2014 NBA Free Agents: Predictions for Top Available Players This Summer
The 2014 NBA offseason picture is awfully cloudy right now, mainly because it's hard to tell if the top stars eligible to become free agents will actually choose to do so.
Let's allow Mark Heisler at Forbes.com to be the bearer of bad news for those expecting fireworks this offseason:
No, Carmelo Anthony isn’t likely to be in it. Despite reports that the Knicks are worried about losing him to Chicago from the Usual Suspects Programming Network, the Bulls’ interest stops short of tearing their roster apart to see if Melo will take almost 50% less.
Miami’s LeBron James, who intended to opt out, is now expected to stay, at least for the final season on his contract. So is teammate Dwyane Wade. Chris Bosh is likely to remain, too, although as a Dallas native, he could be interested in the Mavericks and vice versa. The Mavs’ Dirk Nowitzki isn’t going anywhere (“I can’t imagine wearing another uniform.”)
If this is a blanket statement far ahead of the fact, something has changed: The stars who thought they were going to test the market this summer have run out of places to go.
James, who didn’t utter a peep about his intentions before becoming a free agent in 2010, uttered one at mid-season when asked if he could see himself leaving Miami. “At this point I can’t,” said Bron.
“Now,” says an NBA GM, “you’ve got Luol Deng, Kyle Lowry and Marcin Gortat. “And then we’re done.”
While Heisler's assertions could certainly end up coming true, there's always the chance the landscape changes dramatically. All it can take is one injury, one playoff upset, one rumored trade or one moment to completely shake up everything we thought we knew. The offseason is a fickle beast.
With that in mind, let's take a shot at predicting the fate of the top players eligible for free agency this offseason, broken down by contract category.
Early Termination Options
LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat: All three stay with Miami.
Miami's Big Three are certainly going to be under a microscope for the next few months, but barring anything drastic taking place during that time, it seems likely that they'll each forego their early termination options and play out the length of their contracts.
The primary reason for that? There aren't any real marquee teams flush with talent that have cap room to bring on a max player this offseason.
Wade has played in Miami his whole career, so he'd be the last to leave. Bosh will be desired elsewhere, but he'd be a fool to willingly leave the best player in the world and expect to have an easier path to have a championship. James could leave, but it's hard to find the incentive for why he would, or even a clear-cut destination that rivals Miami in all the free-agent factors (money, location, ownership, teammates, etc.).
It would make more sense for Wade, Bosh and James to re-evaluate next year when more teams should have cap space and more big-time free agents will be available to team up with. The timing this season just isn't right. It would be a shock if anyone left.
Carmelo Anthony, Andrea Bargnani and Amar'e Stoudemire, New York Knicks: Anthony exercises ETO to become free agent but ends up re-signing with New York Knicks for full max. Bargnani and Stoudemire stay in New York.
Ultimately, the extra money ($30 million), contract year and status in New York will probably be too much for Anthony to pass on, especially since the Knicks will be so close to being able to bring in another star.
With so many talented players (LeBron James, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge) possibly becoming available in 2015 and perhaps some disgruntled players becoming available before then as well (Kyrie Irving), Anthony should be able to lure a big name to join him in New York once the cancerous contracts of Bargnani and Stoudemire are off the books.
With Phil Jackson upstairs now, there's at least more room to be optimistic than there was before.
Phoenix, Chicago, Houston and Dallas are all interesting and perhaps superior options, but only New York can offer Anthony his "own" team and a full payday. That might be enough.
Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs: Retires.
Duncan is a lock to stay with San Antonio and accept his player option if he keeps playing, but this could be the end of the road. That's not because he's no longer capable, as we've seen he's still playing at an elite level, but rather because San Antonio is my pick to win the title.
You'd have to think that in that scenario, Duncan, Gregg Popovich and Manu Ginobili would all go out on top and call it quits.
Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies: Accepts player option worth $16.5 million.
It's hard to see Memphis wanting to make a pricey long-term commitment to a 32-year-old forward, even if he wants to stay there for the rest of his career. The hesitation to give such a deal may cause Randolph to simply accept his lucrative player option and sort things out next offseason instead when frontcourt partner Marc Gasol will also be a free agent.
