Take that, MJ and LeBron: Bulls’ Butler earns $46 million in single season


CHICAGO – All this talk about LeBron James, master strategist, working his contract levers, pulleys and buttons to become, in a few years, the NBA’s first player to earn $40 million in a season is fascinating.

But it’s already false.

Chicago’s Jimmy Butler already has done it. He did it in the 2014-15 season, actually. It’s just up to Butler now whether he wants to scoop up that enormous payday from the table sooner or later.

Follow along: The Chicago Bulls tried back in October to sign Butler, their diligent, developing shooting guard, to a reported four-year, $44 million contract extension. Butler, rather daringly, turned it down. He looked at that massive chunk of change – while still locked in to the rookie contract he signed as the No. 30 pick in 2011, worth just over $2 million last season – and shook his head no.

Butler believed in himself, in his skills, in the Bulls’ Tom Thibodeau and the rest of the coaching staff and, most of all, in the work ethic that has returned significant improvement with every passing season. And sure enough, the 6-foot-7 product of Tomball, Texas, via Marquette had a breakout season: NBA All-Star, Most Improved Player award, a 20.0 scoring average, another All-Defense Second Team berth and a top-six ranking in win shares (11.2).

So on Tuesday, with Butler about to test restricted free agency, word got out that the Bulls were about to offer him a maximum-salary deal to blow away the competition. In fact, ESPN.com reported that Butler postponed or cancelled the typical wine-and-dine meetings with the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks.

There likely was going to be some wiggle room, eventually, in what Butler chose to do. Would he opt to sign a shorter contract to hit free agency again sooner, unrestricted and on the market with the heftier TV revenues in play? Sure, why not – Butler had gambled before and won.

But the size of Chicago’s alleged max offer made clear both how much the Bulls value Butler (any chafing with backcourt ‘mate Derrick Rose reportedly is overstated) and how gutsy and lucrative his risk-taking was: Five years, $90 million.

To put it another way, that is $46 million more than Butler’s signing opportunity eight months ago. For one extra year on the previous deal, yes, but really for the production he already turned in and the potential he solidified this past season.

That is how Jimmy Butler became a $40 million-a-year man.

Cavaliers could help Spurs’ pursuit of Aldridge, but should they?


If the Cleveland Cavaliers make it back to the Finals next June and find themselves facing a familiar LeBron James nemesis, the San Antonio Spurs, remember this day.

This is the day, on the eve of NBA free agency 2015, that scenario began to seriously take root.

The LaMarcus Aldridge-to-San Antonio speculation already had a good head of steam, but clearing sufficient cap space — sending off Tiago Splitter or Boris Diaw, for instance, and likely more — to sign Aldridge away from the Portland Trail Blazers while taking care of the Spurs’ other summer business was going to be a challenge. If they didn’t get creative, GM R.C. Buford, coach Gregg Popovich and the rest might wind up dredging a rut in their roster so deep, they could end up taking two steps forward, one back.

Then this emerged Tuesday, the day before the week of free-agent moratorium:

By trading for Haywood and his non-guaranteed salary, the Spurs could cut him loose and use the salary cap space it frees up to take care of more pressing priorities beyond Aldridge. Like keeping Danny Green, the 3-point shooter and solid perimeter defender so essential to their Finals runs in 2013 and 2014. This would, of course, requires precise bookkeeping and expert timing in a concrete if/then arrangement triggered first and foremost by Aldridge. As noted by Spurs beat writer Jeff McDonald:

It sounds great for the dynasty lovers down in Texas and, presumably, the Cavaliers would get something they want in return, either from San Antonio or a third team. But would it be enough to prompt them to facilitate the makeover ambitions of a serious rival for the NBA championship? The Spurs qualify as that pretty much every year, but landing Aldridge, re-upping Kawhi Leonard and not tearing down the rest of the roster would have them on the extremely short list that already has James and the Cavaliers, the Golden State Warriors and maybe one other team or two.

