An Early Look At The 2011 NBA Free Agents: What Will Carmelo's 'Decision' Be?

An ominous cloud hangs over the potential summer of 2011 NBA free agents: the possibility of a work stoppage. With a lockout seeming all but a sure thing next summer, there's a climate of uncertainty for players and agents, primarily about what contracts under a new CBA might look like. Indeed, despite their lavish, oftentimes indefensible spending this past summer, the owners are expected to stand firm and demand shorter, smaller max contracts as any part of a new CBA.

In short, the owners have all the leverage. They can wait until next summer (or whenever there's a new CBA) and theoretically lock down next year's class of free agents for significantly less money. Expect very few extensions this season. As for the players, the lucky few who do merit extension offers before a new CBA kicks in figure to face their own dilemmas: sign a guaranteed big-money deal in less than ideal situations (let's say Denver), or wait to get to the open market, when contracts will probably be smaller, and go to their preferred destinations.

Key: U=unrestricted free agent; R=restricted free agent, meaning the team has the right to match any offer sheets; ETO=early-termination option, meaning the player can opt-out of their existing contract

THE PRIZE

1. Carmelo Anthony (ETO). Carmelo is to 2011 what LeBron was to 2010. Except next summer, there aren't a host of other veritable superstars available as well, like there was this past one. So if Carmelo does turn down Denver's standing extension offer -- potentially leaving tens of millions on the table if he waits for the new CBA -- every team with cap space and/or sign-and-trade assets will likely make a push for the former Syracuse star. The Knicks, of course, figure to be prominently involved.

THE GATORS

2. Al Horford (R). There's no way the Hawks will let Horford leave...but let's perform a thought experiment: Atlanta get waxed in the second round again next spring. After committing $119 million to Joe Johnson, will Atlanta send themselves into luxury tax hell with a pricey extension for Al Horford? They couldn't afford not to, which means Josh Smith might be on the market soon, as Atlanta might look to clear salary to make keeping Horford more palatable.

3. Joakim Noah (R). Noah has emerged as a better version of Anderson Varejao: energy, rebounding, defense -- and even a little bit of scoring off putbacks, screen-and-rolls and getting down the court. With Carlos Boozer's low-post scoring and work on the boards a perfect complement to Noah's game, expect the Bulls to take off, and for them to commit long term to the former Gator.

THE QUESTION-MARK BIGS

4. Greg Oden (R). What is an injury-prone, physically dominating, soon-to-be 23-year old center worth? That's the question the Blazers have to figure out, as they decide whether to keep Oden. When healthy last season, Oden put up All-Star caliber numbers, although the key here is "when healthy". How much will teams be willing to pony up for a player who's only played one of his first three seasons, assuming the Blazers don't extend him?

5. Yao Ming (U). What is an injury-prone, vertically imposing, soon-to-be 30 year old center worth? And one who happens to be a one-man marketing team in the most populous nation on the planet? Rockets GM Daryl Morey would be loath to let the Chinese big man walk, but if Yao's recurring foot problems revisit him, will Houston be forced to go in another direction next summer?

THE NEXT BEST

6. Tony Parker (U). Gregg Popovich is so infatuated with second-year guard George Hill that the Spurs were reportedly shopping Parker this summer to create more cap flexibility for themselves (at least before Richard Jefferson did them a gargantuan favor and inexplicably opted out of his $15 million for 2010). While Parker's lack of range on his shot limits him from reaching the pinnacle of NBA point guards, his still lightning-quick first step makes him a dangerous player, especially for an uptempo team (the Knicks, if they can't land Chris Paul?)

7. Marc Gasol (R). While the Grizzlies have (rightfully) gotten lambasted for essentially giving Pau Gasol away and instantly turning the Lakers into an mini-dynasty, Memphis did get something back in that much-lampooned trade: Pau's little brother, Marc Gasol. And as NBA cognoscenti can tell you, Marc developed into an indispensable contributor for the Grizzlies last season, averaging 14.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per game (and a PER of 19.3). It's hard to predict what a franchise that hands out $80 million to Rudy Gay, but then gets in a pissing match with Xavier Henry over $300k will do, but they should keep Gasol.

8. Caron Butler (U). Butler will soon be 30-years old and isn't quite good enough to justify his propensity for killing ball movement with an assortment of not-so-dizzying ball fakes, but he is still a quite useful player. He's a more than good enough scorer and tenacious rebounder; in the right system (and for the right price), that is plenty valuable.

9. Tim Duncan (ETO). There's no chance Duncan leaves the Spurs, but technically, he can become a free agent next summer if he wants to. Moving on, nothing to see here.

10. David West (ETO). West's future with New Olreans likely comes down to what their plans for Chris Paul are. If the cash-hemorrhaging Hornets decide to pull off a mega-deal for Paul, West will likely be gone as well, as they go into full cost-cutting mode. If they hold onto Paul, however, and try to convince him to stay (Paul is a free agent in 2012), they'd almost have to keep West and try to package their young talent for a bigger piece.

