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The Daily Dose: '09 free agents may be better than '10 class

By David Aldridge, TNT analyst
Posted Jan 8 2009 3:16PM

New to the pew, I am about to blaspheme.

The nice folks here at the .com have been nice (crazy?) enough to begin ceding me a few bits of bandwidth on a regular basis to blog about all things NBA. My very first entry is sure to cause upset and angst.

I do not believe the 2010 NBA free agent class is going to change the game as we know it.

I do believe the 2009 NBA free agent class will wind up being just as good, if not better.

Please pass the cold compresses to your right. The line to the fainting couch begins behind Worldwide Wes.

I suspect many of you now believe that I, once again, consumed too much Ouzo last night or have taken the express line to Crazy Town. How could any group of free agents be better than one including (or that could include) LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Manu Ginobili, Tyson Chandler, Rudy Gay, Mike Miller, Michael Redd, Ray Allen, Jermaine O'Neal, Peja Stojakovic, Shaq and Marcus Camby? Haven't you heard? Every team in the league worth its GM is clearing room for '10 so that it can get in on the bidding. The Knicks may not even field a team next season to make sure they have enough '10 space.

Except much of the conventional wisdom is ... how do I put this? Garbage. (I wanted to say something stronger than "garbage," but I know there are sensitive eyes present. I'm looking at you, GP.)

Here is some of the potential '09 class. Those with asterisks either have options for '09 or can terminate existing contracts for '09, and many are expected to do one or the other, for one reason or another:

Kobe Bryant*, Carlos Boozer, Shawn Marion, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Hedo Turkoglu*, Mehmet Okur*, Andre Miller, Mike Bibby, Jason Kidd, Allen Iverson, Rasheed Wallace, Kyle Korver*, Anderson Varejao*, Drew Gooden, Stephon Marbury, Grant Hill, Brandon Bass, Joe Smith, Wally Szczerbiak, Zaza Pachulia and Anthony Parker. Jermaine O'Neal could join the group if he walks away from $23 million next season. (Don't hold your breath. There's no asterisk by Boozer because he's already said he's opting out next summer.)

I know what you're thinking: The '10 class is much younger than the '09 class, with many more franchise-level players. That's true. However, that's not especially relevant, for reasons explained below.

Franchise fool's gold. Let's put it this way: LeBron is not going to play in Memphis. Ever. Even if the Grizz can pay him $25 million a year.

Dwyane Wade is not winding up in Sacramento.

Bosh will not have Milwaukee on his short list.

Nothing against any of these fine cities; I've spent several nights in each, and they're swell. But honesty requires that we get real about the real markets for the likes of James, Wade and Bosh. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that unless seismic changes take place, James is either going to stay in Cleveland in 2010 or go to New York. Maybe Los Angeles. Wade will almost certainly choose between Miami, New York, L.A. and Chicago. Bosh will choose between the preceding cities and, perhaps, Detroit. And that's it.

Indeed, it's possible that two of them (all three?) will wind up in the same city. Which, regrettably, still isn't Memphis. Without the Big Three on the market for most NBA cities, the '10 class loses a good bit of its luster. That's going to leave a lot of teams with max money to spend on mostly not-max players.

Which reminds me ...

Many owners are cheap. In a rip-roaring bull market like we had in the mid-90s, there were still NBA owners with little incentive or compunction to spend wildly. In an environment like the current credit/housing/jobs freefall, the likelihood that there will be a dozen or more teams throwing money around in a year and a half is laughable. There are more than a few owners, I'm afraid, who have absolutely no intention of using the cap room their GMs are currently clearing, preferring to pocket the money instead of investing in a game-changing player.

Many of the industries that have made many NBA owners rich --construction/development, Internet endeavors, entertainment (a broad category running the gamut from Miami owner Micky Arison's Carnival Cruise Lines to the casinos of the Maloof Brothers, owners of the Kings) -- are all suffering in the current downturn.

"It's like the whole economy," says the GM of one team that's not likely to be a player any time soon. "Everyone's a little hesitant to spend."

Indeed, the NBA is feeling the pinch just as badly as any other business. Ad sales are way down, one of my spies tells me. While the usual suspects, like the Lakers, Bulls, Knicks and Suns, are doing fine -- and Boston is back in the top five coming off championship No. 17 -- the per-game league average through the first two months of the season has flatlined at around $894,000 a night. And even that break-even number may be artificially pumped up by Oklahoma City's huge inaugural season -- the Thunder's average nightly gate has increased by 127 percent over the team's final season in Seattle.

