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Shaun Powell

Don't be surprised to see players like Dwyane Wade stay put in free agency.
Issac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images

Want to know where a free agent will sign? Follow the money

Posted Jul 6 2010 10:43AM

We're still too early in the process to tell where this free agency thing is going, but the hunch still says this: Nowhere.

In the next 48 hours or so, the A-list names will let everybody in on the secret and the landscape will begin to form around the NBA. But will it really change much? One by one, they'll announce their signing intentions, others will fall into line, all the sweet-talking and ego-stroking will cease, and the so-called free-agent frenzy will likely turn into a fizzle.

It's not too late for a surprise, even a seismic shock, regarding an unexpected defection. But the long-held suspicion about the Summer of 2010 being a tease remains unchanged. Even the teams with room under the salary cap knew it would take a lot, maybe too much, to get the stars to uproot, change uniforms and start fresh. That's because, whenever confronted with a tough decision, it's human nature to follow one very powerful instinct: Go for the money.

Except for very rare circumstances, money is the deciding factor. And there's more money to be made by staying put. Teams can pay their free agents more than others, and in some cases, the difference is upward of $30 million. And that's what this process is all about, despite all the lip service about wanting to win championships. It's about wanting to make money. Always has been. Always will be.

Even the one free agent who left his team, Amar'e Stoudemire, did so for money. He didn't leave for a better chance to win. Keep in mind, he basically traded Steve Nash for Eddy Curry. Stoudemire will sign a five-year deal worth roughly $100 million with the Knicks on Thursday, the first day signings become official, and the reason he's no longer in Phoenix is because of money. The Suns wouldn't offer him that kind of coin, and some in NBA circles believe the Suns couldn't. Owner Robert Sarver is keeping a watchful eye on the bottom line, and the price of doing business with Stoudemire was too rich. Literally.

Joe Johnson was all but considered gone from the Hawks after he turned down an extension last fall and then flamed out in the postseason, knocking the home fans in the process. But when the Hawks offered $120 million, more than any team by far, the choice was easy for Johnson. He didn't necessary sign for the love of the Hawks or the belief his chances of winning were greater in Atlanta. He signed because nobody turns down that lottery ticket.

Dirk Nowitzki opted out of the final year of his deal, worth $21 million, not because he wanted to change teams. He wanted more money, and received an extension, worth roughly $20 million a year from the Mavericks. Same for Paul Pierce; here in his twilight, Pierce had no desire to spend it in Minnesota. He's a Celtic for life mainly because he loves the team color: green.

The pending labor negotiations had everything to do with those deals. Fearing a tougher salary cap and a pinch on team spending, players who could escape their final year did just that, so they could hammer out an extension under the current rules, which may become obsolete a year from now. Better to get your money today than worry tomorrow.

Chris Bosh will leave the Raptors for the same reasons Stoudemire left Phoenix. Toronto has made no attempt to give Bosh a max deal. Therefore, there's no reason to stay. Dwyane Wade knows he'll get the max from Miami, and there's no state income tax in Florida, either. So there's no reason to leave that fortune on the table unless Miami fails to land at least another free agent. And that won't happen, not with Carlos Boozer (who won't get big money to stay in Utah) all but begging to join Wade.

Carmelo Anthony isn't a free agent, but he could wave his right to become one next summer should he accept the Nuggets' three-year, $65 million extension offer. And he probably will. Given the uncertainty of free agency in 2011 and the labor agreement, turning down a guaranteed $22 million a year might not be the smartest decision in this climate.

The only real money test is LeBron James. Of all the free agents, he relies on his NBA salary the least. His massive endorsement dollars can compensate for any loss of salary should he change teams. But LeBron is swayed by money, too, given his infatuation with Warren Buffett and a desire to become the first billionaire athlete in basketball. Staying in Cleveland means familiarity, continuity and most of all, a higher salary. That's all the Cavaliers have going for them.

LeBron and the other A-list free agents are wise enough to know that signing somewhere else and winning a championship is never a sure thing. The money? Now that's guaranteed.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. 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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