NBA dialing, dealing starts July 9 Bullets' big challenge is to keep Howard

TC One minute past noon.

Juwan Howard suggests that on the day he becomes a free agent, that's when the Washington Bullets should call him if they want to retain his services.


"If the Bullets want to keep me," the All-Star forward said after his final game of the season, "they better get started at 12: 01."

Ron Grinker, who represents backup center Jim McIlvaine, also suggests the Bullets call then if they want to keep his client.


"Jim likes Washington, but this is a business decision, not an emotional decision," Grinker said. "There will be an opportunity for the Washington Bullets at 12: 01."

The 12: 01 they spoke about was to come tomorrow, when 160 NBA players -- including some of the top names in the game -- were to become unrestricted free agents. But with the NBA and the players' association agreeing Friday to a new collective bargaining agreement, free agency has been delayed until noon on July 9.

You can bet that at 12: 01 that afternoon, phone lines among team personnel will be tied up as the flurry of activity begins.

Want to buy a dream team starting July 9? Michael Jordan is available (the bidding starts at $18 million per season). Shaquille O'Neal will be on the market, possibly searching for some new digs on the West Coast with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Other top players available include Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning, Denver Nuggets center Dikembe Mutombo, Orlando Magic forward Horace Grant and Indiana Pacers guard Reggie Miller.

The availability of the most impressive group of free agents in NBA history is the reason teams made deals to get in position for this summer. The New York Knicks could have as much as $9 million to dangle in front of money-hungry players. The Lakers, their sights set on O'Neal, have $10 million to spend. And a midseason trade freed up as much as $13 million for the Heat.

"We put ourselves in a position to have a lot of flexibility," said Miami coach Pat Riley.

So, who's shopping for whom? Until July 9, teams can't contact agents to talk about specific players. Violators face a heavy fine for tampering. Still, it's no secret that the Lakers have a strong interest in O'Neal, or that the Phoenix Suns would like to see Mutombo in their uniform next season.


Among those superstar names, Howard might be the most sought-after free agent of all. David Falk, Howard's agent, said late in the season that Howard would be "the hottest commodity" in the free-agent market. The Heat, the Knicks, the Detroit Pistons and the Lakers are among the teams who have expressed an interest in the 6-foot-9 forward.

Howard made $1.7 million last season, his second in the league, and could earn an average of more than $10 million with his new contract. He said he would return "if the Bullets stepped to the table correctly." That job is in the hands of general manager Wes Unseld, who faces the first major challenge in his new job.

"I don't know if anxious is the word to describe it, but I look forward to hopefully getting this done as soon as possible," Unseld said last week. "Juwan can make that happen. Juwan is an intricate part of what we're trying to do. We need him here, and we'll do what we can to see that he stays here."

Though Howard is the Bullets' top priority, it can't be their sole focus if they want to retain McIlvaine and point guard Robert Pack.

McIlvaine, who returned to the Bullets last season after the team matched a $900,000 offer sheet from the Minnesota Timberwolves, will be highly sought-after in a league short on quality centers. Despite averaging 14.9 minutes a game, McIlvaine finished 10th in the league in blocked shots (2.08 per game) last season. Projecting his blocks over a 48-minute game, McIlvaine's 6.7 average would lead the league.

The bidding for McIlvaine will start at $3 million per year, said Grinker.


"I don't have any question that will be a very safe starting figure for someone like Jim McIlvaine," Grinker said. "He's not some untrained rookie. You have your first tier of [free-agent] centers like Alonzo [Mourning], Dikembe Mutombo and, of course, Shaq. And then all eyes are going in the direction of Jim McIlvaine. He's a special player."

The Bullets also have to address their point-guard situation, where Mark Price, Brent Price and Pack are free agents. Mark Price, limited to seven games last season because of injuries, is unlikely to return. Brent Price could re-sign as a reserve guard.

If the Bullets go shopping, Kenny Anderson and Derek Harper are the best point guards available. There have been rumors that Falk may try to get the Bullets to sign Howard under the condition they also sign Anderson.

Should the Bullets try but fail to sign a free-agent guard, they could lose Pack, who averaged career highs of 18.1 points and 7.8 assists before a nerve injury in his right leg limited him to 31 games.

Pack's asking price also might top $3 million per season.

"If you look at his numbers right before his injury, Robert was one of the best point guards in the NBA," said Anthony Hilliard, Pack's agent. "On sheer numbers, I feel Robert has paid his dues and brings a lot to the table. It's time he should be compensated in that fashion."


Unseld refused to discuss what direction the Bullets would take.

"We had some pretty good players at point guard last year," Unseld said. "But I'm not going to discuss what we're trying to do."

Most other team executives aren't talking, either, but there's plenty of excitement over the shopping spree ahead. In Orlando, there are rumors that O'Neal is on his way to Los Angeles -- the Los Angeles Times ran a picture with O'Neal in a Lakers uniform last week, below the caption, "Shaq's ball in Lakers court."

The center/rapper/actor said that the four-year, $55 million contract Orlando is prepared to offer "isn't good enough."

O'Neal, who appeared on "The Late Show with David Letterman" last week, likely will sit back and wait and see what others such as Mourning get before stepping forward to cash in.

"Being the businessman that I am, I have no choice but to look at all options," O'Neal said in New York last week.


Those options -- at least 55 million of them -- will become clearer on July 9 at 12: 01 p.m.


Bullets free agents

Player .. .. .. .. ..Salary

Mark Price .. .. ..$3.6 million

Juwan Howard .. ...$1.7 million


Robert Pack .. .. .$1.3 million

Jim McIlvaine .. .. ...$900,000

Bob McCann .. .. .. ...$300,000

Brent Price .. .. .. ..$250,000

Ledell Eackles .. .....$225,000

Chris Whitney .. .. ..*$225,000


nTC * Whitney played 21 games and earned a pro-rated portion of his salary.


Best of the NBA's free agents

Player -- Michael Jordan, G, Chicago

Possible annual salary -- $18 million

Jerry Bembry's Comment -- Finally earns his worth


Player -- Shaquille O'Neal, C, Orlando

Possible annual salary -- $15 million

Jerry Bembry's Comment -- Might be Hollywood-bound

Player -- Alonzo Mourning, C, Miami

Possible annual salary -- $13 million

Jerry Bembry's Comment -- Poor playoffs lower asking price


Player -- Dikembe Mutombo, C, Denver

Possible annual salary -- $10 million

Jerry Bembry's Comment -- Could join Mourning in Miami

Player -- Juwan Howard, F, Washington

Possible annual salary -- $10 million

Jerry Bembry's Comment -- Will llikely stay put


Player -- Reggie Miller, G, Indiana

Possible annual salary -- $9 million

Jerry Bembry's Comment -- Bigger market could be attractive

Player -- Horace Grant, F, Orlando

Possible annual salary -- $8 million

Jerry Bembry's Comment -- Will likely stay put


Player -- Gary Payton, G, Seattle

Possible annual salary -- $7 million

Jerry Bembry's Comment -- Will attact lots of interest

Player -- Dennis Rodman, F, Chicago

Possible annual salary -- $6 million

Jerry Bembry's Comment -- Jordan wants him back


Player -- Kenny Anderson, G, Charlotte

Possible annual salary -- $5 million

Jerry Bembry's Comment -- Not likely to return to Hornets

Player -- John Stockton, G, Utah

Possible annual salary -- $5 million

Jerry Bembry's Comment -- Last contract for aging star


Pub Date: 6/30/96