What's at Stake This Season for NBA's Top 2015 Free Agents?

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistAugust 28, 2014

What's at Stake This Season for NBA's Top 2015 Free Agents?

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    Not all free-agent experiences are equal.

    Even as point guard Rajon Rondo is set to explore his options next summer, the newest member of the Cleveland Cavaliers probably won't be doing much exploring. So long as LeBron James is in town, odds are, Kevin Love will be at his side.

    And then there are two reigning champions you won't find on this list: Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard. 

    Both will be free agents, but neither is likely to depart from the San Antonio Spurs. It's no secret that Duncan will either retire or stick around the team that drafted him in 1997. As for the 2014 NBA Finals MVP, Leonard looks to be following in Duncan's ever-loyal footsteps.

    "I'm just playing," Leonard said this summer, per USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt. "The Spurs are a great organization. I'm leaving that to my agent, and I'm sure they'll come out with a great understanding and a deal. I'm not focused on that at all."

    If only these kinds of crossroads were always so easy.

    Many of the league's top free agents may similarly remain right where they are—even after entertaining pitches from various suitors. Even so, they'll be playing for something.

    Big paydays at the very least.

    Here's a look at 10 stars set to cash in as free agents in 2015.

10. DeAndre Jordan

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    After leading the league with 13.6 rebounds per game (and ranking third with 2.48 blocks), DeAndre Jordan has left little doubt about his ability to put all those impressive physical gifts to good use.

    And given the Los Angeles Clippers' cap limitations, odds are the organization will make every attempt to retain Jordan (whom it can re-sign even if it means going over the salary cap). Moreover, athletic centers who run the floor and jump out of the building are a rare commodity. Jordan wouldn't be easy to replace.

    In turn, Jordan's focus this season will probably be twofold. 

    First and most importantly, he needs to remain healthy. Short of some kind of catastrophe, the market for big men will ensure he gets paid.

    Second, the 26-year-old will likely attempt to shore up some of the intangibles in his game—meaning improved defensive rotation and communication.

    Developing an outside shot would be nice, but it may not be essential to winning another meaty contract. As it stands, Jordan will make $11,440,123 this season, and it's hard to see him warranting much less than that at year's end.

9. Rudy Gay

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    In picking up his player option worth $19,317,326 this summer, swingman Rudy Gay ensured at least one more campaign with the ever-struggling Sacramento Kings.

    That's a lot of money to turn down, especially when facing a market that would have likely paid far less on a per-year basis.

    Gay is betting on not getting seriously injured this season and likely hoping to further cement his value after having a promising stretch with the Kings last season. After wearing out his welcome with the Memphis Grizzlies, Gay struggled to find his shot through 51 games with the Toronto Raptors.

    His rhythm returned in Sacramento, though. Now, he'll be looking to prove that wasn't an anomaly, that he remains a well-rounded, top-tier scorer in this league. 

    Now 28 years old, the forward has never quite lived up to the lofty potential implied by a breakout sophomore season in which he averaged 20.1 points per game in Memphis. But despite uneven shooting, the production has remained pretty constant throughout Gay's eight seasons. 

    The danger is that the rest of the league views him as more of a complementary player, one who might deserve a hefty pay cut.

    So while the Kings are unlikely to make major strides this season, Gay's task is to demonstrate that he can carry a team—that he is worth every penny of another lucrative, long-term deal.

8. Dwyane Wade

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    Dwyane Wade's presence on this list may be a technicality.

    After inking a two-year deal with the Miami Heat this summer, he owns a player option for the 2015-16 season worth a hefty $16,125,000. Whether he accepts that option or again becomes a free agent, chances are he isn't going anywhere.

    When the 32-year-old announced his return via Instagram, he included a heading that read, "Home Is Where The Heart Is... My Home, My City, My House..#HeatLifer."

    Sooner or later, Wade will probably pursue one last long-term arrangement with Miami, collecting a big payday while he still can. Next summer may be his best opportunity to cash in. He isn't getting any younger.

    As SB Nation's Drew Garrison notes, "It's not clear how much the three-time champion and 2006 Finals MVP has left. First, the obvious: A refreshed Wade can bring a shot in the arm with playmaking considering his ability to break down defenses with the drive. Leadership-wise, he's a commodity."

    But Garrison offers a caveat, writing, "That being said, knee issues, and bumps and bruises have caught up to the 10-time All-Star. During the Heat's run over the last four years, he has added an entire season's worth of wear just in the number of playoff games in which he's participated."

    Assuming Wade won't entertain offers from other teams, this season is all about remaining healthy and potentially proving he can still compete—something the Heat desperately need in the absence of LeBron James.

    Even though Wade's next deal will probably be worth less on a per-year basis, he could still make a boatload of money if he remains in All-Star form.

7. Goran Dragic

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    Last season's Most Improved Player is about to become one of next summer's most desirable.

    He's already a wanted man if you believe ESPN.com's Marc Stein, who tweeted (via Basketball Insiders' Alex Kennedy) in July that the "Indiana Pacers, I’m told, have tried to engage Phoenix in trade talks for Goran Dragic, but teams have found no common deal ground. Yet."

    In theory, the Phoenix Suns would love to keep Dragic around. Last season, the 28-year-old averaged a career-high 20.3 points to go along with 5.9 assists per contest. The real kicker is that he made 50.5 percent of his field-goal attempts and 40.8 percent of his attempts from three-point range.

    But another year of that kind of production will make Dragic a very expensive commodity. And after making just $7,500,000 this season, he'll be looking to cash in.

    Technically, Dragic could accept a player option worth another $7,500,000 for the 2015-16 season, but there's absolutely zero chance that happens. He's worth way more by now.

    Even so, Phoenix will have a decision to make. 

    The club acquired point guard Isaiah Thomas this summer in a sign-and-trade deal with the Sacramento Kings. Thomas' numbers were similar to Dragic's last season, and he's still just 25 years old. More importantly, he boasts a very affordable contract that pays him just $7,238,606 this season and descends in value for the three seasons after that.

    If the organization reaches a long-term agreement with Eric Bledsoe, that means there's yet another piece earning big backcourt minutes (potentially at either guard position).

    So the question isn't really whether the Suns can afford Dragic—they can. The bigger variable is whether their money is best spent on another point guard as opposed to a swingman or interior player who could round out the rotation in a more balanced fashion.

    Dragic's a nice fit in Phoenix, but he may prove an even better fit somewhere else.

6. Al Jefferson

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    While other free-agent big men like Roy Hibbert may attract more press attention, Charlotte Hornets center Al Jefferson has established himself as a vital contributor on one of the Eastern Conference's best up-and-coming teams.

    The 29-year-old averaged 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds last season, earning himself recognition on the All-NBA Third Team in the process.

    More importantly, he helped extricate Charlotte from the bottom of the standings and elevate it to the postseason instead. Though an opening-round sweep against the Miami Heat put a damper on the club's coming-out party, it's hard to deny the season was a collective success thanks to Jefferson's presence.

    The Hornets seem like a good fit for Jefferson. He provides an interior scoring threat and some veteran leadership on an otherwise young roster. He'll get his touches, and he's solid enough on the defensive end to overlook his lack of elite rim protection.

    More importantly, Jefferson would be difficult to replace.

    Charlotte still isn't a premier free-agent destination, so there's a premium on keeping in-house talent around for the long haul.

    At this point, Jefferson has little to prove. The more pressing variable is whether his Hornets can keep up the good work, perhaps even making further gains in a conference that's fairly wide open. If Charlotte remains relevant, chances are Jefferson will stick around.

5. Marc Gasol

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    CBSSports.com's Matt Moore recently said it best:

    It's not going to be the Dwightmare. It won't be the MeloDrama or the LoveBoat. And it certainly won't be the Decision 2.0. But the reality is this: Marc Gasol is a legit star in this league, even if few casual fans know who he is. He's a major impact player who can instantly transform your team on both sides of the ball. And he's a free agent in 2015.

    The 2013 Defensive Player of the Year remains a force with whom to reckon and could seriously upgrade a new front line next summer.

    Solid as his Memphis Grizzlies have been in their perennial dark-horse role, Gasol may have better luck with a different roster. Memphis seems to have reached its ceiling, and that ceiling just isn't high enough.

    That said, Gasol himself has sounded an entirely loyal tone.

    "I've always said Memphis is my home away from home," Gasol told The Commercial Appeal's Ronald Tillery. "Robert [Pera, Griz controlling owner] knows that. I know that. My teammates know that, and that's all that matters. I live day to day, but I don't see myself anywhere else. Only time will tell. But I don't see a reason to change right now."

    It's not quite a promise, but it's probably as good as Grizzlies fans are going to get.

    Still, there will be some temptations when next July rears its head.

    "The New York Knicks will try to lure Gasol with the promise of the triangle offense, the scheme that helped Pau transform from a Memphis outcast into a champion," predicts ESPN Insider's Amin Elhassan (subscription required). "Heading to New York would also allow Gasol to play alongside an elite scorer in Carmelo Anthony as well as Spanish national teammate Jose Calderon."

    Even if Gasol isn't the type to gravitate toward bright lights, there could well be some allure to playing in New York—or perhaps even with the Los Angeles Lakers, who will similarly have money to spend (and a need at the center position).

    For the record, Gasol will be 30 years old by the time he's a free agent, and his production has never quite measured up to his reputation. But if he keeps Memphis in the playoff hunt and remains a strong two-way player, he'll have plenty of suitors in 2015.

4. Rajon Rondo

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    Point guard Rajon Rondo may have more at stake this season than any of his fellow free-agents-to-be.

    The 28-year-old is coming off a season in which he was limited to just 30 games after recovering from a torn ACL. While he managed to average a solid 11.7 points and 9.8 assists during that span, a career-low 40.3 shooting percentage suggests Rondo never quite found his rhythm.

    His ability to do so this season may go a long way toward determining how much he's worth on the open market.

