The nomadic Christian Laettner sits atop the list of free agents the Washington Wizards want to re-sign, according to a high ranking Wizards official.
NBA teams could begin negotiating with free agents yesterday, and Laettner, who has played for five different teams since being drafted in 1992, likely is the team’s top priority.
Other Wizards free agents are Popeye Jones and guard David Vanterpool. NBA teams are precluded from signing players to contracts until July 18.
Even though he made close to $7 million last season, the Wizards want to keep Laettner, acquired from the Dallas Mavericks in the Juwan Howard trade Feb. 22, because their ranks are so thin in the frontcourt. Jahidi White, just 6-foot-9, is the likely starter at center next season. And if the season were to start today, veteran Michael Smith whom the team has the option to buy out for $250,000 or 19-year-old No. 1 draft pick Kwame Brown would be the starter at power forward.
At 6-11, Laettner would be the Wizards’ tallest player next season, and he can play center mostly in the high post and power forward. Although he has been labeled a malcontent most of his career, Laettner’s presence would allow the Wizards to bring Brown along slowly.
The Wizards don’t have much room to operate under the salary cap and as a result will not be able to pursue some of the better free agents. The Wizards have a little less than $6 million in exceptions available to sign players. With Laettner, however, the Wizards can use the Larry Bird exception, meaning they can re-sign him for more than any team in the league without regard to the salary cap.
However, the Wizards are not interested in signing Laettner or any other player to a long-term contract, so Laettner likely would get just a one-year deal. The Wizards expect to be way under the salary cap next summer perhaps as far below as $12-15 million so they can be major players in the hunt for Paul Pierce, Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter.
In 25 games with the Wizards following the trade, Laettner averaged 13.2 points and 6.1 rebounds. He reached his season high in points 25 twice with the Wizards.
Not long after he was traded to Washington, Laettner expressed interest in signing a long-term deal.