Do you really want to have to beat a formidable opponent in June that you could have undermined way back in July, if only you hadn’t served up exactly what its architects and capologists were seeking?

Report: Calipari denies he is in running for Kings’ coaching, front-office gigs

The total number of players any NBA team can have under contract at one time is dictated both by roster limits and the salary cap.

There is no such restriction on coaches, however, or other front-office personnel. And boy, doesn’t Sacramento’s Vivek Ranadive seem to know it.

Despite having Kings head coach George Karl signed up for three more years and about $10 million, the impulsive Sacramento owner reportedly has explored the possibility of having University of Kentucky coach John Calipari take over both on the sidelines and in the front office, Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski reported.

*** FREE AGENCY COVERAGE JUNE 30 ON NBA TV: The Starters, 6:30 ET | Free Agent Fever, 7 ET & 11:30 ET ***

“Probing” was the verb Wojnarowski used, which meant the whole thing could be disavowed easily from either side. And that’s precisely what began happening almost immediately Tuesday morning, from both sides:

Even if there isn’t fire, there apparently was some smoke. Wojnarowski cited sources claiming it would cost the Kings $10 million annually to pry Calipari loose from the Wildcats. At Kentucky, establishing his successful “one-and-done” program built around the NBA’s draft eligibility rule, Calipari has steered the team to a 190-37 (.837) record with one national title and four trips to the Final Four. In his only previous NBA stint, he lasted two-plus seasons with the Nets, posting a 72-112 mark.

This has been fueled by the recent schism between Karl and All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins, with folks within the team and in the two principals’ camps choosing up sides to exacerbate the situation. What follows is a snippet of the original Yahoo! report. But first, let it be known that the Kings already have had five, count ’em, five different coaches – in reverse chronological order, Karl, Tyrone Corbin, Mike Malone, Keith Smart and Paul Westphal – work their past 306 games:

Calipari coached Cousins at Kentucky for a season in 2009-10, and Ranadive believes Calipari could help serve as a mechanism to convince Cousins to back away from his desire to be traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, sources said. As much as anything, Calipari represents one more potential change of direction, as well as a public-relations splash for Ranadive.

Sacramento ownership, dismayed over Karl’s fractured relationship with Cousins, has had lawyers studying Karl’s contract, trying to determine if there’s a way to terminate him for “cause,” and free themselves of the three years and nearly $10 million left guaranteed on his deal, league sources told Yahoo Sports. If the Kings cannot convince Calipari to come to Sacramento – or never make a formal offer – Karl could simply remain as coach.

Sacramento’s case on trying to get out of paying Karl his contract would be based in part on his involvement in mounting a campaign to get Cousins traded, sources said. The possibility of getting Karl ousted without pay is remote.

Calipari signed a seven-year, $54 million extension a year ago to stay at Kentucky. He turned down an eight-year, $60 million-plus offer to run the Cleveland Cavaliers before LeBron James made his return in free agency last year.

The courtship of Calipari could become one more dramatic turn of events for the Kings, who have struggled under Ranadive to set forth on a direction and stay the course. Around the NBA, senior league officials and confidants of Ranadive have pleaded with him to stop these sharp changes in direction, sources said.

As one league official familiar with Ranadive’s mindset told Yahoo Sports, “He’s trying to find a magic button to push that’ll fix everything.”

Morning shootaround — June 30


VIDEO: How LaMarcus Aldridge’s move in free agency will affect other teams

*** FREE AGENCY COVERAGE JUNE 30 ON NBA TV: The Starters, 6:30 ET | Free Agent Fever, 7 ET & 11:30 ET ***

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Lakers, Rockets first up with Aldridge | What would adding Aldridge cost Spurs? | Report: Gasol only taking meeting with Grizzlies | How much has Wade financially sacrificed? | Report: Knicks in lead for Afflalo, Monroe

No. 1: Report: Lakers, Rockets first up to meet with Aldridge  Portland Trail Blazers All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge is one of — if not the biggest — big fish in this free-agent class. The Mavericks have clear hopes of going him, using the lure of the hometown team to get the Texas native back in his home state and give them a new building block for whenever Dirk Nowitzki retires. The Mavs will have to wait their turn, though, writes ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne, as the L.A. Lakers and Houston Rockets will apparently be the first of many teams to make a recruiting pitch to the big man.

The Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets will get the first opportunities to meet with LaMarcus Aldridge shortly after the free-agency period officially begins at 9:01 p.m. PT Tuesday in Los Angeles.

Aldridge also will meet with the San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns and Toronto Raptors on Wednesday and with the New York Knicks on Thursday, league sources told ESPN.com.

According to one source, the chance of Aldridge staying with the Portland Trail Blazers is “very unlikely.”

Knicks star Carmelo Anthony has already called Aldridge, sources told ESPN The Magazine’s Chris Broussard.

ESPN.com reported in May that both the Spurs and Mavericks strongly believe they’ll have a great shot to lure Aldridge back to his home state of Texas. But sources said last week that Aldridge is actually thinking more and more about a free-agent jump to the Lakers.

The Lakers, sources added, firmly believe they will now be in the Aldridge hunt. And there is a rising sentiment, sources said, that the Lakers have edged past the Mavericks on Aldridge’s wish list despite the fact that he was a high school star in Dallas.

The Spurs, sources say, continue to be Aldridge’s most likely destination if he goes through with the idea of leaving the Blazers to start anew. The contingent for San Antonio’s pitch to Aldridge is expected to include Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Gregg Popovich, according to multiple media reports.

***  

Opting out only option for Wade


VIDEO: GameTime: Dwyane Wade opts out

Dwyane Wade sat before the ABC TV cameras during The Finals and referred to his time with the Heat in the past tense. His father showed up an event wearing a Cavaliers t-shirt. Wade has let it be known that he and Kobe Bryant always got along swimmingly during their time as USA Basketball teammates.

So Wade sent word Monday that he would not pick up his option for the 2015-16 season and that is just one more sign that his bags are packed to leave Miami?

Maybe.

Will somebody please just give D-Wade a hug?

*** FREE AGENCY COVERAGE TONIGHT ON NBA TV: The Starters, 6:30 ET | Free Agent Fever, 7 ET & 11:30 ET ***

Let’s face it. The Heat icon who has been a key part of three championship teams with the only NBA franchise he has ever played for wants to be loved, just like the rest of us.

Unlike the rest of us, Wade is hoping to paid in the neighborhood of $20 million per year, because he figures he’s been a loyal soldier through the years, recruiting LeBron James and Chris Bosh to South Florida and then leaving money on the table in order to accommodate them. In Bosh’s case, twice.

What Wade is finding out is that loyalty only goes as far in pro sports as your next game and, at 33, the harsh reality is that the Heat don’t think he’s got as many great ones still ahead of him, which is why team president Pat Riley is trying to move ahead to the next incarnation of the franchise by focusing on signing Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside and then fitting Wade in where he can.

It is hard to blame Wade for feeling a bit taken for granted as he was the facilitator the Big Three Era. Yet it’s also difficult to see how the 11-time All-Star is going to get the kind of payday anyplace else that he’s asking from the Heat.

In the last three years, his ailing knees have forced Wade to miss 20, 28 and 13 games and, with the wear and tear from the way he plays the game, give nobody reason to think that he can relied upon as the lead horse to pull the wagon. From that standpoint, Riley has to make the hard choices to hold the line somewhere in order to cycle in new blood through the system in order to avoid becoming the South Florida Lakers.

Opting out of his contract is the only bit of leverage Wade has, but it isn’t much. He can hope public sentiment nudges the Heat to do something, anything to let him feel a bit more loved and respected. He’s come this far letting the Heat know he’s unhappy, so he had to play it out by becoming a free agent.

