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As 2015 NBA Free Agency Wraps Up, Once-Anticipated Class of 2016 Loses Luster

Ethan Skolnick@@EthanJSkolnickNBA Senior WriterJuly 17, 2015

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LAS VEGAS — Free agency isn't quite over, not entirely. Like a yard sale at dusk, there are still some antiques available, such as Tayshaun Prince and Andre Miller. There's a Landry Fields buried inside a box of Beatles LPs, and there's a Tristan Thompson stashed in the corner of the garage, waiting for the Cleveland Cavaliers to come claim him. 

Still, enough of the premium items have been unloaded that it's safe to start taking inventory, not just as a means of looking back, but also ahead. Remember, next summer was supposed to be a historic one, not only because of the explosion of available cash, but also because of the bounty of available players, with as much as, if not more, premium talent than 2014, 2010 or 2000, three of the best in recent memory. 

But that was always conditional on the conventional wisdom about this summer proving correct. 

Think about what you heard, over and over, ever since the NBA signed its lucrative TV deal in October, and once it was clear the salary cap would spike in the summer of 2016. You heard that eligible free agents would take shorter deals to maximize their earning potential. You heard that many would follow the LeBron James model and sign for just one year and an option, as a means of maintaining flexibility while achieving some security, with the salary cap expected to increase from $70 million this season to at least $90 million next summer and to something around $108 million in 2017. 

Yes, you heard all of that right.

But the part about the short deals proved to be wrong, and that means the expectation of an exceptional 2016 class now appears unwarranted. 

Most prominent players went long this time around, taking themselves out of the picture and leaving 2016 with few franchise-changing targets beyond headliner Kevin Durant, assuming that he will find his previous form following foot surgery. 

Now Off the Market for 2016

Before exploring the evaporating class of 2016, it's worth exploring what happened with the class of 2015. So Bleacher Report dug deeper with NBA general managers at the Las Vegas Summer League this past week as well as with former executives Bryan Colangelo and Tom Penn. 

What happened? 

What did many people miss?

Were league executives, those most in the know, among those people? 

With his Spurs deal, LaMarcus Aldridge opted to stay off the 2016 market.
With his Spurs deal, LaMarcus Aldridge opted to stay off the 2016 market.Eric Gay/Associated Press

Ryan McDonough, the Suns GM, did say he was a "a little bit surprised" by the scarcity of short deals, though "I think it's human nature that any time you have those eight- and even nine-figure contracts on the table in front of you, they're hard to turn down."

Colangelo, the former GM of the Suns and Raptors, also said he was surprised, though he thinks it shows the players are smarter than they were given credit for, working with financial and marketing advisers from a younger age.  

"I'm actually very surprised that more guys didn't go one-plus-one," said Penn, the former Portland Trail Blazers VP of basketball operations, and now an ESPN analyst. "They all grabbed it when they could. Easy for us to say, right? 'Take your chances!' But if somebody lays $50 to $80 million in front of you, when's enough enough, right? Plus, I think most of them will still have a chance to ring the bell again." 

The temptation of immediate riches is what convinced others that the narrative was misguided. 

"My opinion, honestly. I just didn't see that happening, all that one-year deal stuff," Raptors GM Masai Ujiri said. "At the end of the day, it's all security, man. What's in your hand right now? The NBA is a year-to-year league, I think. You wait until next year, you don't know what can happen." 

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban believes "there was a lot of gamesmanship that went on," especially from players' agents. But ultimately, "what I’ve learned in my years is that 50, 60, 70 million dollars is a lot of money. If someone offers it to you, you take it." 

Bob Myers and Draymond Green made a deal that means Green will remain a Warrior.
Bob Myers and Draymond Green made a deal that means Green will remain a Warrior.Eric Risberg/Associated Press

Bob Myers spent 14 years as an agent before joining the Warriors organization and, as general manager, helping guide Golden State to the championship. If he learned one thing as a representative, it was that "guaranteed money is guaranteed money. It's easy for you and I to speculate on a guy taking a one-plus-one, but we're not putting our health on the line. I think if you ask most people in life, if they could lock up a lot of money guaranteed, without regard to injury or skill diminishing, then most people would do it. The people I think can take more risks are the ones that have a ton of financial security, maybe have great health." 

And, of course, as in so many other situations, James represents an exception. 

"LeBron is a different story," Bucks GM John Hammond said. 

For a second straight offseason, James took a maximum one-year deal plus a one-year player option with the Cavaliers, and will probably do the same again next summer. 

"Not everybody is LeBron," Colangelo said. "Not everybody is that confident. And not everybody is indestructible. A career-ending injury, it only takes one, and it opens everybody's eyes." 

James, who will turn 31 in December, has been relatively healthy throughout the course of his career. Compare that to Kevin Love, who turns 27 in September but has had a run of bad injury luck that has kept him from completing seasons. He took a five-year deal, without an opt out, to stay with Cleveland. 

LeBron James could be available next year, but Kevin Love won't be.
LeBron James could be available next year, but Kevin Love won't be.David Zalubowski/Associated Press

"I think Kevin could have done the one-and-one if that's what was in his heart," Cavaliers GM David Griffin said. "But I also think the fact that he wanted to be tied to something and know what his future was, was meaningful to him."

The desire for security we saw this July will have a dramatic impact on next July. That's because much of the hype for that class was based on the cream of this one making sure they were back on the market next year to maximize their potential income.

But Love won't be. Neither will LaMarcus Aldridge, who signed with San Antonio for three seasons, plus a player option. Neither will Marc Gasol, after re-signing for four seasons, plus a player option, with Memphis. 

DeAndre Jordan, Goran Dragic, Monta Ellis, DeMarre Carroll, Danny Green, Robin Lopez, Tyson Chandler and Thaddeus Young all signed four- or five-year deals too. Restricted free agents Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Draymond Green, Reggie Jackson, Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton, Enes Kanter and Tobias Harris all remained with their current teams on long contracts.

Even Wesley Matthews, who was believed to be a possible one-year candidate so he could show he was healed from Achilles' surgery, got four years and $70 million from Dallas.

The one-year deal has been rarer than the $2 bill. Dwyane Wade took $20 million over one year, which was really just the start of his long-term commitment to Miami, with both sides expected to finalize a new, longer arrangement next summer. Rajon Rondo took $9.5 million over one year as he tries to restore his reputation in Sacramento. Mirza Teletovic, coming off a blood clot scare, signed for one year at $5.46 million in Phoenix. Jordan Hill bolted the Lakers for Indiana, getting one year at $5 million.

Who Tops Free-Agent Class of 2016?

Eric Gordon and Mike Conley are two of the players who'll likely be free agents next year.
Eric Gordon and Mike Conley are two of the players who'll likely be free agents next year.Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

That's the entire list of free agents who signed for as much as $5 million on a one-year deal without an option. A few, such as Arron Afflalo, joined James in taking one year plus an option, but not enough to raise the level of next year's class from pretty good to great.

The only thing that could do that? James' situation souring enough in Cleveland that he would actually consider leaving, but there's a better chance of a 76ers championship. 

Yes, the 2016 class should have some recognizable names, but few near the top of their games.

Many of the players (Kobe Bryant, Joakim Noah, Joe Johnson, Luol Deng, Al Jefferson, David Lee, Nene) are already into their 30s, most seemingly and some unequivocally in decline. Others have lost some of their luster, whether due to injuries (Eric Gordon, Brandon Jennings) or ineffectiveness (Roy Hibbert, Nicolas Batum). Others (Bradley Beal, Andre Drummond) are restricted free agents, and we know they almost never leave their current teams. There's one wild card, Hassan Whiteside, who showed his talent in the second half of last season, but whose bumpy road to the NBA may mitigate his payday. 

So that leaves Al Horford and Mike Conley as the two surefire prizes, other than Durant, in their prime. And they are both low-key people who are more likely to stay in their current situations than go anywhere else. 

"It really bodes well for the guys who weren't in this year's class but are in next year's class," McDonough said. "Because there is so much money in the marketplace, there will be fewer players in the marketplace. Next summer would be a great time to be a free agent, especially if you're unrestricted." 

It will be the best time in NBA history. Solid, but unspectacular, players are nearly assured of cashing in. 

"You better get used to the talent not matching the money, because that's the new thing," Penn said. "We're going to have to go through this whole paradigm shift on what an $8 million player is, and what a $12 million player is. I feel like an old guy all of a sudden. I feel like those old guys back in the day, when I started working the NBA, 'nobody's worth that!'"

And the stars, however truly few there are in the market? 

They'll have nearly unlimited choices. 

"I think that those key players are going to have the opportunity to go to the teams that are the most successful at this point," Colangelo said. "As they say, the rich get richer. It seems that everybody is going to be rich with respect to the money. But not everyone is going to have the same story to sell, with respect to the competitiveness."

This is for sure:

No NBA free agents will need to raise funds through a yard sale anytime soon. 

Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @EthanJSkolnick.

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