The NBA's Perfect Storm

By Chad Ford
ESPN Insider

Let's get this straight.

This week we've learned that All-Star swingman Tracy McGrady might be swapped for All-Star point guard Steve Francis. All-Star center Shaquille O'Neal might be shipped to Dallas for All-Star power forward Dirk Nowitzki and former All-Star power forward Antoine Walker. All-Star shooting guard Kobe Bryant is becoming a free agent and is a hot commodity, even though there's a chance next long-term deal could be in prison.

The NBA expansion draft is Tuesday night, and a flurry of trades are expected to come shortly thereafter. We've already seen a trade of two of the top four picks in the NBA draft with talk of more on the way.

We're just waiting for Tim Duncan to fax in his retirement papers.

The NBA silly season is in full swing. Can anyone remember a time when more elements have been in motion at the same time? Here's the latest on what's shaping up as the NBA's perfect storm.

T-Mac for Francis?

Monday, the Houston Chronicle and ESPN's Jim Gray were reporting a deal that would send Tracy McGrady, Juwan Howard and Tyronn Lue to the Rockets for Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley and Kelvin Cato was "close."

Several things could keep this particular deal from happening before July 15. First, Francis is a base-year compensation player and is difficult to move until his base-year status expires June 30. Normally he'd be eligible to be traded the next day, July 1, but the NBA prohibits trades between July 1 and July 15, the time window in which teams can woo, but not sign, free agents. However, with some minor tweaking of the deal, Francis could be moved within the rules of the collective bargaining agreement as it pertains to base-year compensation.

Second, sources say the deal Orlando and Houston are discussing also includes Reece Gaines, who is among the players the Magic left exposed in the expansion draft and thus would be holding up the deal. Gaines can't be traded until after the expansion draft (assuming he isn't selected by the Bobcats). Reports that Howard was left unprotected (and thus was holding up the deal) are inaccurate, according to league sources. The Magic did not expose Howard to the expansion draft.

Several league sources with knowledge of the negotiations, including two GMs who are trying to pry McGrady away from Orlando, told Insider on Monday evening that a deal with the Rockets is not "a done deal." One league source with knowledge of the negotiations told Insider on Tuesday morning that Orlando still is soliciting and receiving offers from other teams. According to the source, the Magic still were talking with the Rockets about the deal reported Monday but had not yet made a final decision.

The Suns, Clippers and Pacers also have made bids to acquire McGrady. All of them, on the surface at least, appear to be able to offer much better deals for the Magic than the one in play with the Rockets. However, two of those teams told Insider on Monday night they hadn't had any contact with the Magic in the previous 48 hours.

"I'm not sure what's going on," one GM told Insider. "We made an offer, they seemed interested, but they never called back. It was a better offer than the Rockets' one. However, we're not going to negotiate against ourselves."

Complicating matters is Francis' reluctance to play in Orlando. Francis' agent, Jeff Fried, told the Houston Chronicle on Monday evening his client didn't want to play for the Magic. "Steve's preference is to not go to Orlando," Fried told the Chronicle. "Steve's tasted the playoffs. (The Rockets) got a series under their belts. He was looking forward to going further with the same Rockets team but with another year of experience together. This is certainly not his preference. He loves Houston. Steve loved the fans and his teammates. He's very friendly with Cuttino but also pretty friendly with Yao (Ming). Many of us thought there were the beginnings of something big there with a great center and great point guard."

However, that may not be as big a stumbling block as it appears. One league source told Insider that if the Magic do end up pulling the trigger on the Rockets trade, it will be just the first in a series of moves that could see Francis or other pieces the Magic get back from Houston being moved to other teams. In other words, everyone may have to wait and reserve judgement on this deal until the Magic finish the rest of their rebuilding.

That should bring a huge sigh of relief from Magic fans. On paper, the McGrady-for-Francis swap has the potential to be a disaster for the Magic. One GM went so far as to claim the Magic "could get even worse" if they made this trade. Francis has as much baggage as McGrady, and possibly more. He's coming off an awful year where new head coach Jeff Van Gundy asked him to play more like a point guard and less like a guy determined to jack up 20-plus shots a night. While McGrady is widely considered a top-five player in the NBA, Francis' reputation around the league has greatly diminished. Folks in Houston feel the backcourt of Francis and Mobley can't win because of its lack of size and playmaking instincts. Would the duo fare any in better in Orlando?

So why haven't the Magic searched harder for a better deal? According to sources, T-Mac is insisting he'll only sign a contract extension with the Rockets. Because McGrady can opt out of his contract after next season, the teams willing to trade for McGrady want a guarantee he'll sign an extension if they acquire him. Should the Magic really buy into T-Mac's bluff? Teams like the Pacers, Suns and even the Clippers would have just as good a chance to win with T-Mac.

