- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Following are the first helpings of front-office chatter to dribble into Stein Line HQ, culled from various team executives, coaches, players and agents throughout the league, to coincide with the tipoff of NBA Free Agency Season 2009 at one minute past midnight Wednesday:
Chicago's Ben Gordon remains the backcourt player deeply coveted by the Pistons, but the prospect of a Gordon-and-Villanueva combo likely would be slightly cheaper than trying to sign Gordon and Turkoglu with Detroit's nearly $19 million in projected salary-cap space.
So look for the Pistons to take that approach -- barring another shift in focus to a Gordon-and-Paul Millsap combo -- while they also decide between Doug Collins and Avery Johnson as their next coach.
Gordon could receive an offer as soon as Wednesday, after sources confirmed that Gordon will be making a formal visit to Motown right away.
That has established Portland as the most determined Hedo suitor on the market, which the Blazers made clear by reaching out immediately to Turkoglu's agent, Lon Babby, in the early, early minutes of Wednesday. Besides Detroit, Toronto (which likely would have to get sign-and-trade creative) and Sacramento (which would have to show an unexpected willingness to spend) also continue to be linked with the Magic's outgoing closer.
Did someone say outgoing? Sorry, Magic Kingdom. Despite Dwight Howard's televised pleas Tuesday night for Turkoglu to stay, pretty much no one I've spoken with has been able to manufacture a realistic scenario that enables Orlando to afford keeping him after the financial commitment it took on in trading for Vince Carter.
Detroit versus Cleveland again? It looks that way thanks to Villanueva.
The Cavs were just about the happiest team on the NBA map when Milwaukee elected to allow Charlie V. to become an unrestricted free agent, since there's a fair bit of belief in Ohio that it would be better to add more of a rangy 3/4 type to counter the likes of Lamar Odom and Rashard Lewis -- someone like Villanueva or the more affordable Linas Kleiza -- than Rasheed Wallace or Antonio McDyess.
Cleveland, though, can offer only a contract starting at full midlevel (at roughly $5.6 million). An offer from the Pistons that starts in the $7 million to $8 million range ... chances are Villanueva can't do better in this depressed marketplace.
No one in Oklahoma City is saying so, but rival teams keep insisting that the Thunder are poised to present an offer sheet to Jazz restricted free agent Millsap that Utah can't afford to match. The Jazz are projected to be some $3 million into luxury-tax territory next season before even accounting for Millsap, after Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur and Kyle Korver all declined their opportunity this week to become unrestricted free agents.
The most frequently cited counter to that idea is that the Jazz will match any reasonable offer to Millsap because they plan to trade Boozer between now and February.
Yet as one team official out West notes, any team that deals for Boozer this offseason or during the regular season is "not going to give up a whole lot" beyond matching expiring deals to Utah since Boozer will be joining the 2010 free-agent class.
Boston has emerged as the hot new entrant in the race for Sheed. My colleague Ric Bucher from ESPN The Magazine credits Kevin Garnett for convincing Celtics personnel chief Danny Ainge to enter the bidding and for leading the Celtics' lobbying efforts.
Orlando, San Antonio and Dallas all have strong Sheed interest as well, although sources say that the Mavericks -- through president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson -- were planning to make an equally personal and determined pitch to Magic restricted free agent Marcin Gortat as soon as possible to match owner Mark Cuban's pitch in New York right after midnight to Jason Kidd.
It must be a Texas thing, because Rockets general manager Daryl Morey announced via his Twitter feed right around midnight that he was soon to meet with Gortat, urging Houstonians stung by the latest dire projections about Yao Ming's long-term health to send their message of support to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Word is that New York and Indiana are also among the teams to register immediate interest in Gortat over the phone once free agency started, which helps explain why one Eastern Conference official describes the 7-footer from Poland as this summer's likely "Powerball winner," since Gortat almost certainly will cash in on the position he plays despite limited opportunities in Orlando behind Howard.
There's no question that the idea of signing with New York holds some real appeal for J-Kidd. He loves the city and is equally fond of Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni, who is said to covet Kidd badly and apparently believes the Knicks have a legit shot at luring him out of Dallas.
Plugged-in sources insist, however, that Kidd has no interest in one-year offers, especially since a one-year offer from New York would start at only the $5.6 million midlevel. Offering more than one year, however, would slice into the cap space the Knicks have set aside for the 2010 free-agent bonanza ... unless they're sure that they can shed the contracts of Eddy Curry and/or Jared Jeffries.
"The Knicks can't give Jason more than one year," said one rival executive, "unless they think that signing him gets them LeBron."
