It’s still a few months away, but this summer may be the most highly anticipated and transaction filled offseason in NBA history. With a number of high profile players set to hit free agency and a salary cap that is expected to go through the roof, there’s sure to be plenty of money to go around. In, fact, projections have suggested that teams may have more than $1 billion in cap space available his offseason.
The NBA’s salary cap has already jumped from just over $63 million in 2014-15 to $70 million in 2015-16 and thanks to league prosperity and a new $24 billion television deal, the team payroll limit for next season is projected to be around $89-$92 million with the possibility of reaching $100 million by the 2017-18 season. With plenty of dollars to be spent, even teams that we aren’t accustomed to seeing spend money will be handing out high priced contracts. The Philadelphia 76ers have suggested they may even get in on the action.
There’s going to be a new landscape in the NBA, the likes of which we’ve never seen before. A lot of guys are going to get huge deals and there will be some weird, unexpected signings just because teams will want to take advantage of their cap space. Accurately, predicting where all of the big name free agents will sign is even more difficult of a task than usual. However, that isn’t going to stop us from trying. We’re also going to include guys who can opt out of their contracts this summer, as with the rising salary cap, it’s pretty much guaranteed that guys will want to see how much of a raise they can get with a new contract.
We’ve limited this list strictly to unrestricted free agents because many of the big name restricted free agents are to stay put. We are also not going to include Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitski, even if they have opt-out options, because there’s no chance either will be leaving Texas.
So without any further ado, here’s our best predictions of where this summer’s top 20 NBA free agents will sign:
20. Arron Afflalo – New York Knicks
Arron Afflalo’s play has dropped off a bit since his stellar 2013-14 season, but he remains a strong option at the two or three spots in a market that isn’t exactly loaded with them. He does have an option year at $8 million, but given the money that will be available to him, you have to think he’ll at least test the free agent waters. The Knicks would like to keep him and Carmelo Anthony has expressed a comfortability playing with his former Nuggets teammate. Given how much he’s moved around over the last few years, it would make sense for Afflalo to want to stay in one place for a change and sign a longer term deal with the Knicks.
19. Zaza Pachulia – Dallas Mavericks
Zaza Pachulia is having a career year for the Dallas Mavericks. Pachulia has helped the team to stay in playoff contention and is averaging double digits in rebounds for the first time in his career and is close to averaging a double-double (he’s scored 9.7 points per game as of this writing). At 32 years of age, there isn’t really any overvaluing the thirteen year NBA veteran, so don’t expect anyone to throw a massively absurd contract his way. At the end of the day, the Mavericks rewarding Pachulia for his stellar play and him committing to the team that gave him the opportunity to earn a pay raise makes a lot of sense.
18. Rajon Rondo – Sacramento Kings
Aside from his verbal abuse of official Bill Kennedy a few months ago, Rajon Rondo has had a nice bounce back season in Sacramento and will be looking to get paid this summer. Rondo can still drop dimes like it’s going out of style, but the way things ended for him in Boston and Dallas may scare a few teams away. The usual suspects, like Brooklyn, New York, and the Lakers should still be interested and there will be enough of a bidding war to drive up his price tag, but the Kings will likely be tripping over themselves to lock him up to a long term deal.
17. Ryan Anderson – Detroit Pistons
It was a bit surprising that the New Orleans Pelicans opted not to trade Ryan Anderson at the trade deadline, but you can bet he’ll be testing the open market this summer. There will be plenty of suitors, but Anderson will need to play alongside a strong defensive center to be at his best. The Pistons expressed an interest at the deadline and would love to pair Anderson with Andre Drummond. Anderson first broke out as a stretch-four with the Orlando Magic under current Pistons president and head coach Stan Van Gundy, so both sides might view a potential reunion as a match made in heaven.
16. Brandon Jennings – New York Knicks
Brandon Jennings has had a pretty disappointing 2015-16 season averaging less than half of his points, assists, and steals numbers from last season in limited minutes over 23 games for the Pistons after recovering from an Achilles injury. He hasn’t fared much better since his trade deadline deal to the Magic. Jennings will likely want to be the starting point guard wherever he goes, but until he shows that he’s fully healthy and capable of playing like one, it could be difficult for many teams to justify paying him as such. The Knicks will be itching to make a big free agent splash, but until they can prove they’re capable of turning things around they’re less likely to land one of the big fish and more likely to land a player of Jennings’ ilk.
15. Hassan Whiteside – Brooklyn Nets
After spending a couple of seasons in Europe, Hassan Whiteside returned to the NBA with the Miami Heat in 2014-15. He has developed into league’s premier shot blocker, averaging around four blocks per game in 2015-16 while also averaging a double-double. However, Whiteside’s defense is one dimensional and you only have to compare Miami’s defensive rating when he’s off the floor to their rating when he’s on it to see that the Heat are actually a better defensive team without him. That isn’t likely going to prevent a team from offering him a massive contract this summer – the type of deal they’ll surely regret. Luckily for Whiteside, regrets are what the Brooklyn Nets seem to live for these days.
14. Timofey Mozgov – Toronto Raptors
The 2015-16 season hasn’t been as kind to Timofey Mozgov as the previous few seasons were and he’s lost playing time at center to Tristan Thompson. With the Cavaliers hoping to re-sign LeBron James (we’ll get to that) and needing to address some other issues, a return to Cleveland could be out of the question. Mozgov will likely have to decide whether he wants to be a back-up center on a good team or a highly paid starter on a bad team. If he chooses the former, the Raptors should be among the teams interested – especially if they lose Bismack Biyombo to free agency – and signing in Toronto would reunite Mozgov with general manager Masai Ujiri who traded for him in Denver.
13. Kent Bazemore – Atlanta Hawks
After the departure of DeMarre Carroll in free agency last summer, Kent Bazemore has stepped in and filled his role nicely for the Atlanta Hawks. Bazemore has been a three point threat all season and has provided some solid defense for the Hawks, although he’s not as strong of a defender as Carroll. He’s in line to earn a raise and you can bet there will be several teams interested. After the loss of Carroll and facing the potential loss of Al Horford, you have to think the Hawks will want to at least keep Bazemore around. We think they’ll find a way to make that happen.
12. Joakim Noah – Philadelphia 76ers
Joakim Noah is out for the remainder of the 2015-16 season after undergoing his second surgery for a separated shoulder in January. Given how the last two seasons have gone, his value on the free agent market won’t be want it once was. A return to the Bulls seems unlikely and Noah could sign a short term deal somewhere to rebuild his value before cashing in on his last big contract. As previously mentioned, the 76ers have expressed an interest in trying to improve this summer and a stint in Philadelphia could up Noah’s value and help to bring the team’s young players along.
11. Eric Gordon – Sacramento Kings
Eric Gordon is always an injury risk but when he’s healthy he’s been a productive shooting guard, although in recent years he hasn’t quite lived up to the success of his 22.3 points per game season with the Clippers. He’s going to want to get paid, but the health concerns will likely scare a few teams away. The Sacramento Kings are not a risk averse team and likely view him as an upgrade over Marco Belinelli and Ben McLemore. They seem like a prime candidate to hand him a large contract, provided they can find someone to take Rudy Gay’s contract off their hands, which in this NBA climate might not be that daunting of a task.
10. Pau Gasol – Miami Heat
Even at 35 years of age, it appears that Pau Gasol still has plenty left in the tank. The Bulls were shopping the seven-footer at the trade deadline and a return to Chicago appears unlikely. Gasol has a $7.8 million option for 2016-17, but there’s little chance he exercises it. He’ll likely be looking for one last big deal with a team he views as a contender. The Spurs and Cavaliers could be options and the Raptors were interested at the deadline as well, but given the health concerns of Chris Bosh in Miami, that’s a team that perhaps makes the most sense for Gasol.
9. Chandler Parsons – Orlando Magic
After offseason knee surgery, Chandler Parsons got off to a slow start in 2015-16. He’s since picked up his game and is likely to decline his $16 million option to pursue a max contract on the open market. The Orlando Magic will have the cap space available to offer two max contracts and are expected to aggressively go after the Florida native and former Gator. Parsons could opt to stay in Dallas, but the Mavericks’ track record when it comes to attracting big name free agents isn’t great. If he plans to leave and doesn’t choose to join an established contender, going to Orlando with another star seems like a highly plausible scenario.
8. Nicolas Batum – San Antonio Spurs
After a bit of a down year in his final season in Portland, Nicolas Batum has rebounded well with the Hornets in 2015-16 and is set to earn himself a nice contract offer this summer. There’s sure to be plenty of suitors, but the San Antonio Spurs seem to make the most sense, especially if Manu Ginobili chooses to retire. A move to San Antonio would not only give Batum a shot at winning an NBA Championship, it would also reunite him with former Trailblazers teammate LaMarcus Aldridge as well as fellow French national team members, Tony Parker and Boris Diaw.
