Updated: November 13, 2008
This past summer, a few free agents cashed in big-time. Elton Brand walked away from the Clippers to the tune of the $80 million he's earning in Philly. Baron Davis made some big bucks in L.A. A number of restricted free agents, such as Andre Iguodala, Luol Deng, Emeka Okafor and Josh Smith, scored nice deals as well.
Also, during the summer and early fall, eight players from the 2005 NBA draft who were eligible for extensions -- Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Andrew Bogut, Andrew Bynum, Danny Granger, Francisco Garcia, Jason Maxiell and Martell Webster -- found some love from their teams.
Who's Got Cap Space?
Which teams could be major players in the free-agent market next summer? Chad Ford looks ahead. Insider
The rest of the summer's free-agent class?
Only a handful found anything near the money that other free agents got on the open market. Several, including Josh Childress and Nenad Krstic, bolted for Europe.
And a number of 2005 first-round picks, including folks such as Marvin Williams, David Lee and Raymond Felton, were unable to work out deals with their respective teams.
Once again, the main culprit was the dreaded NBA salary cap. Only a few teams -- the Sixers, Clippers, Warriors and Grizzlies -- really had the money to pick up a free agent from another team. One of those teams, Memphis, decided not to spend its money (although it did make a play for Josh Smith) and entered the season nearly $10 million under the cap.
The other key factor is LeBron James. A number of teams are trying to make cap space for the summer of 2010. That happens to be the summer that LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, among other stars, can hit free agency. So, for the first time in years, teams like the New York Knicks are being financially responsible.
Those two factors could end up causing some problems for a good but no longer stellar free-agent class of 2009. But it also means more teams will have money to spend in the summer.
With that said, let's take a look at who could be available in 2009:
Group I: The "Big 10" early termination or player option candidates
These are the players with an early termination option or a player option in their contracts, meaning they can opt to forgo the final year(s) of their deals and instead become unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2009. Here's the star-studded lineup:
1. Kobe Bryant, Lakers (ETO)
Two summers ago, when Kobe was pining for a trade, it looked as though he would tear up his contract in 2009 and leave the Lakers. Now, the Lakers are poised to be a serious championship contender for the next few years. You have to believe Kobe will hang around for the ride.
2. Carlos Boozer, Jazz (PO)
Boozer is probably the biggest threat to leave his team in the summer. He's had his eye on Miami for some time and, with some maneuvering, the Heat should be able to get far enough under the cap to deliver the dollars Boozer is looking for. The Pistons also could be a serious option for Boozer if Joe Dumars decides to use his money.
3. Jermaine O'Neal, Raptors (PO)
There's virtually no chance that O'Neal will opt out of his deal. He's owed a whopping $23 million in 2009-10, and there's no way he could get anything like that on the open market. O'Neal will try to work out some sort of contract extension if he can prove to the Raptors that he can stay healthy.
4. Mehmet Okur, Jazz (ETO)
Okur is also an unlikely candidate to opt out of his contract. He, too, would struggle to find more money on the open market. Like some of the other players on the list, his goal is to work out an extension.
5. Hedo Turkoglu, Magic (ETO)
Besides Boozer, Turkoglu is the candidate most likely to opt out. He's coming off a career year for the Magic, and if he can repeat his 2008 Most Improved Player performance (19.5 points per game), he should be able to cash in with a bigger deal in the summer.
6. Jamal Crawford, Knicks (ETO)
It's hard to believe that Crawford would be willing to leave nearly $20 million on the table to opt out, but it's not inconceivable. If he has a big year playing for Mike D'Antoni, it might be worth the gamble. Crawford will turn 29 in March and has never played for a winning team. If he thinks he could get a longer-term deal for a better team, it might be worth the risk.
7. Eddy Curry, Knicks (ETO)
Curry is in a similar situation to Crawford's. He's worth less than what his contract is paying him (about $31.5 million over this season and the next two combined), so it's unlikely he'll leave so much cash on the table -- especially with a perceived heart condition. But the Knicks will do backflips if he decides to move on. And if Mike D'Antoni continues to keep him out of the rotation, maybe he'll roll the dice.
8. Anderson Varejao, Cavs (PO)
Varejao is another player who is quite likely to opt out. The relationship between Cavs GM Danny Ferry and Varejao's agent, Dan Fegan, is rocky. And unless Varejao has a terrible year, I think Fegan will try to get him moved to a team that's willing to pay him more.
9. Al Harrington, Warriors (PO)
Harrington has been asking for a trade. If the Warriors don't give it to him, maybe he'll opt out. However, he's making more money than his production suggests he deserves, and there will be just too much competition in the open market for Harrington to score a big deal in the summer.
