We are still more than a month away from free agency, and everything seems so placid now. LeBron James? Looks primed for a three-peat. Carmelo Anthony? He wouldn’t leave New York, would he? He’ll be happy to take less than the max, as Phil Jackson has said he’ll need to do. He will be the backbone of the Knicks’ renaissance, right?
No chance those two guys end up in Cleveland or Chicago. No chance, right?
Well, five weeks out, and nobody can say much for sure.
If the Heat win a third straight title, James will stick with the dynasty and the warm weather. That seems like a safe assumption. But if the Heat lose?
That’s when all assumptions go out the window. That includes the assumption that the Cavs are not in play for James, who left his hometown team four loooong years ago.
Many very important people in the Cleveland organization believe the Cavs have a very, very legitimate shot at winning “The Decision II” if James, as expected, opts out of the final year of his contract and goes on the open market. And if the Cavs can turn the No. 1 overall pick in the draft into Kevin Love, then Cleveland becomes an even more alluring destination. Miami becomes Elba. Eastern Ohio becomes the promised land.
But only if the Heat lose.
If they make it to a fourth straight Finals, and if they come out of those Finals with a third straight championship, even the staunchest wine and gold supporter realizes there is zero chance that James breaks up a dynasty. Instead, he will be the strongest voice (aside from Pat Riley) advocating re-signing all the core pieces of this championship team and going for another three in a row.
So, yes, there is quite a lot riding on the outcome of the playoffs. Even if no one wants to readily acknowledge it.
And if the Heat don’t win, look out.
There could just be another appearance coming from Jim Gray and that purplish checked shirt we first saw in 2010.
So with that preamble out of the way, we bring you the Top 25 free agents list for the summer of 2014. (Players with team options for next season are not included, since those players will not dictate their own fates).
Key — ETO-Early Termination Option; U-Unrestricted free agent; R-Restricted free agent; PO-Player Option.
1. LeBron James, F, Miami Heat (ETO)
Betcha didn’t realize this: LeBron has never earned a max salary. Never. He has soon-to-depart teammates in Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, who have seen their max days come and go, and you would think he would want to reach that stratosphere before he turns 30 (which happens on New Year’s Eve). Again, this will be a two-horse race between Miami and Cleveland, if it is a race at all. The guess here is that sunshine wins over snowstorms, but there is no telling how much of a factor the chance for renewed hero worship will be. James was treated like a king when he was all about Ohio, which is his home state. If he wants that feeling back, the only way to get it is by going home again.
2. Carmelo Anthony, F, New York Knicks (ETO)
When Phil Jackson said the Knicks would be good whether or not Anthony returns, not many people gave much credence to the thought of a new MeloDrama — though they should have. Same thing when Jackson said he would hold Anthony to his word in regards to taking less than the max to help the Knicks move forward with cap flexibility. Knowing Anthony a little, I can tell you his: He is bound to say anything, even things he doesn’t really mean — like the fact that he’s willing to give the Knicks a discounted price. Sometimes, Anthony gives the questioner the answer he thinks is most fitting, whether or not it is truthful. This seems like one of those cases — and it would not surprise me in the least to see him leave.
3. Greg Monroe, F, Detroit Pistons (R)
He is going to get a max contract, because there just aren’t that many 24-years-olds standing 6-11 who can be obtained this summer. Also, his agent is David Falk, and if there is one thing that Falk knows how to do (aside from staying on Michael Jordan’s good side), it is getting his clients the most possible money. What makes the most sense is a max offer from the Lakers, who need to start putting together the building blocks of their future. Which means Stan Van Gundy (and Tom Gores) will need to decide: Is Monroe worthy of the max deal? Or should the Pistons decline to match and slide Josh Smith over to his natural position?
4. Kyle Lowry, G, Toronto Raptors (U)
The general consensus among NBA personnel folks is that a four-year deal starting in the $11 million range will be enough for the Raptors to get their best player (apologies, DeMar DeRozan) to stick around. What could throw a monkey wrench into the equation is an offer north of that amount coming from a team trying to rebuild on the fly and loaded with cap space (the Lakers are one such team, and the Heat could be another if LeBron flees). A number of Lowry’s teammates expressed confidence in April that he will stick around for the long haul, but all bets are off if James leaves Miami — and Lowry becomes the first domino.
