The NBA's 2014 free-agent class could be one of the most star-studded in recent memory. Or, it could be an epic dud.
How's that for a prediction?
Both extreme scenarios are still in play because we can't be sure how the first domino, more commonly known as LeBron James, is going to fall.
He has an early-termination option in his contract—something teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh also possess. There's a good chance he'll exercise that option in order to lock in as much long-term money as possible. But figuring out whether he'll stay in Miami (and how much or how little it'll cost the Heat to keep him) is tough to forecast.
If Miami goes on to win a third consecutive title, Wade's health holds up and the Big 3 agree to re-sign with the Heat at a discount, it could send a few ripples through the rest of the market. If things go awry and they split up, the entire NBA landscape could change in a much more profound way.
We know for certain that a bevy of unrestricted free agents like Kyle Lowry, Lance Stephenson and Luol Deng will be available. But guys like Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay and Tim Duncan all have player options at the end of the year. Who knows what'll happen with them?
Now that we've gone past the trade deadline, it's worth looking ahead at the league's next big flurry of player movement. Hopefully, that'll help clarify which players will test the market and which ones are most likely to stay put.
Let's straighten this mess out as best we can.
*All salary information courtesy of ShamSports.com
We might as well start off with the most difficult situation to predict.
As everyone knows, James, Wade and Bosh can all terminate their contracts this summer and enter unrestricted free agency.
We've heard conflicting information about the chances of James leaving the Heat for another team, with the King telling the media at an All-Star press conference he's "unrecruitable," per Ben Golliver of Blazersedge.com.
In a more thorough response, James said he couldn't see himself leaving Miami. But he wasn't exactly firm in his position. He told Steve Smith in an NBA TV interview, per The Associated Press (via USA Today):
At this point, I can't. We don't know what can happen from now to July, so what I've been able to do this whole season to this point is just worry about what's at hand and that's winning another championship. And hopefully at the end of this year I can put myself in a position where I can hold that Larry O'Brien Trophy up once again and then I will assess what I have to do with my future after that.
There's little doubt James will exercise his ETO, a move Wade and Bosh will probably also make. If LBJ decides to take his talents elsewhere, Bosh will probably look for a max offer from another team while Wade decides whether or not to stick with the only club he's ever known.
Obviously, the Big Three era would be over.
Here's the thing, though: Just because all three of Miami's stars are likely to terminate their deals early, it doesn't mean they're certain to leave. In fact, there's a good chance they'll exercise their options in order to restructure their current deals.
Why? Perhaps because they'd like to free up money so the Heat can sign another impact player who could prolong the dynasty. Or, maybe James and his pals would take less cash so Miami could re-sign a few of their own unrestricted free agents.
Every Heat player not named Norris Cole is going to enter unrestricted free agency this summer. So it might be necessary for the Big Three to terminate early in order to keep the current core together.
This situation could go any number of different directions, and we'll probably have to wait until after the Finals to get a real sense of what's going to happen.
My guess is we see James, Wade and Bosh come back at reduced rates in order to facilitate a talent infusion elsewhere on the roster. They know they've got a good thing going, and I suspect there'll be a conversation in which they remind one another they came together to win titles.
The Big Three will be unrestricted free agents. Just don't expect them to actually "hit the market."
Maybe that's wishful thinking, but there's a real chance for these three to solidify themselves as legends in Miami.
That'll be too appealing to pass up.
Prediction: The Big Three return to Miami.
We move from the haziest free-agent situation to the clearest. Carmelo Anthony is going to exercise his early-termination option.
Mark it down, lock it in and bet the farm. And if you know any other cliches indicating absolute certainty, use those, too.
'Melo has seen enough from the New York Knicks front office and ownership group to know he'd be a fool to turn down the chance to at least test his options. The Knicks haven't given him anything close to a respectable supporting cast as long as he's been in the Big Apple, and the top-down dysfunction has to be wearing on him.
Plus, Anthony is nearing his 30th birthday, and he'll want to sign the final big-money deal of his career this summer. Playing out his final season with the Knicks without a deal in place makes no sense logically or financially.
We know 'Melo is going to become a free agent, but it's harder to figure out where he'll end up. Small markets are out of the question, and only the Los Angeles Lakers and possibly the Chicago Bulls have the ability to clear enough cap space to sign him.
Steve Kyler of BasketballInsiders.com floated the notion of Miami's Big Three taking huge paycuts in order to facilitate an offer for Anthony:
The Miami Heat have just $2.038 million in guaranteed contracts next summer. All three of Miami’s major stars can opt out and create massive flexibility for Miami, not only in re-setting the luxury tax clock for the Heat to continue their run at championships, but making it possible for Miami to make a run at Anthony.
As exciting as that sounds, I suspect 'Melo will find the salary and role reduction necessary to join the Heat a bit too hard to swallow. He can simply re-sign a max deal with the Knicks, hope the organization manages to lure legitimate talent on the 2015 free-agent market and play out his days in the biggest market on Earth.
Maybe he'll surprise us, but it seems like 'Melo will also be staying put this summer.
Prediction: 'Melo returns to New York.
No slide focusing its attention on the like of Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani's contracts should ever be longer than necessary. Spending too many words on these two, the only other players with early-termination options in their contracts, might not rise to the level of cruel and unusual punishment—but it's close.
Neither STAT nor Bargs (a blockbuster buddy-cop duo if I've ever heard one) can possibly expect to field lucrative long-term offers this summer. Stoudemire's knees prevent him from playing consistent minutes, and his personal preferences prevent him from playing any defense.
Bargnani has suffered through injuries of his own lately, with a bad elbow costing him the balance of the 2013-14 season. Toss in his declining play and it's clear he won't be turning down the final year of his deal either.
