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Summer market may be more wind than windfall

By Fran Blinebury, for
Posted Feb 25 2009 11:32PM

So maybe the summer of 2010 doesn't turn out to be one big game of musical chairs after all. Maybe LeBron James stays in Cleveland, Dwyane Wade in Miami, Chris Bosh in Toronto and very few NBA players wind up sending out change-of-address notices.

That's because the summer of 2009 might be the day -- or the offseason -- the music starts to die. Or at least goes into a vegetative state.

While most of the Saturday night fireworks during All-Star Weekend in Phoenix came from the explosive legs of Superman-clearing Nate Robinson, the real buzz came from the Man of Steely Resolve, David Stern. The commissioner, in his midseason address, acknowledged that the salary cap is expected to decrease next season. Estimates have the number dropping from $2- to $3-million or so, from the current $58.6 million, due to the continuing slump in the overall economy.

"Teams know exactly what's happening," Stern said. "They know what their finances are and they also know that the cap is coming down. If you don't have a lot of high-revenue growth over the next couple of years, there may be a slowdown. But teams know the rules and can assess their own situations."

Since the salary cap was born in 1984, there was only one other time -- the summer of 2002 -- when it decreased. Even taking that into account, the cap has increased by an average of roughly $2 million per season. In addition, the luxury tax threshold -- currently at just over $71 million -- will likely fall under $70 million next season.

While the belt-tightening does not mean that players will have to take summer jobs as lifeguards or driving ice cream trucks to supplement their incomes, it could mean that the anticipated free agent bonanza of 2010 could turn out to be more wind than windfall, just like the recently passed trade deadline.

First on the wish-list hit-list could be the New York Knicks and their grand plan to clear enough space under the cap not only to attract LeBron but also to fit in a second pick of the litter -- Wade? Bosh? -- with another max contract.

Before the hoped-for and hyped-up event of 2010 rolls around, the Class of 2009 should show what is -- or is not -- to come. When the clock strikes midnight on July 1, there may be a dearth of general managers camped out on the front steps of free agents. And that will signal the start of an era of fiscal caution, if that didn't happen already at the trade deadline.

Were there reasons that, despite so many rumors, the likes of Amar'e Stoudemire, Vince Carter, Shaquille O'Neal and Tracy McGrady wound up staying put? Yes -- millions and millions of them on every team's bottom line.

This summer, up step the likes of Mike Bibby, Ben Gordon, Jason Kidd, Allen Iverson [pictured above], Andre Miller, Ron Artest, David Lee and Nate Robinson, to name a few, perhaps to walk smack into a brick wall of reality.

"I think it's gonna be ugly, I really do," said an NBA executive. "What's happening is the cap is going to drop and to some amount nobody was ready for it to drop to and the world has operated as if that would never happen."

The problem is that over the last half-dozen or so seasons, teams have handed out max contracts to players that grow at 10 to 10 1/2 percent per season and gave out mid-level exception deals that grow at 8 to 8 1/2 percent. At the same time, revenues have been growing only at lower, single-digit rates and may actually be flat this season.

Team owners are nervous and it's only going to get worse in the next few weeks and months as they try to get season ticketholders to commit themselves to next season.

There will be only a handful of teams that can pay more than the mid-level exception this summer. While in the past the top 20 free agents might have received deals paying $30-, $40- and $50-million, this time around those offers won't be quite as forthcoming. What it means is that where the mid-level exception used to land second-tier free agent talent, this time it could eventually get some top drawer talent.

It will be a buyer's market, maybe not the best of time to be Charlie Villanueva, Ramon Sessions, Raymond Felton, Rasheed Wallace or Hedo Turkoglu. It could be musical chairs, with many fewer chairs. And the new rules of the new game could stick around for a while.

"Definitely," said the executive. "Take whatever the shock and awe of 2009 and double it for 2010."

Fran Blinebury covers the NBA for the Houston Chronicle.

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