Other offers that the Magic may be mulling include:

Pacers: They've reportedly offered Al Harrington, and either Jonathan Bender or Ron Artest for T-Mac. Adding so many bigs makes much more sense for Orlando than piecing together a smallish backcourt.

Suns: They're offering Shawn Marion, Casey Jacobsen and either the No. 7 pick or Joe Johnson. Again, the extra size and youth make more sense for the Magic.

Clippers: They're reportedly willing to give up Corey Maggette, the No. 4 pick and possibly Chris Wilcox for McGrady. This is the best deal if McGrady will agree to play in L.A.

Shaq to Big D?

One day after Insider reported the Mavericks would be the front-runners to land Shaquille O'Neal in a trade, Mavs owner Mark Cuban told reporters he'd jump at the chance to land Shaq.

"I would do it," he said, "and you can quote me on that."

"We're in a better position to go after senior [veteran] players than we are to go after young guys, just because of the salaries we have," Cuban said. "Have we talked to them? The answer is no. Will we? Most likely."

Any trade for Shaq likely would include the Mavs sending Dirk Nowitzki away as part of the compensation. That would be tough, but not impossible, for Cuban and the Mavs to swallow.

"I'd be hard-pressed to see us trading Dirk," Cuban said. "Dirk is as close to untouchable as you can get. Never say never, because there's always something that can change it."

Close, however, doesn't mean untouchable.

The rumors, courtesy of the N.Y. Post, that the Clippers also are making a run at Shaq, offering Elton Brand, Corey Maggette and Melvin Ely in return for the Big Fella, seem a lot more far-fetched. While the Lakers probably would jump at the deal, the Clippers would be left with Shaq, Chris Kaman, Quentin Richardson and Chris Wilcox. That wouldn't be pretty.

Draft rumors

Who are the Clippers going to select with the No. 4 pick? The answer depends who you ask. Several sources claim they covet Shaun Livingston. However, several other sources claim it could be UConn's Ben Gordon. Gordon had a phenomenal workout in Los Angeles on Sunday, then mysteriously pulled out of his scheduled workout with the Suns on Monday, fueling rumors that the Clippers gave Gordon a promise at No. 4. And don't count out Devin Harris, who also had a solid workout for the Clips and has the maturity and point guard skills that head coach Mike Dunleavy is looking for.

The Cavs are among the many teams in the lottery trying to move down. The Pacers still are trying to move up. The Cavs are dangling the 10th pick in the draft in an effort to land Al Harrington. The Pacers have been interested in Luke Jackson for months and could grab him at No. 10. The Cavs, who prefer veterans, would grab another great piece of their puzzle in Harrington. What's holding up that deal? The Pacers are still holding out hope [color=red:84aee052e4]For some reason it cuts off here where I got this. I'm assuming it says holding out hope for T-Mac. [/color]

Expansion Draft Rumors

Tuesday night's expansion draft should add anywhere from three to six pieces to the Bobcats' puzzle. For the most part, the work is already done. Charlotte must submit its list to the league no later than noon ET Tuesday. Several league sources told Insider on Monday that the Bobcats already have agreed to two trades and may make two or three more before the night is done.

What's going on?

The Bobcats are hoping Emeka Okafor falls to them at No. 2. There's talk Charlotte and Orlando might work out a deal in which the Magic agree not to take Okafor at No. 1, leaving him to the Bobcats, in exchange for an as-yet undisclosed favor from Charlotte.

Look for the Bobcats to select Jahidi White in return for a future Suns first-rounder and $3 million in cash. The move clears an extra $6.1 million in cap room for the Suns. The Bobcats likely will either waive or trade White.

The Knicks, Spurs and Bobcats were discussing a deal late Monday that would have the Bobcats selecting Malik Rose off the unprotected list. Here's how it would work if the three teams make a deal: The Spurs, who are trying to clear cap space to make some noise in the free-agent market, would send the Bobcats $3 million and their first-round pick (No. 28) in return for Charlotte selecting Rose. The Bobcats then would ship Rose to the Knicks for Dikembe Mutombo, who is in the last year of his contract, and the Knicks' second-round pick. Mutombo would end up costing the Bobcats a little more than $1 million once you factor in the Spurs' cash payment.

There's also talk the Bobcats will select the Jazz's Alexsander Pavlovic with an eye toward moving him to another team. The Bobcats are looking for a future first-rounder and cash to facilitate the deal.

The Bobcats are also actively looking to acquire another late-lottery to mid-first-round pick. Their target is point Jameer Nelson, another seasoned college veteran whom Bernie Bickerstaff loves.