2014 NBA Free Agency: An Early Primer on Next Year's Class
2014 is going to be a big year in the NBA.
Not only will a new (or possible three-peating) champion be crowned, but a stacked draft class will be entering the NBA, and a loaded free-agent pool will be hitting the open market. Yes, it's a group of free agents that could include standouts like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, among many others.
You're going to hear a lot about this latter group of players over the next calendar year, so let's get things jump-started with a primer. I'll be going over each position for you, as well as highlighting a few intriguing storylines and things to keep in mind as you evaluate the players who could be joining your favorite team next summer.
The main thing that won't be covered here is finances.
But fear not! You can check out a full analysis of every team's financial health by clicking here, so don't hesitate to use it as an accompanying guide.
Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference. You can find a full list of 2014 free agents here.
Kyle Lowry Is the Point Guard Teams Will Target
The 2014 class of point guards won't blow anyone away, but there is a potential star who will hit the open market.
Kyle Lowry hasn't been able to avoid injuries long enough to truly assert himself as an elite floor general, but he's shown signs of greatness in the past.
He averaged "only" 11.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game during his first season with the Toronto Raptors, and his first three games (the only while fully healthy) showed off what he could do at his peak. During that time, Lowry put up 23.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 7.0 assists per contest while shooting 57.5 percent from the field.
That's an unsustainable level of production, but it still shows why he'll get so much attention next offseason. The fact that no other player at his position comes close to matching his level of production only helps the case.
There are three more starting-caliber floor generals who could gain some steam: Mario Chalmers, Greivis Vasquez and Isaiah Thomas. The last two are restricted free agents, and there's no telling what the new Sacramento management will choose to do with that roster. Eric Bledsoe is a restricted free agent as well, but there's no chance the Phoenix Suns let him walk immediately after trading for his services.
Chalmers has proven that he can start on a championship squad, while Vasquez and Thomas have extremely different calling cards. Passing is the name of the game for the Maryland product, while his shorter counterpart from Washington is all about filling up the scoring column.
None of them are on the same level as the more versatile Lowry, but they aren't that far behind.
Other free-agent point guards worth mentioning include Nate Robinson (if the Denver Nuggets turn down his team option for some inexplicable reason), Shaun Livingston and Ramon Sessions, none of whom will start at this stage of their careers.
Kobe Bryant Is Next Year's Chris Paul
During the summer of 2013, Chris Paul was the top unrestricted free agent on the market but only for a brief period of time before he re-signed with the Los Angeles Clippers.
There were a number of teams who had worked up hope, convincing themselves that they somehow had a chance of landing the league's best point guard. Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and Atlanta Hawks, we're looking at you.
However, it was faulty to assume that Paul would ever leave L.A. He was almost assured of remaining in a Clippers uniform, and now we're set to see him continue playing home games in the Staples Center for a long time.
His story almost directly parallels what will happen with Kobe Bryant. Even the city and stadium in question are staying the same, although the team is changing from the Clippers to the Lakers.
Kobe is technically an unrestricted free agent since his massive contract with the Purple and Gold expires at the conclusion of the 2013-14 campaign. But you're kidding yourself if you think Kobe would play basketball for any other team. He'd retire before joining a different squad, or at least that's the impression he's left over the years.
Paul Pierce has taught me never to take that completely for granted.
It won't be far into the next summer before the Mamba has inked a deal that extends his time with the franchise he's always played for.
Don't make the mistake of seeing Kobe's name in the free-agency pool and getting excited about the prospect of him joining your favorite team. Unless you support the Lakers, of course.
Good Luck Finding a Shooting Guard
If a team is looking for a legitimate starting shooting guard (other than the Los Angeles Lakers and Kobe Bryant), then that team is in trouble and may be best served waiting until the ensuing offseason, trying to make a trade or just drafting a 2-guard.
There isn't much to choose from in the upcoming free-agent pool.
If the Indiana Pacers choose not to bring back Lance Stephenson or the Boston Celtics let Avery Bradley go, those players will ascend to the top of the positional rankings. However, they're both restricted free agents who factor into the current and future plans of their organizations rather heavily.
I could see the Pacers letting Stephenson walk and paying to keep Paul George and Danny Granger instead, but that still seems rather unlikely, especially after the defense that the young 2-guard played against LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Without those two boosting the ranks, Brandon Rush is the class of the position. That should say a lot, as Rush is an often-forgotten-about swingman who missed almost all of last season with a torn ACL. Few remember that he was looking like an elite "three-and-D" player before he got hurt.
Rush is 28 years old, so while he doesn't have much elite potential left, he's still got plenty of quality years in the tank. Throwing out last season—which doesn't count because he played only two games—Rush's three-point percentage has increased every year, jumping to 45.2 percent during the 2011-12 campaign.
Now that he's with the Utah Jazz, Rush should have even more opportunities to prove his worth once he gets back to full strength. He could still be a viable starter at the 2 for the right team.
Other notable free agents include Ben Gordon (just about washed up), Evan Turner (a perennial disappointment), Rodney Stuckey (you can do better), Ray Allen (already starting to decline and will have another year of wear and tear) and Jason Richardson (has a player option and is also old/coming off an injury).
The ranks are thin at shooting guard.
Luol Deng Is the Top Target at Small Forward
If there's one position full of quality players in the next free-agency class, it's small forward.
And even with five other quality options and a veteran role player available, Luol Deng is at the top of the heap.
Although the Chicago Bulls small forward wasn't able to lead his team to a championship while Derrick Rose rehabbed his torn ACL, he still proved that he was a premier second option. Deng can play a ton of minutes (maybe too many, if you ask me) and still remain effective on both ends of the court.
He's a great three-point option, but his true speciality is defense, where he can shut down the opponent's best wing player on a consistent basis. According to Kelly Scaletta's Weighted Averaged Metrics with Scouting (WAMS) ratings, Deng was the sixth-best defensive 3 in the NBA, trailing only Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Andre Iguodala and Paul George.
That said, there are challengers to Deng's perch, even if he's a great player.
Rudy Gay is one of the biggest threats to the crown, although he has a player option and could elect to remain the go-to guy for the Toronto Raptors rather than play second fiddle for a different team. How he handles his first full season north of the border will have a big impact on his impending free agency.
Paul Pierce could take the cake if he decides to play a few more seasons (more on him later). Danny Granger could as well if he regains his old form after missing basically an entire season and losing his job as the offensive leader of the Indiana Pacers to Paul George.
Speaking of George, he's technically the top small forward available (assuming you consider him a 3), but there's less than a snowball's chance in hell that the Indiana Pacers let him walk rather than match any offer sheet he signs. In fact, there's probably a snowball's chance in the middle of the sun.
The other top small forwards would all be quality contributors on any contending team, but none of them should carry the load at this stage of their veteran careers. Shawn Marion, Vince Carter, Andrei Kirilenko (player option) and Shane Battier all fall into this category.
Gordon Hayward, a restricted free agent who the Utah Jazz will presumably keep, is the wild card. He could break out and become ultra-valuable, or he could continue looking like a mid-to-low-level starter.
Could the Best Power Forwards Change Teams?
The next offseason's crop of power forwards is a strange one.
There are four players in a class of their own, but it's likely none of them could change teams. And after that, there's a massive drop-off in talent.
Pau had a great end to the season, posting triple-doubles and looking like an MVP-caliber player in Kobe Bryant's absence, and it at least partially negated the lackluster beginning to his 2012-13 campaign. As for Dirk, he missed the beginning of the season as he recovered from the first surgery of his career, and he was fantastic once he returned. In fact, he dispelled any notions of a premature decline.
However, both players are aging and at the point in their careers where they would be justified if they decided to spurn their long-time teams for a shot at more jewelry. Neither the Los Angeles Lakers nor the Dallas Mavericks are guaranteed to be title contenders in 2014-15, and greener pastures certainly exist for the two big men.
Zach Randolph is another big name, but he's not even guaranteed to become a true free agent. The Memphis Grizzlies' standout back-to-the-basket scorer has a player option, and he'd be turning down $16.5 million in order to hit the open market.
Now that Z-Bo is 32 years old and has little to no chance of securing that much money in a new contract, it seems unlikely that he'd leave the Grizz, no matter how early in the postseason they get knocked out.
The last of the four elite power forwards is Derrick Favors, who hasn't exactly proven that he belongs in this category quite yet. But with Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson both out of the way, the starting job belongs to this Georgia Tech product, and he'll be looking to make a name for himself before he becomes a free agent.
Well, a restricted one.
Quality Crop of Centers, Even If There's Little Star Power
Even if you take out all the players who likely won't be changing teams, the center class in 2014 is still a pretty strong one.