Wade’s choices are to go coast-to-coast to play with Kobe and the Lakers, run to join his buddy LeBron in Cleveland to chase another championship ring or take a smaller slice of the pie to prove a point somewhere else in the league.

But the odds are greatly against him getting paid more than what the Heat will give him. Which means when it’s all over, Wade in Miami isn’t necessarily all over.

With or without that hug.

Report: Heat preparing for Wade to opt out of deal; Deng opting in for ’15-16


VIDEO: Dwyane Wade’s top 10 plays from 2014-15

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The Miami Heat won’t give Dwyane Wade up without a fight.

The Heat are prepared to re-recruit the face of the franchise the past decade like the franchise cornerstone they believe him to be, according to Michael Wallace of ESPN.com.

If that means showing up on his doorstep the moment the July 1 free agency free-for-all begins, so be it. First up, though, is tonight’s deadline for Wade to officially declare his intentions to opt-in for the final year of his deal or join this summer’s free agent crop. More from Wallace:

As the clock ticks toward Dwyane Wade’s midnight contractual deadline, the Miami Heat are preparing for the most decorated player in franchise history to enter free agency.

The Heat are still awaiting word from Wade and his representatives as to whether the perennial All-Star and three-time NBA champion will opt in to a final year at $16.1 million. Wade has until 11:59 p.m. Monday to notify the Heat if he will pick up the option for next season.

Should Wade decide to not take any action by midnight, he will automatically become a free agent Wednesday.

Neither Wade, 33, nor agent Henry Thomas immediately responded to a messages seeking comment Monday. A league official told ESPN.com on Monday that nothing has changed regarding Wade’s stance with the Heat, with both sides expecting to discuss parameters of a new contract later this week.

The status of another Heat player possessing a player option, star forward Luol Deng, also hung in the balance Monday afternoon. But per our David Aldridge, Deng is opting in for the 2015-16 season:

The Heat have other business to tend to in free agency, with Goran Dragic topping the list of priorities. But they are clearly prepared to battle any outside advance to keep Wade in the fold.

 

Top 5 Free Agents of 2015 (by position)

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — This time two days from now, we’ll be in the throes of the wild and wacky Free Agency season that marks every NBA summer. Who will change addresses? Who will stay put? Who knows. What we do know is that these are the players, in one man’s opinion, that are sure to be on the wish lists of teams with salary cap space to spare this offseason.

*** FREE AGENCY COVERAGE JUNE 30 ON NBA TV: The Starters, 6:30 ET | Free Agent Fever, 7 ET & 11:30 ET ***

Point Guards


VIDEO: Goran Dragic puts up a fantastic game against the Suns in Miami

1. Goran Dragic, Miami Heat (Unrestricted Free Agent, Player Option) — The mercurial Dragic is the template for the modern point guard and will be treated as such by suitors this summer.

2. Reggie Jackson, Detroit Pistons (Restricted Free Agent) — Young (25) and just scratching the surface of what he can do running a team as a starter.

3. Brandon Knight, Phoenix Suns (RFA) — More scorer than facilitator, Knight is an ideal fit alongside Eric Bledsoe in the Suns’ up-tempo attack.

4. Rajon Rondo, Dallas Mavericks (UFA) — Will a disastrous finish to his season in Dallas cost the hard-nosed Rondo this summer?

5. Ish Smith, Philadelphia 76ers (UFA) — Quality production in limited opportunities suggest there is much more to Smith’s game than meets the eye.

Shooting Guards


VIDEO: Jimmy Butler was the Kia Most Improved Player of the Year Award winner in 2014-15

1. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls (RFA) — The top guard, regardless of position, on the market this summer, Butler gambled on himself and it should pay off handsomely.

2. Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat (UFA, Player Option) — Even at 33 with all of the wear and tear of 12 seasons in the league, Wade remains one of the league’s most versatile and dynamic players.

