It's hardly too soon to begin thinking about the summer of 2014, especially if you're a general manager in the NBA.
This isn't the time or place to fly by the seat of your pants. The difference between a dynasty and a never-ending rebuild often comes down to planning and foresight—in this respect at least, a franchise isn't all that different from any other business attempting to make wise investments.
So this report from ESPN's Brian Windhorst shouldn't be all that surprising:
James has the ability to terminate his contract in either 2014 or 2015 before it comes to a natural end in 2016. On face, it seems hard to believe he'd do such a thing, especially on the heels of his first title and second consecutive trip to the NBA Finals with the Heat.
But things change.
After all, this is the guy who brazenly left the team upon which he promised to never give up, a team that had itself made it to those NBA Finals. A sub-par season or fallout with Dwyane Wade could be just enough to send him packing once more.
Windhorst views James as a potential replacement for Kobe Bryant in the event the Lakers icon calls it quits in 2014. Even if Kobe opts to return, however, Los Angeles could re-sign him and treat LeBron as a replacement for Pau Gasol instead. It might make for a tight fit under the cap, but we've seen big names make it work before (as they did in Miami).
With James spending so much time at power forward recently, and given Dwight Howard's imposing presence in the paint, it's entirely possible that Bryant, James and Howard could ever-so-briefly coexist in what would immediately become the most remarkable lineup in league history.
Steve Nash could stick around for the ride if he doesn't first retire. His contract doesn't run out until 2015.
Of course, James won't be a realistic target for most clubs—you know, the ones with rosters composed of mere mortals. There should be plenty of options for those organizations, too, though. In fact, the summer of 2014 could be one of the deepest free agent classes in recent memory if the stars align just right.
Here's a look at the best of what might be available.
Note: This list won't include every player whose contract is subject to an option. Though some are listed, I've excluded potential free agents who are either highly likely of picking up their own options or having their options picked up by the organization. I've also left out players with very little chance of exercising early termination options.
For $8.7 million, the Philadelphia 76ers can make Evan Turner a restricted free agent in 2014.
First of all, that's a lot of money in an of itself. It's certainly more than Turner's worth at the moment, so he'll have some growing to do over the next two seasons if he's going to persuade the organization that he's deserving.
Secondly, though, that qualifying offer only ensures that Philly has the right to match any offers Turner receives thereafter.
That doesn't necessarily mean the 76ers will walk at those offers. They could be relatively modest. Or, in the event Turner improves his play enough to justify something closer to a max-level deal, chances are Philadelphia won't have to think too hard about matching that deal.
Given this roster's wealth of young talent, the 76ers could find themselves facing the kind of situation with which the Thunder have dealt this year. They have Thaddeus Young locked up through the 2015-16 season, and they'll likely work out long-term deals with center Andrew Bynum and point guard Jrue Holiday—one already an All Star and the other well on his way.
Turner could still wind up with whatever change is leftover, but the franchise will be facing a steep overall price tag.
Rodney Stuckey has never turned into one of the league's bigger names, but that has a lot to do with him discovering his prime for the consistently underwhelming Detroit Pistons.
He's never been a fantastic distributor and struggles to check quick point guards, but he's come into his own when played at shooting guard, and he's still just 26. If he develops a legitimate perimeter shot between now and 2014, he'll be all the more sought after.
Stuckey will be coming off a season in which he made $8.5 million, and he'll likely be looking for a deal starting in that range (or even a bit less) unless he makes any significant strides in the meantime.
Thanks to his solid in-between game and ability to get to the charity stripe, combo-guard is an ideal sixth-man solution for team that needs a self-starting scorer off the bench.
It seems almost unthinkable for the Utah Jazz to let Derrick Favors get away, but much depends on the organization's decisions between now and 2014.
Big men Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap will both be free agents at season's end and the Jazz could find themselves on the hook for a lot of long-term salary if it opts to retain both of them. Alternatively, and perhaps more likely, the Jazz could move one of the players as early as this season to create additional playing time and long-term cap flexibility for Favors.
