TOP 25 FREE AGENTS OF 2006
By Chris Sheridan
Imagine a free agent class that included Paul Pierce, Chauncey Billups, Mike Bibby, Dirk Nowitzki, Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis. Now that'd be something to save some salary cap space for, eh?
Well, all of those players can become free agents 18 months from now by exercising early termination clauses in their contracts, making the summer of 2007 shape up, at least potentially, as one of the greatest free agent classes in NBA history.
But for now, we have the summer of 2006 to look forward to, and let's just say that this year's class wouldn't do all that well in a pickup game against the 2007 class. What's more, there's very little chance that the No. 1 player on the 2006 list will even go on the market.
But there still are some intriguing players, and we'll take an early stab at a top 25:
1. Ben Wallace, Detroit Pistons (Unrestricted)
Don't expect Big Ben to tower over the market. Pistons president Joe Dumars and Wallace will quietly work out a four-year contract (anything longer would bring the dreaded "over-36" rule into play) likely starting somewhere in the area of $11-12 million per year. Wallace will be eligible to earn much more -- as a 10-year veteran he can get a deal with a starting salary equal to 35 percent of the salary cap ($18.2 million if the cap comes in at $52 million) -- but all indications, including his plans to have an attorney rather than an agent do the contract, point to his staying with the powerhouse Pistons.
2. Al Harrington, Atlanta Hawks (Unrestricted)
Harrington, just 25, will have eight years of NBA service time when this season is complete. His free agent deal can be worth as much as 30 percent of the cap ($15.6 million if the cap is $52M), although few would judge the athletic small forward as a max player. Although he'll be one of the few quality free agents out there, if Chicago spends its cap space on someone else, his options might come down to New Orleans and Charlotte -- or a sign-and-trade deal to a team willing to pay Harrington's price. If Atlanta decides to trade Harrington before the Feb. 23 deadline, his new team will acquire his Bird rights and can exceed the cap to retain him.
3. Jason Terry, Dallas Mavericks (Unrestricted)
Just two years after losing Steve Nash, the Mavs could be in position to have another playmaker bolt town if the market brings Terry an offer that owner Mark Cuban would not want to match. But the Mavs have Terry's Bird rights and can give him a deal with 10.5 percent raises, while other teams could offer only 8 percent annual raises. Terry will likely succeed in getting a five- or six-year deal, and it's a safe bet at this point that the Mavs will keep him.
4. Vladimir Radmanovic, Seattle SuperSonics (Unrestricted)
They don't come much more one-dimensional than Radmanovic, the 6-foot-11 sharpshooter who knocked down eight 3-pointers Sunday against the Knicks and somehow grabbed 12 rebounds Monday against Philly. After turning down a $42 million offer from Seattle last summer in favor of a one-year tender, Radmanovic needed to play to boost his value. He wasn't playing under Bob Weiss, but Bob Hill is starting him and drawing up new plays to get him open looks. He's only 25 and many believe he has more long-term upside than his countryman and fellow free agent Peja Stojakovic.
5. Peja Stojakovic, Sacramento Kings (Early termination option)
Peja ranked below Vlad? Well, just look at the way Stojakovic's numbers have deteriorated from where they were two years ago -- his scoring average has dropped from 24.2 to 17.0, he's making less than 40 percent of his 3-pointers, and his overall shooting percentage is his worst since his rookie season. Maybe that's a product of the miserable season the Kings are having, or maybe it's a sign that Stojakovic's skills are already deteriorating at age 28, when he's on the verge of a once-in-a-lifetime contract opportunity.
6. Nene, Denver Nuggets (Restricted)
The Nuggets are of the belief that some team will make Nene an offer that they'll have no interest in matching, which is why they've been listening to trade proposals from teams interested in acquiring the 23-year-old Brazilian who blew out his knee the day after turning down an extension from Denver.
7. Mike James, Toronto Raptors (Player option)
It's time for the 30-year-old to cash in, having gone from journeyman to career backup to starter in Toronto, where he's the steadiest offensive player for the Raptors, with the exception of Chris Bosh. After Terry, he's looking like the best free agent-to-be guard out there.
8. Bobby Jackson, Memphis Grizzlies (Unrestricted)
It gets crowded quickly when you talk about the number and the quality of free agent point guards, and this former Sixth Man Award winner falls into the mix somewhere along with James, Speedy Claxton and Sam Cassell.
9. Joel Przybilla, Portland Trail Blazers (Unrestricted)
Portland has received steady, if unspectacular, production from the 7-foot-1 26-year old already in his eighth NBA season. A strong second half of the season could up his value past the mid-level exception.