3. Danny Green, San Antonio Spurs (UFA) — An ideal fit for the role he played with the Spurs, Green’s skill-set is a fit anywhere in today’s NBA.

4. Monta Ellis, Dallas Mavericks (UFA) — Another casualty of a somewhat lost season in Dallas, Ellis in search of the right fit for a tweener who shot just 28 percent from deep last season.

5. Wesley Matthews, Portland Trail Blazers (UFA) — An Achilles injury ended his season early, but the rugged and relentless Matthews remains a top priority for the Trail Blazers.

Centers


VIDEO: Marc Gasol has become the focal point of a contending team in Memphis

1. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies (UFA) — The Grizzlies’ famed grit-and-grind approach does not work without their All-NBA center in the middle of the mix.

2. DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers (UFA) — A defensive force in need of an offensive arsenal to match, Jordan’s not a lock to return to Los Angeles … at least not with the Clippers.

3. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs (UFA) — Still near the top of his and the big man game after 18 outstanding seasons in the league, Duncan has the energy for at least one more title chase.

4. Greg Monroe, Detroit Pistons (UFA) — Monroe is the ideal 5-man for the small-ball era, with his face-up game and ability to bang in the paint.

5. Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets (UFA) — An elite scorer, Lopez is still coveted in a game that isn’t as reliant on dominant big men as it once was.

Small Forwards


VIDEO: LeBron James’ best plays from the 2015 playoffs

1. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers (UFA, Player Option) — The best player on the planet will be paid as such while also leveraging his power to affect change (on the roster and beyond) in Cleveland.

2. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs (RFA) — The future of the program in San Antonio, Leonard is poised to become the leader of the pack in every way imaginable for the Spurs.

3. DeMarre Carroll, Atlanta Hawks (UFA) — His development as a knock-down (40 percent) shooter from beyond the 3-point line adds to his versatility and value on the open market.

4. Tobias Harris, Orlando Magic (RFA) — Harris has loads of admirers in front offices around the league, folks who appreciate his production for a young (22) hybrid who has still has a high ceiling.

5. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks (RFA) — A knock down shooter from deep (41 percent) and from the line (86 percent), Middleton showed his mettle in the postseason by serving as the Bucks’ catalyst.

Power Forwards


VIDEO: LaMarcus Aldridge’s highlights from 2014-15

1. LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers (UFA) — Aldridge is everything a team could want in a modern power forward, complete with range to the 3-point line and the ability to dominate inside as well.

2. Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers (UFA, Player Option) — The Cavaliers’ Finals run without him was revealing, but also a reminder of what they were lacking without the ultimate floor-spacer in the lineup.

3. Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks (UFA) — Few players have raised their stock the past two seasons the way Millsap did by assuming a dominant role for a Hawks team that rolled to the best season in franchise history.

4. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors (RFA) — The Warriors’ championship, and Green’s role in helping make it happen, will be factored into the huge raise he is set to cash in on this summer.

5. Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers (RFA) — A ringing endorsement from LeBron James always helps, but wasn’t needed for a player who dominated the glass the way Thompson did in the playoffs.

Morning shootaround — June 29


VIDEO: The Lakers’ selected D’Angelo Russell over Jahlil Okafor in the NBA Draft

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Lakers boxed into a big man box? | Dollars and sense for LeBron | Garnett, Saunders definitely back in Minnesota | Ginobili will take his time making up his mind

No. 1: Lakers boxed into a big man box?  The selection of D’Angelo Russell on Draft night was celebrated by Los Angeles Lakers’ fans, luminaries and pundits alike. But did that risky move, passing up Duke’s low-post load Jahlil Okafor in favor of Russell, come at a larger price than expected? Marc Gasol has already made it clear that he is not interested in following in the footsteps of big brother Pau in a Lakers uniform. So that leaves slimmer pickings than expected for the Lakers (and Kobe Bryant) in free agency. Mike Bresnahan of The Los Angeles Times explains:

The Lakers have enough money for only one big-name free agent, gathering about $23 million in spending power after declining the $9-million option on free-agent center-forward Jordan Hill in a couple of days. Aldridge would make almost $19 million next season after pulling down $16.3 million last season.

