Will someone change teams and then change his mind during the moratorium period again like DeAndre Jordan did?
One thing is for sure, the salary cap is going up dramatically next summer – projected to be in the $90 million range – and roughly 20 teams will have room for at least one maximum salary contract.
In other words, shop ‘til you drop — or at least spend ’til you drop, because the team minimum payroll will be $81 million — is the theme of next summer.
Center is the deepest position of next summer’s free agent class. Howard anchors the position and remains one of the league’s top centers despite injuries that have derailed him over the past few seasons. Andre Drummond, a younger reminiscent version of Howard, will be a restricted free agent. Hassan Whiteside – the same player who was out of the league for two seasons – could go from making less than $1 million to getting a maximum contract if the stars properly align. Two proven All-Stars, Al Horford and Joakim Noah, are also on the board. Timofey Mozgov, who made a lasting impression during the NBA Finals (both when he played and when he didn’t play), is set to have a career-defining season, money-wise. Al Jefferson, one of the league’s biggest All-Star snubs over the years, is healthy again and rounds out the position. That’s all you need to know about the depth of this group.
If you’re a team looking for a power forward, the pickings are slim. Pau Gasol headlines the group. Similar to David West who opted out to chase a ring, Gasol will focus primarily on winning at the latter stage of his career, with money taking less of a priority. Can that happen in Chicago?
Ryan Anderson will be the best stretch forward on the market. David Lee remains a double-double threat at the tail end of the position rankings.
Small forward headlines the list with the league’s top two players, LeBron James and Kevin Durant – when healthy. Harrison Barnes, the youngest player on the board at this position, will garner significant interest if he can’t work out an extension with Golden State by the October 31 deadline. Younger veterans entering their prime such as Nicolas Batum and Jeff Green can be found on the list. Finally, former All-Stars Luol Deng and Joe Johnson round out the position.
The shooting guard position boasts a future Hall of Famer in Dwyane Wade, two of the league’s rising stars in Bradley Beal and DeMar DeRozan, and two proven veterans in Kevin Martin and Arron Afflalo.
Point guard is tied for the thinnest position with only three players on this list. Mike Conley headlines the group as the only current All-Star caliber player. After playing primarily point guard last season, Jordan Clarkson is expected to move off the ball with No. 2 overall pick D’Angelo Russell becoming the primary distributor for the Lakers. With Kobe Bryant back, a role off the bench could impact Clarkson’s earning potential. Former All-Star Rajon Rondo has the keys to the offense in Sacramento in what could be the most entertaining team off the court.
Keep in mind, there are other legends in a class of their own next summer: Bryant, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki. Bryant will become an unrestricted free agent, but he’s likely to either retire or remain a Laker, with no third option.
Duncan and Nowitzki have player options and will either opt into them, re-sign on new short-term deals, or retire. For those reasons, you won’t see them on this list because they’re basically unavailable.
Another notable player off the list for now is Chandler Parsons, who has a $16 million player option for the 2016-17 season. Parsons underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee this summer. While Parsons hopes to suit up for the October 28th opener, he has yet to begin running or cutting. As a result, it appears too risky for Parsons to opt out at this time while coming off major surgery. Granted, it’s extremely early to make a definitive inclination, and a productive season could easily change this thinking.
Similarly, we won’t know if Tristan Thompson will hit the market as an unrestricted free agent next season. Thompson and the Cavaliers will either agree on a one-year qualifying offer – which would be his final season in Cleveland as agent Rich Paul said on the record – or sign a new long-term deal before the start of the season.
With that in mind, here are the top 25 free agents expected to hit the open market in the summer of 2016:
1. Kevin Durant, F, Thunder (Unrestricted): It seemed like yesterday when the Oklahoma City Thunder were destined to become the next great dynasty with Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka forming an exciting young core. However, when Harden was traded it spelled the end of the talented young core. There will be more pressure than ever on Oklahoma City to return to the NBA Finals under rookie coach Billy Donovan. The Wizards, Heat, Knicks, Lakers and others will line up to lure Durant from the Thunder.