The Mavs -- who have Kidd pegged as their lead recruiter for 2010 free agency unless they take on a big contract via trade between now and February -- nonetheless remain strong favorites to retain the 36-year-old.
No less interesting than Kidd's foray into free agency is the case of Suns swingman Grant Hill. During his participation in Steve Nash's annual Showdown in Chinatown charity soccer game in New York last week, Hill said he is determined to listen to every proposal he gets, figuring that this could be his last real chance, at 36, to be widely courted.
Fresh off a trip to the Western Conference finals, Denver keeps coming up as a team hot for Hill, who earned less than $4 million over the past two seasons with the Suns. He just played in all 82 games for the first time in his career, averaging 12.0 points and 4.9 rebounds and shooting a robust 52.3 percent from the field. Boston is another team that has Hill on its radar, and more are sure to emerge.
The Suns, meanwhile, certainly should have a shot to hang onto Hill, given his close ties to Suns guard Steve Nash -- assuming Nash eventually accepts the contract extension Phoenix is offering -- and Hill's affinity for the athletic training staff that has resuscitated his career after some six years of injury misery. Yet if Hill receives a full midlevel offer from a contender he likes, Phoenix won't try to match, given its well-chronicled desire to keep moving away from the luxury-tax line.
The vibe I'm getting already is that the Nuggets should be able to secure a verbal commitment from Chris Andersen on a new contract -- their first shot-blocker off the bench and the most popular Nugget not named Chauncey or Carmelo -- in fairly fast fashion. Andersen played for a mere $797,581 last season after a two-year drug suspension.
Surely you haven't forgotten the drill: Teams and this summer's 100-plus free agents can reach verbal agreements at any time over the next seven days, but new contracts can't actually be signed before July 8 while the league finishes determining the salary-cap figure for next season. The 2009-10 cap is likely to be close to last season's $58.7 million per team based on the latest leaguewide projections.
Talks have undeniably cooled for the Suns and Warriors on the Amare Stoudemire trade front, but I was told again Tuesday that (A) it is a virtual lock that the concept will be revisited since the teams have been exchanging Amare proposals since February and (B) Phoenix has not abandoned the idea of dealing Ben Wallace to New Orleans for center Tyson Chandler.
The biggest obstacle with Amare remains Golden State's unwillingness to even consider including No. 7 overall pick Stephen Curry in the deal and the Suns' lack of interest in a deal without Curry. The other main obstacles haven't changed, either, with Golden State needing assurances about Stoudemire's health (knee and eye) and willingness to sign a contract extension (up for debate) before going ahead with such a swap.
As for Chandler, Phoenix continues to be intrigued by the idea of gambling on a big man who, when healthy, has the qualities Nash been lobbying for: Chandler's athleticism, defensive presence and mobility. But Phoenix also fears that bringing him in will drag the Suns right back into the sort of financial straits that motivated them to dump Shaquille O'Neal's contract to Cleveland for two players (Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic) who have no future in the desert.
Bruce Bowen could eventually hit the free-agent market, but not before August. Milwaukee has to waive Bowen -- with a payout of $2 million -- by Aug. 1 or else his $4 million salary for next season becomes fully guaranteed.
So the Bucks will explore their trade options with Bowen first -- and won't have a lack of opportunities, from what I gather -- and then release him if they don't find a palatable deal in the next month. The Magic and Cavs would be among the natural contending suitors if Bowen becomes an unrestricted free agent, with Orlando possibly possessing an advantage in the presence of coach Stan Van Gundy, who knows Bowen well from their time together with the Miami Heat before the 38-year-old swingman went to San Antonio in 2001.
Speaking of vibes ...
If you pardon the shift to coaching matters, word is that Phil Jackson is headed to his offseason home in Montana this week, which suggests that the Lakers will soon confirm that Jackson is indeed returning for the final year of his contract.
We're also hearing that new Wolves president David Kahn is assembling a l-o-n-g list of candidates to interview for his coaching opening, suggesting that his search to replace Kevin McHale could consume the bulk of this month. Some of the more prominent names Kahn wants to talk to in addition to presumed favorite Mark Jackson: Sam Mitchell, Bill Laimbeer, Kurt Rambis and Brian Shaw.
The latter duo from L.A., meanwhile, undoubtedly will be pleased to hear about Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski's insisting Tuesday that he can't be considered a potential successor to Jackson because he's not leaving the Blue Devils "until I leave coaching." Rambis and Shaw are frequently described as strong candidates to eventually take over when Phil Jackson leaves the Lakers, but the belief persists that Kobe Bryant will push Coach K when Jackson does retire.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
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