Who's opting out this summer?
By Chad Ford
NBA Insider
Send an Email to Chad Ford Monday, March 1
Updated: March 2
11:04 AM ET

Gary Payton is mad. He gave up a lot of money in an attempt to buy himself an
NBA Championship in L.A. this season.

So far, he doesn't feel like he's getting his money's worth. With Kobe already
half-way out the door, the Mailman not delivering, Phil Jackson eyeing Jackson
Hole and Shaq campaigning to take over Mitch Kupchak's job, the Lakers are no
longer the hot, championship producing factory Payton thought they were when he
decided to take a big pay cut last July.

But that's not really Gary's issue. Winning is important. But it's not as
important as playing time in the Glove's mind. Despite the fact that the Lakers
have won nine out of their last 11, Payton's concern is ... well, Payton.
Reminded that both he and Karl Malone knew there would be sacrifice, Payton
said, "Not this kind of sacrifice."

"Sacrifice in points, in touches. We wasn't sacrificing minutes and playing a
role and try to do other things," he said. "I'm not playing the way I think I
should be played. I can take not scoring as long as we're winning basketball
games. But not me sitting on the bench and sitting there and don't know the
reasons."

Just what the Lakers need.

Payton's not the only one with issues. Several other big-name NBA players are
facing a big decision this summer. Should they take advantage of an opt out
clause in their contract?

Some do it because they need a change of scenery. Others do it to renegotiate a
new, more lucrative contract. Regardless of the motivation, the existence of so
many opt-out-clauses among the NBA's elite has the potential to wreak havoc on
this summer's free-agent process.

With the season dwindling down and potential free agents making their desires
known, today Insider breaks down what the top 10 players with opt outs are
thinking about their future ...

Gary Payton, G, Lakers

The skinny: Payton or Phil Jackson? That appeared to be the ultimatum this
weekend when Payton acknowledged that he was unhappy with his role, playing time
and the triangle offense. Payton knows he's standing on thin ice. Jackson has
nine championships, all with the triangle offense, to Payton's zero with his
coveted pick-and-roll. He knew when he signed up for this that the Lakers
weren't changing their offense and that Shaq and Kobe were still looking at most
of the touches every night.

This just confirms what Insider wrote last Thursday . . . Payton (and most
likely Malone) are gone this summer barring an NBA championship. With as many as
six teams with significant cap room this summer, don't be surprised to see
Payton jump ship to a team like San Antonio that can offer him a legit shot at
the title, more money and more offensive freedom.

Kobe Bryant, G, Lakers

The skinny: The great free-agent debate of the summer. In 2000 it centered on
Grant Hill and Tim Duncan. In 2001 we suffered through the Chris Webber
sweepstakes. Last year the Jason Kidd "will he or won't he" debate lasted almost
a full year. This year everything depends on Kobe. We know he'll opt out, if for
no other reason, so that he can sign a more lucrative contract in L.A. But with
numerous sources close to Bryant claiming his eyes are wandering, several teams,
including the Clippers, Suns and possibly the Spurs and Nuggets, will pull out
all the stops to woo Kobe away. Will he bolt? Money isn't the issue. In every
scenario he makes more money in L.A. What's the appeal? A chance to escape the
limelight (Phoenix, Denver), a chance to win a championship without Shaq (Suns,
Spurs) or just to thumb his nose at the organization for a perceived lack of
support during his ongoing legal challenges this year (the Clippers).

Steve Nash, G, Mavs

The skinny: Nash will opt out, but chances are he will stay in Dallas. Nash
is one of the few guys in the NBA who is actually underpaid at the moment. By
opting out, he's looking at a huge raise with his next long-term contract.
Surely, Mark Cuban will throw a lucrative long-term contract at him to keep him
in Dallas. If that's not enough for Nash, the Suns and Clippers are in desperate
need of a point guard, and both teams would be willing to throw the cash his
way.