5. Lance Stephenson, G, Indiana Pacers (U)
You have to admire his fearlessness and feistiness, especially when it comes to competing against LeBron James, whose feuds with Stephenson over the past couple of seasons have brought extra sizzle to the Pacers-Heat rivalry. Not the sharpest knife in the drawer when it comes to IQ, Stephenson is nonetheless one of the more gifted all-around players in anybody’s backcourt. It makes sense for the Pacers to re-sign him for less than the max; it is debatable whether he is worth a max contract. But given the fact that teammate Roy Hibbert has a max deal, Lance will be looking for the same. The question is whether he’ll have leverage.
6. Eric Bledsoe, G, Phoenix Suns (R)
When he wasn’t injured, Bledsoe showed exactly why teams were lining up to try to acquire him before he was eventually dealt by the Clippers to the Phoenix Suns. The NBA is a point guard-driven league, and this guy is the one player out there (yes, even more so than Lowry) who has superstar potential. The Lakers could do a lot worse than getting this guy along with Monroe, which together with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers’ lottery pick would have Jimmy Buss’ team contending from the opening tip this fall. And make no mistake, the Lakers would still love to get better at the expense of their old rivals, the Suns.
7. Pau Gasol, F, Los Angeles Lakers (U)
If we are to assume that Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Bosh and Tim Duncan are all going to remain with their present teams – a sound assumption – then Pau deserves a free agent ranking ahead of all three of them. He can be acquired for less than the max, he fits as the last piece of a championship puzzle for a team that is one player away. Do not discount the idea of Gasol joining his brother, Marc, in Memphis. The Grizzlies could have Zach Randolph’s salary to spend, and Pau would be an upgrade on the knucklehead scale. (You won’t ever see Pau take himself out of a Game 7 with an ill-timed punch, a la Z-Bo.) Much depends on whether Randolph exercises his player option.
8. Dwyane Wade, G, Miami Heat (ETO)
All that stuff about the breaking up of the Heat that we discussed in the preamble? Yeah, it applies to this guy, too. And to Chris Bosh, who is lower on this list. But with Wade, you kind of get the idea that he is going to be a Miami lifer. The Heat are still willing to max him despite his 40-year-old knees, but the question becomes whether Wade can carry a team on offense the way he once did. He has become a major second banana to LeBron in Miami, and it would be prudent of the Heat to make Years 3 and 4 of his deal team options. He is an old 32.
9. Dirk Nowitzki, F, Dallas Mavericks (U)
He isn’t going anywhere, but respect dictates that we place him and Tim Duncan in our top 10. It seems like an exercise in futility to list either guy as a free agent, because no one is expecting them to do anything other than end their careers exactly where they started them. With Dirk, it is a question of how much money he will make, and how much he will leave for Mark Cuban to play with in free agency down the road. He has already said he plans to play well into his 40s.
10. Tim Duncan, F, San Antonio Spurs (PO)
Not going anywhere … except, perhaps, on permanent vacation to his home island of St. Croix. The Big Fundamental has kept his long-term career plans a closely guarded secret, and there is no telling whether Duncan feels it is time to hang up his sneakers and move on to the next stage of his life — which in St. Croix consists of watching sunsets and drinking rum. Still has a ton of basketball left in him.
11. Chris Bosh, F, Miami Heat (ETO)
This is the part of the list where the Miami question moves to a different stage. And even if LeBron James and Dwyane Wade decide to return, will the third member of the Big Three join them? There is no way the Heat are going to pay Bosh max money, and if James and Wade both get the max, there isn’t going to be a lot of money left to overpay Bosh without putting Mickey Arison in jeopardy of paying the repeater tax. So what to do with Bosh will be a pertinent question for the Heat no matter what happens with the quest to validate a dynasty. It will certainly be interesting — unless Bosh decides not to opt out.
12. Luol Deng, F, Cleveland Cavaliers (U)
This is the part of the list where things get interesting. With Deng, he could be the missing link to a championship for a team needing a heady glue guy, a lockdown defender and a locker room leader. If the Cavs are going to go all-in for James, they will either have to trade away a ton of money along with that No. 1 pick to get Love, or else renounce their rights to Deng, who never fit in all that well after he was acquired at midseason in the Andrew Bynum trade. Deng is still only 29.
13. Gordon Hayward, F, Utah Jazz (R)
The Jazz should have signed him to an extension when they had a chance, because somebody is going to come with an offer that will be too rich for Utah to match — either because it is backloaded to put the Jazz into tax territory after Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors get their big contracts, or because it is simply more money than Utah believes Hayward is worth. The Jazz small forward is kind of the Greg Monroe of white guys. And like Monroe, if he continues to progress, he has All-Star written all over him.