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The crop of free agents that may be available after the 1997-98
season is being hailed as the best since, well, last year. Along
with established stars like the Magic's Penny Hardaway and the
Bulls' Scottie Pippen, it includes such budding franchise types
as the Timberwolves' Kevin Garnett, the Nuggets' Antonio
McDyess, the Grizzlies' Bryant Reeves, the Warriors' Joe Smith
and the Raptors' Damon Stoudamire. Drafted in 1995, the latter
players were in the first class affected by the '94 collective
bargaining agreement, which limited the length of a rookie's
contract to three years. The question now: How many of these
future superstars will actually change uniforms?

"It's going to be real interesting with the younger players,"
says Rockets vice president Carroll Dawson. "Some might feel a
certain loyalty to the team that drafted them." Which ones will
be available may become clearer soon. The collective bargaining
pact allows a team to offer a contract extension to a player
after his second season. Already Stoudamire has indicated that
he would prefer to stay with Toronto, and Minnesota has
expressed confidence that it will re-sign Garnett.

On the other hand, Smith said last week that he'll wait until
his three-year deal is up before he decides whether to stay put
or to test the open market. Nets G.M. John Nash has changed his
roster by 40% since the start of the season, partly to clear
salary cap room for the '98 free agents. "Some of the big names
might not be there, but a number will be," Nash says. "And it
only takes one or two guys to significantly improve your team."
--Marty Burns

COLOR PHOTO: FERNANDO MEDINA/NBA PHOTOS Will Stoudamire (driving) stay put? [Damon Stoudamire in game]