The Next-Tier NBA Free Agents – Part 1

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With so much attention understandably focused on superstar free agents such as LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, the rest of this talented free agent class will likely see their negotiations placed on the relative ‘back burner’ early in the process.

Players like Eric Bledsoe, Kyle Lowry, Pau Gasol and Luol Deng are just a few of the bigger names expected to headline the next batch of available players, but they may have to ride the rumor waves just like the rest of us until teams have a clearer picture of what James and Anthony plan to do.

Over the next few days, we’ll take a two-part look at some of the more realistic landing spots for the next tier of restricted and unrestricted free agents, along with some predictions on where each might end up signing:

Eric Bledsoe, G, RFA

Even though he missed 39 games of what became a breakout year in his lone season with the Suns in 2013-14, Bledsoe is expected to pursue a max contract once the free agency negotiation period kicks off on July 1. As expected, the Suns extended qualifying offers to both Bledsoe and fellow RFA P.J. Tucker, which will give them the opportunity to match whatever offer sheet either receives from another team.

Although the team was initially expected to match any offer sheet that Bledsoe would receive, their decision to draft former Syracuse point guard Tyler Ennis in the first round seemingly places that idea in question. When you factor in the incredible season of backcourt mate Goran Dragic along with speculation that GM Ryan McDonough could look to use Bledsoe as part of a potential sign-and-trade scenario involving power forward Kevin Love, it certainly appears a little less likely Bledsoe will be returning to the ‘Valley of the Sun’ at this point.

Coming off a surprising 48-34 season that almost resulted in one of the most unexpected runs to the playoffs in recent memory, the Suns will want to build upon that success as they head into Jeff Hornacek’s sophomore season at the helm.

Prediction: Bledsoe receives a max offer from the L.A. Lakers. If the Suns don’t want to give Bledsoe the max, they could attempt to sign-and-trade him before the offer sheet is officially signed. Either Bledsoe ends up returning to Los Angeles (across the hallway, this time), or the Suns match and keep their point guard of the future.

Pau Gasol, C/PF, UFA

Although there’s always the chance of a return to the Los Angeles Lakers, the closer we get to the start of free agency, the more it appears Gasol’s days of playing alongside friend and teammate Kobe Bryant may have come to a close. Both sides appear to have left the door open for the possibility of a return, but once the Lakers decided to select power forward Julius Randle to serve as their post anchor for the foreseeable future, signs simply don’t seem to point to a return for Gasol. For a team that has struggled so mightily on the defensive end in recent years – particularly against mobile and athletic big men – you wouldn’t imagine the Lakers intend to play a frontcourt comprised of Gasol and Randle.

Depending upon what he values most, the San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks and Cleveland Cavaliers could all make a lot of sense for Gasol. He mentioned a desire to unite with his brother in Memphis during an interview with’s David Pick earlier this month, but that seems highly unlikely given the two-year extension the Grizzlies recently agreed upon with power forward Zach Randolph. Once again, with Randle in tow, that conceivably negates even the thought of a potential sign-and-trade scenario with the Grizzlies and Lakers unless a third team were to be involved.

Prediction: Joining forces with the Spurs really could make the most sense for the 13-year veteran moving forward. Although they’d likely only be able to offer Gasol their non-taxpayer’s $5.3 million mid-level exception, the immediate opportunity to contend for a title while playing in a favorable system and for a legendary coach in Gregg Popovich could be enough to lure a player that has reportedly earned over $156 million in NBA salary (not including endorsements) throughout his career.

Dirk Nowitzki, PF, UFA

You may as well insert a Drew Rosenhaus “next question” under this segment, because the likelihood of Nowitzki leaving Dallas is just about null and void. In fact, Nowitzki has made his intentions clear, as he’s been openly recruiting other free agents in an effort to persuade them to join him in Dallas.

Prediction: Nowitzki re-signs with the Mavericks for two- or three-year deal that pays him an average of $11-13 million per season in an effort to leave a bit of cap flexibility for other free agents while being fairly compensated.

Trevor Ariza, SF, UFA

Ariza enjoyed the best season of his career for Washington in 2013-14. His 14.4 PPG were just below his career-high (14.9 PPG in 2009-10), but Ariza appeared more comfortable than ever before as the third member of such a talented perimeter group alongside John Wall and Bradley Beal. Washington could be faced with a difficult decision if forced to decide between paying Ariza’s asking price and being able to also pay the market price for fellow free agent Marcin Gortat. Back in May, ESPN’s Marc Stein reported that while Gortat would be the priority, the team has a desire to retain Ariza as well.

Prediction: As a guy that has bounced around the league in the past, Ariza could determine that sticking with a comfortable situation in Washington for a price that would be in the best interest of both parties (three- or four-years, $24-32 million). If Ariza wanted to return to his hometown team and the Lakers – depending upon how expected negotiations go with Anthony – he could potentially receive a similar contract offer in L.A.

Dwyane Wade, SG, Early Termination Option

Wade had an intriguing decision on his hands, as the three-time NBA champion could’ve opted into the final two years of his existing contract ($41.82 million) or opted out in an effort to create flexibility for the HEAT. Today, he decided to opt out, which will allow Pat Riley to work his magic this summer and try to improve Miami’s roster. Miami could offer Wade something along the lines of a four-year deal worth as much as $50-55 million in order to make opting out a worthwhile decision and leave themselves with the ability to add depth throughout their lineup.

