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Which Teams Will Dictate NBA 2014 Free Agency?

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistJune 29, 2014

Which Teams Will Dictate NBA 2014 Free Agency?

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    For the moment, neither LeBron James nor Carmelo Anthony belongs to any particular team. So we're well aware by now which players will dictate the free-agent market.

    The question is which teams will wield commensurate influence. Who will have the money, the wherewithal? Where are the preferred destinations, the winning opportunities? 

    As you might have guessed, most small-market teams are out of luck. Even teams flush with cap space—from the Philadelphia 76ers to the Orlando Magic—will remain bit players in the summer of 2014. Top-shelf talent is interested in more than money alone these days.

    These guys want to win.

    Accordingly, here are the teams that will impact free agency the most this offseason.

5. Dallas Mavericks

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    Even after acquiring Tyson Chandler and a contract that owes him $14,596,888 next season, the Dallas Mavericks have just over $35 million committed so far for next season. Though Dirk Nowitzki's next deal will take a chunk out of that, it won't be as significant as you might expect.

    The 36-year-old has been planning to re-sign with the club at a discounted rate since last summer. That will ensure the Mavs remain major players in the free-agent market, with somewhere on the order of $15-20 million left to spend after inking Nowitzki.

    Given that kind of flexibility, Dallas should be aggressive in its attempts to land another star and make the most of Nowitzki's final few years in the league.

    Per SportsDayDFW, "the Mavericks are on the short list of teams [Carmelo] Anthony will visit when free agency opens Tuesday."

    The organization will also take a stab at LeBron James if Nowitzki's comments are any indication. 

    According to Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears, Nowitkzi said of James, "C'mon, you can have the keys to the city [of Dallas]. It's all yours."

    When the dust settles, it may be more likely that Dallas winds up with a lesser free agent like Luol Deng. Beyond the team's desire for another star, it also has a very real need for an upgrade at the small forward position—and potentially a replacement for Shawn Marion should the 36-year-old free agent go elsewhere.

    Dallas has whiffed on its most recent big-ticket free-agent targets, including Dwight Howard in 2013 and Deron Williams in 2012.

4. Los Angeles Lakers

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    The Los Angeles Lakers would be higher on this list but for the likelihood that the organization saves its biggest spending for the summer of 2015.

    Back in March, Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding wrote:

    Everything goes out the window if LeBron James opts out of his Heat contract and is interested in the Lakers this summer, but otherwise the Lakers plan to piece a roster together again next season around Kobe Bryant and save their cap space for 2015 free agents such as Kevin LoveLaMarcus AldridgeRajon RondoMarc Gasol and maybe James.

    Since that was written, James has of course opted out of his contract, but it's unclear whether he has any interest in joining the Lakers. So for the moment, it's probably fair to assume the franchise remains committed to doing it's big shopping a summer from now.

    Of course, things could change—particularly if the Lakers decide that Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant would be a good fit with one another.

    According to Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears, Los Angeles is one of the clubs with which Anthony will meet this summer before making a decision about his future destination.

    It's a little difficult to see Anthony meshing with Bryant given that both players do some of their best work dominating the ball in isolation. That said, Anthony remains arguably the most attractive free agent on the market (assuming Miami's stars stay put), and players of his caliber are rarely available. So this may be something the Lakers have to consider.

    One of Los Angeles' own free agents will also impact the market.

    After making $19,285,850 in 2013-14, Pau Gasol is a free agent who's due a pretty massive pay cut.

    According to ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin:

    Although the Lakers' ideal free agency scenario involves convincing both LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony to come play for them this summer, according to a source with knowledge of the team's thinking, they are not ruling out the return of the four-time All-Star and two-time NBA champion Gasol by any means.

    If Gasol returns to the Lakers, that would take perhaps the best all-around big man off the market, forcing a number of teams to explore their plan Bs and Cs.

3. Chicago Bulls

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    Back in April, Carmelo Anthony had some pretty nice things to say about Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau and his system.

    Since then, the plot has most certainly thickened.

