2014 NBA Free Agents: Best Fits for This Year's Class

Alec Nathan@@AlecBNathanFeatured ColumnistMarch 11, 2014

2014 NBA Free Agents: Best Fits for This Year's Class

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    Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    The summer of 2010 dramatically shifted the basketball landscape in unimaginable ways, and this year's class of free agents has the potential to do the same. 

    Whether it's the Miami Heat's Big Three possessing the ability to exercise early-termination options or unrestricted free agents like Lance Stephenson and Pau Gasol potentially bolting for new locales, there are a slew of intriguing players who could hit the open market come July. 

    In order to compile a list of potential players, the most noteworthy names from Bleacher Report Featured Columnist D.J. Foster's February preview were selected and subdivided into categories based on their impending free-agent designation (i.e. unrestricted, restricted, team option, player option, etc.), with two exceptions. 

    It's also crucial to mention that while this list discusses best fits, destinations were selected with realistic ones in mind. As a result, you'll notice that several players—generally restricted free agentsare projected to return to their current employers. 

The Veterans Who Aren't Going Anywhere

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    Tim Duncan, Power Forward, San Antonio Spurs

    Even if Tim Duncan does decline his $10 million player option for next season, you can bet that one of the most esteemed power forwards to ever play the game will be back in San Antonio for the 2014-15 campaign. 

    That is, if he hasn't retired. 

    ESPN's George Karl noted last month that he's heard "whispers" regarding Duncan's retirement at the end of the season, but for now we'll chalk that up as speculation. 

    Either way, the fact remains that Duncan's career is going to end in San Antonio, whether he opts out and re-signs, accepts his player option or retires. 

    Best Fit: San Antonio Spurs

    Dirk Nowitzki, Power Forward, Dallas Mavericks

    Much like Duncan in San Antonio, you can bank on Dirk Nowitzki staying put with the Dallas Mavericks. 

    He made that much clear in an interview with Sport1 earlier this year, according to Sportando, noting that he'd like to re-sign with Dallas for two or three more years when he hits unrestricted free agency in July. 

    Should Nowitzki ink a deal of that length, he'll be going on 18 or 19 years in the Association at the conclusion of the contract, so you shouldn't count on the German sharpshooter to keep lacing up his kicks through age 40. 

    "It's still fun, but I don't know if I'll play until 40," Nowitzki told ESPN Dallas' Tim MacMahon. "But when I'm 36, definitely sign one more deal, maybe two or three years."

    In the midst of his best shooting season since 2010-11, Nowitzki has reasserted his dominance as one of the game's premier marksman and is mere percentage points away from re-entrance into the exclusive 50-40-90 club. 

    Best Fit: Dallas Mavericks 

Restricted Free Agents of Note

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    Eric Bledsoe, Point Guard, Phoenix Suns

    Eric Bledsoe's play this season has been a revelation for the upstart Phoenix Suns. 

    Thanks to Bledsoe and his partner in crime, Goran Dragic, the Suns have a chance at pulling off the improbable and capturing a playoff spot in the hotly contested Western Conference. 

    The bad news for Phoenix? Bledsoe is set to hit restricted free agency come July, meaning that the Suns will likely need to fork over max dollars to re-sign their stud point man. 

    Fortunately, it looks like management in the desert is already set on committing to Bledsoe long-term, according to Lon Babby, the team's president of basketball operations in an interview with Arizona Spots 98.7 FM (via ArizonaSports.com): 

    'I think he will be a Phoenix Sun for a long time; that would be my expectation and my hope.'

    Even if he signs an offer sheet with another team, as would be his right as a restricted free agent.

    'Yes,' Babby said when asked if the team would match any other offer. 'If you ask me today, I would say absolutely we are going to match any offer, but I hope it doesn't come to that. I hope Eric has developed enough of a feeling, and my instincts are that he likes it here.'

    With Bledsoe and the Suns prospering in the first year of their relationship, it's only fair to pencil him in as the team's starting point guard of the future. 

    Best Fit: Phoenix Suns 

    Gordon Hayward, Shooting Guard, Utah Jazz

    Here's where the fun starts. 

