Hopefully, this will be an aid to the interesting dialogue circulating this forum.
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1. Arron Afflalo (restricted) It’s fine if you think this is crazy. Other guys have bigger names and flashier games, filled with isolation highlights and pick-and-roll mastery. But Afflalo is a two-way player, something several guys on this list can’t say, and he looks to be entering his prime, both in terms of age (he’ll be 26 in October) and playing style. He has gradually evolved on offense from a one-dimensional spot-up shooter into someone who can hurt you in a variety of ways — in transition, coming off screens, working off the dribble and even posting up smaller defenders. He’ll have to continue that evolution to justify this ranking, and placing him here amounts to a bet that he will. We’ve always known he can defend, but he showed last season that he can defend both shooting guards and small forwards, even if the bigger guys among the latter group hurt him in the post. He’s a restricted free agent, and the Nuggets, otherwise lacking experienced shooting guards, will likely pay whatever it takes to keep him. But if there’s a restricted free agent among the wings worth a Wesley Matthews-style surprise offer sheet, this is the one.
2. Tayshaun Prince At 31, Prince isn’t what he once was, and he was part of a poisonous atmosphere in Detroit last season. But he’s another guy who helps on both ends, and he’s ideal as a third or fourth option on a good team. He can post up, hit spot-up three-pointers and isolate in a pinch as the shot clock winds down.
3. Jason Richardson The 31-year-old’s game dropped off in Orlando, but even there, Richardson shot 38 percent from three-point range, and shooting is a skill that tends to age well. He’s not much of a threat off the dribble and he won’t earn many free throws, but his shooting and ability to run around screens should be helpful for any team. He’s a so-so defender, at best, but he’s good enough to work fine in the right system.
4. Caron Butler Butler, 31, may end up undervalued because of the knee injury that cut his season short in Dallas. In that abbreviated campaign, Butler moved away a bit from working as a ball-stopping isolation threat and into a role as a more well-rounded player, with solid fundamentals on defense and more range on his jumper. That’s exactly the shift he needs to make as he ages, and if last season’s work proves lasting, Butler will help … a lot.
5. Grant Hill Put the next four guys in any order you like, depending on what you might value. Hill is a defense-first wing in the Shane Battier mold, but he offers a bit more versatility on offense, where he thrives in transition and can hurt opponents more than Battier as a slasher (off the bounce or off the catch). He doesn’t quite have Battier’s range (he barely attempted one three-pointer per game last season), and at 38, he’s at risk of falling apart at any time. But on a short-term deal, Hill can offer a lot.
6. Jamal Crawford Crawford plays no defense and he may never equal the shooting numbers he put up two seasons ago for the Hawks. But we know this: A team can give the ball to Crawford at the top of the arc for a pick-and-roll and be confident he’s going to create an opportunity without coughing the ball up. He may not make the right decision — he adores long, contested two-pointers — but he’s a capable passer, he can make tough shots and he can score in isolation when needed. He does not quite terrify his own fans, which sets him apart from …
7. J.R. Smith Perhaps the most tantalizing guy on this list, and not only because he can change a game with a quick barrage of threes. Smith has always been a bit underrated as a driver and passer, especially on pick-and-rolls, though perhaps those gifts are underrated because he too often eschews them in favor of bad jumpers. Still, if any contender can harness his total skill set, Smith is a game-changer on offense. He’s usually a train wreck on the other end, though.
8. Wilson Chandler (restricted) This is an upside pick, a bet that there is something more in this 24-year-old, 6-8 package of skills. Chandler has put up numbers, but he has never quite clicked. He has a diverse offensive game that doesn’t include one consistent top-level skill, which is one reason he fell down the Nuggets’ totem pole as the first-round series against the Thunder progressed. Chandler’s game has never included enough passing or free throws, and his defense has been similarly hit-or-miss. A team on the verge of title contention might stay away, but those one tier lower should take a look.