10. Caron Butler, Washington Wizards (Restricted)
If there aren't many personnel changes in Washington between now and the end of the season, don't count on the Wizards letting go of the last asset they have remaining from the Kwame Brown pick of 2001.
11. Speedy Claxton, New Orleans Hornets (Unrestricted)
Despite being stuck all season behind Rookie of the Year front-runner Chris Paul, Claxton ranks third in scoring, second in assists and second in steals on the Hornets.
12. Sam Cassell Los Angeles Clippers (Unrestricted)
This summer will mark one of the few instances during the past decade when Cassell will not be unhappy with his contract. Believing he has been underpaid throughout his career, Sammy wants one more deal.
13. Bonzi Wells, Sacramento Kings (Unrestricted)
There remain plenty of character issues concerning Wells, who was sent home by the Grizzlies last season right when the playoffs began. He's out for the rest of this month with a torn groin muscle.
14. Michael Olowokandi, Minnesota Timberwolves (Unrestricted)
The plan when Kandi Man signed a three-year deal in Minnesota was to take a three-year chance on establishing a higher value than the mid-level exception he signed under. Three years later, he's still worth the mid-level only.
15. Nazr Mohammed, San Antonio Spurs (Unrestricted)
The dropoff behind Ben Wallace in terms of free agent centers brings us all of the way down to No. 15. Mohammed has been used sparingly behind Rasho Nesterovic this season, although that could change if San Antonio moves him before the trade deadline.
16. Latrell Sprewell, Minnesota Timberwolves (Unrestricted)
Former teammate Rick Brunson told the New York Daily News that he spoke recently to Sprewell and expects him to sit out until March before signing with a contender.
17. Tim Thomas, Chicago Bulls (Unrestricted)
Look for Thomas to be dealt by the deadline or bought out after afterward so he can reestablish some value before going on the market. The Bulls are paying him, but have told him they don't want him around.
18. Keith Van Horn, Dallas Mavericks (Unrestricted)
There's going to be a huge pay cut for Van Horn, the No. 2 overall pick in 1997. He's making $15.7 for the Mavericks.
19. Matt Harpring, Utah Jazz (Unrestricted)
There will end up being a job someplace in the NBA for Harpring, who is being limited to 25 minutes per game while working back from a knee injury.
20. Chris Wilcox, Clippers (Restricted)
One of the few players who might actually end up playing for the team with which he signs an offer sheet next summer, since the Clips won't match anything too long. Los Angeles might trade him before the Feb. 23 deadline, however.
21. Lorenzen Wright, Memphis Grizzlies (Unrestricted)
The Grizz are still waiting for some consistent production from the big man whose numbers peaked a half-decade ago.
22. Trevor Ariza, New York Knicks (Restricted)
The Knicks will likely match any offer for the youngster from UCLA derided as "delusional" by coach Larry Brown just a few days ago.
23. Melvin Ely, Charlotte Bobcats (Restricted)
Another player who could be moved before the trading deadline. 'Cats likely won't be interested in paying him what he'll get on the open market.
24. Jorge Garbajosa, Unicaja Malaga
Not a true free agent, as his Spanish League contract has only a buyout clause, but would be the most sought after big man coming out of Europe if he could manage to get out of his current contract.
25. Drew Nicholas, Benetton Treviso
He has been called a poor man's Eddie House, an undersized shooting guard (from Maryland) who's currently leading the Euroleague in scoring at 18.8.
Unrestricted: Chucky Atkins, Wizards; Marcus Banks, Celtics; Jon Barry, Rockets; Tony Battie; Magic; Rasual Butler, Hornets; Kelvin Cato, Magic; Reggie Evans, SuperSonics; Devean George, Lakers; Lindsey Hunter, Pistons; Toni Kukoc, Bucks; Flip Murray, SuperSonics; Jannero Pargo, Bulls; Gary Payton, Heat; Nick Van Exel, Spurs; David Wesley, Rockets.
Restricted: Keith Bogans, Bobcats; Antonio Burks, Grizzlies; Francisco Elson, Nuggets; Drew Gooden, Cavaliers; Jared Jeffries, Wizards; Fred Jones, Pacers; John Salmons, 76ers; Jiri Welsch, Bucks.
Player options: Derek Anderson, Rockets; Ryan Bowen, Rockets; Greg Buckner, Nuggets; Eddie House, Suns; Mark Jackson, Nets; Jeff McInnis, Nets; Mikki Moore, Sonics; Ruben Patterson, Trail Blazers; James Posey, Heat; Darius Songaila, Bulls; DeShawn Stevenson, Magic; Maurice Taylor, Knicks; Chris Webber, 76ers; Eric Williams, Raptors.