Looking ahead to NBA free agency
Where will the biggest and most coveted free-agent catches land? Eligible players have until midnight EST Monday to opt out of their current contracts and test the waters, which figure to be roiled plenty when Tuesday rolls around.
1. Who's the best unrestricted free agent not named LeBron?
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Carmelo Anthony. He might not instantly transform any team into an NBA Finals contender the way LeBron can. But there's something to be said for putting that ball in the basket, and Carmelo does that better than any other free agent in the marketplace.
D.J. Foster, ClipperBlog: Carmelo Anthony. His reputation hasn't really caught up with his production lately. Anthony has become a much more prolific and effective 3-point shooter, and he's made it clear he can carry an elite offense with a cast of role players around him. Anthony has been in the league 11 years, but this might actually be his prime form.
Dave McMenamin, ESPNLosAngeles.com: Carmelo Anthony. The fact that Anthony has never been to the Finals and is coming off a season in which the Knicks failed to even reach the playoffs in the lowly Eastern Conference seems to cloud people's memories when it comes to giving credit to Anthony for making the postseason in the first 10 seasons of his career as his team's featured player. How many No. 1 players in the league can claim a run like that? He is still a guy you can build your team around. If he finally finds himself with the necessary talent surrounding him for the first time in his career, watch out.
David Thorpe, ESPN Insider: That's a bit of a trick question, in that it can depend on whether a team is looking for today AND tomorrow or just today. Guys such as Dirk Nowitzki and Luol Deng can send a good team into "great" status for a season or two. But overall, no one has the potential to be a difference maker now and later more than Chris Bosh. He's an elite defender and midrange shooter, and he can score far more than what we have seen in Miami. I'd rather have him than Carmelo Anthony. We'll see if Pat Riley agrees.
Royce Young, ESPN.com: Chris Bosh. His reputation as a truly elite power forward has taken a bit of a hit, despite adding two championships to his resume, but the reality is Bosh has done something he should be praised for -- sacrifice. He's still every bit the star he was in Toronto, even without the gaudy stats.
2. Who's the best restricted free agent on the market?
Adande: Eric Bledsoe. Yes, Phoenix managed to stay in the playoff hunt without him, and his return from injury wasn't enough to push the Suns into the top eight in the Western Conference. But any team that does make the Western Conference playoffs will have to deal with some combination of Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Chris Paul and Stephen Curry if they want to advance. Having Bledsoe sure would help the cause.
Foster: Eric Bledsoe, and it's not really all that close. It's rare to see a guard impact the game in so many different ways, especially since Bledsoe is still learning the nuances of the position while hammering out his own role. If the relatively unpolished version of Bledsoe is already this productive, what's he going to look like in three years, when he's fully developed?
McMenamin: Eric Bledsoe. He's just 24 years old, and he just had a breakout season with Phoenix in which he averaged 17.7 points, 5.5 assists and 4.7 rebounds, despite missing 39 games due to a surgical procedure to repair cartilage in his right knee. One of the most important questions you can ask when considering offering a big-money extension to an up-and-coming player is: Can he be the best player on a championship team? With Bledsoe, the answer is yes. The Suns would be silly to let any other team take him away from them.
Thorpe: I like a few guys about the same. Eric Bledsoe still has room to grow, and he already brings a lot to the plate in this league, which rewards athleticism and power maybe more than ever. Chandler Parsons is in the same mode -- versatile and skilled with great size and speed. Who does not need that? And I'm still a homer for Ed Davis, who should be a 16-and-10 guy with good shot-blocking numbers too, if only he could find a team that lets him play.
Young: Eric Bledsoe. The Suns and Bledsoe got hung up this past fall trying to negotiate an extension, which allowed him to audition for one last season. Despite an injury that forced him to miss 39 games, Bledsoe was electric running the Phoenix show. He's a physical freak with the potential to blossom into an even better player than he already is. I'm pretty sure he's going to find that max offer he was looking for.
3. Who's the most intriguing free agent on the market?
Adande: LeBron. His choice will both determine the top championship contender out there and reflect it. That is to say, the team he chooses will be the one he thinks has the best combination of available payroll and top-caliber roster. He made the right call last time. Of course, his presence had a lot to do with that.
Foster: Isaiah Thomas. He has the statistical profile of a young Allen Iverson, but he's a restricted free agent on a team that doesn't seem to be enamored with him and is steadily approaching the luxury tax line. There aren't many starting point guard jobs available around the league, but will some team be wise enough to try to steal him out of Sacramento with a strong offer?