9. Shane Battier You know exactly what you’re getting: A knockout defender who can take bigger shooting guards and small forwards, and a spot-up three-point threat who keeps a dash of post-up skills in reserve for use against smaller defenders. He also moves well off the ball. Battier, 32, finally showed some minor signs of age last season, but he’s a proven commodity who should remain valuable for at least a couple of more seasons.
10. Andrei Kirilenko Kirilenko can swing between both forward positions, but we’ll lump him in here because he’s played much more small forward over the last few seasons in Utah. If Kirilenko does switch teams, it will be fascinating to watch how he changes with age (he’s 30, and plays a very athletic style) and in an offense other than Utah’s movement- and cut-heavy flex. He can help on both ends in the right home, but if he becomes even more addicted to long jumpers that he hits at a below-average rate, he could be a disappointment.
11. Marcus Thornton (restricted) This could be laughably low, considering Thornton averaged 21 points per game for the Kings and showed potential as a secondary pick-and-roll distributor. We know the caveats: His defense is shaky, especially away from the ball, and he’s always going to present some fit issues because he’s only 6-4 and lacks a solid point guard background. Thornton is a restricted free agent after the Kings tendered him a $1.06 million qualifying offer. Sacramento wants to keep Thornton and has loads of cap space, but it figures to face some competition.
12. Nick Young (restricted) Young shot 45 percent on long two-point jumpers last season, one of the best marks in the league among high-volume shooters. Young has hit at least 40 percent of such shots in each of his four seasons, so while that 45 percent number screams “FLUKE!” at first glance, the 26-year-old has proved by now that he can hit from the outside at a good rate. He’s also proved that he can’t pass, rebound, get to the line much or play consistent defense. How much of that bad stuff — especially the amazingly low assist rates — had to with the dysfunctional Wizards, and how much had to do with Young? How much would you pay to find out?
13. Mike Dunleavy How much do you believe in plus/minus? The Pacers were better with Dunleavy on the floor in all three seasons in which he was healthy (and logged at least 60 games). The improvement was significant in two of those seasons — including in 2010-11, when most of the Pacers’ best core lineups featured Dunleavy. It’s not hard to imagine why this might be. Dunleavy can play both wing positions, and he can shoot, cut, work off screens and handle the ball. He’s not a great defender, but he works and he has those long arms. He’s fresh off being badly overpaid, but in this round of free agency, he might outperform his salary.
14. Shannon Brown It looked in early December as if Brown had developed an elite three-point shot, a terrifying thing for enemy teams who saw Brown’s athletic talent and fretted about how valuable he could become as Kobe Bryant’s backup. But Brown’s shot fell apart in 2011, and he hasn’t shown yet that he can help much on offense if he’s not hitting open jumpers. That could change, and Brown has done some very good work as a defender. He could be a low-priced steal.
15. Vince Carter Carter would move up this list if folks had confidence that he could shift out of “I’m the man!” mode and into a backup role as a spot-up shooter capable of moving the ball and playing at least average defense. Carter’s liabilities and alleged effort issues have made him a laughingstock among the cognoscenti, but he could really help a team that needs depth and scoring at the wing. (Note: His presence here reflects the general assumption that Phoenix will buy out the final year of Carter’s monster deal for the required $4 million, thus making him a free agent.)
16. Delonte West You’re taking a chance here, but you’d be doing so with any free agent outside the top tier of wing players. When he’s healthy and committed, West is a feisty defender, decent spot-up shooter and the kind of ball-handler who won’t do anything spectacular off the bounce — but will produce a decent shot for someone.
17. DeShawn Stevenson Three-and-D. If you do those two things, you can help, and Stevenson does both at his best. He can be a valuable bench player in the right situation.
18. Tracy McGrady McGrady’s season in Detroit has to be considered a success, as he proved he can work as an effective point forward type even though his old athleticism is mostly gone. In what may be a one-year fluke, his one-on-one defensive numbers were outstanding (per [Only registered and activated users can see links. ]), and the Pistons [Only registered and activated users can see links. ]. Painting McGrady as a plus defender at this stage doesn’t quite pass the eye test, and the Pistons were pretty bad on that end regardless of personnel. But McGrady showed he can be a productive bench guy just about anywhere.
