The One 2014 Free Agent Each NBA Team Should Already Be Eyeing
The NBA's 2014 free-agent class has the potential to reshape the foundation of the league for years to come.
If LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony all opt out of their contracts, they'll join a star-studded market that will include Dirk Nowitzki, Lance Stephenson, Eric Bledsoe, Greg Monroe and Gordon Hayward, among others.
Teams with gobs of projected cap space, such as the Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and Charlotte Bobcats, should be licking their chops accordingly. It's not every year that multiple seven-time All-Stars hit the market all at once.
Here, with projected salary-cap space, team needs, potential fit and draft considerations in mind, let's take a look at one 2014 free agent that each NBA team should already be keeping an eye on. This does not include each team's own free agents and only includes each player one time.
Note: Cap-space estimations are based on a projected 2014-15 salary cap of $62.9 million, per ESPN.com's Larry Coon, and a projected luxury-tax line of $76.7 million. The actual cap figure and luxury-tax line will not be set until July 10.
Atlanta Hawks: Gordon Hayward, SG/SF
Since losing starting center Al Horford to a season-ending pectoral tear in late December, the Atlanta Hawks offense has taken a nosedive.
Over their 51 games without Horford, the Hawks are averaging 102.4 points per 100 possessions, tied for 22nd in the league with the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers. Before Horford went down, Atlanta scored 104.7 points per 100 possessions, good for 10th in the league.
The Hawks' offensive struggles are not for lack of trying. Atlanta is tied for fourth in the league in made three-pointers (742) and ranks second in three-point attempts (2,040). Kyle Korver has the best long-range shooting percentage of any player with at least 100 three-point attempts, while eight other Hawks have drilled at least 50 threes.
With Atlanta all-in on the long ball, the squad should target Utah Jazz swingman Gordon Hayward this summer. He's a restricted free agent, so Utah can match whatever the Hawks offer, but they're projected to have upward of $15 million in cap space (before factoring in rookie salaries).
Hayward, a career 37 percent shooter from deep, would give Atlanta a legitimate offensive weapon capable of creating his own shot on the wing. After struggling with the pressure of being Utah's No. 1 offensive option this season, Hayward could thrive on a team where defenses can't key in on him (thanks to the presence of Horford and Paul Millsap).
Key Free Agent to Retain: Mike James, SF (RFA)
Boston Celtics: Jodie Meeks, SG
With the help of three first-round picks from the Brooklyn Nets over the next half-decade, the Boston Celtics are rebuilding their team from the ground up.
Point guard Rajon Rondo can become a free agent following the 2014-15 season, while 2-guard Avery Bradley will hit the open market this summer. Jeff Green, Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk appear to be the only three players with a future in Boston guaranteed past next year.
Whichever route Boston goes with its likely top-five pick in June, one thing is clear: The Celtics badly need shooters. They rank 28th this year in three-point shooting percentage (.333) ahead of only Detroit and Philadelphia.
Enter Jodie Meeks, the Los Angeles Lakers sniper who earned himself a healthy payday this year thanks to Kobe Bryant's prolonged absence. He was one of the rare bright spots for the moribund Lakers squad, knocking home 39.6 percent of his 5.4 three-point attempts per game.
He's never been much of a defensive stopper—opposing 2-guards are posting an above-average player efficiency rating of 18.9 against him, per 82games.com—but beggars can't be choosers. And right now, with so much of their future up in the air, the Celtics are most certainly beggars.
With just shy of $6 million in 2014-15 cap space (not factoring in rookie salaries), Boston could offer Meeks somewhere in the neighborhood of a three-year, $15 million deal. It'd be a marked improvement over the $1.45 million he earned this past season with L.A., which could help convince him to sign onto another rebuilding project.
Key Free Agent to Retain: Avery Bradley, SG (RFA)
Brooklyn Nets: Danny Granger, SF
Through his mega-trade for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry last summer, Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov made one thing clear: He will stop at no expense to build a championship contender.
With Paul Pierce, Shaun Livingston and Andray Blatche all set to become free agents in July, Prokhorov will need to break out his wallet once more.
The Nets' midseason surge coincided with Brook Lopez's season-ending broken foot, which caused Jason Kidd to slide Pierce to the 4. The small-ball lineup of Deron Williams, Shaun Livingston, Joe Johnson, Pierce and Kevin Garnett is plus-3.4 per game since Jan. 1, the best of any Nets five-man lineup with at least 10 games under its belt over the past three months.
Thus, if Pierce leaves, the Nets will be in a world of hurt. Danny Granger, however, could help somewhat mitigate that damage.
Injuries have limited Granger to only appearing in 46 games over the past two seasons, where he's averaged 7.9 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.0 assists in 20.0 minutes per game. In the previous five seasons, however, the former Indiana Pacer averaged 21.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists in 35.4 minutes per game, shooting 38.8 percent from three-point range.
He's not a surefire Hall of Famer like Pierce, but he could slide between the 3 and the 4 relatively easily. Brooklyn, which can only offer the taxpayer mid-level exception, would be wise to offer Granger a short-term, incentive-laden deal to make him prove that he's over his recent ailments once and for all.
Key Free Agent to Retain: Paul Pierce, SF; Andray Blatche, PF/C; Shaun Livingston, PG
Charlotte Bobcats: Rudy Gay, SF
With center Al Jefferson leading the way, the Charlotte Bobcats took a major step toward respectability in the 2013-14 season.
Many NBA observers, such as SB Nation's Mike Prada, voiced their doubts when Charlotte inked Jefferson to a three-year, $41 million deal last summer. "Though I don't support the Bobcats' decision," Prada wrote, "I can sort of understand why they made it."
In short, Charlotte grew tired of being the worst team in the NBA and decided to put its hat in the ring for 40 wins and a playoff berth. This summer, it's time for the team to take the next step toward building the franchise into a potential championship contender.
