Chris Paul's free agency will dominate NBA headlines once the finals wrap up.
With only two teams still in title contention, the majority of NBA franchises have already transitioned into offseason mode and are scouting the stars who are set to be free agents.
More than any other professional sport, the NBA is dominated by its superstars. Only a handful of players can give a franchise an opportunity to hoist the Larry O' Brien trophy, with a couple of those athletes set to hit the open market at the beginning of July.
Behind drafting a young superstar, signing a difference-maker in free agency is the quickest way to improve a squad's future outlook.
Not all the players on this list are set to be free agents, as stars that are recovering from injury or are on shaky ground with their current team will also draw plenty of headlines.
While the NBA isn't quite on the NFL's level in terms of media hype, the buzz surrounding the Association never comes to a halt. Even though player movement is not as exciting as actual game action, it does set the stage for a new narrative once next season gets underway.
The questions surrounding the upcoming offseason are plentiful.
Will Chris Paul leave the Los Angeles Clippers, thus ending their run as a title contender?
Will Dwight Howard leave the Los Angeles Lakers after a disappointing season?
The NBA Finals should be the focus right now, but the offseason that occurs after may be just as exciting.
Josh Smith will be chasing a max contract this offseason.
The Atlanta Hawks were expected to trade Josh Smith before the NBA trading deadline in February, but GM Danny Ferry decided against moving the talented power forward due to Smiths' lukewarm market.
Now the Hawks risk losing Smith for nothing, as he is set to be an unrestricted free agent at the beginning of July. As the most talented power forward in this year's free-agent class, Smith will dominate headlines until he signs his next contract.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Smith said the following after the Hawks were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs by the Indiana Pacers:
As I walked off the court, everything just sort of hit me. Just the uncertainty of what the future holds. Just thinking about all of the relationships I’ve had here and the people who’ve crossed my path since I’ve been here. I just … I just don’t know.
Smith is a very good player, that much is not in question. The 6'9" forward averaged 17.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.8 blocks and compiled a PER of 17.7 during the regular season.
In terms of versatility, Smith is amongst the leagues most valuable big men. He can defend on the perimeter and on the interior and has a decent jump shot, even if he takes too many low-percentage looks.
During the regular season, Smith's matchup at power forward tended to have good games, as opposing power forwards compiled a PER of 17.3 according to 82Games.com. It's statistics like that which gives teams a justifiable reason not to sign Smith to a lucrative maximum contract.
Unfortunately for Smith, he is hitting free agency at a bad time. According to Basketball-Reference, the win-shares total that Smith posted over 48 minutes this season was his lowest since his second year in the league.
Even though he is coming off a down season, Smith's versatility on both ends of the floor will entice at least one franchise to offer him a max contract.
Will Superman return to LA or will he move on?
The last year of Dwight Howard's life has been arduous and challenging, as he left Orlando an injured player and finished the season as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers' depleted roster.
Although Howard was excited to be in Los Angeles at first, the Lakers' slow start, mediocre record and horrendous defense must have taken its toll on the 27-year-old center.
When the Orlando Magic were shopping Howard, one of the worries of other teams was his impending free agency. The Lakers, with their storied history of big men, pulled the trigger and acquired Howard because they were confident that he would re-sign with them.
Well, this summer will prove that thinking correct or incorrect, as Howard is set to be an unrestricted free agent at the beginning of July.
The Lakers' most serious threats in regards to re-signing Howard appears to be the Houston Rockets.
James Harden has already been recruiting free agents, including Dwight Howard, to the Houston Rockets: tinyurl.com/pq5eo6s— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) May 22, 2013
Harden's presence in Houston could be a difference-maker, as it would take some of the offensive pressure off of Howard, as Harden would be utilized as the team's primary scorer. Also, the Rockets love to spread it out and shoot the three-pointer, a tactic that was successful for Howard's Magic teams.
Howard did not play like the league's best center this year, but with more time to recover, he could regain his past form. If that happens, the team that signs Howard will be getting one of the league's top five players.
Get ready for another summer to be dominated by Howard rumors, but he won't be the only franchise-changing player available this time around.
Chris Paul changed the Los Angeles Clippers' culture.