Either way, Favors will become a restricted free agent in 2014 assuming the Jazz extend him a qualifying offer. He could become pretty expensive on the open market. Still just 21 years old, Favors has already established himself as one of the most promising young power forwards in the game.
He has the size and skill set to become an All-Star. For Utah, this is just a question of money and opportunity costs.
Even if Utah moves one or both of Jefferson and Millsap, it will eventually have to make decisions about Enes Kanter, Alec Burks and Gordon Hayward—all young players with a lot of upside.
J.R. Smith has a player option in 2013, so he may very well be off the market by the time 2014 rolls around.
He's playing at a bargain rate right now, so his 2013 decision will likely come down to whether he prefers a chance to win in New York or get more money (and minutes) elsewhere.
The 27-year-old still has plenty left in the tank, but he's no longer the promising prospect who seemed destined for great things. By now, it's pretty clear what kind of player Smith is—he's a streaky scorer who too often settles for long-range bombs, and he's prone to making the kind of mistakes that make coaches cringe.
Nevertheless, there's a case to be made that Smith would rise to the occasion in a starting role, developing a more complete game and feeling less pressure to score so many points in short order.
That's the kind of gamble that a desperate team could very well make.
Like J.R. Smith, O.J. Mayo is playing at an incredibly affordable rate—just $4 million in 2012-13. And like Smith, Mayo also has the option of becoming a free agent in 2013.
Whether he waits until his contract expires in 2014 of course depends on how well he fits in with the Dallas Mavericks, but it also depends on how quickly he can increase his market value after losing so much of that value in his third and fourth seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies.
Mayo was relegated to a bench role in those seasons, so his opportunity to start for the Mavericks will have huge implications for his next deal.
Mayo could very well cement his status as the next J.R. Smith in all the wrong ways, branding himself a one-dimensional perimeter scorer.
If he takes the next step, however, the Mavericks may have to choose between keeping him around and saving money for that big free-agent splash that always seems around the corner when Mark Cuban's the getting the bill.
We know Ray Allen can still play—or at least shoot—but he'll be 39 by the time 2014 rolls around.
If he opts to stick around the NBA for another year or two, he'll almost certainly stay in Miami or proceed to another contender for whom he can provide that intangible veteran presence. If he wins another title or two during his stint with the Heat, he'll probably call it quits and end things on a high note.
The market for Allen would obviously depend heavily on how healthy he remains this season and next. If he doesn't retire, though, we can pretty safely assume that health record is looking pretty good.
Coming off a postseason in which he battled bone spurs in his ankle, either scenario appears to be entirely possible.
There probably won't be many premium point guards available in 2014, so Kyle Lowry could be in store for plenty of attention.
Unless the Toronto Raptors somehow come into possession of a promising young point guard, they'll do whatever they can to keep Lowry around. The 26-year-old might already be the best player on the roster, and he'll be coming into his prime when the time comes to sign a new deal.
But the bigger question isn't whether Toronto will want Lowry—it's whether he'll want to stay in Toronto.
That hinges on the development of young players like Terrence Ross, DeMar DeRozan, Ed Davis and Jonas Valanciunas. If they live up to their potential, Lowry may find that his best chance to win is with the Raptors after all.
Otherwise, he's sure to have quite a few suitors looking to add a floor general who can score inside and out, facilitate and even crash the boards.
It's tempting to describe Marcin Gortat as one of the league's best young centers, but believe it or not, he's still just 28.
After four seasons in Dwight Howard's shadow, the big man has only had a couple of seasons to really establish himself with the Phoenix Suns, and he's done just that—even averaging a double-double last season with 15.4 points and 10 rebounds a game.
All that's missing at this point is an invitation to the All-Star game, and arguably proof that Gortat can succeed without Steve Nash around.
Assuming Gortat indeed proves to be more than a byproduct of Nash's brilliant facilitations, the Suns will bend over backwards to keep him around. Along with Goran Dragic, he's the surest thing on Phoenix's roster and that rare post player who can inflict damage in the paint or pop out for a jumper with comparable ease.
