|With a big payday on the horizon, Al Jefferson will soon have good reason to howl. (FILE/BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF)|
Here's the deal with Jefferson
Celtics face decision on extending his pact
This promises to be an eventful summer and early fall for the Celtics' Al Jefferson. (Actually, it already has been an eventful summer, given that he almost was traded to Minnesota. Wouldn't you have loved to see the first meeting with Mark Blount?)
Jefferson has been selected as one of what USA Basketball bigwig Jerry Colangelo calls "the young elite" of the NBA to scrimmage against the US national team prior to the start of the Olympic qualifier next month. But there's something else possibly on the horizon -- a contract extension.
Jefferson, entering his fourth season, is eligible to sign up to a six-year extension, which would kick in for the start of the 2008-09 season. He already is on the books to earn a little more than $2.48 million this season, which ranks him seventh on the Celtics' pay scale after Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Theo Ratliff, Kendrick Perkins, Brian Scalabrine, and Sebastian Telfair.
The Celtics and Jefferson have until late October to see if they can come to an agreement. If not, Jefferson becomes a restricted free agent at the end of the season. Perkins was in the same situation last year and signed for four years, the first of which is this season, and $16.2 million.
Most teams take care of their valuables with extensions at the earliest opportunity to ward off potential problems in restricted free agency. Jefferson, one could argue, is no worse than the third-best player on the team and you could even make a case that he is the most valuable in terms of league-wide interest. If you asked the 29 other general managers if they could have one Celtic, no strings attached, I'd guess Jefferson might win over Pierce and Allen. Jefferson is still only 22.
The question, as always, will come down to money. Jefferson's agent, Jeff Schwartz, declined to comment on the situation and Danny Ainge wasn't in the mood to talk, either. Where does Jefferson fit salary-wise? Is he deserving of Zach Randolph dollars ($16 million a year for the next three years)?
Could Jefferson, his agent, or the Celtics see him as a soon-to-be impact player along the lines of Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire, or Dwight Howard? Those guys all are due to get the max. Howard is in Jefferson's draft class. Other guys in Big Al's shoes from the Class of 2004 include Luol Deng, Ben Gordon, and Emeka Okafor (the latter of whom is also represented by Schwartz).
So far, the spending habits of the Celtics have been a tad mystifying. They have some apparent allergy to the midlevel exception. Their roster is still loaded with bargain-basement, rookie-scale contracts or similar deals. Yet they lavished $20 million a year on Pierce when there was no one else bidding and no market for him for that kind of money. (The Nets had the same contract situation with Vince Carter, but didn't do the extension until this summer. They got him for four years, not three, and for substantially less guaranteed money.) Allen doesn't come cheap, either. And, presumably, whoever Ratliff brings in a deal -- assuming he's moved and not allowed to retire -- will earn close to eight figures. That could bring the luxury tax into view.
The alternative is to wait and see -- and that's not such a bad scenario for either side. It gives the Celtics another year to observe Jefferson and to make sure they have the Big Al who averaged a double-double and who finished sixth in the voting for Most Improved Player. If he continues along those lines, he will be a valued commodity in restricted free agency, but the Celtics would have the right to match any offer to keep him. It might cost them more, but a team would likely have to have $10 million or so of cap space and target Jefferson. Is there such a team? It's too early to say.
If Jefferson regresses, he probably sacrifices some of what he stood to make. But don't you get the feeling he learned his lesson two years ago and isn't going back? He still has a ways to go on defense and his health is still a question mark; he's missed 47 games in his first three years. There's also the fact that he put up numbers on a bad team whose opponents paid scant attention. In other words, he needs to do it in games that matter.
That's why it might be prudent to wait. The Celtics insist that the days of non-results-oriented basketball are over (finally!). If they can make the playoffs with Jefferson playing a big part, then Big Al can still sign with them and get a contract worth more than the GNP of Prentiss, Miss. If the Celtics continue to struggle, Jefferson will likely remain a valued name.
Trade could be Sonics' boon
It could go down as the most-lopsided trade in NBA history.
The Phoenix Suns' well-documented desire to slash payroll and avoid the dreaded luxury tax finally resulted in the trading of veteran Kurt Thomas to Seattle. The Sonics slid Thomas and his $8.9 million salary into their large trade exception they had acquired when Rashard Lewis bolted for Orlando. But it had to be a trade for Seattle to be able to use the exception, so the Sonics threw in a conditional second-rounder and got the Suns to also surrender first-round picks in 2008 and 2010, giving Seattle essentially three players -- one of them established -- for a conditional second-rounder.