Prediction: Stoudemire and Bargnani will both be back with the Knicks, and the free-agent market will be spared.
So far, we've discussed players who can technically become free agents but probably won't leave their current homes.
That changes now, as we've reached the unrestricted-free-agent portion of our predictions. To name a few, Deng, Marcin Gortat, Pau Gasol, Trevor Ariza and Stephenson are all heading into the summer of 2014 with no contractual restrictions whatsoever.
They'll be free to sell their services to the highest bidder.
Stephenson, in particular, is an interesting case. The Indiana Pacers swapped out Danny Granger for Evan Turner (whom we'll discuss in more detail momentarily) in part because they needed an insurance policy if Stephenson commanded a huge offer from another team. I'm guessing somebody will outbid Indiana for the two-way shooting guard.
Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion and Paul Pierce are also unrestricted this summer. It'd be hard to see the Diggler leaving the Dallas Mavericks, but the other two veterans figure to attract serious attention from championship contenders in need of solid play on the wings.
And don't forget Kyle Lowry, whom the Toronto Raptors refused to trade but will now have to pay handsomely to retain.
Lesser names are also set to hit the market, including: Ben Gordon, Ramon Sessions, Kirk Hinrich, Vince Carter, Thabo Sefolosha, Spencer Hawes, Jordan Hill, Gortat, Boris Diaw and Jimmer Fredette.
So, even if the biggest stars don't wind up testing the waters of free agency, there'll still be some useful options available. The class of 2014 might ultimately be more about quantity than quality.
Prediction: This is where the real action is. Deng, Gasol, Stephenson and Lowry are all going to be highly sought after. I'd expect all but Lowry to relocate.
Think of restricted free agents and free agents who aren't actually all that free.
There are four relatively big names in this group: Eric Bledsoe, Isaiah Thomas, Greg Monroe and Gordon Hayward. The next tier of potential restricted free agents includes Greivis Vasquez, Avery Bradley, Evan Turner, Jordan Crawford, Ed Davis and Patrick Patterson.
Both Kevin Seraphin and Trevor Booker of the Washington Wizards also fall into this category.
The best way to explain the rules for players of this ilk is to use an example. We'll take Hayward, just so Utah Jazz fans can feel included.
Assuming the Jazz sign Hayward to a qualifying offer by June 30, they'll retain the right to match any offer sheet he signs on the open market. Basically, they can keep him as long as they're willing to pay whatever the market dictates he's worth.
Of the four most enticing restricted free agents, only Monroe seems likely to change addresses. He's been the subject of trade rumors ever since the Detroit Pistons signed Josh Smith this past summer, and it'd be hard to imagine the Pistons matching the max offer Monroe's agent, David Falk, always manages to coax out of at least one team.
The Phoenix Suns would be crazy to let Bledsoe go, and I strongly doubt either Hayward or Thomas will leave their current teams.
Turner is an interesting case, as his fate depends entirely on what happens with Stephenson in Indiana. If the Pacers can keep Stephenson at a reasonable rate, Turner's gone. If things play out differently, Turner could go from being a rental to a long-term replacement.
Overall, we should probably expect to see most of these guys stay with their current teams. But there's some level of uncertainty surrounding all of them.
Prediction: Monroe headlines the group of "movers," joined by the likes of Crawford, Vasquez and Patterson. Bledsoe, Hayward and Thomas stay put.
Player options are essentially the opposite of early-termination options. The only difference is, exercising a player option means staying put, while exercising an ETO means getting out.
These can present tough decisions for certain kinds of players, especially those who probably shouldn't expect to command big multiyear deals as free agents. We can comfortably lump Zach Randolph into that group, as the Memphis Grizzlies forward will have to decide between collecting nearly $17 million next year and pursuing a lengthier contract on the market.
With declining skills and advancing age working against him, it's hard to see Randolph giving up that kind of money. Teams would still value his contributions, but he can always chase a three-year deal after collecting the massive salary in his final year with Memphis.
Rudy Gay is in the same position, only he's set to make over $19 million if he opts in to the last year of his contract. He's enjoyed a significant jump in productivity since being traded from the Raptors. But is he really willing to forgo that kind of money for the mere chance at a longer deal? The rise of analytics makes Gay pretty unpalatable to most of the league's sharper teams, so he's got a pretty big incentive to take the money he's owed before testing free agency.
The lesson: Memphis signed some pretty bad contracts a few years ago.
Andrei Kirilenko, Andray Blatche, Josh McRoberts, Nick Young and Channing Frye seem like good candidates to not exercise their options. All of them are currently underpaid relative to their productivity, which means they'll be looking to capitalize by signing multiyear deals.
They might all stay with their current teams, but you shouldn't expect them to do so at their current rates of pay.
Oh, and just as a final note, remember that Tim Duncan has a player option for $10 million in 2014-15. Technically, he can check out free agency if he wants to. But don't think for a second he'll ever play for another team. He'll either opt in or retire; there's no third option.
Prediction: AK-47, Blatche and Young definitely hit the market. Frye and McRoberts do the same but seem likeliest to re-sign with their current teams. Randolph and Gay opt in.
There's only one player worth mentioning whose team is the party with the option this summer.
Chandler Parsons, long regarded as the player with the NBA's most team-friendly contract, is at the mercy of the Houston Rockets. Despite consistently outperforming players with eight-figure annual salaries, Parsons will make just under $965,000 next season.
A borderline star making less than $1 million? Yeah, it's safe to assume the Rockets will be picking up that option.
Parsons is a young talent with a bright future and a massive payday in his future. He'll just have to wait until 2015 to cash in.
Let's all observe a moment of silence to honor the unjust struggle Mr. Parsons is facing.
Prediction: Parsons isn't going anywhere.