We've arrived at the top 10 in our Top 50 Free Agent Caucus Of 2013, winding our way through names known and mysterious to get here. These men in the top 10? You've heard of them. They are All-Stars, they are award winners, they are highly publicized cogs. And they are all -- well, probably -- free agents in 2013.
10. ANDRE IGUODALA
Iguodala, just traded to the Denver Nuggets, where he'll be the best of 20 NBA-level wings, can become a free agent by rejecting his $15.9 million salary for 2013-14. That's a borderline case, but we've seen worse players give up more to control their own destiny. Iguodala is one of the best defenders in the NBA, effortlessly bouncing between shooting guard and small forward to disrupt on one end and provide both playmaking and finishing ability on the other. There's no really no reason he shouldn't be an All-NBA contender.
9. TY LAWSON
Surprisingly, Lawson is not quite the playmaker many believe him to be. His assists per 36 minutes figure last season was 6.8, a career high but not terribly huge. But he's a fine scorer (17 points per 36) and quite surehanded (2.5 turnovers), in addition to a great shooter. He's at 38.8 percent on threes for his career, and took more than three per game last season. High-efficiency point guards are treasures, and they are almost always worth paying for. Ergo, Lawson's getting paid as a restricted free agent in 2013, provided the Nuggets don't lock him up this spring.
8. TYREKE EVANS
I struggled on where to put the top free agent from my preferred team. He's not unlike Brandon Jennings (No. 11) in that he's inefficient and subject to cold spells. But the potential to be so, so much more is so freaking close to the surface ... it's just impossible to ignore. He averaged 20-5-5 as a 19-year-old rookie, and while that got too much hype in the immediate, it really does mean something. Crummy players don't do that. Evans suffered in 2011-12 from being asked to play small forward with two ball-dominant guards and a shot-heavy big man. Evans is best in isolation, but he did improve his off-ball play toward the end of the season, and lineups featuring him at two-guard actually showed promise. So with this high placement, I'm betting on Tyreke Evans this season. Godspeed, kid.
7. STEPHEN CURRY
If Curry had two healthy ankles, he'd be in the top five. He answered every question about whether he'd be able to get off his shot in the NBA (career 44.1 percent on threes). He answered every question about his playmaking abilities (6.8 assists per 36 minutes). He remains a massively problematic defender (something Evans, a good defender and potentially a great defender down the road, isn't) but will be one of the most efficient scorers in the league so long as he has two functioning wheels. He is a rich man's Lawson hobbled only by health.
6. MANU GINOBILI
Manu is this low only because of age: he's 35, with 22,000 NBA minutes on the odometer in addition to thousands of Euroleague and FIBA minutes, as well. He's also had some injury issues (he played just 34 games last season) and plays a reckless style. That said, he's still so brilliant on the court. Neither his per-minute production nor efficiency have slipped (rare at this age), and the Spurs still depend heavily on him. Tim Duncan is signed up for three more years, so it's quite possible that San Antonio will extend Manu through 2014-15 before July arrives. If not, should Manu hit free agency, the contenders will be killing themselves to grab him.
5. JOSH SMITH
The ace defender and versatile scorer-passer-facepalm creator will be an unrestricted free agent, and he will be popular if trade rumors are any indication. He's an 18-9 player who adds three assists, almost two blocks and a steal, and though he's terribly inefficient he has shown that he can stay within the confines of an offense if the coach pushes hard against all of the long twos. He's also versatile to play at small or power forward on both ends, something perhaps only LeBron James and Shawn Marion can also claim. Smith will be getting paid very well in free agency.
4. ANDREW BYNUM
Bynum could sign a fat extension with the Sixers to end his free agency early, and it's highly unlikely Philadelphia will let him get away after giving so much to get him. Nonetheless, Bynum has to go on the list. He was the West's starting center in the All-Star Game last season, and he'll be the East's starting center this year, barring injury. He's a powerful post presence on both ends (though he has a propensity towards lazily throwing himself at penetrators), and there's no telling how high his numbers can go in the absence of the greatest gunner ever. He'll make the max, in all likelihood, and assuming health, there's a strong chance he'll be worth it.
3. JAMES HARDEN
Harden is the most obvious threat to leave this list via early extension -- there's little chance, in my estimation, that the Thunder let Harden prove he deserves a full max by letting him play out the season. And he does deserve a full max. He's possibly the best two-guard in the entire NBA right now, even though he comes off the bench and is the No. 3 option for Oklahoma City. A brilliant scorer, a heady ball-handler, an inspired if uneven defender, a consummate teammate, a magnificent beardsman. All hail Harden.
2. DWIGHT HOWARD
Howard, the new Laker, hasn't inked an extension, but should remain with L.A. long-term after arriving with such fanfare. But if things go poorly this season ... you never know. As I have said before: never trust a grown man who can be bribed with jelly beans. Never.
1. CHRIS MFING PAUL
After the last two seasons, I like to hope that the entire world sees what a marvelous point guard CP3 has been. There was that infamous series against the Lakers, and then the salvation of the Clippers. With Jamal Crawford (a credible bench scorer), a healthy Chauncey Billups (a devastating second point guard in the backcourt), Lamar Odom (a versatile scorer-rebounder-passer) and Grant Hill (a good defender and cagey veteran), this team is stacked, and CP3 might be on his way to threatening for the MVP award. The front office (whose make-up is a mystery, frankly) has done its job to build a winner around Paul, so you have to believe that he's feeling good about L.A. right now ... even though he won't sign long-term until July. But remember as always that this is the Clippers. S--t happens. Stay tuned.
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The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.