There's a possibility Randolph could opt out and take advantage of a weak free-agency crop, but he seems to like it in Memphis enough to stay around and hope for long-term financial security next offseason while pocketing a nice payday in the process.
Rudy Gay, Sacramento Kings: Accepts player option worth $19.3 million.
Sometimes it's really simple. There's just too much money on the table for Gay to walk away from, especially since it might take at least two seasons worth of playing on a new a deal for him to make this much. Long-term security is great, but it's probably not worth this price.
Gay would likely stay in Sacramento either way, as there probably shouldn't be a huge market for his services given his track record of improving teams by not being around. It would be shocking if he passed this much money up or landed in a different uniform again for next year.
Chandler Parsons, Houston Rockets: Rockets exercise team option ($964,750).
The Rockets are in an interesting spot with Parsons. If they choose to keep him on for cheap next year, he'll become an unrestricted free agent in the 2015 offseason. However, if the Rockets decline his option, he'll become a restricted free agent this offseason, which would allow Houston to match any offer.
More likely than not, Houston will keep Parsons as cheaply as possible for as long as possible. By delaying his payment, Houston can be a player in this year's free agency, particularly if Omer Asik or Jeremy Lin are traded. Keeping the door open for another star for a longer period of time probably makes sense.
Chauncey Billups, Detroit Pistons: Pistons decline team option but offer coaching position.
Billups isn't a factor as a player anymore, but keep an eye on him moving to the bench. Detroit will be searching for a new coach and general manager, so perhaps he'll be in the running for either position.
Either way, though, Billups is incredibly unlikely to see playing time for Detroit again next year.
Restricted Free Agents
Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns: Re-signs with Suns for five years, $62 million.
There's plenty of reason to believe Bledsoe will be back with Phoenix next year, considering how well he played this year and how he was just traded for this past offseason.
If GM Ryan McDonough can get the timing right, the Suns can bring on a big-time free agent and then re-sign Bledsoe via Bird rights shortly thereafter. By offering an extra year, perhaps he would be willing to stay patient and not sign an offer sheet elsewhere. Either way, the Suns should retain him.
Greg Monroe, Detroit Pistons: Signed and traded to Dallas Mavericks for four years, $58 million.
Out of all the restricted free agents, Monroe seems the most likely to end up elsewhere. He hasn't played well next to Josh Smith or Andre Drummond, and commanding a max contract elsewhere shouldn't be tough. A team like the Dallas Mavericks would love bringing in a young franchise center, and we know Mavs owner Mark Cuban isn't afraid to spend on those in free agency.
Of course, whoever ends up in charge in Detroit won't want to lose a valuable asset for nothing. If Monroe decides he wants to form a lethal inside-outside combo with Dirk Nowitzki in Big D, he'll need to pull a power move and publicly say he doesn't want to play for Detroit while simultaneously providing the Pistons the option to deal him directly to Dallas instead.
That might be tough to swing as Detroit has the right to bring him back no matter what, but if Monroe really wants out, he might have to be vocal about it first.
Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz: Jazz match Philadelphia 76ers' offer sheet for four years, $54 million.
Teams like the Philadelphia 76ers who have cap space but no real intention of competing next year can be a pain for teams with restricted free agents, and that might be what ends up happening with Gordon Hayward.
While Hayward isn't a true top option, he's certainly a very strong player who brings a lot of different offensive skills to the table. The Jazz really can't afford to lose assets at this stage of their rebuild, however, so it's not hard to imagine that they'll match any offer sheet Hayward signs.
Avery Bradley, Boston Celtics: Signs with Charlotte Bobcats for three years, $24 million.
The Charlotte Bobcats have made it back to the playoffs with defense, and they can continue to leverage that strength in free agency by signing Bradley. With no backup point guard on the roster and Gerald Henderson's ability to slide to the 3, Bradley could be a perfect option to take up plenty of minutes in multiple lineups, similar to how Ramon Sessions was used previously.
For Boston, it's going to be tough to let such a dynamic young wing defender go, but maximizing cap space going forward will be critical. Bradley and Rajon Rondo certainly aren't a traditional fit, and paying $8 million a year for a nonessential player can hurt a rebuilding team. This is probably the sweet spot salary-wise where Boston would really have to lean toward letting Bradley walk.
Isaiah Thomas, Sacramento Kings: Signs with Orlando Magic for four years, $34 million.
It's very possible that Orlando is holding out for the 2015 offseason to use its cap space, but Thomas might be too good to pass up for one of the lone teams that could use a quality starting point guard.
Since it seems more likely that Victor Oladipo will be a shooting guard going forward and that Jameer Nelson will be gone as soon as this offseason, Thomas could lift Orlando's offense to new heights with his pick-and-roll talents and shooting ability.
A lot will likely depend on what happens in the draft and where Australian guard Dante Exum lands. If he ends up in Orlando, then Thomas wouldn't make sense. If Orlando goes big, however, maybe it's a good fit.
For Sacramento, matching on Thomas may be difficult to justify, even if he's easily the team's second-best player. If Rudy Gay accepts his player option, there's going to be huge financial issues as Sacramento will almost certainly be a team paying the luxury tax. That's not ideal, and the emergence of Ray McCallum late this season may lead the Kings to believe that Thomas is expendable.
Unrestricted Free Agents
Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks: Re-signs with Dallas for two years, $22 million.
It wouldn't be a surprise to see Nowitzki take a discount to stay in Dallas, where he's spent his entire career. It's probably more about winning championships than cashing paychecks at this point, so a deal similar to the one Tim Duncan signed a few years back would make sense. Regardless of the size of the contract, Nowitzki should certainly be in Dallas going forward.
Luol Deng, Cleveland Cavaliers: Signs with Toronto Raptors for three years, $33 million.
Deng may want a fourth year or perhaps even a little more per season, but the market might not be so receptive to that. At least in Toronto, he'd join a promising young playoff team with a desperate need for someone of his capabilities. Cleveland will likely go after Deng as well, but there's no question which franchise is in better shape. This would be a nice fit both ways.
Pau Gasol, Los Angeles Lakers: Signs with San Antonio Spurs for two years, $17 million.
Technically, this could work whether Duncan and Ginobili retire or not. The Spurs quietly have a little cap room to play with, and bringing in another veteran big man who is a brilliant passer and plenty capable out of either post would seem to fit the bill. Gasol has declined and has injury issues, but no team knows how to manage veterans like the Spurs do. Whether he's a last piece to a final title run or a stopgap until the Spurs go younger at every position, Gasol could be a great target.
Lance Stephenson, Indiana Pacers: Re-signs with Indiana Pacers for four years, $38 million.
Stephenson's next contract will likely take the Pacers right up to the luxury-tax line, but not beyond it. That's probably fair from both sides. It works out, and Indiana will likely make every effort to keep one of its best creators offensively. It's possible Stephenson takes a bigger offer elsewhere, but here's guessing he'll take a little less money to stay with a championship contender.
Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors: Re-signs with Toronto Raptors for three years, $30 million.
After it looked like Lowry was surely going to be in a different uniform next season, he's suddenly proven himself invaluable to what Toronto has in place. While it's possible GM Masai Ujiri ultimately does decide to rebuild, it seems much more likely he'll build off this current core and keep Lowry around. This deal seems fair from both sides, especially since so few teams around the league are in need of a starting point guard.
Marcin Gortat, Washington Wizards: Re-signs with Washington Wizards for three years, $33 million.
With Nene's health status constantly in question, the Wizards need a reliable, sturdy big man like Gortat as badly as any other team in the league does. That might end up in a bit of an overpay, but free-agent big men always come at a high price.
Gortat has been a huge part of Washington making the playoffs this year, and the thought of losing that momentum should be enough to make him Washington's top offseason priority. Likewise, there aren't many better fits or young backcourts out there for Gortat to team with, so this makes sense for both sides.