Looming lockout affecting free agency

If you were sick of the 2010 free-agent frenzy -- aka The LeBronathon -- even before July 1, keep in mind you'll be begging for a return to these days next year when the buildup to the summer will focus on the impending lockout. I'd rather be speculating about player movement and salaries (despite the fact vacuum that continues to exist) than listening to a bunch of lawyers argue collective bargaining minutiae.

It also strikes me how different the buzz and whispers about these two summers have been. While the destination and combinations of the top 2010 free agents continue to prompt different responses from every source I speak to, I have yet to hear a single team executive or player agent express the slightest doubt that there will be a lockout in 2011. So revel in this glorious uncertainty, frustrating though it might be.

Many of this year's actions are being driven by 2011, of course. Decisions ranging from Amare Stoudemire's long-expected opt out to Richard Jefferson's surprising leap into the free-agent pool were made with the idea that it will be better to lock up a long-term deal under the current collective bargaining agreement than take your chances with the one coming next year, which could feature shorter lengths, smaller raises and perhaps a harder cap. The Spurs were as stunned as anyone that Jefferson walked away from the $15 million remaining on the last year of his contract on the heels of his disappointing first season in San Antonio. He figures he can make it up, and the Spurs figure he must have some team in mind that's prepared to give it to him, even if he'll make less money immediately. ("He traded a steak for 10 Big Macs" is the way it was described to me.)

And don't think the lockout isn't playing into teams' signing off on some of these outlandish contracts already proposed. The $119 million offered to Joe Johnson by the Atlanta Hawks really won't be $119 million if, say, $5 million of it is lost while play and pay are suspended during the lockout. I first heard that theory during summer league last year and it makes more sense now when you take a look at what's being spent on the likes of Darko Milicic and Amir Johnson.

Another unexpected consequence of the lockout: It could lure Phil Jackson back for yet another season as the coach of the Lakers. This week all it took was a little time away from the Los Angeles smog in the clean air of Montana to restore his desire to bid for yet another three-peat (his fourth). And if the Lakers should win another championship next season, wouldn't the prospect of, say, a 55-game regular season instead of the full 82-game schedule in 2011-12 seem enticing to a coach who only cares about the playoffs? Jackson is said to be focused on the immediate process of the upcoming season, not looking ahead. He hasn't even negotiated the financial terms of his one-year contract yet. But I've heard in the past that the prospect of two playoff runs for 1½ seasons is appealing to him.

That's getting ahead, but at least it follows the usual NBA mode of major moves being preceded by telltale signals. There usually is a buildup based on rumors and logical conclusions, associations and predictions. Not this time, however. I still don't have a definitive answer to the question I've been asked from coast to coast, by strangers and celebrities: "Where's LeBron going?" Any response right now is just a guess, no matter how plugged-in the source.

It's the oddest story I've ever seen. Millions of words have been written without the full components of the basic news story. We know which teams have what salary cap space available, but we still don't know who's going where … or when.

But there are some tidbits I've picked up among the phone calls I've made in an effort to find out.

Defending Darko

When I told a member of the Timberwolves that Milicic had signed for $20 million, his first reaction was "Wow!" But he did have some good things to say about Darko. He can move well for his size, he can block shots and he can pass, a good asset for the center in the triangle offense.

Also, he added, "We were better defensively when he was on the floor."

The unit of Milicic, Jonny Flynn, Corey Brewer, Al Jefferson and Ryan Gomes did have the best plus/minus among the Timberwolves' seven most-used combinations. So there's that. Still, $20 million for Darko?

"That's David Kahn for you," one player agent said. "As agents, we are loving it."

Clipper Country

Sources say Dwane Casey has the lead over Vinny Del Negro in the Clippers' coaching search. Casey is said to be the choice on the basketball ops side while Del Negro has owner Donald Sterling's eye, particularly because Del Negro is still owed $2 million from the Bulls after they fired him this year, and perhaps some of that could be used to offset Del Negro's new salary with the Clippers. (Kind of ironic, since Sterling is trying to avoid paying his former coach, Mike Dunleavy.)

Meanwhile, the Clippers are given no chance of landing LeBron James, although he at least granted them an audience to make their pitch. (The fact that the Clippers celebrated the event by releasing a statement saying, "We are honored to be one of the select organizations to have been invited to meet with LeBron James and his team" ought to be grounds in itself for LeBron to cross them off his list.)

With second-tier guys such as Joe Johnson and Rudy Gay removed from consideration because of maximum offers by their own teams, it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine the Clippers landing a significant free agent this summer.

At least they can welcome back Blake Griffin to their returning core. They can spend 2010-11 rolling out a version of what last season's team should have looked like.

Durant deal

The Oklahoma City Thunder are said to be making progress toward signing Kevin Durant to an extension. There wasn't the huge court-case-style camera coverage outside his house when team officials paid him a visit at 12:01 a.m. ET on July 1, the way there was for the first day of the LeBron sessions in Cleveland. Typical for this unassuming superstar and no-frills team.

But if the contract is signed and the Thunder take the first step toward locking up their core for the foreseeable future (by NBA standards) it could turn out that this little blurb of a story becomes the most significant deal of the summer of 2010 when we all look back on it … which we should have plenty of time to do during the lockout.