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'04 coming-out party could be spectacular

It could be quite an assemblage of hoop talent. Antoine Walker, Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Stephon Marbury, Kevin Garnett and Elton Brand have, at the moment, the option to become free agents in the summer of 2004.

The odds are pretty slim that all of those chaps will be let loose in 16 months to start fending off suitors at every corner. But what happens to them before then depends on how far their current employers are willing to go financially to keep them. And how badly they want to stay where they are or test the waters.

According to an NBA source, Walker, Iverson, Bryant, and Marbury all have opt-out clauses that would kick in after the 2003-04 season. Should they choose to exercise the option, they each would be forfeiting more than $14 million in 2004-05 with the hope of getting more in a new deal. Garnett's contract is up after next season. Brand will be free if he takes the same path that teammate Michael Olowokandi is taking, and so far that looks to be the case.

Walker clearly is the critical guy for the Celtics, and it will be interesting to see how the new owners handle his situation. His agent, Michael Higgins, said this past week that he plans to sit down with the new owners this summer to see what can be done.

"The new owners are big fans," said Higgins, who met them when the Celtics passed through Phoenix last month. "They definitely want to do something. What it is, I don't know.

"Antoine has just told me, 'Let me know when it happens.' He's not worried about anything else other than winning. We'll see what happens."

Under current NBA rules, Walker is eligible at any time to sign an extension, which would kick in after the 2004-05 season. He is eligible to receive a 12.5 percent increase over the final year of his deal, which is $14.625 million. If he were to get the extension, his salary for 2005-06 would start at around $16.45 million. That would mean the Celtics would be paying more than $43 million to three players (Walker, Paul Pierce, and Vin Baker) in the 2004-05 season. And even more the following year.

If the Celtics don't give him the extension, they run the risk of losing him or making him angry. But here's what Higgins and the Celtics owners both know: There won't be many teams with the money to pay Walker anything close to the first-year extension figure. So they could be negotiating against themselves.

The same scenario applies to the other might-be free agents. What teams could have so much money under the cap in 2004 that they'd be an obvious attraction, the way San Antonio will be this summer? A quick read of the team payrolls indicates that the Clippers, Denver, Utah, New Orleans, and Orlando might have money that summer. (The Clippers undoubtedly will. They always have it. They just never spend it.) Utah and Denver might have it if they don't go hog-wild this summer. The Magic might have it if Grant Hill's numbers come off the cap.

Another team that will have money that summer: expansionista Charlotte. But what player of that caliber is going to want to go to a start-up? There's talk that Memphis's Jerry West will try to unload some contracts to get enough money to take a run at Bryant. He may be able to do that if he can unload Wesley Person and Brevin Knight and if Big Country Reeves's contract can come off the books because of retirement/injury.

The Lakers, however, have basically given Bryant an extension — three years for nearly $55 million. It's sitting on the proverbial desk, waiting for his signature. But Kobe is in no hurry to sign — he's had nine months to think it over — and seems inclined to wait until there's a new collective bargaining agreement. (The current one expires in 2004, with the owners having an option to extend it to 2005.) Marbury seems to have found a home in Phoenix, but the Suns will already be paying huge dollars to Penny Hardaway and Shawn Marion. You have to think the Sixers will try to hang on to Iverson, and you have to think the Celtics and Walker will find a way to make it work.

More intriguing will be Garnett. He is due to make an astonishing $28 million next season. He's making an astonishing $25.2 million this season. You'll see Kevin McHale at a PETA rally before Minnesota gives Garnett an extension over and above what he's already making. It can't. It'd be financial suicide.

The Lakers went proactive with Shaquille O'Neal when he was eligible to sign an extension; O'Neal is signed through 2005-06 at ridiculous numbers. But he's also got three rings, three NBA Finals MVP awards, and remains the single most dominating player in the game. He also is eligible this summer to do another three-year extension that could add another $120 million to his vast reserves. (He would be getting around $44 million a year at the age of 37 if he signs it, and it's for the maximum numbers.)

Garnett has not even won a playoff series, although it isn't for lack of effort or talent. Unless the Wolves move him, the negotiations for a new deal are going to be very interesting. How high will Minnesota go? How low will KG go? Most of us could find a way to live on $15 million-$16 million a year, especially if we'd earned $53 million in the last two. But that's not how these things go when the agents, financial guys, and posses start getting involved. They look at it as a 50 percent pay cut.

By next fall, we should have a clearer picture of where these guys are liable to be. The guess is that most of them, with the exception of Brand, will stay put because they're needed, they seem to like where they are, and there aren't a whole lot of attractive options to go elsewhere.