NEW YORK (AP) _ Joe Smith of the Minnesota Timberwolves could become a free agent in the next few days after a ruling Monday by an NBA arbitrator.

Kenneth Dam, the arbitrator, ruled that commissioner David Stern has the right to void Smith's current one-year, $2.5 million contract because Smith and the Timberwolves entered into a separate, secret agreement that violated salary cap rules.

The Timberwolves face severe penalties, including $3.5 million in fines, loss of draft picks and the suspensions of owner Glen Taylor and key front office personnel.

If Stern voids Smith's current contract, he will be free to negotiate with all 29 teams.

Most clubs could only offer him a contract starting at $2.25 million, but the Chicago Bulls have enough room to offer more and the Miami Heat could have an injury exception worth about $4 million if the league approves it.

``It's a complete victory for Joe Smith,'' players union attorney Ron Klempner said, adding that the league had sought to take away Smith's Larry Bird rights and bar Smith from re-signing with the Timberwolves should the commissioner void Smith's current contract.

Smith has played under two one-year contracts for the Timberwolves, who cannot exceed the salary cap to re-sign him until Smith has been there for three seasons to earn his so-called ``Bird rights.''

Taylor and Smith's former agent, Eric Fleisher, agreed in writing that Smith would receive a lucrative long-term deal beginning with the 2001-02 season.

The league has long suspected that such secret agreements exist, but no team had ever been caught red-handed like the Timberwolves.