19. Reggie Williams (restricted) There remain questions about his defense and what position he should play, though the answers to both of those would be clearer had he played anywhere else. Williams will probably be back in Golden State, which has tendered him a qualifying offer, but he could be a potential target for teams coveting some low-cost scoring off the bench. And Williams can absolutely score.
20. Anthony Parker He’s 36, but he should probably be able to squeeze in one more season of above-average, three-point shooting and solid wing defense, though his defense slipped last season in Cleveland.
‘MAX’ PLAYERS ($10 million-plus range)
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1. Nene Nene squeaks into the top spot because no other player on this list can touch his combination of size, scoring, athleticism and ability to contribute in several different ways on defense. He’s not a first option on offense, and he is not on Tyson Chandler’s level as a defensive game-changer, but he’s a legitimate B+/A- player on both ends. He can do just about everything on offense — run, shoot, pass, cut, score in the post and work the pick-and-roll. He’s not a back-to-the-basket beast or an isolation monster, but your offense flows when Nene is on the floor.
2. Tyson Chandler I came very close to slotting Chandler into the top spot even though he has no one-on-one post game or reliable jumper. (To be clear: Chandler has nice form on his shot and flashed a more reliable jumper this season, but he rarely uses it and the results are inconsistent when he does.) But Chandler is one of the franchise-changing big-man defenders, and he was the second-most important player during the Mavs’ championship run. He can protect the rim like any athletic 7-footer should be able to, but his ability to shift 20 feet out from the basket, crouch in a textbook defensive stance and slide side-to-side with some of the best ball-handlers in the world is pretty much unmatched. If he can stay healthy, Chandler is a prized asset.
3. Marc Gasol (restricted) Gasol will probably never be the kind of game-changing defensive force Chandler is, but he’s a brute in the post, his numbers against the pick-and-roll are very good and he proved against the Thunder in the playoffs that he’s a heady defender capable of sliding out to disrupt perimeter shooters. (The Thunder helped, of course, by playing a gimpy Kendrick Perkins, the equivalent of going 4-on-5 on offense.) On offense, Gasol may very well emerge as a better player than Nene. He’s just as versatile with a more reliable shot and a strong back-to-the-basket game. If the new collective bargaining agreement maintains Bird Rights, at least for one summer, expect the Grizzlies to match any offer for Gasol.
4. David West At nearly 31, West is the oldest of the premiere big man free agents, and he is coming off massive knee surgery. But his game has never been about explosive athleticism, and it should age well, provided he recovers as expected from his gruesome injury. We know what West is: A pick-and-pop savant who knows his limitations, takes care of the ball, throws smart passes and generally helps on both ends. He’s a good defender and a decent rebounder.
MID-LEVEL EXCEPTION TYPES, GIVE OR TAKE A MILLION OR TWO
5. DeAndre Jordan (restricted) You can say this is too high for Jordan, whose shooting range doesn’t even match the length of one of his arms, but this is a 22-year-old 7-footer with crazy athleticism and a commitment to the right things. He doesn’t force it on offense, and though he still goes for highlight-reel blocks too often, he works his tail off on defense. He ranks among the 100 best defenders on every play type [Only registered and activated users can see links. ] tracks, and he’s only to get better with seasoning. The Clippers rightly view Jordan as a building block, and it’s going to take a huge offer to pry him from Los Angeles.
6. Glen Davis He might be crazy, his offensive game is maddeningly inconsistent and he falls in love with his mid-range jumper, results be damned. But here’s the thing: We know with absolute certainty that Big Baby is a very, very good big-man defender capable of playing major minutes on a good team. His combination of bulk and quick feet is death for taller players in the post, and he has spent his entire career learning how to show on pick-and-rolls from the greatest pick-and-roll defender of all time. If Davis can find the right balance on offense between stretching the floor and banging inside, he’s a hugely helpful player.
