want to look too far ahead. With or without Glen Taylor and Kevin McHale, whose futures are also up in the air, Minnesota faces some stomach-turning choices ... thanks to the latest reminder that, in the NBA, David is Goliath.
Marc Stein, who covers the NBA for The Dallas Morning News, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
11hSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann