John Gabriel and the Orlando Magic learned the hard way. Four years ago, they watched the Los Angeles Lakers dump a roster of players to sign Shaquille O'Neal as a free agent. It took until this season, but the Lakers bought themselves a championship.
Now it's time for Gabriel, the Magic's general manager, to do the same.
Having spent the past year clearing out enough contracts to fall a reported $20 million under the NBA's next salary cap - the last $4 million coming with a draft night trade of veteran guard Derek Strong and second-year forward Corey Maggette - the Magic is ready to spend it all to sign two of the biggest names on this year's free-agent list.
Orlando can officially begin its pursuit of San Antonio's Tim Duncan and either Detroit's Grant Hill or Toronto's Tracy McGrady when the signing begins today. No free agent can sign before Aug. 1, but they can announce their plans to sign at any time during the next month.
There was a feeling throughout the league that Gabriel must be supremely confident, given his actions during the draft Wednesday night.
The Magic traded two of its three lottery picks - going as far as to draft Missouri guard Keyon Dooling for the Los Angeles Clippers at No. 10, then packaging him with Strong and Maggette for a future first-round draft choice - in order to better position itself to attract both Duncan and either Hill or McGrady.
"This puts us right on target with our goals for free agency," Gabriel said on draft night. "This isn't some one-step process. It's a two-step process. And now we look forward to the weekend."
Duncan, who has already helped the Spurs to last year's NBA championship, and Hill are expected to meet with Magic owner Rich DeVos in Orlando today or tomorrow. McGrady is expected too, and what they ultimately decide could impact the entire free-agent market.
If Duncan signs with the Magic for the $9 million one-season maximum, either Hill or McGrady will follow quickly, league sources have said. But there is some thought that Duncan won't go to Orlando, since the Magic did not draft another center and Duncan wants to continue playing power forward.
Should Duncan return to San Antonio and sign a short-term deal, which had been rumored earlier in the season, Hill could wind with the Spurs if he decides to take the available middle-class exception of $2.25 million for next season. That scenario could leave McGrady going to either Orlando or to Chicago to play for the Bulls.
"You ask around the league and everyone has an opinion about Grant Hill," one Western Conference general manager recently told the San Antonio Express-News. "He's either staying in Detroit or he's going to Orlando or he's going to San Antonio. You ask about Tim and it's almost always the same thing: 'I don't know.' "
McGrady, who grew up in Florida, has expressed an interest in playing with the Magic. Neither Duncan nor Hill have played their hands, but those close to Duncan, who grew up in the Virgin Islands, said that he has no desire to play in a city as big or cold as Chicago. Hill has only expressed an interest in playing for a championship team.
The possibility of both Duncan and Hill playing for the Spurs next season is not far-fetched, in part because they share the same agent, Washington attorney Lon Babby. It would also make the Spurs one of the preseason favorites to win next year's championship, given the addition of Hill to a lineup that includes Duncan and perennial All-Star David Robinson.
While most players of Hill's stature would not play for the middle-class exception, the fact that he makes a reported $13 million a year or more in endorsement contracts might make the seemingly paltry paycheck a bit more palatable. The idea of bringing Hill, a proven All-Star, to San Antonio could swing the deal for Duncan of staying put.
"The important thing we can do," Spurs assistant general manager R.C. Buford recently told the San Antonio newspaper, "is convince Tim we'll win."
There have been some other behind-the-scene maneuverings by the two teams to position themselves for Duncan and Hill.
The Spurs recently rehired former assistant Alvin Gentry, who spent last season and part of the 1998-99 season as Hill's head coach in Detroit. In a similar move to the Spurs, the Magic hired San Antonio assistant Paul Pressey. Some believed that Orlando hired Doc Rivers last summer with hopes of attracting Duncan.
The two had a good relationship when Rivers broadcast Spurs' games on television during Duncan's first two years in the NBA.
Duncan, Hill and McGrady are not the only big-name free agents that teams are jockeying to sign. Charlotte's Eddie Jones, who is rumored to be headed to Miami, and Indiana's Jalen Rose, who could re-sign with the Pacers or go back to his hometown Pistons, will likely receive huge contracts.
Among the second tier of free agents will be Milwaukee's Tim Thomas, who has reportedly told friends of his interest to play in Chicago; Indiana's Reggie Miller, who will likely re-sign with the Pacers unless he takes the middle-class exception to play for his hometown Lakers, who are not expected to re-sign Glen Rice; Portland's Brian Grant, who has exercised an "out" clause on his $56 million, multiyear deal in search of a starting role at power forward; also Maurice Taylor of the Los Angeles Clippers and Indiana's Austin Croshere.
The Eastern Conference champion Pacers are the team that would be most impacted by free agency. Six members of the team that took the Lakers to six games in the NBA Finals are free agents, though center Rik Smits is likely to retire and backup forward Sam Perkins could do the same.
"We want to sign all our free agents," Pacers president Donnie Walsh said during the playoffs. "But the priority is re-signing Jalen."
Rose, whose stock rose during the postseason, could wind up with the Pistons if Hill decides to leave. But he would likely end up having to play small forward rather than point guard - the position he prefers - because of Hill's departure and Detroit's decision to draft Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves with its No. 1 pick.
The process will start this weekend, with the visit by Duncan and Hill - and possibly McGrady - to Orlando. There were reports that the Magic would spend as much as $1 million wining and dining the three players. The past year, Gabriel spent clearing the roster of bodies and the salary cap of needed space could come to fruition in the next month.
"We have the money now, the flexibility we needed," Rivers said Wednesday. "We had to be ready for free-agent time. Before today started, we may have been able to get the free agents we wanted, but we would have had to sacrifice much of the team we had. Now we don't have to gut the team."