10 NBA Players Who Will Benefit Most from Salary-Cap Spike in 2016 Free Agency

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistJune 15, 2015

10 NBA Players Who Will Benefit Most from Salary-Cap Spike in 2016 Free Agency

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    The free-agency singularity is here—almost, anyway.

    With the NBA salary cap set to reach an unprecedented $89 million for the 2016-17 season, organizations will have absurd amounts of money to spend. To put that number in perspective, clubs can only spend a little over $67 million on their rosters for the upcoming campaign, and that represents an increase over this season's $63 million cap.

    It's good news for teams attempting to add a missing piece or two. But it's even better news for the players who stand to benefit, particularly for top-tier stars whose share of the revenue will grow in kind.

    As ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst noted in March, "Owners have been trying to avoid such a spike because it would dramatically raise salary levels for free agents that season. [LeBron] James, for example, could take his salary from about $22 million next season to around $30 million if he signs for the maximum salary in 2016."

    The rising tide will certainly lift a number of free-agent ships. James won't be the only one making big money, though he'll almost certainly be making the most. Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis will also be in the market for (mega-)max deals in 2016, and others won't be far behind.

    Predicting exact numbers isn't a science in this case. This is a new world financially, and we haven't seen contracts negotiated under these kinds of circumstances. But there's reasonable certainty that a handful of free agents will cash in big, and we've listed them (generally in order of just how much they'll be coveted in 2016—not necessarily in order of who will earn the most).

    Just about everyone will get in on this payday, but these 10 stars should find particularly sweet deals.

    Salary information courtesy of BasketballInsiders.com.

Honorable Mentions

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    Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets

    Theoretically Brook Lopez could become a free agent in 2016 if he picks up his player option for next season or signs a one-year pact elsewhere. Neither scenario appears particularly likely at this point. Nets general manager Billy King had indicated that the organization will look to re-sign Lopez, which may mean he's made it clear he isn't opting in for 2015-16. Brooklyn would seek a long-term pact in any negotiations.

    And one suspects Lopez would too. Given his extensive injury history, this summer will probably be about establishing some financial security—whether in Brooklyn or elsewhere.

    ESPN.com's Marc Stein reported this month that, "League sources say the [Milwaukee] Bucks want a proven center in free agency if they can score one, and have pinpointed two kinds of former All-Stars—Dallas' Tyson Chandler and Brooklyn's Brook Lopez—as targets for the top of their wish list."

    Milwaukee probably won't be the only suitor either. Add it all up, and it's hard to imagine Lopez turning up a free agent in 2016. If he does, however, he could earn some serious coin.

    Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers

    Kevin Love could very well negotiate a long-term deal this summer, which would take him off the market in 2016. But it's also conceivable that he and the Cavaliers reach an impasse, especially after the club made an NBA Finals run with Tristan Thompson manning the power forward spot. Love hasn't necessarily become less valuable, but there's suddenly questions about whether he and the Cleveland franchise are really a perfect fit.

    For his part, the 26-year-old has indicated that he wants to be back in Cleveland next season, and he'll likely secure a long-term max one way or another this summer or next.

    So Love doesn't quite make the list, largely due to the uncertainty surrounding his near future. He could very well be off the market in 2016. 

    Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies

    If anyone deserves a raise, it's Mike Conley. The reliable point guard will make just $9,388,426 next season, the last on his current deal. Could Conley agree to another reasonable deal in order to remain with the small-market Grizzlies? It's possible, but no one knows Conley's thinking. He may be looking for a far more lucrative payday this time around.

    Expect a bump in salary—perhaps to the $12 million-per-year range, maybe more. Point guards who defend are a rare commodity, and Conley has been consistently underrated over the years. He may not make crazy money, but he deserves to be mentioned.

10. Chandler Parsons, Dallas Mavericks

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    Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    2016 FA Type: Player Option

    2015-16 Salary$15,361,500

    Chandler Parsons probably won't command a significant raise in 2016. He currently has a player option for the 2016-17 season worth a hefty $16,023,000. But a looser salary cap should still translate into some dividends for 26-year-old—namely in the form of a long-term deal.