Prediction: With Wade opting out, he’ll accept a deal similar to the one described. Don’t expect to see him in another uniform, at least over the next few seasons. Signs point to Wade and Co. coming to some sort of agreement to make sure this recent stretch of success continues.

Luol Deng, SF, UFA

Even though you can understand the Bulls’ mid-season decision to move Deng from a financial perspective, the move couldn’t have possibly been more damaging for the 10-year veteran. Not only did he join a tumultuous  group in Cleveland that he didn’t hesitate to question and reportedly describe as “a mess,” Deng also suffered from being “out of sight, out of mind” as those Cavs still ended the season just 33-49 and obviously out of the playoff picture.

The Cavs clearly don’t expect him to re-sign, as the future is now for recently drafted Andrew Wiggins. Alongside Ariza, Deng is still seen as one of the better veteran options along the perimeter, but he may ultimately find it difficult to find a better (or even comparable) deal than the reported three-year, $30 million extension the Bulls were willing to offer at one point.

Prediction: Depending upon how negotiations go with Ariza, the Wizards could join the Lakers as some of the few teams with available cap space and the need for a significant perimeter upgrade. If the Wizards need to fill Ariza’s void, a four-year deal worth around $32-35 million for Deng seems reasonable.

Lance Stephenson, SG, RFA

Now that cooler heads have hopefully prevailed within Indiana’s locker room, Stephenson’s progress as a player over his first four seasons should absolutely be commended. His lapses in judgment in key moments of the postseason may have been the subject of an endless stream of memes and social media jokes, but his actual ‘game’ cannot be denied.

His 13.8 PPG, 7.2 RPG and 4.6 APG are what led some analysts to consider him a legitimate candidate (and even one-time front-runner) for the 2013-14 NBA Most Improved Player award that eventually went to a deserving Goran Dragic.  The antics may have cooled some of his momentum, but the 23-year-old should still be able to sign a very lucrative deal this offseason.

Prediction: The questions about his maturity and professionalism are fair, so Stephenson may not receive quite the offers that one would expect after his breakout year. While there should be relative interest from teams in need of a perimeter upgrade, it would probably be in Stephenson’s best interest to find a way to stay in Indiana. Not only is there already a strong support infrastructure with team president Larry Bird and Donnie Walsh (basketball operations consultant) serving as direct mentors for Stephenson, but chasing the absolute maximum amount of money available likely wouldn’t place him in anywhere near his current position of contending for a title.

Greg Monroe, PF, RFA

Monroe is another young player who’s expected to look for the largest contract offer once players can begin negotiating with teams. Even though head coach and president of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy appeared to express a desire to find a way to keep Monroe in the past, it appears that may very well have been an attempt to strengthen their position with any trade negotiations. Not that Van Gundy shouldn’t be taken at his word with regards to having a true appreciation for Monroe’s game, but the team’s apparent inability to find a suitor for Josh Smith’s contract makes it highly unlikely the Pistons would actually consider re-signing the 24-year-old power forward.

As a featured player in an offense, the former-Hoya could develop into a player that provided a nightly 18-20 points and double-digit rebounds. That type of realistic potential won’t go unnoticed by other teams. Depending on what takes place with Spencer Hawes during discussions with Cleveland, GM David Griffin’s reported desire to pair Kyrie Irving with a quality big man could place the Cavs into the Monroe discussion.

Prediction: Monroe receives a four-year, $32-40 million offer from either the Cavs or even Wizards, depending on how things go with Gortat’s negotiations. The Lakers had been rumored as a potential suitor due to their cap space, but the Randle selection would possibly make that a less desirable fit now.

Isaiah Thomas, PG, RFA

Thomas had a fantastic offensive season (20.3 PPG and 6.3 APG) in just his third year in the league. Having shown promise and winning the starting job in Sacramento by the second half of the prior season, Thomas really seemed to flourish in his first year under head coach Mike Malone. Thomas even spoke about the positive relationship he has with Malone and the reverence he has for his head coach’s basketball knowledge just last week during an interview with Basketball Insiders’ Alex Kennedy.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Thomas is a lock to return to Sacramento. Although the Kings extended a qualifying offer toward the 5’9 point guard and can match whatever offer he receives from another team, Sacramento may not have the money to keep Thomas in town. Rudy Gay’s decision to opt in to the final $19,317,326 year of his contract takes away some of the Kings’ flexibility this summer, as they already have $66,349,208 in guaranteed commitments.

Prediction: Dallas offers Thomas a four-year contract ranging from $24-28 million, and while the Kings have every intention of retaining Thomas, they elect to allow him to leave. However, prior to the offer sheet being signed, Sacramento could explore sign-and-trade possibilities so that they don’t lose Thomas without receiving any compensation in return. Once small forward Gay opted into the final year of his current deal, that placed the team in a position of (potentially) no longer having the necessary resources to re-sign Thomas while continuing to pursue the much-needed perimeter defenders and reserve contributors Malone desperately needs.

Check back for part two on Tuesday, which will look at free agents Kyle Lowry, Chris Bosh, Marcin Gortat, Gordon Hayward, Chandler Parsons, Jordan Hill, Andray Blatche, Patty Mills, Boris Diaw and more!