7. Thaddeus Young (restricted) Young would probably be a more glamorous catch than either of the two guys above him, with those quick scoring bursts, top-level athleticism and low-turnover efficiency. He also just turned 23 and improved his rebounding numbers last season, a huge thing for a Philly team that played him mostly as an under-sized (but ultra-quick) power forward. But the questions about his defense are serious. He’s often caught out of position, he has legitimate size issues against lots of power forwards and he has not shown he can credibly defend small forwards. Look for Philly to keep him at a reasonable price.
8. Greg Oden (restricted) A little high? Sure. But taking a shot at Oden for the right price is a sounder move, depending on team context and the new CBA, than over-spending on proven mediocrities or other risky bets. We know what Oden can be.
9. Carl Landry Everyone keeps waiting for the Carl Landry breakout party to start, and the reality is that it will probably never come; Landry is almost 28, and he’s unlikely to develop into an average rebounder for his position. But he showed the kind of subtle improvements last season in New Orleans and Sacramento that will make him a very useful role player going forward. He worked well with Chris Paul, both off the ball and as a pick-and-roll partner, and his one-on-one defense from 10 feet and out can very good. (He gave Pau Gasol serious issues on both ends of the floor in the playoffs.) The limitations will always be here, but if Landry can hone that mid-range jumper into a more consistent weapon, he’ll be a very good get for someone.
10. Samuel Dalembert We’re thinking strictly short term here, since Dalembert just turned 30 and his feet already move with an old-man slowness. Those feet can be problematic when offenses drag Dalembert out of the paint on pick-and-roll plays, and he has never been an efficient offensive player (check out those turnover rates). But you can do worse than running Dalembert out there for 20 minutes and watching him block shots, snare offensive boards and frighten guards in the paint.
11. Jeff Green (restricted) Big name, overrated game. He’s a below-average shooter from just about everywhere on the court, and he was the common denominator in every bad, sieve-like Oklahoma City five-man unit. Not much changed in Boston, though Green shot the ball much better from the perimeter there. And that might be the key with Green: context and a smaller, backup role. He has usable range on that jumper, he can work in the post against inferior defenders and he could (if we’re being very optimistic) grow into at least an average defender in the right system. The Celtics have already offered Green the $5.9 million qualifying offer, meaning he’s a restricted free agent and could sign that one-year, $5.9 million deal the second free agency starts. Paying much more than that based on Green’s name reputation is a risk.
12. Kris Humphries Humphries breakout double-double season screams with cautionary notes. He played heavy minutes on a bad team, he played alongside a center who couldn’t rebound, and he remains a very shaky pick-and-roll defender and helper whose lack of speed can hurt on defense. Even so, Humphries has always been a decently productive per-minute player, and his one-on-one defense was surprisingly good. Just be careful about overpaying.
13. Kenyon Martin We’re starting to reach now. Martin is 33, and he goes through stretches where he’s such a non-threat to score that he becomes a liability. His defense, rebounding numbers and perimeter shooting have all dropped off, but you’d be happy next season if Martin were your third or fourth big man playing 15 or 20 minutes a game instead of 25 or 30. He plays smart on both ends and can defend a variety of players in a pinch — at least in short stretches.
14. Spencer Hawes (restricted) The Sixers have tendered Hawes the required $4.05 million qualifying offer, so they’ll have the right to match any competing offer for him. Four years in, Hawes is still just about what he was when he started — a 7-footer who can hit a jump shot and toss gorgeous passes from the high post, but struggles to finish inside, rarely gets to the line and has trouble defending away from the basket in space. But at 23, that kind of package is still worth a look.
THE MINIMUM, OR PERHAPS A BIT MORE
15. Kwame Brown He’s a massive bust as a No. 1 pick, but if you ignore that history, you’re looking at a cheap option who put up an 8-7 line in just 26 minutes per game last season in Charlotte — and shot 52 percent from the floor. His range extends just beyond that of DeAndre Jordan’s, and he has never been a particularly clued-in defender. But he could work out well as a cheap option to round out your big man rotation.