The Los Angeles Clippers acquired Chris Paul before the 2011-12 lockout-shortened season and have not been disappointed. In his second season with the franchise, Paul led the Clips to their first ever division title.
Although the Clippers were only in the playoffs for one round, Paul played extraordinarily against the Memphis Grizzlies. In the series, Paul compiled a PER of 29.47, which is the highest total among all postseason competitors. (subscription required)
After the Clippers were knocked out, the team decided to relieve Vinny Del Negro of his duties, which led to speculation that Paul wanted his old coach out. The thinking was that since Paul held all the cards as a free agent, management would do whatever he wanted in order to retain him.
Apparently that was not the case, and Paul was not behind the move. According to Chris Broussard of ESPN.com, Paul was mad at the Clippers for being blamed as the reason for Del Negro's firing.
Now Paul is an unrestricted free agent, so the league's best point guard is on the open market for the first time in his career. There will be plenty of interested teams, but Paul's salary demands and desire to play for a winner will limit his realistic suitors.
The last thing the Clippers can afford to do is to upset Paul in any way, as his departure would symbolize the team's fall from contender status. When the league's premier point guard is on the market—a player that can almost single-handedly lead a team to the playoffs—you can bet the competition for his services is going to be fierce.
The Clippers have to hope that their core, recent success and the ability to offer Paul more money will be enough to convince the Wake Forest product from leaving.
Paul was ejected in the Clippers' final playoff game, so fans of LA's "other" team are hoping that wasn't an omen of things to come.
Kobe Bryant's future is unclear.
Kobe Bryant's future is foggy at best, as the combination of his ruptured Achilles tendon and the uncertainty surrounding Los Angeles' roster is troubling.
Dwight Howard is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer and could walk away leaving the Lakers uncompensated.
Pau Gasol struggled through the majority of the regular season and is a prime trade candidate because he is a talented big man who only has one more year left on his contract.
Steve Nash couldn't stay healthy, and it appears as if age has finally caught up to him. Also, the Lakers won't have any cap space due in part to Bryant's monster salary.
The Lakers roster is in disarray in a tough conference, with only Bryant and their market keeping them relevant.
As the Lakers proved all season long, they will draw more headlines than virtually any other team. That won't change, especially as the outspoken Bryant continues to rehab and Howard decides where he wants to play basketball next season.
When asked if he would be ready for the season opener, Bryant said the following according to Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com:
I hope so. That's the challenge. With the tendon, there's really only but so much you can do. There's a certain amount of time that they deem necessary for the tendon to heal where you don't overstretch it and now you never get that spring back
Even if Bryant is ready for the opener, his presence alone doesn't make the Lakers a legitimate championship contender. Prior to the injury, the Lakers were battling for the seventh seed in the Western Conference, so it wasn't as if Bryant's injury ruined a deep playoff run.
Bryant's Achilles injury appears to have given the Black Mamba the desire to play longer, as he claimed that the next season could potentially be his last before getting hurt.
That isn't likely to be the case anymore, though. According to Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times, Bryant said the following in an interview on ESPN Radio:
My goal is to win more than five. If Duncan does win five, hopefully that pushes our organization upstairs to be even more determined and more driven to make the necessary expenses to make sure we continue the next year and the year after that.
The reality of the situation is that a ruptured Achilles tendon is a serious injury for any athlete, let alone a shooting guard set to enter his 17th season in the NBA.
Bryant is one of the most recognizable athletes in American sports, which means anything he says is automatically relevant news. So while lesser athletes could slip by while making meager comments, that isn't an option for Kobe.
Everything the Black Mamba says will be a featured story, which is probably exactly what Bryant wants during this pivotal summer.
Al Jefferson is one of the league's most efficient offensive centers.
Al Jefferson is going to have to get used to the national media talking about him again, as his tenure with the Utah Jazz is likely over.
With Paul Millsap and Jefferson both set to become unrestricted free agents and youngsters Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter ready for more playing time, it's safe to say that all four frontcourt players won't be on the roster next season.
While there is a chance either Jefferson or Millsap returns, the possibility of neither returning is also in play. Either way, Jefferson should not have a hard time finding a new home and signing a lucrative contract.
