Grampa Celtic Talks the Rodney Rogers/Vin Baker Debacle

There's still plenty of time for more players to feel scorned and rejected. But as of now, three names stand out as the early front-line casualties of the NBA's New Economy.

We know one of them in Boston - Rodney Rogers. But there are two others whose destiny is also a direct result of the dreaded luxury tax, and whose teams simply let them go when they could have retained their services. Those two presently unfortunate lads are Matt Harpring and Keon Clark.

Now, before we go any further, we should note that Rogers, Harpring, and Clark should all find employment in the NBA next season. Once they do, they will paid slightly more than the average per capita of Bangladesh. But all three represent different ways in which the apparently sure-to-come luxury tax has forced owners and management to retool, rethink, and reconfigure on the fly.

We're all too familiar with the Rogers saga. The Celtics thought so highly of his contribution last season that they offered him a 62 percent pay cut. Sure, they would have liked to offer more. But once they ran the numbers, especially after the lower salary-cap figures came out, even a $1 million offer was about $1 million more than they wanted to spend.

The Celtics knew two things: Rogers could not accept their offer and he would not accept their offer. Without a luxury tax, he would have quickly re-signed and Vin Baker would still be in Seattle. But the Baker trade enabled the Celtics to jettison $15 million in salaries for this season while taking on $14 million. That's Paul Gaston's kind of math.

So Rogers, arguably the fourth-best player on the team, is now shopping and, if he hasn't signed anywhere by September, maybe that $1 million won't look so bad. (Meanwhile, the dust has settled on the February deal with Phoenix: the Celtics dealt Joe Johnson, a No. 1 pick - Casey Jacobsen - Randy Brown, and Milt Palacio for Tony Delk.)

Clark and Harpring sort of fall into the same slot - players from the draft class of 1998, the same class that produced Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki, Vince Carter, and Antawn Jamison. Clark went 13th to Orlando (and was quickly shipped to Denver), while Harp ring went 15th, also to Orlando.

Those two had completed four years of the five-year rookie contract and their teams had the option to keep their rights for a fifth year by making what's known as a tender offer. In the case of Clark, that amounted to a 38.3 percent increase from his salary of last year for an offer of around $2.5 million. Harpring got a little less, around $2.3 million. The offer was good until Oct. 1 unless the team rescinded it, which both Toronto (Clark) and Philadelphia (Harpring) decided to do.

These guys are not scrubs. These were key players on playoff teams. Clark played 81 games for the Raptors and was fifth on the team in scoring, second in rebounding, and first in blocked shots. Now an unrestricted free agent, he may be one of the more valued players on the market. In any other market, he would be of enormous value. But in any other market, the Raptors would have already re-signed him.

Toronto general manager Glen Grunwald said his team wanted to make a fair offer to Clark, but "fair" in Grunwald's book has a different meaning than "fair" in Clark's book. Had Grunwald not signed Michael Stewart and Hakeem Olajuwon to silly, pre-luxury tax contracts, there'd be money to keep Clark. But now Clark is available to the highest bidder and, theoretically, should get something greater than $2.5 million. The Raptors may have something left over to sign a lesser player, maybe someone like . . . Harpring.

Harpring merely started 81 games for the 76ers and was one of the few to make it through the season without some debilitating injury. "But, with the luxury tax," Sixers GM Billy King said, "it's a different ballgame out there. No one talks about the salary cap anymore. It's all luxury tax."

King made the tender offer to Harpring in late June. He rescinded it July 23. You have to wonder: What was Harpring thinking in that three-week stretch? Does he really think someone out there is going to pay him more than $2.3 million this year? Maybe he knows something we don't.

King said Friday that he's taken countless calls from agents begging him to sign their player to the veteran minimum, which tops off at $1.03 million. That's one reason he pulled the plug on the Harpring tender. The other was that if it had been signed, King could not have traded Harpring for a year and Harp ring would have been an unrestricted free agent this time next year.

The Sixers already have spent around half of their $4.5 million exception on Dallas free agent Greg Buckner. The other half, or some portion of it, may be offered to Rogers. (King said there was nothing going on with Rogers.) Given the way the summer has gone, Rogers should think long and hard about any offer, even if it's a big dropoff from the $2.6 million he made last year. Given the way things are going, with teams trimming payrolls and rosters, the next offer might be the best one because it also might be the only one.