Memphis is the only team to get fewer points from the small forward position than Charlotte (14.7), per HoopsStats.com. Thus, with LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony unlikely to seriously entertain the possibility of joining the Bobcats, they need to go for the next-best thing on the free-agent market: Rudy Gay.
Since joining Sacramento in early December, Gay is averaging 20.5 points on a career-high 48.7 percent shooting. He's also posting a career-best PER of 19.9 with the Kings, likely as a result of his decreased usage rate (26.6 percent), as SB Nation's Tom Ziller posited back earlier this year.
Charlotte already has Al Jefferson, Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson to soak up a majority of its offensive touches, so Gay could slide into a complementary role there. The 'Cats have over $21 million in projected cap space and only one late-first-round pick coming this June, so they could even bite the bullet and overpay Gay for his services on a two- or three-year deal if need be.
Key Free Agent to Retain: N/A
Chicago Bulls: Dwyane Wade, SG
It's no secret that the Chicago Bulls nearly landed Dwyane Wade as a free agent four years ago.
The Miami Heat superstar admitted as much on Chicago Tribune Live on Comcast SportsNet Chicago back in 2012, per Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel:
It was very tough, it was one of the hardest decisions I had to make in my life. I’m a Chicago guy and I grew up idolizing the Chicago Bulls, idolizing Michael Jordan and wanting to wear that jersey. So the day I went for the Chicago visit and they gave me the No. 3 jersey, I mean, that day messed me up. I went back home and I had the jersey on and, I mean, I turned into a kid again. I'm in the mirror with the jersey on and I'm envisioning, I'm thinking, 'This can happen.'
As we know now, that didn't quite come to fruition, as Wade instead convinced Chris Bosh and LeBron James to take less money to join him in Miami instead. Three visits to the NBA Finals and two championships later, it appears all three made a sage decision.
That terrifying alliance could be breaking apart as early as this summer, however. All three players have early-termination options in their contracts, allowing them to become unrestricted free agents if they so desire.
According to Fox Sports Ohio's Sam Amico, "the early scuttlebutt is that James and Bosh will get the max, and the breaking-down Wade will take less. That's all speculation, of course, and even if true, Wade may feel differently if someone (read: the Bulls) overpays him based on what he once was."
Could the Chicago native be headed for a homecoming this summer? If the Bulls amnesty Carlos Boozer, it would free up $16.8 million in cap space. With a few other minor trades (Mike Dunleavy being the most likely candidate), Chicago could have upward of $17-18 million to offer Wade as a starting salary in 2014-15.
Key Free Agent to Retain: D.J. Augustin, PG; Kirk Hinrich, SG
Cleveland Cavaliers: LeBron James, SF/PF
Speaking of unlikely homecomings…
Since the day LeBron James left in 2010, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been stealthily angling for his eventual return. They kept their books largely free of major long-term contracts, stocked up on young players and, after selecting Anthony Bennett first overall in 2013, hoped to force their way into the playoffs this season.
Instead, the Cavs belly-flopped, missing out on the playoffs despite needing fewer than 40 wins to seize the No. 8 seed. That hasn't detracted from Cleveland's optimism about a possible reunion with James, however, per Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal:
Yes, the Cavs underachieved this season. Yes, Grant tried feverishly for the past two years, but could never find that second star to pair with Kyrie Irving and ultimately serve as the bait to lure James back to the Cavs.
But the Cavs privately believe it’s not too late. They still have the assets to pull off a mammoth trade this summer at the draft, the type Grant tried so hard to make. Kevin Love will be entering the final year of his contract, as will LaMarcus Aldridge. Grant tried for two years to unsuccessfully pry both stars out of their current cities, but each had too many years left on their contracts for their current teams to consider it. That’s no longer true.
If LeBron did decide to return to the Cavs, they'd have all sorts of assets to orchestrate a sign-and-trade with Miami. Even if the Heat refuse to participate in a sign-and-trade, Cleveland will have roughly $17 million in cap space this summer (before factoring in rookie salaries).
With the Kyrie Irving situation getting messier by the day, the Cavs have no choice but to hold out hope that James decides to return to Cleveland. Landing a four-time MVP in free agency tends to cure all ails.
Key Free Agent to Retain: Luol Deng, SF; Spencer Hawes, C
Dallas Mavericks: Pau Gasol, PF/C
First thing's first this summer: The Dallas Mavericks need to ink Dirk Nowitzki to a deal that ensures he finishes his career in Big D.
With the Mavs on the brink of an improbable playoff berth, that seems like a foregone conclusion. Back in May 2013, Nowitzki signaled his intention to take a "significant pay cut" to allow the Mavericks to build a contending roster around him, per Tim McMahon of ESPN Dallas.
So, once Dirk signs, it's up to owner Mark Cuban and general manager Donnie Nelson to surround him with championship-caliber talent. First on that list should be Los Angeles Lakers center Pau Gasol.
The big man played a career-low 31.4 minutes per game this season but still posted more-than-respectable averages of 17.4 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.5 blocks. He consistently butted heads with Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni, but given how Dallas' Rick Carlisle rejuvenated the career of Monta Ellis, it's not difficult imagining him doing the same for Gasol.
An Eastern Conference executive told Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix that the big Spaniard generates divided opinions around the league:
There are a couple thoughts out there on Pau. Some people say he is worn out, that he is too far past his prime to really help a contender. There are others that think that LA, that environment the past two season, that style of play has destroyed him and if he goes somewhere else, plays with a different coach, he might be rejuvenated. I could see someone who thinks the latter paying him $10 million a year.
Without Nowitzki's contract on the books, the Mavericks are projected to have over $30 million of cap space this summer. If the big German is willing to settle for $10-12 million per year, Gasol won't have any leverage to ask for more than that.
Key Free Agent to Retain: Dirk Nowitzki, PF/C; Shawn Marion, SF
Denver Nuggets: Thabo Sefolosha, SG/SF
The Denver Nuggets may appear to be an identity-less hodgepodge of talent, but they were also one of the more injury-plagued units this season.
Sharpshooter Danilo Gallinari didn't play a single minute after complications arose with his recovery from an ACL sprain suffered in April 2013. Center JaVale McGee played only five games before suffering a stress fracture in his left tibia that required season-ending surgery. Even point guard Ty Lawson couldn't avoid the injury bug, fracturing a rib in early February.
That spate of injuries caused Denver to struggle defensively, allowing opponents to score 105.3 points per 100 possessions on the year (21st in the league). The Nuggets were also poor in terms of forcing turnovers, as opponents only coughed the ball up on 12.8 percent of their possessions (tied for 24th in the league).
That's why Oklahoma City Thunder swingman Thabo Sefolosha would be an ideal free-agent target for Denver. This season, he held opposing shooting guards and small forwards to below-average PERs of 14.8 and 10.5, respectively, per 82games.com, and has averaged 1.2 steals per game over his past three seasons.
Denver is projected to be over the salary cap by roughly $2 million next season, which means it can only offer Sefolosha a non-taxpayer mid-level exception. It's unlikely he'd leave a contender like Oklahoma City for a project like Denver without a substantial raise, but the Nuggets owe it to themselves to try.
Key Free Agent to Retain: Aaron Brooks, PG
Detroit Pistons: Luol Deng, SF
First, Smith fits best at power forward, not small forward, so the three-big lineup of Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond was unsurprisingly a disaster. They were a minus-2.4 together, the league's third-worst three-man unit that played over 1,200 minutes together this year.
Second, the Pistons were a raging tire fire on defense, allowing opponents to score 107.0 points per 100 possessions. That's the sixth-worst mark in the league, ahead of only New Orleans, Philadelphia, the Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee and Utah.
To have any chance of salvaging the Smith experiment, Detroit must bite the bullet and allow Monroe to walk as a restricted free agent. The Pistons can slide Smith to the 4 full-time alongside Drummond and target someone like Luol Deng to plug the defensive gap at the 3.
Deng has long been one of the league's better defenders on the wing. During the 2012-13 season, he held opposing small forwards to a below-average player efficiency rating of 11.2, per 82games.com.
By allowing Monroe to walk, Detroit should have roughly $20 million in cap space this summer. Deng reportedly declined a three-year, $30 million offer from Chicago immediately before being traded to Cleveland, per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, but a three-year, $36 million offer might be enough to land him.
Key Free Agent to Retain: Greg Monroe, PF/C (RFA)
Golden State Warriors: Emeka Okafor, C
The Golden State Warriors will be in a precarious position this summer.
They're projected to be roughly $2 million over the cap, although they won't have any first-round picks this June (courtesy of last summer's Richard Jefferson salary dump). Golden State also can't make any major free-agent splashes, as Klay Thompson will become a restricted free agent next summer if the squad doesn't extend his contract before Oct. 31.
Thus, the Dubs will be left to fill their backup center position—currently occupied by the injury-prone Jermaine O'Neal—armed with nothing more than a non-taxpayer mid-level exception. Since Marcin Gortat will likely be too pricey, Golden State should move onto the next-best free-agent option out there: Emeka Okafor.
By missing the entire 2013-14 season due to a herniated disc in his neck, Okafor likely drove his own free-agent price down substantially. However, the year before his injury, he averaged 9.7 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.0 blocks in only 26.0 minutes per game, helping Washington to the eighth-best defensive rating in the league.
Offering Okafor anywhere in the neighborhood of a two-year, $10 million deal would be extremely generous, but Golden State needs insurance in case starting center Andrew Bogut goes down for an extended period of time. And with no glaring needs elsewhere, the Dubs can afford to overpay Okafor slightly in the short-term.
Key Free Agent to Retain: Steve Blake, PG
Houston Rockets: Carmelo Anthony, SF/PF
When it comes to Carmelo Anthony's potential landing spots this summer, the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers tend to receive most of the attention.
It's time to add the Houston Rockets to that list of serious contenders.
Barring any changes to their roster, the Rockets will be roughly $2 million over the projected cap next season. Thus, the only way Anthony could come to Houston is if the New York Knicks agreed to a sign-and-trade.
As a starting point, what if the Rockets offered Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin (Linsanity returns!) and Terrence Jones along with their 2014 first-round pick (No. 25 overall currently) and future draft considerations?
The Knicks are one of the few franchises that can afford paying the "poison-pill" salaries of Asik and Lin next year (just under $15 million for each), and both would come off the books after the 2014-15 season, preserving New York's cap space for the summer of 2015.
Jones, the 2014 first-rounder and any other future draft considerations would also help New York restock its cupboards of young talent since the Knicks only have two of their own eight picks in the next four drafts. The presence of Asik could also enable Phil Jackson to seek out trade partners for Tyson Chandler before his contract expires following the 2014-15 season.
For Houston, the deal is a no-brainer. Pairing Anthony with James Harden and Dwight Howard would give the Rockets one of the league's most terrifying Big Threes. Howard could help cover up for Anthony's occasional apathy on defense, and having a pick-and-roll partner like Harden would enable Carmelo to dominate off the ball more, much like he did with Team USA during the 2012 London Olympics.
With a little creativity from general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets could finagle enough cap space to offer Anthony a near-max contract. If he's serious about winning taking precedence over money this summer, Houston's pitch will be difficult to turn down.
Key Free Agent to Retain: N/A
Indiana Pacers: Avery Bradley, SG
The Indiana Pacers could enter the 2014-15 season without retaining a single shooting guard from this year's squad.
Indiana seemingly acquired Evan Turner at this year's trade deadline as insurance in case Lance Stephenson receives a contract offer in restricted free agency too hefty to match. However, Turner has been so abysmal with the Pacers—he's posting a PER of 9.4 since being traded—the squad might say good riddance to him as well.