Antoine Walker, F, Mavericks

The skinny: Walker may be the toughest to call. The talk in Dallas is that Don
Nelson is frustrated and would be happy if Walker walked away this summer. If
Walker opts out, he'll have to take a pay cut to move on. It's hard to imagine
the Jazz, Nuggets, Clippers or Spurs throwing max money at him. Teams would be
interested in the $8-9 million range, but not at the $14 million rate he's going
for. Does he have a future in Dallas? It depends on how deep Cuban's pockets
are. He already has Dirk Nowitzki, Michael Finely and Antawn Jamison locked up
to max-type contracts. With Nash also looking for a big deal, can Cuban afford
both? The most likely outcome? Walker doesn't opt out and becomes an
unrestricted free agent in 2005. No use throwing away $14.6 million next season.

Erick Dampier, C, Warriors

The skinny: Dampier opting out of his huge contract was inconceivable
last summer, but he's having the type of season that has caused him to
reconsider. There are plenty of teams that need a big man, and if the Jazz or
Nuggets show some interest, it may be his best and only chance to get out of the
bay while he's still hot. The question really comes down to finances.
Dampier makes a guaranteed $16.8 million over the next two seasons. If he can
get a five-year, $40 million offer, he's going to bolt for the security. The
fact that he's reportedly hired a new agent (Dan Fegan) probably means that
Dampier is going to opt out. Does he already has a deal in place with another
team?

Marcus Camby, C, Nuggets

The skinny: Camby's going to be a free agent one way or the other. Camby and the
Nuggets tried to hammer out a contract extension, to no avail, last summer. Now
he's faced with an unusual dilemma. If he doesn't exercise his opt-out, the last
year of his contract ($7.75 million) becomes unguaranteed. That means that the
Nuggets can waive him without owing him a penny. It sounds like the Nuggets want
him back, but will Camby be lured back to the Garden by Isiah Thomas? That's the
talk around the league at the moment.

Karl Malone, F, Jazz

The skinny: Any chance of Karl going back to the Jazz? They may have a better
shot at the championship than the Lakers next season. The answer is probably no.
A better fit may be Dallas, which would love to throw its mid-level exception
his way if he's willing to play for that. The only concern with Malone in Dallas
is playing time. With so many trees, Malone knows his minutes will be sparse
there. Would a team like the Spurs, Timberwolves or Rockets be a better fit?

Latrell Sprewell, SG, T-Wolves

The skinny: Spree is having an amazing season, but the chances of him
opting out are very slim. Spree's due to make $14.6 million next season. There's
no way he gets that in the open market . . . nor is he going to be able to get
an extension anywhere near those numbers. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Stephen Jackson, G/F, Hawks

The skinny: Jackson is one of the better bargains in the league. He turned down
a offer from the Spurs this season to play for $1 million in Atlanta. That
really worked out. Now Jackson is declaring that he's opting out again in search
of a more lucrative deal. Don't expect the Hawks to pay his demands (which will
probably be inflated by a strong showing at the end of the season now that the
team's talent level has depleted). Who would?

Jerome James, C, Sonics

The skinny: Would James, who averages a measly 15.3 mpg and 5.2 ppg, really give
up a guaranteed $5.5 million next year? As absurd as that sounds, James is
frustrated with his lack of playing time on the Sonics and his agent feels that
he'll have several serious suitors willing to come close to matching the money
he already makes in Seattle. The Grizzlies are one of the teams that appears to
be interested, but there will be others, regardless of his production, before
too long.

Around the League

Thomas to ink extension? One player who looks like he won't have to opt out of
his contract this summer is Knicks forward Kurt Thomas. The two sides are
reportedly close to hammering out a four-year, $30 million contract extension
that will lock up Thomas through the 2008-09 season.

If Isiah goes ahead and inks Thomas to the extension, he's basically painted
himself into a corner -- ala Scott Layden -- without much hope of getting out of
it.

Take a look at the Knicks' guaranteed contracts over the next few years.

Othella Harrington, Dikembe Mutombo and Cezary Trybanski come off the books in
the summer of 2005 -- giving Thomas around $10 million in expiring contracts to
play with during the season. He might as well try to turn those into one more
expensive player. Having all three contracts coming off the payroll only drops
the Knicks down to $92 million in payroll.

That numbers goes even higher if you figure in the fact that Thomas is sure to
use his full mid-level exception ($5.5 million) next season.

Tim Thomas, Penny Hardaway, Nazr Mohammed, Moochie Norris and Frank Williams are
done in the summer of 2006. Even with those three big deals coming off the
books, the Knicks will likely be eight to 10 million over the cap -- meaning no
significant free-agent signings.