Convinced about Vin

It's hard to find too many people around the league who think the Celtics didn't swallow hoop cyanide by making the Baker deal. One league observer said he thought GM Chris Wallace had "lost his mind" while another offered this observation: "I'm more worried about (Baker) off the court. But if he's not running around with (Gary) Payton anymore, that should be OK." Yet another offered that Baker may not be the lug a lot of people think he is. "There's a player in there and he doesn't necessarily have to play down on the box. If he's used at center, he can pop out on the wing and knock down the jumper, just like Rogers did." Meanwhile, Baker's exit brought about some real tear-jerkers from the Seattle media. Three columnists from the major papers that regularly cover the Sonics gave Baker the pinata treatment after the deal went through. From Blaine Newnham of the Seattle Times: "The Sonics found a way to get rid of Vin Baker. Good for them . . . The real loss this week was Earl Watson, not Vin Baker." From Frank Hughes of the Tacoma News Tribune: "Now, the Celtics have relieved the basketball fans of the Northwest of one of their biggest scapegoats and punching bags . . . And the happiest man around? (Jim) McIlvaine, who is now firmly ensconced in second place as the team's worst dollar-for-dollar experiment." From Art Thiel of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: "His mammoth contract is so burdensome that the Sonics must accept the Celtics' detritus and smile about it. If the Celtics wanted to throw in baked beans that expired four years ago, the Sonics would be moved to suggest that a little microwaving will fix anything, and would take a second bowl." Now you know why Baker used words like "elated" and "ecstatic" to explain his feelings about the trade. In terms of bad guys in Seattle history, he fell somewhere between Ted Bundy and Brian Bosworth . . . The Sonics, meanwhile, may be in danger of losing Rashard Lewis, their marquee free agent. He is said to be furious with Seattle's offer, which was substantially less than what he wanted (there's a shocker) because Seattle felt it had to commit $15 million over three years to center Jerome James. Lewis was so peeved he agreed to visit Dallas for a tour of the Cuban Country Club. The Mavericks could only offer Lewis the midlevel exception, but Cuban is known for taking care of his players down the road. The loss of Lewis would be a huge blow to Seattle, which also must deal with the obligatory contract extension demand (for next season and beyond) from Payton . . . King mentioned that the luxury tax, not the salary cap, is the number that has everyone spooked. Not one team has meaningful cap room. The Bulls? Even if they renounced Charles Oakley ($10.9 million) and Travis Best ($6.7 million) they'd be at $39 million, or a little more than $1 million under the cap. The Clippers won't have cap room as long as restricted free agent Michael Olowokandi's $10 million is on the books. . . . Nets assistant Eddie Jordan took full advantage of the few teams that inquired about his services and wrangled a new deal with the Nets which, sources say, is worth $1.5 million over two years, a megadeal for an NBA assistant. Geez, maybe that's enough to convince Byron Scott that it would be OK for Jordan to talk to the media next season . . . Chauncey Billups got just about everything he wanted from the Pistons: the promise of a starting job, a maximum salary out of the midlevel slot ($4.5 million for the first year), and some security (six years) for a guy who will be on his sixth team in six seasons. But one thing he could not get: No. 4. The Pistons retired that in honor of the man who arranged Billups's signing: basketball boss Joe Dumars. Billups has worn No. 4 most of his career, but will instead settle for No. 1 with the Pistons. To give you an idea of how quickly and efficiently the Pistons moved, Billups was contacted by 14 teams. He visited one - the Pistons . . . As good as Billups's deal was, and in this climate, it's a big one, you also have to like the five-year deal Pat Garrity got from Orlando. Five years? My guess is he would have jumped at one year with a team option . . . The Suns, who are young and rebuilding, dipped into the veteran free agent pool for Scott Williams, in whom a lot of teams expressed interest. One major reason for the Williams signing: his experience and locker room demeanor. "It became very clear that Scott stood above a lot of players out there with the same kind of experience because of the type of person and character that he is," said Suns honcho Bryan Colangelo. "There is not a person that I've talked to that doesn't have something very positive to say about Scott and what kind of influence he can have on a locker room and on a team." In a strange twist, Williams and his wife had just bought a home in the Phoenix area, following Williams's in-laws, who had retired to the area. They closed on the house and then Williams took a veteran minimum offer (around $1 million) to stay at home and play for the Suns.

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