Thus, with a glaring hole at the 2 spot and little money with which to address it, the Pacers must target an inexpensive, defensive-minded option. Avery Bradley, come on down, you're the next contestant on The Price is Right!
Bradley can't be fully absolved of the stink of this year's Boston Celtics squad, as he's averaging a career-high 30.6 minutes per game. Though he's averaging a career-best 14.5 points and 3.7 rebounds, he proved fully incapable of running an offense on a night-in, night-out basis, dishing only 1.4 assists per game on the year.
Defensively, though, Bradley remains a bulldog. He's allowing opposing shooting guards to post a below-average PER of 12.8 this season, according to 82games.com, and over the past two years he's averaged 1.2 steals per night.
Pairing him with George Hill would give Indiana a diminutive backcourt, but it could give Hill more freedom to play off the ball. He's a restricted free agent, and Indiana only has the non-taxpayer mid-level exception at its disposal, but Bradley might accept slightly less money to escape the crater-sized hole left in Boston in the wake of the Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett trade.
Key Free Agent to Retain: Lance Stephenson, SG (RFA), Evan Turner, SG/SF (RFA)
Los Angeles Clippers: Ed Davis, PF
If there's one thing that will hold the Los Angeles Clippers back from winning a championship this season, it's their frontcourt depth.
Beyond Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, both of whom are in the midst of career-best seasons, the Clippers have very little. The post-trade-deadline acquisition of Glen "Big Baby" Davis hasn't panned out, leaving Ryan Hollins as L.A.'s best backup 5.
That makes finding a legitimate backup center the Clippers' No. 1 priority in free agency. Since the Clips figure to be in the luxury tax next season, they'll only be able to use the taxpayer mid-level exception to accomplish that goal.
Assuming Marcin Gortat and Emeka Okafor both command more than the $3.278 million starting salary of said exception, the Clippers will need to get creative. Memphis Grizzlies forward Ed Davis may be their best bet in that regard.
Davis has played 17 percent of the Grizzlies' minutes at center this season, per 82games.com, and is holding opposing 5s to a below-average PER of 13.9. Meanwhile, while he's at the 5, he's posting a PER of 21.4 and an effective field-goal percentage of .619.
Memphis has the right to match any contract offer for Davis because he's a restricted free agent, but the Grizzlies could fall into the luxury tax by retaining him (unless they make no other moves in free agency). Therefore, the Clippers should offer him the full taxpayer mid-level exception and pray like hell that Memphis is too fearful of the luxury tax to match.
Key Free Agent to Retain: N/A
Los Angeles Lakers: Eric Bledsoe, PG/SG
If the Los Angeles Lakers aren't going to fire Mike D'Antoni this summer, they'll need to make a big free-agent splash to appease Kobe Bryant.
Throwing out a major contract offer for Phoenix Suns combo guard Eric Bledsoe would do the trick.
Playing alongside Goran Dragic this year, Bledsoe has been a terrifying, dynamic freak of nature. He's averaging 17.9 points, 5.6 dimes, 4.8 boards and 1.6 steals in only 33.1 minutes per game and posting a career-best PER of 19.6 in the process.
Bledsoe missed two months of the season after tearing his meniscus at the start of 2014, but he's looked no worse for the wear since returning. He's averaged 17.8 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.1 assists per contest over the past month, assisting on 25.8 percent of the Suns' field goals.
When Dragic missed three games early in the season, Bledsoe stepped in capably as Phoenix's starting point guard, averaging 17.2 points on 62.9 percent shooting, 6.3 assists, 2.7 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game. He's fully capable of playing either backcourt position, which should pique the Lakers' interest given Bryant's demonstrated interest in operating with the ball in his hands.
With L.A. set to have roughly $25 million in cap space this summer (not counting its top-10 draft pick), it could throw out a major offer for Bledsoe, who's a restricted free agent, in the hopes that Phoenix doesn't match. Better yet, it'd be a major middle finger to the other L.A. franchise, which sent Bledsoe to Phoenix last summer for J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley.
Key Free Agent to Retain: Pau Gasol, PF/C; Jodie Meeks, SG
Memphis Grizzlies: P.J. Tucker, SG/SF
The Memphis Grizzlies are in desperate need of two things: three-point shooting and production from their small forward spot.
The Grizzlies should be about $7.5 million under the luxury-tax line this summer (before factoring in rookie salaries), which would allow them to spend the non-taxpayer mid-level exception to address those glaring needs. They should kill two birds with one stone by targeting Phoenix swingman P.J. Tucker.
The 28-year-old Tucker is posting career bests across the board this season, averaging 9.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.3 blocks per game. Better yet for Memphis, he's shooting 39.5 percent from three-point range on 2.4 attempts per game.
With Mike Miller set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, the Grizzlies will desperately need someone to replace his three-point shooting. (Mike Conley can't be expected to carry the whole load again.) Since Phoenix has to worry about matching Eric Bledsoe's contract offer, Memphis likely could swoop in and swipe Tucker, who's a restricted free agent, with somewhere in the neighborhood of a $3-4 million-per-year deal.
Key Free Agent to Retain: Zach Randolph, PF (player option); James Johnson, SF/PF; Mike Miller, SG/SF; Ed Davis, PF (RFA)
Miami Heat: Evan Turner, SG/SF
Assuming the Miami Heat's Big Three all decide to stay (whether they simply don't opt out or opt out and re-sign for less), the squad will have very little salary-cap flexibility with which to acquire a new supporting cast.
With Shane Battier already announcing his intention to retire following this season, per Bleacher Report's Ethan J. Skolnick, and Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers, Greg Oden and Michael Beasley all set to become unrestricted free agents, Miami will need to completely retool around the Big Three. Expect more ring-chasing veterans to sign cheap, one-year deals for their shot at proving their worth with a title contender.
One such possibility? Bringing in Indiana Pacers swingman Evan Turner, who could be the latest top-two-pick reclamation project (following Oden and Beasley) for Miami.
At this point in Turner's career, all hopes of him turning into a franchise cornerstone appear to be dead and buried. He's a low-percentage shooter who's a significant minus on defense, but teams could do worse in terms of a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency bench scorer.
With Dwyane Wade frequently limited this season by a host of lower-body ailments, having Turner around to step into the starting lineup would only benefit the Heat throughout the regular season. Turner, meanwhile, would get the requisite experience in Miami's system such that, come playoff time, he could prove capable of being an impact player.
The Heat likely won't be able to offer anything more than a taxpayer mid-level exception, barring the Big Three opting out and taking significantly less money, but Turner might not be able to land much more elsewhere. He'd be wise to take a one-year, $3 million deal to prove that he's capable of reining in his shot selection and contributing productively to a winning team.
Key Free Agent to Retain: LeBron James, SF/PF (ETO); Dwyane Wade, SG (ETO); Chris Bosh, PF/C (ETO); Ray Allen, SG
Milwaukee Bucks: Marcin Gortat, C
The Milwaukee Bucks were the biggest unmitigated disaster of the 2013-14 season, and that's saying something.
Unlike the Philadelphia 76ers, who entered the year with every intention of being awful, the Bucks made a bevy of free-agent moves last summer in the hopes of staying somewhat relevant. Instead, center Larry Sanders imploded both on and off the court, shooting guard O.J. Mayo posted a career-low PER of 11.2 (while growing visibly overweight) and the team stumbled its way to 15 wins in 79 games.
Beyond rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo, who looks every bit like the steal of the 2013 draft, the Bucks have few other long-term pieces worth building around. There might be no escaping Sanders' awful four-year, $44 million extension, but Milwaukee should attempt to sell him for 40 cents on the dollar and bring in free-agent center Marcin Gortat as his replacement.
The Polish Hammer isn't the same shot-blocking threat as Sanders, who swatted 2.8 shots during 2012-13 (second in the league behind only Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka), but he's much more of an offensive force. Over the past three seasons, Gortat has averaged 13.3 points on 54.2 percent shooting, compared to Sanders' 7.3 points on 49.0 percent shooting.
If Milwaukee can't find another team interested in buying low on Sanders, pairing him with Gortat could potentially pay dividends as well. Gortat would give the frontcourt a scoring punch, while Sanders could be more defensively oriented.
The Bucks figure to have roughly $16 million in cap space (before factoring in rookie contracts), so they'll have plenty of money to lure in Gortat. If they strike out on landing Joel Embiid in the draft, The Polish Hammer could be the next-best thing.
Key Free Agent to Retain: Jeff Adrien, PF
Minnesota Timberwolves: James Johnson, SF/PF
The Minnesota Timberwolves are entering desperation time this summer.
They have one last chance to prove to Kevin Love that they can build a championship contender around him before he's eligible to opt out of his contract following the 2014-15 season. What Minnesota doesn't have, however, is cap space.
The T'Wolves are projected to be roughly $3 million over the cap before factoring in rookie salaries, leaving only the non-taxpayer mid-level exception at their discretion. Unless they find a trade partner for Nikola Pekovic, they won't be able to land a marquee free agent this summer such as Eric Bledsoe or Gordon Hayward.
Thus, Minnesota's best course of action is to address the glaring weakness on its roster—the small forward position—by landing the Memphis Grizzlies' James Johnson.
Since signing a minimum contract with Memphis on Dec. 16, Johnson has been a revelation this season. His per-game averages of 7.5 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.1 blocks and 0.8 steals don't scream "superstar," but he's done all of that in only 18.7 minutes per game.
Extrapolate those averages to 36 minutes per game, on the other hand, and you get a much more impressive 14.5 points, 6.3 boards, 4.2 dimes, 2.1 blocks and 1.6 steals. Throw in his career-high PER of 18.5, and suddenly it's much more clear what makes Johnson such an alluring prospect.
Since he's playing for a minimum deal this season, Minnesota likely wouldn't have to burn its entire mid-level exception to land him. With Johnson in tow, the Timberwolves would have every reason to expect a playoff berth next season for the first time since the 2003-04 season.
Key Free Agent to Retain: N/A
New Orleans Pelicans: Greg Monroe, PF/C
The New Orleans Pelicans made two major splashes last offseason in an attempt to contend for the playoffs, but the short-term return wasn't great.
Point guard Jrue Holiday, who cost New Orleans rookie Nerlens Noel and a top-five-protected 2014 first-round pick, suffered a stress fracture in his right tibia in January and missed the last three months of the season.
Tyreke Evans, who signed a four-year, $44 million deal with the Pelicans, stumbled through the first four months of the season, averaging only 12.0 points on 39.8 percent shooting, 4.4 rebounds and 4.4 assists through Feb. 28.
Now, with their top-10 pick likely headed to Philadelphia this June, the Pelicans have two options: pray that their core can stay healthy next season or shake things up by finding a taker for Evans or Eric Gordon. With owner Tom Benson itching for a playoff berth, per Grantland's Zach Lowe, the latter seems to be the better bet.
Thus, expect New Orleans to be active in the trade market this summer so it can make a play at one of the three top-tier restricted free agents: Lance Stephenson, Gordon Hayward or Greg Monroe. With a glut of wings already, the Pelicans' best bet would be angling for a Monroe-Anthony Davis frontcourt of the future.
Monroe is defensively limited, as Lowe has covered ad nauseam, but pairing him with Davis could cover up both players' flaws. Sticking Monroe at the 5 would spare him from covering stretch 4s (and getting absolutely worked on pick-and-rolls), while Davis could do the dirty work defensively. Meanwhile, he's offensively gifted enough to take some of the burden off Davis and New Orleans' wings on that end.
An added bonus for the Pelicans: Monroe originally hails from New Orleans. This signing makes too much sense not to happen so long as the squad can free up the requisite cap space.
Key Free Agent to Retain: Jason Smith, PF/C; Greg Stiemsma, C
New York Knicks: Mario Chalmers, PG
The New York Knicks are stuck between a rock and a hard place this summer.
Even before re-signing Carmelo Anthony, New York figures to be well above the salary cap, leaving precious little money to improve via free agency. If the Knicks can't convince Anthony to re-sign, they're headed straight for the top of the lottery in 2015.
Assuming New York does manage to retain Anthony, its next-most glaring need is at point guard. Earlier this season, an anonymous executive told SNY.tv's Adam Zagoria, "Felton is the worst starting point guard in the NBA. I'd take 10 college point guards and about 30 NBA backups over him right now."
So…there's that. The criticism is pretty easy to understand, with Felton averaging a career-low 9.7 points per game and posting a career-worst PER of 12.9 this season.
There's no escaping his $3.8 million contract in 2014-15, so New York should do the next-best thing: find a free-agent point guard who could conceivably replace him in the starting lineup.
Since Isaiah Thomas is likely to command more than the taxpayer mid-level exception, the Knicks' two best bets will be Greivis Vasquez and Mario Chalmers. Due to his experience managing a multitude of egos down in Miami, Chalmers should ultimately get the nod.
Since the Heat will need to replace their entire supporting cast this summer, they might be unwilling to offer Chalmers a full taxpayer mid-level exception. Landing the former Kansas star should be the Knicks' top priority after re-signing Anthony to a long-term deal.
Key Free Agent to Retain: Carmelo Anthony, SF/PF
Oklahoma City Thunder: Paul Pierce, SF
No matter what happens in the 2014 playoffs, the Oklahoma City Thunder clearly appear poised to be a legitimate championship contender over the next few seasons.
With Kevin Durant's MVP-caliber dominance, Russell Westbrook's freakish athleticism and Serge Ibaka's ever-growing game leading the way, the Thunder aren't far off from cementing themselves as perennial favorites. Once Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili retire, only the L.A. Clippers and Houston Rockets appear capable of dethroning OKC in the West.
Thus, the Thunder figure to be one of the more popular free-agent destinations for elder veterans attempting to win one more ring before heading off to pasture. If Kevin Garnett retires after the playoffs, his Brooklyn Nets teammate, Paul Pierce, could be open to pursuing the same route Ray Allen took with Miami in 2013.
Adding Pierce to the Thunder makes perfect sense for both sides. He's proven fully capable of manning the 4 in a small-ball lineup for Brooklyn this season, so he'd give coach Scott Brooks more freedom to tinker with different combinations. He could also play the 3 alongside Durant and Ibaka, providing Durant an outlet for instant offense if opponents attempt to double-team him.
As The Truth's career fades down, a low-usage role in which he can be the third or fourth option on offense would be ideal. Adding him to this Thunder squad, especially if Thabo Sefolosha doesn't depart in free agency, could be the final piece to the championship puzzle for OKC.
The Thunder are projected to be roughly $6 million over the cap before factoring in rookie salaries, but they should be able to offer Pierce a non-taxpayer mid-level exception even with rookies factored in. That should be more than enough money to lure Pierce in for one final shot at another ring.
Key Free Agent to Retain: Thabo Sefolosha, SG/SF
Orlando Magic: Greivis Vasquez, PG
Their 2013-14 win total might not suggest it, but the Orlando Magic are in phenomenal shape for the future.
They're likely to have two top-12 picks this June. Their three contractual albatrosses—Jameer Nelson, Glen Davis and Al Harrington—all come off the books following the 2014-15 season, just in time for Nikola Vucevic's likely extension.
With Victor Oladipo and Arron Afflalo looking like the Magic's backcourt of the future, Orlando needs to find a backup combo guard to complement both players in free agency this summer. Toronto Raptors guard Greivis Vasquez fits that bill perfectly.
Vasquez averaged 13.9 points and 9.0 assists per game in his one season as a starter (with New Orleans in 2012-13) but struggled after being traded to Sacramento last July. The Kings thus shipped him to Toronto in early December (in the Rudy Gay trade), where Vasquez has since thrived.
As CBS Sports' Zach Harper notes, the Raptors have figured out a way to minimize his defensive weaknesses:
Vasquez often offers up the resistance of a saloon door on defense, and yet they're 7.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, giving up just 97.7 points per 100 possessions. How is this possible that one of the worst defensive players in the league can be so well hidden? The Raptors almost always play him with at least three quality defensive players.
While Orlando doesn't have the plethora of quality defensive players that Toronto boasts, Oladipo projects to be a plus defender for years to come. Pairing him with Vasquez would give the Magic two guards fully capable of running an offense playing alongside one another.
Without factoring in rookie salaries, Orlando is set to have roughly $18 million in cap space available this summer. The Magic likely could land Vasquez with their room exception ($2.732 million, per Larry Coon's salary-cap FAQ) and still have $15 million in additional cap space to lure other free agents.
Key Free Agent to Retain: N/A
Philadelphia 76ers: Ray Allen, SG
The Philadelphia 76ers will be in a weird place this summer.
Before factoring in their likely two top-10 picks, the Sixers only have $30.5 million in cap space already committed for 2014-15. The rookies will run them an additional $5-7 million depending on where the picks land, per the rookie-salary scale.
That leaves roughly $25 million in cap space to spend. However, the Sixers have little intention of making a big splash in the free-agent market.
"It's all aligned to we are not going to be pursuing free agents for a while," Sixers coach Brett Brown told Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer. "We are about development. Once the alignment with development collides with a bunch of other things in the program, then you can start talking about free agents."
Brown added that "no free agent is going to want to come to Philadelphia at this stage," with the Sixers in the nascent stages of a complete overhaul. That makes Ray Allen a long shot of a free-agent target at best.
However, if the Miami Heat's Big Three decide to part ways this summer, Allen has little reason to stick around South Beach. At that point, the Sixers could swoop in with a massive one-year, $15 million deal to lure him into a rebuilding project.
