The beginning of NBA free agency still feels strangely off in the distance. It doesn't feel like something teams have already begun to prepare for behind the scenes, as their playoff hopes wash away one more time on the season's final night. But that's the reality.
While we have two full months of playoffs, the entire draft season and a whole heaping pile of other things to look forward to, the era of free agency is upon us. If there's one indelible legacy the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement will leave, it's the fundamental shift of the league to one dictated by free agency.
Contracts are shorter, teams are more hesitant with eight-figure-per-season deals and the punitive luxury tax looms over everything.
By paring down contract lengths and giving numerous advantages to incumbent teams, the NBA thought we'd see more stagnation among top players. Instead, the league-wide hesitance to spend without consequence (Brooklyn exempted) has created a situation where the options for players are more plentiful than ever.
More than half of the league will enter free agency under the cap, and we could see the number of teams with max space reach double digits—depending on internal decision-making.
It's this sense of freedom and forward planning that led to Dwight Howard's arrival in Houston last July. It's the possible presence of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony on the open market this July that's led to a nuclear-arms race to dump high-priced assets.
The likelihood of those guys opting out ranges from not likely (Wade) to all but guaranteed (Anthony) to who in the blue hell knows (James, Bosh). But beyond the guys with more All-NBA awards than they can count, there are plenty of quality free agents both young and old (ish).
Eric Bledsoe, Isaiah Thomas and Gordon Hayward lead a strong class of restricted free agents who could be joined by Chandler Parsons. Luol Deng, Kyle Lowry, Pau Gasol, Lance Stephenson and Dirk Nowitzki are all unrestricted.
The playoffs are the task at hand, but the NBA never sleeps in this 24/7 sports culture. With that in mind, let's take a look at the top players available at every position and highlight some of the biggest storylines of note—even with more than two months remaining to change everything.
|2014 NBA Free Agents|
|1||Eric Bledsoe||Phoenix Suns||Restricted|
|2||Kyle Lowry||Toronto Raptors||Unrestricted|
|3||Isaiah Thomas||Sacramento Kings||Restricted|
|4||Mario Chalmers||Miami Heat||Unrestricted|
|5||Greivis Vasquez||Toronto Raptors||Restricted|
|1||Dwyane Wade||Miami Heat||Early-Termination Option|
|2||Lance Stephenson||Indiana Pacers||Unrestricted|
|3||Gordon Hayward||Utah Jazz||Restricted|
|4||Avery Bradley||Boston Celtics||Restricted|
|5||Rodney Stuckey||Detroit Pistons||Unrestricted|
|1||LeBron James||Miami Heat||Early-Termination Option|
|2||Carmelo Anthony||New York Knicks||Early-Termination Option|
|3||Luol Deng||Cleveland Cavaliers||Unrestricted|
|4||Rudy Gay||Sacramento Kings||Player Option|
|5||Paul Pierce||Brooklyn Nets||Unrestricted|
|1||Chris Bosh||Miami Heat||Early-Termination Option|
|2||Dirk Nowitzki||Dallas Mavericks||Unrestricted|
|3||Tim Duncan||San Antonio Spurs||Player Option|
|4||Greg Monroe||Detroit Pistons||Restricted|
|5||Zach Randolph||Memphis Grizzlies||Player Option|
|1||Pau Gasol||Los Angeles Lakers||Unrestricted|
|2||Marcin Gortat||Washington Wizards||Unrestricted|
|3||Spencer Hawes||Cleveland Cavaliers||Unrestricted|
|4||DeJuan Blair||Dallas Mavericks||Unrestricted|
|5||Emeka Okafor||Phoenix Suns||Unrestricted|
Free-Agency Storylines to Monitor
What's Next for Miami's Big Three?
Admittedly, I expect a good percentage of this question to be answered over the next two months. If Miami nabs its coveted three-peat, there's no way anyone is leaving. There is no Shaq-Kobe tension in the locker room, and throughout history, stars just don't bolt after hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy. It just doesn't happen.
Whether that would mean opting into the next season of their contracts or signing new, long-term deals is unclear. If the Heat win the title, though, expect an overwhelming majority of the core to be back for No. 4.
If the Heat go down to the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals or get taken down by a Western Conference contender, things suddenly get more interesting.
James is the biggest chess piece here, and he essentially holds the cards to Miami's future. Wade, with his injury issues piling up and his performance waxing and waning, isn't about to turn down an estimated $42 million over the next two years. He'll be back in Miami regardless.