Health has been an issue for Andrew Bogut over the years, but he'll have a couple of seasons with the Golden State Warriors to allay any fears that he's damaged goods.
Either way, it won't be easy for the seven-footer to find a deal starting at the $14 million he'll have made in 2013-14. He'll be 29 and viewed as at least something of an injury risk no matter how successfully he dispels the notion between now and then.
Additionally, Bogut has never become especially dominant in any one facet of the game, though it's worth mentioning he's a particularly good rebounder and defender. He blocked over 2.5 shots a game in 2009-10 and 2010-11, and he's averaged 9.3 rebounds over the course of his career.
That should be good enough to fetch him a deal in the $10 million range given just how scarce skilled big men are.
It's hard to see Danny Granger sticking around with the Indiana Pacers. In fact, he might not still be with the team by the time he becomes a free agent.
With the younger Paul George quickly making Granger somewhat expendable, the front office has to be on the lookout for more of a playmaker who can create from the backcourt. That could translate into Granger being leveraged as trade bait, but otherwise it suggests the Pacers might pass on the opportunity to keep the small forward around in 2014.
It doesn't help that Granger will be 31 when his contract expires.
That certainly won't mean he's past his prime, but it should ensure he takes a pay cut at the very least—a pay cut that could very well come from a team that needs a perimeter shooter on the wing more than Indiana does.
It's safe to assume the Denver Nuggets will want to keep Andre Iguodala around, but it's less certain that they'll be able to afford him.
No, he won't command offers for $16 million—the figure he'll pull in for 2013-14—but he'll be a 30-year-old in good condition, and he brings a unique combination of skills (e.g. passing and defending) to the table. That puts him line for the kind of money that could make Denver think twice.
In a vacuum, it might not have to.
But with so many talented young players in the offing, holding on to a veteran like Iggy may not be in the cards.
The problem with re-signing Luol Deng in 2014 isn't that he won't be worth it.
It's the opportunity cost—the chance that the Chicago Bulls could make a run at a more elite sidekick for former MVP Derrick Rose. They could even make that run in 2014 if Carlos Boozer is amnestied before his contract expires in 2015.
Rose needs a legitimate second option, a guy who can do more than spot-up and shoot. Of course, finding that kind of guy is easier said than done, and there's no doubt it would be difficult to replace Deng's length and defensive prowess.
It's telling, however, that Deng's first All-Star campaign in 2011-12 was arguably the worst performance since his rookie year by almost any statistical measure, a performance in which he shot the ball at a lowly 41 percent, down from a career mark of nearly 47 percent.
That could just be an outlier, and it could reflect just how much Deng needs Rose in the lineup in order to be effective. Nevertheless, anything short of a return to form on the offensive end will make the small forward expendable.
Though it's been rumored that Monta Ellis will opt out of his contract this upcoming summer, it's never easy to turn down another $11 million—especially under a new CBA that might make it difficult for Ellis to find that kind of money again elsewhere.
Yes, he's never failed to score like a franchise player, but there has to be a reason coaches around the league consistently deny this guy a spot at the All-Star game, and that reason isn't likely to show up in what's ultimately remained pretty impressive statistical production.
On the other hand, Ellis will be nearly 29 in the summer of 2014, and he might be able to sell potential suitors on the notion that he's matured into the kind of leader worthy of a big payday. Having another year's worth of opportunity to do that in Milwaukee might be reason to enough to stick around in 2013-14.
Does Ellis have a long-term future with the Bucks?
That's probably within his control. If he takes his game to another level, he'll probably take that game elsewhere at his first opportunity. If he remains a second-tier star, it will probably be in Milwaukee.
Ruday Gay has become one of the league's most consistent go-to options, almost to a fault.
The 26-year-old has averaged between 18.9 and 20.1 points in each of his last five seasons, meaning all but his rookie campaign. He kept his shooting above 45 percent during that span and established himself as a solid defender while he was at it.