Due to the scarcity of talented offensive centers, Jefferson should have a memorable offseason.
While Jefferson may not have the potential to win a championship as a team's second-best player, he can certainly make the difference between making and missing the postseason.
Defensively, Jefferson leaves a lot to be desired. He doesn't have quick feet, which allows opposing offenses to take advantage of him on pick-and-rolls. Although that is a liability, what Jefferson brings offensively is enough to make up for his defensive deficiencies if in the right situation.
Jefferson would be most at home next to a solid rim protector, as he is not a dominant force inside defensively.
Although certain marquee names will overshadow Jefferson, he is undeniably one of the most valuable free agents on the market.
Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are as close as two teammates can be.
The careers of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are connected, as the duo have made serious waves since being united in 2007.
Garnett and Pierce led the Boston Celtics to the NBA Finals twice and won their first and only ring together. When it comes to Celtics basketball, Pierce and Garnett are the two faces of the franchise from the last decade.
The respect for Garnett in particular was well highlighted by Doc Rivers, as he said the following after the Celtics were knocked out of the playoffs by the New York Knicks: (h/t BostonGlobe.com)
You know, Kevin limped into the playoffs and . . . I mean he was unbelievable. He is as tough of a guy, as tough of a competitor, that I’ve ever been around. Obviously we lost to a better team, but for him, in particular, I just didn’t want him to go out that way. But he is a winner. He’s the best. The best I’ve seen.
That sentiment is shared by most of the basketball community, as no one wants The Big Ticket's career to end as a member of a broken down team.
At 37 years of age and with a championship ring on his finger, Garnett has nothing left to prove to anyone. Also, over the last two seasons Garnett's body has given out toward the second half, which doesn't predict future success.
If Garnett decided to retire tomorrow, no one would question the decision and he would go down as one of the greatest players of his generation. The only reason he would continue playing would be to win a championship.
That goal appears to be far off if he remains with the Boston Celtics, especially if GM Danny Ainge decides to trade Pierce in order to reboot his roster in favor of the future.
If Ainge decides to look toward the future and trades Pierce, then Garnett could very well decide to retire.
Pierce is younger than Garnett, as he is 35 years old. Unlike Garnett, Pierce isn't going to retire at season's end, even if he is traded/released by the Celtics.
The career of Pierce will continue, but Garnett's career could be over. That is what's at stake once the offseason truly commences.
Although Ainge has delayed breaking up Boston's core, the time to make a change is likely on the horizon. The Celtics as currently constructed are no longer threats in the Eastern Conference and a quick fix isn't in sight.
No matter what decisions the Celtics' front office makes, Pierce and Garnett will both be in the headlines this summer.
Andrew Bynum may never play a game as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers.
Well, the Orlando Magic may have made the right decision when they refused to trade Dwight Howard straight up for Andrew Bynum, as the latter failed to play in a single game this season.
Now after never playing a game for the Philadelphia 76ers due to knee ailments, Bynum is set to become an unrestricted free agent. Few free-agent situations in recent years are more interesting than Bynum's, as he may be the league's best offensive center when healthy.
That being said, it's hard to justify making a significant financial investment in a big man with shoddy knees. Bynum has not played in a game since the Los Angeles Lakers were eliminated by the Oklahoma City Thunder during the 2012 playoffs.
The 76ers organization as a whole has undergone changes since acquiring Bynum, as they have a new head coach and a new general manager.
According to John Gonzalez of CSNPhilly.com, new GM Sam Hinkie said the following in regards to Bynum's impending free agency:
I think of Andrew like the thousands of other young men walking around the world that are unrestricted free agents that have the potential to play NBA basketball. And he is one of those. And I am duty-bound to consider them, to look at them, all of them.
That statement is void of any confidence in Bynum's future, which is an incredibly stark comment considering that the 76ers gave up Andre Iguodala, Moe Harkless and Nikola Vucevic in order to acquire Bynum.
Make sure to keep an eye on the buzz surrounding Bynum once the NBA Finals are over, as his new team will either earn a big reward by signing him or a GM will lose his job by bringing him into training camp on a lucrative contract.