"When the season is over, and whatever happens, then I will sit down with Chris and I will sit down with Bron and I will sit down and make the best decision for myself and my family," Wade told ESPN.com's Darren earlier this month.
osh's decision will be contingent on James' ultimate decision. Bosh is happy in Miami and is probably going to go down as this generation's least appreciated superstar. LeBron leaving opens up the possibility that Bosh will look at the landscape, see an opportunity to move to second-banana status and take it while he can still put up big numbers.
As excited as prospective suitors would be to land Bosh—imagine how great a fit he'd be in Houston—James is the one with the real decision to make. The four-time NBA MVP has been through this process before. He knows how it goes. There won't be a nationally televised program this time around, and James understands his superstar status affords him freedoms others don't have.
Should he choose, James could force Miami's hand into a sign-and-trade to any team of his choosing. If he finds a situation he likes more than Miami, I don't doubt for a second that's the direction this would head. No team under the cap with the possible exception of Chicago—which he already rejected once—presents instant title contention better than a return to the Big Three.
Going to Dallas to play with 36-year-old Nowitzki or to the Lakers to play with like-aged Kobe Bryant would represent a pretty significant step down.
James' best sign-and-trade options are the L.A. Clippers and Houston Rockets, but it's unclear how realistic those options are. Los Angeles doesn't have many trade chips it could afford to depart with, and Blake Griffin has been so brilliant this season, it's hard seeing Donald Sterling being willing to make a blockbuster deal of that magnitude.
Houston is more realistic with Parsons waiting in the wings, but Miami might balk at what would amount to a rental.
At the moment, the most sensible scenario involves James opting into his 2014-15 deal and the other two following suit. That way we can all play this same game again next year. Hooray!
Which Restricted Free Agent Will Be Wildly Overpaid?
As a rule, NBA teams despise playing restricted free-agency roulette. The new collective bargaining agreement is far less penalizing than the previous in this regard—teams used to have seven days to decide whether to match an offer sheet. Now they have 72 hours.
That doesn't seem like a long amount of time but is actually an eternity for NBA teams. Most major deals get done in the so-called moratorium period, a 10-day run where teams can negotiate but not officially sign players. Three days can be the difference between not only losing out on your first option when a team matches but also seeing your second, third and fourth sign elsewhere.
As such, restricted free agency typically plays out one of two ways: Either a player gets wildly overpaid by a desperate team, or they're stuck in a weird state of limbo deep into free agency, while their contemporaries receive massive paydays.
Last year, Tyreke Evans was the benefactor of a jarring $44 million deal from the New Orleans Pelicans. Nikola Pekovic, largely considered the best restricted free agent on the market, didn't re-sign with the Minnesota Timberwolves until August.
This July is far more likely to finish with more Evanses than Pekovics. Greg Monroe, Bledsoe, Thomas, Hayward and Parsons each have the potential to command eight-figure annual salaries if a team has enough money burning in its pocket.
Monroe is a defensive liability, but he's one of the league's most gifted offensive post players who was thrust into a difficult situation this season.
Josh Smith's arrival created even more spacing issues for a team that already has a cramped floor, allowing opposing teams easy doubles on Monroe without fear of being beaten from deep. He still responded with a customary 15-point, nine-rebound nightly line, yet those expecting a leap from the 23-year-old were sorely disappointed.
The first order of post-draft business for whoever replaces Joe Dumars will be figuring out how to handle the Monroe situation. Smith's contract is already an albatross, and Andre Drummond has developed into an untouchable piece in the middle. Monroe is in a weird limbo. He's talented enough offensively to make teams believe he has a 20-10 ceiling and nowhere near a $12 million player if this is his true peak.
Odds are he stays in Detroit, but a sign-and-trade is a real possibility.
Similar scenarios will play out in Sacramento and Utah, where Thomas and Hayward will provide an interesting case of internal value versus external value. The Sacramento Kings and Utah Jazz want to keep their players. There just may be a couple of teams around the league that value their talent more than they do.
Thomas is one of the best offensive point guards in the league. Only three point guards had a higher PER than the 5'9" sparkplug.
He's a solid enough three-point shooter that teams have to respect him, finishes at the rim at an impossibly high rate for a little guy and has been one of the league's best values since being taken 60th overall three years ago. But he'll probably ever be even an average defender, has bouts with wild decision-making and stands to earn a substantial pay upgrade this summer.
