July 1 is almost here. Wait, it isn’t? You mean there is still two feet of ice, slush and snow piled up outside the home office in New York?
Well, if you compare July to October, then July is almost here! And there is no bigger date on the NBA calendar than July 1 (although the May 19 draft lottery is a close second). Phil Jackson becomes relevant again for something other than his Twitter vitriol. Jeanie Buss becomes more interesting than evil dolphin tales from Nick Young. The teams that had such high hopes in March but fell flat in May and June can get their hopes up again.
Ah, July 1. You can feel it in the air, can’t you? OK, that is a reach, too. But it is coming, trust me.
So with that in mind, let’s rank the top 25 free agents for the summer. Unlike ESPN, we will not charge you to read this list. And unlike ESPN, we will include Tobias Harris on it. Anyone who does not realize that Harris is a top 25 free agent should not be getting paid to be a basketball writer, much less one whose readers need to pay to see his stuff. Rant over.
This is an all-inclusive list, incorporating unrestricted free agents, restricted free agents, guys with player options and guys with team options. You could probably come up with four separate lists for each of those categories, but the author of this particular list is a Taurus, and to be a Taurus means you have a bit of a stubborn streak.
So everyone gets mixed together here, and there is one important thing to keep in mind: Any restricted free agent who is a very good player is going to have his offer matched by his original team. With the cap set to jump to $90 million in 2017, teams simply must spend money. The smartest RFAs will sign deals that allow them to opt out in the summer of 2017. Then a majority of them can sign max deals starting at 30 percent of the cap. That, my friends, would be a starting salary of $27 million in Year One of a new deal.
Yes, the money is going to get crazy for the next generation.
On to the list …
1. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers (Player Option)
He isn’t going anywhere.
I don’t even want to put him on this list, but he technically belongs on it. He’s pretty good … in the playoffs. Not so much so in midseason games against the Houston Rockets, especially at crunch time.
2. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies (Unrestricted)
He probably isn’t going anywhere, either. And a little birdie who knows of what he speaks tells me Gasol has already ruled out playing for the New York Knicks. It’s nothing personal with Phil Jackson or that consummate New Yorker, Jim Dolan (gag). It’s a matter of money. He can get a five-year deal to stay in Memphis, where he attended high school. After taxes, that will be worth more than twice what he would get from New York.
3. Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers (Player Option)
The biggest mystery guy on this list. He has become a third wheel in Cleveland, but he will be going to the playoffs for the first time in his career. He has about 100 million reasons to opt out of his contract, which is why he almost certainly will. And then it becomes a question of how happy he was playing in Cleveland and whether the bright lights of Hollywood or Broadway might be more appealing. Remember, the Los Angeles Lakers once thought they were getting Dwight Howard for the long term … and we all know how that worked out for them. In the end, maybe the Cavs would have been better off keeping Andrew Wiggins.
4. Greg Monroe, Detroit Pistons (Unrestricted)
Do the Detroit Pistons consider him a max player? They didn’t a year ago, which is why Monroe and his agent, David Falk, accepted the qualifying offer and decided to see what comes their way in July 2015. This is the guy I can see the Knicks making the hardest push for … but again, the actual dollar difference (when accounting for local taxes) between taking a five-year max deal from Detroit vs. a four-year max deal from New York is beyond substantial. For now, he appears to be the Knicks’ No. 1 target.
5. LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers (Unrestricted)
He is a max guy, no doubt about it, and the Blazers will pony up five-year max money sometime around 12:01 a.m. EDT on July 1. You simply cannot lose a player this good and get nothing in return. Just imagine how good the Utah Jazz might be by now had they stuck with Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap rather than letting them walk for nothing a couple years back when Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors seemed like better options. It doesn’t hurt that Aldridge enjoys playing in Portland and wants to stay. Well, excuse me. That hurts teams like the Lakers and Knicks, but not the Blazers.
6. Goran Dragic, Miami Heat (Player Option)
He isn’t going anywhere. His agent, Bill Duffy, made quite the power play in getting him dealt to Miami, which removed the Knicks and Lakers from the equation in terms of potential destinations. The Heat will make him a five-year max offer, and that will be that. There will be parties in Slovenia and South Beach, and the Heat will have their best point guard since … Tim Hardaway Sr.? I have had my eye on this guy since covering Eurobasket 2007 in Madrid.
7. DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers (Unrestricted)
Max guy. How many players can get you 20 rebounds on a nightly basis? Remember when Dwight Howard used to do that? Yes, we are all getting older. A valid argument can be made that he should have been an All-Star this season. He has been a man on a mission ever since, and his lack of free throw acumen can be excused because of what he can do in the low post night after night after night. Safe to say that Steve Ballmer can afford to keep him on a five-year max deal, and I expect that to come his way.
8. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls (Restricted)
Everybody will go after him, and nobody will get him. As alluded to above, teams have to spend beaucoup bucks on somebody, and Butler will be coming off a Most Improved Player award, an All-Star appearance and … maybe an NBA championship? OK, we are getting ahead of ourselves on that last point. But the fact remains that he has been carrying a Bulls team that has been riding Pau Gasol and The Jimmy rather than Derrick Rose. Nobody would have predicted that. Butler made the right move by turning down $40 million for four years last summer.
9. Rajon Rondo, Dallas Mavericks (Unrestricted)
When the Mavericks are eliminated from the playoffs, Rick Carlisle and Mark Cuban will open a joint Twitter account. Their first tweet will be “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass.” And then somebody will give Rondo a four-year max deal that they will regret sometime before Thanksgiving. You listening, Phil? This is the rare specimen who peaked in his early 20s. His long-term future will include a stint with the Beijing Ducks. A worse free throw shooter than DeAndre Jordan … or Chris Dudley. But someone will max him because the market just is not flush with guys who have his type of history, winning-wise.
10. Al Jefferson, Charlotte Hornets (Player Option)
Michael Jordan is a billionaire now, according to Forbes, and if you are Al Jefferson, you opt out of your deal and get a new one for five years at max money. If you know your boss can afford it, and if you know your boss has no choice … this is what you do. And if he hesitates, you remind him of the max money he offered Gordon Hayward last summer when the then-Bobcats put Hayward’s likeness on the Jumbotrons inside and outside the arena. Yes, leverage is good.
11. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs (Restricted)
Why is it appropriate to place him at No. 11? Well, some fool team will give him a max offer sheet, but they only will be fools because the Spurs are guaranteed to match, unless they have a self-destruction plan engineered from the rear quadrants of Gregg Popovich’s brain. This is what owner Peter Holt is thinking: “What??? I have an $81 million minimum team salary in 2017-18? OK, I’m selling. But we must sign Kawhi.” Leonard is most likely to become the next Spur for life.
12. Enes Kanter, Oklahoma City Thunder (Restricted)
Probably the best pickup of the trade deadline. So kudos to Sam Presti for that. If he can make 28 more trades that were this beneficial, then maybe we will not remember him as “The Guy Who Traded James Harden” so that his owner would not have to pay luxury tax. If Clay Bennett was not such a skinflint, he’d have at least two Larry O’Brien trophies on his mantle. Someday, he will be second behind Ted Stepien on the Worst Owners Ever list. Yes, ahead of Donald Sterling. But we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves on the Top 25 Free Agents, 2016 Edition, headlined by Kevin Durant. BTW, in Turkey, they have something at McDonald’s called the MegaMac. It is a Big Mac with 4 patties instead of two. Kanter will get a MegaMac offer.
13. Tobias Harris, Orlando Magic (Restricted)
If the NBA knew how much tampering has already been going on with this guy, they could reopen the old NBA Store on Fifth Avenue with all the fine money they would collect. He is going to get max money; you can bet your bottom dollar on that. But will the Magic match? The educated guess here is … yes. If his agent has any brains, he will do a deal with an opt out in the summer of 2017 so that Harris’ next max deal starts in the high 20 millions. In other words, Amar’e Stoudemire money.
14. Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks. (Unrestricted)
He is worth a whole lot more than the $9.5 million the Hawks are paying him, and after signing at a discount when he left the Utah Jazz, it is time for him to see the other side of the coin. Is he a max guy? That will be determined by how the market plays out, and whether he is overwhelmed by suitors on July 1 or underwhelmed by a dearth of pursuers. No question the Hawks need him to remain the class of the Eastern Conference, but the franchise is for sale, the general manager is on indefinite leave and there is no telling what the vision for this franchise will be after their stunning regular season success.
15. Brandon Knight, Phoenix Suns (Restricted)
Notice how the Milwaukee Bucks have nosedived after trading him away and bringing in Michael-Carter Williams? They clearly did not want to pay Knight max money. But you know what? This is about as close to a max salary point guard as you will find out there this summer. And if both the Knicks and Lakers are unable to draft Emmanuel Mudiay as their point guard of the future, the pickings are slim — especially if both those teams take a pass on Rondo.
16. Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets (Player Option)
Doesn’t matter that he lost his starting job to Mason Plumlee. Doesn’t matter that he is prone to foot injuries. What matters is that he is 7 feet tall, is smart, can score from inside and outside and should have a long, productive career ahead of him if he stays healthy. There is a reason why the Nets tried so hard to trade him – and nearly succeeded in sending him to the Oklahoma City Thunder before they went for Kanter instead. Brooklyn is a franchise that is for sale and is trying to shed payroll, and the last thing they want to do is commit five years and nearly $100 million to this guy, no matter that he is their longest-tenured player. He will get paid somewhere else. My guess is the Lakers.
17. Reggie Jackson, Detroit Pistons (Restricted)
Believes he can prove himself worthy of being a max player if given the opportunity, which he now has in Detroit — although the Pistons were playing better with D.J. Augustin running the show than they have been with Reggie at the helm. I imagine that if Jackson receives a max offer or a near-max offer, the Pistons will decline to match it. But if Jackson is willing to take something in the neighborhood of $52 million for four years, the Pistons will keep him and try to move Brandon Jennings elsewhere. But remember, Jennings is a nice consolation prize if the Pistons feel the market value for Jackson is too expensive for their liking. An interesting case.
18. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs (Unrestricted)
He isn’t going anywhere, probably not even into retirement, given that he is still getting it done like a man 10 years his junior. But respect dictates that we place him somewhere on this list, because he is certainly among the top 25 free agents out there. So he arbitrarily shows up at No. 17.
19. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors (Restricted)
A very, very interesting case. He is a key piece of the puzzle for the best team in the West, and if the ‘Dubs could find a taker for David Lee and his massive contract, they would gladly shift that percentage of the player payroll over to this guy. But if not, what is Golden State’s ceiling for a guy who doesn’t do anything particularly great but also doesn’t have any glaring holes in his game? He is a glue guy and an energy guy, and those guys typically get paid somewhere in the $5-7 million range. But the economic landscape is changing, and this will be a test case of what someone is willing to put into an offer sheet for a guy who will do all the little things but rarely anything monumental statistically.
20. Danny Green, San Antonio Spurs (Unrestricted)
When your starting shooting guard is shooting 42 percent, you have to ask yourself: Can we do better elsewhere? That is a question for the Spurs to contemplate, and one they won’t be fully able to answer until they see whether there is a robust market or a soft market for the guy who plays ahead of Manu Ginobili and Marco Belinelli. Theoretically, either of those guys could slide into the starting five. So, too, could Patty Mills, although that would leave the Spurs dangerously undersized in the backcourt on the defensive end. Prime case study of a guy who can earn tens of millions of extra dollars by having a few breakout games in the postseason. We once called that the Austin Croshere Effect. You younger readers might have to look that one up.
21. Tyson Chandler, Dallas Mavericks (Unrestricted)
He is playing for his next contract, and as we can all see from watching the Dallas Mavericks, he still has plenty in the tank despite having played in the NBA for the past 39 years, it seems. This will be Chandler’s last big money grab (he will be 33 when next season begins), and he will likely get paid by the Mavs this time around after Mark Cuban acknowledged it was a mistake to let Chandler leave as a free agent following their championship in 2011. I’d imagine Cuban and Donnie Nelson will have this deal wrapped up by noon on July 1.
22. Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat (Player Option)
He isn’t going anywhere, just like the residents of spot No. 1 and spot No. 17 on this list. But once again, respect dictates that we put him among the top 25, because even in his old, decrepit state, he can still get it done. Hoping he makes it into the playoffs and can summon a little of his old “Flash.”
23. Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers (Player Option)
He can dominate and he can disappear, and that’s what makes him such a confounding talent. His playoff failures from a year ago will weigh heavily on the minds of every GM that considers him. But so, too, will his 7-foot frame. Yes, much of the league is transitioning to small ball, but when there is a guy out there who can protect the rim and is available, the least you can do is kick the tires. Indiana has no one behind him aside from Ian Mahinmi, and that can only help Hibbert’s negotiating stance. Remember, big guys always get paid. Always.
24. Luol Deng, Miami Heat (Player Option)
After all these years, he is still waiting for a monster contract — something the Chicago Bulls offered him more than two years ago, and he turned down. After taking $20 million for two seasons last summer for the Heat (with the all-important opt-out), has he established himself worthy of a $40-50 million long-term contract? The jury might remain out on that one until we see what he can produce in the playoffs — if the Heat can get in.
25. Monta Ellis, Dallas Mavericks (Player Option)
When you have supplanted, for better or worse, a legend like Dirk Nowitzki as the No. 1 offensive option on your team, it behooves that team to pony up in the dollar department. As is the case with Chandler, I expect the Mavs to waste no time making a fair, respectable and lucrative offer to keep Ellis in blue and white for the next four years. But again, the Knicks and Lakers are going to be desperate to pay someone – anyone – and an outrageous offer always awaits someone each offseason. Just ask Rashard Lewis. Or Landry Fields.
26. Wes Mathews, Portland Trail Blazers (Unrestricted)
Yes, our top 25 list includes 26 guys. Apologies if you are offended. There are not a lot of top-tier shooting guards around anymore, and when you have a guy like this who is among the league leaders in made 3-pointers (173 through March 4), there is going to be a robust market — or their would have been if Mathews had not ruptured his Achilles tendon March 5. It is also worth noting that backup Arron Afflalo is certain to opt out of his $7.5 million deal for next season and get himself some long-term financial security — probably from the team that acquired him on deadline day from the Denver Nuggets. One constant for Paul Allen’s team has been a need for depth at the wing positions, and Afflalo backing up Mathews gives them that — if they can keep both players in Portland.
Chris Sheridan is publisher and editor-in-chief of SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter.