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Head-to-Head: Top Free Agent Destination

Moke Hamilton and Joel Brigham debate over where the top free agent destination is this offseason with several big names potentially hitting the market.

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So far the 2014 NBA Playoffs have been as thrilling as anyone could ever ask for. However, while 16 teams are duking it out for one of eight spots in the second round, the rest of the league is already formulating their offseason gameplan and who they want to after in free agency. We won’t know until June exactly who is going to be in this year’s free agency class, but it could be one for the ages if Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade all decide to opt out. With that in mind, we asked Joel Brigham and Moke Hamilton to go head-to-head over what the best free agent destination is right now.

In 1988 Tom Chambers, the league’s first-ever unrestricted free agent, chose to sign with the Phoenix Suns.  He could have selected any team in the league he wanted, but he ended up where he did because 26 years ago, that was a place at which players were dying to work.

A year ago, imagining Phoenix as the premier free agency destination would have been insane considering how little talent they had on their roster and how poorly they had been faring against the league’s toughest competition.  Good weather can only go so far in attracting free agents, apparently.

Things have changed over the course of the last 12 months, however, and the Suns are looking like a great options for free agents once again thanks to plenty of cap space, a respected coaching staff, and a good chance not only to make the playoffs, but to do some damage once they get there.  Unless you’re a starting guard, there’s plenty of opportunity for playing time, too.  It’s hard to think of a team with the potential to be more accommodating to more free agents than Phoenix.

For starters, they will start the summer with somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million in cap space.  They have every intention of holding onto Eric Bledsoe, who won’t come cheap and definitely will cost more than his $6.6 million cap hold, but there will still be plenty of money left over to go after another semi-major free agent like Luol Deng.  Money talks in this league, and Phoenix’s major attraction is that they have plenty of it.

Of course, money isn’t the only thing that matters to potential employees.  While the Suns did narrowly miss the postseason this year, they were definitely the Western Conference’s most surprising team thanks to hard play by motivated young players and good coaching by first-year skipper Jeff Hornacek.  While he doesn’t yet have the pedigree of a Tom Thibodeau or Gregg Popovich, Hornacek is definitely good enough already to be the kind of coach players would love to work for.

It also helps that GM Ryan McDonough is one of those exciting young general managers that makes the most of advanced statistics and steers away from the most ridiculous of long-term deals.  He’s a smart guy that has the chops to build a winner, and that’s something that also matters to players (and, perhaps more importantly, their agents).

Throw in a good supporting cast, the league’s best training staff, which helped keep Steve Nash and Grant Hill relevant deep into their 30s, as well as warm weather and an excellent preexisting community for rich people with money to burn, and Phoenix looks like an especially attractive destination for free agents.

In terms of having the most to offer, the Suns appear to be in the lead this summer, which is odd considering a year ago nobody could imagine any major free agents ever wanting to play there.  McDonough, Hornacek, Bledsoe, and Goran Dragic have helped change the culture there, however, and now an opportunity to play in Phoenix is about as good as it gets.

– Joel Brigham

In Related: 2014-15 NBA Free Agent List

It is difficult to argue that the answer here is anywhere but with the Los Angeles Lakers.

While most would correctly argue that the passing of Dr. Jerry Buss and the subsequent rise of power by the unproven Jim Buss presents a major question mark for the Lakers, the franchise still has the luster of the top free agent draw in the entire league.

Even as the sun sets on Kobe Bryant’s illustrious career and a new chapter awaits, it is the chapters of old that will help attract future generations to Hollywood. A rich tradition and a winning culture is something that is difficult to find in the NBA. While it is true that players could find a similar tradition in Boston, Danny Ainge does not have the best reputation amongst the players who have suited up for him over the years. He does not have the longevity, track record of success or overall respect within the industry that Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak has and that in and of itself is extremely important.

The market size, beautiful weather, passionate fan base, competent front office and winning tradition make the Lakers unlike any of the NBA’s other markets. If there is one major downside to playing professionally in Los Angeles, it would be the fact that millionaires in California pay more state income taxes than those in many other, including Florida and Texas.

Additionally, with the new generation of NBA superstars, we have seen a propensity to leave a franchise in search of championship glory with a new one. LeBron James left Cleveland, Chris Paul left New Orleans, Carmelo Anthony left Denver, Dwight Howard left Orlando… And they all did so in search of championships that have mostly eluded them.

What that says is that having a superstar that is capable of leading a team to a championship, in this era, makes a particular franchise a more prominent destination. For an example, look no further than Caron Butler.

After being waived by the Milwaukee Bucks, Butler was thought to have been headed to the Miami HEAT and re-join the franchise that drafted him in 2002. Instead, he opted to sign in Oklahoma City, mainly because the thought was that minutes would be easier to come by as a member of the Thunder, but the fact of the matter is that without Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook there, there is zero chance Butler would have turned down an opportunity to return to a franchise that he loved to relocate to the midwest.

Ergo, if LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard remain in Portland, if Dwight Howard and James Harden stay in Houston and if Carmelo Anthony opts to re-sign as a member of the New York Knicks, each of those destinations would be amongst the more coveted in the league.

But still, at the end of the day, their 16 NBA Championships and reputation of being a first class organization gives the Lakers a tremendous advantage as it relates to presenting a destination that an NBA player would love to call home.

Even as Bryant begins to unlace his sneakers in preparation for hanging them up for good, rumors abound that the like of Kevin Love and prospect Dante Exum have their eyes set on the Lakers. This is nothing new and will continue to be the case.

After spending the past few decades proudly donning purple and gold, the Lakers have been the gold standard of a prolonged winning tradition. Even with Dr. Buss’ passing, the luster associated with the franchise lives on. It would take years of misfortune and incompetence for that to change, and while it is possible, I am willing to bet that the Lakers land on their feet and find themselves competing for championships again in the very near future.

If I am a young NBA stud looking to make my mark with a franchise that has competent manager, a winning tradition and beautiful weather, if the Lakers came knocking, I would not only listen… I would probably cancel my other calls.

– Moke Hamilton

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