That's called a payroll dump, pure and simple. "Our ownership made a commitment to keep our core group together, but we also were not going to commit financial suicide," said Suns coach Mike D'Antoni. "We hated to lose Kurt, but at the same time we're still trotting out some pretty good guys. We took care of the problem in a way that we felt caused the least amount of pain."
Seattle, meanwhile, gets a veteran to help school Kevin Durant and Jeff Green and one whose salary comes off the books after this season. The Sonics now have five first-round picks in the next three drafts. If the Suns play as well as most feel they will, the picks might not be all that great (especially next year). But when you're rebuilding, No. 1 picks are like gold. And don't forget, the Suns still have Atlanta's first-round pick, unprotected, in 2008, which given the state of the Hawks could be a good one.
Starry expectations for summer team
So, will Summer No. 2 of the US national team be more rewarding than the first?
Well, given who's playing and who they're playing against, the answer should be a resounding yes. Anything short of running the table in Las Vegas at the Tournament of the Americas would be a disappointment, especially if the team were to lose in the semifinals, and not qualify for the Olympics.
But it's hard to see this team doing that. And not only are the players better, so too is the coach, who happens to be the same coach from the year before. "I learned a lot from last summer," said Mike Krzyzewski. "Some of that will translate into the subtle changes we will make this time around."
For instance? Well, Coach K isn't going to open up the playbook, but he did acknowledge a couple of shortcomings he'd like to see fixed. "We didn't run well last year. Why was that? There were some reasons, so we're trying to change that."
Krzyzewski also knows how difficult it is for NBA players to suddenly put in a new hard drive with the international rules. It is a different game and you saw that in the scrimmage last Sunday, where the ball would bounce once off the rim and the players would wait for a second bounce, fearful of goaltending. That's an NBA rule. In international ball, you can go after it. Another is zone defense, of which the US will see a lot and also might even play a bit.
"These guys play 100 games a year where they cannot stay in the lane for three seconds," Krzyzewski said. "So they're constantly getting in and getting out. In international ball, you can stay in there. We're trying to incorporate that thinking now. The habits are hard to break."
But, by and large, the talent upgrade and the competition downgrade should make for an enjoyable 10 days or so for the Yanks. The team will rendezvous in Las Vegas in 2 1/2 weeks to begin practices. The first game is Aug. 22 against Venezuela. The gold medal game is Sept. 2.
The Italian job
The Celtics won't have to deal with any Allan Ray-Ray Allen problems after Ray agreed to terms last week with Lottomatica Roma. The guy who made the decision on the Italian end is none other than the venerable Dejan Bodiroga, who has been arguably the best player in Europe over the last decade or so. He was a member of the gold medal-winning Serbian team at the 2002 Worlds and only recently moved from the court to the front office of Lottomatica, where he is the general manager. The Celtics also had been kept apprised of the situation with Ray and had given their blessing to any potential agreement (which is why Ray could be talking to other teams while still under contract). The Mavericks, meanwhile, have until Wednesday, the same deadline the Celtics had for Ray, to make a decision on point guard Jose Juan Barea, who made the team as an undrafted free agent last season. He had an excellent Summer League and Mavericks hoops boss Donnie Nelson said the decision already has been made on Barea: He is going nowhere. "We love him," Nelson said by e-mail. Barea stands to pocket a cool $687,456 for this upcoming season.
Plans A and B
We have a pretty good idea by now that the Kevin Garnett-to-Boston deal had legs. Only Garnett's adamant refusal to play in Boston (or re-sign with Boston) killed the deal. The next name that surfaced was Shawn Marion of the Suns, mainly because Phoenix was trying to cut payroll and Marion was deemed the most expendable of the team's big three (the first two being Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire). That proposal never got real far, according to Suns coach Mike D'Antoni. "You have to look at everything when you are in the position we were," D'Antoni said. "But they [ownership/management] never came to me and said, 'What do you think?' Because it never got that far. We never sat down, basketball-wise, and said, 'Are we sure about this?' Marion said rumors of his not wanting to play in Boston were just that: "You never heard me say it, did you? It was all rumors."
World of talent
Tomorrow marks the sixth annual Play for Peace basketball clinic, which features a handful of NBA players journeying to Otisfield, Maine, to work with kids from countries in the Middle East. Two Celtics are scheduled to be there -- Brian Scalabrine and Ryan Gomes. Also expected to help --the Wizards' Etan Thomas, Portland rookie Josh McRoberts, and Jordan Farmar of the Lakers. The players will run the 160 campers through fundamentals and drills stressing teamwork and cooperation. The campers are American, Israeli, Jordanian, Palestinian, and Egyptian. Uberagent Arn Tellem organized the clinic and many of his clients have been instructors over the years, including T.J. Ford and Brent Barry.
Peter May can be reached at P_May@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.