We've heard all the speculation for the past year about Deron Williams and Dwight Howard.
As for Steve Nash? It's been quieter. Daily speculation about his next destination hasn't been nearly as persistent.
Yet entering the opening of free agency Sunday, Nash might be the one A-list free agent who is most in play. He's 38, yes, but he's still playing at an All-Star level. While Howard's fate is likely to be determined by trade in the short term and while Williams apparently has narrowed down his field to two teams (Brooklyn and Dallas), Nash still has a wide array of choices before him, none of which clearly trumps the others.
While our Marc Stein brings you the viewpoint of Nash himself, we also need to look at the other half of the equation. What can the teams chasing him potentially offer, what are their alternatives and does Nash make sense for them?
Of the eight quasi-realistic candidates, here's how it breaks down:
Phoenix: The sentimental choice, Phoenix can offer Nash big money via his Bird rights (up to the $18 million-and-change maximum for a player with 10 or more years of service) if it wishes and offers a training staff that many regard as the league's best. While a more realistic figure for Nash is probably in the $10 million to $15 million per season range, it's worth noting that the Suns can match any bidding war.
Nothing much changes in Phoenix if Nash comes back, and that's the problem -- while he gets to run the same Nash-centric offense, he's also running it with the same teammates who missed the playoffs last season.
Phoenix will have little or no cap space if it re-signs Nash, and likely will be holding the line by re-signing other free agents and bringing back more or less last season's team. (Exercising the amnesty rights on Josh Childress and using the midlevel exception on a replacement likely would be the biggest change.)
It's hard to see how that is tempting for either side, which probably explains why the Suns drafted point guard Kendall Marshall and why both sides seem resigned to the fact that the party is over. Owner Robert Sarver is going to get absolutely destroyed in the local media if and when Nash leaves, but after the Suns missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons, it's hard to see why they would force the issue any longer.
Moreover, the Suns can rebuild quickly post-Nash. They're an alluring free-agent market due to the weather and training staff, and they can have more than $20 million in cap space if they let their veteran free agents walk, re-sign Robin Lopez for reasonable money and use the amnesty rights on Childress. There might be a year or two of pain involved, but it probably beats bringing back Nash, Grant Hill and Shannon Brown just to squeeze out an upside-free 39-43 campaign.
Dallas: At first glance, this one looks awfully tempting if the Mavs' Deron Williams hopes are dashed. Nash can go back to a familiar haunt with his best bud in the business, Dirk Nowitzki, and can chase an elusive ring with the Mavs. Dallas can offer him a not-quite-max deal by exercising the amnesty rights on Brendan Haywood, or it can try to ink him for a bit less and use the extra space to add more help (such as longtime Nash buddy Grant Hill, for instance).
The idea from the Dallas perspective would be to land Nash with a two-year deal, or with a non- or partially-guaranteed third year. The Mavs' books are as clean as a whistle after the 2013-14 season, so they could make a two-year run with a geriatric Nash-Nowitzki-Shawn Marion-Vince Carter core before all their contracts expire and it becomes time to reload.
The negative is that takes the Mavs out of the running for bigger fish such as Chris Paul or Dwight Howard, and one suspects that was the real goal of all this in the first place. Would they really be title contenders with Nash after stripping down the roster to generate the cap space? And would Nash really take a two-year deal if other teams offered him a third guaranteed year at these dollars?
Toronto: If I had to bet on one of these outcomes as most likely, this is the one. Toronto has money and motive, and the situation packs enough positives for Nash to join in. For starters, he goes way back with Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo (who signed him away from Dallas before), and there's the obvious patriotic impulse to help the game in Canada.
Oh, and the Raptors can pay him a boatload of money. If Toronto uses the amnesty rights on Jose Calderon, it can offer Nash a max contract; it's the one team that probably would be most inclined to both overpay and give him a third guaranteed year. Additionally, Toronto could have enough leftover cap room to sign a fairly decent wingman for midlevel-ish money after giving Nash a three-year deal worth $45 million to $50 million.
And then you stop and say, "Holy crap, $50 million for a 38-year-old point guard on a rebuilding team?"
But Colangelo has always been the impatient sort, and coach Dwane Casey quietly made this team a much tougher defensive unit a year ago. With a healthy Andrea Bargnani-Jonas Valanciunas frontcourt, Nash at the controls, and some decent help using their leftover money and exceptions, the Raptors could be a solid playoff team and regain some traction locally after years in the wilderness.
Brooklyn: And now we get to the dark horse that probably warrants more discussion. The Nets are desperate to make a splash in their new digs and will be devastated if Deron Williams leaves. Nash resides in New York in the offseason and would find it awfully convenient to amble across the Brooklyn Bridge to work every day.
