Most Powerful NBA Free Agents
The 2014 NBA free-agency class is a doozy.
Upon first glance, not a lot of terribly famous, needle-moving stars are available. But the teeth of 2011's collective bargaining agreement are starting to sink in, and the lay of the player-movement landscape is shifting.
Here we have a list of free agents—restricted and unrestricted, opt-out possibilities and otherwise—set to inform what the rest of the league does. Wherever these guys go, there's bound to be a ripple of reaction from all the other front offices looking to make their teams contenders.
Lance Stephenson looks to be as much of a quagmire for potential free-agent suitors as he has been for the Indiana Pacers.
At times the best player on the floor—regardless of the competition—Stephenson is also wont to fumble away his better brain and thus the chance of victory for his team. He’s a rare talent, seething with intensity and possessing an elite vision of the court that can lead to incredible playmaking, whether it be through finding his teammates or creating a path for himself to the rim.
As a 23-year-old with lots of years left on his odometer, one has to think Stephenson will simply go to the highest bidder. Free agency is always a player’s market, so expect the wingman to see offers in the crazy range of $15 million per year for as much as five years.
He’s a risky investment, as his upside could tread downward—Stephenson often has trouble containing his emotions, as we’ve now seen with his very public, very embarrassing trash talk to LeBron James in this year's Eastern Conference Finals.
As Bethlehem Shoals of GQ put it: "Lance Stephenson's nickname should be 'Turbulence.'"
But if his Pacers don’t go the extra mile to retain him—they’re already into the luxury tax with the commitments they’ve made to their core—expect Stephenson to land with a more marginal team with money to spend.
A team like the Dallas Mavericks, for instance, might have enough faith in their ability to keep Stephenson steady. Just this season, they made gold out of Monta Ellis, a talented guard with (at times) a similarly troublesome disposition.
If you haven't heard of Eric Bledsoe yet, it's because he specializes in an area that often goes unnoticed: defense.
One of the very fastest players in the league, the 24-year-old, a former Chris Paul understudy with the Los Angeles Clippers, made big waves with the Phoenix Suns this season. He became easily the most disruptive defensive point guard in the league.
Bledsoe's defensive real plus-minus was a tremendous 3.97 in 2013-14, per ESPN.com, making him the only guard to crack the top 20 in that category. Despite being an undersized 6'1", he gave fits to guards and wings of all builds throughout the season.
He's a restricted free agent, which means that at the very least the Suns must match his qualifying offer of $3.7 million to retain him next season. If another team offers him something larger (and they will) the Suns must match the offer to have Bledsoe back.
He'll be a hot commodity this offseason. Any team with cap room and an eye to contention—the Los Angeles Lakers certainly come to mind—would be wise to chase his skills. Is Phoenix ready to compete with dollars to keep him? We'll soon find out.
Kyle Lowry, long cited as a mercurial talent with no head on his shoulders, was one of the very best turnaround stories in the NBA this season.
The dynamic Toronto Raptors point guard suddenly became a team leader and one of the most important players in the Eastern Conference, as his team cracked the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-08 season.
"I had to look at myself in the mirror," Lowry told Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports:
I know what people are saying now, 'Oh it's a contract year,' but it's bigger than that for me. Yes, I want a contract. And then I want to outgrow that one and get another one. But I want to win. I want to grow. And to grow, you've got to be able accept coaching. You've got to be able to be coached.
Lowry had a 20.2 player efficiency rating for the Raptors this past season, with only a handful of point guards ahead of him as he tenaciously drove the lane and attacked on defense.
There's a lot of good will between him, his young core of teammates and coach Dwane Casey. But if Toronto doesn't flatter Lowry with a huge offer, someone else will.
Gordon Hayward is a skilled 24-year-old who’s been terrific in a bubble—the Utah Jazz haven’t been relevant since they traded Deron Williams away in 2011.
But make no mistake: NBA executives have been noticing. And one has to believe that Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge is one of them. Celtics coach Brad Stevens coached Hayward at Butler University, and anyone with a basketball eye can see how the lengthy, sharpshooting wing would be a great fit next to Rajon Rondo.
The Phoenix Suns are also a natural fit for Hayward. Their run-and-gun style could use someone with his versatile offensive game, bolstering their charge and creating more space for their shooters. Hayward is a sure thing to average upwards of 15 points, five assists and five rebounds for years to come.
If the Jazz want Hayward to stick around, they're going to have to fight for him. His age and upside mean he'll be seeing some near-max contract offers.
Luol Deng, Pau Gasol
Welcome to the What's Left? Club.
Luol Deng has clocked a ton of playing time under hard-charging coaches Tom Thibodeau and Scott Skiles with the Chicago Bulls, and he wasn't able to move the needle for the Cleveland Cavaliers after a midseason trade. Teams are expected to be wary of making a big offer to the 29-year-old one-time All-Star.
Still, Deng is an obvious fit for the Houston Rockets—a team in great need of veterans with mental resolve, particularly ones who can shore up perimeter defense as well as Deng historically has. Unless Deng chases the biggest offer he can find, it's likely he'll end up in Houston or with a similar team on the fence on the contention. The Phoenix Suns, a team with cap room, also come to mind.
Pau Gasol, similarly, is seen as having dubious value around the league. One of the most skilled big men of the modern NBA era, the two-time champion with the Los Angeles Lakers has missed 55 games over the past two seasons. He's also 33 years old.
Deng's old team, the Bulls, has long been linked to Gasol in rumors. The no-nonsense, veteran-laden culture in Chicago would be a great fit for the Spaniard, as would any team looking to compete and score more in the post next year. But the price, for both sides, has to be right.
We'll soon see how much money both of these players are willing to sacrifice in the name of winning the way they're used to.
LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade
Hold your horses: These three probably aren’t going anywhere.
But the wisdom that brought this hot trio together is likely to keep each of them in Miami. All three have player options on their contracts for the 2014-15 season. Whether they take them or negotiate with their team to strike entirely new deals instead, it seems almost a sure thing that they’ll stay put.
Bosh, Wade and James have simply seen enough of the NBA to know what they’ve got. An extremely steady, extremely successful organizational structure is the envy of the rest of the league. Any of these guys could strike out alone and make more money elsewhere—but why? They’ve already got it made.
Here he is: The belle of the free-agency ball. The New York Knicks star (maybe) daring to leave.
Anthony is a once-in-a-generation scorer, second only to MVP Kevin Durant at putting the ball in the hole. And he’s been steadily increasing in efficiency over the last several seasons. Anthony is already 29, but he’s aging gracefully and plays a fairly timeless style anyway.
On a contender like the Chicago Bulls, he could add some much-needed punch to the steel shell of Chicago’s defense. He could be the missing ingredient to a title run.
And with the Houston Rockets, he could take part in one of the league’s most explosive offenses in years.
But Anthony still seems to fancy himself a Big Apple type, and it’s hard to see him leaving his place atop the biggest market in the world. Every gesture made out of Manhattan still feels like a bluff at this point. July will force Anthony’s hand, and wherever he goes he's sure to start a domino effect in the league’s roster alignment.