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Top 30: Free-agent class of 2009Comment Email Print Share By Chad Ford
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
Hedo Turkoglu's strong postseason play for the Magic could net him a nice deal this summer.
Last summer, a few free agents cashed in big-time. Baron Davis got $65 million from the Los Angeles Clippers, and Elton Brand walked away from the Clippers to the Philadelphia 76ers to the tune of the $80 million. Several restricted free agents, particularly Andre Iguodala, Luol Deng, Emeka Okafor and Josh Smith, scored nice deals as well.
Also, during the summer and early fall, eight players from the 2005 NBA Draft who were eligible for extensions -- Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Andrew Bogut, Andrew Bynum, Danny Granger, Francisco Garcia, Jason Maxiell and Martell Webster -- received some love from their teams.
The rest of the summer's free-agent class?
Only a handful found anything near the money that other free agents got on the open market. Several, including Josh Childress and Nenad Krstic, bolted for Europe. (Krstic subsequently returned to the NBA with the Thunder.)
And a number of 2005 first-round picks, such as Marvin Williams, David Lee and Raymond Felton, were unable to work out deals with their respective teams.
Once again, the main culprit was the dreaded NBA salary cap. Only a few teams -- the Sixers, Clippers, Warriors and Grizzlies -- really had the money to pick up a free agent from another team. One of those teams, Memphis, didn't spend its money (although it did make a play for Smith) and entered the season nearly $10 million under the cap.
This summer, things could get even tighter, as the NBA suffers from the worldwide financial crisis. For the first time in a while, the NBA salary cap is projected to stay flat or go up slightly. So is the luxury tax threshold. With owners feeling the pain, this market is looking like one of the worst for free agents.
The other key factor is LeBron James and the rest of the 2010 free-agent class. A number of teams are trying to create salary cap space for the summer of 2010, when LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Tyson Chandler, Manu Ginobili, Richard Jefferson, Joe Johnson, Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki and Michael Redd can hit free agency. So for the first time in years, teams like the New York Knicks are being financially responsible. All of which means that relatively few teams are expected to use their midlevel exception this summer.
Those factors could end up causing major problems for a solid if not spectacular free-agent class of 2009.
With the frenzy starting Monday and Tuesday with a number of decisions by players on whether to opt out or exercise options to return to their teams, and accelerating just after midnight on Wednesday morning, when teams can start negotiating with free agents, let's look at who could be available in 2009:
Group I: The "Big 10" early termination or player option candidates
These are the players with an early termination option or a player option in their contracts, meaning they can opt to forgo the final year(s) of their deals and instead become unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2009. Here's the star-studded lineup:
1. Kobe Bryant, Lakers (ETO)
Two summers ago, when Kobe was pining for a trade, it looked as though he might tear up his contract in 2009 and leave the Lakers if he weren't traded first. Now, with one title already under their belts, the Lakers look like serious championship contenders for the next few years. Whether Kobe opts out or not, you have to believe he will hang around for the ride, and he's already indicated he wants to stay.
2. Carlos Boozer, Jazz (PO)
During the season, Boozer told ESPN.com's Chris Sheridan he would opt out, and he was believed to have one foot out the door. But an injury-plagued season now leaves some doubt as to whether he'll actually opt out. If he does, there's really only one team with cap space that appears to be a fit: the Detroit Pistons. That could be a problem for Boozer. The Jazz might be willing to wave goodbye, as they are looking to re-sign another power forward from their own roster, restricted free agent Paul Millsap. At the same time, a source close to the Pistons told ESPN.com that Boozer is not their highest priority in free agency this summer. So Boozer might have to decide not to opt out, to accept less money or to attempt to work out a sign-and-trade with the Jazz and another team.
3. Hedo Turkoglu, Magic (ETO)
Turkoglu has already indicated that he'll opt out of his contract. He had another strong season for the Magic and might be able to cash in with a bigger deal this summer. Then again, with so few teams holding cap space, he may have to settle for less to return to Orlando. With the Magic's trade for Vince Carter on the night of the draft, Orlando won't make a huge offer.
4. Anderson Varejao, Cavs (PO)
The Cavs brought in Shaq for some help in the middle, but they'll need Varejao's energy and toughness at the 4 if they expect to compete for a title next season. That should put Varejao in a much better negotiating position than he was in two years ago, and for that reason he is expected to opt out.
5. Mehmet Okur, Jazz (ETO)
Okur's agent said on Sunday that the Utah center is "leaning toward opting out." It's unclear how much money Okur could command on the market, but he might be willing to go to Europe. Still, it appears that Okur ultimately hopes to stay with the Jazz and would be willing to take less money now to get a long-term extension. The Jazz are likely candidates to re-sign him, but the Pistons, who drafted him, could also be in the mix.
6. Al Harrington, Knicks (PO)
Harrington is expected not to opt out -- he is thrilled to be in New York, as Mike D'Antoni's system has him putting up the best numbers of his career. Even with those numbers, there isn't much of a market for him.
7. Jamal Crawford, Hawks (ETO)
When he was traded to the Hawks last week, Crawford had to sign a document that said he wouldn't opt out of his contract this summer, so he's not going anywhere.
8. Eddy Curry, Knicks (ETO)
Curry's market value is virtually nil at the moment, and he's due to make about $31.5 over the next three seasons, so it's inconceivable he would leave so much cash on the table. But the Knicks will do backflips if he decides to move on.
9. Kyle Korver, Jazz (ETO)
Korver is one of the top shooters in the league, but it will be hard for him to find a team willing to give him much more than what the Jazz are paying him.
10. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Cavs (ETO)
There's virtually no chance that Ilgauskas opts out of his deal in Cleveland, despite the fact that Shaq is going there. He's played for only one franchise, and on the open market, he couldn't earn nearly what the Cavs are paying him.
Other notables: Ricky Davis, Clippers (PO); Kwame Brown, Pistons (PO); Mark Blount, Heat (ETO).
Group II: The restricted free agents
As mentioned above, eight players from the draft class of 2005 have signed extensions. The remaining players listed below will be restricted free agents in the summer.
As we've seen in the past few years, it's unusual for restricted free agents to change teams: Last summer, not one major restricted free agent signed with another NBA team. A few grew so desperate that they signed with European teams instead, though that option has dwindled given the economic problems in Europe.
But while we should expect most restricted free agents to stay home, there could be several exceptions this year, starting with the first two names on the list:
1. David Lee, Knicks
Lee is a double-double machine who has become a favorite among both New York fans and coaches around the league. The Knicks have a stated goal of clearing cap space for 2010, which means they might not be in a position to match a substantial offer sheet. So Lee is the rare topnotch restricted free agent that an opposing team might be able to steal away.
2. Paul Millsap, Jazz
With Boozer out for most of the season, Millsap proved he is a potential All-Star power forward -- he's unstoppable on the boards and he can put the ball in the basket. Detroit, Memphis and Oklahoma City are all potentially interested, though the Jazz are going to try to bring him back. If Boozer opts out, I don't think there's any way the Jazz let Millsap get away. But if Boozer doesn't opt out, there's a chance the Jazz won't be able to afford both of them.
3. Marvin Williams, Hawks
Williams has as much raw talent as anyone else in the class of 2005, but he's been frustratingly inconsistent in his first four years with the Hawks. While he'll probably stay in Atlanta, he's not playing well enough to earn anything close to the $60-64 million over five years that Granger got last fall, to contrast Williams with one small forward from his draft class.
4. Raymond Felton, Bobcats
Felton has been looking over his shoulder at Larry Brown's young protégé, D.J. Augustin. Felton can dish out assists, but his poor shooting has hampered his career. Augustin performed well enough as a rookie that it's unlikely the Bobcats would match a big offer sheet for Felton. If the Bobcats can get Felton for the midlevel exception, I think they keep him. If he gets a bigger offer somewhere else, I think he's gone. For what it's worth, Michael Jordan has said that the Bobcats expect to keep Felton.
5. Josh Childress, Hawks
Childress shocked many in the NBA by deciding to bolt for Greece last summer. It's unclear whether he'll decide to return to the NBA this fall, though it seems very likely he'll be back eventually. But with bad blood lingering over how his negotiations went last summer with Atlanta, the current expectation is that we shouldn't expect to see him return to the Hawks, though they still hold his rights.
6. Ramon Sessions, Bucks
Teams are always in pursuit of point guards, and Sessions has caught the eye of a number of teams.
7. Nate Robinson, Knicks
Robinson's stock has been skyrocketing, and the Knicks probably can't afford to keep him as they try to re-sign David Lee and clear cap space for LeBron James (and/or others). Look for Sacramento, among other teams, to make a run at him, especially after the Kings made a big play for him at the trade deadline.
8. Marcin Gortat, Magic
Gortat is big, fairly athletic and very tough, and the Magic may be hard-pressed to match a substantial offer to him. He should be able to get at least a four-year deal worth $16-18 million.
9. Jarrett Jack, Pacers
Jack ended up beating out T.J. Ford at the end of the year for the Pacers' starting point guard position. He might get offers in the range of the midlevel exception, and it's not clear the Pacers can afford to re-sign him. One team to watch: the Hawks, who could bring him back to Atlanta, where he played college ball.
10. Linas Kleiza, Nuggets
Kleiza is an up-and-coming forward who drew a lot of interest at the trade deadline. He could get an offer sheet for the midlevel exception from some team.
Other notables:: Glen Davis, Celtics; Channing Frye, Blazers; Rashad McCants, Kings; Hakim Warrick, Grizzlies; Leon Powe, Celtics; Carlos Delfino, Raptors; Joey Graham, Raptors; Ike Diogu, Kings; Jamario Moon, Raptors; Aaron Gray, Bulls; Shannon Brown, Lakers; Ersan Ilyasova, Bucks; Rob Kurz, Warriors; Josh McRoberts, Pacers.
Group III: The real, honest-to-goodness unrestricted free agents
Finally, with no caveats needed, here are the true free agents. Although there is a lot of star power here, most of the big-name players on this list are on the back end of their careers.
1. Ben Gordon, Bulls
Gordon is an explosive scorer and has one of the sweetest jump shots in the game. But he is undersized for a shooting guard and he doesn't play great defense. On virtually every team, his best position is as a high-scoring sixth man. The question we're about to answer is, what is the market value of a player like that?
Gordon will have suitors -- the Bulls want to re-sign him badly and their main competition will come from the Pistons -- but as his agent learned last summer when he sought to get Gordon traded to another team via a sign-and-trade, it's going to be tough to find a team willing to break the bank for him.
2. Shawn Marion, Raptors
Marion can still score, defend and rebound. But he turned 31 in May and has seen his production slip the past two years. He struggled a bit in Toronto, too, raising a legitimate question about how much a team will be willing to spend on him given his age and reputation for being difficult. The Raptors seem to be his best chance of landing more than a midlevel deal.
3. Trevor Ariza, Lakers
Ariza's youth, athleticism and defense make him a valuable prospect. The Lakers may have to choose between him and Lamar Odom -- which has a few teams circling like vultures, waiting to swoop in and grab Ariza -- but I doubt any team outbids L.A. for him.
4. Lamar Odom, Lakers
Odom will be one of the most coveted free agents on the open market. Phil Jackson likes him, but with Kobe, Bynum and Pau Gasol on the roster, combined with the emergence of Ariza, the Lakers don't really need him. But Odom is a great team guy who can rebound and initiate the offense, and he doesn't need the ball to be effective. If he doesn't stick in L.A., a line of teams will be waiting to snatch him up.
5. Andre Miller, Sixers
At age 33, Miller is coming off two of his best seasons of his career, and some GM who needs a veteran point guard will be willing gamble on him this summer. Then again, can the Sixers afford to lose him?
6. Jason Kidd, Mavericks
Kidd continues to claim that the reports of his demise are exaggerated, and his solid play last season backed him up. Still, he's a 36-year-old point guard.
The Mavs are one of several teams willing to pay for a point guard with court vision. It remains to be seen where he wants to be and whether he'll command more than a midlevel deal.
7. Mike Bibby, Hawks
Bibby had a solid season as the Hawks' point guard, but it's hard to see him making anything near what he's made the past few years. The Hawks are a young team still searching for a long-term answer at the point. Bibby was a nice stopgap for 18 months, but I doubt he has a long-term future in Atlanta unless he's willing to take much less money, especially when you factor in that the team traded for Jamal Crawford, drafted Jeff Teague and could be pursuing Jarrett Jack in free agency.
8. Rasheed Wallace, Pistons
Sheed continues to be one of the most baffling players in the league. When he's on, he's one of the best big men in the game. When he's off, he can be way off. He'll turn 34 in September, which makes you wonder whether he's still worth the risk. The Pistons won't re-sign him, so where could he be going next? Short of his making a jump to Charlotte -- he and Larry Brown remain close -- would any other team in the league be open to paying him? The Spurs, Cavs and Magic are among the teams to watch most closely.
9. Allen Iverson, Pistons
Iverson's late-season disappearance didn't help his reputation. He's still a good player, but two nagging questions will hurt his case for a big deal: One, with the exception of that magical season in Philly under Larry Brown, is Iverson a winner? Two, does he have much left? The answer to Question 1 seems to be no. The answer to No. 2 seems to be a qualified yes. I just don't know how much he'll earn this summer and I can't find any teams that are willing to stick their necks out for him. I think retirement for Iverson isn't out of the question.
10. Ron Artest, Rockets
Artest has been on good behavior off the court, and he helped lead the Rockets on an unexpected postseason run this May. But signing him is still somewhat risky. Which team will have the courage to pull it off?
Other notables: Charlie Villanueva, Bucks; Antonio McDyess, Pistons; Drew Gooden, Bulls; Zaza Pachulia, Hawks; Chris Wilcox, Knicks; Anthony Parker, Raptors; Chris Andersen, Nuggets; Marquis Daniels, Pacers; Sean May, Bobcats; Brandon Bass, Mavs; Joe Smith, Thunder; Grant Hill, Suns; Ronald Murray, Hawks; Stromile Swift, Nets; Robert Swift, Thunder; Rasho Nesterovic, Pacers; Keith Bogans, Bucks; Johan Petro, Nuggets; Bobby Jackson, Kings; Dahntay Jones, Mavericks; Luther Head, Heat; Rodney Carney, Wolves; Cedric Simmons, Kings; Damon Jones, Bucks; Desmond Mason, Thunder; Chris Mihm, Grizzlies; Gerald Green, Mavericks; Wally Szczerbiak, Cavs; Jason Collins, Timberwolves; Jarron Collins, Jazz; Shelden Williams, Wolves; Stephon Marbury, Celtics; Mikki Moore, Celtics; Juwan Howard, Bobcats; Maceo Baston, Pacers; Morris Almond, Jazz.
Nice work! Interesting stuff