It appears to be open season on the Washington Bullets.
Yesterday, the San Antonio Spurs tendered an offer sheet to Larry Stewart that would guarantee the second-year forward a reported $2.6 million during the next four seasons.
Washington has until Aug. 7 to match the offer sheet, which comes three weeks after the New York Knicks offered four-year forward Harvey Grant a six-year deal worth $17.1 million that the Bullets matched last Friday.
"We are going to take all the time allotted to think it through," Bullets general manager John Nash said of the offer to Stewart, a 6-foot-8 former Coppin State star who was a second-team All-Rookie selection last season.
"But we were encouraged by Larry's performance last year and the way he played for us in our recent mini-camp. He's proven himself to be a bona fide pro player."
But the Bullets already face a severe salary crunch. By re-signing Grant, the team went $2 million over the league's new salary cap of $14 million, which clubs are allowed to exceed when re-signing their own players. The signing of Grant, however, left the Bullets with only a $500,000 exemption to try to sign top draft choice Tom Gugliotta, whose agent, Richard Howell, had rejected a five-year contract worth $10.7 million.
Nash held phone conversations with Gugliotta and Howell yesterday.
"I told them that I'm still trying to work something out despite our cap situation," he said. "But, if anything, we're going to become more restricted than before."
While Grant, embittered by past negotiating problems with the Bullets, has expressed a desire to play elsewhere, Stewart, a native of Philadelphia, insists he would be content to remain in Washington next season.
"This [the offer sheet] was strictly a good business decision for me," said Stewart, an NBA surprise last season, when he became an instant starter for the injury-riddled Bullets and averaged 10.5 points and 5.9 rebounds.
"I love Washington, playing for Wes Unseld and being close to home," Stewart said. "I'm not saying which situation would be better for me this season. I feel some kind of loyalty to the Bullets. I was very fortunate as a free agent to get that much playing time as a rookie. But this was just a great opportunity to secure my future in the NBA the next four years."
Stewart's agent, Glenn Schwartzman, of Sports Pro Management in Philadelphia, had informed Nash more than a week ago that he was pursuing an offer sheet.
"We'd been in the process of negotiating a contract for Larry with the Bullets," Schwartzman said, "but obviously they were constrained by having to match the Knicks' offer for Grant and, at the same time, trying to sign Gugliotta.
"We were simply trying to get the best deal possible for Larry, who deserved a significant raise after his impressive rookie year."
Besides being fully guaranteed, the Spurs' offer to Stewart also includes a personal loan option during the first two years of the pact.
As in Grant's case, the Bullets are almost compelled to match the Spurs' offer to Stewart, who earned the $135,000 minimum last year after making the team as a free agent.
Because of season-long injuries to forward Bernard King and Mark Alarie and the suspension of overweight forward John Williams, Stewart became a starter by default, but kept the job on merit with his consistent rebounding and timely inside scoring.
With King and Williams still considered major question marks and the signing of Gugliotta uncertain, Stewart's value has increased.
He attended this month's mini-camp at Bowie State and then led the Bullets by averaging 20.3 points in a round-robin tournament against young veterans and free agents from the Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers and Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Bullets had given Stewart a qualifying offer of $250,000 and were prepared to substantially increase the proposal when the Spurs beat them to the punch.
Like Washington, San Antonio finds itself desperate for frontcourt help because of the potential loss this season of star forward Terry Cummings, who tore two ligaments in his right knee playing in a pick-up game in Chicago last month.
Cummings' injury left the Spurs with Antoine Carr as their only legitimate forward, plus swing men Sean Elliott and Dale Ellis, making Stewart an attractive signing prospect.
He scored 21 points and had 11 rebounds against San Antonio at the Capital Centre on Dec. 30.
By losing point guard Rod Strickland to Portland and the likelihood of subtracting half of Cummings' $2.2 million from their salary cap, it allows the Spurs to pursue several restricted free agents.
But both general manager Bob Bass and new coach Jerry Tarkanian told the local media that they fully expect the Bullets to match their offer to Stewart.