The Lakers’ only big men going into free agency are Tarik Black and Robert Sacre after they presumably make the latter’s sub-$1-million contract guaranteed by Tuesday’s deadline.

They boxed themselves into a big-man corner by passing on Duke center Jahlil Okafor to draft Russell, putting the Ohio State point guard next to promising Jordan Clarkson while setting up the Lakers’ backcourt “for the next 10 years,” according to a near-giddy team source.

Perhaps a quick shot of reality is needed.

The Lakers have had problems getting free agents to take their money in recent years. Dwight Howard spurned them for less money in Houston, Carmelo Anthony said thanks but no thanks, and Pau Gasol took less to go to Chicago.

The only big name they signed lately was Kobe Bryant, who accepted a two-year, $48.5-million extension in 2013 before returning from a torn Achilles’.

The Lakers need a Plan B if Aldridge says no. Two teams from his home state, San Antonio and Dallas, will reportedly court him too.

It would take some persuasion to get Clippers center DeAndre Jordan to take less money and leave L.A.’s more talented team. The Lakers love his rebounding and shot-blocking, like many teams, and Dallas will also recruit him heavily.

It’s harder to figure what to make of Love, who had an off year in Cleveland and said in February there was not a scenario where he’d play for the Lakers. He might meet with them next week even if it’s only a ploy to ensure a maximum offer from the Cavaliers, reportedly the favorites to retain him.

Marc Gasol has no interest in the Lakers because of the uneasy last few years his brother spent with them, according to numerous people familiar with the situation. Versatile big man Greg Monroe, oft-injured Brook Lopez and his workman-like brother, Robin, are other alternatives at center.

If the Lakers strike out, they could try re-signing Hill for less and chase swingman Jimmy Butler, who could ease into the hole vacated soon by Bryant. The problem is Chicago’s expected action of matching any offer sheet the restricted free agent signs.

Whatever happens, it’s simple table-setting for a year from now. The Lakers will have double the fun when Bryant’s contract is off the books ($25 million next season) and the salary cap jumps from $67 million to about $90 million with the NBA’s gigantic new TV deal.

***

No. 2:Dollars and sense for LeBron — Cleveland Cavaliers fans need to get used to hearing the words LeBron James and free agency in the same sentence. They’ll be married this time of year, every year, at least for the foreseeable future. Our very own John Schuhmann of NBA.com explains how the free agent dollars will make sense for the best player on the planet:

News broke Sunday afternoon that LeBron James has reportedly informed the Cleveland Cavaliers that he will opt out of the second year of the contract he signed last season.

This news was expected and doesn’t mean that James is leaving Cleveland again. All indications are that the best player in the world intends to re-sign with the Cavs. But even if he wants to stay with the wine and gold for the rest of his career, he’s probably going to become a free agent next summer and the summer after that, too. And it’s mostly about the money.

Free agency does give James some leverage. It keeps the pressure on Cavs management to do everything it can to give him the best supporting cast possible.

It also makes James a richer man.

James’ option for the 2015-16 season was for a little less than $21.6 million. A new contract this summer (for a player with at least 10 years in the league) could start at at maximum of about $22.0 million. (We’ll know the exact number when the 2015-16 salary cap is officially announced on or around July 8.) That’s not a huge raise (especially when you take income taxes into account), but it’s worth the paperwork.

James will have much more incentive to become a free agent in 2016 and 2017, when the salary cap is expected to make two big jumps, thanks to the new TV contract.

