It's summer time in an Olympic year, just like the free-agent frenzy of 1996. And once again, this is the mettle round.
The test of NBA wills officially opens a minute after midnight Friday. That's when teams can start calling players on the open market, inviting them in for visits, throwing around those crazy numbers. Nothing can actually be signed until Aug. 1, but the nail-biting begins immediately.
Especially in Orlando and San Antonio. Detroit and Toronto, too.
"We'll be making calls at 12:01 a.m.," vows Magic coach Doc Rivers. "There's no reason to let anyone get the jump on you."
The Magic knows from experience. They were mettle-round losers back in '96, when the Los Angeles Lakers stockpiled the salary-cap room necessary to offer Shaquille O'Neal a whopping $120 million over seven seasons. O'Neal promptly relocated from Disney World to Disneyland.
Four years on, it's Orlando's turn. After dumping two of their three lottery picks and veterans Derek Strong and Corey Maggette in Wednesday's draft -- to the L.A. Clippers and Dallas -- the Magic has amassed more than $20 million in salary-cap space.
"They must know something," said one Western Conference executive. "I'm sure they think they're getting Duncan."
What follows is ESPN.com's guide to all the coveted commodities responsible for such speculation. Chicago, at roughly $18 million, is the only club besides Orlando with significant cap room, but that shouldn't prevent the first free-agent class of the new millennium from dominating headlines until the actual Olympics commence.
Spurs center Tim Duncan: Duncan is the first domino in the whole process. If he goes to Orlando, who follows? Hill? Or McGrady? If Duncan stays in San Antonio, the Spurs will beg Hill to sign for the $2.25 million exception. Either way, Duncan might as well be known as The Anchor. The team that can build around him should emerge as the Lakers' foremost rival.
Pistons forward Grant Hill: Unlike Duncan, who will seemingly consider only two destinations, Hill is reportedly open to at least visiting other cities. New York. Phoenix. Maybe even Dallas, if deep-pockets owner Mark Cuban can convince Hill to drop in on Dad (the Cowboys' Calvin Hill) at the Mavericks' expense. In the end, though, Hill also looks likely to be choosing from an either-or perspective. Option No. 1 remains a return to Detroit, if only for one season, to give Joe Dumars a chance to resuscitate the franchise. Following Duncan to Orlando is the No. 2 scenario.
Raptors forward Tracy McGrady: With Lenny Wilkens in Butch Carter's place, Toronto at least has a chance -- however remote -- of keeping McGrady. Trouble is, Orlando is chasing McGrady along with Duncan and Hill, and Chicago is the direction McGrady's shoe reps are pushing. Don't be surprised if Minnesota makes a strong sign-and-trade push involving Terrell Brandon, either. What's clear is that T-Mac, as Torontoians call him, almost certainly won't be back.
Hornets guard Eddie Jones: Jones hasn't hid his desire to A) leave Charlotte and B) get to Miami. At least the Hornets have experience with that exact routing, once traveled in a sign-and-trade by Alonzo Mourning. Jones is probably fourth on the Magic's list, behind the three aforementioned names, so sign-and-trade figures to be the most feasible (albeit complex) escape route unless he's willing to go to the Bulls. And he's not.
Pacers guard-forward Jalen Rose: Anyone who watched the playoffs knows that Rose made himself some serious cheese over the past two months. Indiana better be willing to spend every available cent to keep him, and it won't hurt the cause if they finally get Isiah Thomas ? one of Jalen?s boyhood favorites -- on the bench. The good news for the Pacers? Detroit is probably the only other team Rose will consider.
Blazers forward Brian Grant: You don't walk away from $41.5 million over the next four seasons without getting something else worthwhile. That's why, the only conceivable move for Grant is a switch to the ring-winning Lakers. Scary as that sounds for the other 28 teams, it's got to make Grant a little skittish, too. Looks like the best L.A. can do is the paltry $2.25 million exception, barring some unforeseen Mr. Clutch miracle that Jerry West has secretly concocted.
Sonics forward Rashard Lewis: According to Lewis associates, home to Houston is where he'd like to go. Problem there, though, is that the Rockets have no cap room, which means they'll have enough trouble keeping Cuttino Mobley. Lewis is a restricted free agent, but Seattle can only lose him if some team beats its maximum-allowable offer of $3.8 million. Orlando and Chicago are the only teams that can.
