NBA Free Agency 2012: How This Year's Class Will Tilt Balance of Power
Summer is the windiest season of all in the NBA, what with all the change blowing through to reshape the league via free agency.
This year's no different. The crop of available players may not be loaded with superstars, but what it lacks in transcendent talent at the top, it more than makes up for in depth and breadth.
When all is said and done, it could yield an even more jarring shift in the league's hierarchy.
Any discussion of the movers and shakers of the offseason begins and ends with Deron Williams. The three-time All-Star chose to remain with the Brooklyn Nets rather than join his hometown Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday, thereby vaulting the former into the Eastern Conference playoff picture (alongside Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace and...errr...Reggie Evans) and leaving the latter scrambling for Plan B.
The Mavs had essentially passed on defending their 2011 title when they let Tyson Chandler walk to the New York Knicks last December. Their hope was that the appeal of playing for Mark Cuban in the Metroplex would be enough to overcome a $25 million gap between their offer and the one the Brooklyn Nets could put forth.
Unfortunately for the Mavs (and fortunately for the Nets), it wasn't. Both teams figure to give chase to Dwight Howard on the trade market as well. Brooklyn is still Dwight's destination of choice, though if the Nets don't wind up with Dwight Howard (in part, by signing-and-trading Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries to Orlando), they might use some of their remaining financial flexibility to bring aboard Milwaukee Bucks forward and James Franco doppelganger Ersan Ilyasova.
Williams' choice figured to impact that of Steve Nash, though their paths may cross in some other way instead. The 38-year-old point guard has already been showered with love (and $36 million over three years) by the Toronto Raptors, who saw Nash as the key to a basketball revival north of the border. Nash is something of an icon in Canada and the team was clearly hoping the veteran could put them back on the playoff map for the first time since 2008.
The Raps, for their part, had already moved surreptitiously to push the New York Knicks out of the Steve Nash sweepstakes. ESPN's Marc Stein reports that Toronto has inked Landry Fields to a $20 million offer sheet, which they hoped would end the Knicks' hopes of a Fields sign-and-trade with the Phoenix Suns, while also while putting them at risk of losing Jeremy Lin.
Though, with the Rockets exploiting loopholes left and right, Linsanity might end up out of New York's price range anyway.
In the end, though, the Los Angeles Lakers snuck in to pull off a coup to land the aging superstar point guard. The fading dynasty thrust itself back into relevance once again by pulling off a blockbuster deal for the 38-year-old dynamo, sending a package of two first-round picks and two second-round picks and utilizing their sizable trade exception to land one of the league's best point guards.
Suddenly, the Lakers have a core of Kobe, Nash and big men Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Assuming the quartet can coalesce next season, the West has just added yet another legitimate title contender with an inside-out game few can slow down. Sure, the Lakers' bench remains one of the shallower in the sport, but when four of your starting five are this good, it's hard to pick nits like that.
The Los Angeles Clippers, meanwhile, are trying to blow everyone out of the water in the West with a host of rather powerful paper cuts. The lack of an official GM hasn't stopped the Clips from landing Chauncey Billups and Jamal Crawford after parlaying Mo Williams into a second chance for Lamar Odom. The Clipps are also doing what they can to lure Ray Allen back out West.
Allen, though, may well be the key to which team wins the East. On the one hand, the Miami Heat can offer Allen the opportunity to compete for a title next year alongside LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, though he would likely only get peanuts in return.
On the other hand, the Boston Celtics have thus far offered him more money than anyone else has ($12 million over two years) to give it another go with Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett, who's slated to re-sign for $34 million over three years. It remains to be seen whether Jason Terry's likely landing in Beantown pushes Jesus Shuttlesworth out of the picture, though "Jet" probably wouldn't be opposed to playing with the future Hall of Famer.
All of which is to say nothing of (literally) the biggest free agent on the market: Roy Hibbert. The All-Star center has already fielded a four-year, $58 million offer sheet from the Portland Trail Blazers that the Indiana Pacers might not be so inclined to match, especially after inking George Hill to a new five-year deal. Losing an emerging star like Hibbert could inhibit the Pacers' chances of filling the vacuum in the East behind the Heat.
That is, unless Indy brings in Chris Kaman as a replacement and uses its new-found financial flexibility to lure Eric Gordon, a restricted free agent with the New Orleans Hornets, back to his hometown. The Hornets, for their part, figure to match any deal that Gordon fields, including those that might be on their way from Portland, Houston and Phoenix, though Gordon may beg and plead with New Orleans to let him join the Suns.
There remains one constant through all of this aforementioned chaos: The Heat and the Thunder will likely be the teams to beat in their respective conferences again next season, regardless of where Dwight Howard winds up or how the free-agent market shakes out.
Which team has the most at risk in free agency?
The rest, though, remains up for grabs. The Chicago Bulls would be a top-two team in the East if not for injuries to Derrick Rose and Luol Deng, the expected loss of Omer Asik to the Rockets and a lack of the financial leeway to add a perimeter scorer. As a result, the C's, the Pacers and (possibly) the Nets will have their sights set on the Heat's heels, with the Knicks, the Philadelphia 76ers and (potentially) the Raptors knocking at their door.
In the West, the Clippers and the Lakers might just be the ones barging by the San Antonio Spurs and the Memphis Grizzlies on the way to challenging Oklahoma City's throne.
Then again, the summer winds of free agency could blow the balance of power in the NBA just about every which way imaginable at this point.
Just be sure to keep your eye on the nearest weather vane if you're trying to keep up.
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