Assuming James signs another two-year, max deal with an option in the second year (a one-plus-one contract) again this summer, the ’16-17 option would be for about $23.0 million. But a new, max contract next summer could have a ’16-17 salary of more than $29 million.

That deal could have a second-year option (for ’17-18) of about $30.5 million. But a new, max contract in 2017 could have a starting salary of more than $35 million.

***

No. 3: Garnett, Saunders definitely back in Minnesota — Kevin Garnett and Flip Saunders aren’t going anywhere. They’ll be back in Minnesota to oversee the rebuilding job that is underway with young talent like Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, new No. 1 Draft pick Karl-Anthony Towns and hometown kid Tyus Jones as the building blocks. Charley Walters of TwinCities.com provides some context:

Although it hasn’t been announced, pending free agent Kevin Garnett definitely will re-sign with the Wolves, and Saunders definitely will return as coach.

Terry Kunze, who was a Timberwolves season-ticket holder for 25 years, knows basketball. He figures the Wolves, who won just 16 games last season, were smart to draft Jones.

“I knew they would get Jones,” Kunze said. “The Wolves aren’t stupid — he’s a local kid and he’ll sell tickets. The best thing about losing 66 games is that 18,000 people watch.

“I think (the Wolves) are going to sell a lot of tickets. Tyus Jones has a big name, and I think he’s a good player. He’s under control.”

Kunze was a star guard for 1961 undefeated state champion Duluth Central, went on to start for the Gophers, was drafted by the then-St. Louis Hawks but opted for Europe for three times the salary, then played for the ABA’s Minnesota Muskies, then was a Gophers assistant who recruited Kevin McHale before coaching at East Carolina, then became head coach of the Minnesota Fillies women’s team.

“I like the pick of Towns,” said Kunze, 71, who resides in Fridley. “It was a good (Wolves) draft not only for players, but for public relations.

“What’s the most important thing for a pro franchise? Sales No. 1, winning No. 2. That’s true.”

Jim Dutcher, who coached the Gophers to the 1982 Big Ten championship before becoming a peerless Big Ten TV analyst, said of the Wolves’ drafting of Towns and Jones, “They couldn’t have scripted it better.

“They got the player they wanted in Towns,” Dutcher said.

Saunders had Dutcher, 82, watch some private workouts of draft prospects.

“And being able to tie in Tyus Jones, he’s a perfect fit for them with (Ricky) Rubio‘s health and his end-of-game turnovers in critical situations,” Dutcher said. “In critical situations, they’re directly opposite — Tyus is strongest in key situations at end of games, and to have a young point guard with his potential, particularly a kid from Minnesota, it couldn’t have been better for the Timberwolves.”

***

No. 4: Ginobili will take his time making up his mind (and will do it in Spanish) — Manu Ginobili will inform the world of his intentions — to either come back for another season in San Antonio or to retire — on his own clock. And he’ll do so in his native tongue, via the Argentinian newspaper “La Nacion” in self-written letter. Take that LeBron James. Mike Monroe of the Express News has the details:

Spurs fans anxious to know if Manu Ginobili will be back for another season may want to brush up on their Spanish and bookmark the website for the Argentine newspaper, ‘La Nacion.’

The 37-year-old guard on Sunday told the Express-News he will announce his decision in a self-written sports column in ‘La Nacion’ “when the time comes.”

Presumably, that time will be before he hits the free agent market at the stroke of midnight, EDT, on Tuesday.

Ginobili acknowledged after the Game 7 loss to the Clippers that ended the Spurs season on May 1 that retirement “could happen easily.” He pointed out that the effects of a pro career that began in Argentina in 1995 has taken a physical toll that sometimes makes him question his ability to compete.