16. Chuck Hayes It’s fine if you think Hayes should be higher here. He’s a plus defender, even if he shouldn’t be guarding centers nearly as much as he had to in Houston, and his passing, cutting and ability to finish at the rim with a variety of subtle bank shots make him a more well-rounded player than he was early in his career.
17. Joel Przybilla He’s 31 and health issues have sidelined him for most of the last two seasons, but if he’s healthy, Przybilla will bring stable defense and elite rebounding at both ends of the floor.
18. Kurt Thomas Thomas is the oldest player in the league, and it’s fair to question how many minutes he can give. But he logged 23 per game in 52 regular-season games with the Bulls last season, and he played outstanding defense both in those games and in the rare moments when Tom Thibodeau unleashed him in the post-season. That defense, plus his always-solid rebounding and mid-range shot, should make him valuable as one of those players who floats between the rotation and the bench.
19. Shawne Williams You could slot a dozen or so guys into these last few spots, but I’ll give one to Williams, if only because he showed last season that he can be a 40 percent three-point shooter at the power forward spot. That alone is valuable, provided you can hide him in the right defensive system. Williams at least looked like had an appetite for effort on defense last season, though he’s not a good rebounder and was often miscast as something of a “center” next to Amar’e Stoudemire. (Williams defended Dwight Howard for a few possessions. This happened.) He can sure hit that corner three, though.
20. Jason Collins Collins was 3-of-4 on long two-point jumpers in the playoffss! Maybe he can be a pick-and-pop threat! Just kidding. Collins has one reliable NBA skill — post defense — and I’ll give him this spot based on that one reliable skill over a higher-risk, higher-reward guy like Earl Clark, Dante Cunningham, Josh McRoberts (major defensive problems), the ever-intriguing Kyrylo Fesenko or the irresistible Craig Smith.
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1. Rodney Stuckey (restricted) Stuckey clearly belongs at the top of this list, even with all the questions about his shooting range, shaky finishing at the rim, flare-ups with former Pistons coach John Kuester (who didn’t have one or two of those!) and whether he really belongs on this list of free-agent wing players. Those are all legitimate criticisms, and Stuckey, already 25, may never develop a consistent, long-range jumper. But he improved across the board last season, cracking the top 50 in Player Efficiency Rating over some flashier names (Rajon Rondo, Kyle Lowry), finally finishing at the rim at a near-acceptable rate and piling up more foul shots and assists. He can score in a variety of ways inside of 20 feet and is capable of defending both guard positions. The Pistons have tendered Stuckey a $3.87 million qualifying offer, meaning he is a restricted free agent and Detroit can match any competing offer for him. Of teams that figure to have a lot of cap space, only the Raptors and Clippers have pressing present or future needs at point guard, so Detroit may be in a strong negotiating position with Stuckey. Expect him to stay put.
2. Aaron Brooks (restricted) Brooks broke out in 2009-10, when he averaged nearly 20 points per game and won the league’s Most Improved Player award with Houston, but he was a bit overrated even then. He relied on a bundle of perimeter shots for his points, which made some sense, because he struggled badly to finish at the rim and didn’t earn as many free-throw attempts as a top perimeter scorer should. He has never quite dished the ball like a quality starting point guard, and he has mostly been a liability on defense. Houston traded him in February to Phoenix, where Brooks averaged 18.9 minutes a game as Steve Nash’s backup. But there is obvious talent here, and there is clearly a place in the league for a guard who can break down almost anyone off the dribble, get into the lane and make proper decisions. If Brooks can find the right balance in his game, he’s an asset as either a so-so starter or super-duper backup.
3. Mario Chalmers (restricted) He’s turnover prone, he gambles on defense, he is barely shooting 40 percent over three seasons and his role has changed dramatically a dozen times during his short NBA career with Miami. He is probably not as good, right now, as the guy who ranks just below him on this list. But Chalmers is a useful two-way player, a defender who plays a bit bigger on that end than he really is at 6-foot-1, and one who can guard any point man in the league. Enough of his gambles turn into steals that the risk/reward equation sort of works, and he is a decent three-point shooter unafraid of big shots.
4. J.J. Barea Barea is perhaps the leading candidate to be overpaid among the entire free-agent class, since he’s fresh off decimating the Lakers in the conference semifinals and playing well as a surprise starter in the last four games of the Finals for Dallas. Barea was one of the best pick-and-roll players in the league last season, and his penetration was crucial for a Mavericks team that had no other guard capable of getting into the lane consistently. The undersized Barea can hit both three-pointers and inside floaters, though he tends to take some crazy shots when a pass would be the better play. He’s lower than Chalmers here for two reasons: • We don’t quite know how effective he’s going to be without Dirk Nowitzki as his pick-and-roll partner. Barea will still be solid; he’s quick and smart, and he’ll find another power forward with range to partner with if he leaves Dallas. But his synergy with Dirk was unique. • His height creates defensive issues that will never go away. You can’t really play him starter-level minutes, and he was not a part of the Mavs’ go-to, crunch-time lineups. He works hard on defense, but opponents attack him, and his own team has to contort itself a bit on that end to cover for him. Still, he’s a helpful player who changes the game when he’s in there.
5. Carlos Arroyo Yup, we’re already here. At this point, we’re looking for backup types who can play 12 minutes per game and hold down the fort without screwing up things. Arroyo can do that, even if he can be a bit turnover prone. He can manage an offense, make the right pass and hit open jumpers. He thrived from the perimeter in Miami last season, [Only registered and activated users can see links. ] — an outstanding mark — and a ridiculous 46 percent of his three-point attempts. He won’t get such wide-open looks on most teams, and he’s not a good enough three-point shooter to launch them in high volumes. Nevertheless, it was puzzling that Miami waived him last season instead of one of its bench-bound big men.
6. Mike Bibby Bibby, 33, can’t guard anyone, he’s not a dynamic pick-and-roll creator and his perimeter shot — his only real asset now — vanished in the postseason for the Heat. But the larger sample size suggests that Bibby can still hit threes at an elite level, and that’s enough to put him in this spot. He might not be darting in and out of the lane like Barea, but Bibby makes good decisions, steadies an offense and sets some nasty off-the-ball screens.
7. Earl Watson The 32-year-old barely shoots and he can cough the ball up in bunches, but Watson, who spent last season in Utah, is a smart passer who works hard on defense. He’s feisty on both ends, he can push the ball in transition when your offense needs it and he [Only registered and activated users can see links. ] at an above-average rate last season for the second straight year. You could do worse at the backup point guard spot.
8. T.J. Ford Ford can drive you crazy with those off-the-dribble, 17-footers and some shaky decisions on pick-and-roll plays, but he’s a decent option for something like the league’s minimum salary. He is three years removed from posting an elite assist rate, but those passing gifts are still in there somewhere, and could help in the proper context. Ford, 28, handled his benching in Indiana last season like a pro, and he performed well when called upon in the postseason. Also: He’s actually [Only registered and activated users can see links. ] when he’s taking the right kind of shots. He might ride the bench again next season, but he could also emerge as a nice surprise.
9. Patty Mills (restricted) He’s yet to turn 23, and he hit a league-average percentage of his three-point shots (35.3, with a lot of attempts). That’s enough to merit a spot here, despite the obvious issues: his shaky defense, the fact that the Trail Blazers performed miserably with him on the floor and his place on the very edge of Portland’s rotation.
10. Pick ‘em. You may as well pick a name out of a hat for this last spot, as long as we’re excluding guys like Price and Gaines. Do you want an aging veteran who might be washed up? Try Anthony Carter! An experienced guy in his mid-20s who has flashed some skills but never really panned out? Take a flier on Sebastian Telfair! If you want to go the unproven route, you have several choices — Pooh Jeter (the speed!), Jeremy Lin (Harvard!), Sherron Collins (the Kansas pedigree!), Ben Uzoh, Mustafa Shakur ([Only registered and activated users can see links. ], it appears) and many, many others. Who among this group might emerge as a useful backup? It’s anyone’s guess.
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• New Jersey Nets The Nets have a projected payroll of almost precisely $40 million, assuming they renounce their rights to outgoing free agents, including Kris Humphries, thus removing artificial charges (called cap holds) tied to those free agents. Teams typically keep those rights if they are over the cap, since doing so allows them to sign their own free agents despite being above the cap . Teams slated to be well under the cap don’t have to worry about that. New Jersey has holes everywhere other than point guard and center, but they also have grander dreams of signing or trading for Dwight Howard. They could punt on this cap space, choose to sign cheap place-holders to brief deals, or sign a quality guy they’d either keep or look to include in some theoretical Howard deal.
• Indiana Pacers The Pacers come in around $36 million in 2011-12 payroll, but this is a franchise that has almost no history of luring big-name free agents and stands well behind Miami and Chicago in the long-term Eastern Conference picture.
• Sacramento Kings No team has more potential cap space, assuming the Kings renounce all their free agents save for Marcus Thornton. In that scenario, their payroll will likely end up in the low-to-mid-$30-million range, depending on what Thornton gets. There is young talent here, but they are years away from serious contention, in a shaky financial situation and have always struggled to entice quality veteran free agents.
• Los Angeles Clippers The Clips have just under $46 million committed for next season, not including possible salary to their two second-round picks. That amount does factor in a small cap hold linked to DeAndre Jordan, a restricted free agent the Clippers want to re-sign. He’ll get a decent raise, and if he gets it from the Clippers, that will obviously eat further into this cap space. The Clips may also have their eyes on one of the big fish due to hit the market a year from now, and they could deal Chris Kaman’s expiring contract in exchange for a player who could take up that future space.
• Toronto Raptors The Raps have a shade over $47 million on the books for next season, meaning they should be a player regardless of where the cap falls. (Note: That number assumes Jonas Valanciunas, their first-round pick, will remain in Europe next season and play out his contract there.) This team needs all sorts of help, but any prime target interested in winning over the next couple of years will think hard about going here. And that is really it, at least as far as teams darn near certain to have the cap space for a $10 million-plus offer. Not the most exciting list, huh? Luckily for transaction gurus, there are teams who could get into this group if the cap number goes up a few million or they use an amnesty clause to get one player off their books.
TEAMS ON THE BUBBLE
If the salary cap goes up next season, the Rockets may have enough space to land Nene. (Brett Davis-US PRESSWIRE) • Houston Rockets The Rockets, always one of the more intriguing teams on the market, come in around $49.5 million, assuming normal rookie-scale amounts for their two first-round picks (Marcus Morris and Donatas Motiejunas). The Rockets don’t have a great amnesty candidate, unless they are ready to give up on Hasheem Thabeet, but they could have Nene-level space if the cap goes up just a smidgen.
• Detroit Pistons The Pistons sit right around $50 million, assuming a rookie-scale deal for Brandon Knight and that Ben Wallace decides to give it one more go. But be careful: The Pistons cannot get to this $50-million range unless they renounce their rights to Prince (likely) and either do the same for Rodney Stuckey, a restricted free agent whose cap hold currently takes up all of Detroit’s theoretical space, or lose Stuckey outright. There won’t be much activity here if the Pistons stick with Stuckey, but dumping Richard Hamilton via amnesty would open up $12.5 million in new space. Of course, the Pistons would still have to pay Hamilton the $21.5 million he’s guaranteed over the next two seasons, and that may be too much to pay for nothing.
• Golden State Warriors The Warriors dream of finding a talented two-way big man to pair with the rest of their powerful offense, and they are on the books for about $51 million, assuming a rookie-scale deal for Klay Thompson and some other minor things. A cap around $58 million probably puts them out of the running for a major player; a number in the low-$60 million range puts the Warriors in the game. Losing Andris Biedrins’ $9 million salary through an amnesty clause would do the same, but ditching Charlie Bell’s $4.1 million expiring deal might do the trick and carry a much lower sunk cost. This is a team to watch.
