As far as NBA free agency is concerned, the biggest dominoes are usually the ones that start the cascading trickle-down effect for their lesser-skilled counterparts.
With Chris Paul all but guaranteed to be going back to the Los Angeles Clippers, one could say the first domino fell. But that's not really the case. Players guaranteed to re-sign with their current teams aren't necessarily viewed in the same stratosphere. From the moment Doc Rivers took the Clippers job, Paul was essentially looked at as having never even hit the free-agent market.
For the other top-tier players, the wee hours of early Monday morning were spent hobnobbing with perspective suitors. It's always been said that a team willing to meet with a player at 12:01 a.m. on July 1—the very first moment that free agency begins—is a serious contender for his services.
While the meetings process often drags on for a few days, we can begin to get a concrete sense of how those pow-wows went. A team can play itself into the race with a wowing presentation, while another can work itself right out with an equally unimpressive one. They say first impressions mean everything in life. Well, that's infinitely more the case during NBA free agency, when teams and players often only meet one time before a decision is made.
With that in mind, here is a quick check-in on the biggest names and the latest on where they may be headed next season.
Rockets the "Frontrunner" to Land Dwight Howard
Obviously with CP3 essentially taking himself off the market, Howard's every move has been tracked and reported since the beginning of free agency. The star center met with the Houston Rockets right at the 12:01 a.m. ET deadline (9:01 p.m. Pacific Time), dining with a group that included general manager Daryl Morey, shooting guard James Harden and legendary center Hakeem Olajuwon.
The Rockets also brought in forward Chandler Parsons, Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler and coach Kevin McHale. Heck, Yao Ming even Skyped in, giving Howard a bevy of reasons to sign with Houston.
In other words, the Rockets brought out all the stops. They've put everything into signing Howard, with all other free-agent options being a distant second place.
The question, though, is whether it worked. According to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, it's beginning to look more and more like it did:
Houston has emerged as the frontrunner to sign the Los Angeles Lakers center, league sources said, and those close to Howard confirmed late Sunday that the Rockets did nothing to dampen Howard's enthusiasm for the possibilities of playing for Houston.
The Rockets, like all non-Lakers suitors, can only offer Howard a four-year deal worth $88 million. Los Angeles has the ability to offer a five-year deal, worth as much as $118 million.
As the process moves on, it's becoming clear that the extra $30 million might be the Lakers' only bargaining chip. Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, Los Angeles' three best supporting cast players, will have an average age of 35.67 come next season. Nash will turn 40 during that campaign. And while the team's cap space for the summer of 2014 looks good in theory—Nash is the only player under contract—teams like Houston already have the infrastructure in place for competing now and into the future.
Harden and Parsons are both under the age of 25. They're looking at upward progressions in their careers, rather than trying to grasp at one last championship. Houston also has tradeable assets like Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik should Howard come to play in the great state of Texas, and has done everything in its power to acquit itself.
With teams like the Golden State Warriors also giving chase, it's clear that the Lakers will have to be awfully convincing to keep Howard in town.
Josh Smith Meets With Pistons, No Offer Made
While Smith will probably wait until the Howard market clears to make his final decision—teams tend to throw around more money when desperation gets high—the enigmatic power forward is already on the meetings trail.
Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported Sunday night that Smith's first stop would be a meeting with Detroit Pistons brass. The report notes that Detroit planned on making Smith a lucrative four-year deal, though it's unclear what the definition of "lucrative" was.
However, it seems that offer never happened. Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears reported on the meeting on Monday, calling it "productive" but also noting that no formal contract was presented to Smith:
Hawks free agent F Josh Smith had a "productive meeting" with the Pistons for over five hours, a source told Yahoo!, but no offer was made.— Marc J. Spears (@SpearsNBAYahoo) July 1, 2013
The 27-year-old forward is expected to be back on the meetings grind early Monday, with the Hawks and Rockets looking to give their pitches, per Spears:
Hawks free agent forward Josh Smith is expected to meet with the Rockets and the Hawks on Monday, source said.— Marc J. Spears (@SpearsNBAYahoo) July 1, 2013
Depending on the veracity of recent reports, the Smith-Atlanta meeting could be particularly interesting. A source close to the situation told Wojnarowski that the Hawks had more interest in a sign-and-trade deal with their homegrown star than bringing him back to the fold. Smith has spent his nine-year career in Atlanta, which is also his hometown.
On one side of the coin, the Hawks merely looking to cobble assets for Smith is understandable. The relationship between the star and the franchise has been rocky at best over these past few months, and the sign-and-trade would allow both sides to walk away winners. Smith could theoretically get a five-year contract. The Hawks could land a young player to replace Smith, or draft picks.
With Atlanta expected to make its pitch to Howard—though it seems like a long-shot option—it will be interesting to track the team's motives this offseason. The team has a little less than $22.5 million on its books for next season and may simply choose to move into full-scale rebuilding mode rather than push for big names.
Houston, meanwhile, is simply doing its due diligence. Smith is the top secondary target on the market other than Howard, one who could fit nicely with the Rockets' up-tempo system. There isn't much to report on here, because Smith won't sign until after Howard comes to terms. A team like Houston could get awfully hand-wringy if Howard chooses to stay in Los Angeles.
Bucks Giving Up on Monta Ellis, Others Giving Chase?
The last we heard about the situation between Ellis and the Milwaukee Bucks, things weren't going so well. The score-first guard rejected a contract extension from Milwaukee, which would have paid him a total package of $36 million over the next three seasons, per Charles F. Garner of the Journal Sentinel.
Ellis subsequently opted out of the player option for next season in his contract, putting his relationship with the Bucks further on ice. They were expected to make him a top priority this offseason, with reports by Marc Stein of ESPN noting that Milwaukee initially had more interest in bringing back Ellis than Brandon Jennings, a restricted free agent.
It's funny how things change when you reject $36 million. According to ESPN's Marc Stein, it seems the Bucks have completely switched their train of thought.
"Looks like they're going to let him walk," a source told Stein.
That makes the Ellis market one to watch. If his representation thought that playing for $36 million over the next three years was a low-ball offer, then pure logic says they've heard Ellis can make more. Or Ellis will be looking for new representation in a couple months. There isn't much middle ground to be had here.
Luckily for Ellis' agent, Jeff Fried, the market seems to be pointing toward the former. CBS Sports' Ken Berger reported that five teams—the Knicks, Bulls, Spurs, Nuggets and Suns—have all expressed interest in the 27-year-old guard. Each team has a varying amount of cap room to use on Ellis, and New York seems like a long shot as a tax-paying team. The NBA's collective bargaining agreement prevents taxpayers $4 million or greater above the threshold, which the Knicks are, to acquire a player via sign-and-trade, per Larry Coon.
Each of the other teams provides a formidable option for Ellis. Milwaukee would likely be amenable to a sign-and-trade option just to get something back for its investment, all while allowing Ellis to get all the money he can.
Either way, I have a hard time seeing a team pushing the $12 million a year barrier for Ellis the way Milwaukee did.
Follow Tyler Conway on Twitter: