Under normal circumstances, Friday would mark the beginning of the NBA free agency period. Sadly, these are not normal circumstances. The NBA appears headed for a long lockout, with the owners and the players nowhere close to a resolution on so many key issues. The entire system by which free agency is conducted could be completely different when the dust settles.
But since talking about the lockout is depressing, I'd rather try to give you all some idea of how free agency might work whenever things get back to normal. It was slated to be a pretty down year for free agents anyway, but even with new rules, teams probably won't be able to help themselves and will be trying to figure out ways to get better.
So, without further ado, here's an offseason preview for when free agency starts in July. Or August. Or September. Or October. Or February.
Geoff Petrie looks pretty relaxed for someone who is heading the basketball operations of a struggling team that has no money.
FIVE TEAMS WITH LOW PAYROLLS
This is the trickiest part of this exercise, since we don't know whether there will be a hard cap, what the cap level may be, when this new cap will be phased in and what (if any) exceptions will be available for teams to use. That's why we're using the phrase "low payrolls" instead of cap room.
- PROJECTED 2011/12 PAYROLL: About $32 million for 13 players, including rookies and qualifying offers.
- KEY FREE AGENTS: Samuel Dalembert, Marcus Thornton (restricted)
- TEAM NEEDS: Point guard, center.
The Kings still need to keep costs down, but as it stands, they are projected to have the most cap room once the lockout ends. A good chunk of that room will probably be used to keep Thornton, who averaged over 21 points a game with decent efficiency after being traded from the Hornets. They could also keep Dalembert, who was in and out of the starting lineup for them, but was a rare veteran on a rudderless team. If they let him go, they'll need another big to go with DeMarcus Cousins and Jason Thompson. The Kings could also use another point guard after dealing Beno Udrih, as Jimmer Fredette and Pooh Jeter are all they have at the position. They could go after Rodney Stuckey and have expressed interest in Aaron Brooks, though neither really fits with their team.
- PROJECTED 2011/12 PAYROLL: $37 million for 11 players.
- KEY FREE AGENTS: Josh McRoberts, Mike Dunleavy, T.J. Ford, Jeff Foster.
- TEAM NEEDS: Interior depth.
For the last few years, the Pacers have saved their cap room for 2011, only to find the lockout in the way. Now, their cap room means less. Luckily, the Pacers are developing a good young team and don't have a ton of room in the starting lineup. They plugged one hole already with the draft-day trade for former San Antonio guard George Hill, who can play both guard spots and be a sure-handed ball-handler when Darren Collison is being erratic. The potential losses of McRoberts and Foster means the Pacers should especially be shopping for frontcourt depth.
- PROJECTED 2011/12 PAYROLL: $41.3 million for 10 players, including rookies.
- KEY FREE AGENTS: Kris Humphries.
- TEAM NEEDS: Wing play, power forward
This is the team I expect to be the most active. It has a lot of holes, money to fix them and not much time with Deron Williams up for a contract extension after next season. The Nets are especially weak on the wings, where Anthony Morrow, Sasha Vujacic and Travis Outlaw were replacement-level players at best. Up front, the Nets would like to keep Kris Humphries, who had a career year last year. If that doesn't work out for some reason, or if it does and the Nets just want to upgrade, I'd expect them to be in the David West sweepstakes.
- PROJECTED 2011/12 PAYROLL: $32.3 million for 11 players. Includes rookies and qualifying offers.
- FREE AGENTS: Nene, Afflalo (restricted), Chandler (restricted), Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith.
- TEAM NEEDS: Power forward, wing scoring.
The Nuggets have a lot of cap room, but I suspect it'll be used mostly to keep the band together. They'll do everything possible to keep Nene, and I think they'll keep both Afflalo and Chandler. Beyond that, I figure they'll look for cheaper replacements for Smith and Martin. Carl Landry might be a good option.
- PROJECTED 2011/12 PAYROLL: $44.2 million for five players.
- FREE AGENTS: David West, Carl Landry, Marco Belinelli, Jason Smith, Aaron Gray, Willie Green
- TEAM NEEDS: Power forward (if West leaves), shooting guard, big man depth.
New Orleans isn't about to go spending like crazy, but they're on here because they have just five players under contract. The Hornets sold their only draft pick, so they have some roster spots to fill. They'll try to bring West back, and they'll settle for Landry if he leaves. Otherwise, none of those players should be back, so Chris Paul may have some new teammates.
I will choose to believe that David West is metaphorically punching the owners for ruining his free agent year.
TEN BEST UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
1. David West: He was underpaid on his last contract, and his reward for his opt-out year is the worst free agent situation in years and a torn ACL. He's incredibly consistent and a pros pro, but he's also 30 and coming off an ACL injury. Teams should definitely tread carefully. I think he'll be back in New Orleans, because I figure Chris Paul will throw a fit if he leaves.
2. Nene: The February trade of Carmelo Anthony helped people realize just how good Nene actually is, since he finally got some touches on offense. Players hate banging in the paint against him, and that wears teams down in Denver's fast pace. I expect him to stay with Denver.
3. Tyson Chandler: The lynchpin of Dallas' championship defense, Chandler is only 28, though he has an injury history. In any case, I doubt Dallas lets him go, seeing as they believe he turned their entire culture around.
4. Jason Richardson: Struggled in Orlando after thriving in Phoenix, but he's clearly the best perimeter player on the market. He fares best with a ball-dominant point guard like Steve Nash, and I think the Magic should let him go and focusing on trimming their payroll a bit. I think he'd fit in well with Deron Williams in New Jersey myself.
5. J.R. Smith: He's nuts and needs a change of scenery, but the man can absolutely get buckets. A team with a strong culture could strike it gold with Smith. Unfortunately for him, none of those teams have cap room.
6. Jamal Crawford: Wasn't quite as good in 2011 as in 2010, though he came on in the playoffs. Atlanta probably can't afford him, so the 30-year old will likely go elsewhere.
7. Carl Landry: Was really bad in Sacramento, but bounced back to his old self in New Orleans. A good, cheap alternative to teams priced out of the West sweeptakes.
8. J.J. Barea: The market is thin on point guards, and Barea is that classic playoffs hero, so he's a good bet to be massively overpaid this summer. Dallas wants to keep him, but considering their cap situation and their depth at guard, I'd let him get his payday elsewhere.
9. Samuel Dalembert: Competent big men get paid in this league, so Dalembert will be paid. If Miami had any sort of cap room, he'd be a really good fit there.
10. Caron Butler: Was having a decent year before getting injured and seeing his team win the title without him. Dallas has said it wants Butler back, but with Chandler and Barea also free agents and the aformentioned challenging cap situation, I'd count on him leaving. Dallas can get by with Shawn Marion and Corey Brewer at the position.
WHAT? I'M NUMBER ONE ON THIS NEXT LIST?
FIVE BEST RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
1. Marc Gasol: Every team in the league should want Gasol, but Memphis would be crazy to let him go.
2. Thaddeus Young: In a normal year, this is the guy I'd splurge on. He put up a PER of 18.4 playing both forward spots well last year, and he's only 22. Alas, this isn't a normal year, and it's possible the 76ers were the only team equipped to play Young in the manner they did last season.
3. Arron Afflalo: One of the most efficient shooting guards in basketball, albeit in part because he doesn't shoot a ton. A rugged defender too. Denver probably keeps him, but if not, he will have plenty of suitors.
4. Marcus Thornton: Sure, the Kings were awful last year, but it's no small feat to average over 21 points a game in this league. He's 75-80 percent the player Monta Ellis is, and can probably be had for half the price.
5. Rodney Stuckey: Hasn't progressed much in the last few years in Detroit, and now the team has rookie Brandon Knight. But Stuckey has talent, and showed a lot more when he wasn't the only good backcourt ball-handler on his team. In the right situation, I think he could be salvaged.
Possible "Amnesty" casualties that could become Free Agents
OK, I lied: this is the most speculative part of the piece, because we don't even know if something like this will be in the new CBA. The rule would allow the team one chance to remove one contract from their salary cap, with the caveat being that the team still has to pay the player. It was used on a number of players in 2005, most notably Michael Finley.
We don't know if this provision will return, but there's a decent chance it will, because how else will many NBA teams reach the hard salary cap number? Here are a few players who could be released and be made free agents:
Just kidding. Steve Nash is never getting traded.
With such a poor free-agent crop and such a big difference between teams equipped for a hard cap and teams that aren't, we could see most player movement come from trades. You probably know the big names available, but here's a quick word on a bunch of them.
Dwight Howard: Dwight Howard is not getting traded yet, so relax, people.
Steve Nash: Steve Nash will never be traded (I think), even after retiring. He'll play in a YMCA League when he's 60 and the Suns' brass will still be reluctant to deal away his rights.
Monta Ellis: He's not particularly efficient and he's a terrible defender, but I think Ellis could really thrive in a more limited role. The problem is that NBA teams have become more stat-oriented and can see through his traditional stats, which explains why he hasn't been dealt yet.
It'll be interesting to see where he ends up. If it's a team like Golden State, he'll toil away and become this generation's World B. Free. If it's a contender, though, I think he could be the kind of guy that pushes them over the top. I'd personally love to see him on a team like Denver, who had scoring issues down the stretch of games in the playoffs.
Andre Iguodala: So underrated in so many ways, and yet, he's still blocking the path of several players in Philadelphia. Personally, I'd keep him if I were the 76ers, because the things he does still aren't valued highly enough. Dealing him to clear more time for others on the wings only means worse players will play.
Josh Smith: The Hawks pretty much forced themselves into a situation where they have to trade Smith. They have $64.3 million committed to just seven players already and none are as tradeable as Smith. Smith can do some really dumb things on the court, but he also makes his presence known in so many different areas, has improved his jump shot and is only 25. He's undervalued because of his reputation, and whoever acquires him will probably reap the benefits of all that hard work the Hawks put into him.
Rudy Gay: Rudy Gay is owed $68.7 million for the next four years. Rudy Gay is not getting traded.
Lamar Odom: With the Lakers going away from the Triangle and having an astronomical payroll, Odom is a pretty easy candidate to be dealt, though his famous reality TV star wife may not approve. He's very valuable and he's on a short-term contract, so teams should pounce. It'll never happen, but I'd love to see him on the Thunder occupying the role Jeff Green once did. Or, on Boston, occupying the role Jeff Green and Glen Davis are supposed to fill, but can't.
Michael Beasley: The Timberwolves took Derrick Williams No. 2 overall in the draft, and unless Williams is a big failure, he already plays Beasley's position better than Beasley. Whoever acquires Beasley will be gambling on a talented young headcase who can score, but not all that efficiently. He does only have one year left on his rookie contract, though, so the risk is minimal.
Jameer Nelson: A part of me was surprised to hear his name pop up in draft-day trade rumors, but the Magic have a huge payroll and he is a tradeable piece. His game has declined a bit since 2009, but he's still one of the better point guards in the league. Maybe a swap involving Odom and Nelson works for both teams.
O.J. Mayo: I imagine there will be better offers this time than Josh McRoberts.
Chris Kaman: He's a center, and those are rare even though he's been inconsistent. He's a classic case of a player who was placed in the wrong era, but he can still help a team and has just one year left on his contract.
Neither of these teams should make big moves. Neither will ... yet.
And finally, some moves contenders should make
7. Los Angeles Lakers: They're paying over $93 million already for 13 players on their roster, not including two second-round picks (Darius Morris, Andrew Goudelock), so there's really not a move to make unless they trade Odom or, more drastically, trade Pau Gasol. I'd consider trading Odom for a young point guard (like possibly Jameer Nelson), but otherwise, better to save the chips for Dwight Howard in 2012.
6. San Antonio Spurs: They also have very little flexibility, with $73 million already on the books before you get to rookies Kawhi Leonard and Corey Joseph. That's unfortunate, because with the loss of George Hill, they could use some guard help. Alas, they'll have to settle for scrap-heap guys like Daequan Cook or DeShawn Stevenson. If they can afford it, Delonte West would be good here.
5. Boston Celtics: They don't have a ton of room, with $66 million committed already. That figure will probably jump if they keep Jeff Green. After that, I'd let Glen Davis go and look for more bigs. If they can convince him to take a pay cut, I think Kenyon Martin could really help them, as could Shane Battier.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder: The one team up here with some financial flexibility, though lots of that needs to be saved to pay Russell Westbrook and (eventually) James Harden. If they feel like spending, though, they should look for a hybrid forward who can give them what Jeff Green did, but on a much more limited scale. I'd like to see them take a look at Andrei Kirilenko or Tayshaun Prince myself. They could play 15-20 minutes a night, mostly at power forward in small lineups.
3. Chicago Bulls: They need a shooting guard badly, but they already have nearly $62 million committed to 11 players with the pick of Jimmy Butler in the first round. This probably prices them out of the range of the top free agents on the market. So here's an idea: why not give a guy like Michael Redd a small, incentive-laden contract? Redd's been hurt, but if he returns to form, he's exactly what they need. The cost is minimal and the upside is huge.
2. Miami Heat: They need a point guard and a center, but their long-term salary cap number is really high. Essentially, they're back to where they were last year: trying to convince veterans to take little money to chase a ring and live in Miami.
1. Dallas Mavericks: The Mavericks have lots of free agents and not much room to bring them back if there's a hard cap. Tyson Chandler has to be re-signed, but I'd strongly consider letting all the others go. The Mavericks have younger options to fill in for their other free agents (Rodrigue Beaubois, Corey Brewer, Rudy Fernandez), and they'll need to trim long-term salary under a new CBA. They could use another shooter at small forward if they let Peja Stojakovic and Brian Cardinal go, so perhaps they can get someone like Prince, Battier or Mike Dunleavy on a cheap contract.
So where does that leave us?
Praying that the NBA lockout is short and all this can become more clear. Please, guys, figure it out.