• Denver Nuggets No team has more potential variability in its cap number. We can assume the Nuggets will renounce Kenyon Martin, thus removing his giant cap hold, but if Bird Rights carry over to the next deal, the Nuggets will still be on the books for a huge cap hold linked to Nene, even though he has opted out of his $11 million deal for next season, according to Larry Coon. They also have about $12 million in cap holds tied to Arron Afflalo and Wilson Chandler, both restricted free agents. The Nuggets have tendered cheap qualifying offers to each of them to keep them restricted, and they figure to spend whatever it takes to re-sign Afflalo. (Chandler might be a different story, given his positional overlap with Danilo Gallinari.) In other words: Denver’s potential cap space is illusory for now, though that could change in a big way. It could change even more if it uses an amnesty clause to part with Al Harrington or Chris Andersen.
• Washington Wizards The Wizards are another team set to have less cap room that it appears, having tendered qualifying offers to a host of borderline players who seem likely to accept them — and having to pay Nick Young, a restricted free agent who carries a mid-sized cap hold. Even assuming Young signs for only the amount of his qualifying offer — a mere $3.7 million — the Wiz will have about $52 million in committed salary, assuming rookie-scale deals for their two first-rounders (Chris Singleton and Jan Vesely). And Young figures to do much better than $3.7 million. All of this would put the Wizards outside the group of true free-agent players, though that could change with a higher-than-expected cap figure or if they decide to eat Rashard Lewis’ giant contract with an amnesty clause.
• Minnesota Timberwolves With Derrick Williams and Ricky Rubio on board, the Wolves should have about $52 million committed to 14 players — one short of the current maximum roster size. They could shed a mid-sized deal via amnesty, but this looks like a team more likely to stand pat in free agency.
• Phoenix Suns The Suns could get as low as about $52.5 million if they buy out Vince Carter for $4 million, dump a few small non-guaranteed deals and renounce their rights to all their free agents, including Grant Hill and Aaron Brooks. The problem is, they’ve already tendered Brooks the required qualifying offer, meaning he sticks to their books as a cap hold. Regardless, a payroll of $52 million might keep the Suns out of any serious free-agency chase, unless they can amnesty their way to an additional $6 million in savings by erasing the Josh Childress deal.
• Milwaukee Bucks The Bucks will be nudging $54 million if rookie-scale contracts remain at or near their current levels; if they decide to fully guarantee deals linked to Carlos Delfino and Ersan Ilyasova; and if Luc Richard Mbah a Moute re-signs at the amount of his qualifying offer (around $1.09 million). That could make any exciting free agency chase a pipe dream, unless the cap goes well into the $60 million-plus range and/or the Bucks cut someone (Drew Gooden? Beno Udrih?) with the amnesty clause. In other words: This will likely remain a dream.
• Charlotte Bobcats If Bismack Biyombo joins Kemba Walker in Charlotte next season, the ‘Cats should have about $53 million committed to 12 players. They’ll need some help to get into the free-agency derby, if they even have any interest in getting into it.
• New Orleans Hornets The Hornets can get down to about $45 million in 2011-12 salary, but only if they take the extreme step of renouncing their rights to all their free agents, including David West and Carl Landry. That would seem unlikely, especially since the Hornets have already extended a qualifying offer to Marco Belinelli. West can obviously change this picture by bolting — and doing so early in the free agency period — but that’s not a scenario the Hornets want to contemplate, especially given his relationship with Chris Paul. And that’s really it. None of last season’s contenders figure to be big-time free-agent players. Even the Thunder are set to come in around $56 million, now that they’ve re-signed Nazr Mohammed and added another first-round pick (Reggie Jackson). There will still be some excitement whenever the offseason starts, but that excitement may come via trades rather than straight-up free-agent signings or the sign-and-trades we saw last season that functioned almost the same way.
-------------- Source of all above info is from SI.com