We are just seven months away from the biggest NBA free agent period since ... well, since 2010. Dwight Howard and Deron Williams will lead the 2012 NBA free agent class, but a full complement of potential restricted free agents, thriving veterans and intriguing youngsters will keep attention high after the first dominoes fall.
Here's a snapshot of the top 65 free agents of 2012 as of today. We've omitted any potential restricted free agents who will obviously sign an Early Bird extension by the January 25 deadline -- that means Derrick Rose -- and we kept Chris Paul off on account of his apparent decision to forgo his early termination option in 2012. This list will obviously change as the season progresses and players thrive or disappoint. But it should give you an idea of the depth of the class and the types of players likely to be available at different price points.
TIER 1: THE MARQUEE
1. Dwight Howard
The 17-time defending Defensive Player of the Year (that's right, isn't it?) is the biggest fish of all, 2012's LeBron. I fully expect Howard, should he reach free agency after remaining in Orlando through the March 15 trade deadline, to hold court at Hogwarts at Universal Studios in Orlando, inviting Mikhail Prokhorov, Jim Buss, Jerry Reinsdorf and Rich DeVos to sell him signing with their franchises. And I expect Howard to turn it into a giant joke, plank on Professor McGonagall and decide to move to Jupiter.
2. Deron Williams
No. 2 with a bullet, D-Will was the first of what could be many superstars pre-emptively traded 18 months before a potential free agent circus. The Jazz sent him to New Jersey for what we can dub "A Fresh Start"; in Newark, Williams quickly figured out how to maximize Brook Lopez's offense and though the wins were light, he reminded us on a nightly basis why he's so highly coveted.
Williams assures all who will listen that he's likely to remain with the Nets once he reaches free agency in July. But look at that roster around him. Unless New Jersey can pry another star away and build something by the March 15 deadline, June is going to be sleepless for Nets fans.
3. Kevin Love (restricted)
Love could sign an extension with the Wolves before January 25 -- that's what virtually every rookie contract All-Star does. But if Minnesota doesn't offer the max, Love would be wise to wait. While he's been more than supportive of the Rick Adelman hire and seems to love Ricky Rubio and Derrick Williams, this is a bad franchise run poorly in a city that few would call a destination. Never rule out both Love's bumpy relationship with the team and the voice of his family, which has played a huge role in his amateur and pro career.
4. Russell Westbrook (restricted)
Westbrook, like Love, should be locked up before the extension window ends. But the Thunder are clearly Kevin Durant's team, and Oklahoma City could consider going all the way to restricted free agency to see whether they can get Westbrook at less than the max. It'd be a risk, as he'd almost assuredly get the max as an RFA anyway, but it hardly seems like a sure thing that Westbrook will be all locked up before July 1.
TIER 2: STUDS AND LEGENDS
The next set of top free agents is a mix of young folks on the rise and stars who've already been there and back.
5. Eric Gordon (restricted): Can Hornets' personnel boss David Stern get Eric Gordon to sign by January 25? If Dell Demps suggests signing Gordon to a near-max deal, will Stern initially consent until other owners complain about the salary being too high and the Hornets renege? Who knows! The NBA runs a team, and as such you cannot expect anything normal to happen with said team.
6. Ray Allen: The old man can still shoot, and should be able to for another couple years. If the Celtics break up the band -- both Shuttlesworth and Kevin Garnett (see below) will be free agents, with Paul Pierce a year behind them -- every contender will race to sign Allen.
7. Brook Lopez (restricted): Lopez should be the type to sign an Early Bird extension with an annual salary in the eight figures, but the Nets' situation -- openly and repeatedly trying to trade Lopez for Dwight Howard -- is weird enough that waiting for restricted free agency could be in the cards.
8. Kevin Garnett: KG is aging quickly on the court -- there are a lot of miles on those legs -- but he's still an effective defensive anchor and a fair offensive player. Watch a rising contender, a younger squad add him for the experience factor and some gritty minutes in the playoffs. (That's not necessarily a smart play, but it seems to be the NBA way.)
9. Tim Duncan: Duncan almost has to retire a Spur, but if San Antonio decides to rebuild, he'd likely have to take a steep shave on his salary to do it. Duncan has recently clanked about playing for a few more years, so the deal he signs in 2012 could be his last.
10. Nicolas Batum (restricted): Batum is a darling of Francophiles, Blazers fans and statheads, so of course he's brilliant and should probably be No. 1 on this list.
11. Danilo Gallinari (restricted): Gallinari is one of the league's best young shooters, just a killer scorer who could end up with a Peja Stojakovic-like career, if he gets the right parts around him. Consider that his professional point guards have been Chris Duhon and Raymond Felton. He has Andre Miller and Ty Lawson full-time this season. Get ready for fun.
12. Steve Nash: Nash's free agent status and Phoenix's trajectory will make the two-time MVP one of the more popular trade names at the deadline; a union with the Knicks in 2012 seems destined after New York's chase for Chris Paul fell apart.
13. JaVale McGee (restricted): Just remember: DeAndre Jordan signed a four-year, $43 million contract that at least two teams thought was a good idea. McGee is legitimately better than Jordan at everything but "not shooting" -- JaVale needs to work on "not shooting" a little bit more -- so we can only expect more than $10 million a year for Pierre's giant vessel.
14. Roy Hibbert (restricted): And Hibbert won't be far behind, assuming he has a solid season in Indiana. Hibbert's a better offensive player than McGee, but hasn't proven his defensive mettle enough to merit an insane center contract yet. But there's time.
15. Omer Asik (restricted): Asik would likely be much higher if he didn't play behind a near All-Star in Joakim Noah. But NBA teams know what Asik's all about, and the threat of a killer offer in restricted free agency should worry the Bulls enough to cut a deal in advance of January 25. If not, the bidding for the Turkish center might put an eye out in July.
16. D.J. Augustin (restricted): Augustin thrived under Paul Silas during the back half of the 2010-11 season, and he's back in the driver's seat now, starting ahead of Kemba Walker. But that pressure and what constitutes a largely awful team could hurt Augustin's stock and numbers. Point guards with shooting ability are also in vogue, though. We'll see.
17. Chauncey Billups: It's hard to rate a player no one bid more than $2 million for in the amnesty auction too highly. That said, the low bids surely had as much to do with respecting Billups' wishes to reach free agency as they did actual assessment of his value. He's still worth much more than that, and I suspect his back-up/two-guard role in L.A. this season will reinforce that.
18. Jason Kidd: Like Garnett, Duncan and Allen, Kidd is a shell of his peak self, but he continues to do what he does well ... well, well. He's an assist machine who can shoot from distance and give opponents headaches, he's not so stubborn he'll try to superhero his team into a game and he'll likely be cheap. He'll be the poor man's Nash in 2012.
19. Andre Miller: ... and Miller will be the poor man's Kidd, making him the poor man's poor man's Nash. Actually, Miller is like the yang to Kidd's yin, wherein Nash is the yin and yang together, at peace. Miller's self-described old man game involves getting buckets and setting up teammates; he's the quintessential "coach on the floor" that teams love to add.
SPECIAL GREG ODEN INTERLUDE
20. Greg Oden: What do you even say about Greg Oden as a basketball entity now? By July, there's a strong chance he will have played one full season of NBA basketball over five seasons of NBA basketball. But he's still Greg Oden. If he holds an open work-out as a free agent on July 1, every team would show up, checkbook in hand, ready to make an offer. It's Greg Oden!
TIER 3: CONDIMENTS
One sentence (or two) on each of the delicious condiments set to be available in July.
21. O.J. Mayo (restricted): Mayo will almost assuredly hit the market in 2012; he and Grizzlies seem to have a consistently unsettled relationship. For all of his well-documented faults, he remains an above-average guard with a strong shooting stroke and a great physical make-up.
22. Ryan Anderson (restricted): Anderson could have an explosive season in Orlando; his per-possession numbers are excellent, and while the Magic picked up Glen Davis to play the same position, Anderson is clearly better. Surely Stan Van Gundy will notice.Antawn Jamison: We'll know if he still has something once he escapes Cleveland's kindergarten escapade.
23. George Hill (restricted): Hill could be Indiana's best guard this season, or he could be backing up Darren Collison and Paul George. I'm not sure either will help his resumé a ton, though his per-minute production has always been promising.
25. Darrell Arthur (restricted): Arthur is unfortunately done for the season, and as such seems like a classic qualifying offer example.
26. Raymond Felton: Assuming that Felton recovers from his months-long lockout vacation tour of France's finest boulangeries, he remains a surprisingly solid option at the point.
27. Semih Erden (restricted): The lesser of the three young Turkish centers in the NBA, Erden will have the opportunity to make a strong case that he belongs in the Cavs' young core with Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and Omri Casspi.
29. Courtney Lee (restricted): Lee is in a crowded situation in Houston, and as a result could find himself elsewhere. That trade to New Jersey really seemed to derail his career; he could have been Arron Afflalo II in terms of salary. (There's still a tiny chance.)
30. Carl Landry: Landry will be the unencumbered starter for the entire season for the first time in his career. He'll score, but to win another big payday, he needs to rebound and defend, too.
31. Kirk Hinrich: I fully expect Hinrich to transform seemlessly into "cagey veteran," assuming he hasn't already made the turn.
32. Jason Terry: Probably the best fake airplane in America.
33. J.J. Hickson (restricted): With Chuck Hayes' devastating failed physical leaving the Kings without their prized free agent pick-up, Hickson will start at power forward, with Jason Thompson breathing down his neck. That opportunity could be a blessing or a curse.
34. Anthony Randolph (restricted): If Randolph can't become a legitimately productive player under Rick Adelman, it will never happen.
35. Carlos Delfino: Delfino is quietly one of the league's more versatile wings, giving Milwaukee all of the facets of his floor game. But he'll turn 30 before he hits free agency.
