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NBA Free Agents 2014: Predictions for Biggest Storylines Left to Be Decided

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NBA Free Agents 2014: Predictions for Biggest Storylines Left to Be Decided
Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Friday saw the NBA world at large thank LeBron James for finally allowing the NBA offseason to come out of its comatose state. The next 48 hours saw the NBA world at large wondering why James couldn't have made his decision on a Wednesday.

If you were an NBA fan or executive looking to have a normal, relaxing weekend, well, tough luck. As expected, LeBron's decision brought with it a flurry of subsequent moves that had July 11 and July 12 feeling like the true opening of free agency. Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony Paul Pierce, Trevor Ariza, Pau Gasol and Vince Carter signings are chief among the flurry of moves that past couple days.

We're not even mentioning the Jazz matching Gordon Hayward's offer sheet or the Kings declining a similar chance for Isaiah Thomas. And over the next couple days—as the league sits poolside in Las Vegas for NBA Summer League—the rest of the offseason should start to coalesce. 

Dwyane Wade's re-signing with the Heat is inevitable at this point. The Rockets are scrambling to use what's left of their cap space. Lance Stephenson and Luol Deng are suddenly the hottest names on the market. What happens to Eric Bledsoe in Phoenix now that Isaiah Thomas is in the fold? Has anyone contacted Greg Monroe's agent?

Some of these things seem like dominoes that could take forever to fall but won't. The NBA offseason is working at warp speed now. James' decision put a freeze over signings that would have happened a week ago. It's time for general managers to kick it into overdrive and get things done.

With that in mind, let's check in on some of the biggest remaining storylines and predict how they will play out.

 

Who Joins LeBron in Cleveland?

Jason Miller/Getty Images

In his first-person essay in Sports Illustrated announcing his Cleveland comeback, James said he knew the Cavs as currently constituted are not championship contenders. "No way" was his exact phrasing. The Cavs are built on a foundation of youth, featuring three of the last four No. 1 picks and no one remotely as fully formed as James.

The key phrase, though, remains "as currently constituted." Before James even confirmed his return, rumors floated about a possible Kevin Love trade. Now, the Cavs look like favorites to land two All-NBA stars in one fell swoop. CBS Sports' Ken Berger reported that Love, who was initially not open to staying in Cleveland long-term, has suddenly warmed to northeast Ohio.

But a Love trade is still likely off in the distant future. The Timberwolves are still (smartly) posturing in discussions, demanding a haul fitting of one of the league's top-10 players. Too often teams press the desperation button and sell their stars at 50 cents on the dollar, but Flip Saunders has done a solid job of sticking to his guns so far.

All that inertia leaves the Cavs time to further bolster their roster. Brian Windhorst of ESPN reported James' friend Mike Miller, who the Heat amnestied last summer to the chagrin of the four-time MVP, is working on a deal with Cleveland. There is also mutual interest between the Cavs and Ray Allen, per Sam Amico of Fox Sports Ohio

Adding Allen and Miller makes perfect sense from a basketball standpoint. Both effectively space the floor and have thrived working with James late in their careers. Playing with James tends to do that. Their status as aging vets who need plenty of rest won't be a problem, as the Cavs could rotate the pair as needed. 

USA TODAY Sports

What will be interesting is how and/or if Cleveland can afford both players. Because the Cavaliers are under the cap, their only recourses are the  so-called "room exception," which is $2.732 million—roughly half of a full mid-level—and the bi-annual exception, which starts at a little more than $2 million. 

With Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports reporting that the market for Miller is between $4-4.5 million per season, it would seem impossible barring a sign-and-trade for Cleveland to make a deal work. Unless, of course, Miller is willing to take a haircut to play with James.

Allen's market is more fluid, though he's probably worth the room exception by himself on this market. Shooters are the NBA's most precious commodity at the moment (see: Meeks, Jodie). A contender, perhaps even Miami, would pay Allen more than what he would get in Cleveland. 

For both guys, it comes down to a choice between cashing in one more time and playing with the best player on the planet. When it comes down to it, I think the allure of James wins out for both.

 

What's Up With the Restricted Guys?

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

The biggest remaining question of the offseason may be answered Sunday night. The Rockets have until 11:59 p.m. ET to decide whether to match the Mavericks' three-year offer sheet to Chandler Parsons. Their signing of Trevor Ariza over the weekend seemingly makes that less likely, but Daryl Morey is not above merely matching to have an extra trade asset lying around.

Parsons is not worth the $46 million he'll be paid over the life of that deal. Not even in this wild market. He's a minus defensively and a pretty good overall offensive talent. You'd like him at $10 million a year as a third banana on a playoff team and a fourth banana on a championship roster. His contract isn't damaging over the long term at three years, but it would effectively tie Houston's cap space for the rest of Dwight Howard's prime.

The prospect of losing a good player for nothing versus paying a good player great player money. Morey put himself in this situation. It's not an enviable one.

