Free agency started Sunday midnight ET.
On Monday, the Brooklyn Nets and Dallas Mavericks are expected to make an unrelenting push for All-Star point guard Deron Williams, who is clearly the best available player.
The team that lands Williams also has the best chance of acquiring superstar center Dwight Howard, who is not a free agent but has said that he would like to play alongside Williams.
In terms of flexibility, the Nets have the inside track. They can offer Williams more money – $101 million over five years opposed to $75 million over four years should Williams decide to change teams.
The Nets also have the cap room to offer Howard a maximum contract extension should they acquire him in a trade. They also are believed to be willing to take back Hedo Turkoglu’s cumbersome contract in a deal for Howard, who is not a free agent.
What the Nets don’t have is any sort of recent track record of winning. They have missed the playoffs for five straight years and are trying to lure Williams and Howard with the promise of building an instant contender in a glistening new arena in the league’s biggest market.
Meanwhile, the Mavericks are one year removed from a championship, still have Dirk Nowitzki and play in Williams’ hometown. They cleared some salary cap room with the trade of Lamar Odom but still have to find a taker for Shawn Marion and likely use the amnesty clause on Brendan Haywood while convincing Williams to take less money.
For teams not in the running for Williams and/or Howard, there are plenty of consolation prizes in a constantly changing player pool. Over the last couple of days, Kevin Garnett apparently has come off the market, while O.J. Mayo and Jameer Nelson are on the market.
Our list of top 25 free agents is below, updated with some shuffling and a couple of new names.
1. DERON WILLIAMS: By far the top prize, he apparently is considering only the Nets or his hometown Mavericks, where he would play alongside Nowitzki – and keep Dallas’ far-fetched plan to land both Williams and Howard in play. Nowitzki spoke with Williams this week and believes his team’ s chance of landing him is 50-50. DESTINATION?: Brooklyn. The Nets still have the best chance of landing Howard because (a) they can re-sign Williams for more money and (b) they have said they will take back Turkoglu.
2. GORAN DRAGIC: The 26-year-old lefthander from Slovenia is the consolation prize of the Deron Williams sweepstakes and is going to make some team very happy. In 28 games as a starter, he averaged 18.0 points, 8.4 assists and 1.8 steals while shooting 49 percent from the field and 38 percent from the arc. DESTINATION?: Dragic’s team is the Rockets, who moved Samuel Dalembert to create more salary cap room but were unsuccessful in trying to parlay multiple low draft picks into a high pick to deal to Orlando for Howard. Expect Portland to make a strong push.
3. ERSAN ILYASOVA: Just 25, the native of Turkey is not your typical allergic-to-paint European big man. He is coming off his best season (13.0 ppg, 8.8 rpg, .492 shooting) and had some monster games on the backboards. After averaging under 28 minutes per game, he is ready to become a 36-minute player. DESTINATION?: He could command eight figures annually on the open market, and the Bucks may be willing to let him walk now that they have Dalembert. He could become one of the players the Hornets overpay to lure to New Orleans.
4. STEVE NASH: Last week’s arbitration ruling giving Early Bird rights to Jeremy Lin increased the chances of the 38-year-old Nash finishing his career in New York, where he already spends his summers and would be joining a playoff team – such as it is. If he signed with the Knicks, that would get the ball out of Carmelo Anthony’s selfish hands. Keep in mind that Phoenix’s training staff has been a big reason for his relative health of late. DESTINATION?: The Knicks are a lot closer to contending than the Suns, who have made a qualifying offer to restricted free agent Aaron Brooks.
5. GERALD WALLACE: Will officially opt out after waffling all season, turning his back on $9.5 million for some long-term security. He has reportedly reached a handshake agreement on a four-year, $40 million contract, but he can still be used in a sign-and-trade for Dwight Howard. DESTINATION?: Wherever Wallace lands, this likely will be his last multi-year contract. He would fix a lot of problems for the Timberwolves or the Raptors, who have huge holes at small forward and need veteran leadership in the locker room.
6. KRIS HUMPHRIES: Has averaged a double-double for two straight seasons, including career highs of 13.8 points and 11.0 rebounds this season. He also is a good fit for many teams because his points come without having plays run for him. Made $8 million this season and will want at least that much in a multi-year deal. DESTINATION?: The Magic in a sign-and-trade package for Howard.
7. RAY ALLEN: Already has had the surgery to remove the bone spurs from his ankle that clearly bothered him in the postseason and – along with his advancing age of 36 – may cost him a bit on the open market. The emergence of Avery Bradley and the re-signing of Kevin Garnett in Boston may mean he is moving on, which will make another team very happy. Allen is still the game’s best shooter, and coming off the bench hides his shaky defense. DESTINATION?: The Heat are expected to make a hard push, but the Celtics can offer him much more – if they want to. The Suns, who have loads of cap room, also reportedly are in the picture.
8. JAMEER NELSON: His decision to opt out of the final year of his contract at $9 million was a strange one because it appears to help the Magic more than it helps him. New GM Rob Hennigan now can can flip the script on the Nets by trying to convince Howard he can lure Williams to Orlando in a sign-and-trade that sends back a package including Nelson, 30, whose scoring and shooting were his lowest in four years. DESTINATION?: He would be a great fit in Portland, where his pick-and-roll skills would be an ideal complement to Aldridge. If the Lakers don’t want to bring back Ramon Sessions, that would be a good fit as well.
9. JASON TERRY: Now 34, he needs 2,513 points to surpass Eddie Johnson for the highest-scoring non-All-Star. Still averaging 15 points, still supremely confident, still a threat from the arc, still a factor in the fourth quarter. But his days of eight figures per season are over. DESTINATION?: It’s hard to imagine him not with the Mavericks, but he wants a multi-year deal to stay – and Dallas needs to renounce him if it wants to land Williams and Howard. Boston, New York, San Antonio and the Los Angeles Lakers would be good fits using the mid-level exception.
10. CHRIS KAMAN: In a disjointed season that included a trade to a bad team, another injury and a brief benching while the Hornets explored a trade, Kaman still averaged 13.1 points and 7.8 rebounds, a slight uptick from his last season with the Clippers. Although he is 30 and has had significant injury issues over the last five years, he is a quality center, which are in short supply. DESTINATION?: When the Hornets won the lottery, that punched his ticket out of town. The best fit is Portland, which needs a center to take the heat off LaMarcus Aldridge and has cap room.
11. LOU WILLIAMS: Has decided to opt out and couldn’t have picked a better time, coming off his best season in a free agency class short on true stars. Only 25, he is a third guard who could get a boatload of money thrown at him from a desperate team. DESTINATION?: If the Sixers bring him back, someone else – Andre Iguodala or Evan Turner – is headed out in a trade. Or Williams could land in Cleveland and Charlotte, who have cap room and need backcourt scoring.
12. BRANDON BASS: Another strike-while-the-iron-is-hot guy who opted out of his last year at $4 million after the best season of his career and could nearly double his salary if he finds a desperate team. He is also just 27, and we will ask this again: What does Carlos Boozer do that Bass can’t? DESTINATION?: The Celtics certainly would like to keep him and may be able to based on Garnett’s cut in salary but drafted two bigs just in case. Would be a great fit in LA if the Lakers move Pau Gasol and don’t take back a power forward.