Bucks forward Tim Thomas: Thomas doesn't want to back up Glenn Robinson. Thomas has also said, however, that he won't leave Milwaukee as long as the Bucks match or beat any outside offer. With the Bulls likely to miss out on all the big names, Thomas figures to be high on Chicago's list. Then again, who knows what the Bulls are thinking these days? Marcus Fizer? When you've already got Elton Brand?
Pacers forward Austin Croshere: Rose and Croshere are the Pacers' future. Just like with Jalen, Indiana can't afford to lose him. Fortunately for the runners-up, it looks like they won't. Croshere will almost certainly stay and, next season, definitely start.
Clippers forward Maurice Taylor: Taylor's inclusion in this category is a matter of debate. Agent David Falk certainly operates as though Taylor should and will be compensated like a star, but power forwards who don't rebound don't get the major money. It's difficult to forecast where Taylor will wind up, and how far short he'll fall of the Falk-desired maximum, except to say that we all know he won't be back with the Clips.
Clippers guard Derek Anderson: Among would-be Clip Joint escapees, Anderson is generating more interest. The Nuggets have craved him for months, in a sign-and-trade involving Tariq Abdul-Wahad. The Spurs want him worse, since he's a much more realistic target than Hill. There's also some talk about Charlotte making a bid. Again, all we know for sure is this: Bye-Bye, L.A.
Stars of the Past
Pacers guard Reggie Miller: OK, Miller is still a star of the present, but not for much longer. That's why, if he wants the long-term, big-bucks deal he probably deserves -- based on career achievement alone -- he'll have to stay in Indiana and hammer something out with the Pacers. Any outside interest will undoubtedly be on a short-term basis, which is actually a good thing. No one wants to see Miller's career end in any other uniform.
Lakers forward Glen Rice: If anyone will be sign-and-traded this summer, it's Rice and his outspoken wife. Phil Jackson doesn't want them or need them, and Rice's invisible playoff showing should keep his salary in the somewhat-movable $7 million range. Rice simply doesn't fit into Jackson's system, no matter how many times Tex Winter says he could and should. The Lakers need a more triangle-friendly three man, which brings us to...
Sixers forward Toni Kukoc: Zen Master Jackson would love to add yet another link to the Bulls' championship past. Problem is, making sign-and-trades work can be more complex than the triangle itself. Especially when the team who has Kukoc doesn't appear to be terribly excited about ingesting Rice's contract/attitude. Another nice little challenge for Mr. Clutch.
Heat guard Tim Hardaway: Hardaway is still lovable. He's just not very durable, so don't expect anyone outside of Miami to come calling with more than the $2.25 exception. That won't get it done, so he'll have to take whatever the Heat pitch. Insiders believe it will be a one-year balloon payment -- in other words, less than what Hardaway wants.
Magic guard Ron Mercer: With the Magic placing so much emphasis on the Fab Five, Mercer could quickly disappear from Orlando's plans. In that case, unless he gets the Magic's leftovers or Chicago calls with some cash, Mercer is likely looking at a $2.25 million exception. Not what he was banking on.
Jazz guard Howard Eisley: Phoenix is said to be very interested in luring Eisley away with its $2.25 million exception. Truth is, he'll be on the list of every team that needs a point guard. But with John Stockton just a season or two away from retirement, the Jazz figures to do what's necessary to keep him.
Heat guard Anthony Carter: Carter, too, is hoping to land a $2.25 million exception, after playing for the league minimum as a rookie. Someone in the East is going to pay it, you would think. Miami? Toronto? Carter's toughness in the playoffs was hard to ignore.
Mavericks guard Hubert Davis: The best three-point shooter in the league is available, with the Mavericks likely to offer only a one-year deal worth a few million. Thing is, Davis honestly puts happiness ahead of money and will be reluctant to leave Dallas, a city he loves. He's going to get exception offers, though.
Magic center John Amaechi: Amaechi was one of the most improved players in the league last season and, like Mercer, might not be the highest priority in Disney World these days. The lack of quality big men in this bloody game guarantees that the British banger will generate some interest.
Avoid at all costs
Unattached (and unwanted) guard J.R. Rider: Rider merits a classification all his own, even though he won't be alone forever. Someone, eventually, will take a chance on him, for one season at the $2.25 million level. Miami is the primary suspect, but burning its exception on Rider could leave the Heat without Anthony Carter. A risk not worth taking, we say. Which all but guarantees, of course, that Rider will be in Miami next season.
Marc Stein, who covers the NBA for The Dallas Morning News, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.