By Chris Bernucca
We all remember last year’s free agency extravapalooza - LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh heating up South Beach, Amar’e Stoudemire making the Knicks relevant, Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce making career commitments to their teams and Joe Johnson landing the biggest contract of them all.
Next year could be a quality sequel, with a star-studded cast that includes Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Ray Allen, Jason Terry, possibly Jameer Nelson and Gerald Wallace, and oldies but goodies Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Steve Nash.
This year? Meh.
There is not one unrestricted free agent whose exclamation point isn’t shadowed by a question mark. Tyson Chandler? Back trouble. David West? Coming off an ACL tear. Jamal Crawford? Might want the max. J.J. Barea? Productive as a starter. Even Nene is named after a goose if you speak Hawaiian rather than Portuguese.
And don’t ever say NBA GMs aren’t smart. Most of them saw this coming and didn’t turn their payrolls inside out to be active this offseason, when a new collective bargaining agreement will install an entire new set of rules.
The teams with low payrolls – not counting dreaded cap holds or potential amnesty releases - are Denver ($29 million), Sacramento ($30 million), Indiana ($37 million) New Jersey ($40 million), Washington ($41 million), New Orleans ($44 million) and the Los Angeles Clippers ($45 million). Not exactly dream destinations, although Phoenix would get in the picture at $47 million if it waives Vince Carter via amnesty.
The landscape is more like a seascape right now because it is so fluid. No one knows what the salary cap will be – it was $58 million a year ago – and the longer there is no CBA in place, the more the number will be impacted. Given that, here’s our look at the top 20 free agents, with available cheaper models. (An ‘R’ denotes a restricted free agent).
NENE: Spent the previous three seasons proving his injuries and ailments are behind him and was worth his last contract. With a premium on skilled big men, he should warrant a max deal. BEST FIT: Nuggets, who have enough room to re-sign Nene and add another big piece. DOLLAR STORE ALTERNATIVE: Chris Wilcox, Francisco Elson.
DAVID WEST: Despite coming off the injury, he will draw plenty of attention and likely get a max deal, even though he is a notch below that level. The Hornets have to come at him hard if they want to keep Chris Paul. BEST FIT: The Pacers and Nuggets both have plenty of minutes and money. DOLLAR STORE ALTERNATIVE: Kurt Thomas.
TYSON CHANDLER: Rebounds, blocks shots, fixes mistakes by teammates and doesn’t require loads of touches. In other words, an ideal center in a league driven by offensive-minded points and wings. Someone may max him out. BEST FIT: Mavericks, who aren’t going to give away one of their championship backbones. DOLLAR STORE ALTERNATIVE: Dan Gadzuric.
MARC GASOL (R): The best available all-around big man on the market. When the Grizzlies re-signed Zach Randolph, they assured him Gasol would be retained. If another team offers Gasol the max, we’ll see. BEST FIT: Rockets, who could make it happen with some creative accounting. The Suns, Kings and Bobcats could make big plays as well. DOLLAR STORE ALTERNATIVE: Joel Przybilla.
JEFF GREEN (R): You have to wonder why the Celtics traded Kendrick Perkins because he wanted starting center money, while Green would be paid as a sub behind Garnett and Paul Pierce. But if a team offers Green a starting spot and eight figures, Danny Ainge will be self-pressured to match. BEST FIT: Celtics, although a team like the Nets or Suns can offer him more. DOLLAR STORE ALTERNATIVE: Troy Murphy, Leon Powe.
JASON RICHARDSON: Probably will never be the scorer he was in Golden State and Charlotte, but it shouldn’t be about that for him anymore now that he’s 30. BEST FIT: Orlando, because the Magic have to go through the motions of trying to keep Dwight Howard. DOLLAR STORE ALTERNATIVE: Shannon Brown.
JAMAL CRAWFORD: Legitimate scorer who can play both backcourt positions in a pinch. It remains to be seen whether he is willing to continue coming off the bench. BEST FIT: The Hornets, Nets, Bobcats or Pacers, all of whom have cap room and a big hole at shooting guard. DOLLAR STORE ALTERNATIVE: Delonte West.
NICK YOUNG (R): A top-30 scorer last season who is just 26. Could get a lot better if he develops smarts to match his skills. BEST FIT: Wizards, who need stability and continuity around John Wall and have the cap room to match any offer. One might come from the Hornets. DOLLAR STORE ALTERNATIVE: Anthony Parker.
TAYSHAUN PRINCE: He has a lot of postseason mileage on him but has remained durable despite his frail frame. Probably needs a change of scenery to recharge his batteries. BEST FIT: Clippers, where his veteran presence would be welcome. DOLLAR STORE ALTERNATIVE: Rasual Butler.
SHANE BATTIER: His defense and professionalism will always be welcome ahead of his offensive limitations. A future coach or executive. BEST FIT: Perhaps a homecoming to Detroit, where Lawrence Frank needs veteran leadership, not just veterans. DOLLAR STORE ALTERNATIVE: Grant Hill.
CARON BUTLER: A big question mark coming off a ruptured patellar tendon at 31 years old. If healthy, he can score and rebound better than most at his position. Might have to sign an incentive-laden deal. BEST FIT: He could find worse places than a homecoming with the Bucks. DOLLAR STORE ALTERNATIVE: Al Thornton.
KRIS HUMPHRIES: Only Kevin Love averaged more rebounds per minute than Humphries, who may get the most absurd contract once free agency begins – and still make less money than his wife. BEST FIT: The Suns need a ball-eater, but the Nets really can’t chance letting him walk unless they bag a bigger prize. DOLLAR STORE ALTERNATIVE: Chuck Hayes.
J.J. BAREA: Has range, runs the pick-and-roll to perfection and doesn’t back down from anyone. But if you think he can be a starting point guard, I respectfully disagree. BEST FIT: Mavericks, where he can bridge the transition from Jason Kidd to Roddy Beaubois – and probably get the most money. DOLLAR STORE ALTERNATIVE: Earl Watson, Mike Bibby.
AARON AFFLALO (R): Restricted free agent who plays both ends and has developed a knack for taking – and making – big shots. Could end up dramatically overpaid if a team with cap room offers him a big deal trying to scare off the Nuggets. BEST FIT: Denver, because half its team is playing in China. DOLLAR STORE ALTERNATIVE: DeShawn Stevenson.
DEANDRE JORDAN (R): His offensive repertoire is limited to dunking, and don’t ask about free throws. But he’s 23 years old, has a chance to be a game-changing defensive player and could come at a bargain as a former second-round pick. BEST FIT: The Clippers have to hope the Timberwolves or Rockets don’t make him a ridiculous offer they cannot justify matching. DOLLAR STORE ALTERNATIVE: Earl Barron.
MARCUS THORNTON (R): Has averaged 13.6 points through two seasons despite being benched, beaten out for his starting job and traded, which is what happens when you’re not a first-round pick. Only 24 and could be a steal. BEST FIT: Kings, but they have to free up more minutes for him to reach his ceiling. DOLLAR STORE ALTERNATIVE: Willie Green.
LUC RICHARD MBAH A MOUTE: Every team needs a defensive stopper. We all saw that last season with what Tony Allen brought to the Memphis Grizzlies, and he rebounds, too. BEST FIT: After last summer’s spending fiasco with Drew Gooden and Corey Maggette, the Bucks need to keep this consummate glue guy. DOLLAR STORE ALTERNATIVE: Shelden Williams.
SAMUEL DALEMBERT: A defensive presence without much skill or smarts. Anyone who gives him eight figures is a moron. But someone will. BEST FIT: The Suns might like his paint presence and willingness to run. DOLLAR STORE ALTERNATIVE: Theo Ratliff.
ANDREI KIRILENKO: Yes, he signed a three-year deal with CSKA Moscow. But it has more outs in it than the Red Sox in September, so you know where he really wants to play. BEST FIT: Nets, if they can find a scoring shooting guard. DOLLAR STORE ALTERNATIVE: Mike Dunleavy.
YI JIANLIAN: OK, so he’s not the next Yao Ming, and Dan Fegan won’t be able to dupe anybody this time around. But he’s not the next Wang Zhizhi, either. He’s about to turn 24 and needs to ignore 1.3 billion people and just play. BEST FIT: Yi probably would feel most at home with the Warriors, but the Knicks and Clippers could both use a stretch-4. DOLLAR STORE ALTERNATIVE: Jared Jeffries
FIVE MORE TO CONSIDER: Glen Davis, Carl Landry, Michael Redd, Aaron Brooks (R), Rodney Stuckey (R).
Chris Bernucca is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear every Thursday.