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Art Garcia

Hedo Turkoglu, who opted out of his contract with Orlando, will be hitting the market soon.
David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

Cautious approach may be teams' best free agency strategy

By Art Garcia,
Posted Jun 30 2009 9:06PM

Sam Presti surveys the free agent class of 2009 and isn't concerned with the timing. While the potential crop of headliners this offseason doesn't quite stack up to the LeBron James bounty of 2010, the Thunder's general manager sees opportunity in the ranks for anyone looking to upgrade.

"Every team is looking for different things in free agency or the draft," said Presti, who presides over one of the few teams with significant salary cap space. "It's a matter of what teams identify as value, where they can find it and how to build moving forward."

That's the trick in an economic climate that has many teams shedding player salaries and, in several cases, rank-and-file employees with an eye on the bottom line. Non-contenders have already begun to movie big talents -- Shaquille O'Neal, Vince Carter, Richard Jefferson and Jamal Crawford, for instance -- for not much in return.

And title hopefuls aren't immune to fiscal realities, as hiring and wage freezes are common around the league. The Mavericks, owned by billionaire Mark Cuban, laid off a number of employees from outside of basketball operations last week. The Spurs are one of the teams going without full-time advance scouts next season.

So what does that mean when the shopping season commences when the clock strikes midnight turning Tuesday into Wednesday?

Cautious opportunism appears to be the strategy of most. The Pistons, armed with as much as $20 million in cap space, could come out swinging. The Blazers will likely jump into the fray. The offseason for the Jazz cleared up considerably before the start of free agency.

Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur and Kyle Korver didn't opt out of their contracts, deciding that guaranteed money in this climate is preferable to the uncertainty of the market. Utah also made a qualifying offer to Paul Millsap, giving the team the right to match any offer for Boozer's backup.

Detroit may be the only team in the unique situation of having serious cap room and the willingness to spend.

"When you have this kind of cap space, your goal is and our goal is to add a couple of guys that can step on the floor and impact the game for you," Pistons general manager Joe Dumars told his team's Web site. "The fact we have a pretty good amount of money puts us in position to make that happen. You can have these plans, but it has to work out. It has to unfold for you."

Dumars is in the midst of a fast-track rebuild of a former championship contender, and hopes to comes to terms quickly with the targets of Detroit's affection. Ben Gordon and Hedo Turkoglu are some of the names likely high on Dumars' list.

But for most of the league, it'll probably be a summer of bargain hunting. The blockbuster deals already made by Cleveland, San Antonio and Orlando mean less free-agent openings, and therefore less negotiating power, for the top-level free agents. Likewise, the teams that just dumped salary -- Milwaukee, New Jersey and Phoenix -- aren't looking to add it right back. Players such as Allen Iverson, Ron Artest, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Andre Miller, Lamar Odom, Mike Bibby and Rasheed Wallace will be scrambling for fewer dollars.

And to be fair, this isn't the Bron-afide bonanza of next summer, led by the defending MVP, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The current class doesn't posses the same superstar wattage, unless Kobe Bryant exercises his early termination option and actually hits the market.

Not likely. The ETO would only be a financial formality, with the Finals MVP not going anywhere. Kobe wants to return to the Lakers and the opt-out would allow No. 24 to sign the last significant contract of his career before the start of 2009-10.

Of those more likely to trade uniforms, the money probably won't be there at the same amounts as next year. Factors impacting the market include teams saving/cutting because of the economy and angling for cap space in '10. There's also a growing feeling among team executives to get more out of younger/cheaper players.

The rookies taken in last week's Draft will be given the first shot in many cases to get into the rotation instead of signing a high-priced veteran. Count on contracts such as the one Mickael Pietrus signed last summer (four years for $21.2 million) drying up. Owners aren't going to want to spend $4-5 million per season on a free agent who will come off the bench when a less expensive young player or a vet at the minimum is available.

The money men in the front office are going to manage production on the court against financial outlay, especially for the non-stars. Based on bang for your buck, Grant Hill may garner more interest than Marion.

Teams with developing rosters, such as the Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook-Jeff Green-led unit in Oklahoma City, aren't going to sign a veteran that might impede the progress of a youngster or make it difficult to sign them when their rookie deals are up.

Look at Presti's low-risk moves last season -- signing Nenad Krstic and Shaun Livingston, and trading for Thabo Sefolosha. The Thunder just drafted a potential core piece in James Harden and B.J. Mullens will be given every chance to develop. Acquiring draft picks may be more important than cap room going forward.

The recent flurry of trades takes the guesswork out free agency. Dealing for an impact player is seen in some circles as preferable to convincing one to sign. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said Jefferson is a safer bet than the pie in the sky that is free agency. For players such as Kidd, a sign-and-trade may be only way to receive a contract exceeding the mid-level exception from someone other than their current team.

Free agents can begin to sign on July 8, but negotiations may extend deep into the summer for a number of guys looking for work as suitors come to grips with what they have in Summer League and roster needs become apparent.

"It's all about figuring out the best way to add value," Presti reiterated.

Value all the way around.

If you have a question or comment for Art Garcia, send him an email.

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