The period in which NBA teams can begin talking to free agents opened at midnight on July 1, but things will not really get rolling until one man decides on where he will play in the future: C.J. Miles.
In all seriousness, as the league waits for LeBron James to make the second major decision of his career, it is a good time to speculate how free agency will shake out for the players and teams involved. As of now, it looks like most of the free agents will stay with their current team, but one player changing teams can change everything. I will examine the top free agents and try to not only look at the best fits for these players, but also predict where they will end up next season.
LeBron James, F, Last Team: Miami Heat
Likely Destination: Miami
Best Fit: Chicago Bulls
It is rare in sports that the best player in a league, let alone on the planet, becomes a free agent but for the second time this decade, James is entering unrestricted free agency. Last week, it seemed that there were a few teams that had a shot at the King, particularly the ones that could free up enough money for Carmelo as well, but as we moved closer to July 1st, the Heat began to work it out amongst the Big Three. There’s still a chance things break down and it becomes a free-for-all, but I do not believe LeBron really wants to move on if he can help it. He does not want to be known as a team-skipper and one of the only other big-market teams that could sign him, the Lakers, would force him to take a back seat to another player like he did with Wade when he originally signed with the Heat. He would finally be the alpha dog in Miami, and I do not think he wants to give that up, along with the extra money he would receive by resigning with the same team.
If he were to give that up, I believe Chicago would be the best destination for him to win now. James has never played with a really great defensive coach, and Tom Thibodeau is the best in the NBA. They would not have to give up much from last year’s playoff team to get him, and James would automatically make the team the favorite in the East. And if Derrick Rose comes back even at 80%, it would be hard for the Bulls not to make it to the Finals. The other outside possibility are the Cavs, but I have a hard time believing James will actually work for Dan Gilbert and play in Cleveland again after everything that has happened post-Decision 2010.
Dwyane Wade, G Last Team: Miami Heat
Most Likely Destination: Miami
Best Fit: Miami
Wade is not the second-best player available, but he is the second-most important free agent in this year’s class. It is clear that Wade is on the downslope of his career and struggling to stay healthy, but his reputation and popularity could net him between $15 and $20 million a year. If LeBron is going to come back, and the Heat are going to continue to contend, Wade needs to take a pay cut. Ideally, he should make closer to $7-$10 million a year over the next three years as he transitions into a role similar to Manu Ginobili’s role in San Antonio, playing 25 minutes a night off the bench. I believe Wade and the Heat will meet somewhere in the middle at $12 million a year, and LeBron will be the highest-paid player on the team for the first time in his career. I also think it would be foolish for Wade to look anywhere else. He should end his career as a legend in Miami after being a part of all three Heat championships. His hometown Chicago has a very outside shot, but I highly doubt that is either side’s first option this offseason.
Carmelo Anthony, F Last Team: New York Knicks
Most Likely Destination: New York
Best Fit: Chicago Bulls
Like Wade and James, I have a hard time believing Anthony will give up a max contract in his hometown to play somewhere else. Phil Jackson has been working toward acquiring young players and assets to ensure he can not only sign Anthony, but also make sure they compete. This is also the contract where Anthony will probably start his decline as a player. He has never been known as a particularly fit player, and by the time this next contract ends, he will be in his mid-thirties and a much slower and less-efficient offensive player. I also do not see the Knicks being competitive for at least another year, so I think Anthony would do best on a team that can compete now and surround him with players that can cover up his average defense. Like James, a team like the Bulls who need offense but have a fantastic defense is really the best fit for Anthony. The Bulls also need scoring badly, so even though signing Anthony would not guarantee Finals appearances like signing James would, his addition would definitely make them one of the top two or three teams again in the East.
Eric Bledsoe, G (Restricted) Last Team: Phoenix Suns
Most Likely Destination: Phoenix
Best Fit: Dallas Mavericks
All indications point to the versatile guard going back to the Suns, especially with executives in Phoenix saying they will match any offer. Even though he had some injury issues last year, he also might be the one true difference maker among the restricted free agents. If Dallas is going to make one last run with Dirk, and they are not going to get LeBron or even Carmelo, Bledsoe could be a reasonable alternative if they can offer enough to pry him from the Suns. For Bledsoe, the Mavs offer experience and a slightly brighter present than the Suns, plus the lack of state income tax in Texas makes any offer from the Mavs more enticing.
Kyle Lowry, Last Team: Toronto Raptors
Most Likely Destination: Miami Heat
Best Fit: Toronto
The best unrestricted free agent not to play in Miami, Lowry had a big season for the Raptors as they fell one point shy of making the second round of the playoffs this past year against the Nets. I believe if Miami gets things settled with the Big Three, they will offer Lowry $8-$10 million a year to add more scoring and versatility to the backcourt; however, this might not be the best move for his career. He would be the fourth option, or 3b at best, on a team that needs inside help much more than help in the backcourt. He could continue building on what he started in Toronto and become a star there, and considering how bad the East is, the Raptors could easily compete for a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals as soon as next year. Personally, I’d rather be one of the top players in the largest city in Canada than an afterthought in the 42nd largest city in the United States.
Greg Monroe, C/F (Restricted) Last Team: Detroit Pistons
Most Likely Destination: Los Angeles Lakers
Best Fit: Portland Trailblazers
Admittedly, this one is sort of a guess in terms of where Monroe will end up, especially since it seems Detroit wants to resign the big man. However, the Pistons have also said they are willing to listen to offers in terms of a sign-and-trade and I think a max offer to Monroe may force them to think twice about matching. Monroe just turned 24, he is the best big man available, and even with his suspect defense, his offense in the low post is enough to help a team now, which is why Atlanta, Orlando, and Portland are all considering making him an offer. His presence in a badly-constructed frontcourt hurt his value a bit last year, but as we learned during the draft, talented big men are hard to find and talented ones with solid track records are rarely available. I feel like the Lakers want to make moves and may offer the max to the young center to try to build a team that can compete during Kobe’s last years, while also having young players to move forward post-Kobe. If Monroe wants to compete now, Portland is his best option. His suspect defense can be aided by the presence of LaMarcus Aldridge and as the Spurs proved in this year’s Finals, a front court of two skilled big men can still dominate in the NBA.
Isaiah Thomas, G (Restricted) Last Team: Sacramento Kings
Most Likely Destination: Detroit Pistons
Best Fit: Boston Celtics
Thomas had a breakout season last year with the struggling Kings, averaging over 20 points and six assists per game. The 5’9’’ guard was the last pick of the 2011 draft, but he has been a huge steal for the Kings, and the fact that teams have been maneuvering to free up cap space for free agents could hurt Sacramento’s pursuit of their starting point guard. Thomas may be a consolation prize for a team that loses out on one of the bigger-name free agents. The Pistons have reportedly made a big offer to Thomas, but I think the best fit for him over the next few years are the Celtics. Thomas needs more people to recognize his name, and playing on one of the legendary franchises in the NBA could help his profile. The Celtics have been considering trading Rondo for years and by signing Thomas they would have an exciting replacement to ease the pain of trading the last significant piece of their championship team from 2008.
Chandler Parsons, F (Restricted) Last Team: Houston Rockets
Most Likely Destination: Houston
Best Fit: Dallas Mavericks
Houston decided to decline the option on Parsons and allow him to become a restricted free agent this year so they could pursue one of the bigger free agents before deciding whether they can resign the young forward. The move could backfire hard, as teams like the Bulls and Lakers could make Parsons their backup plan if they are unable to land Carmelo. Parsons could easily average 20-7-5 over the course of a season, and his willingness to play defense, price tag, and age may make him a better option for some teams over Anthony. I do believe Houston will resign him for about $8 million more a year than he would have been due if they had extended the team option for just under a million, but I feel as though the Mavericks might be the better option for the young forward. The veteran team could use an exciting young player to help with Dirk’s transition into his final years and Parsons could also help the team make one last run now.
Chris Bosh, F Last Team: Miami Heat
Most Likely Destination: Heat
Best Fit: Houston Rockets
Many still consider Chris Bosh to be one of the elite front court players in the league, but unfortunately his declining stats and suspect postseason numbers tell a different story. His scoring, rebounding, and minutes fell last year for the fourth year in a row to a career low of 16.2 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 32 minutes per game in the regular season and 14.9, 5.6, and 34 in the playoffs. The scoring drop is understandable, as he took a backseat to James and Wade, but the rebounding numbers are ridiculously low for a 6’11’’ power forward. He also takes way too many threes even though he shot a pedestrian 34% from deep during the regular season while taking close to 3 three-pointers a game. I am going to assume he will continue to play like a stretch four, which makes a team like Houston that already has a strong low-post presence a better fit for Bosh. The Rockets would have less of a need for rebounding and low post defense than the Heat, allowing Bosh to bang less and play on the outside more. It would also allow Bosh to move back to his home state and Houston to get the third big name they have been looking to add to their roster.
