Predicting Final Landing Spots for Top 10 2014 NBA Free Agents

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 26, 2013

Predicting Final Landing Spots for Top 10 2014 NBA Free Agents

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    It's never too early to start planning for the future.

    In a league where some teams are contemplating their 2015 moves in the middle of November 2013, looking ahead to the 2014 free-agent class is simply keeping with the times.

    Unlike some years, though, peering into this crystal ball is a worthwhile exercise. The influx of talent coming by way of the fully loaded 2014 draft class is massive.

    But even the transcendent superstars of tomorrow can't match the immediate returns of the established stars that could be on the move this summer.

    This free-agent crop is both top-heavy and deep. With players like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony possibly on the move, swinging for the fences will be common practice. Bidding wars will pepper the NBA landscape as hoops analysts do their best auctioneer impressions.

    Teams have money to spend and no shortage of potential long-term investments to consider. But which of the league's top-10 biggest free-agent fish might actually be on the move? More importantly, which franchises are in the best position to reel in these free-agent targets?

     

    *Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

10. Evan Turner, SF, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Type: Restricted Free Agent

    Notable Per-Game Numbers: 21.7 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 3.5 APG, 1.0 SPG, 16.0 PER

    2014-15 Destination: Cleveland Cavaliers

     

    It's a familiar tale in the world of professional sports. A player, disappointing in seasons past, rises to the occasion and forges a career stat line during a contract year.

    Evan Turner is no exception to the rule. Despite playing with a better-than-advertised supporting cast in Philly—strange but true—the former No. 2 overall pick has delivered career-bests in points, rebounds, steals and field-goal percentage (45.6).

    But his divorce with this organization appeared finalized before the 2013-14 season started. "We're going in a different direction," the swingman told Christopher A. Vito of the Delaware County Daily Times, sounding more than ready for a change of scenery.

    That change could happen any time between now and the trade deadline, but Turner's permanent home might be in LeBron James' old stomping grounds. A capable ball-handler and deft slasher, the 6'7" Turner could provide the added defensive distractions needed to get Kyrie Irving (career-worst 41.0 field-goal percentage this year) back on track.

    Cleveland will likely aim higher than Turner initially, but the versatile wing could bring some secondary scoring without chewing up too much of the team's financial flexibility.

9. Gordon Hayward, SG, Utah Jazz

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Type: Restricted Free Agent

    Notable Per-Game Numbers: 16.8 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 5.1 APG, 1.4 SPG, 14.9 PER

    2014-15 Destination: Charlotte Bobcats

     

    According to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, Gordon Hayward was seeking a four-year deal in the "$50-million plus range" from the Utah Jazz this summer. Despite lengthy contract talks, the two sides never reached an agreement.

    But it's impossible to call this breakdown a failure. Both sides did the right thing.

    Utah was understandably wary about investing that much coin before Hayward had the chance to prove he was worthy of it. The former Butler star wasn't as green as some of the players on the roster, but even his best years were played in the shadows of Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson.

    Hayward wasn't wrong for seeking that kind of commitment, either. Barring a disastrous 2013-14 campaign, his camp knows that someone will be willing to approach those figures next summer.

    There are some rumblings of a possible reunion with his college coach Brad Stevens, now the coach with the Boston Celtics, but Boston has more immediate needs to address.

    If Boston balks at the price tag, don't be surprised if the Bobcats swoop in with the kind of money Hayward's camp is seeking. Charlotte knows it has to overpay to add talent (see: Al Jefferson's $41 million contract), and Hayward could be the ideal wing complement for scoring guard Kemba Walker and the post-scoring Jefferson.

8. Luol Deng, SF, Chicago Bulls

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    Alexandre Loureiro/Getty Images

    Type: Unrestricted Free Agent

    Notable Per-Game Numbers: 16.8 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.2 SPG, 15.9 PER

    2014-15 Destination: Philadelphia 76ers

     

    It's a cruel twist of fate for the Chicago Bulls. For the second straight season, Derrick Rose has been shut down by a knee surgery.

    Chicago's championship hopes left the second that the former MVP made his exit. The ramifications of his absence could prove damning for free-agent-to-be Luol Deng.

    The 10-year veteran, whose NBA service time has been confined to the Windy City, isn't eager to fill out any change of address forms. "I would love to play my whole career here," he told ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard.

    But this decision isn't entirely up to him. As B/R's Howard Beck noted, Chicago may use this injury as an excuse to hit the reset button. A new emphasis on youth would not bode well for the 28-year-old Deng's time in Chicago.

    If he's forced to look for a new NBA home, the two-way contributor could find a perfect fit in Philly. The 76ers have the funds to search for a top-flight free agent, but convincing those prime targets of the franchise's championship potential would be a different kind of challenge.

    Deng, though, might see the light at the end of the tunnel.

    He could help transform the Sixers into a defensive power alongside rookies Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel; plus he's young enough to reap the benefits of the additional pieces (namely two potential lottery picks) headed to Philly next summer.

7. Greg Monroe, PF/C, Detroit Pistons

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    Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

    Type: Restricted Free Agent

    Notable Per-Game Numbers: 15.4 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.3 SPG, 18.8 PER

    2014-15 Destination: Boston Celtics

     

    It might sound like a PETA-approved campaign slogan, but really it's a simple plea to the basketball gods: Let the Moose loose.

    The fourth-year big man has forcibly regressed in his contract year. Thanks in no small part to the offseason arrivals of Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, Greg Monroe has seen his role in Detroit diminished. His offensive chances (11.7 field-goal attempts per game, 20.5 percent usage rate) haven't been this few and far between since his rookie season of 2010-11.

    Delaying his contract decision until next summer could have bought Monroe a badly needed ticket out of Motown.

    Losing shots on an improved roster is one thing. But seeing those attempts wasted by unabashed gunners like Jennings (15.3 shots per game, 37.2 percent shooting) and Smith (13.3, 40.3) is an entirely different pill to swallow.

    Remember Boston's "immediate needs" addressed on the Hayward slide? Monroe's offensive versatility answers plenty of them. He can't bring rim protection, but his scoring touch would scratch one of Boston's biggest itches. Even though he's been marginalized in the Motor City, Monroe's still putting up more points than anyone on the Celtics roster.

6. Dirk Nowitzki, PF, Dallas Mavericks

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    Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Spor

    Type: Unrestricted Free Agent

    Notable Per-Game Numbers: 20.7 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.1 SPG, 22.6 PER

    2014-15 Destination: Dallas Mavericks

     

    This should be a free-agent pursuit for the ages. Players like Dirk Nowitzki don't come around often.

    With his trademark fadeaway jumper as reliable as it's ever been, the 35-year-old makes you wonder if he actually has what it takes to defeat Father Time. He's already in place to make another run at a 50-40-90 season (.471/.407/.940), and his per-36-minute production (23.0 points) actually outpaces his career average (22.6).

    Although he insists he's focused solely on this season, the 7-footer said he's already planning on entering the free-agent market next summer.

    "I'm not going to extend, obviously," he said, via NBA.com's Jeff Caplan. "I want to play the season out and then we can talk about the summer."

    So why, then, aren't teams already planning Nowitzki's recruitment pitches? Because the idea of the future Hall of Famer playing anywhere but Dallas is just as foreign to executives as it is to fans.

    When the big man says he wants to retire with the Mavericks, it's kind of hard to argue against it.

5. Chris Bosh, PF/C, Miami Heat

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    Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    Type: Early Termination Option

    Notable Per-Game Numbers: 15.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.3 BPG, 20.6 PER

    2014-15 Destination: Miami Heat

     

    The outside world doesn't have to understand it. The Miami Heat know how important Chris Bosh is to their success, and the big man appreciates just how sweet he has it in South Beach.

    Fans want to focus on his declining production—his career averages have been falling ever since he landed in Miami in 2010—even as Miami's players keep pointing to the only real figure that matters in their minds, championships.

    Yes, that is championships with an "s." Not one, not two, not three...remember?

    But what about those other numbers? Because clearly Bosh enjoyed starring on some bad Toronto Raptors teams, right? And he's obviously not having any fun in Miami.

    Bosh gets it, even if everyone seems to have a hard time seeing what he can.

    He's not leaving South Beach unless the team chooses to get rid of him.

    Maybe it is getting harder to remember him as a 22-point, 10-rebound machine. But I bet you're not having any problems coming up with the number of championship rings that he's wearing.

4. Eric Bledsoe, PG, Phoenix Suns

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    Barry Gossage/Getty Images

    Type: Restricted Free Agent

    Notable Per-Game Numbers: 20.4 PPG, 6.8 APG, 4.6 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 23.7 PER 

    2014-15 Destination: Phoenix Suns

     

    Is it safe to start calling Chris Paul the Hakeem Olajuwon of point guard tutors? Clearly CP3 shared some delectable gems with Eric Bledsoe before "mini-LeBron" swapped his LA home for a place in the desert this summer.

    A dramatically expanded offensive role has only dramatically improved Bledsoe's stat sheet. Despite still lacking a consistent three-point stroke (29.4 percent on the season), his elite-level combo of strength and quickness has helped him shoot 50 percent this year.

    Defensively, he's a hound both on the floor and above the rim.

    Obviously the Phoenix Suns took a gamble by not extending the 6'1" guard before the season. He's been adding digits to his paycheck ever since he stepped inside the US Airways Center's home locker room.

    Some team is going to put an astronomical figure in Bledsoe's account, and that team will be the Phoenix Suns.

    "I think he's probably better than we anticipated," first-year Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said, via Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee.

    With gobs of cap space and the right to match any offer made to Bledsoe, the Suns won't let this rising star get away.

3. Dwyane Wade, SG, Miami Heat

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    Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    Type: Early Termination Option

    Notable Per-Game Numbers: 18.0 PPG, 5.7 APG, 4.6 RPG, 2.1 SPG, 21.2 PER

    2014-15 Destination: Miami Heat

     

    On the surface, Dwyane Wade's future appears to be tied to those of his superstar teammates Chris Bosh and LeBron James.

    Even if that trio disbanded, though, it seems unlikely that the 31-year-old would follow them out the door.

    Best-case scenario is obviously maintaining status quo. Wade has a perfect situation on his hands.

    While so many run to Florida to retire, Wade's prolonging his playing career in the Sunshine State. He doesn't have to be the first or second option on offense, and he doesn't have to tackle the toughest defensive assignment. When his nagging knee pain crops up, he knows he can still watch the best team in the league from his sideline perch.

    Wade, obviously, hopes this will never change. But there's another appeal to staying in Miami regardless of his teammates' decisions—the chance to play an entire career with the same franchise.

    "Kobe [Bryant] will always be forever looked at as a Laker and loved so much," Wade said, via Shandel Richardson of the Sun Sentinel. "That's something that I strived for, was to hopefully become one of those guys."

    The 11-year veteran is a lot closer to being "one of those guys" than even he can imagine.

2. Carmelo Anthony, SF/PF, New York Knicks

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    Allen Einstein/Getty Images

    Type: Early Termination Option

    Notable Per-Game Numbers: 26.5 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 2.8 APG, 1.2 SPG, 22.6 PER

    2014-15 Destination: Los Angeles Lakers

     

    If anyone understands the fact that the grass isn't always greener on the other side, it's Carmelo Anthony. Whatever the reigning scoring champion thought he would find with the New York Knicks has never come to fruition.

    Anthony's headed to the 2014 free-agent waters. He's said as much himself.

    And while simply testing free agency doesn't guarantee he'll leave New York, what could possibly convince him to stick around?

    The Knicks have been a disaster. Their minus-6.5 net rating (26th overall) suggests there's nothing fluky at all about the team's atrocious 3-10 start. Frankly as bad as this team has been, it might be even worse than its record.

    Anthony would have to sacrifice an extra year and roughly $33 million to leave New York. But just as Dwight Howard showed us this summer, sometimes it's best to leave the money and run.

    Bryant's contract extension tied up some of LA's available cap space, but the Lakers could free up enough room to throw max money at Anthony. Besides, Melo thinks his buddy Bryant was worth every penny and then some.

    "He's Kobe, man . . . I'd at least give him 40 [million] a year," he said, via Newsday's Al Iannazzone.

    Anthony desperately needs scoring help. If the Mamba has enough bite after his recovery from a torn Achilles, Melo could easily imagine he's found his championship running mate.

1. LeBron James, SF/PF, Miami Heat

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Type: Early Termination Option

    Notable Per-Game Numbers: 26.0 PPG, 6.6 APG, 5.7 RPG, 0.9 SPG, 30.6 PER

    2014-15 Destination: Miami Heat

     

    The red carpet's already being rolled out. When the best player on the planet hits free agency, teams rightfully take notice.

    Everything you saw in LeBron James' last free-agent venture—minus another ill-advised TV special—can make a return appearance. Lavish presentations, star-laden pitches, they're all free game when the King's services go up for auction.

    That's all assuming, of course, that he even makes it to free agency.

    He told ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard he has "absolutely no idea" what his future holds, but added "I would love to spend the rest of my career in Miami with this great team and great organization."

    James' wife, Savannah, has a juice bar opening in Miami next month. The four-time MVP and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra have reportedly grown "more intertwined than they've ever been," via Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski.

    Wade's a shadow of his former self, only this shadow is shooting 50.7 percent from the field. Bosh hasn't been the same since leaving Toronto, because the Raptors' Bosh didn't shoot 47.8 percent beyond the arc or 54.3 percent inside it.

    James will have a hard enough time finding a superstar collection to match what he has in Miami. Finding that talent on a team that a) has cap space and b) plays so unselfishly will be next to impossible.

    It's OK for other teams to dream about seeing James in their future. As long as they recognize that these are nothing more than fantasies, of course.