    That's the other—sometimes forgotten—side effect of greater cap flexibility. Teams will be more willing to spend, but they'll also be more likely to invest in longer contracts. The added years represent less of a marginal opportunity cost, which should alleviate some of the anxiety the average franchise associates with a four-year commitment (or five for in-house free agents).

    Come 2016, Parsons' value should be at least as high as it was a summer ago when the Dallas Mavericks pried him away from the Houston Rockets. In his first season with the Mavericks, the small forward averaged 15.7 points and 4.9 rebounds per contest. He didn't cement himself as the franchise's next superstar, but he remains the best in-house option to take the scoring baton from 36-year-old Dirk Nowitzki.

    That's worth some money, and Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson seems pretty likely to spend it. He and owner Mark Cuban came hard after Parsons in 2014, and one suspects they'll see this relationship through unless Parsons takes a significant step back. The Florida product is the organization's closest thing to a young building block, and that's not the kind of asset one lets walk via free agency.

    It's a bit hard to imagine Parsons cracking $20 million per season with his next deal. He's yet to demonstrate that he can take over as a scorer, and he's yet to display a star-caliber playmaking ability. For the moment, Parsons appears to be a very good sidekick—and a pretty well-paid one at that.

    The annual take-home may not change much, but Parsons' next deal will be longer than three years.

9. Joakim Noah

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    2016 FA Type: Unrestricted

    2015-16 Salary$13,900,000

    After a career-low 44.5 percent mark from the field, it's fair to say Joakim Noah is coming off something of an off year. Even so, he was one of the most versatile big men in the game, adding 4.7 assists to his 9.6 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per contest. The 2014 Defensive Player of the Year also remains a frenetic source of energy and effort, and that's worth something too.

    The Chicago Bulls agreed to a five-year, $60 million extension with Noah back in 2010, and all signs pointed to a long-term relationship that's certainly paid off in the years since.

    "I'm pretty happy," Noah told reporters at the time. "It's very exciting. I'm very happy that I'm going to be able to be here for a while. I feel like the Bulls definitely did me right.

    "But I promise I'm going to give 150 percent every time I'm out there, and I understand with a lot of money comes a lot of responsibility. I'm excited for the challenge."

    One suspects Noah will still be giving it 150 percent when he's age 35 or 36, so another five-year pact certainly isn't out of the question for the 30-year-old. Centers with his kind of engine don't grow on trees, and his price point will reflect that.

    Adjusting for some gradual decline and his offensive limitations, Noah's next contract probably won't involve max money. But it could certainly start in the $15-16 million range.

8. Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks

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    2016 FA Type: Unrestricted

    2015-16 Salary$12,000,000

    Like Noah—his former teammate at Florida—Al Horford is by now a center in store for a raise. He'll have nine seasons under his belt in 2016, making him theoretically eligible for a contract starting at $25.3 million annually. It's a little hard to imagine the Atlanta Hawks—or any other organization—spending that kind of money on a guy who's only averaged 14.2 points during his career, but the market may say otherwise.

    Big men who can bang and score like Horford are rare. He's coming off a season in which he averaged 15.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. The 29-year-old can pop out and shoot from the mid-range or make moves in the low post with his back to the basket. There's some old school in his game, and teams still value that.

    The Hawks can ill-afford to lose Horford, particularly if they lose power forward Paul Millsap this summer. The need for an interior star could prompt the club to spend big, perhaps in excess of $20 million per season. That once seemed unthinkable for a player of Horford's caliber, but this is a new fiscal era. Just about anything is possible if demand is significant enough.

7. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards

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    2016 FA Type: Restricted

    2015-16 Salary$5,694,674

    With fewer than six years of pro experience, Bradley Beal will be eligible for a max contract starting at about $21 million in 2016. If his current trajectory is any indication, he'll be paid every penny of that—marking an epic increase over the $5.7 million he'll make next season.

    Beal has firmly established himself as the scoring complement to point guard John Wall in one of the league's very best young backcourts. He's technically free to sign an extension this summer with the Washington Wizards, but there's little reason to jump the gun with 2016's jackpot looming.

    CBSSports.com's Ken Berger noted in May that, "The Wizards have made it clear they are committed to signing Beal to the max, but the timing is everything from the standpoint of preserving cap room to chase free agents such as Kevin Durant in 2016."

    Berger also suggests that Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld and Beal agent Mark Bartelstein will commence extension talks this summer, but those talks may not go very far. Just as Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard passed on similar extensions in 2014, Beal would be wise to wait this one out. 

    A maximum contract for someone with Beal's experience would only be worth about $15.8 million this summer, a full $5 million less than it would he could command in 2016. 

    Beal averaged 25.2 points per game in the conference semifinals against the Atlanta Hawks. He's shown signs of becoming a premier scoring option, and there's no doubting his shooting pedigree. He'll get the max, and the Wizards will almost certainly be the ones paying the bill. 

6. Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    2016 FA Type: Restricted

    2015-16 Salary$3,272,091

    Like Beal, Andre Drummond's next contract could start out at about $21 million annually. That's an awful lot of money for a guy who's yet to make $4 million in a single season. But it's also the kind of payout one would expect for a hulking, athletic center who's absolutely dominated on the glass in his first three seasons.

    Drummond posted 13.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in just 30.5 minutes per game this season. He's quickly become the next best thing to DeAndre Jordan in terms of activity above the rim, and that alone could be good enough to secure a max deal.

    The only real question is whether Drummond will even get to free agency. The Pistons could lock him up with an extension this summer. MLive.com's David Mayo reported via Twitter in April that, "[Owner] Tom Gores said at halftime that #Pistons center Andre Drummond 's a max player.' Expect team to tender max extension this summer."

    Drummond doesn't have to accept that extension offer, however, and could wait and make more money in 2016. The Pistons will be able to match other suitors' offers, so don't expect Drummond to go anywhere just yet.  

5. Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets

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    2016 FA Type: Player Option

    2015-16 Salary$22,359,364

    Dwight Howard will have 12 seasons under his belt in 2016, putting him in the highest bracket among potential max-contract earners. He owns a player option for 2016-17 worth $23,282,457, but he could make even more—nearly $30 million—under the new salary cap. 

    Whether Howard is worth maximum money may provoke some debate. The Houston Rockets have to pay James Harden, too, and Howard will play out his next contract as a 30-something center with declining athletic ability. That's one thing if you're a skill-based big man like Tim Duncan or Dirk Nowitzki, but Howard's physicality is everything. What happens when he takes a step back? Does general manager Daryl Morey really want to pay him that kind of dough?

    Odds are the franchise pays up. Owner Leslie Alexander has never been afraid to spend, and the Rockets may have little choice given the team's competitiveness and commitment to winning a title during the Harden era. This is no time to take a step back in the name of fiscal responsibility.

    So for better or worse, Howard will probably be part of the Rockets' long-term future, and he'll probably account for about one-third of the club's roster expenditures. The team needs an interior presence who can change games defensively, and Howard still does that. At times, he's a pretty productive scorer as well. There are worse things than paying someone like that a lot of money to stick around.

4. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

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    2016 FA Type: Restricted

    2015-16 Salary$4,236,287

    It's a point guard's league, and Damian Lillard is one of its very best floor generals. The 24-year-old is already a two-time All-Star who's established himself as one of his position's most explosive scorers, and he's coming off a campaign in which he averaged a career-best 21 points per contest (to go along with a respectable 6.2 assists).

    Like Beal and Drummond, Lillard will qualify for the $21 million max deal given to players with fewer than seven years' worth of experience. But he also seems to be willing to listen to offers from the Portland Trail Blazers this summer, offers that would take him off the market in 2016.

    RealGM's Shams Charania reported in April that, "Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard will seek the designated player maximum contract—a full five-year deal—in a possible extension this upcoming offseason, league sources told RealGM."

    Perhaps he's interested in locking up the financial security. And maybe he's satisfied with Portland's current direction.

    Charania also noted that, "In his exit interview [in April], Lillard told reporters he's confident in extension talks with the Blazers, which could reach a possible $90 million-plus. Discussions can't start until July, and the Blazers have long shown faith in the sixth overall pick of the 2012 draft."

    The ball is really in Lillard's court. The Trail Blazers need him, and the whole NBA world knows it. They'll need him all the more if big man LaMarcus Aldridge goes elsewhere this summer. Whether via extension or a new deal in 2016, that will translate into big money for the Weber State product.

3. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

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    2016 FA Type: Restricted

    2015-16 Salary$7,070,730

    Anthony Davis may be the highest-paid member of his draft class, but he's still making less than half of what he's really worth. That's about to change.

    By 2016, AD might qualify for "Derrick Rose" Rule (depending on whether he again starts at the All-Star Game or is selected to another All-NBA team), which would permit him a max-deal worth 30 percent of the salary cap, or roughly $30 million annually. 

    ESPN.com's Marc Stein reported in April that, "With star forward Anthony Davis eligible for a contract extension this summer, Pelicans officials plan to be as aggressive as possible in presenting him with a maximum five-year deal that could exceed $140 million, according to league sources."

    The Pelicans can offer the most money, and they know players like Davis only come around once a generation.

    Stein added that, "The exact figures will depend on how much the NBA salary cap actually rises in 2016, but sources told ESPN.com that the Pelicans indeed intend to present Davis with the biggest offer they can once the window for negotiations opens July 1."

    No surprises there. The only remaining variable is whether Davis wants to stick around long term or reserve a player option to become an unrestricted free agent in another season or two (similar to the deal James worked out with the Cavaliers). But such a scenario would be somewhat remarkable in the event Davis is indeed offered something on the magnitude of five years and $140 million. That's a lot of money to turn down, especially for a player coming off his rookie deal. Those types generally prioritize long-term financial security.

    Davis is coming off an obscenely good 30.89 player efficiency rating and is garnering attention as the league's best two-way talent this side of LeBron. He can pretty much call the shots when it comes to negotiations, whether they happen now or a summer from now.

2. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    2016 FA Type: Unrestricted

    2015-16 Salary$20,158,622

    Kevin Durant is already making pretty good money, but he'll be able to make over $25 million per season starting in 2016. The Oklahoma City Thunder can only hope they're the organization covering the expense. 

    For now, Durant seems undeterred from returning to the organization he took to the NBA Finals in 2012.

    "I've never thought about it, to be honest," Durant told reporters of a potential move to the Wizards. "...I love playing for Oklahoma City, man."

    The draw of playing near home may become more compelling when the time comes, but Durant isn't exactly itching to leave. He's built something special in OKC along with point guard Russell Westbrook, invested time and sweat into cultivating a winning endeavor.

    Free agency may be but a technicality.

    That won't stop Thunder fans (and perhaps front-office personnel) from worrying during the interim, but OKC has a lot going for it. And Durant knows it.

1. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    2016 FA Type: Unrestricted 

    2015-16 Salary$21,573,398 (Player Option)

    LeBron James may well rework his contract this summer, but it's hard to imagine him agreeing to a multiyear pact that would force him to pass up on a 2016 payday that would start him off about $30 million per season. One way or another, he'll almost certainly preserve his flexibility for purely financial reasons.

    Put another way, James isn't going anywhere—not now, anyway. James' brand would take a monumental hit if he switched teams so soon after returning to Cleveland. 

    Besides, these Cavaliers have performed admirably amid injuries to Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. They've proved to have underrated depth, and they've proved that new head coach David Blatt knows what he's doing at the NBA level—even if that means often deferring to James.

    So the only unknown surrounding James' free agency—whether it comes this summer or next—is how he'll go about gaming the evolving salary cap. He came to Cleveland in order to do something special, and he's far from finished.

    The rest is just business.