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Top 15 Restricted Free Agents

Mon, 06/30/2008 - 5:31pm

The guys on this list will be in the mix, but their original teams can match and/or exceed any offer they receive. Most of these guys will stay put, but July can get crazy.

Most of the guys on this list are nearly done with their rookie-scale contracts, so this will be their first major deal. Some (Andre Iguodala, Emeka Okafor, Luol Deng, Ben Gordon) elected not to sign lucrative extensions last summer, which elicited some strong criticism from none other than Gilbert Arenas. A few guys improved their stock, while others underperformed at the worst possible time.

Let’s take a look at the 15 biggest names and what their future holds in store.

Multi-tool forwards

1. Andre Iguodala: One of the few players who turned down an extension and actually played well in 2007-08, Iguodala established himself as the 76ers key piece in what turned out to be a surprising playoff appearance. With no other serious suitors swimming in cap room other than the Memphis Grizzlies, look for Iguodala to remain in Philadelphia with a deal in the 5-year, $60-million range. Besides, it wouldn’t be Philly without an A.I. in the mix, right?

[img_assist|nid=1336|title=Josh Smith|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=422] 2. Josh Smith: Based on potential alone, Smith might be the most talented member of the 2008 RFA class. His offensive skills have finally caught up to his athleticism, and he’s on the verge of becoming the league’s best weak-side shot-blocker. Occasional attitude problems keep him from achieving his All-Star potential, but J-Smoove fans hope those disappear with age and maturity. The Hawks, fresh off their first playoff appearance in ages, couldn’t possibly be dumb enough to let Smith walk. However, this is the same ownership group that nearly bungled the Joe Johnson trade, so anything’s possible. If the Sixers lock up Iggy Pop, teams with cap room will turn all their attention to Smith.

3. Luol Deng: A nightmarish, injury-plagued 2007-08 might have cost Deng millions, but teams still love the forward’s versatility. Deng rates at least “very good” in every major category and will almost certainly enjoy a bounce-back year this season. The Bulls will definitely attempt to low-ball Deng with the first offer, so there is an outside change Deng looks to test the market. However, I can’t imagine a circumstance where the Bulls don’t match.

The next Gilbert?

4. Monta Ellis: He wants a major raise from his $770,000 salary from last season, but it doesn’t appear as if any of the teams in the market for Ellis’ services will be able to offer more than the mid-level. After spending most of his rookie season on the bench, Ellis has quickly become one of the league’s most electrifying scorers, averaging more than 20 points per game last season in Golden State. He looks set to recreate Gilbert Arenas’ early career arc (surprising second-round slide, drafted by Golden State, on the verge of a massive raise, unstoppable scoring ability), so don’t be surprised if Ellis begins sponsoring Halo teams or sleeping in an oxygen tent. Odds are Ellis accepts a one-year deal to become an unrestricted free agent in 2009, where he’ll really cash in.

Spanish fly

5. Jose Calderon: Since the Spanish point guard was arguably the fourth most popular athlete in Toronto last year (behind Wayne Gretzky, Joe Carter and Chris Bosh), it stands to reason that Calderon will remain a Raptor for the foreseeable future. Since day one, Toronto GM Bryan Colangelo said he would match any offer, and the recent Jermaine O’Neal for T.J. Ford and filler trade proves that he means business. Calderon is among the league’s most efficient players and might make a push for the East’s All-Star team now that he’s finally getting starter’s minutes.

Howard versus Okafor: Ugh…

6. Emeka Okafor: You ever have those sports arguments in your past that you’re completely ashamed of? Stuff that’s more embarrassing than anything that happened to you in high school? I was one of those idiots who said the Orlando Magic would be stupid to pass on Emeka Okafor -- fresh off the heels of a dominant National-Championship run -- to take an unproven high-schooler with Kwame written all over him. Turns out that kid who went No. 1 -- what’s his name? Dwight Howard? Yeah, he’s better. Still, Okafor is the best center on the market by a wide margin and is a top-notch shot-blocker. He stupidly turned down a $13-million/year extension last summer and responded with a solid, if unspectacular fourth season. At this point, you know what you’re getting with Okafor: 13-15 points, 10-11 rebounds, two blocks and frequent trips to the injured list. However, he did play all 82 games last season, so perhaps that’s an encouraging sign. Regardless, with few teams able to pony up, look for Charlotte to match any offer and keep the franchise’s first-ever draft pick.

Instant energy

7. Ben Gordon: An excerpt from a potential email Ben Gordon might be sending John Paxson: “Any chance we can get you guys to reconsider that 5-year, $50-million deal? I know we turned it down last summer, but we’re more than OK with it now.” He’s one of the league’s streakier players. When he’s feeling it, he’s unstoppable. When his shot is off, he doesn’t contribute in other ways. He’s definitely too shot-happy to play point guard and isn’t big enough to start at 2-guard. But the league’s rules have shifted to help players like Gordon, so he’ll be a definite asset for anyone in need of a scoring spark off the bench. Chicago has far too many backcourt players in the mix right now, so Gordon might be one of the odd men out. He might go the one-year tender route and look for his unrestricted status in 2009, or he might jump at the first long-term deal anyone offers.

8. Josh Childress: He might not get the attention of Atlanta’s “other” Josh, but Childress is one of the East’s most effective and efficient sixth men. He does everything well and is the type of asset coveted by any team with championship aspirations. Childress’ status with the Hawks is predicated on what they intend to do with Smith. There is a better-than-good chance that Childress might be available, and smart teams will look to snag the player who might be the bargain of the 2008 class.

9. Andris Biendris: Granted, he’s a total spazz who shoots free throws as if he has multiple elbow joints, but he’s an active, athletic, energetic and steadily improving 7-footer who fits Golden State’s system. There is a premium for young bigs with potential, which describes Biendris to a tee. He wants between $10-11 million per year, but the Warriors will wait to make Biedrins an offer until they figure out what to do with Ellis. However, it’s unlikely that another team will out-spend the Warriors for Biedrins services this off-season.

9. Louis Williams: “Sweet Lou” became a vital cog in the Sixers’ late playoff push last season, evolving from “talented, yet erratic bench guy who impresses the crowd during garbage time” into “legitimate late-game killer with a lightning-quick first step.” Much like fellow preps-to-pros second-rounder Ellis, Williams had to pay his dues on the bench before he was given an opportunity to shine. He’s a fan favorite in Philly, so look for the Sixers to attempt to lock him up.

10. Sasha Vujacic: He might be the most hated man in the NBA, but you can’t dispute his effectiveness. Prior to disappearing in the 2008 Finals, “The Machine” was a key component to the Lakers’ successful playoff push. His feisty defense and timely shooting helped increase his free-agent value tenfold over the course of the season. During his first three seasons, it’d be a stretch to even call Vujacic “decent.” Now, he’s a proven playoff performer and a legitimate pest. Look for him to cash in this summer.

11: J.R. Smith: On talent alone, Smith belongs in the top five. Few players can fill out a score sheet as quickly as Smith. Between his three-point range and rangy athleticism, his offensive game is limitless. What’s holding him back? A questionable basketball IQ, an uninspired attitude and subpar defense. He’s one of the biggest risk-reward players in the RFA class. Denver would like to have him back at the right price, but it certainly wouldn’t break George Karl’s heart if he went elsewhere. A sign-and-trade for point-guard help isn’t out of the question here.

Dirty work

12. Ryan Gomes: Life just isn’t fair sometimes. Gomes suffered through one of the worst seasons in Celtics’ history, only to be included in the destiny-altering Kevin Garnett deal. He spent 2007-08 plugging away on a dreadful Minnesota Timberwolves team while watching his former mates capture an NBA title. Gomes is one of those “little things” types of forwards who does everything necessary to win, even if it doesn’t appear on a stat sheet. He belongs on a playoff contender, but the T’Wolves hope he accepts their qualifying offer.

13. Carl Landry: Few people could understand how the Houston Rockets won 22 straight games after franchise center Yao Ming went down with a broken foot. Landry was one of the big reasons why the Rockets became the league’s hottest team during that magical streak. The 24-year-old power forward out of Purdue shot 61.6 percent from the floor and his per-minute numbers turned John Hollinger into jelly. He played sparingly through the first two-and-a-half months of the season, but quickly became one of the key components of Houston’s front line. The Rockets recently extended a qualifying offer to Landry, who deserves a big pay bump from the $427,000 he pocketed last season.

14. Craig Smith: Much like Gomes and Landry, Smith is a “between the numbers” guy who makes Hollinger woozy. He played 20 minutes a game for the T’Wolves last season and averaged 9.4 points and 4.6 boards in 77 games. He’s young (24) and thick (6-foot-7, 270). The T’Wolves hope to retain Smith and Gomes, because they’re the type of players who never attempt to exceed their abilities. They’re interested only in making the right play.

Red flags

15. Nenad Krstic: After spending most of the season on the injured list, Krstic’s return didn’t do much to boost his stock. He appeared to have lost a step or two and didn’t have any spring in his legs. He shot 41 percent from the floor last season -- an unacceptable number for any 7-footer. However, he’s only one year removed from a solid 16ppg/7rpg campaign in New Jersey, so we know he can play ball. Questions surrounding his knee will obviously affect his negotiations, as will a suddenly crowded Nets’ front court (Yi Jianlian, Brook Lopez, Ryan Anderson, Sean Williams, Josh Boone, DeSagana Diop).

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J.R. Smith/Emeka Okafor

J.R. Smith- "...A questionable basketball IQ...." QUESTIONABLE!? How about damn near non-existent. I remember one game I watched this year and Jeff Van Gundy ( he does not have much room to comment, I know) let him have it. Van Gundy pointed out that the Lakers have one out of bounds play. They run it every time. Yet, JR seemed to get caught on every screen that the play offered and left Kobe open for a 20 footer. His shot selection is terrible and I honestly think that he is too stupid to play defense. Because the athleticism is there to be a great defender, but he falls for every jab step and pump fake that any NBA two guard has to offer. With him being in the top 5 talent wise amongst the RFA, you are right. If he had any kind of common sense, he would leave now because obviously Warkentien and Co. do not see him as their two guard of the future with the AI/Carmelo logjam they have out there for all the shots. Leave now J.R. while the other idiot GM's are going to use the argument that you are only 22 years old to justify signing you to a ridiculous deal.

Emeka Okafor - In 04', I would have took Okafor over Howard too. At that time I said, with Emeka, you know what you are getting. He will probably not average 20 in the league. But he will be damn close to double digit rebounds and two blocks a night. At the worst, if he does not amount to his potential, he will be a Ben Wallace with a more refined offensive game which ain't that bad. Which is where I see Emeka going. Orlando rolled the dice a bit and pushed all in with their pocket 7's. They hit a set on the flop and quads on the river with Dwight Howard (sorry for the poker analogy for you non-players but I just played a $100 cash game last night and walked out with EXACTLY $100, still a bit perturbed). Consistency is his game and he has proved it in Charlotte. They are not the team for him because His Airness is one of the worst GM's we have in the league. He would be a wonderful asset to a lot of quasi-contenders (Cleveland, Houston, New Orleans, etc.) and that is where his skills will be best utilized. Dwight will probably have his name in Springfield, Mass when it is all said and done but if Emeka leaves Charlotte now, he will have more rings.

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