Updated: Top 25 free agents in summer of '07
By John Hollinger
Now that the trading deadline is past us, it's time to look ahead to another big personnel frenzy: free agency. And unlike the tease of a week ago, something actually is going to happen this summer. One of the best free agent crops in years is set to go on the market, with All-Stars Chauncey Billups, Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis potentially headlining the crew if all three choose to exercise early termination options in their contracts.
Unfortunately, our free agents might be all dressed up with no place to go this summer. Charlotte and Orlando are the only teams that figure to have enough cap space to make a maximum contract offer, although Memphis and Milwaukee could get into that range with another deal around draft day. That means most of the players on this list will be fighting over midlevel scraps instead of mulling max-type offers, and even then the pickings might be slim because so many clubs have luxury tax concerns.
Thus, get ready for a rarity in recent years -- a buyer's market. Teams that saved their pennies for this summer should end up doing well, as there's plenty of talent to choose from. I've updated my list of the top 25 free agents available this summer based on how players have performed this season (I last revised it at the start of the season), and as you'll see, a number of players have made bids for serious paydays thanks to breakout years.
Here's how the top 25 looks today, keeping in mind that this list is not based on present value but future performance over the life of a multiyear contract. Also, note that my list doesn't include players who are unlikely to become free agents -- Mike Bibby, for instance, has an opt-out in his contract that he said he won't exercise, so I've scratched him from the list.
(p) -- Has player option to become a free agent in 2007-08
(r) -- Restricted free agent.
1. Chauncey Billups, Pistons (p)
Billups was the No. 1 free agent when I made my list before the season, and there's no reason to revise that assessment now.
The sharpshooting guard has the highest PER of any free-agent-to-be and, as I noted in an earlier piece on Steve Nash, is likely to fare well as he gets into his 30s because his primary assets (size and shooting) won't diminish with age.
2. Vince Carter, Nets (p)
The difference between Carter and Lewis is much, much smaller than you might think. For starters, their statistical performance this season hasn't been far apart: a PER of 21.22 for Lewis and 22.16 for Carter. Lewis is also three years younger and, as a 6 foot-10-inch shooting specialist, he's likely to play at a high level for the duration of his new contract. The same can't be said for a player like Carter who depends heavily on his leaping and athleticism.
So why Carter at No. 2? A couple reasons. First, there's a difference at the defensive end -- while Carter doesn't play a whole lot of defense, Lewis doesn't play any. Second, his ceiling is just too high. When he's right, Carter can carry a team for weeks at a time, and Lewis hasn't demonstrated that kind of ability yet.
3. Rashard Lewis, Sonics (p)
The gap between spots No. 3 and 4 is longer than Yao Ming's inseam. Lewis potentially will get a max contract in the $100-million neighborhood; the next three players on this list might not get half of that.
As with Carter, he has the option to sign an extension with his team between now and the end of the June, but it wouldn't seem to be in either player's interests to do so when they could get a new, long-term deal this summer.
4. Gerald Wallace, Bobcats (p)
Wallace is perhaps the game's most unheralded star, using his tremendous athleticism to block shots, crash the boards and throw down transition jams. He's also effective enough off the bounce that he averages 16.2 points per game despite a hideous outside shot.
Considering he's only 24 and seems to have considerable upside left to explore, he might be the most undervalued commodity on this year's market.
5. Mo Williams, Bucks
The departure of T.J. Ford allowed Williams to become a starter, and he's taken that opportunity and run with it. Williams is putting up big numbers -- 18.3 points, 6.3 assists -- and looks increasingly confident running the point despite questions in this area when he left college.
Like Wallace, he's only 24 and he's improved every year, so he'll be a prime target for teams who need point guard help but can't afford Billups.
6. Grant Hill, Magic
This is where the rankings get less defined. Hill is clearly the best player left on the list. But we don't how many games he'll be available to play, which is why nobody is going to offer Hill a deal longer than two or three years.
That said, he's still a star when healthy and easily could be the piece that puts a contending team over the top, plus he's a class act who won't ruffle feathers wherever he goes.
7. Darko Milicic, Magic (r)
I had Darko rated fifth heading into this season, but he's cost himself a lot of money this year. For every game like Monday's effort against the Bulls -- 14 points, 16 rebounds and five blocks in a road upset -- there are two others where he loafs aimlessly up and down the court before checking out with two points, three boards and four fouls.
He's a big-time shot-blocker and a tantalizing post player, but so far the potential hasn't added up to nearly as much production as we had hoped. He's 7-feet tall and doesn't turn 22 until June, so somebody will take a chance on his talent.
8. Anderson Varejao, Cavs (r)
I'm not sure how high to put Varejao. On the one hand, scouts and execs absolutely love the guy because he plays hard all the time and never needs the ball. But on the other hand, you have to wonder if he's already pretty close to his ceiling as far as productivity and, if so, whether that output is worth anything more than the midlevel exception.
I'm not ruling out future improvement, but I'd sure as heck be wondering this if I was about to pay him.
9. Andres Nocioni, Bulls (r)
The Wild Bull of the Pampas is putting together his second straight solid season and, at 27, figures to have plenty left in the tank.
The one complication at the moment is the plantar fasciitis in his foot, which could make teams skittish if he can't come back this season and show his usual form.
10. Chris Webber, Pistons
Wait, you mean he's not finished? Webber looked deader than the hot dog stand at a PETA convention before coming to Detroit but has been rejuvenated in Motown. I'm not buying the part about the 55.4-percent shooting mark, but he's shown he still can orchestrate an offense and work the boards with his huge mitts.
That should net him another decent contract, though, as with Hill, it might not be for more than a couple years.