So while I think the Toronto scenario above has a good shot, if Williams leaves, I would move the Nets to the head of the list. They are at least as desperate as Toronto and have more of a hometown advantage.
The Nets will have heaps of cap room if Williams leaves and can afford to meet whatever price Nash needs met, even after re-signing Gerald Wallace, Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries.
Would Brooklyn be a good team after all this? Probably not, but the Nets would at least be competitive. That's hugely important to this team. A big part of the Nets' Plan B if Williams goes is merely to save themselves from becoming a laughingstock in their first year in Brooklyn.
The biggest negative is how this would affect a potential Dwight Howard pursuit. The Nets would have to either get Nash on a one-year deal -- not happening -- or let Humphries or Wallace walk in order to keep enough cap space open for Howard in 2013. One presumes that would be Humphries if a choice were to be made, as Billy King would be subject to ridicule if he traded a 2012 lottery pick for Wallace and then watched Wallace walk as a free agent.
New York: Despite all the chatter, it is virtually inconceivable that Nash will end up in New York. The Knicks already used their amnesty on Chauncey Billups a year ago and can't create cap room to sign Nash.
In fact, New York almost certainly will be in the tax after re-signing Jeremy Lin, Steve Novak and J.R. Smith, which means Nash almost certainly would have to take the Knicks' taxpayer midlevel exception, which would start at $3.09 million. He'd be taking about $10 million a year less than his market value, give or take, while playing the same position as Lin, a marketing cash cow. Move along, people, nothing to see here.
Miami: As with New York, the Heat are almost a comically unrealistic destination for Nash. For starters, either he'd be relegated to spot-up shooting on the weak side or the Heat would have to re-engineer their offense to fit his talents.
But mostly, as with New York, the money just doesn't work. Miami can offer only the taxpayer's midlevel exception, and while we hear stories of stars taking a bit less money for the right situation, they don't leave $10 million a year on the table.
Portland: Portland has both motive and opportunity. This organization has coveted Nash in the past and has a glaring opening at point guard; even with the drafting of Damian Lillard, one can imagine the rookie serving an apprenticeship at Nash University before being given the keys to the offense.
As for opportunity, the Blazers will have enough cap space to make Nash a godfather offer if they wish. Portland has $16.7 million in space even with cap holds on its free agents and can increase it to $18.8 million by using the stretch provision on Shawne Williams. That means the Blazers can make Nash a max offer if they choose.
However, a few factors complicate matters. First, I'm not sure whether new GM Neil Olshey is as big a Nash fan as the previous tenants of his chair, and I'm not sure the Blazers are in win-now mode the way they were a year or two ago. Nash would make them better, but he wouldn't make them a contender.
But mostly, it doesn't seem Nash is that interested in going to Portland. The Blazers offer neither a familiar haunt, nor a patriotic return, nor familiar figures with whom to play. One supposes how that could change (what if they hired Mike D'Antoni and took Shawn Marion into their cap space?), but we're getting into the land of the farfetched here. About the best Portland can do for a lure is that it's kinda sorta close to Nash's hometown of Victoria, British Columbia.
(Complicit in this problem, I should add, was our Marc Stein, who played in Nash's soccer game in New York on Wednesday and yet -- despite clear instructions to "push the bike lanes" -- failed to advise Nash of potentially game-changing information about Portland's cycling-friendly culture and organic produce markets.)
Indiana: And this, my friends, is why non-glamour markets are always operating at a huge disadvantage. The Pacers are a good team with a need at point guard and a bunch of cap space; with Nash, they could be champions. In fact, I would be hard-pressed to find a more perfect free-agent fit.
By all rights, the Pacers should be the favorites to land Nash. At the moment, they aren't even on the radar.
The Pacers will have about $12 million in cap space this summer, including the cap holds on restricted free agents Roy Hibbert and George Hill. Indiana could offer Darren Collison in a sign-and-trade with Phoenix and give Nash a three-year deal worth about $45 million, which would put the Pacers on equal or near-equal footing with every other suitor for his services.
Meanwhile, basketball-wise this is by far the best team for which Nash could sign up and still be paid market value. The Pacers would just need to re-sign Hibbert and Hill and fill in the gaps on the wings with exception money, and Indy would give itself a three-year run at winning a championship. Could you imagine this offense with Nash at the controls, all that outside shooting at spots 2 through 4 and Hibbert in the paint?
Alas, imagine is all you'll ever get to do. It won't happen, because it's Indiana, and it doesn't appear Nash has any desire to go there. And I'm sorry, Commissioner Stern, but all the lockouts in the world aren't going to fix this.