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Fran Blinebury

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Nene, Marc Gasol, and David West are considered to be among the top prizes in the 2011 free-agent class.
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Tight schedule may lead to unprecedented free-agent frenzy


Posted Dec 5 2011 11:51AM

Try to envision 30 general managers lined up and crouched in the starting blocks, hoping to take off down the track like Usain Bolt.

When the gun goes off Friday, it will mark the official beginning of the 2011 free agency period. Though maybe we should call it a comma, considering there will hardly be time for anyone to come to a full stop.

There's no LeBron James in this year's free-agent class, so no reason to expect that ESPN will book airtime and line up Jim Gray for another of the most uncomfortable hours in television history. No Dwyane Wade and no Chris Bosh, either, so no reason to schedule another bombastic indoor display of fireworks and chutzpah.

But what the grand prizes this year lack in terms of gild could be made up for in the sheer speed and quite possibly resulting pandemonium.

Team officials were permitted to begin making contact with agents last week, and talk to players themselves Monday, but everyone will have to wait until Friday -- just 16 days before the quintuple-header regular-season openers on Christmas Day -- to actually put ink to contract. No written or even verbal agreements are allowed -- wink, wink -- until the same day that training camps open. That means a team might get its first glimpse at what shape its own players are in on the same afternoon that it's bidding for their replacements.

While it is true that there is no reason for anyone to be unprepared -- after all, the lockout gave all front offices five extra months to do their homework -- there is still the possibility for a feeding frenzy to roil the waters.

On one hand, it could wind up being reminiscent of the old TV game show Supermarket Sweep, where teams of contestants run up and down the aisles filling their carts while a clock ticked loudly. So when contracts can be offered on Friday, the likes of Nene, Marc Gasol, Tyson Chandler and Arron Afflalo will be quickly pulled off the shelves.

On the other, we could argue that things won't be much different from past years when the free agent period began on July 1 and most of the prime targets were wrapped up in 10 days to two weeks.

Yet there are so many other considerations that could push this free agency to fast-forward. With a hurry-up schedule, compressed exhibition season and some training camp rosters being put together on the fly, some teams might feel an unusual pressure to simply fill out their squads.

The extra time off has definitely been good to hundreds of NBA knees, but it has the potential to be bad in terms of body fat. Because of the whirl of activity and the tumult it will produce, it's conceivable that a team could commit to a $30- or $40-million contract with a player it hasn't laid eyes on since last spring.

How much is anyone willing to gamble on former All-Star forward David West returning from major knee surgery before they've seen one dribble of a basketball on a practice floor?

Before the ink is even dry on the new collective bargaining agreement, does any team go to the max in pursuit of a journeyman such as Nene (14.5 ppg, 7.6 rpg) simply because he might be the best big man available?

With no summer leagues to evaluate rookies and free agents, there are likely to be more questions about more holes on more rosters than in a normal season.

The truth is, even though the new CBA rules restrict the use of the mid-level exception a bit, there still remains a possibility for more hurried mistakes due to an entire system that will evolve and change over time. Right now, the rules for sign-and-trade and extend-and-trade deals are the same. But with an escalating salary cap and a BRI level that is reduced by 6 or 7 percent in two years, teams in today's free-agent market will be trying to make assumptions on a system that will likely be radically different down the road.

The mid-level has always been a gamble -- DeSagana Diop, Jerome James, Jared Jeffries come to mind -- and while the maximum that can be offered under that umbrella has been reduced significantly, the lesser sum could also embolden some clubs to roll the dice more quickly.

Or they could wait to try to scoop up bargains if big names Brandon Roy, Baron Davis, Rashard Lewis, Gilbert Arenas, Al Harrington or Travis Outlaw are cut loose under the "amnesty" clause.

There is a school of thought that says some people may act with appropriate caution, according to one executive. Then again, school is often out on thought and caution when it comes to free agency.

Wizened veterans with solid resumes such as Shane Battier and Grant Hill can name their location and likely nobody is going to look back at the end of the season with regret. But it will be the usual crapshoot with the likes of Jamal Crawford, Jason Richardson, Samuel Dalembert, Marcus Thornton, Chuck Hayes, and Nick Young.

This difference is, this time, the whole game will be played at warp speed.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. 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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