With the playoffs just getting underway and many players already enjoying their offseason, it can only mean that the soap opera of NBA free agency is almost underway. Every summer, a new crop of NBA players become available for teams to negotiate contracts with. These negotiations can take place in team facilities, over the phone through agents, and can even involve night club contract signings. It is a mad dash for competing teams to sign the most in demand free agents, and teams are eager to drive prices higher to tie up more valuable salary cap room for their opponents.
Typically players that are free agents fit into three categories; restricted, unrestricted, and those with player options to extend their deals. One those players with options have declared they will explore free agency, these players and their agents are free to explore competing offers. Offers for restricted free agents must be matched by their current team, if they intend to hold onto the player. It is an intricate system of multi-team negotiations that can often bring out the best in both the players and team management.
Once the Finals have ended and an NBA Champions is crowned, the official offseason can begin. This season, the race for the NBA crown has been more wide open than it has been in years. Several big names could be on the market from championship contending teams. These players could make the difference between mounting another title challenge and phoning in the second half of the season in order to tank for the draft. Here are the players that will have the most at stake during negotiations this summer.
*All stats taken from ESPN.com.
15 Rajon Rondo
Following his midseason trade from the Boston Celtics to the Dallas Mavericks, Rajon Rondo will be entering the unrestricted free agent market. Although never the greatest shooter from the floor or the free throw line, Rondo is an excellent distributor and averaged 7.9 assists per game this season. His scoring numbers have decreased to the point that he is no longer considered among the elite players at the point guard position, but he still has a lot to offer the right team.
14 Al Jefferson
As an 11-year veteran in the NBA, Al Jefferson is accustomed to the demands of a rigorous NBA schedule. This season he averaged 16.6 points and 8.4 rebounds per game for the Charlotte Hornets, proving that he remains one of the most productive centers in the league. Jefferson turns 31 this year and is likely looking for one last big contract. His repertoire of post moves is one of the best in the NBA and would be a great fit for many teams seeking a big man this off season.
13 Goran Dragic
This season’s free agent class is a little light on point guards and Goran Dragic will likely be the best available option for many teams once he opts out of his player option with the Heat. Dragic is looking for a team that will let him run the show, and considered that he is only one year removed from averaging 20 points per game, there will be many suitors. Dragic numbers dipped slightly this season to 16.3 ppg and he will need to bring up his assist numbers, but his performance this year should be enough to earn him an eight figure deal this off season.
12 Brandon Knight
Brandon Knight has already played for three teams in his short NBA career, but he has finally embraced the NBA game and found success with Milwaukee and then Phoenix this season. After the trade his scoring numbers dropped slightly, but he still managed to average 17 points and 5.2 assists for the season. Knight has already made a little over $8 million during his career, but the 23-year-old is playing at close to an All-Star level and is ready to be paid like one as an RFA.
11 Paul Millsap
Since moving from Utah to the Atlanta Hawks for the 2013-14 season, Paul Millsap has flourished in Mike Budenholzer’s system. Millsap was played a huge role for the Hawks as they marched to the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Millsap is a hallmark of consistency in the NBA and has averaged at least 14.5 points and 7.5 rebounds in each of his last five seasons. Millsap has stayed healthy throughout the majority of his career, playing in at least 64 games in each of his nine seasons. He will almost certainly improve on the $9.5 million he earned this season.
10 Greg Monroe
Greg Monroe is expected to be one of the most in demand free agent targets, especially now that he will be entering unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career. Following Josh Smith’s departure from Detroit, Monroe took his game to another level, averaging 15.9 points and 10.2 rebounds for the season. During his five years in the league, he has played both low post positions with a high degree of skill. This 25-year-old star in the making is ready to get paid.
9 Marc Gasol
It is hard to imagine Marc Gasol playing for a team other than the Memphis Grizzlies. He has played his entire North American career with the franchise. This year he returned to full fitness following injury last season, and played in 81 regular season games. He also managed to improve his scoring to a career high 17.4 points per game. Gasol is possibly the most skilled center in the game and enticing him to leave Memphis is going to be very difficult and costly to any team that wishes to lure him away.
