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Scott Howard-Cooper

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Darko Milicic is getting $20 million from the Wolves.
David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Owners can't cry poverty after doling out huge contracts


Posted Jul 5 2010 8:17PM

The concussive blows of the opening days of free agency came not from LeBron James or Dwyane Wade but from Darko Milicic and Drew Gooden, not from the cap-rich Heat or Knicks but from the Timberwolves and Bucks.

The developments since Thursday at 12:01 a.m. Eastern would all be very interesting anyway. Interesting and occasionally laughable. But coming as the league and union posture during negotiations on a new contract, Gooden and his reported $32 million from Milwaukee and Milicic getting $20 million from Minnesota instantly becomes a bargaining chip from heaven for the National Basketball Players Assn.: How can teams cry poverty and insist the current salary structure needs change when they are able to commit that kind of cash to journeymen?

The union has taken note of the contradiction, and just maybe it will be lobbed across the negotiating table at some point as the sides enter the final year of the Collective Bargaining Agreement and what could be the last money run for free agents before a lockout after the 2011 Finals. The majority of the early spending hasn't been from big-market teams, hasn't been from teams that dedicated months and sacrificed victories to dive deep under the salary cap for the Summer of LeBron, and hasn't even been lavished on A-Listers James, Wade, Bosh, Dirk Nowitzki, Amar'e Stoudemire, or Carlos Boozer. It's been Joe Johnson staying with the Hawks for six years and $119 million and, according to the Boston Herald, Paul Pierce getting $61 million over four years to stick with the Celtics.

Otherwise:

*The Grizzlies committed five years and $82 million to Rudy Gay to take the top restricted free agent off the market. It's a huge number for a 23-year-old who may not become the best player on his team, depending on O.J. Mayo's development, but Memphis wanted to retain an important asset and wanted to do it with a bid that would end negotiations before a team with a war chest signed him to a front-loaded offer sheet that would have required the Grizz to spend in the neighborhood of $20 million in 2010-11 alone. He's a potential 20-point scorer and respected enough that USA Basketball included him in the pool of candidates for the team that will play in the World Championships later in the summer. So it can be rationalized on some levels.

*The Lakers agreed to four years and $16 million with Steve Blake while the Suns did five years and $30 million with Channing Frye and four years and $18 million with Hakim Warrick. Six mil a season for Frye is a large pay day, but the others are less than the mid-level exception. So, some rationalization.

*Amir Johnson got five years and $34 million to stay in Toronto. Tougher to rationalize. A lot of people within the league have thought for years he had breakout potential, and Johnson is only 23 and a big man on a roster about to lose Bosh, but that's a big cap number for someone who's never averaged more than 17.7 minutes in five seasons.

*The Bucks went $32 million into Gooden for five seasons and $39 million for five seasons for John Salmons, with the final campaign partially guaranteed. Salmons, OK. Well, maybe not OK at an average of $7.8 million annually, if he reaches the full value of the contract, but Salmons proved himself to be an integral part of a team that can now realistically talk about a playoff run. Gooden, on the other hand.... Wow -- more than the mid-level for a guy that will be 29 at the start of camp and has never played more than three seasons in a row with the same club.

*Milicic is still heading to the Hall of Fame. He must be. The Pistons take him second in 2003, teams keep trading for him, though as an expiring contract in the Knicks' case, and now the Timberwolves agreed to pay him $20 million over four seasons. That's nothing compared to the size of the bank trucks that will start rolling past for James, Wade et al, but $20 million in this economy, as owners grip about losing money with a broken business model, is the ultimate sign that people still have silly money to throw around.

It's that perspective -- this moment in the financial world set against the backdrop of negotiations on the new CBA -- that make the contracts different than all the other summers of using fifty-dollar bills to light cigars. Sometime within the next year, it will lead to the actual realization of how monumental this free-agent frenzy turned out to be: It may not only re-shape the landscape on the court, depending which superstars change teams and which stay, but it will almost certainly shape union views in contract talks with the league. And we haven't even gotten to the real money yet.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. 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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