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For Baker, there's plenty of dough in mix

Whither Vin? Part XXVIII. Sure, there may be a few teams interested in Vin Baker. But the questions in this extremely fluid and ever-evolving situation may deal more with whether Baker would accept another contract offer and, if he did, what it would do to his upcoming arbitration battle with the Celtics.

If anyone knows for sure, they're not saying.

And most people aren't talking, period.

In the end, Baker's supposed fitness to play (the union's view) or lack thereof (the Celtics' view) could have little bearing on whether he can (or will) play again soon. As long as the matter of contract termination is being grieved, Baker likely will remain in limbo.

The Celtics don't want him back; they've made that clear. Any other team that might want to take a chance may have to wait until the grievance is resolved, which could be months. And the union already has gone to Defcon 1 to prepare for the arbitration.

As a wise man once said -- I believe it was Billy Sullivan -- you can't serve two masters. And, don't forget, the NBA approves all contracts. The league, which is loathe to go public on anything Baker, may have a hard time approving a contract with Team X while Baker is trying to get his Boston money.

The key issue may well be reinstatement. Will Baker argue that he must be reinstated to get his dough? More likely, he will argue the Celtics were wrong to terminate the contract and that he is a free agent (because he cleared waivers) and is also entitled to the money Boston owes him (as the Celtics would if they cut anyone who has a guaranteed contract).

It's a risky situation, but why would Baker sign with Team X for a pro-rated amount of veteran's money ($400,000 at most) if it in any way jeopardized his $30 million-plus case against the Celtics? The Celtics could then argue that, by taking on a new deal, Baker was accepting that his contract with Boston was no longer valid.

So, in all likelihood, he'll have to wait (although if/when he does sign on with a team, he would be eligible for the playoffs because he was waived before March 1). The Celtics expect the hearing before arbitrator Roger Kaplan to be scheduled within 30 days. The Celtics will present their side. The union will do the same. Then everyone will wait for Kaplan's decision.

One of many possibilities is some sort of split-the-baby decision.

You may recall that the Warriors suspended Latrell Sprewell for 10 games early in the 1997-98 season for choking coach P.J. Carlesimo. The team then terminated Sprewell's contract in December. The NBA added a one-year suspension to those penalties, lasting until December 1998. At the time, Spree had $24 million remaining.

The union grieved the issue and it went to arbitration, where the infamous (league view) or courageous (union view) arbitrator John Feerick decided three months later that the league's punishment was over the top and that Sprewell must be reinstated on July 1, cutting the suspension to 68 games. And Feerick also reinstated what was left of Sprewell's contract.

The lockout ensued, but when it was over, the Warriors had Sprewell back on the payroll and roster. They quickly traded him to the Knicks for John Starks, Chris Mills (there's that name again), and Terry Cummings.

Basically, you never can predict what an arbitrator will do. The union is rattling sabers, and there are some within the league that wonder whether the Celtics may have gone too far. Others feel the Celtics went out of their way to keep Baker and acted to terminate only as a last resort.

Kaplan has experience as a sports salary arbitrator and has weighed in on NBA grievances involving the termination of Nate Huffman's contract by Toronto, the mutual termination of Starks's contract by the Chicago Bulls and -- this will shock you -- a weight-bonus issue between Rodney Rogers and the Clippers. His decision will be binding.

If Kaplan rules that the Celtics acted in good faith, then Baker is out $30 million-plus. If Kaplan rules that Baker is a free agent and entitled to what Boston owed him, then the Celtics are out $30 million-plus in addition to having no player as well.

And, if, as in the case of Sprewell, Kaplan rules that the Celtics have to take back Baker, then Baker comes back. Something else comes with him, in addition to his millions -- the alcohol testing/aftercare program that he agreed to and, according to the Celtics, with which he did not comply.

Lopsided judgment

Trade Deadline Summary:

Winners: Detroit, Atlanta, Utah, Phoenix. The Pistons, thanks in no small part to Danny Ainge's intervention, now have a legitimate Eastern Conference power with the addition of Rasheed Wallace. They also gained the financial flexibility to re-sign the valuable Mehmet Okur this summer, avoiding a Gilbert Arenas-like situation that thwarted the Warriors last summer. (The Spurs are in similar shape, having squirreled away enough money to re-sign Emanuel Ginobili.) The Pistons managed this quantum upgrade without surrendering any of their valuable core players. If they win it all, Ainge should get a ring. The Hawks are deemed to be winners because they did what they wanted to do: They emasculated their roster to the point where the NBDL would likely refuse them admission. What are all those wild and crazy people in Philips Arena going to do? The Jazz are winners because they used their cap space to acquire draft picks and did nothing to hurt their free agency chances this summer. Acquiring Gordan Giricek for Deshawn Stevenson looks to be a wash, although Stevenson was just starting to emerge. The Suns also are winners in that they moved a big contract (Tom Gugliotta) that will cut their payroll this season, although they yielded draft picks to get it done. They also got Keon Clark, who, because of injuries, has played in only two games this season.

