The Gems Of the 2016 Free Agent Class: In July of 2016, 249 players have contract terms that could make them a free agent. This number includes 56 players with team options, 32 players that have potential qualifying offers and 29 that have player options. There are 87 players looking at unrestricted free agency, while 43 players have some level of non-guaranteed money attached to them, with the biggest being new Houston guard Ty Lawson, whose entire $13.213 million salary for 2016 is non-guaranteed.
While there are a lot of guys headed into the free agent pool in some capacity, there are a couple of names worth watching:
Mike Conley – Memphis Grizzlies – $9,588,426
Before we get too far into Conley’s situation, it’s important to state that Conley loves being a Memphis Grizzly. That said, his pay is so far out of proportion to his production he has to hit the free agent market to re-set his pay rate. The problem with the current Collective Bargaining Agreement is that it only allows for contract extensions based on the current values of a deal, so for Conley to add value, he has to hit free agency and as we’ve seen in recent years, there is risk there.
With a ballooning salary cap, Memphis has all the means in the world to keep Conley and they can offer a fifth contract year that no other team can offer; however, history has also shown that the fifth year isn’t nearly the motivator to stay as some teams would like, which puts Conley in an interesting situation as arguably the top point guard in the 2016 NBA Free Agent class.
Kevin Durant – Oklahoma City Thunder – $20,158,622
No single free agent is going to garner more attention and hype than Thunder star Kevin Durant, mainly because there is a belief that he may be obtainable in July. Durant has tried to quiet the rumor mill saying he was only focused on the upcoming season and that he would not be discussing his free agent future until next summer, but that’s not going to stop the speculation and in some cases the planning some teams will go through to ensure they have the means under the cap to make a maximum contract offer.
The Thunder do have a slight edge in that they can offer the most guaranteed years and money, and there is a trust factor that Durant has with the situation, but on the heels of a year in which Durant is believed to have inked more than $300 million in off the court endorsements, money may not be as big a factor in Durant’s decision making process as one would think.
Like other marquee stars before him, Durant is going to face the question of whether or not he can win a championship in Oklahoma City, which is what makes the upcoming season so important for the Thunder.
The interesting wrinkle in the exploding NBA salary cap is that a team looking to poach Durant may have the means to add not only his talent, but give him the option of hand picking another free agent or two from the 2016 free agent class to join him.
DeMar DeRozan – Toronto Raptors – $10,050,000 Player Option
Like Mike Conley, DeRozan has outplayed his contract and likely heads into free agency to re-set the values. The saving grace for Toronto is that DeRozan is really committed to the program with the Raptors and they too will have the means to lock him into a long-term deal at market value if they so choose.
DeRozan was a big part of free agency recruiting and has been one of the more unifying presences on the team. However, the risk of losing him to another situation is real because, like Conley, the only way to re-set his contract terms is to become a free agent, which likely makes him a trade rumor candidate all year, especially if the Raptors regress.
DeRozan has long been a name some fans have wanted to see cashed out for a different talent and with the uncertainty of free agency on the horizon Raptor fans might get their wish, especially if the season starts out sideways.
LeBron James – Cleveland Cavaliers – $24,004,173 Player Option
Some have looked at how LeBron James has structured his contract with the Cavaliers and expressed concern. There is some power that comes with his ability to walk away each summer, but this is what Cleveland agreed to in order to get James to leave Miami. The plan was that LeBron would do short-term deals to ensure he was at the very top of his earning potential and that he could cash in on the ballooning salary cap every summer. That likely stays the same going into next summer as well.
The odds that James plays anywhere but Cleveland is extremely slim, but as some have suggested LeBron wants to do right by the Cavaliers, as long as they are doing right by him. So far that’s worked out, but if thing go south in an epically bad way, LeBron has options.
As the top player in basketball, James has flexibility and the power of influence few in sports possess. The end game is that he remains in Cleveland for the balance of his career, but he doesn’t have to if he doesn’t want to and that makes him an interesting free agent to watch, even if it’s anti-climactic and he stays in Cleveland.
Dwight Howard – Houston Rockets – $23,282,457 Player Option
Like many on this list, Howard is likely headed to unrestricted free agency if only to reset his contract under the new ballooning salary cap. Howard was the center of two circuses leading up to his decision to sign in Houston and while Howard carries the flag for the Rockets, it’s not out of the question for Howard to entertain free agent suitors once again if things do not progress in Houston. After all, if there is one player in the NBA that’s struggled with decisions and commitment it’s Howard.
The likely scenario is Howard stays exactly where he is and Houston simply pays him more money, but if the Rockets express doubt or concern, there is a chance that Howard takes free agent meetings, especially if the situation in Houston does not get him to the Conference Finals.
If you want to see everyone that could touch free agency in 2016, here is the complete list prior to team options being picked up.
The Insiders Podcast: Former Duke point guard Quinn Cook played Co-Host of the Basketball Insiders Podcast this past Saturday. Take a listen:
The Basketball Insiders Podcast is typically recorded every Tuesday and Saturday. You can find them on iTunes here (https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/insiders-sports-podcast/id1002925891?mt=2) or Tune In here (http://tunein.com/radio/Insiders-Sports-Podcast-p738080/) or Soundcloud here (https://soundcloud.com/insiders-sports) or on Basketball Insiders here (https://www.basketballinsiders.com/insiders-podcast/). Here is the latest installment:
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