Group I: The "Big 10" ETO or player option candidates
Note: These are the players with an "early termination option" (ETO) or "player option" (PO) 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 2011. Some NBA player agents think it's highly unlikely that most of this group will actually exercise their options. Why? If the new CBA dramatically lowers the salary scale and the guaranteed years free agents can get, they'd be leaving a lot of guaranteed money on the table for the unknown. Here's the lineup:
Key: player option (PO) | early termination option (ETO) | team option (TO)
1. Carmelo Anthony, F, Nuggets (ETO)
If LeBron was the prize in 2010, Carmelo looks to be the guy in 2011. A number of teams, including the Knicks and Wizards, are trying their best to keep or clear enough cap space to offer him a max deal next summer. Of course, the Nuggets are trying to prevent it from happening and have offered him a big extension this summer. If Carmelo plays it safe, he'll take the money and security it provides. If he refuses to re-up, you can expect the Nuggets to push hard to trade him before the February trade deadline.
2. Tim Duncan, Spurs (ETO)
Duncan has become such a staple in San Antonio that no one really expects him to leave. He turned 34 in April but still is one of the best big men in the league. He can't keep going like this forever, but I expect he'll get an extension from the Spurs sometime before the end of the season so he can finish his career in black and silver.
3. Mo Williams, Cavs (ETO)
Williams was devastated by the news that James was leaving for South Beach. He could end up following suit next summer if the Cavs can't find a way to turn around the team in short order. After getting a taste for competing for a championship, Williams won't be too excited about a rebuilding project. If owner Dan Gilbert makes good on his vow to field a contender without LeBron, Williams may want to stick around.
4. Nene Hilario, Nuggets (ETO)
When he's healthy, Nene remains one of the more unique big men in the league. He's both quick and physical and can be a handful in the paint when he wants to be. It's hard to say a 27-year-old player who's spent eight seasons in the league still has upside, but Nene does. If he chooses to terminate his contract, he will leave $11.6 million on the table. But I could see a team giving him much, much more on the open market next year if he can stay on the court.
5. David West, Hornets (ETO)
The Hornets are slashing costs and, in the process, alienating their star player, Chris Paul (who leads the group of potential 2012 free agents, by the way). West turns 30 in August, so his shelf life isn't particularly long. But if he's going to get a new, long-term contract, it would probably be wise to think about opting out next summer, especially because his contract number actually goes down next year.
6. Leandro Barbosa, Raptors (PO)
There's a good chance that Barbosa will pick up his player option next year. He was just reunited with the guy who drafted him, Bryan Colangelo, in Toronto and the $7.6 million he's due in 2011 is a lot more than he could probably get on the open market.
7. Boris Diaw, Bobcats (PO)
Diaw is due to make $9 million in 2011, much more than he could likely command on the open market. I doubt we'll see him exercising his player option given the money he'd be leaving on the table.
8. Mickael Pietrus, Magic (PO)
The 28-year-old defensive stopper has never developed into the great offensive player his talent suggested when the Warriors drafted him. Pietrus did shoot a respectable 38 percent on 3s last season, and he can be a lockdown defender. He's due $5.3 million next season and could decide that now is the time to lock into one last long-term deal.
9. Ronny Turiaf, Knicks (PO)
Turiaf has never been much of a stat stuffer but that could change this season in New York in coach Mike D'Antoni's system. Defense and shot-blocking are where Turiaf excels. He turns 28 in January and has been one of the better bargains in the league the past few years. I could see him getting another full midlevel deal next summer once D'Antoni's offense pads his stats a bit.
10. Goran Dragic, Suns (TO)
Dragic turned into a bit of a folk hero with some huge playoff performances. He is due a very modest $2.1 million in 2011 and I'm sure he'll get back out into the free-agent waters to double that number, at the very least.
Other notables: Rudy Fernandez, Blazers (TO); C.J. Miles, Jazz (TO); Ryan Hollins, Wolves (PO); Sam Young, Grizzlies (TO); Charlie Bell, Warriors (ETO)
Group II: The restricted free agents
So far, just one player from the 2007 first-round draft class (Kevin Durant) has signed a contract extension this summer. The rest will be restricted free agents this summer unless they agree to an extension with their teams. But don't count on extensions. With the league expecting max deals and guaranteed years to reduce under the new CBA, there isn't much motivation for owners to deal now unless players are going to offer them bargains.