    Rondo has remained the subject of trade speculation, largely on account of the fact that his Boston Celtics now find themselves right smack in the middle of what may become a protracted rebuilding process. At Rondo's age, the prospect of waiting for an increasingly young roster to develop may not be particularly attractive.

    But it hasn't come to a trade just yet, even as Rondo has reportedly made it clear he'll explore his opportunities next summer.

    "Though he is not looking to get out of Boston, Rajon Rondo was quick to kill talk of an extension when recently approached by Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge," ESPN Insider's Chris Broussard wrote back in January (subscription required). "It didn't even get to the numbers stage. Rondo is looking forward to becoming an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career in the summer of 2015."

    Broussard added, "It's not that he's dead set on leaving Boston, but he wants to keep his options open in terms of both winning and money."

    So while the Celtics will look to demonstrate the potential for a short-term turnaround, Rondo will spend this season attempting to prove he's in top form and worthy of a massive contract—with Boston or otherwise.

    In a league that's suddenly flush with very good point guards, Rondo will look to set himself apart—reminding onlookers that he remains a capable scorer and one of the very best distributors in the game.

3. LaMarcus Aldridge

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    Though LaMarcus Aldridge suggested (way back in February) he might be open to a contract extension this summer, it made little sense to do so given the financial incentives attached to waiting and becoming a free agent in 2015.

    "I'm happy to stay (in Portland), happy to be here, happy with the direction the team has gone the last year or two," Aldridge told The Oregonian's Joe Freeman (via NBCSports.com's Dan Feldman) in July. "But I just want to get a five-year deal. I feel like that’s the best decision on my part."

    Though the Trail Blazers fell short of their lofty title goals last season, the club's successful opening round against the Houston Rockets hinted at what its young core may be capable of going forward.

    After averaging 23.2 points and 11.1 rebounds per game during the regular season, Aldridge certainly did his part against those Rockets. He scored a combined 89 points in Games 1 and 2 of the series, securing a pivotal 2-0 lead for Portland.

    While the 29-year-old will likely play at a high level again this season, the bigger question is whether his team can take another step forward and capitalize on the meteoric rise of point guard Damian Lillard.

    If Portland plays like a contender and crashes a Western Conference party dominated by the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers, Aldridge would have an awfully difficult time walking away.

    The extra money (and fifth season) Portland can offer according to the current collective bargaining agreement certainly doesn't hurt.

2. Kevin Love

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    Like a few others on this list, Kevin Love will likely become a free agent in name only.

    No one leaves LeBron James hanging.

    Part of Kevin Love's incentive to remain with the Cleveland Cavaliers is financial. As per the CBA, the organization can sign him to a five-year deal whereas other suitors are limited to offering just four seasons.

    The Plain Dealer's Terry Pluto writes:

    Remember, Love doesn't just want to play with the Cavs and LeBron James, he also wants the maximum deal. That's why he is forcing a trade. If he had been dealt to Golden State, he'd adopt this same strategy: A) Play out his contract. B) Become a free agent in the summer of 2015. C) Sign a maximum five-year, $120-plus million deal with his new team that had just traded for him.

    Love's recent comments seem to confirm that plan, as he told media at his introductory press conference:

    I told [general manager David] Griffin in our meetings and [owner] Dan Gilbert as well and the powers that be in the front office and all the way down, I'm committed to this team, committed long‑term to the end goal and that is to win championships and to win a championship here in Ohio. We know it's earned, not given, but every day is an opportunity for us to get better and try to seize that opportunity.

    There will almost certainly be a few franchises looking to change Love's mind when next summer rolls around, but they shouldn't hold their respective breaths.

    All the 25-year-old need worry about in the interim is remaining healthy. There's little doubt he'll continue producing—albeit at a slightly lower rate with the talent now surrounding him. And there's little doubt the Cavaliers will remain highly interested in retaining an elite stretch 4 who can rebound with the best of them.

1. LeBron James

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    In addition to signing a contract that lasts just two seasons, there's an ever-so-slight chance LeBron James could return to the free-agent market after just one go-around with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

    USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt reported that "James could have taken a four-year contract worth more than $88 million from the Cavs. But he now will be able to negotiate a better contract in two years and also has the choice to opt out after one season to renegotiate next summer."

    The chances that James actually goes anywhere?


    "My No. 1 goal is to win a championship here; it'd be the greatest achievement in my life," James said in August, per ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst. "I don't plan on going nowhere. I don't have the energy to do it again."

    The NBA might not have the energy to watch it, either.

    James indicated a willingness to stick around in the original "I'm Coming Home" piece published by Sports Illustrated.

    "I’m not promising a championship," James wrote, per Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins in July. "I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010."

    So the option to become a free agent next summer seems principally to do with maintaining flexibility and potentially negotiating a new, more lucrative deal.

    "At the end of the day, I'm a businessman as well," James said, per Windhorst. "I know what is going on in the league."

    And assuming the Cavaliers are as good as advertised, James probably won't have any reason to leave. With the addition of star forward Kevin Love and a young core that includes Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, Cleveland is ready for big things.