Once the Parsons situation sorts out, focus should shift over to the two remaining restricted free agents in line for big paydays. Greg Monroe and Eric Bledsoe look like this year's victims of the restricted freeze. Their incumbent teams are widely expected to match any offer sheet laid out on the table, so executives have taken the "why bother" attitude. 

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The Bledsoe and Monroe markets have been almost eerily quiet. The last time another team was linked to Bledsoe was more than a week ago, when ESPN's Marc Stein reported the Bucks were planning to kick his tires. There hasn't been much buzz for Monroe since the Blazers were mentioned by Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press on July 2.

In the meantime, a number of teams with significant cap space have spent their money. The Hornets are an intriguing possibility now that Gordon Hayward is heading back to Utah, but their interest in both players is probably minimal. Steve Clifford and Co. like Kemba Walker and just drafted Noah Vonleh to stick at the 4. More likely, Charlotte is a Lance Stephenson match.

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The Hawks are a theoretically solid fit for Bledsoe. No one is sold on Jeff Teague as a title-worthy starting point guard—if only he could bring #PlayoffTeague with him every night—and Bledsoe could be fun in Mike Budenholzer's offense. It's unlikely Danny Ferry is willing tie up cap flexibility by signing a deal that Phoenix would hesitate to match, anyway.

Monroe faces similar fit issues. Teams like the Lakers have shifted into short-term contracts as they attempt to keep long-term flexibility. The Suns have already made the restricted free agency plunge once, and the plodding Monroe doesn't mesh well with their system. The Mavericks might chase Monroe if the Rockets match on Parsons for the hell of it, but he'd be a third big in that situation.

All of this is to say Monroe and Bledsoe are likely coming back. Their contract stipulations will be something to watch—Monroe especially might want to just take Detroit's qualifying offer of $5.5 million and bite the bullet—but their hands are tied.

 

What Happens With Lance Stephenson?

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Before it became apparent the LeBron market was actually open for business, Stephenson was the most intriguing free agent. From a pure basketball standpoint, Stephenson is the best player remaining on the market. He probably should have been an All-Star in the Eastern Conference last season, is one of the league's 10 best perimeter defenders and has improved by leaps and bounds as an offensive player.

He's also a 23-year-old unrestricted free agent. That's a gold mine for NBA teams. Because of the way the league's collective bargaining agreement is structured, most stars and near-stars are tethered to their teams for seven or eight years—assuming the incumbent wants to keep them around. Because of Stephenson's slow development and the Pacers' need to straddle the tax line, he's available at an age where teams will be buying his prime years.

Of course, Stephenson the player comes as a package deal with Stephenson the personality. And that ain't kosher to a good amount of teams. Stephenson's antics—largely innocent in the micro but annoying and self-destructive in the macro—have probably cost him no less than $10 million in guaranteed money. His implosion in the Eastern Conference Finals against Miami and creating a memestorm by blowing in LeBron's ear was reminiscent of J.R. Smith's fallout after elbowing Jason Terry a year prior.

In a market where Hayward is landing more than $15 million a year, Stephenson should be touching similar scratch. Instead, teams that have only cursorily checked in—the market feeling as tepid now as it was on July 1.

The Pacers coaching staff and players want him back. They know his value on a night-to-night basis better than anyone. He and George are the best perimeter-defending tandem in the league, a rare team that could handle the former Dwyane Wade, LeBron James combination. 

"He knows we want him very, very badly," coach Frank Vogel told Michael Marot of the Associated Press. "Hopefully, we'll find a way to get it done."

At issue is Stephenson's price. He understandably wants to be paid like someone with his on-court trajectory. The Pacers are balking at the prospect of dishing out a fat contract to someone with Stephenson's loose-cannon reputation. Chris Broussard of ESPN reported Indiana has offered him only a five-year, $44 million deal—a bargain that would only become moreso as the cap rises. 

Neither side has budged in more than a week. Stephenson is choosing to let the market dictate his price. The Mavericks were mentioned by Woj as a potential destination if their Parsons pursuit peters out (#alliteration). With Hayward going back to the Jazz, the Hornets have significant space and a need for improvement on the wing.

Chuck Burton/Associated Press

Signing Marvin Williams to a two-year deal ties some of that up. Charlotte has roughly $10 million in cap space remaining, with spaces for empty roster spots. That's not enough to get Stephenson to bolt the Pacers, but I'd venture to guess Larry Bird wouldn't be opposed to a sign-and-trade deal. The Hornets could convince Indiana to sign something like a four-year, $44 million deal and then send back Gerald Henderson and a second-round pick.

Henderson is a fine player in his own right and is only 26 years old. He's also due only $6 million for 2013-14, which would eliminate all the Pacers' tax concerns. Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer has reported Stephenson isn't a target for the Hornets, but, frankly, I just don't get that. Stephenson is a better player than Hayward, comes cheaper and creates a potentially devastating defensive core with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Charlotte and Indiana are the two favorites in my eyes.

 

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