1. Al Horford, Hawks
Horford continues to make steady progress each season and posted an impressive 19.43 PER in 2009-10. He has quickly become the anchor of the Hawks' defense in the paint despite playing out of position most of the time at center. While he might not be a "max" player the way Durant is, but he's not far from it, either. There's virtually no chance the Hawks will let him walk.
2. Greg Oden, Blazers
Oden is a huge question mark. He has already had two major surgeries and has played a total of 82 games in three seasons. But when he has played, he's shown signs of becoming a dominant big man. In the 21 games he played in 2009-10 before a broken knee cap ended his season, he was sporting a whopping 23.14 PER. If Oden can get healthy -- and it's a big if at this point -- he still has time to be a dominant NBA big man (he doesn't turn 23 until January). I'd be shocked if the Blazers let him get away.
3. Marc Gasol, Grizzlies
It's hard to fault GM Chris Wallace for this one. Wallace believed Gasol would have a bright future when most did not, and in Gasol's first two years with Memphis, he has made a believer out of most people. He's not going to be his brother, Pau, but Marc has become one of the steadiest big men in the game.
4. Joakim Noah, Bulls
Noah is coming off his best season as a pro, in which he averaged 10 points and 11 rebounds a game. Now that he's going to be paired in the frontcourt with Carlos Boozer, the Bulls expect him to take even greater strides. He's become a pivotal part of the Bulls' future and I don't think there's much of a chance that they'll part ways next summer.
5. Thaddeus Young, Sixers
Young continues to tantalize with his combination of versatility and athleticism. He can play both the 3 and the 4 and continues to improve his perimeter game. While it's tough to gauge whether he's a star given his limited role with the team, he'll get a big offer from someone if the Sixers don't lock him up.
6. Rodney Stuckey, Pistons
Stuckey continues his steady improvement in Detroit. He was a steal as the 15th pick in the 2007 draft but hasn't really reached his ceiling. He's still more comfortable as a slasher/scorer than a point guard, and he hasn't found a consistent stroke from long range. But at this point he's a big, big part of the future of the Pistons, and I doubt there's any chance they'll let him walk.
7. Jeff Green, Thunder
Green gets lost a little in the shadow of Kevin Durant but he's been solid in his own right in his first three years in the league. He will never be the alpha dog, especially not in Oklahoma City, but he has proved to be a valuable role player.
Green is one of the few guys on this list who could end up wearing a new uniform next season. The Thunder like him, but they gave Durant the max this summer and likely will do the same with Russell Westbrook next summer. I don't think they'll be able or willing to give Green a big deal, too.
8. Aaron Brooks, Rockets
The league's reigning Most Improved Player had a breakout third season, averaging 19.6 points and 5.3 assists. Yes, he is undersized and probably better coming off the bench, but there's no question that Brooks' quickness with the ball has made him a game-changer.
9. Mike Conley, Grizzlies
The Grizzlies still aren't in love with Conley, but in the second half of the season, he started to come around, averaging 16.5 points in March and April. If he could get more consistent with that jump shot, he'd be much more highly regarded. With O.J. Mayo eyeing the point guard spot this season, Conley is another restricted free agent who could be on the move.
10. Marcus Thornton, Hornets
Thornton exploded onto the scene in his rookie year and proved that there are gems in the second round if teams look hard enough; he averaged 14.5 points and shot 37 percent on 3s. If he can keep it up during his second year in New Orleans, he could be looking at big money next summer.
Other notables: Corey Brewer, Wolves; Yi Jianlian, Wizards; Jonas Jerebko, Pistons; Brandan Wright, Warriors; Wilson Chandler, Knicks; Jared Dudley, Suns; Julian Wright, Hornets; Spencer Hawes, Sixers; Al Thornton, Wizards; Nick Young, Wizards; Marco Bellineli, Raptors; Daequan Cook, Thunder; Mario Chalmers, Heat; Arron Afflalo, Nuggets; Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Bucks.
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. Yao Ming, C, Rockets
If Yao were healthy, he would be a no-brainer as the top free agent on this entire list. But after missing the season with another foot injury, there are questions about his durability and future in the league. He also turns 30 in September, and some observers wonder whether he's older than that. If he has a big comeback year, he'll generate big-time interest. If he struggles, he'll slide down this list. Either way, most GMs find it hard to believe the Rockets won't re-sign him.
2. Tony Parker, PG, Spurs
After dominating the league for so long, Parker had a bit of an off year. Injuries were part of the problem, and he played fewer minutes thanks to the emergence of George Hill. The Spurs have explored potential deals for Parker but he has been pretty clear he'd prefer to stay in San Antonio for one more year and then explore his options. He, too, has been eyeing the Knicks and could be a player the Spurs lose next summer if they don't trade him now.
3. Carl Landry, PF, Kings
Landry may not be a household name, but he's a very efficient power forward who produces season after season. He's been woefully underpaid for most of his career, but that should change in a big way next summer. He'll be the 2011 version of Paul Millsap.
4. Caron Butler, G/F, Mavs
Butler is also coming off a down year and was traded midseason from Washington to Dallas. He turned 30 in March and some teams are wondering whether he's starting to slow down a little. I don't think he'll command huge dollars in the open market, but teams are always looking for a veteran wing.
5. Tyson Chandler, Mavs
Chandler can be a beast on the boards and a game-changing presence on the defensive end. But he's struggled with injuries his entire career and continues to be a shaky offensive player. If he bounces back with a big season in Dallas, he could get lots of money thrown his direction.
6. Tayshaun Prince, F, Pistons
Injuries slowed the 30-year-old small forward last season, but when Prince is at his best, he's a lockdown perimeter defender who can hit open shots on the offensive end. With the Pistons in rebuilding mode, he could bolt next year if they don't trade him first.
7. Jason Richardson, SG, Suns
His numbers no longer pop out at you, but Richardson had an excellent season with the Suns and was a big reason they made it to the West finals. He has become a huge threat from behind the arc and still has some bounce. If the Suns don't want him next season, it won't take long for him to find a home.
8. Andrei Kirilenko, F, Jazz
Kirilenko is coming off his best season since 2005-06. While he's struggled to regain the mojo he once had, he remains a player who can fill up a stat sheet and wreak havoc on the defensive end. You can expect Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov to make a strong push to get Kirilenko, either via trade or next summer in free agency.
9. Troy Murphy, PF, Pacers
One of the most underrated and unique players in the league, Murphy has the ability to put up double-doubles every night while shooting lights-out from behind the arc. With the Pacers looking to get younger, Murphy will finally have the chance next season to land on a team with title aspirations.
10. Zach Randolph, PF, Grizzlies
As far as basketball talent goes, there aren't many players who have more than Randolph. He's a double-double machine who is coming off his best season as a pro. However, his baggage causes him to slide down this list. With yet another off-court problem arising this past spring, it's unclear how much money NBA owners will be willing to risk on him.
Other notables: Jamal Crawford, Hawks; Mike Dunleavy, F, Pacers
; Shane Battier, Rockets; Samuel Dalembert, Kings; Kenyon Martin, Nuggets; Grant Hill, Suns; Nick Collison, Thunder; Nenad Krstic, Thunder; Joel Przybilla, Blazers; T.J. Ford, Pacers
; Kendrick Perkins, Celtics; Glen Davis, Celtics; Chuck Hayes, Rockets; Peja Stojakovic, Hornets; Vladimir Radmanovic, Warriors; Jeff Foster, Pacers
; Jason Kapono, Sixers; Sasha Vujacic, Lakers; Michael Redd, Bucks; DeShawn Stevenson, Mavericks; Nazr Mohammed, Bobcats; Kelenna Azubuike, Knicks; Morris Peterson, Thunder; Sebastian Telfair, Cavs; Anthony Parker, Cavs; Jamario Moon, Cavs; Erick Dampier, Bobcats; Willie Green, Sixers; Solomon Jones, Pacers
; Josh McRoberts, Pacers
; Marcus Banks, Raptors; Reggie Evans, Raptors; Dan Gadzuric, Warriors; Jared Jeffries, Rockets; Eddy Curry, Knicks.