$115 million makes O'Neal feel at home Magic opens vault; are deals worth it?

After weeks of indications that he was bound for the West Coast to play for the Los Angeles Lakers, Shaquille O'Neal suddenly has developed an increased affection for Orlando.

"I have my family in Orlando. I have a 5,000-square-foot house," the Magic's free-agent center said after the U.S. Olympic Dream Team played Sunday in Indianapolis. "Orlando is the first option."


The sudden change of heart by O'Neal probably has less to do with Orlando than with his intention to sign a seven-year deal worth $115 million.

With some of the NBA's top players available as free agents this summer, a shopping spree was expected as soon as negotiations opened last Thursday, but the newest contracts have come as a shock:


* The Miami Heat spent more than $200 million (the team is valued at $97 million) by signing former Washington Bullets forward Juwan Howard ($98 million) and free-agent center Alonzo Mourning ($105 million) to seven-year deals. According to the Miami Herald, the Heat tried Saturday to lure Seattle guard Gary Payton with a seven-year, $99 million deal.

* The New York Knicks spent $80 million, signing Allan Houston (seven years, $56 million) and Chris Childs (six years, $24 million).

* The Seattle SuperSonics kept Payton with a seven-year, $85 million contract.

* The Indiana Pacers spent $80.5 million to keep Dale Davis ($42 million over seven years) and Antonio Davis ($38.5 million over seven years).

* And, last night, the Atlanta Hawks signed center Dikembe Mutombo to a five-year contract believed to be worth about $50 million.

If O'Neal should agree to his deal with Orlando (turning down a Lakers offer of $95.5 million over seven years), that would be $613.5 million -- more than a half-billion dollars -- committed to nine players, none of whom owns an NBA championship ring.


"You've got a lot of players that probably haven't got to the playoffs yet or the second round that are making $10 million-plus," said Indiana guard Reggie Miller, a member of the Dream Team. "That, I don't agree with."


Miller's just a little upset that, because of teams' priorities, he couldn't benefit from the spending spree. Considered one of the top free-agent shooting guards available, Miller spent much of the previous week talking about how much he would like to play for the Knicks. Now he's likely to remain with the Pacers, for a lot less than what has been thrown around.

The contracts may surprise fans, but team officials obviously anticipated the situations.

Michael Jordan's contract worth $30 million for next season didn't raise as many eyebrows as the deals signed by players like Howard and Houston.

"Of course teams were expecting this, and if you look at the strategy of New York and Miami, you know that they had been working toward this for months," said Len Elmore, the former Maryland All-American who is now an agent based in Columbia. "They managed the cap extremely well and put themselves in position."

Oh, yes, the salary cap. Under league rules, teams are allowed to maintain a salary cap of $24.3 million, or less than what Jordan will make next season.

But it's considered a soft cap because of what's called the Larry Bird exception. Under that rule, teams can pay their own free agents any amount of money, meaning the Magic's ability to write the biggest check is what likely will keep O'Neal in Orlando.


It doesn't always work that way. The Bullets sorely miscalculated in their negotiations with Howard, coming in with an initial bid of $20 million less than what the forward agreed to. The Pistons didn't want to make that mistake, and told the agent for Houston that they would surpass any offer. But the team never got the chance to make a counteroffer.

Payton actually was offered more money by the Heat. According the Miami Herald, Heat coach Pat Riley met with Payton on Saturday after finalizing the deals with Howard and Mourning. A tempting offer, but Payton decided to stay. "What's the difference between $80 million and $90 million?" Payton said. "You can't spend it all, anyway."

Are the players worth it?

Childs was impressive in averaging 12.8 points and 7.0 assists last season for the Nets. But New Jersey was reluctant to open the vault for a 29-year-old former alcoholic whose career spans just 131 games. Houston, with three years in the league, had a breakthrough season last year when he averaged 19.7 points.

Neither Antonio Davis nor Dale Davis has played in an All-Star Game. Mourning and Howard have been All-Stars, but Mourning was ineffective against the Bulls' Luc Longley in the first round of the playoffs last season, and Howard has never been to the postseason.

"There's no way Howard is worth [$98 million]," said one agent who requested anonymity. "Even with him and Alonzo, that team has a long way to go."


Dream Team forward Charles Barkley in the past has been a vocal critic of the big-money contracts going to young, unproven players.

"I don't want this to start being like baseball, where we start giving bad players $15 million a year," he said over the weekend. "The owners and the general managers have to do a better job."

Pub Date: 7/16/96