With the postseason winding down and draft speculation increasing, NBA free agency currently sits on the back burner of the 2014 offseason. However, this year's free-agent crop promises to offer another group of proven star talent and could result in some seismic shifts depending on who opts out and and how restricted free agency plays out.
Even excluding Miami's Big Three, whose future may depend on how its playoff run shakes out, there are plenty of important pieces available. In addition to the typical group of veteran stars, there is also an unusual amount of intriguing young talent around, which could make for bidding wars among desperate teams.
It's still too early to determine where anyone will end up (apart from Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki, who are never leaving their respective teams). But from a financial and on-court perspective, we can pinpoint some early front-runners for this summer's top stars.
Carmelo Anthony: Chicago Bulls
In terms of money, location and prestige, no team can beat what the New York Knicks will offer Carmelo Anthony. And yet, purely from a basketball standpoint, bolting for Chicago makes far more sense as Anthony closes in on his 30th birthday.
The Knicks will not be contenders next season, as the burdensome contracts of Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler will lock them into the same core that stumbled to a 37-45 season. With the bright lights of Madison Square Garden and the allure of Phil Jackson in tow, the Knicks will certainly be players in free agency the following summer.
But Melo might not want to wait that long, especially if he could transform another team into a contender within the dilapidated Eastern Conference. The Chicago Bulls have been connected to Anthony for months now, and it appears their chances of acquiring the seven-time All-Star are increasing as summer nears:
If the Bulls amnesty Carlos Boozer as many expect, Chicago could shed $16.8 million in cap space. Chicago still needs to perform some tricky cap gymnastics to carve up enough space to offer Anthony a more reasonable contract, probably in the $20 million range.
Still, if Anthony takes a slight discount from the max, the Bulls might be able to fit him in without doing something drastic like, say, trading Taj Gibson.
According to several sources, including a teammate, Noah’s All-Star Weekend “conversation’’ with New York Knicks standout Carmelo Anthony didn’t end in New Orleans. They had discussions via text the rest of the season, including the day after the Bulls were eliminated in the playoffs by the Washington Wizards.
Derrick Rose is no longer a sure commodity, but even the potential of an Anthony-Rose duo, along with Noah, Gibson and Jimmy Butler, would make the Bulls the likely second contender in the East behind Miami. For a player who has never reached the NBA Finals and advanced past the first round just twice, Anthony must consider what is best for his immediate basketball future this summer.
Kyle Lowry: Toronto Raptors
Free agency does not necessarily have to lead to players leaving their rosters, as sometimes the current environment is the perfect one. Toronto proved to be a haven for the ornery Kyle Lowry, who finally put everything together to produce a season worthy of an All-Star and perhaps even an All-NBA appearance.
Lowry set career-highs in points, assists and usage while shooting his highest percentage since the 2010-11 season, illustrating how he maintained efficiency despite being the focal point for the first time in his career. As such, Lowry's 20.20 PER was 25th-highest in the league according to ESPN's Hollinger statistics (subscription required). That mark placed him just ahead of a pair of Eastern All-Stars—Paul George and Kyrie Irving.
After the Raptors bowed out to Brooklyn in the playoffs, all signs pointed to Lowry's return. General manager Masai Ujiri asserted that Lowry "wants to be [in Toronto]," a sentiment the player confirmed to TSN's Josh Lewenberg:
Of course I can see myself back. We just went to Game 7, first round. Nobody expected us to be there. Of course I can see that.
At the end of the day, it's still a business and you have to be a businessman for the situation that you're in," he said, "but I am very happy. This has been one of the best seasons I've had, through and through. Best coaches, teammates, [front office]. It's been great. I am happy. Without a doubt, I can say I'm happy.
The 28-year-old figures to receive plenty of suitors that could price him out of the small-market Raptors' range, however.
One of those challenges could come from the Los Angeles Lakers, who will presumably have mounds of cap space if they renounce the rights to their free agents and use the stretch provision on Steve Nash. With Lowry's price in the eight-figure range, it could represent a prime opportunity for the Lakers to pounce:
Of course, the Lakers have an undisputed alpha male in Kobe Bryant. At this point, Lowry may very well be a better player than Bryant and may balk at taking a backseat in Los Angeles:
Thus, it appears Toronto represents the best place for him to foster further growth in his prime years. The Raptors have enough cap room to give Lowry the contract he wants and still avoid the tax, though subsequent signings would almost surely put them over the cap.
Nonetheless, Lowry would be wise to avoid the glitz of Los Angeles to return to the environment that fostered his breakout.
Luol Deng: Dallas Mavericks
After suffering through a nightmarish half-season in Cleveland, Luol Deng seems ready to find his way back to a contender. One team that could use his services is the Dallas Mavericks, who spliced together a band of veteran mid-level contracts into a dangerous No. 8 seed.
Owner Mark Cuban has always chased after the biggest fish, and as Dirk Nowitzki's career winds down, he'll undoubtedly be looking to find another All-Star to pair with the German superstar. Deng does have two All-Star appearances on his resume, so while he doesn't warrant the same excitement as a top-shelf player, he could be a prime target for Dallas this offseason:
ESPN's Marc Stein also noted that Deng was a "likely wing target." However, Stein also raised an interesting question about Nowitzki, who will be a free agent this summer, and how much of a discount he will take to aid the Mavericks' quest to return to championship contention:
The bigger question with Nowitzki is what sort of pay cut he'll take in the name of trying to leave the Mavs with sufficient flexibility to add a difference-maker or two. The risk for Nowitzki is that he'll almost certainly have to sign first -- to remove his cap hold from the Mavs' book -- with no guarantee that they'll be any more successful landing their top targets than they were in either of the previous two offseasons.
The working assumption is that Nowitzki will re-sign for at least $10-12 million annually, similar to Tim Duncan's current contract with San Antonio and Kevin Garnett's last deal with Boston before being dealt to Brooklyn.
If Nowitzki signs for $10 million, that would still leave the Mavs with roughly $22 million, not including cap holds for Shawn Marion, Vince Carter, DeJuan Blair or Devin Harris. Those were all important role players in Dallas' egalitarian system last season, and if the Mavs can resolve those situations quickly to remove cap holds, that would greatly aid their free agency flexibility.
In an ideal world, the Mavericks could pitch Carmelo or even LeBron on coming to Texas for a reduced rate. More likely, they settle for a second-tier star like Deng and continue to assemble a steady veteran squad capable of making noise, but perhaps not enough to raise another banner.