- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 30, 2004

With the salary cap expected to rise perhaps by no more than $1million to $45million, the Washington Wizards seem unlikely to be a major player in the NBA’s free-agent bonanza, which starts today.

Reserve center Etan Thomas, the team’s only restricted free agent, is the player who will draw the most attention. Unrestricted free agents Mitchell Butler and Chris Whitney won’t be re-signed.

Teams can only negotiate with players for the next two weeks; they can begin signing them to contracts after July14.

“We’ve said all along that we want to keep him,” Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld said of Thomas, 26, who appeared in a career-high 79 games last season. “He brings a whole lot to the table. But once you become a free agent, you have the right to explore your options, and I’m sure he and his reps will do that. But we have every intention of keeping him.”

Although Thomas is a restricted free agent, the Wizards hold his Larry Bird rights and as a result, can match or exceed any offer Thomas receives. For instance, Boston is said to be interested in the 6-10 Thomas. However, the Celtics, who are over the salary cap, can offer Thomas no more than their mid-level exception, which is approximately $5million.

Of course, the Wizards might allow Thomas to walk. After all, if they do match or exceed any offer Thomas gets, they will be up against the cap and in all likelihood exceed the yet to be determined limit.

“What we’ll do now is gauge the interest that’s out there first,” Grunfeld said. “The way this thing works is that the top players usually go first and then the next players start to fall in line.”

That means that players like the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant and the New Jersey Nets’ Kenyon Martin — guys ready to sign mega-contracts — will see their fate determined long before Thomas does.

The Lakers and the Nets likely will try to re-sign Bryant and Martin but there will be a run on their talents.

That’s because a number of teams have huge projected cap space, which could entice them to max out a player like Bryant. Utah is projected to have about $31million to spend, and Denver could have about $24million.

Some very good teams are projected to have space available as well. The 2003 champion San Antonio Spurs could have as much as $14million, and the 2004 champion Detroit Pistons could have as much as $8million. However, Detroit is expected to offer most of its money to power forward Rasheed Wallace.

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