The 2013-14 NBA season is completely over for 14 teams, and eight more are about to join them in the next week or two. That means over two-thirds of the league will have nothing better to do but start gearing up for free agency and the draft this summer, with free agency talking a prominent position because of all the high-quality talent on the market this year.
The following is a list of the 10 best free agents on the market, and while it’s an impressive set, it doesn’t even include some of the biggest names that could potentially hit the free agent pool. LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh among others have early termination options on their deals which, if exercised, could put them on the market in July, as well.
For now, though, we’re just going to look at the players who will definitely be free agents in the coming months, as well as where they might end up and how much money they could earn.
Eric Bledsoe, RFA, Phoenix Suns – Generally speaking, this looks like one of the most obvious slam dunks as far as this year’s great crop of restricted free agents is concerned. Bledsoe has shown no ill effects from his knee injury that occurred earlier in the season, and working with the Phoenix training staff is the best way to make sure that remains the case throughout the course of his career. Plus, the Suns are a talented upstart team with plenty of money to spend in order to further improve the roster, and they’d be crazy not to match any offer sheet he’s given, assuming they don’t beat other teams to the punch by offering him a huge extension as quickly as possible.
He might not make max money, but he’s likely to get close, and it seems pretty clear that Phoenix has pegged him and Goran Dragic as the two cogs around which they’re planning on building this team. Suns GM Ryan McDonough recently made headlines when he told a local radio station that “it would be a waste of time for another team to throw an offer at him.”
Luol Deng, UFA, Cleveland Cavaliers – While the Cavaliers have said publicly that they’d like to keep Deng long-term, his reasons for staying on that struggling Cleveland roster are likely quite a bit less plentiful than his reasons for exploring free agency. The L.A. Lakers are a team that continually pop up as a potential suitor for Deng, as are the Phoenix Suns, though there’s even an outside chance that he would return to the Chicago Bulls if he were interested in settling for the $10 million annual deal his old team originally offered before trading him earlier in the season. That amount of money seems like Deng’s financial floor, but he could make quite a bit more than that if he plays the market well. Something in the neighborhood of $12-14 million a season for a 28-year-old veteran that performs well on both ends of the court seems just about right, and as one of the only “high profile” free agents still in his prime, he’ll have no shortage of suitors.
Pau Gasol, UFA, L.A. Lakers – Coming off a year in which Gasol made north of $19 million, it’s probably safe to say that he’s seen his last massive multi-year contract. But after banking plenty of cash over the course of his career, he’ll likely approach free agency this summer with eyes set on a winning situation over one that could pay him the most money. He’s already said he’d listen to what Phil Jackson has to say should New York come up with an offer, but Cleveland, Chicago, Charlotte and Memphis are other possibilities for the veteran seven-footer, according to SI’s Chris Mannix. Wherever he ends up, Gasol is likely to still command a reasonable paycheck and get an opportunity to play for a team with reasonable title aspirations. He has stated that winning is more important to him than any other factor, and that leaves the door wide open for him to play pretty much anywhere he wants to. If he’s coming at a bargain, just about every team in the league will be interested.
Marcin Gortat, UFA, Washington Wizards – To say that the Gortat trade worked out well for the Washington Wizards would be more than fair, particularly since the Polish center just wrapped up one of the best seasons of his career, averaging 13.2 PPG, 9.5 RPG and 1.5 BPG. It’s hard to gauge what kind of money he might make, but there are plenty of front office people that consider him one of the top three unrestricted free agents on the market this summer, right behind Deng and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry. High-quality big men typically get paid quite well in the NBA, and Gortat is coming off a scorching hot season just riddled with double-doubles. Even better for Gortat, his Wizards have a surprisingly realistic chance to make it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals this year if they can get past Chicago and Indiana. Gortat is one of the league’s few effective traditional big men, and that’s worth a pretty penny to NBA executives.
Gordon Hayward, RFA, Utah Jazz – Obviously, Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey has publicly stated over and over again that he’d love for Hayward to stay in Salt Lake City for the duration of his career, but Hayward himself hasn’t been quite as concrete on what his future plans are. He’s likely to taste free agency and see what teams have to offer. Utah has plenty of cap space in the coming years and could match any offer sheet Hayward may sign, but with Hayward a more realistic free agency target for teams in need of a small forward than James or Anthony, there’s a real chance some team looks to overpay for the promising future Hayward has in the NBA. Utah has a new head coach to hire, and that may help Hayward make a decision, but at this point it looks like he’s interested in playing the field a little bit. There’s little reason to believe Utah will let him walk away for nothing, but the rest of the league sure isn’t going to make it easy on them.
Kyle Lowry, UFA, Toronto Raptors – Unrestricted free agents this good are rare, but the Raptors’ front office has a firm understanding of that and has said publicly multiple times that they’re going to do everything in their power to keep Lowry long-term. Toronto, the third-best team in the East this year, is clearly moving in the right direction with Lowry at the helm, but what he ends up making this summer may ultimately depend on how things pan out for him in these playoffs. Lowry is top 10 in the league in win shares, which proves his value as the kind of player a team builds around, but his injury history makes a huge extension a little risky. The Raptors likely have a ceiling of what they’d be willing to pay their talented point guard, and if there are teams willing to reach through that ceiling to bring him aboard, there’s definitely a chance he could change uniforms. Whoever ends up with him, though, will have to pry him from the white-knuckled fists of Masai Ujiri.
Greg Monroe, RFA, Detroit Pistons – While it’s true that the Pistons are in a bit of a front office overhaul right now, that bit of discord shouldn’t be viewed as an opportunity for the rest of the league to pluck Monroe from their clutches. An eight-figure salary for Monroe seems imminent, and considering Josh Smith (who plays the same position) also makes an eight-figure annual salary, it’s easy to see how matching a big offer sheet could prove problematic for the Pistons. However, don’t expect them to let him walk for nothing; they actually can afford to pay him and Smith and likely will before losing him to some other team with nothing in return. The new front office can always try to make a sign-and-trade work or attempt to ship off Smith at a later date. However they do it, the Pistons aren’t just going to let Monroe walk, though there are likely some teams who will consider offering near-max money to see if Detroit will balk at matching. Keep an eye on the Washington Wizards, who are rumored to be interested in Monroe.
Dirk Nowitzki, UFA, Dallas Mavericks – Nowitzki’s body of work puts him on this list, but there’s no way Mark Cuban will ever allow him to retire as anything but a Dallas Maverick. He’s not going to command another max contract at this point in his career (he’ll be 36 in June), but he still has plenty to offer considering his style of play never really relied too heavily on athleticism. It’s simply inconceivable that he gives his talents to anybody but Cuban and the Mavs this summer.
Lance Stephenson, UFA, Indiana Pacers – All season long the Pacers have been worried out of their minds that they won’t be able to afford Lance Stephenson, who had his near-All-Star breakout season just in time to talk about a contract extension. A former second-round pick, Stephenson is the youngest unrestricted free agent on this list, and players that young and that talented simply don’t come around often without a restricted tag. Teams don’t have to worry about Indiana gobbling up days of rumination about matching an offer sheet, and that means they’ll go after Stephenson before many of the restricted guys. As the season has gone on, Stephenson’s production has fallen off a bit, and he still looks like the Tazmanian Devil half of the time he’s charging all over the court. The fact that he has reportedly gotten into fights with George Hill and Evan Turner in recent weeks also doesn’t help his stock. With that said, he’s a truly desirable asset, and one that Indiana may no longer be able to afford. If Chicago uses the amnesty clause on Carlos Boozer, they’ll have the financial means to make a run at Stephenson, who would fill a huge need for them. Atlanta, Charlotte and Utah are other possibilities.
Isaiah Thomas, RFA, Sacramento Kings – There’s a reasonable chance that the Kings draft a larger point guard in this upcoming draft, particularly with prospects like Dante Exum and Marcus Smart looking like franchise-changing players. And if that happens, Sacramento could potentially let Thomas play somewhere else rather than invest another $4-6 million in the position. That price range places Thomas squarely in the mid-level exception range, which means a ton of teams will be interested in bringing him aboard. Bench scoring is a very important thing in today’s NBA, and Thomas would be an ideal sixth man for almost any team in the league. Sacramento could match any offer sheet if the money doesn’t get exorbitant, and they likely would if the draft doesn’t yield them a point guard. He’s still a good fit for Sacramento, but he’ll have a lot of opportunities to play elsewhere if he and/or the Kings so choose.
As soon as a team knows its season is sunk, the front office immediately begins making plans for fixing it the next year, and that can really only be done through some combination of making smart draft picks, lopsided trades or savvy free agency acquisitions. This year offers more quality free agents than average, and these 10 players represent the best of the batch. Should any of the All-Stars with early termination options exercise that opportunity, the free agent class will only get stronger.