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Art Garcia

The Heat have about $23 million in cap space to sign Dwyane Wade (and maybe someone else, too).
Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

Cash-rich teams can't afford to come up short in free agency

Posted Jun 4 2010 12:01AM

Someone isn't going to be satisfied. A lot of people won't be.

The buildup to the Summer of 2010 isn't going to pay off for everyone. It can't. For every max contract doled out and every promise of a title made with it, shattered dreams will follow. It's inevitable.

Do the math. All the teams that have been angling for position in this free agency period to end all free agency periods can't all make out. Only one team is going to end up with LeBron James. Ditto for Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amar'e Stoudemire, Dirk Nowitzki, Joe Johnson and on down the potential savior line.

"Unless they're cloning LeBron and Dwyane -- and I don't see any evidence of that yet -- someone is going to strike out," said Kevin McHale, the former Minnesota general manager and current NBA TV and TNT analyst. "The free-agency market goes to complete squat if Wade stays in Miami and LeBron stays in Cleveland and Amar'e stays in Phoenix."

While it appears there is plenty of difference-making talent to go around, the number of teams with significant cap space exceeds the supply of free-agent superstars. And when players begin talking about doubling up -- as D-Wade first alluded to in announcing a supposed gathering of upcoming free agents -- even fewer squads cash in.

Financial futures
The teams listed below are projected to be under the NBA's salary cap this summer by at least $14 million.
Team Amount Under (millions) Notes
New York $34.1 David Lee cap hold
New Jersey $26.8
Miami $23.9 Include Dwyane Wade '10-11 salary
Chicago $20.3
Washington $20.0 Randy Foye cap hold
Sacramento $19.2
L.A. Clippers $17.6
Minnesota $15.7
Oklahoma City $14.3

"It all depends on the 'online-dating summit' with all the big free agents," McHale said. " 'Where do you want to go? What should we do?' If you get a couple players that decide to go to New York, like if LeBron says to D-Wade, 'Let's go,' then you've got something pretty special."

Let's start with James, since he's the King Domino. Should the Chosen One finish what he started with the Cavaliers, giving long-suffering Cleveland fans faith that something is finally going their way, how devastated are the Knicks, Nets, Bulls, Clippers, Mavericks and every other team holding LeBron vigils?

If he decides to forsake Cleveland for riches elsewhere, it potentially cripples the Cavaliers. Front-office jobs are lost. Season tickets aren't sold. NBA relevance in central Ohio packs up and leaves with LeBron.

Sure, parties and parades will greet James wherever he ends up. But those other hopefuls that didn't sign him move on to Plan D-Wade. Repeat and rinse.

The LeBron-Cleveland dynamic works equally well with Wade and Miami. Stay in South Beach and those other suitors are left holding the bag, wondering why they've spent all that time and effort acquiring cap real estate. Go, and a franchise that won a title with Wade as its centerpiece four years ago has to rebuild again.

But the offers won't end with LeBron and D-Wade. Not even close. Bosh, Stoudemire and Nowitzki are among those holding the fates of their clubs in the balance. Bosh appears to be leaning toward greener pastures outside of Toronto. Stoudemire continues to state that he's 50-50 on Phoenix, while most assume Nowitzki will retire in Dallas.

As stars start to go off the board, more pressure is put on those teams left out. Those players still on the market figure to drive up the bidding.

Noted economist Dr. David Berri of Southern Utah University has researched the NBA since the mid 1990s. The author of Stumbling On Wins, along with Martin Schmidt, doubts the upcoming feeding frenzy will leave many teams satisfied.

"It's a weird market in that it's a market that people anticipated for years would happen," Berri said. "Teams have been positioning themselves for years for it to happen. My prediction is that a number of teams are going to be extremely disappointed and their fans are going to be extremely disappointed.

"I would argue that although there is a glut of star players in the market, there is not a glut of players who will transform a franchise in the market."

That's a sobering thought that few teams can afford to admit. Assume the Nets don't hit on the crème of the free-agent crop. Where is Mikhail Prokhorov going to turn? The Russian billionaire with the championship plan is going to go all out to fill his shopping cart with the next best.

"He'd be a hard guy to talk into doing nothing because he wants to make a big splash, but making that big splash isn't everything," McHale said. "Some people get really concerned with winning the press conference, but you've got to win games. The press conference goes away pretty quickly."

Rewind to last summer when Pistons general manager Joe Dumars was selling the signings of Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva for $80 million combined. Detroit went 27-55, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2001.

"There are candidates to be this year's Pistons," Berri said. "The Pistons just blew it. They clearly way overpaid for players who helped them not win many games."

The greatest collection of free agents ever also owns more bargaining power than any group before. Not only can they team up and turn an also-ran into a contender, they can influence the front office like few before. The Nets, Clippers, Bulls, Hawks and Hornets currently have coaching vacancies.

Package deal, anyone?

"Say you're [New Jersey president] Rod Thorn and LeBron says, 'Hey, I'll come if you hire this guy.' I think you'd have to be crazy not to look at that," McHale said.

Outside financial factors impacting this summer appear to be negligible. While the economy has been used as the sticking point in negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement, with owners arguing for cutbacks and players countering that the gloom-and-down scenarios are overblown, don't expect spending to be curtailed.

"I would discount the whole issue with the economy, because the economy is improving," Berri said. "Here's the deal with owners, and it goes back 100 years: When it comes to owners discussing what they can pay players, they tend not to be terribly honest about these things. They tend to make up excuses."

But this is what so many owners, general managers and coaches have been waiting for. This is the reason New York and New Jersey dumped salaries and sacrificed winning the last several seasons. These teams had an eye on 2010.

It's all about "going for broke" now. And broke is a very real possibility.

"To give up on several years so you can have one of these players, it gives some idea of the scarcity of this talent," Berri said. "What if it turns out that they don't get it, that there's too many of them bidding for these guys, and then what do you do? Do you make a maximum offer for someone like Rudy Gay?

"You have two competing forces here: You have an excess supply of star talent, which we would think would depress salaries, and then we have an excess demand for talent and that would of course increase salaries. It's going to come down to how desperate teams get if they miss."

Art Garcia has covered the NBA since 1999. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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