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MONROE: Lakers, Spurs score in free agency

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Mike Monroe

 
   
 
Go ahead, make your reservations for Los Angeles if you want to take in NBA Finals 2004, but here¿s an itinerary you need to consider before booking a non-refundable flight: San Antonio to Slovenia. The first official day of NBA free agent signings produced nothing in the way of shocks. It had its official start when both and followed through on their bargain-basement promises to seek their first championship rings as members of a starting lineup that may be the most potent in NBA history. But it is important to know that on the first day that NBA teams were allowed to make contact with free agents, way back on July 1, head coach and chief of basketball operations Gregg Popovich was in Slovenia to make certain Rasho Nesterovic understood he was a player the reigning champions wanted to plug into ¿s starting center spot. And Popovich didn¿t even need an interpreter. Nesterovic, of course, also speaks English, and come next May he figures to help the send a message to the All-American that Malone and Payton didn¿t guarantee that the Lawrence O¿Brien Trophy was on its way back to La La Land. Of course, no team had a better ¿signing day¿ than did the . We will have to re-assess the entire free agent market at the end of the month, after everything shakes out with the restricted free agents, but the won¿t be involved in that relatively meaningless exercise. They made their splash about one minute past midnight, EDT, when Malone and Payton officially signed on, at the first moment the league would allow. I¿m not sure why anyone worries that four superstars can¿t succeed while sharing the same court, not to mention the same basketball. Remember the 1992 U. S. Dream Team? The fact Malone and Payton are both outspoken stars accustomed to having their teammates defer to them, on and off the court, does not mean they won¿t be able to get along with Shaquille O¿Neal and . And the very fact they were willing to sign on with the for the minimal contracts they accepted ought to give them instant acceptance among their new teammates. So give the an A double-plus for free agency, and never mind the fact it was more Payton and Malone who cooked up this plan than anything the did to convince them it was a good idea. Just don¿t make the mistake of figuring the were dismal failures on Wednesday because opted to remain in New Jersey or that they ¿settled¿ for Nesterovic as Robinson¿s successor. That¿s because insiders insist Nesterovic has been a player who has intrigued Popovich for a couple of years, and the fascination has nothing to do with shared ethnicity. Popovich likes Nesterovic¿s size and toughness and has seen enough development from him the past couple of seasons to believe he is committed to becoming better over the course of the six-year deal he just signed to play in San Antonio. Nobody can question Popovich¿s eye for talent, not when he saw what he saw in , and Manu Ginobili, not to mention and . may have been No. 1 on the ¿ wish list — they did, after all, make him a maximum offer — but Nesterovic was atop their list of free agent big men. So give the a solid ¿B¿ grade, and understand they may not be done spending their money under the cap. You have to give the an ¿A,¿ too, and had it not been for the ¿ signing day coup they would have qualified for the top mark in the entire league. That¿s because they not only added , but they didn¿t lose . They get high marks for both. Indiana didn¿t lose Jermaine O¿Neal, either, but the jury is out on the Millers, Brad and Reggie. Ironically, they might be better off to lose Reggie, whose game may finally be on the decline, but they have sentimental reasons to retain him. Brad, on the other hand, is going to get a serious offer from the — if he hasn¿t already — and their commitment to O¿Neal and their reluctance to become luxury tax payers may make it impossible to keep the All-Star center. For now, at least, the Pacers get only a C-plus. The lost Nesterovic but gained Olowokandi, which is a push for them only because Olowokandi agreed to a three-year deal worth a ¿mere¿ $16.2 million. Give them a ¿C¿ grade, because Olowokandi has been such an underachiever through the entire of his career. Olowokandi said he would have preferred to play in Denver, but the , as hard-pressed as they are for talent, didn¿t make him an offer after GM Kiki Vandeweghe met with him on Tuesday. What does that tell you? The had more money (more than $18 million) to spend than anyone Wednesday but as of yet they haven¿t spent a dime. That¿s because they have to wait to see if the want to match the offer sheet to which they signed . says he wants all his restricted free agents back, but the front-loaded their offer to Miller to the point owner Donald T. Sterling isn¿t about to match, not when he is faced with matching the six-year, $82.2 million offer sheet the gave along with the offer sheet the gave . is going to get an offer sheet from somebody, too. So give the , and ¿incomplete¿ grades. The got a bargain in , who took their five-year, $28 million deal. Give them a B-plus. Who had the worst day on Wednesday? The essentially traded for Payton, and now Payton is a Laker and they signed on Wednesday as a ¿replacement,¿ along with forward . Give them a D-minus. Of course, it was erstwhile GM Ernie Grunfeld who made the Payton trade, and now he¿s running the show in Washington. Veteran NBA correspondent Mike Monroe is a regular contributor to FOXSports.com.
Tagged: Nuggets, Warriors, Pacers, Clippers, Lakers, Heat, Bucks, Timberwolves, Nets, Magic, 76ers, Spurs, Thunder, Jazz, Andre Miller, Juwan Howard, Elton Brand, Lamar Odom, Kobe Bryant, Alonzo Mourning, Bruce Bowen, Ray Allen, Jason Kidd, Stephen Jackson, Malik Rose, Tony Parker, Gary Payton, Brian Skinner, Mike Dunleavy

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