10. Kyle Korver, Jazz (ETO)
Korver is one of the top shooters in the league, but it will be hard for him to find a team willing to give him much more than what the Jazz are paying him.
Other notables: Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Cavs (ETO); Ricky Davis, Clippers (PO); Kwame Brown, Pistons (PO); Etan Thomas, Wizards (ETO); Mark Blount, Heat (ETO).
Group II: The restricted free agents
Eight players from the draft class of 2005 -- Andrew Bogut, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Andrew Bynum, Danny Granger, Francisco Garcia, Jason Maxiell and Martell Webster -- have signed extensions. The remaining players listed below will be restricted free agents in the summer. As we've seen in the past few years, it's next to impossible for restricted free agents to move to a different NBA team. This past summer, not one major restricted free agent signed with another NBA team. A few grew so desperate that they signed with European teams instead. Given the lack of teams with serious cap space in the summer, don't expect things to change for restricted free agents.
1. David Lee, Knicks
Lee is a fan favorite in New York and among coaches around the league. And he looks poised to have a huge year in New York this season in coach Mike D'Antoni's system. Given the Knicks' goal of getting under the cap in 2010, Lee might be the best player on this list for another team to try to sign to an offer sheet. As long as it's a substantial deal, I doubt the Knicks would match.
2. Marvin Williams, Hawks
Williams has as much raw talent as anyone in the class of 2005, but he's been frustratingly inconsistent in his first three years with the Hawks. He needs a big year if he wants to earn anything close to the $60-64 million over five years that Granger got this fall.
3. Josh Childress, Hawks
Childress shocked many in the NBA by deciding to bolt for Greece this past summer. If he plays well overseas, he'll be better positioned to get a bigger contract offer in the summer of '09. But it seems unlikely that Childress will ever wear a Hawks uniform again. There's a lot of bad blood on both sides concerning what went down.
4. Raymond Felton, Bobcats
Felton has to be looking over his shoulder after the Bobcats made a strong play for T.J. Ford, then drafted D.J. Augustin in the lottery. Felton can dish out assists, but his poor shooting has hurt his stock. If Augustin performs well this season, Felton will be another player some team can possibly snag with an offer sheet.
5. Charlie Villanueva, Bucks
Villanueva has talent. The question has always been about his heart. Now that Yi Jianlian is playing in New Jersey, Villanueva is a starter this season. If he produces (and plays a little defense), he could land himself a big contract.
6. Channing Frye, Blazers
After his first season with the Knicks, Frye looked like a star in the making, but his past two seasons have been much less impressive. Still, Frye is big, has some offensive skills facing the basket and is a decent rebounder. If he ever started playing defense, he'd certainly be considered a capable big man. The Blazers are looking for cap room in the summer and Frye isn't a part of their core group, which means he's a good candidate to change teams.
7. Nenad Krstic, Nets
Krstic was a borderline All-Star before an ACL injury set back his career. He's now off to Russia to prove that he's 100 percent healthy and ready to contribute. If he has a big year over there, NBA teams will come calling. But will they be willing to offer him as much money as he can make in Europe?
8. Rashad McCants, Timberwolves
McCants is a good scorer and showed that he can be an excellent 3-point shooter. But he's really more of a sixth man than a dominant 2-guard. With Mike Miller and Corey Brewer on board, McCants could see his production dip a bit this season.
9. Leon Powe, Celtics
Powe slipped into the second round on draft night because of concerns about his knees. But this year he seems poised to make a significant sixth-man contribution to the Celtics. If he plays well, someone will offer him a midlevel type deal. Still, it seems likely that the Celtics would match.
10. Ramon Sessions, Bucks
Teams are always in hot pursuit of point guards. Because Sessions is once again starting in Milwaukee, his high assist numbers are turning the heads of a number of GMs. However, one has to believe the Bucks will find a way to keep the guy.
Other notables: : Linas Kleiza, Nuggets; Sean May, Bobcats; Johan Petro, Thunder; Hakim Warrick, Grizzlies; Jarrett Jack, Pacers; Nate Robinson, Knicks; Luther Head, Rockets; Ike Diogu, Blazers; Jamario Moon, Raptors; Glen Davis, Celtics.
Group III: The real, honest-to-goodness unrestricted free agents
Finally, here are the guys who will be on the market with no strings attached. Although there is a lot of star power here, most of the big names are on the back end of their careers.
1. Shawn Marion, Heat
Marion is a super-talented forward who can score, defend and rebound. But he turns 31 in May and has seen his production slip the past two years. Even if he puts up big numbers in Miami this season, how much will a team be willing to spend on him given his age and reputation for being difficult?