    It's easy to envision Gordon Hayward back with the Utah Jazz next season, considering the team is slated to have just a shade over $31 million on the books when free agency begins, but he may be a more valuable commodity to a team like the Boston Celtics. 

    With the Celtics thin at shooting guard outside of Avery Bradley, Hayward feels like a logical option to come aboard and inject life into an offense that ranks 25th in offensive efficiency. 

    Reuniting with college coach Brad Stevens would be the impetus behind Hayward's move to Boston, and his ability to provide capable mid-range scoring (shooting better than 45 percent between 10 and 16 feet) makes him a sensible addition to the Celtics' evolving core. 

    Best Fit: Boston Celtics 

    Greg Monroe, Power Forward, Detroit Pistons

    Basketball Insiders' Alex Kennedy mentioned the Washington Wizards as a possible landing spot for Greg Monroe at the trade deadline or in free agency, but given the team's $13 million annual commitment over the next two seasons to Nene and Washington's desire to re-sign impending free agent Marcin Gortat, per ESPN's Marc Stein, such a high-priced acquisition would seem to be a pipe dream. 

    The most intriguing fit in my eyes?

    The Dallas Mavericks, who could use Monroe at center, particularly because Samuel Dalembert's contract isn't guaranteed for next season.

    With only $31 million on the books for 2014-15, the Mavericks could afford to throw significant money at Monroe, who's adept at playing either frontcourt position. In fact, according to Basketball-Reference.com, the Pistons' most productive lineup this season (in terms of net rating) has seen Monroe play center with Josh Smith at power forward. 

    Also consider that Rick Carlisle is a master of maximizing players' offensive potential, and Monroe feels like he could be a golden addition alongside Nowitzki. 

    Best Fit: Dallas Mavericks

    Isaiah Thomas, Point Guard, Sacramento Kings

    Isaiah Thomas may be the most underrated point guard in the game, but that doesn't mean he won't be in demand when the negotiating period for restricted free agents opens up this summer. 

    Although Thomas was once thought of as an ideal instant-offense generator off of the bench, he's quickly established himself as a starting-caliber floor general behind averages of 20.4 points and 6.3 assists while posting a player efficiency rating that ranks fourth among point guards, per ESPN

    Given the relative weakness of this year's point guard class and Sacramento's lack of depth behind Thomas, it would be prudent of the Kings to lock him up and ride with their diminutive stud and DeMarcus Cousins as the franchise's young cornerstones. 

    Best Fit: Sacramento Kings

Unrestricted Free Agents of Note

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    Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

    Luol Deng, Small Forward, Cleveland Cavaliers

    With the Suns teetering on the edge of a playoff spot, it's not hard to see that the one key component missing from Jeff Hornacek's starting lineup is an upgrade at the 3. 

    P.J. Tucker has established himself as a nice 3-and-D wing, but truthfully, he shouldn't be starting at small forward on a team with grand postseason aspirations. 

    Enter Deng, who's set to hit the open market this summer as an unrestricted free agent. 

    Although he's struggled during his time with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Deng is an All-Star-caliber talent who could help provide much-needed depth and stability on the perimeter. 

    The good news? Phoenix is slated to have loads of money to spend even if Channing Frye exercises his $6.8 million player option for next season. 

    With just under $34 million on the books for 2014-15, the Suns are primed to be big spenders and add a couple of key pieces in the summer ahead. 

    Best Fit: Phoenix Suns 

    Pau Gasol, Center, Los Angeles Lakers

    Speaking of the Suns, they could use some insurance at center. 

    Miles Plumlee's terrific season-opening stretch feels like a distant memory, and his production from an offensive standpoint has been pedestrian at best. Just look at his shot chart

    The answer to the Suns' problems could be Pau Gasol, whose diversified offensive portfolio and ability to draw defenders away from the basket (he's shooting 44.8 percent between 10 and 16 feet this season) would provide Hornacek's attack with a new dimension. 

    Suddenly owning a win-now mindset, the Suns could take another strong step forward and fully embrace the all-in mentality by bringing Gasol aboard to solidify their starting five. 