Is Thomas a $7 million or $8 million player? Sure. But going any more than that, you're taking up a huge chunk of cap space on what amounts to a designated hitter.
Hayward is an even more interesting case, simply because he was so wildly miscast as an alpha dog this season. Playing with the ball in his hands more than ever and without the comfort of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap drawing the defense's attention, Hayward suffered a marked regression as a shooter.
He scored at only a 30.9 percent rate from beyond the arc after knocking down better than 40 percent of his shots last season.
He's a good playmaker and rebounder for his position but is about average defensively and will probably top out as above-average on that end. Hayward is the dreaded "good" player. He's not quite a max guy but certainly worth more than the mid-level exception, and these are precisely the guys who get overpaid by a team that thinks it can coax "The Leap."
Bledsoe and Parsons seem more cut-and-dried to me. Both should be back with their respective teams. Nothing went as planned in Phoenix this season, but the team seems to have found something special in the Goran Dragic-Bledsoe backcourt. I'd like to see it coalesce over a full year in 2014-15.
Houston, meanwhile, has to opt into the final year of Parsons' deal and roll the dice it can retain him the following summer. The prospect of controlling Parsons' free agency is attractive but not as much as bringing back a legitimate third wheel for $964,750. Daryl Morey constructed a team to win now. Parsons being so dirt cheap is part of what has allowed him to make so many moves.
Something About Carmelo
We've already spent a lot of time discussing players who may not even get a true free-agency experience this summer. Anthony is not one of those players. He has an early-termination option on his contract and could choose to return as an expiring next season, but there's no reason to think that will happen.
For one, "Melo" is about to get PAAAIIIID. The Knicks are expected to offer Anthony a five-year, $130 million maximum contract. Nearing his 30th birthday, this will be the last time Anthony signs a deal of anything approaching that annual value—unless he winds up with the Lakers and they give him a terrible late-career sweetheart deal as they did Kobe.
Opting into the final year of his deal would be a stranger move than even when Howard did so with Orlando. Melo is hitting the free-agency pile come July.
Where he lands is anyone's guess. New York is the favorite for obvious reasons. It can offer him $30 million more than any other team, and Phil Jackson's arrival as team president gives Anthony an easy explanation as to why he stayed other than "the money." Jackson, though I'm still not sure if he'll be remotely competent at this job, gives the Knicks a stamp of credibility their season decidedly did not have.
Even if their roster is hamstrung by bad decisions by people already in place, Anthony can sell the "Jackson and 2015 free-agent class" rhetoric while pocketing some sweet guaranteed cash. That's Option A.
The secondary option is pulling a Howard—actually leaving big money on the table to get out of a toxic situation. The Knicks are just as rancid for Anthony as the Lakers were for Howard a year ago.
Raymond Felton is the league's worst starting point guard, J.R. Smith is a nightly migraine, Tyson Chandler is never healthy and Amar'e Stoudemire is viewed only as an expiring contract. Oh, and BARGS! will be back. There's that.
Two looming options provide Anthony with an instant chance at title contention without the headaches: Houston and Chicago. These aren't shocking destinations. They're ones that have been widely reported and speculated on, and both will receive long looks from Anthony's camp.
Frank Isola of the New York Daily News reported last week Anthony has asked around about Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. He's also offered public praise for Thibodeau, noting he's the overarching reason Chicago has stayed in the playoff hunt despite a myriad of injuries.
"Thibs is a great coach, his system kind of reminds me of Gregg Popovich’s system," Anthony said. "You put anybody in that system and it’s going to work. That’s what they’ve been doing. They’ve had guys sitting out all season long, guys who have been in and out of the lineups and they seem to get it done.”
The Bulls would be able to sign Anthony by amnestying Carlos Boozer and making some other minor roster decisions.
Houston lacks the requisite cap space to pursue Anthony at the moment. It would need to jettison both the Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin contracts to even have a shot at pulling off a second straight July coup. Though both usable pieces in the right role, the massive $15 million balloon payments due to Asik and Lin next season make them difficult to trade. Asik could probably be dumped to a team, but Morey will have to add assets for a team to pick up Lin's salary.
None of this is impossible, and there will be at least one dark-horse suitor that comes out of nowhere. It's just not Miami. Heat fans have this crazy notion about Anthony and the current Big Three taking huge pay cuts to link up—and it's not even a consideration. It won't happen and won't even be thought about twice.
That said, with Melo keeping his options open, the "City That Never Sleeps" may actually live up to its nickname.
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