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Orlando ready to wine, dine big names

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NBA free-agent season officially opens today, and all eyes will be on the Orlando Magic and Chicago Bulls.

And especially the Magic.

For months now we've been hearing about how the Magic and Bulls manipulated their rosters so as to open enough salary-cap space to pursue a high-profile free agent or two.

But it appears to be the Magic who will have the most impact on the annual free-agent frenzy. For a variety of reasons — chiefly better climate and more enlightened management — more free agents have expressed an interest in playing in Orlando than in Chicago.

It's no secret that Orlando traded away two of its three first-round picks in Wednesday's NBA Draft to free up cap room, apparently believing they have the inside track on a marquee free agent. With that and other maneuvers, they've reportedly cleared $20 million in cap space, enough to sign two stars — San Antonio's Tim Duncan, or perhaps Detroit's Grant Hill.

Orlando, presumably, would prefer Duncan, since quality big men are at a premium in this league and he's a proven winner. And Orlando is still offering center Michael Doleac for trade, in an effort to clear even more cap room.

The Orlando Sentinel reported Friday that if Duncan signs with the Magic, Toronto free agent Tracy McGrady will try to recruit himself to Orlando.

"Tracy is going to wait and see what Tim Duncan does," said McGrady's agent, Arn Tellum, who is also the agent for the Magic's first-round pick this year, Mike Miller. "If Tracy is offered the opportunity to play with him, he'd be excited about that. Obviously, that would be a big factor in his decision making."

Landing Duncan and McGrady would be a huge coup for the rebuilding Magic, who in so doing would transform overnight from a middle-of-the-road NBA team to an Eastern power.

It's likely though, the Magic would rather sign Hill than McGrady. The Pistons forward is more of a proven commodity than McGrady, and with Duncan would give Orlando perhaps the best one-two punch this side of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. Worth noting is that Duncan and Hill are friends who have the same attorney. According to the Sentinel, both are expected to make recruiting visits to Orlando perhaps as early as this weekend. New contracts can't be signed until Aug. 1.

Both Duncan and Hill have said they will not linger over their decisions, so that their current teams won't be hamstrung in their personnel maneuvers.

If McGrady doesn't sign with Orlando, he's expected to turn to Chicago. The Bulls, meanwhile, still eager to clear up cap space, are trying to unload veteran guard Hersey Hawkins and his $4.6 million contract.

Besides Hill, Duncan and McGrady, the top free agents are Hornets guard Eddie Jones and Indiana swingman Jalen Rose. Jones is reportedly interested in the Magic, while Rose is rumored to be willing to stay in Indiana, if they will commit to letting him play point guard. That might fit in nicely with the Pacers' plans anyway, since veteran point guard Mark Jackson apparently is contemplating retirement.

The other most-sought-after free agents figure to be Clippers forward Maurice Taylor, who has said he'd like to play in his hometown, Detroit; young Seattle forward Rashard Lewis, who the Sonics will make a big push to keep; Indiana sharpshooter Reggie Miller, who may get better money from the Pacers than from other teams, considering his age; Indiana forward Austin Croshere, whose stock soared with some strong playoff performances; and power forward Brian Grant, who probably will choose to leave Portland for a team that will let him start.

Other intriguing free agents: Toni Kukoc, who may be looking for a reunion with Phil Jackson in L.A.; Glen Rice, who the Lakers apparently have soured on and may be headed to Miami; Orlando's Ron Mercer, who could swap places with Jones in Charlotte; Isaiah Rider, who might try to hook up with old buddy Gary Payton in Seattle; and Minnesota's Joe Smith, an injury-prone but talented former No. 1 pick.


E-mail: rich@desnews.com