The Knicks aren't looking at any real cap room until the summer of 2007, when
Allan Houston and Shandon Anderson finally come off the books, assuming the
Knicks don't re-sign guys like Thomas, Mohammed and Williams.

That type of roster security is great, but with the Knicks losing eight of their
last nine, you have to wonder whether Isiah's extreme makeover of the Knicks is
going to take. If it doesn't . . . Knicks fans are going to be forced to stare
at an ugly team for a long, long time.

Waiver Wire Work: Teams had until March 1st to waive players in time for them to
still be eligible for a playoff roster on another team. Only five significant
players got the axe before the deadline. The Hawks let Dion Glover go and he
quickly signed on with the Raptors. The other four players, the Celtics' Vin
Baker, the Spurs' Ron Mercer, the Wizards' Brevin Knight and the Raptors' Lonny
Baxter, are still looking for a home.

Baker has been talking to two teams seriously -- the Heat and the Knicks. The
Raptors have also shown interest and Baker is expected to meet with them before
making a final decision. Over the weekend ESPN.com's Marc Stein reported that
Heat president Pat Riley was confident that the Heat would land Baker. However,
the N.Y. Post is reporting today that the Knicks will sign Baker either
Wednesday or Thursday.

Mercer's rep, which has been plummeting ever since he was shipped out of Boston
when he asked for the max, took another major hit when the Spurs waived him. "If
you can't fit into a class organization like that on a team that's winning," one
GM said, "where do you fit? He has talent, but clearly his attitude is an
issue."

The two teams with the most interest appear to be the Nets and Pistons. The Nets
want some insurance in the backcourt with everyone ailing. The Pistons, who
traded away their back-up two guard, Bob Sura, to get Rasheed Wallace, have been
pursuing Mercer for some time.

Baxter is expected to be claimed off waivers by the Wizards, according to a
report in the Washington Post.

No word yet on whether anyone will have an interest in Knight, who averaged 4.3
ppg and 3.2 apg in Washington.

Does Ainge want to tank? For those of you who wrote in skeptical about the whole
idea of team actually tanking the season, I give you Celtics president Danny
Ainge and head coach John Carroll.

When the Boston Globe asked Carroll whether the Celtics would be better off
losing the last 20 games of the season, here was his response. "From Danny's
perspective, that would be the best thing you could do, no question," Carroll
said. "It'd be great to have the lowest pick to get the best player available. I
understand his position. But he understands it's a two-sided coin."

The stakes are especially high for the Celtics. If they end up as an eighth seed
in the East, they'll likely have the 14th pick in the draft. If they slip to the
ninth position and barely miss the playoffs, they'll likely pick eighth. If they
let the Cavs, Heat and Sixers pass them in the standings, even by one game,
they'd be looking at the sixth pick in the draft.

"It's a huge difference," Ainge conceded. "You're not just talking one or two
spots. It could be seven or more."

Asked if he was conflicted, Ainge said, "I'm not torn. If the guys win, they're
happy and I'm happy for them. If they don't, there's hope also. But what's most
important to me is to see the team improve in the way we play and the
development of the young players. That's critical. I think if our young players
are helping us to win, then that, to me, is great. We can't go out there and try
to win at all costs and not develop the younger players and our running style as
well."

Wade or Hinrich? I got a lot of angry e-mails on Monday because of my assertion
that Kirk Hinrich was turning into the best player not named LeBron or Carmelo
in the draft class of 2003. What about the Heat's Dwyane Wade, who's having a
stellar season in Miami this year?

It's true that Wade has been phenomenal and his numbers post all-star break
(19.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 4.3 apg on 44 percent shooting) are great. But Hinrich's
post all-star numbers (17.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 7.4 apg on 46 percent shooting from 3)
are better in every category but points scored. Considering that Hinrich is much
more of a true point guard than Wade, you'd expect his numbers to be better.
What really stands out about Hinrich is the great rebounding numbers and 3-point
shooting as of late. Readers were right to bring Wade's name into the mix . . .
both players have had enormously successful rookie seasons. The fact that Wade
has already missed 18 games this season and looks to be out another week during
the Heat's playoff run hurts Wade just a bit. I just think Hinrich has been a
tiny bit better since the break.