2. Allen Iverson, Pistons
Although Iverson is 33, he continues to fill up the stats sheet with points, assists and steals. And last season, A.I. posted his highest field goal percentage and lowest turnovers per game since his second year in the league. He's still a dominant player, but two nagging questions will hurt his case for a big deal: One, with the exception of that magical season in Philly under Larry Brown, is Iverson a winner? Two, how much game does he have left? His one-year stint in Detroit should provide us with answers.
3. Ron Artest, Rockets
It's difficult to know where to place Artest on this list. If he stays on his best behavior and helps the Rockets get deep into the playoffs, he'll make some money. He may not get four- or five-year offers, but teams will come calling if his time in Houston is a success. On the other hand, if Artest self-combusts, he'll struggle to find anyone willing to give him more than a one-year deal.
4. Lamar Odom, Lakers
Odom will be one of the most coveted free agents on the open market. Phil Jackson likes him, but with Kobe, Bynum and Pau Gasol on the roster, the Lakers don't need him and might explore trades for him in the coming months. Odom's penchant for disappearing in big moments (see: 2008 NBA Finals) hasn't helped his rep in L.A. But he is a great team guy who can rebound the ball and initiate the offense. And he doesn't need the ball to be effective. If he doesn't stick in L.A., a line of teams will be waiting to snatch him up.
5. Ben Gordon, Bulls
Gordon is an explosive scorer and has one of the sweetest jump shots in the game. But he is undersized and streaky, and he doesn't play great defense. On virtually every team, his best position will be coming off the bench as a high-scoring sixth man. What is that worth in today's NBA? Not the $50 million the Bulls offered him and he turned down. Gordon will have plenty of suitors next year, but as his agent learned the hard way this summer when he sought to get him traded to another team via a sign-and-trade, no one is going to break the bank for the Gordon … unless it's the Bulls.
6. Rasheed Wallace, Pistons
Sheed continues to be one of the most baffling players in the league. When he's on, he's one of the best big men in the game. When he's off … he can be way off. He'll turn 34 in September, which makes you wonder whether he's still worth the risk. Short of his making a jump to Charlotte -- he and Larry Brown remain close friends -- would any other team in the league be open to paying this guy?
7. Jason Kidd, Mavericks
Kidd continues to claim that the reports of his demise are exaggerated, but I'm not so sure. He's a 35-year-old point guard who really started to show his age last season. Rick Carlisle will try to turn him around, but I'm not sure he's the right coach for the job. Some team is always willing to give up some money for a point guard with eyes in the back of his head, but if Kidd continues to slip, I wonder whether he'll be able to garner more than a midlevel deal next year, should Dallas decide to move on.
8. Andre Miller, Sixers
Miller, at age 32, had one of the best seasons of his career in 2007-08. Although many (including me) were calling for GM Ed Stefanski to trade him to create more cap space, Stefanski held on to Miller and rode him to an unexpected playoff berth. Now with Elton Brand in the fold, the Sixers should be formidable. If the Sixers struggle, Miller's stock could plummet.
9. Chris Wilcox, Thunder
We continue to use Wilcox and the word "upside" in the same sentence, but it's probably time for that to end. It is fairly clear what he is -- a super-athletic big man who still relies on dunks for a lot of his points. He is not a great defender and doesn't look as if he'll ever be more than a solid contributor. But given the constant need for talented big men in the league, some team will want him. OKC is developing Jeff Green and Kevin Durant to be its frontcourt of the future, which should leave Wilcox looking for new digs in the summer.
10. Mike Bibby, Hawks
Bibby was decent as the Hawks' starting point guard at the end of last season, but it's hard to see him making anything near what he's made the past few years. The Hawks are a young team still searching for a long-term answer at the point. Bibby is a nice stopgap for 18 months, but I doubt he has a long-term future in Atlanta unless he's willing to take much less.
Other notables: Drew Gooden, Bulls; Trevor Ariza, Lakers; Antonio McDyess; Anthony Parker, Raptors; Zaza Pachulia, Hawks; Brandon Bass, Mavs; Wally Szczerbiak, Cavs; Joe Smith, Thunder; Stephon Marbury, Knicks; Grant Hill, Suns; Stromile Swift, Nets; Robert Swift, Thunder; Rasho Nesterovic, Pacers; Keith Bogans, Magic; Bobby Jackson, Kings; Damon Jones, Bucks; Desmond Mason, Thunder; Chris Mihm, Lakers; Jason Collins, Timberwolves; Jarron Collins, Jazz.