McMenamin: Gordon Hayward. He has pretty much been the face of the Jazz ever since being drafted in 2010, but Utah has posted just a .458 winning percentage in that time, so it's a bit of a dubious title for Hayward to hold. Now that the team has picked up Trey Burke and Dante Exum in consecutive drafts to take over the lion's share of the touches, what kind of deal will Hayward receive to stick around as a complementary player? Or will the Jazz make like the Sacramento Kings this past summer, when they ultimately gave up on Tyreke Evans, who had once been given the keys to the franchise?
Thorpe: So many to choose from. What's Greg Monroe going to be on a better coached team? (We will have that answer if he stays in Motown). Patrick Patterson is a good starter on a very good team -- can he be even better if featured more? Melo is interesting in a new way, only if paired with the Miami guys or possibly Chicago too. Kyle Lowry has the chops to lead a team to a special season. I'm just as intrigued, though, by great shooters such as Jimmer Fredette or Patty Mills. All those other guys are better players, but the right shooter on the right team might be the guy we are talking about next June.
Young: Lance Stephenson. How much do his antics impact his offers? Do the Pacers even want him back? He probably has max talent, but does he have a max demeanor? Can you really make him a franchise player? Stephenson could get $15 million a year, $5 million a year or anything in between. I really have no idea.
4. Which free agent is most likely to be overpaid?
Adande: Dwyane Wade. He might not make the $40 million-plus he had scheduled to come his way over the next two years before he opted out, but you have to figure the total amount spread over a longer period of time will be more. So it might make him overly compensated for the expected decline in his production over the next few years ... but if you consider his historic meaning to the franchise and his willingness to help in this roster retooling, it won't seem as bad.
Foster: Trevor Ariza. His performance last season was an outlier statistically, so this is sort of the best-case scenario for him. As a big wing who can hit threes and hypothetically cover guys such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Ariza land something close to $10 million annually, which is a little scary.
McMenamin: Lance Stephenson. The guy does a lot of things right, don't get me wrong. He showed off his all-around game with five triple-doubles last season and also has become a much more efficient player by upping his shooting percentage to 49.1 percent after hitting just 33.3 percent of his shots as a rookie. But there was no denying that his mercurial personality and on-court antics caused some friction with the Pacers. He'll get a big deal because so many teams have money to spend this offseason, which will drive up his price if Indiana is to keep him, but he'll have a lot of growing up to do before he'll truly earn that cash that's coming his way.
Thorpe: Melo, if he stays in New York. Possibly Gordon Hayward, who has not proven he can consistently be what he sometimes is. Trevor Ariza has the potential to be problematic too. Guys coming off great seasons on playoff teams who take big money on bad teams? Ugh.
Young: Patty Mills. Even general managers suffer from recency bias. With the way Mills lit up the NBA Finals, his stock shot up from quality backup to someone paying him starter money. Mills is a quality player, but in the same way Gary Neal's stock got inflated by his ideal fit in San Antonio. The Aussie spark plug could be headed for a payday we all wonder about a year from now.
5. Which free agent is most likely to be underpaid?
Adande: Luol Deng. If the reports that Deng turned down a three-year, $30 million extension offer from the Chicago Bulls before being traded were correct, you wonder if he will be able to get that same amount this summer. You don't hear his name mentioned prominently among the teams with tons of cap space. It's possible they'll turn their attention -- and checkbooks -- to Deng once they get turned down by their top choices, but it's also possible Deng won't get the same valuation the Bulls offered him earlier in the year.
Foster: Boris Diaw. You'd think that one of the most productive two-way players for a title team would stand to make serious bank in free agency, but Diaw will almost certainly do the Spurs-y thing and take much less money than he's worth on the open market in order to stick around in San Antonio.
McMenamin: Dirk Nowitzki. As the whole league was reminded by Tim Duncan in the Finals, you can't put a price on the stability that a selfless superstar brings to a franchise. Nowitzki would be well within his rights to seek a Kobe Bryant-like back payment extension for how his presence has helped the Mavs' value grow exponentially since Mark Cuban bought the team. But he won't do that. He'll take a Duncan-like deal to give himself at least a fighter's chance to win another ring before his career is through.
Thorpe: I look to Bosh, who is likely to take far less money than the maximum he is worth. It's part of what makes him such an elite player and teammate. Of course, LeBron will be underpaid even if he takes a max deal, which he won't. But I'm only considering guys who are not currently the game's best player.
Young: Gordon Hayward. Hayward was max hunting last fall, and contract negotiations fizzled with the Jazz. He had an opportunity to prove it, as the best player on a bad team, but he didn't have the best season. He shot a career-low percentage from the floor and struggled from 3. Nonetheless, as a second or third option, Hayward can be a dynamic playmaker and scorer with underrated defensive versatility. He's not max-worthy, but he should be an eight-figure player.