36. Jason Thompson (restricted): The Kings don't seem to be particularly enamored of Thompson at this point, having brought Carl Landry, Samuel Dalembert, J.J. Hickson and Chuck Hayes within the past two years. J.T. survives, but is unlikely to draw attention from the team that drafted him once he hits free agency.
38. Spencer Hawes: Hawes took his qualifying offer for 2011-12 and will test unrestricted free agency in July; obviously, his growth this season will be a huge factor in whether he gets a small multi-year deal or a big fat offer.
39. Jeff Green: Green, who will have heart surgery in January, is a total wild card in free agency in 2012. He could be forced to resign to a small deal to remind everyone why Boston was excited about him in the first place.
40. Ersan Ilyasova: Ilyasova might shoot straight back to Turkey in 2012; if not, he's a solid stretch-4 with good length and defensive instincts.
41. Boris Diaw: Diaw is the old innings-eater, a guy who can be average at three positions. That's supposed to be a complement.
42. Vince Carter: Carter took a one-year deal with Dallas, and success could lead to something like a mid-level going forward. He's still a fine scorer (every other night).
43. Marcus Camby: Camby will turn 38 this season, but he can still rebound, block shots, move the ball and hit that 15-footer.
45. Jermaine O'Neal: J.O. could be as close to retirement as KG and Duncan, but with fewer credentials. But there's also the possibility that a healthy O'Neal could have another season like his 2009-10 in Miami, which was downright solid.
46. Chris Kaman: Kaman was never as good as Jermaine O'Neal, but he could potentially replicate the twilight of J.O.'s career as a defensive-minded, jump-shooting center.
47. Jodie Meeks (restricted): Part of a new breed of role-playing shooters at the two-guard, Meeks sits in front of Evan Turner in Philadelphia. The (seemingly) cost-conscious Sixers may have to let him fly if another team decides it needs Meeks' skills, given that Philly remains loaded on the wings.
48. Marco Belinelli: Belinelli stuck with New Orleans for this season; if he can magically maintain his 2010-11 shooting numbers with Jarrett Jack running the show, he deserves a nice little contract in free agency.
49. Rudy Fernandez (restricted): This is Fernandez's make-or-break NBA season. Luckily for him, the Nuggets are without J.R. Smith. Rudy should wear a J.R. Smith disguise and see what he can get away with.
50. Marreese Speights (restricted): Speights has been rumored to be on the trade block this offseason, and he could end up with a Glen Davis-like contract (about $6 million a year), assuming he develops his game a bit more wherever he plays this season.
51. Robin Lopez (restricted): The lesser Lopez is behind Marcin Gortat in Phoenix, and pretty much doesn't do anything better than Gortat or Channing Frye. He's one player who desperately needs a trade to show what he can do before free agency hits.
52. Ian Mahinmi: I will beat the drum for Ian Mahinmi until the nation recognizes his championship-level ability, dangit.
53. Louis Amundson: Amundson exists in a weird place in the NBA, and being the fifth man in Indiana's big man rotation this season won't help. But he's a great offensive rebounder and useful in transition.
54. Matt Barnes: With Lamar Odom gone and Metta World Peace quickly reaching the end of his career at a legit starter, Barnes should take extra importance in L.A. He's always had trouble translating on-court success to a payday, though.
55. Mickael Pietrus: Pietrus, a solid defender with a crazy streak, should be on the same plane as Matt Barnes, if not higher.
56. Jerryd Bayless (restricted): Bayless is a solid bench player who just hasn't developed into anything more. Hopefully Dwane Casey can find the right notes and turn him into someone worth chasing.
57. Leandro Barbosa: The speedy Brazilian has been dinged up the past few seasons, but he remains a huge scoring threat off of the bench. Unfortunately, Toronto has plenty of scoring threats, many of which have better defensive tools (if not ability).
59. Nazr Mohammed: Mohammed remains a solid, big defensive center. You get the sense he'll stick with the Thunder until he can't play any more -- he's a great fit.
61. Anthony Tolliver: Tolliver is a solid option for up-tempo teams who need a fleet-footed big man who won't embarrass himself on either end.
62. Landry Fields (restricted): Fields had two totally different halves in his rookie season, and it seems that his sophomore season will, unfortunately, copy the back half, where Carmelo Anthony took all of his shots. But Fields is a smart player with good floor skills, and he should survive in the league.
63. A.J. Price (restricted): Price is now the No. 3 point guard in Indiana, but George Hill should play some two-guard, opening up opportunity for Price, who might have been the Pacers' best PG in the playoffs last season.
64. Brandon Rush (restricted): The Warriors picked up Rush to help out on the wings once Mark Jackson decided that Klay Thompson can't play small forward. Needless to say, this is a huge opportunity for Rush, who will be behind Golden State's vital shooter, Dorrell Wright.
65. Bill Walker (restricted): With Shawne Williams gone, Walker will take on added importance in New York. But he figures to remain in an eighth-man role wherever he ends up.