Allen is the type of consummate professional that any young team would love to have in the locker room. If he could impart his work ethic upon Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel and the Sixers' other young players, he'd be well worth however much Philadelphia needed to spend to land him. (That goes double if he can fix MCW's busted jumper.)
Key Free Agent to Retain: N/A
Phoenix Suns: Lance Stephenson, SG
Even though combo guard Eric Bledsoe missed two months of the season with a torn meniscus, some team with copious amounts of cap space will assuredly attempt to lure him this summer with a massive contract offer. (Here's looking at you, Lakers!)
At that point, it's decision time for the Phoenix Suns. Do they believe a Bledsoe-Goran Dragic combination can lead them to a title? Is he worth a max contract (or near-max money)?
Paying him won't be a problem. Phoenix is projected to have roughly $30 million in cap space this summer before factoring in rookie salaries. The question is whether the squad wants to dump that much money into Bledsoe given that Goran Dragic and the Morris twins could all be free agents following the 2014-15 season.
If the Suns decide against matching Bledsoe's contract offer, they'll have the opportunity to pursue a slightly cheaper combo guard option in restricted free agency: Lance Stephenson.
The volatile Indiana Pacers guard was a front-runner for the Most Improved Player award before his squad's late-season swoon likely cost him that distinction. Regardless, he's averaging 13.8 points on 48.8 percent shooting, 7.1 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game this season, proving capable of filling up the box score in a multitude of ways.
Over the first four years of his career, however, he hasn't ever posted an above-average PER (his highest from this season is 14.6). That will likely dissuade teams from throwing anywhere near max money at him, since he, unlike Bledsoe, hasn't proven capable of running a team on his own.
Phoenix's do-it-by-committee approach has worked wonders this year, however, and Stephenson could be a valuable addition to that core. If the Suns could land him for something in the range of four years and $45 million (similar to what Tyreke Evans received last summer for New Orleans), that might cause them to prefer the Stephenson route over Bledsoe.
Key Free Agent to Retain: Eric Bledsoe, PG/SG (RFA); P.J. Tucker, SF (RFA)
Portland Trail Blazers: Shawn Marion, SF
If the Portland Trail Blazers advance deep into the 2014 playoffs, it likely won't be because of their defense.
The Blazers are tied with Brooklyn for 17th in the league in defensive rating this season, allowing opponents to score 104.7 points per 100 possessions. They're the only projected playoff team in the West aside from the Dallas Mavericks to rank among the bottom half of the league in that regard.
Their offense is what kept them afloat this season, as they averaged 108.2 points per 100 possessions, tied with Oklahoma City for sixth-best in the league. However, with every possession taking upon additional importance in the playoffs, Portland's defensive limitations are likely to cost it a realistic shot at the title this year.
Thus, the Blazers' top priority in free agency this summer should be to find a versatile defensive stopper. Dallas Mavericks forward Shawn Marion should do the trick nicely.
The 35-year-old Marion is averaging 10.5 points, 6.6 boards, 1.2 steals and 0.5 blocks in only 31.6 minutes per game this season. Though his defense is slipping as he ages, he's still a potent wing stopper who can slide in at the 4 in a pinch.
With Portland's first-round pick heading to Charlotte this June, the Blazers are projected to only be $2 million over the salary cap this summer. That means they'll have the full non-taxpayer mid-level exception to throw at Marion if so desired.
Key Free Agent to Retain: N/A
Sacramento Kings: Kyle Lowry, PG
The Sacramento Kings have a decision to make this summer when it comes to starting point guard Isaiah Thomas.
Thomas, a restricted free agent, played exceptionally well for Sacramento this season, averaging 20.7 points, 6.4 assists, 3.0 rebounds and 1.3 steals in 35.0 minutes per game. Through his first three years in the NBA, he has yet to post a PER below 17.5, and he has increased his number of win shares each season (from 4.3 as a rookie to 7.8 this season).
However, Thomas' height—he clocks in at 5'9"—makes him somewhat of a liability on defense, especially against bigger, physical point guards such as Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook or Michael Carter-Williams. During the 45 losses he contributed to this season, he posted a net rating of minus-9.8, as opponents scored 110.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the court.
Thus, if another team decides to overpay Thomas this summer, don't be surprised if the Kings remain unfazed. Instead, they should target Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry from the get-go.
The 28-year-old Lowry "has transformed himself and transformed a franchise this season," Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski noted back in March. He's averaging career highs in points (17.7), assists (7.5) and minutes (36.4) per game and is posting a career-best PER of 20.0.
Unlike Thomas, he's also capable of holding his own on the defensive end. He's limiting opposing floor generals to a below-average PER of 14.7, according to 82games.com, and is averaging 1.5 takeaways per game.
Assuming Rudy Gay declines his player option and becomes a free agent this summer, Sacramento will have upward of $15 million in cap space available to spend. Lowry could command a majority of that, Woj suggests, but Sacramento would be crazy not to pursue the best point guard on the unrestricted-free-agent market, especially with Thomas potentially on his way out.
Key Free Agent to Retain: Rudy Gay, SF (player option); Isaiah Thomas, PG (RFA)
San Antonio Spurs: Trevor Ariza, SF
The San Antonio Spurs have become infamous for turning another team's trash into their own treasure.
Three years after Cleveland cut guard Danny Green right before the start of the 2010-11 season, he was setting an NBA Finals record for made three-pointers with San Antonio. Two years after Charlotte waived Boris Diaw, he's averaging 25.1 minutes per game for the Spurs, who have the league's best record this season.
With Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili likely to retire following the 2014-15 season, San Antonio must balance two goals this offseason: finding complementary pieces to bolster one final title run and inking players who could make up a post-Duncan core. Washington Wizards swingman Trevor Ariza could fit both of those descriptions.