THE NOT QUITE ALL-STARS

11. Nene Hilario (ETO). Would you believe that Nene is only 27-years old? Dogged by knee injuries, Nene is nonetheless a tantalizing player when healthy: rugged in the paint, but also a versatile, skilled offensive player with a certain passing panache for a big man (at least in the non-Darko category of bigs). If Carmelo leaves Mile High, Nene very well might as well, assuming he can stay healthy.

12. Aaron Brooks (R). Daryl Morey has been stockpiling assets, so there's little chance he'll let the diminutive Brooks leave Houston without getting something in return. After striking out in free agency this summer (Chris Bosh had been their preferred target) and with Yao's future with the club so uncertain, it's even more imperative for the Rockets to land a superstar who can take their roster to contending status. Don't be shocked if Brooks is part of a sign-and-trade deal for someone like Carmelo or Chris Paul.

13. Jason Richardson (U). The former Michigan State star will be 31-years old next summer, so he's just on the downside of his career, but his accuracy from long range and versatile offensive game should make him an interesting option as a No. 3 or 4 scorer on a contender.

14. Carl Landry (U). Landry is Paul Milsap 2.0. Both were overlooked in the draft due to being undersized to play inside, but both have established themselves as tough rebounders with solid mid-range games. Expect Landry to command at least the full mid-level, if not more.

15. Mo Williams (ETO). There's suddenly one big reason less to stay in Cleveland. Williams was obviously distraught at "The Decision", but a season of running the show along with Antawn Jamison as the top two options for the Cavs might be enough to make Williams be the next to bolt from Cleveland

THE RESTRICTED ROLE PLAYERS

16. Jared Dudley (R). The former BC star has embraced his ultimate NBA destiny as a super-sub, lighting it up from deep off the bench, and being an all-around great chemistry guy. He'd be valuable to any number of contending clubs, and knowing the cheapness of Robert Sarver, it wouldn't be shocking to see the Suns let him walk if he gets a lucrative enough offer elsewhere.

17. Jeff Green (R). Russell Westbrook has emerged as the sidekick to Kevin Durant that people imagined Green would be, and that might make Green expendable for the Thunder. If Sam Presti can keep Green for around the mid-level, expect him to stay in Oklahoma City; if not, don't be surprised to see him suit up elsewhere.

18. Rodney Stuckey (R). Stuckey is big and he can certainly score, so look for the Pistons to hold onto him. Still, he won't be nearly as valuable if he has to move over to the two-guard spot, which is a distinct possibility given his embryonic playmaking skills.

19.WIlson Chandler (R). Depending on how much cap flexibility the Knicks want next summer, as they ostensibly pursue trades for Carmelo Anthony and/or Chris Paul, Chandler could either be part of a sign-and-trade or let go to maximize room under the cap.

20. Thaddeus Young (R). After a promising rookie campaign, Young regressed in his sophomore season with the Sixers. Maybe that was head coach Eddie Jordan's fault for under-utilizing him, but expect Philadelphia to wait until next summer before deciding whether to keep him or not.

21. Marcus Thornton (R). As with David West, Thornton's future hinges on what New Orleans does with Chris Paul. If the Hornets move their all-everything point guard, they could look to build around a backcourt of Thornton -- whom the team struck gold with in last year's second round -- and Darren Collison. If the Hornets elect to keep building around Paul and try to convince him to stay in New Orleans, Thornton would likely be their top tradeable asset, along with Collison. Regardless, Thornton figures to get quite a raise next summer.

22. Glen Davis (U). Alright, Davis won't be a restricted free agent, but he should be one of the top role players available next summer. With so much salary committed to the Big Three Four, don't be surprised if the another team outbids the Celtics for his services and promises him a starting spot. Although, with Garnett, Allen and O'Neal's salaries coming off the books after 2011, Boston could conceivably keep Big Baby if they're willing to accept one particularly onerous luxury tax season.

DAMAGED GOODS

23. Tyson Chandler (U). Once upon a time, Chandler was a defensive difference-maker for the Hornets, feasting on lobs from Chris Paul off the pick-and-roll on the other end. Then, injuries set in. Chandler will still only be 28-years old next summer, so for a team looking for a shot-altering presence in the paint, Chandler might be worth the risk.

24. Andrei Kirilenko (U). After a succession of mediocre, injury-plagued seasons, Kirilenko got back to his unique brand of stat-stuffing goodness last year. The capped-out Jazz will probably let him walk, but how much can he command on the open market given that his game relies on athleticism, and he figures to slow down soon?

25. Zach Randolph (U). Z-Bo is the poster child for why owners want to shorten max contracts. When motivated, he's one of the top post scorers in the league. But then, well, there's stuff like this.

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