“Some days you feel proud and think you did great and other games I say, ‘What the hell am I doing here when I should stay home and enjoy my kids?’ ”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Mason Plumlee could be the perfect fit for the Trail Blazers … The challenge issued in Orlando, Magic need to dare free agents to be different this summer … Houston rookie Sam Dekker‘s not too big to mow his Mom’s lawn … Time for ‘Melo to put up or shut up? …

It makes (dollars and) sense for James to pursue free agency … again and again


VIDEO: LeBron James’ top 10 playoff plays

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — News broke Sunday afternoon that LeBron James has reportedly informed the Cleveland Cavaliers that he will opt out of the second year of the contract he signed last season.

This news was expected and doesn’t mean that James is leaving Cleveland again. All indications are that the best player in the world intends to re-sign with the Cavs. But even if he wants to stay with the wine and gold for the rest of his career, he’s probably going to become a free agent next summer and the summer after that, too. And it’s mostly about the money.

Free agency does give James some leverage. It keeps the pressure on Cavs management to do everything it can to give him the best supporting cast possible.

It also makes James a richer man.

James’ option for the 2015-16 season was for a little less than $21.6 million. A new contract this summer (for a player with at least 10 years in the league) could start at at maximum of about $22.0 million. (We’ll know the exact number when the 2015-16 salary cap is officially announced on or around July 8.) That’s not a huge raise (especially when you take income taxes into account), but it’s worth the paperwork.

James will have much more incentive to become a free agent in 2016 and 2017, when the salary cap is expected to make two big jumps, thanks to the new TV contract.

Assuming James signs another two-year, max deal with an option in the second year (a one-plus-one contract) again this summer, the ’16-17 option would be for about $23.0 million. But a new, max contract next summer could have a ’16-17 salary of more than $29 million.

That deal could have a second-year option (for ’17-18) of about $30.5 million. But a new, max contract in 2017 could have a starting salary of more than $35 million.

There’s another reason why James should want to be a free agent in 2017. That’s the year when the Cavs would have his Bird rights.

Bird rights are for free agents who have spent three years with a team (or are traded with Bird rights). Since James signed a new contract with the Cavs in 2014, he needs to spend two more years in Cleveland for the Cavs to have his Bird rights.

Why does that matter? Well, without Bird rights, a contract can only be for a maximum of four years, with raises of only 4.5 percent of the initial salary. With Bird rights, a contract can be for five years, with raises of 7.5 percent of the initial salary.

And the year that James, assuming he intends to play another six years in Cleveland, gets his Bird rights happens to coincide with the year when it would behoove him to finally sign a longer contract. After big jumps in 2016 and 2017, the salary cap is expected to go down in 2018. So the first year of a contract signed in 2018 would be less than the second year of a deal signed in 2017.

At 32 years old in 2017, James would be subject to the “Over-36″ rule on a five-year contract, so a deal then would likely be for just four years. But with Bird rights, it could start (based on current salary cap projections) at more than $35 million (the highest salary in NBA history) and reach more than $43 million in ’20-21.

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Of course, 2017 is also the year when the league or the player’s union could opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement. And a new CBA could change the parameters of contracts signed from then on. But as things stand, it makes financial sense for James go through free agency for four straight summers. This is just year No. 2 of that stretch.

Report: LeBron opts out, expected to re-sign with Cavs

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — LeBron James, as expected, has reportedly opted out of his contract for 2015-16.

By opting out, James exercises a little leverage on the Cavs, who now have just four guaranteed contracts – those of Joe Harris, Kyrie Irving, Timofey Mozgov and Anderson Varejao – on their roster. Only two of those guys were in their playoff rotation. Like James, Kevin Love and J.R. Smith are opting out of the final year of their contracts. Mike Miller also has a player option, while Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert and Tristan Thompson are all restricted free agents.

Even if James plans on re-signing with the Cavs, opting out allows him to get a small pay raise for the 2015-16 season. His player option was for a little less than $21.6 million, but he can sign a new contract that starts at about $22.0 million.

That new deal is likely to be for just two years, with another opt-out next summer. With the salary cap projected to rise almost $22 million for the 2016-17 season, James could get a much bigger raise then.