It goes without saying the Memphis Grizzlies would like to keep Gay around, and he might want to do so in 2014-15, during which he has a player option worth over $19 million. In that event, he obviously won't be on the market until 2015.
So why would Gay want to hit the free-agent market a year early, foregoing that big paycheck?
The decision could be affected in large part by how things are going in Memphis and how the alternative destinations are shaping up. Mike Conley is the only part of the Grizzlies' core under contract beyond 2013-14, so there's really no telling what this roster will look like going forward.
If it struggles to either replace or retain Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, Gay may decide an early exit is worth leaving all that money on the table.
As much as the Los Angeles Lakers love Pau Gasol, they'll be absolutely thrilled to watch his $19 million come off the books after the 2013-14 season.
Even if the club decides to keep the skilled big man around, it won't be for that kind of money. Gasol will be 34 and inching beyond his prime. The Lakers will be looking for that next big piece to pair alongside Dwight Howard and potentially Kobe Bryant.
Gasol might decide he values a chance to win and retire a Laker enough to take a significant pay cut, but he could alternatively prefer the money and opportunity he'd get from a team desperate for a veteran post presence who can pass and score.
Gasol's future is really among the most uncertain of any big-name player in the league. After almost winding up a Houston Rocket in the vetoed deal for Chris Paul, it can't be especially comforting to see 2014 growing nearer.
Already 35-years-old, it wouldn't be shocking for Paul Pierce to call it quits when his current contract runs out.
If he doesn't, he'll remain with the Boston Celtics. The only of the team's original "Big Three" to have played his entire career with the Celtics, his legacy just wouldn't be the same if he went anywhere else.
It's hard to know how much of his decision will be tied to Kevin Garnett's fate, but it's worth noting that KG's contract doesn't expire until 2015. If he doesn't retire first, that could be enough to tempt Pierce into suiting up for at least one more year.
He's given no indication thus far that he's running out of gas.
Like Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki is almost certain to remain a franchise lifer.
It's just one of those things where the ownership, front office and player are all on the same page. Don't get any crazy ideas.
That said, there's a very reasonable chance Nowitzki retires, allowing the Dallas Mavericks to throw their quasi-rebuilding process into full gear. He'll have just turned 36, that awkward stage when anything is possible. He could make like Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, playing into his late 30s, or he could decide one ring is good enough.
Which way he goes will probably depend on the status of two things: Dallas' roster and his health. If either is in trouble, he'll spare himself the drama.
Yes, it's relatively unlikely he'll ditch NYC. He lobbied for a trade to the franchise, and he's rightly been billed the team's best player. Moreover, the Knicks have a lot of talent and the money to replenish that talent.
All the same, we should know by now that things can go oh-so-wrong for this team. With Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler combining to make over $38 million in 2014-15, it also goes without saying the Knicks will have to wait a year longer before making any substantial upgrades.
There's always a chance a few more veteran ring-chasers will latch on and give the team some hope, but that's not especially reassuring.
As good as this team might be over the next couple of years, it could also start heading south at any given moment. If so, the drama will be deafening, and Anthony could catch the first flight out of town.
Kobe Bryant will be on the market in 2014 in only the most technical sense, and that's if he's on the market at all.
He's long maintained and recently reaffirmed that retiring when his contract expires is a very real possibility. If he doesn't retire, there's virtually no chance he leaves the Los Angeles Lakers.
We've seen Kobe express frustration with the franchise before, and—more importantly—we've seen him run into some relationship problems with other big personalities. So far, so good when it comes to Dwight Howard's personality, but a lot can happen in two seasons.
It's not to hard to envision a scenario in which Bryant somehow feels spurned by decisions that favor Howard in one way or another, especially when it comes to shaping the team's direction behind the scenes.
If the slight were egregious enough, Bryant might decide to take out his frustration with another contender rather than taking the passive-aggressive retirement route.
It might sound far-fetched for now, but it would make for some epic headlines.