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NBA champs with money to burn?
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6/18/2003  3:14 PM
NBA champs with money to burn: It's like not even fair

By Chris Bernucca

- In the memorable gangster film "Goodfellas," there is a scene where Sonny Bunz, a character who owns a restaurant and is having trouble collecting a bill from another gangster, asks mob boss Paul Cicero to take over ownership of his restaurant.

Having been handed majority ownership as a silent partner in a business he knows nothing about, Cicero is flabbergasted.

"It's like not even fair," he says between puffs of a cigar.

That's what other NBA general managers may be thinking of the San Antonio Spurs right now.

When Spurs general manager R.C. Buford and coach Gregg Popovich finish puffing on their victory cigars, they will attend to the business of the NBA draft on June 26. Five days later, the real fun starts.

That is when the free agency period begins, and the Spurs will have nearly $18 million to spend on players they can add to a knucklehead-free team that has won two titles in the last five years and has a talented young nucleus fronted by Tim Duncan, the NBA's best player.

Should San Antonio sign superstar point guard Jason Kidd to nurture Tony Parker and provide a double-dribbling backcourt? Should they go after All-Star forward Jermaine O'Neal to help take the heat off Duncan? Or should they wait a year and save their money for 2004 and use it on, say, Elton Brand? Or even Kobe Bryant?

It's like not even fair.

This will be a fun time for Buford, the personnel man who unearthed foreign flashes Parker and Manu Ginobili and teamed with Popovich to use patience and foresight in setting up a salary cap situation that is the envy of every team.

But there also will be some pressure on the young general manager to maintain the right mix of players that can keep the Spurs on top and Popovich sane. Duncan, who has some input on personnel moves, is confident Buford and Popovich will make the right choices.

"Our guys have done a great job putting things together," Duncan said. "Those guys have done an incredible job of getting players and putting them on the floor and giving us a chance to win. We'll fill a void and we'll find a way to hopefully get back here."

"The opportunity to add to the team that has the pieces we have is exciting, as long as we make the right decisions," Buford noted. "But it's been a plan to Pop's credit that we haven't deviated from in a long time."

The plan was put in motion three years ago, when Duncan signed a three-year contract with a one-year option. His presence allowed the Spurs to remain contenders while structuring the deals of most of their other players to also end this summer.

In the summer of 2001, center David Robinson was given a two-year deal. When guard Derek Anderson demanded a multi-year contract, he was sent in a sign-and-trade to Portland for guards Steve Smith and Steve Kerr, whose deals also ended in 2003. Guard Speedy Claxton was acquired in a trade but did not have his 2003-04 option exercised by the club.

In that time, the Spurs signed just two free agents to contracts of more than two years - forwards Malik Rose and Bruce Bowen, whose combined annual salaries total less than $10 million.

"We did some make decisions at times that protected the cap room this summer that might have produced different players at that time," Buford said. "To Pop's credit, he was really diligent and he didn't deviate."

This season, the Spurs paid a total of $53.7 million in player salaries. That was well over the salary cap of $40.271 million but well under the luxury tax threshold of $61 million.

Among the players on that payroll are seven prominent free agents whose salaries total over $30 million. More than two-thirds of that is accounted for by Robinson ($10.5 million) and Smith ($9.9 million). Robinson is retiring after an illustrious 14-year career with the Spurs. Smith is an 11-year veteran with creaky knees who will not be re-signed.

As for the remaining free agents, here is the likely scenario for each: - Forward Danny Ferry may be re-signed for his professionalism, but not at the $4.5 million he made this season. He won't be asked back for anything more than the $1 million veteran's minimum.

Guard Steve Kerr strongly hinted at retirement during the Finals. He is 37 years old but is in demand because of his ability to shoot. He made $2.6 million in the last year of a five-year deal but could be lured back with the veteran's minimum.

"I don't know how it's going to play out," Kerr said. "I'm going to take some time and see what I want to do."

At 40, center Kevin Willis is the NBA's oldest player but almost certainly will be back. He is in fantastic shape and wants to play two more years to break Robert Parish's record as the oldest player in league history. More important, Willis can still play, is a solid influence on San Antonio's younger players and will accept the veteran's minimum.

"I know he's gonna play," Robinson said. "I hope he plays here next year so he can be one of those guys to keep everybody steady."

Claxton made $1.1 million this season and may get away. He is an unrestricted free agent who played the best basketball of his career on the biggest stage, starring in a reserve role in the NBA Finals.

"A lot of people doubted me along the way, but I think I proved a lot of people wrong," he said.

On the open market, Claxton could command the mid-level exception of $4.7 million, which is more than double what the Spurs are paying Parker. However, Claxton would be excess baggage if the Spurs acquired Kidd.

Guard Stephen Jackson may have the hairiest situation. Jackson made just $587,435 this season, the lowest salary of any starting shooting guard. Being cut by nine teams worldwide in his career and playing a key role for the NBA champions will have him looking for a larger paycheck with some long-term security.

With Ginobili up for a new deal after next season, the Spurs may be reluctant to overpay for Jackson. Over time, Ginobili will be the better player and would surprise no one if he is San Antonio's starting shooting guard when the new season opens in late October.

When the dust settles, the Spurs will have their cap number down to about $23 million, which leaves them about $18 million to spend before they have to make any decisions on their own free agents.

It's like not even fair.

There are those who say the Spurs should pursue a big man such as O'Neal rather than Kidd, who may get in the way of Parker's development. But if you are Buford, why wouldn't you want the best point guard in the NBA for the next five years to nurture your young guard, who would be all of 26 when Kidd's deal expires? And if you are Kidd, why wouldn't you want to play with Duncan?

While Buford was overly cautious in not mentioning Kidd's name for fear of tampering, he does feel that the environment he has created with the Spurs is an enticing one - for any free agent.

"I would hope so," he said. "We have a great coach to play for. We have a great player with Tim and an attractive team coming back."

"You don't know what's going to happen in your future," Popovich said. "So many things are uncontrollable."

The Spurs won't go after just anybody. They likely won't pursue Gary Payton, because his abrasive personality is not a good fit in the locker room. They might consider Juwan Howard, who is aching to win and still has some game left. Even O'Neal or Brand would have to somewhat adjust their games to fit in as Duncan's sidekick.

After winning his second title as coach, Popovich did not want Sunday's postgame media session to end. Having barked at media members for two weeks, he implored them to ask more questions.

"How many times is this going to happen?" he asked.

If everything goes according to plan, it could be an annual event.
all those years as a fan and now i'm the anti-knick. life is crazy aint it.
Posts: 20886
Alba Posts: 0
Joined: 4/14/2003
Member: #395
6/18/2003  3:16 PM
steve kerr is a hustler
all those years as a fan and now i'm the anti-knick. life is crazy aint it.
NBA champs with money to burn?

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