11. Ruben Patterson, Bucks
People are going to stay away from this guy because of his reputation, but that might be a mistake. He's playing the best basketball of his career right now, averaging 14.4 points per game and shooting 54.5 percent from the floor. Plus, he's mellowed considerably off the floor and hasn't gotten into trouble in years.
He's 31, he's only 6-5 and he can't shoot, so if he loses a step he's finished. But he doesn't seem to have lost a thing athletically, and could be a big value this summer if teams don't get too crazy with the years.
12. Travis Outlaw, Blazers (r)
Outlaw hasn't played a ton of minutes this year, but when he's played, the 22-year-old forward has been effective. With his length and athleticism he has more potential than any other player outside the top 7, and after four years it looks like he's finally starting to put it together as a real basketball player.
At this point in the list, the gamble on that potential might be a better bet than a known quantity with a lower ceiling.
13. Luke Walton, Lakers
He chose the right time to have a breakout year. The fourth-year forward has improved tremendously as a scorer, which in turn has made his devastating passing skills even more of a threat.
On the downside, he's a better fit in a read-and-react system like L.A.'s than on a one-on-one team, so not every club will be a good match. Plus, he's only had one good season so teams shouldn't get too giddy with the bidding.
14. Jerry Stackhouse, Mavericks
Stackhouse has been one of the game's best sixth men since coming to Dallas, and this year has been no exception. He's upped his accuracy to 42.8 percent, which doesn't sound great but is more than enough once you consider how often he gets to the stripe, and he's averaging nearly a point every two minutes.
Stackhouse is 32 and misses 20 games every year with injuries, but he should have a couple good years left.
15. Mo Peterson, Raptors
Of the three long-range specialists (Peterson, Matt Carroll and Jason Kapono) who figure to get paid this summer, Peterson is the worst shooter and the best basketball player. I can't provide a good explanation for why he lost his starting job in Toronto, but his performance hasn't fallen off one iota and, at 29, he figures to stick around for a while.
He could be a good value on a three-year deal around the midlevel.
16. Matt Carroll , Bobcats
Carroll has a rep as a shooter and he certainly can stroke it, but unlike a lot of shooters he has a real knack for getting to the line. That helps him get points even when the jumper isn't falling, which is why he scores so much (19.3 points per 40 minutes) for a shooting specialist.
He's 26 and his numbers this season aren't too far off his career norms, so he should be able to do this for quite a bit longer.
17. Mikki Moore, Nets
The hyperactive big man has been a revelation with New Jersey this season, shooting 61.5 percent from the floor while basically saving the Nets' season after Nenad Krstic went down. That said, I would bid very carefully with him.
He's 31 years old and he's never played anywhere close to this well before, plus the field-goal percentage has fluke written all over it.
18. Jason Kapono, Heat
A non-entity before the season, Kapono worked his way into the Heat's starting lineup by ditching the high-difficulty Larry Bird fadeaways and sticking to spot-up shooting.
He's hitting a sizzling 52.5 percent on 3-pointers as a result and has the fourth-best true shooting percentage in basketball; that should earn him a nice payday over the summer.
19. DeShawn Stevenson, Wizards (p)
Stevenson had to settle for the minimum after opting out of his contract with Orlando a year ago; I have a feeling he'll do better this time.
The 25-year-old defensive specialist finally is beginning to blossom at the offensive end, shooting 46.5 percent on 3-pointers while reducing the 20-foot fadeaways off the dribble that had been his previous calling card.
20. Bonzi Wells, Rockets (p)
Wells' season mostly has been a lost cause, but he's had a few nice games recently. Moreover, everybody in the league still understands how he physically can overwhelm smaller guards with his power inside.
Wells won't get anything close to the 5-year, $36 million deal he turned down from Sacramento a year ago, but his off-year in Houston won't shut off the market completely.
21. Earl Boykins, Bucks (p)
What happens to a 5-5 guard with a shaky jumper when he gets into his 30s? I think more than a few teams are reluctant to find the answer to that question, which is why the bidding for Boykins might be less enthusiastic than one might expect just by looking at his stats.
The Hawks' experience with Speedy Claxton this year probably won't help Earl's case any.
22. Ime Udoka, Trail Blazers
After emerging from nowhere to become Portland's defensive ace and a surprisingly effective 3-point shooter from the corners (39.1 percent), Udoka looks to be in line for a nice payday.
Unfortunately for him, there are a lot of wing-defender types on the market this summer (Wallace, Patterson, Stevenson, Mickael Pietrus, Desmond Mason, Dahntay Jones, etc.), so that's likely to keep the bidding from getting too crazy.
23. Mickael Pietrus, Warriors (r)
Despite a second consecutive off-year, Pietrus remains intriguing because of his combination of defensive talent and 3-point shooting.
He's still only 25 and has scored at a decent clip his entire career, but his inability to put the pieces together is leaving a lot of people bewildered.
24. Charlie Bell, Bucks (r)
The fourth key Milwaukee player who will become a free agent after the season, Bell should be a desirable commodity because he's still fairly young (27), he plays solid defense on the wings despite his small stature (6-3), and he can shoot the rock (36.9 percent on 3s for his career).
25. Desmond Mason, Hornets
A great athlete with a hideous jumper, Mason's offensive limitations keep him from climbing higher up this list in spite of his undeniable physical skills.
The worry is that those crazy hops will diminish as he gets into his 30s -- he hits the big 3-0 in October -- while the offensive struggles will persist.
Best of the rest:
The next 10, in no particular order -- Chucky Atkins, Grizzlies; Kelenna Azubuike, Warriors (r); Matt Barnes, Warriors; Travis Diener, Magic (r); Chuck Hayes, Rockets (r); Dahntay Jones, Grizzlies; Jamaal Magloire, Trail Blazers; Chris Mihm, Lakers; Smush Parker, Lakers; James Posey, Heat.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider.