July 3, 2010 at 1:00 am

Vincent Goodwill

Former Pistons' big contracts set crazy tone for free agency

Darko Milicic, top, had talked about giving up on his NBA career and going back home to Serbia. Now he has a multi-million dollar deal with the Timberwolves. (Getty Images)

The NBA's free-agency period barely is three days old, and its earliest events affect the Pistons with a double-edged sword.

It was widely believed LeBron James and Dwyane Wade would set the tenor for how this summer is going to play out, but surprisingly, former Pistons Darko Milicic and Amir Johnson hit the jackpot by the close of business Thursday.

Neither averaged more than seven points or five rebounds last season, but Minnesota and Toronto saw fit to give them money no other team would have. Milicic and Johnson will make $5 million and $6.8 million per year, respectively.

To put those numbers in perspective, particularly for the harsh critics of Charlie Villanueva, his contract and Johnson's are just about the same. Even though Villanueva had a disappointing first season in Detroit, his body of work dwarfs Johnson's. Villanueva has a 48-point game under his belt and is, when he chooses to be, a good rebounder. Villanueva has a better chance of outplaying his contract than Johnson has of living up to his.

It affects the Pistons negatively, since all they can offer is the midlevel exception, which is around $5.8 million. One of their targets was Dallas center Brendan Haywood, and if the Pistons had a realistic chance at landing him early, it went out the window when Milicic and Johnson became grossly overpaid. Haywood's numbers are close to a double-double in points and rebounds, and with those two setting the market, he can command an eight-figure salary, as opposed to being a bargain.

Haywood, though, probably had a big payday in mind when Portland's Marcus Camby (7.5 points, 11.8 rebounds) signed a two-year extension worth $17.7 million in late April. The difference was Camby had leverage, with Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla out most of the season because of injuries.

The only way Haywood's dollar figure can go down at this juncture is if the other attractive teams don't have money available after James, Wade and the other top-tier free agents decide on destinations. The teams far under the cap won't have the midlevel exception, even after they spend big. If they overpay for the top guys, there won't be any money left for the likes of Haywood. It puts the Pistons in a passive position, though, regardless of the outcome.

Hamilton looks more attractive

Opportunity is available amid the chaos, nonetheless. Atlanta's Joe Johnson is mulling a maximum-contract offer from the Hawks and he could be off the market soon. Memphis' Rudy Gay agreed to a maximum deal as well. Joe Johnson is an all-star, bar none, but he's not a max player by any stretch. By the time his deal ends, assuming he stays with Atlanta, he'll be past his prime and well into his mid-30's, making in upwards of $23 million.

Pistons guard Richard Hamilton's contract of two years guaranteed at $12.6 million per season pales in comparison. Hamilton, 32, doesn't look like a viable option opposed to Wade, but next to Mike Miller, Roger Mason, Trenton Hassell and J.J. Redick, Hamilton looks a lot more attractive. Hamilton's deal is a lot shorter than what those aforementioned names will command on the market, and his production, even on the downside, is better as well.

Yes, Hamilton had his worst season as a Piston from an efficiency standpoint (18.1 points, 41 percent FG). He never fully rebounded from an early ankle injury, however, and can be a better player in a controlled offensive system, which the Pistons don't appear to be. Other teams can look at last season as an aberration and could give the veteran player a new start.

The Pistons won't be the only team some of the big spenders will be calling, though, and there's the rub. San Antonio's Tony Parker's name has been thrown about in the rumor mill and so has Minnesota's Al Jefferson. Hamilton has the league's 29th highest salary next season. Parker, whose contract expires next season, and Jefferson make more.

Last week, I wrote that Pistons president Joe Dumars must put a clown suit on another general manager to remake this team. Looks like the owners who are overpaying this summer like the red nose and floppy hair look.

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