Gordon Hayward, G/F (Restricted) Last Team: Utah Jazz
Most Likely Destination: Utah
Best Fit: Cleveland Cavaliers
Hayward’s case is an interesting one. As the team’s leader last year he increased his scoring, rebounding, steal, and assist numbers, but his most recognizable skills, his three-point shooting, dropped to 30% after hitting over 41% the year before. Hayward is not a tremendously efficient scorer to begin with, and unless he can raise his three point numbers, he is merely a player putting up decent numbers on a bad team, not a player worthy of a max contract. Unfortunately, there will be very little movement among the top free agents so I have a feeling a team will make a huge offer to the former Butler player hoping that he continues to develop at 24. Even though I think Utah should ultimately keep him, the Cavs might be the better option for the young wing. They are in a better position to win now, they have a settled point guard situation, and they are still a small market that will be more patient than a larger market in allowing Hayward to continue to develop.
Lance Stephenson, G/F Last Team: Indiana Pacer
Most Likely Destination: Indiana Pacers
Best Fit: Chicago Bulls
Similar to Parsons, many regard Stephenson as a backup plan to getting one of the bigger free agents. Stephenson lead the league last year in both triple-doubles and confusing behavior, especially in the playoffs when he blew in LeBron’s ear and tapped his chin to try to get into his head. I believe those incidents are merely immature competitiveness and not serious issues, but not all teams agree. Regardless, I think there will be a collection of teams lining up for Stephenson if he is still available after the Carmelos and LeBrons of the world sign their contracts. Although the Pacers are a good fit for him, the two sides seems to be at a stalemate after he rejected their five-year, $44 million offer, so I think the Bulls would be the best destination for the wing. Having veterans like Joakim Noah and a strong coach like Thibodeau would help keep him in line, his tough-nose defense and hustle would be perfect for the Bulls, and he would get a chance to shine more offensively on a team without a truly defined top-scoring option, at least until Rose proves he is healthy. Stephenson can also play point, which makes him more attractive to a team wait for their star point guard come back from injury.
Trevor Ariza, F Last Team: Washington Wizards
Most Likely Destination: Washington
Best Fit: Miami Heat
Ariza is a very good defender who improved his offense and shooting during his contract year with Washington. The team that gets him will definitely get a great defender and transition player who can play some stretch four and hit the occasional shot from outside. Washington seems poised to overpay him, but I feel like Miami would be the better fit for the veteran. Ariza would be the fourth offensive option in Miami, which is better for a guy who has averaged less than 10 points a game throughout his career than being the second or third option in an offense. He would also add more perimeter defense to a team that was often forced to rely on players like Rashard Lewis and the now retired Shane Battier to guard threes and quicker fours. Every playoff team with any cap room will be going after Ariza, so look for him to sign with whoever offers the most money.
The Best of the Rest:
Dirk Nowitzki and Marcin Gortat would have both been on this list, but for all intents and purposes, it looks like they are both going back to their old teams. Gortat agreed in principle to a five-year, $60 million deal with the Wizards soon after free agency opened, and Nowitzki is waiting for the free agent situation to settle in Dallas before officially agreeing to a deal. Shaun Livingston, who played a huge role for the Nets last season after signing for the veterans minimum, agreed to a deal with the Golden State Warriors for three years, $16 million, taking him off the market. Jodie Meeks also agreed to the first ridiculous contract of the offseason with the Pistons when they offered him three years, $19 million.
Luol Deng is available after a down season in Chicago and Cleveland. He wants his last big payday so I doubt he signs with Miami, and instead he probably lands with a contender with money like Dallas or Atlanta. The Clippers are looking toward signing Paul Pierce and/or Spencer Hawes to adding shooting and a little size to their team. The Cavaliers have a shot at keeping Hawes, but the trading of Jason Kidd may mean Pierce will move on to another team. Big men Channing Frye and Pau Gasol can give teams some offense from the front court. Apparently Portland, Cleveland, and the Warriors are interestedin Frye and the Lakers, Mavs, Warriors, and Bulls are interested in Gasol at the right price. Vince Carter and Jameer Nelson could be the perfect veteran backups for contenders. The Heat are interested in both, while the Blazers, Raptors, and Thunder are all also interested in Carter. Carter would be a great offensive upgrade over Caron Butler’s D-cups for the Thunder. If a team is looking for a younger backup at point, Mario Chalmers might be a good option. His old team, the Heat, and the Mavs are both interested in the Kansas product. Teams looking for stretch fours off the bench may look toward the versatile Josh McRoberts, Patrick Patterson, or even Al-Farouq Aminu to add some rebounding and size. Aminu is not the shooter that McRoberts or Patterson are, but all three could really help a team with their unique skill sets if their former teams cannot resign them. Lastly, scoring point guard Avery Bradley is being looked at by the 76ers along with his former team, the Celtics.
(Update 6:30 PM: C.J. Miles agreed to a multiyear deal with the Pacers, Ben Gordon agreed with the Magic for two years, $9 million, and Avery Bradley agreed to a four year, $32 million deal with the Celtics)