Losers: Boston. WWDT? What Was Danny Thinking? That was the most-asked question Friday. Was securing a No. 1 pick in the 20s worth taking on $8.7 million in Chucky Atkins's salary? Or was it the $3 million sweetener the Pistons threw in? (That was always a must in any Paul Gaston-sanctioned deal.) Time will tell on the draft -- maybe a long time -- but you have to wonder why Ainge was so amenable to helping the Pistons. And, if Baker's full contract is restored, the Celtics may have to pay a luxury tax.

Bird's-eye view

Pacers hoop boss Larry Bird weighed in on the new balance of power in the East: "I think the East will always be open. If a team gets on a roll going into the playoffs, then you've got to like their chances. If we're playing well and on a roll, I like our chances of getting to the Finals." As for the Pistons' acquisition of Wallace, Bird said, "I think it really helps them. He's long. He's lean. He can score. Rasheed has got a lot talent. Short term or not, he's still there. And he's going to help them." . . . An e-mailer from Detroit, a man named James Cross, offered up a missive with the subject line, "Thank You Danny Ainge." Wrote Cross, "This more than makes up for the devastation caused in my youth when Bird picked off that inbounds pass and fed Dennis Johnson." He was referring to Bird's big steal in the closing seconds of Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals. Asked jokingly if Ainge's assistance in the Wallace deal was payback for 1987, Pistons executive Joe Dumars laughed and said, "Don't be saying those things about Danny. He did what he had to do for his team and for his owners." Suffice it to say that Ainge's reputation around the league is taking a big-time hit, not that he cares. In the past week, I've heard M.L. Carr's name mentioned more times than when Carr was actually running things . . . Dumars also said he really didn't want to trade Atkins -- except that by not doing so, he'd have lost Wallace. Then it quickly became a no-brainer. "When Chauncey [Billups] was hurt last year, he stepped in and played big for us," Dumars said of Atkins. "Over the last 3 1/2 years, he hit more big shots for us than anyone else. People in Boston are going to love him.". . . Atlanta, meanwhile, might as well forfeit its remaining games. After all the Hawks' dealings (and the release of the injured/retired Terrell Brandon), Atlanta has only six players under contract after this season -- five if Stephen Jackson opts out of his deal. In the past year, the Hawks have traded for two players who never logged a minute for them (Brandon and Mike Doleac) and another who played one game (Wallace). "It was nice while it lasted," coach Terry Stotts said of Rasheed's one-game career as a Hawk, a game in which he scored 20 points, grabbed 6 rebounds, and blocked 5 shots in 42 minutes. Although Wallace was a Hawk for 10 days, the schedule (which included the All-Star break) limited him to that one game against the Nets Feb. 18. He never appeared in a home game for Atlanta, thereby missing the electricity that only Philips Arena provides.

Frank assessment

Former Nets coach Byron Scott surfaced on ESPN Radio this past week to acknowledge the obvious: The Nets are playing a lot harder -- and better -- under Lawrence Frank than they did for Scott in the weeks before he was fired. "Being on the outside looking in, watching some of the games now, it looks pretty obvious to me now as well, too," Scott said. As to whether he thought Jason Kidd might have had some role in his firing -- something Kidd emphatically denies -- Scott said he couldn't be sure. "You've got to believe something," he said. "Where there's smoke, there's fire. So you've got to believe that something was said. I'm not naive enough to believe that everything that's been reported has been totally false. Obviously, there has to be some truth to some of the stuff." He said he hoped that Kidd would have come to him to discuss whatever problems existed. "That never happened," Scott said. That's his story and he's sticking to it . . . The Memphis Grizzlies zeroed in on Warriors center Erick Dampier as the trading deadline approached, but would not surrender what it took to get the deal done: Shane Battier and Stromile Swift. Even though Jerry West is loaded with small forwards and big guards (Bonzi Wells, Ryan Humphrey, Mike Miller, James Posey, Dahntay Jones), he didn't want to part with Battier. He would have parted with Jake Tsakalidis, Swift, and Theron Smith, though. Meanwhile, rookie Troy Bell has played a total of seven minutes for the Grizzlies this season. Right now, the former Boston College star is looking more and more like a good fit in whatever uniform the Charlotte Bobcats don next season . . . The Suns and Jazz completed a deal Thursday that was almost historic. Until Utah sent Clark and rookie Ben Handlogten to Phoenix for Gugliotta, the Jazz had never done business with the Suns since moving to Utah in 1979. On Jan. 12, 1979, during the Jazz's last season in New Orleans, they shipped Leonard "Truck" Robinson to the Suns for Ronnie Lee (Dick Harter's all-time favorite player when he coached at Oregon), Marty Byrnes, cash, and two first-rounders.

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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