    Best Fit: Phoenix Suns 

    Kyle Lowry, Point Guard, Toronto Raptors

    Back around the trade deadline, NBA.com's David Aldridge reported that the Toronto Raptors were wary of signing Kyle Lowry to a long-term deal this summer, noting:

    ...the Raptors do not want to give Lowry a big-money contract this summer along the lines of what other point guards who've signed extensions recently: Denver's Ty Lawson (four years, $48 million), Golden State's Stephen Curry (four years, $44 million) or New Orleans' Jrue Holiday (four years, $41 million from Philadelphia).

    Aldridge went on to say that the Raptors are afraid of spotting Lowry big bucks based on an impressive one-year sample size, which further lends credence to the thought that the point guard may be looking for a new employer in a few months' time. 

    So which teams should be looking at Lowry? The New York Knicks are one of the few squads in desperate need of a two-way threat at point guard, but their salary-cap situation is comically bad. 

    How about the Los Angeles Lakers? They have a need in the backcourt, but Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding wrote earlier this month that the team isn't expected to make any major splashes this summer and could choose to ride out the remainder of Steve Nash's contract next season. 

    Which leads us back to the Raptors. With the supply of point guards greater than the demand, perhaps Masai Ujiri will be able to work his trademark magic and get his breakout floor general back at a discount. 

    Best Fit: Toronto Raptors

    Paul Pierce, Small Forward, Brooklyn Nets

    Is it possible that we could see Paul Pierce back in a Boston Celtics uniform after just one season with the Brooklyn Nets? 

    According to Peter May of SheridanHoops, there remains a possibility that the second-leading scorer in franchise history could make a return to the land of parquet floors. 

    “Why not? Play for them. Work for them. You never know,’’ Pierce said, according to May. He later was a bit more definitive when asked if he’d consider returning to play for the Celtics. “Without a doubt,’’ he told SheridanHoops.

    In the midst of one of the worst offensive seasons of his career, Pierce's return to Boston would be a nice way to go out, allowing him to extinguish memories of a forgettable stint in Brooklyn. 

    Best Fit: Boston Celtics 

    Lance Stephenson, Shooting Guard, Indiana Pacers

    Upon watching Stephenson thrive under the tutelage of Larry Bird and Frank Vogel, how could one not think the Indiana Pacers are the perfect fit for one of the league's brightest prospects?

    Making a shade over $1 million this season, Stephenson's production (14.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, five assists) has far exceeded his pay grade, and he's earned the right to be considered one of the most coveted free agents in this year's class. 

    But will he take a hometown discount to stay with the Pacers? 

    As things stand, Indiana is staring at roughly $66 million in committed salaries for next season, which would put them somewhere in the neighborhood of $8 million to $9 million below the projected tax line, reported CBA FAQ and ESPN's Larry Coon back in June. 

    It's going to be a tough decision for both Stephenson and the Pacers, but there's no denying that the league leader in triple-doubles would be doing wonders for his career by standing pat. 

    Best Fit: Indiana Pacers

Team and Player-Option Candidates

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    Rudy Gay, Small Forward, Sacramento Kings

    This one isn't hard to peg. 

    Rudy Gay has the ability to exercise a $19.3 million player option next season, and there's absolutely no reason to see why he would decline such a generous payday. 

    Ever since being acquired by the Kings, Gay's numbers have jumped, particularly in the efficiency department. After averaging 19.4 points on 38.8 percent shooting with the Toronto Raptors, Gay's scoring more than 20 points per game on an improved 49.8 percent shooting. 

    The more impressive number, though, is 21, which happens to be Gay's player efficiency rating since arriving in California's capital. That figure represents a near-seven-point jump from his days in Toronto. 

    Taking strides as one of several intriguing offensive options in the Kings' evolving offense, Gay would be wise to stay put for another year. 

    Best Fit: Sacramento Kings

    Chandler Parsons, Small Forward, Houston Rockets

    Chandler Parsons' financial standing with the Houston Rockets is a bit complicated. Fortunately, Bleacher Report's D.J. Foster recently provided a detailed breakdown of what the future could look like for the second-round gem and his current employer: 

    Houston has a team option that could be used to keep Parsons on that deal one more season, but if they do that, Parsons will become an unrestricted free agent for the 2015 offseason.