That eliminates Tim Duncan (player option and would retire before leaving the San Antonio Spurs, Greg Monroe and DeMarcus Cousins (both restricted free agents who mean a lot to their teams) and Andray Blatche (doubtful that he turns down a $1.4 million player option to leave the team that gave him a chance). Blatche is the most iffy of those, but he's not a player capable of challenging the true No. 1 center in free agency.
Andrew Bogut is that top option.
While the Aussie is no longer perceived as one of the stars at his position thanks to a resume that's just littered with injuries, he's a dominant defender and capable offensive player with the ability to be a difference-maker on a top-tier team. Bogut should get a chance to prove that with the upgraded Golden State Warriors before hitting the market.
Behind him are plenty of rotation bigs, though no one but Marcin Gortat truly deserves a starting job on an upper-level squad. Emeka Okafor and Chris Kaman are in this category, as are Jason Smith, Jordan Hill, Jermaine O'Neal and Greg Stiemsma.
There's also a wild card at the position.
No one knows what exactly to make of Greg Oden.
The Miami Heat took a gamble on him but only signed the injury-plagued Ohio State product to a one-year deal. Knee problems have limited him to just 82 games since he was drafted one spot ahead of Kevin Durant, but now he's ready to hit reboot on his career.
If Oden stays healthy and effective, he'll get a big contract during the next offseason. But if he gets hurt again, then his career may well be over.
Just as is the case with Oden's performance during the upcoming 2013-14 campaign, you're lying if you claim to know what's going to happen with the former Buckeye when he hits the market again.
Don't Expect the Big Restricted Free Agents Like Paul George to Change Teams
As you might have noticed, I've been rather cynical about the prospects of top-tier restricted free agents leaving their teams.
And there are a lot of them.
Paul George is the biggest name, and it would be absolutely foolish for the Indiana Pacers not to exercise their right of first refusal and match any offer sheet that the dynamic swingman signs. Last year's breakout star might eventually leave behind the team that drafted him but not for many more seasons.
The same can be said about the Sacramento Kings and DeMarcus Cousins, Boston Celtics and Avery Bradley, Detroit Pistons and Greg Monroe, Phoenix Suns and Eric Bledsoe and Utah Jazz and Derrick Favors, among others.
The names of those aforementioned players give the illusion that this free-agent class is a bit stronger than it actually is, because none of those guys are realistically going to change teams.
Just remember to temper your expectations there.
It's All About Early Termination Options
If you haven't heard the phrase "early termination option," you better get used to seeing it. That—or the acronym ETO—will pop up quite often during the next year. Essentially, it functions in the same manner as a player option, but it's allowed to be used at the end of the fourth season of a five-year contract.
There are a few more nuances, but those aren't particularly relevant here. The main point is that there are a number of stars who aren't technically free agents but could hit the market next summer anyway.
I haven't included any of them in the previous slides about each individual position, but they'd all become highly coveted players at their respective spots in the lineup if they chose to opt out. Players with ETOs include: Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Andrea Bargnani and Amar'e Stoudemire.
Oh, and LeBron James.
You might have heard a bit about the MVP's upcoming bout with free agency already. He technically hasn't opted out of his contract with the Miami Heat, but an all-out war between the Los Angeles Lakers, Cleveland Cavaliers and Heat seems to be expected. Other teams with cap space would certainly submit bids for his services as well.
If even a handful of these players do choose to opt out, the landscape changes.
The Paul Pierce Dilemma
One of the most intriguing stories to follow next summer will center around Paul Pierce.
The Truth has spent his entire career with the Boston Celtics, but a surprising summer trade sent him to the Brooklyn Nets. Now he and Kevin Garnett will team up with Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez in an attempt to bring a championship banner to the Barclays Center.
Once the season is over—regardless of whether or not the banner is hung—Pierce will hit the open market.
Will he re-sign with the Nets? Will he rejoin the Boston Celtics and attempt to finish his career where he started it, just with a diminished salary and role? Will he try to join another contender and seek one more ring?
Will he just retire?
Pierce will be 36 years old at the conclusion of the 2013-14 season, and he'll turn 37 shortly before the start of the ensuing campaign. He's been in the NBA since 1998 and has already racked up more games played than all but 56 players in league history. By the end of the year, he'll move up to No. 34 on the career games-played leaderboard, assuming that he (and the other active players ahead of him) stays healthy.
None of these decisions would surprise me at this point. I've come to associate Pierce with Celtics green, and that won't change, not even after a full season of him wearing black and white. And yet, he's not wearing that color anymore.
I have no clue what will happen with Pierce next summer, but I can't wait to find out.