2. LeBron James, F, Cavaliers (Player Option): This shouldn’t be the next coming of “The Decision.” James and the Cavaliers have supremacy in the East locked up for the foreseeable future on paper – barring injuries. The best player in the game will be paid handsomely with a projected five-year max contract topping $200 after he opts out of his $24 million player option as expected. One thing to monitor is Tristan Thompson’s situation with Cleveland. James has publicly made it clear he wants Thompson back and the two share a bond. If Thompson isn’t signed long-term, James won’t be pleased.
3. Dwight Howard, C, Rockets (Player Option): He may not be Superman anymore, but Howard remains one of the best centers in the game at a position with a dearth of talent. In 17 playoff games, Howard asserted his dominance averaging 14 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game facing several small ball lineups. If Howard remains healthy this season, it makes sense for him to opt out of his $23.3 million player option with a higher salary cap and the benefit of long-term financial security. Howard made eight straight All-Star teams before injuries limited him last season.
4. Mike Conley, G, Grizzlies (Unrestricted): Conley, nearly 28, is in the midst of his prime and remains a borderline All-Star in the vaunted West. In a league where point guard is the preeminent position, Conley will have no shortage of suitors. However, I expect the Grizzlies to lock up Conley to a long-term deal as they did with Marc Gasol this summer. The two players form a solid foundation for Memphis to build around. The bigger question is if the team will be able to retain Jeff Green as well?
5. Andre Drummond, C, Pistons (Restricted): Stan Van Gundy built a championship contender around Howard when he was in Orlando and will look to do the same with Drummond for years to come. At 22, Drummond is a double-double machine that is a stout shot blocker. His biggest weakness, similar to Howard, is his putrid free throw shooting (.397 for his career). Drummond should be in line for a maximum deal and a return to Detroit. The question is whether Detroit will have to match a maximum offer sheet or not.
6. Bradley Beal, G, Wizards (Restricted): Beal is the perfect complement to John Wall, his backcourt mate in Washington. Beal’s ability to spread the floor with his shooting and athleticism in transition mesh ideally alongside Wall’s drive-and-kick penetration ability and speed in the open court. If you’re a Wizards fan, don’t be concerned if extension talks don’t come to fruition before the October 31 deadline. Like Drummond in Detroit, there’s little chance of Beal leaving Washington as a restricted free agent.
7. DeMar DeRozan, G, Raptors (Player Option): DeRozan was limited by injuries last season, but the former All-Star is only 26 and his best years are ahead of him. As long as DeRozan stays healthy and produces akin to his past five seasons, I expect DeRozan to opt out of his $10.1 million player option. With a limited talent pool at the shooting guard position, DeRozan should be in line to double that salary. The Raptors signed Jonas Valanciunas to a long-term extension. (More on contract extensions here). Ideally, Toronto hopes DeRozan will be next to sign an extension.
8. Dwyane Wade, G, Heat (Unrestricted): He may not be Flash anymore, but Wade is still a highly efficient scorer — when healthy. Wade has been an All-Star for 11 straight seasons averaging 24 points, six assists and five rebounds per game while shooting 49 percent for his career. At 33, Wade’s biggest knock is his inability to stay on the floor over the past four seasons while missing a combined 94 games. It’s hard to imagine Wade anywhere else but Miami.
9. Hassan Whiteside, C, Heat (Unrestricted): After playing a total of 19 games in his first two seasons in the NBA, Whiteside spent time in the D-League, Lebanon and China before his rebirth last season. At 26, Whiteside was one of only 12 players to average a double-double. Whiteside averaged 11.8 points and 10 rebounds in a miniscule 24 minutes per game. Whiteside finished second in the league in blocked shots (2.6) and shot an efficient 63 percent from the floor. If he duplicates those numbers this season with Miami, he could receive a max offer on the open market. Because he is an Early Bird free agent, it is almost impossible for the Heat to keep him if he sustains his production.
10. Al Horford, C, Hawks (Unrestricted): Horford was an All-Star last season, but has missed a large portion of games in two of the past four seasons. Horford will see more time at power forward with the addition of Tiago Splitter this season. Less banging on the block should make it easier for Horford to stay on the court. Horford has been dangled as trade bait before last season. Will the Hawks cut bait with Paul Millsap signed long-term and Splitter in the fold? At 29, Horford remains in his prime.
11. Timofey Mozgov, C, Nuggets (Unrestricted): Mozgov played his best basketball of the season when it mattered most during the NBA Finals where he recorded three double-doubles. Mozgov stole the show in Game 4 with a 28-point, 10-rebound performance and then got benched in Game 5. At 29, Mozgov is in the midst of his prime with a stretch forward in Kevin Love and one of the best pick-and-roll passers in LeBron James to maximize his potential in a contract season. Mozgov will earn $5 million this season, but he could triple that salary or better annually next summer.
12. Pau Gasol. F, Bulls (Player Option): An All-Star last season, Gasol became the oldest player to lead the league in double-doubles at 34. Gasol averaged 18.5 points, 11.8 rebounds and two blocks per game. If he approaches similar production, expect Gasol to opt out of his $7.8 million player option. At this stage of his career, Gasol is focused on chasing another title. If the Bulls regress, Gasol may leave at a discounted price to join an elite contender. Then again, there will be a lot of money needing to be spent by a lot of teams. Gasol could make a pretender into a contender.
13. Joakim Noah, C, Bulls (Unrestricted): After consecutive All-Star seasons, Noah regressed last season due to injuries and a minutes restriction for much of the regular season. Despite being banged up, Noah’s effort and hustle was never in question. He remains the best passing center in the league by far and can still rebound and blocks shots effectively. A contract along the lines of Tyson Chandler’s four-year, $52 million deal would be his floor if he averages a double-double. Are the Bulls are willing to pay up to retain him past his prime?
14. Al Jefferson, C, Hornets (Unrestricted): Last season Jefferson battled injuries and a lack of floor spacing with the guard tandem of Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson/Lance Stephenson. Jefferson averaged less than nine rebounds and 31 minutes per game for the first time since his second season. In a contract season, expect Jefferson to return to form as the focal point of Charlotte’s offense with Stephenson traded to the Clippers. One interesting note: Despite career averages of 17 points and nine rebounds per game, Jefferson has never been an All-Star.
15. Harrison Barnes, F, Warriors (Restricted): Last season, Barnes set career highs in points (10.1), rebounds (5.5), field goal percentage (.482) and 3-point percentage (.405). Barnes and the Warriors have expressed mutual interest in a contract extension, but nothing has happened to this point and he’s since changed agents. A part of the team’s 2012 draft class with Draymond Green and Festus Ezeli, numerous suitors will line up for the restricted free agent. Golden State traded away David Lee to help the team gain flexibility to retain their young core. Will the Warriors pony up to pay all three?
16. Nicolas Batum, F, Hornets (Unrestricted): Batum set career lows last season shooting from the field (.400) and beyond the arc (.324). Charlotte gave up Gerald Henderson and former lottery pick Noah Vonleh to acquire Batum this summer. At 26, Batum is beginning to enter the prime of his career. It will be interesting to see how the Hornets allocate minutes to him with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist sharing the same position and coming off a large contract extension.
17. Ryan Anderson, F, Pelicans (Unrestricted): In a league where stretch forwards are more valuable than ever in the pick-and-pop game, Anderson ranks as one of the best. It’s one of the reasons why Anderson has drawn significant trade interest over the years in New Orleans. Anderson has missed a combined 101 games over the past two seasons. To help himself stay on the court, Anderson has lost 20 pounds since last season. If the 27-year-old can stay healthy, he’ll likely surpass this season’s $8.5 salary this season when he hits the open market.