7. Mike Conley – Indiana Pacers
Mike Conley has played his entire nine year NBA career in Memphis, where he’s developed into one of the league’s premier point guards, and we certainly can’t dismiss the notion that he could stay exactly where he is. However, the Grizzlies are in tough in the Western Conference with no end to the Warriors and Spurs dominance in sight and it may be time for Conley to turn the page. A move to the less competitive Eastern Conference could make the most sense and his hometown Indiana Pacers seem like a natural fit where he’d been upgrade over incumbent point guard George Hill.
6. Dwyane Wade – Miami Heat
At 34 years of age, Dwyane Wade is clearly on the decline and in the summer of 2016 he’s likely to sign the last major contract of his career. It’s difficult to fathom him leaving the only franchise he’s ever known in Miami, but the decision might not be entirely up to Wade. If Pat Riley and company can persuade some of the bigger free agent fish to come to Miami, they may let Wade walk to make happen. At that point, you’d have to think his hometown Bulls and a few other teams would be interested.
Still, Wade could always take another discount to stay where he’s most comfortable and it’s hard to bet on him going anywhere else at this point.
5. Dwight Howard – Milwaukee Bucks
Dwight Howard has a $23.3 million option for next season and given his drop-off in play since joining the Rockets, it’s possible he sticks it out for one more year in Houston. However, the Rockets are a mess right now and Howard and James Harden have reportedly tried to run each other out of town. So there’s a good chance Howard opts out so that he can go into a different environment.
It’s difficult to gauge where he’ll go next, but he reportedly expressed an interest in joining the young Milwaukee Bucks squad at the deadline. They weren’t interested in giving up assets to acquire him without the assurance of an extension, but they’ll be interested on July 1st and seem like a good fit.
4. Al Horford – Orlando Magic
Despite holding down an Eastern Conference playoff spot, the Atlanta Hawks considered trading Al Horford at the deadline, but ultimately decided against it. Still, unless the Hawks go on extended playoff run, Horford is likely to test the free agent waters on July 1st. Many teams will be interested, but you can expect the Magic to make an aggressive push for him and there’s said to be mutual interest. Horford played his college basketball in Florida and led the Gators to back-to-back National titles. He could conceivably join Parsons in Orlando and help form a dynamic front-court with Nikola Vucevic.
3. DeMar DeRozan – Los Angeles Lakers
Now a two time All-Star, DeMar DeRozan is set to cash in on a max contract this summer. The Raptors would love to have him back and given the team’s recent regular season success and the strong bond he’s seemed to have formed with teammate Kyle Lowry, there’s a distinct possibility he stays put. Whether or not the Raptors can finally make it out of the first round of the playoffs will likely play a role in his decision. If they don’t, there could be some big changes to the Raptors roster and DeRozan could be out the door. He’ll likely get a massive offer from the Lakers and we think the lure of playing in front of a hometown crowd will be too much for this Compton born star to resist.
2. LeBron James – Cleveland Cavaliers
LeBron James has a $24 million option for next season, but he’ll most likely opt out to sign another max contract. While we’re not ruling it out entirely, it’s difficult to imagine him leaving Cleveland again. LeBron’s public image suffered greatly when he left the Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat in 2010. He became public enemy number one in his home state of Ohio where fans burned his jerseys and Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert was harshly critical of him. All was forgiven when LeBron returned to Cleveland in 2014 and if he threw away all of that good will away to leave again, he might never live it down.
The Lakers would love to have him as the heir to Kobe Bryant’s throne, but we just can’t see that happening. Of course if they win an NBA Championship this season, that could change.
1. Kevin Durant – Oklahoma City Thunder
Durant will easily be the top prize of this year’s free agent class and plenty of teams will be lining up to woo the four time scoring champion. Toronto will likely at least make an offer. Durant admittedly grew up a fan of the Raptors and has expressed an affinity for the city of Toronto. However, it’s always difficult to envision an American NBA star wanting to play in Canada. The Knicks and Lakers will likely be in the mix, but if Durant wants to win a championship any time soon neither will be at the top of his list.
The Warriors have expressed interest and Durant and Steph Curry could form a lethal threat for years to come, but he’d also be joining a team where he’s not the main man and wouldn’t get credit for creating a championship legacy of his own. His hometown Wizards are an option, but how serious of an option is anyone’s guess.
At the end of the day, as anticlimactic as it seems, he’s done well in Oklahoma City despite the lack of a championship and we think he’ll sign a short term deal to remain with the Thunder that will allow him to become a free agent again in a few years and maximize his earning potential.
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