8 Jimmy Butler
With Derrick Rose absent for the majority of the season, Jimmy Butler was forced to step into a much larger role than he had played in previous years. Butler responded by playing better than he had ever before and was one of the best players during the first half of this NBA season. Butler improved his stats across the board in the larger role to an impressive line of 20/5.8/3.3 from his shooting guard position. This restricted free agent made a fantastic decision last year to forgo a long term contract, and that will pay dividends following his career best season.
7 Monta Ellis
Monta Ellis has it all. He has been fantastic as a primary scoring option for the Dallas Mavericks since taking a pay cut to join them two seasons ago. Now, Ellis is likely to opt out of his player option to explore free agency. He has matured significantly since coming into the league and is now an elite player at his position. Ellis’ 18.9 points per game and 4.1 assists per game mean he will likely be making eight figures again next season. As he approaches 30, this will likely be one of the final big contracts of his career.
6 Draymond Green
After coming off the bench in limited roles during his first two seasons with the Golden State Warriors, Green was elevated to a starting position and has contributed significantly. Green has been solid two way contributor that has helped the Warriors become an elite team in the Western Conference. His 11.7/8.2/3.7 line is especially impressive considering he also averages at least a steal and block per game. Green’s energy has worked well for Steve Kerr, but it will be interesting to see if he gets paid with the Warriors or takes his chances elsewhere.
5 LeBron James
After joining the Cleveland Cavaliers during the last offseason, it is unlikely that LeBron James is going anywhere else this offseason. However, it is always entertaining to imagine LeBron forsaking the city of Cleveland for the second time in his NBA career. James’ scoring and rebounding has dipped slightly with the Cavs, thanks in large part to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love carrying their share of the load. LeBron has enjoyed a role as a point-forward, which has allowed head coach David Blatt to get the most out of the rotation around James. LeBron James has a player option that he can opt out of at the end of this season and if he decides to do that, he'll cash in whether he stays or goes.
4 DeAndre Jordan
DeAndre Jordan is the reigning NBA ironman and has played in every single Clippers game for the last three seasons. As the vice-mayor of Lob City, Jordan is entering the prime of his career as he demonstrated with his career high of 15 rebounds per game to go along with his 11.5 points. Jordan continues to be a force on the defensive end, while also leading the league in shooting percentage. Aside from finishing dunks, Jordan’s offensive skill set remains limited, but that still won’t prevent teams from improving on the $11.4 million he earned this year.
3 Kevin Love
Kevin Love was a major acquisition last offseason for the Cleveland Cavaliers, but has struggled to find his role with the team at times this year. Love has been asked to stretch the floor, which is not an ideal fit for a player with his extraordinary skill set. Despite repeated comments that he is committed to the Cavaliers, his numbers have dropped across the board since joining the title contenders. Whether he will opt out of his contract will be one of the burning questions that is answered this offseason. The Cavs will be able to offer the most money, but will that be enough to keep Love in town?
2 Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi emerged onto the scene as in intricate part of the San Antonio Spurs team that shocked the Miami Heat in the finals last year. He was awarded the Finals MVP for his efforts and has taken a larger role for Greg Popovich this year. The increase in minutes played has led to increased stats, with Leonard averaging career highs in points, assists, rebounds, and steals. His versatility makes him one of the most in demand small forwards in the league, but there is virtually no chance that the Spurs part ways with their young star as he's still an RFA. That does mean he'll get a huge increase in salary from the Spurs or someone else will give it to him and the Spurs will match the offer.
1 LaMarcus Aldridge
In his ninth season in the NBA, LaMarcus Aldridge has found himself in a position to succeed. The Portland Trail Blazers are essentially built around Aldridge’s skill set and this arrangement has allowed him to flourish. Aldridge set a career high for scoring, with 23.4 points per game to go along with his 10.2 rebounds. It is doubtful that any team would be able make an offer that would steal Aldridge away from Rip City. He has already earned $85 million throughout the course of his career and it is going to be hard to top the hometown advantage.