18. Jordan Clarkson, G, Lakers (Restricted): Clarkson was a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy season for the Lakers. General manager Mitch Kupchak told SiriusXM Radio he hopes Clarkson and rookie D’Angelo Russell can play together “for 10-12 years” as backcourt mates. If Clarkson and Russell are going to form a dynamic tandem, the second-year guard must improve upon his 3-point shooting (.314) with the No. 2 overall pick expected to dominate the ballhandling duties.
19. Jeff Green, F, Grizzlies (Unrestricted): Green is a versatile forward who is a jack of all trades, but master of none. Memphis hopes with Green in the fold for a full season, the franchise can take the next step as contenders. With the new salary cap, Green is expected to earn an eight-figure annual salary for the first time in his career at 29. Green will have one full season to prove he’s a valuable core member of the future in Memphis. Retaining Conley will remain the top priority for Memphis next summer above all else.
20. Luol Deng, F, Heat (Unrestricted): Deng will be an important cog in Miami’s attempt to overthrow Cleveland for supremacy in the East this season. Deng is an above-average defender and shooter at the small forward position who is usually good for 15-16 points and 5-6 rebounds per game. At 30, Deng will look to cash in on a one last big contract. It’ll probably be the final time in his career he can get one. If Deng doesn’t return to Miami next summer, it will be his fourth team in as many years.
21. Kevin Martin, G, Timberwolves (Player Option): Martin is one of the veteran leaders on a young Timberwolves squad that is focused on developing Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Karl Towns and the rest of its young core. Expect Martin to be a trade candidate before the deadline this season with shooting always in demand. Next summer Martin, 33, has a $7.3 million player option. Whether he is traded or not, I expect him to decline his option and become an unrestricted free agent.
22. Arron Afflalo, G, Knicks (Player Option): Afflalo will get every opportunity to be the No. 2 scorer alongside Carmelo Anthony in New York. With that in mind, Afflalo could post a similar stat line to his 2013-14 season in Orlando when he averaged 18.2 points on 46 percent shooting from the field and 43 percent from beyond the arc. New York will determine before the trade deadline if Afflalo can fit the Triangle offense. If not, he’ll be dangled as trade bait with the hope of replenishing the lack of future draft picks for New York. Afflalo has an $8 million player option next summer.
23. Joe Johnson, F, Nets (Unrestricted): Johnson battled nagging injuries all of last season while playing 80 games. With the Nets transitioning to a younger and more athletic team, Johnson will be shopped heavily for the third season in a row before the trade deadline. At 34, Johnson’s best days are behind him, but he remains one of the league’s most dominant closers in crunch time. Johnson is still an above-average shooter with the ability to create his own shot at any time due to his post up skills and handle.
24. Rajon Rondo, G, Kings (Unrestricted): Rondo enters the season with a chip on his shoulder as many executives around the league questioned whether he could return to his All-Star form. Rondo has the offensive firepower around him to rack up a ton of assists. Sacramento has a low post stud in DeMarcus Cousins, a versatile wing scorer in Rudy Gay and shooters in Marco Belinelli and Ben McLemore to spread the floor. This is Rondo’s last chance to show he’s worth another eight-figure payday.
25. David Lee, F, Celtics (Unrestricted): After averaging 18.9 points and 10 rebounds per game over the prior three seasons, Lee came off the bench for the majority of last season in a reduced role. Like a true pro, Lee accepted his role during the regular season and was ready when called upon to play valuable minutes in Games 3 and 4 of the NBA Finals. On a team with eight players that can play power forward, it’ll be interesting to see how Boston utilizes Lee as it attempts to develop young talent and remain a playoff contender. Lee could become a trade chip at the deadline for Boston.
NEXT FIVE: Eric Gordon, Nene, Jamal Crawford, Lance Stephenson, Josh Smith.