I couldn't get this nailed down, so I won't mention the team, but I was told by a management source that one franchise is off by $250,000 a night over last season. Over 41 games, that would be $10 million less cash on hand in '09 than at the end of the '08 season.

Also remember: Most teams' season ticket renewals go out in the preceding February and March. That means that teams already have most of their money for this season's tickets and suites in hand. It's hard to imagine renewal rates for most teams going up in '09-'10 -- or even staying the same -- given the current economy.

Only seven or eight teams are going to be over the luxury tax threshold this season. That number isn't going up any time soon. Fewer teams contributing luxury taxes to their fellow competitors will further erode many teams' bottom lines.

"People have spent (in recent years) not to be a tax payer," says a CEO of a major market team. "Indiana really can't afford to spend up to the tax based on their local economy. But they do, because everyone else is doing it ... now, I think you're going to see teams having to make a lot of tough decisions on spending."

Fewer involved '09 teams=more '09 opportunity. By one team president's math, at least 16 teams already have cleared or will likely have cleared enough cap room by the summer of 2010 to be able to pursue at least one max-level free agent. By contrast, the team president figures, only five teams will be in a similar situation next summer.

He didn't specify, but it's not hard to figure them out: Atlanta, Memphis, Minnesota, Oklahoma City and Portland. Detroit could become a sixth, but only if it renounces its free agent rights to both Iverson and Wallace, which is extremely doubtful. Portland's flexibility may well be compromised if the contract of Darius Miles, waived Tuesday by Memphis, ultimately winds up back on the Blazers' books, costing them $9 million in cap space and near double that in possible luxury tax payments. Atlanta has to decide how much to put into Mike Bibby and Marvin Williams.

The point is, there will be far fewer '09 suitors than '10 teams. And while Bryant is equally not likely to leave L.A. for smaller-revenue teams this summer, those teams are nonetheless in a buyer's market similar to that of Major League Baseball. There will be solid, veteran players available who may well have to settle for cents on the dollar instead of bigger paydays. A wise team will likely get a whole lot more bang for its reduced buck in '09.

Says one extremely high-ranking team executive: "This is going to be a nuclear winter for free agents. I would not want to be one this summer. So, if the point is that this summer will be great because there will be bargains galore, you are on the money."

A One and a Five beat a Pair of Threes. The '10 group is lousy with wings -- big wings, small wings, fast wings, shooting wings. But so is the whole NBA. The worst teams in the league -- Oklahoma City, Washington, Minnesota, Memphis -- all have perfectly fine wing players. It's the point guards and centers that most of them lack, and so does the 2010 class.

Point guards available in two years: Nash. He's it. And he'll be 35 on opening night, 2010.

Point guards available next year: Kidd (who, granted, will be 36 on opening night, 2009), Miller and Bibby.

Quality bigs under 35 in two years: Bosh, Nowitzki and Chandler.

Quality bigs under 35 next summer: Boozer, Okur, Varejao, Wallace. Not-great-but good ones include Dallas' Bass, Chicago's Gooden and Atlanta's Pachulia. You can even take a flier on a Sheldon Williams, the fifth pick in the '06 draft, who will be unrestricted after a less-than-stellar beginning to his career in Atlanta and Sacramento. Maybe he's not going to be a star, but he could certainly be a solid, serviceable, 10-year guy like Smith (the first pick overall in 1995, if you remember) has been.

So lay out the rose petals for the Class of 2010. But pull out your checkbook for the Class of '09.

Please, don't thank me. It's what I'm here for.

And now, as Casey Kasem might put it, a word about a blog. This one.

Here's what I hope to do when we get all the bells and whistles attached: Give you a daily dose of what's going on around the league. That's information, informed speculation, interviews and, yes, some trade talk. It will always be factual. It is always subject to response and criticism. I welcome both. When others break big stories, I'll link to them. I'll have a Blogroll up soon with some of my favorite basketball-centric sites and writers, and hopefully, we'll be able to link to some of my podcast interviews and sound.

This should become the first place you look every day for NBA chat. And, occasionally, recipes.

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