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Post-Ups: Free agency signing days away, but frenzy exists

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Possible suitors for Caron Butler's services are the Heat, Knicks and Nets. (Getty Images)  
Possible suitors for Caron Butler's services are the Heat, Knicks and Nets. (Getty Images)  

The floodgates opened Wednesday on the return of NBA business, though it was far from business as usual.

Even in the seat-of-the-pants, pants-on-fire world of basketball transactions, it was a decidedly atypical day for those who make deals, those who thwart them and those just trying to figure out the rules.

After several days of uncertainty and the usual whispered conversations that toe the line of rule-breaking, agents and team executives got word Tuesday night that they'd be able to officially resume conversations Wednesday -- though no deals can be formalized until the new collective bargaining agreement is ratified. That process itself is a handful, as agents scrambled to get their clients to sign and return authorization cards to the National Basketball Players Association. Electronic forms are required by Thursday to ensure a timely reforming of the union so it can act on the players' behalf to execute the new agreement and bring it to a vote.

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When they weren't chasing down clients for signatures, agents were trying to interpret various provisions in the rough draft of the new agreement that the league office and NBPA have distributed. Can a player be traded and then amnestied? Some believe yes; others say no. Can the amnesty provision be used every year of the new CBA as long as the contract was in place prior to the new deal? Some say yes; others believe the intent was to give teams that option only in the first two years of the agreement. When do partially guaranteed contracts for this season become guaranteed? Nobody knows.

Basically, confusion reigned Wednesday, which for all intents and purposes was the July 1 of the 2011-12 NBA calendar. And July 1 will become Dec. 9, the opening of free agency and training camps, in a matter of days. Based on conversations with executives and agents, here's the latest on some of the biggest names and issues in the season-opening edition of Post-Ups:

 New rules on free agency and trades that blunt the advantage of sign-and-trades and diminish extensions teams can offer their impending free agents have forced the Orlando Magic to weigh their options with Dwight Howard much sooner than they expected. Among the chatter Wednesday was a growing belief among league executives that Howard's situation will have a domino effect on free-agent big men like Nene, Tyson Chandler and Marc Gasol (who is restricted). Magic GM Otis Smith told the Orlando Sentinel that he's not ruling out trading Howard but that he won't make any decisions before speaking with the All-Star center, who has an opt-out after the season. Players will be permitted to train on their own at team practice facilities Thursday, but still cannot speak with or work with team personnel.

 It's no surprise to anyone that the Lakers will be one of the primary suitors in a possible trade for Howard, and a person with knowledge of the team's strategy told CBSSports.com that executive Jim Buss finally has dropped his opposition to trading center Andrew Bynum "for the right deal." That's code for "a deal for Dwight Howard," and it's clear from those familiar with Howard's thinking that he'd like to join the Lakers. Bynum may or may not be on the Magic's list of suitable replacements for Howard in a potential deal that also would have to include young players on rookie contracts and draft picks. The Bucks' Andrew Bogut may be a better fit, a notion that has conjured speculation in the agent community of a three-team deal that would land Bynum in Milwaukee, Bogut in Orlando and Howard in L.A. The Lakers' arena mates at Staples Center, the Clippers, also are believed to be willing to do whatever it takes to get Howard. The Clips have both the cap space to land Howard next summer and plenty of assets to entice Orlando, including Eric Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu and a signed-and-traded DeAndre Jordan. Cap-space and asset-wise, few teams are in as good a shape as the Clippers over the next two years. If only they could use the amnesty provision on owner Donald Sterling.

 A more pressing issue to the Lakers is solidifying the point-guard position with the aging Derek Fisher and underperforming Steve Blake in the mix. GM Mitch Kupchak also has to consider whether to use amnesty to oust mercurial forward Ron Artest, a.k.a. Metta World Peace. Sources familiar with the team's strategy said the Lakers have no plans to amnesty Artest, er, Peace, as of now, and are in the process of determining when it would be most useful -- this year, next year, or as part of a trade, if that's permitted under the new rules.

 The Nets also clearly are trying to assemble the pieces necessary to make a push for Howard, but have to decide whether to put all their eggs in that basket at the risk of missing out on free agents who could help them now -- and who could help entice Deron Williams to join the team in Brooklyn next season. New Jersey is one of six teams interested in Denver free agent Nene, and also inquired Wednesday about Dallas free agent Caron Butler. It has long been known that the Nets would be willing to trade Brook Lopez and picks to Orlando for Howard, but there's little hope that will be enough. Nene at power forward alongside Lopez, with Williams running the point, would be the start of a potent group. If the Nets amnestied Travis Outlaw, they'd have enough room to sign Nene and Butler and still use the full mid-level to add depth. New Jersey also is said to have made preliminary inquiries about free agents Arron Afflalo and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who have the same agents as Williams.

 The Pacers are the other team with the cap room and interest to land Nene, and were among those in the process of reaching out to the Brazilian's representatives Wednesday. The Rockets and Warriors could easily make room, which would preclude them from having to work with Denver on a sign-and-trade -- which no longer would get Nene the full max under the new rules. The Nuggets' best hope for receiving assets back for Nene would be if he were intent on joining a capped-out team like the Mavs or Heat, which would need to arrange a sign-and-trade to get him. Nuggets exec Masai Ujiri, who handled the Carmelo Anthony saga with aplomb, finds himself immersed in a franchise-shaping crisis for the second year in a row.

 The Knicks also were hunting for assets Wednesday in the hopes of becoming a viable landing spot for Chris Paul in a trade. Along with the Nets, Clippers, Bulls, Heat and Spurs, the Knicks also expressed interest in Caron Butler -- but New York is going to be extremely careful not to eat into cap space next summer in the event Paul gets to free agency.

 There's little or no movement on the GM front for the one team in the league that doesn't have one: the Trail Blazers, who dismissed Rich Cho in May after only 10 months on the job. While there is support within the basketball operations department for Jeff Bower to take over, curiously there have been no talks with the former Hornets GM. Owner Paul Allen and crony Bert Kolde appear to be in control of the process. It appears that the capable but relatively untested Chad Buchanan will remain at the wheel as interim GM during a critical period that will include a decision on whether to use the amnesty provision on oft-injured star Brandon Roy. Given that dumping Roy would not create real cap space, only the room to sign a mid-level free agent, amnesty does not appear to be the sensible option. Of course, good sense hasn't exactly carried the day for the Blazers over the past year-and-a-half.

 An important sidebar to the reauthorization of the union as the players' bargaining representative is a push from about a dozen agents to have executive director Billy Hunter re-installed only on an interim basis. The agents, essentially the group that was behind the push for decertification during the bargaining talks, are dissatisfied with Hunter's leadership and want the players to have a say in who will lead the union going forward rather than have Hunter return to power with a new contract. "Players aren't saying it, but they're [angry]," one of the agents said Wednesday "And on top of that, they lost 20 percent of their money for a deal that could've been done two months ago."


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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