After bouncing around the league since his title-winning days with the L.A. Lakers, Ariza busted out for the Wizards this year in a big way. He's averaging 14.3 points and a career-high 6.2 rebounds per game while shooting a career-best 40.7 percent from three-point range (on 5.7 attempts per game).
With Kawhi Leonard already locking down the 3 spot for San Antonio for the imminent future, Ariza would provide some welcome depth for Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. He could slot Ariza in behind Leonard, or, with Matt Bonner potentially departing this summer, Pop could stick him at the 4 in a small-ball lineup.
San Antonio should enter the offseason with roughly $9.5 million in cap space (before factoring in rookie contracts), giving the squad plenty of money to ink Ariza to a short-term deal. For Ariza, the opportunity to join the league's best-run organization and chase his third title should outweigh whatever discount the Spurs might ask him to accept.
Key Free Agent to Retain: Tim Duncan, PF/C (player option); Boris Diaw, PF/C
Toronto Raptors: Chris Bosh, PF/C
Four years after fleeing the Toronto Raptors like his hair was on fire, a reunion could be in the cards for Chris Bosh this summer.
Back during Bosh's heyday in Toronto, the squad relied upon him as its primary offensive option, as former No. 1 overall pick Andrea Bargnani never panned out as anticipated. Despite averaging 22.9 points and 10.1 rebounds per game in his final four seasons in Toronto, the Raps never made it past the first round of the playoffs.
Now, with three NBA Finals appearances and two championships under his belt, Bosh could be well equipped to solidify the Raptors as legitimate title contenders. Assuming he, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James all opt out of their contracts and go their separate ways, Toronto is one of the most logical landing spots for the former Raptors big man.
Toronto has a solid core in place with shooting guard Terrence Ross, swingman DeMar DeRozan and center Jonas Valanciunas. If the Raptors can re-sign point guard Kyle Lowry at a reasonable rate this summer—anywhere below $10-12 million per year would be a steal—they could use the rest of the money to attract a marquee free agent such as Bosh to fortify their starting 5.
Sticking Bosh next to Valanciunas would be a nightmare for opposing frontcourts. He's become one of the league's best-shooting big men during his time with Miami, which would operate space for the big Lithuanian to operate down in the low post.
The Raptors have just over $50 million in 2014-15 cap space already locked up, but John Salmons, Amir Johnson and Tyler Hansbrough all have non-guaranteed contracts. With some finagling by general manager Masai Ujiri, Toronto could open up near-max cap space to welcome Bosh back to the place where his career began.
Key Free Agent to Retain: Kyle Lowry, PG; Greivis Vasquez, PG/SG (RFA)
Utah Jazz: Spencer Hawes, C
The Utah Jazz find themselves in an unenviable position for a rebuilding franchise this summer.
First, swingman Gordon Hayward is set to become a restricted free agent, which means Utah might be forced to overpay if it hopes to retain him. Then, if the Jazz refuse to extend the contract of center Enes Kanter by Oct. 31, he'll become a restricted free agent following the 2014-15 season.
In short: That projected $30.5 million of cap space Utah appears to have this summer (not counting rookie salaries) is effectively a mirage. Re-signing Hayward and re-upping Kanter figures to occupy a large majority of said cap space.
The Jazz could always refuse to offer an extension to Kanter, however, making him prove his long-term value while playing out the final year of his rookie deal. They did the same to Hayward this past year, so such a move wouldn't be unprecedented.
If that's the case, it will be imperative for Utah to bring in another starting-caliber center to exert pressure on Kanter to perform. Cleveland Cavaliers big man Spencer Hawes should do the trick in that regard.
Hawes isn't an All-Star-caliber center by any means, but he has one major advantage over Kanter: He's consistent. Whereas Kanter's production tends to vary wildly from game to game—he'll go off for 19 points and nine rebounds one night, then score only two points and grab five boards the next—Hawes will consistently deliver in the neighborhood of 12-16 points and 7-10 rebounds per night.
Pairing a stretch 5 like Hawes with Derrick Favors could pay dividends for Utah, as Hawes wouldn't clog the paint like Kanter does. And after spending the first half of the 2013-14 season with the intentionally abysmal Philadelphia 76ers, the big man would likely view the Jazz's rebuilding process as a pleasure cruise in comparison.
Key Free Agent to Retain: Gordon Hayward, SG/SF (RFA)
Washington Wizards: Isaiah Thomas, PG
The Washington Wizards' first order of business this summer will be to attempt to re-sign center Marcin Gortat and swingman Trevor Ariza to long-term deals.
If the Wizards manage to retain both players, however, say goodbye to their projected $14 million in cap space. Barring massive deals for both players, those two signings will leave Washington with just the non-taxpayer mid-level exception for additional free-agent signings.
With the backup point guard position a glaring need, Washington will likely only have three realistic targets in mind: Miami's Mario Chalmers, Toronto's Greivis Vasquez and Sacramento's Isaiah Thomas. Of the three, Thomas may be the most realistic option for the Wizards.
The diminutive point guard posted career bests across the board this season with Sacramento, averaging 20.7 points, 6.4 assists, 3.0 rebounds and 1.3 steals in 35.0 minutes per game. His small stature (5'9"), however, makes him better equipped for a microwave scoring option off the bench versus a starting floor general.
Thomas could easily end up commanding more than the $5.305 million Washington can offer him in 2014-15. However, if Rudy Gay doesn't opt out of his contract, Sacramento could risk running into luxury-tax territory by matching such an offer (once factoring in the salary of its first-round pick).
By offering the full non-taxpayer mid-level exception to Thomas, the Wizards would be putting the Kings to the test. Worst-case scenario, Sacramento matches, and Washington moves on to other free-agent targets.
Key Free Agent to Retain: Marcin Gortat, C; Trevor Ariza, SF
Unless otherwise noted, all team and player statistics are via Basketball-Reference.com or NBA.com/stats and are current through games played on Friday, April 9. All contract information and projected salary-cap figures come from Spotrac.com.