    In June, Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Anthony, "has been intrigued with the chance to join the Bulls for several months, but Houston has gathered significant momentum as a preferred destination for him, league sources said."

    Per Wojnarowski, "For Chicago to make its bid for Anthony, it will need to amnesty the contract of Carlos Boozer and unload forward Taj Gibson and at least one more player."

    Another option would be for the Bulls to acquire Anthony via sign-and-trade, assuming the New York Knicks were interested in such an arrangement.

    Chicago seems to be interested in doing whatever it takes to land the star small forward. Thibodeau has reportedly even touched base with Anthony's former coaches to discuss the proposition of him playing in Chicago. 

    Meanwhile, according to ESPNNewYork.com's Ian Begley, "Anthony has talked to at least one high-profile person who lives in Chicago about what it's like to be famous in the Windy City."

    With both sides doing what appears to be a fair amount of early research, things may be getting serious. If Chicago is indeed Anthony's preferred landing spot, it would send ripples throughout the free-agent market—beginning with Anthony's sudden unavailability and the fact that Boozer would be up for grabs. 

    The Knicks would be left licking their wounds with minimal cap flexibility to replace their star in the short term. And other suitors, such as the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks, would be forced to move on to their next best options.

2. Houston Rockets

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    Why are the Houston Rockets more important to the free-agent market than the Chicago Bulls?

    Ambition.

    General manager Daryl Morey would love to get his hands on Anthony, but he's aiming even higher—at LeBron James himself.

    According to Bleacher Report's Howard Beck, "League sources say that Houston is preparing to make an all-out push to land James when free agency opens on July 1, assuming James opts out, as expected. If the Rockets miss out on James, they will turn their full attention to Carmelo Anthony. Chris Bosh is also on the radar."

    That sounds about right. 

    "We're always aggressive," Morey said, according to USA Today's Sam Amick. "That's just in our owner's makeup, whether it's adding Clyde (Drexler in 1995) to an already-championship team to adding (Charles) Barkley on a team (in 1996)...our owner has got aggressiveness in his DNA."

    And the Rockets will be aggressive again this time, setting their sights on the best free-agent talent the league has to offer, hoping the prospect of playing alongside James Harden and Dwight Howard is alluring enough to make the difference.

    Like the Bulls, Houston has some maneuvering to do in order to position themselves for a run at James or Anthony. But the Rockets are already halfway there after agreeing to trade Omer Asik to the New Orleans Pelicans, thereby clearing over $8 million in cap space.

    Should Houston land either James or Anthony, the implications would be manifold for the rest of the NBA. It could mean disaster for the Miami Heat or New York Knicks. It could mean reassessing options for the Chicago Bulls and Dallas Mavericks.

    And it would almost certainly mean there's a new title favorite in the league.

1. Miami Heat

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    LeBron James has opted out of his contract. 

    Dwyane Wade has followed suit, per Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press. 

    By most accounts, Chris Bosh is on the verge of doing the same, per Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com.

    None of this means the Big Three as we know it is necessarily over. In fact, it could simply mean this core is about to get some additional help. By taking less money, James, Wade and Bosh could give team president Pat Riley the financial flexibility to add additional talent—with names such as Kyle Lowry and even Marcin Gortat rumored as options.

    But make no mistake about it. There's real pressure on Riley to make this work, to improve a roster that simply looked overmatched during the 2014 NBA Finals. Should he do what it takes to keep James and Co. happy, the free-agent market will become considerably thinner at the very top.

    Should he fail, the NBA as we know it will radically change.

    The best player on the planet could take his talents to Los Angeles or Texas. Chris Bosh could replace Pau Gasol as the best big man on the market. 

    And yes, our heads would collectively explode in the process.

    Much as Riley has riding on his team-building acuity, there may be no one in the business better suited to the job. He will have to convince the Big Three to take less money. He may have to convince another free agent or two that he should do the same.

    He'll sell them all on a legacy, on the opportunity to make yet another trip to the NBA Finals and make good on some unfinished business.

    Chances are he'll be successful in doing so. 

    But for now, they're only chances.

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