    What the Rockets may do instead is decline the team option on Parsons' deal, which would instead make him a restricted free agent this offseason, allowing the team to match any offer he receives.

    Given Foster's explanation, the latter option feels like the most sensible because the Rockets would be tempting fate if they exercised Parsons' $964,750 player option for next season.

    Instead, Daryl Morey and the Houston front office could give themselves some extra security by entering negotiations this summer and inking Parsons to a long-term deal. 

    Best Fit: Houston Rockets

    Zach Randolph, Power Forward, Memphis Grizzlies

    Like Gay, Zach Randolph has a sizable player option that's set to fall into his lap at season's end.

    Specifically, Randolph will be able to earn $16.9 million in the final year of his contract with the Memphis Grizzlies if he so chooses. 

    Right now, exercising said option would appear to be in Randolph's best interest, as he'll be able to maintain his status as the Grizzlies' highest-paid player while prospering in a system that's tailor-made to his strengths. However, don't discount the possibility that the Grizzlies could maneuver their way out of that player option by locking up Randolph long term on a more team-friendly deal. 

    Since arriving in Memphis in 2009-10, Randolph hasn't averaged less than a double-double during a season in which he's played more than 70 games (he averaged 11.6 points and eight rebounds in 28 games during the 2011-12 campaign). 

    And guess what? He's on track to do so again with averages of 17.1 points and 10.3 rebounds that accompany a career-best mark of 2.5 assists a night. 

    Best Fit: Memphis Grizzlies

The Big Three

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    Free-Agent Type: Early-Termination Option

    LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are all proud owners of early-termination options that kick in at season's end, but it would be a sizable shock to see any of member of Miami's trinity depart South Beach. 

    However, that doesn't mean that James, Wade or Bosh won't opt out of their current deals in order to garner heftier paydays. 

    ESPN's Ethan Sherwood Strauss explained the logic behind James' potential decision recently, noting, "Opting out means LeBron can get a five-year deal with max money. I'm not sure what advantage opting in would offer. I do expect LeBron to re-sign with Miami after entering free agency, though." 

    Aside from James, Bosh is the other candidate who would seem to benefit from opting out. Not only could he earn a raise, but as ESPN's Israel Gutierrez notes, Bosh could help restructure the Heat's books in a positive way: "If LeBron re-signs, it'll require some manipulation of contracts. If it means Bosh making a minor short-term sacrifice for the long-term benefit, he'll do it."

    As for Wade, he'll be due a shade over $21.6 million should he choose to opt into his deal. That money will be especially hard to pass up, considering the state of his knees, but opting out could provide the 10-time All-Star with an avenue to securing one final long-term commitment. 

    Best Fit: Miami Heat

Carmelo Anthony, Small Forward, New York Knicks

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    Free-Agent Type: Early-termination option

    It's common knowledge at this stage in the game that Carmelo Anthony is the big name who's most likely to decline his player option for next season and test the open market. 

    According to ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard, Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah has already started pitching Anthony on why it would be beneficial to sign with Tom Thibodeau's squad. 

    However, we shouldn't jump the gun. Chicago's an attractive landing spot, thanks to the presence of Noah, Thibodeau and Derrick Rose on the team, but we know there are more factors at play than competing for a title in the short term. 

    According to Broussard, Anthony's decision will also be influenced by financial considerations, which makes the New York Knicks the front-runner at this point in time. 

    Remember, Anthony would be sacrificing a fifth year of contractual security and $30 million if he bolted for another franchise, which is why USA Today's Sam Amick reports that those in Anthony's corner possibly leaked specifics of the meeting in order to give the league's second-leading scorer a bit more negotiating leverage. 

    With the Bulls' salary-cap situation not conducive to taking on another max-level player, Anthony's best—and most logical—fit is with the Knicks. 

    Best Fit: New York Knicks

    All statistics current as of Monday, March 10 and are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless noted otherwise. 

    All salary information courtesy of ShamSports.com unless noted otherwise.