Players and teams destined to shape free-agent season in the NBA
Pistons, Blazers, Thunder among few teams with salary-cap space
Jazz will have to juggle free agency of two key players this summer
Ben Gordon, Jason Kidd likely to offer biggest impact to signing teams
Here's a look at the big issues to be conquered now that the NBA free-agency window opened on Wednesday. Teams may negotiate with free agents starting, but new contracts cannot be signed until July 8.
1. Which teams are most likely to make a big splash in free agency?
The Pistons and Trail Blazers have the biggest needs. Detroit is coming off its worst season in eight years, and hard-driving team president Joe Dumars will have close to $20 million in cap space to put his franchise back into contention next season. He is off to a good start by lining up Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva to sign five-year deals next week. The Blazers -- haunted by their long-ago signing of Darius Miles and his return to play this season -- have roughly $8 million in space that could be utilized in a sign-and-trade.
Oklahoma City could have at least $13 million in space, but the Thunder are unlikely to make a major signing for a couple of reasons: This is a relatively weak free-agent market, and they are committed to a disciplined salary structure (similar to Detroit and San Antonio of recent years), which they're unlikely to upset by overspending -- the inherent danger of outbidding rivals for a free agent on the open market. But the Thunder remain capable of making an inspired move to fill a long-term need.
2. Which teams are facing the toughest decisions?
The Blazers need to make something happen this summer, and they may find their best option is to trade for a non-free agent. An expensive salary could be dealt into Portland's available space, liberating the trading partner from taking on an equal amount of salary because the Blazers are under the cap.
The Jazz face an interesting offseason based on Carlos Boozer, who had long planned to opt out this summer but reportedly told the team Tuesday that he was staying. That puts Boozer back on Utah's books at $12.7 million, and further inflames a bidding war for restricted free agent Paul Millsap in hopes that Utah can't afford big salaries for both Boozer and Millsap at power forward next season. The Jazz don't need to worry about Mehmet Okur now that he has decided not to opt out.
Another team faced with an interesting summer is the Rockets, who know at the very least that Yao Ming will miss the start of next season -- and possibly the entire year based on whether he undergoes surgery to repair the troublesome foot injury that has not healed over the past seven weeks. They must decide whether to re-sign free agent Ron Artest, who is coming off a productive, trouble-free season, and now this: Do they try to deal the expiring $22.5 million year of Tracy McGrady's contract, or do they wait patiently for his anticipated midseason return from microfracture surgery? It is difficult knowing which course to chart amid so many variables.
3. Which free agents offer the biggest impact?
Artest is among the most dynamic players in the league at both ends of the floor, and his trouble-free year with Houston may convince a contender he is worthy of a long-term investment.
Small forward Hedo Turkoglu had a huge impact on Orlando's run to the NBA Finals as he hit big shots and often managed the point down the stretch. But he is a player who needs the ball in his hands -- as noted by Magic coach Stan Van Gundy -- and so he'll be at his best with a team seeking on-court leadership.
4. Which free agents could be the biggest bargains?
A number of big names could be available at the mid-level exception of less than $6 million per year. Most famous among them is Allen Iverson, whose arrival in an early-season trade had a negative impact on the Pistons. Provided Iverson is willing to continue his career at a relatively low salary, he has already shown an unwillingness to come off the bench. His new team should plan on starting him at shooting guard.
Rasheed Wallace could help any number of teams -- San Antonio, Boston and Cleveland -- as a versatile big man with deep shooting range.
Shawn Marion's numbers shrunk over the past two years, but they could bounce back up if he were to sign with an up-tempo team that makes use of his ability to finish in the open floor.
Grant Hill will be 37 next season, but he's coming off a productive season in which he played 82 games and averaged 29.8 minutes.
5. Which free agents should teams be wary of?
There isn't a no-brainer, MVP candidate in this free-agent class. Every available player has issues, and those questions are magnified by the declining market and the desire of many teams to spend less. If it's LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh or Joe Johnson that you want, then extend your cap space out to 2010.
6. Besides free agents, what other big names are in play on the trade market?
McGrady (though injured) could be available, as could Amar'e Stoudemire and Steve Nash, who are both entering a final year with the Suns. Phoenix is clearly interested in turning over its roster, though the Suns will have trouble realizing equal value in a trade for either star unless Stoudemire or Nash is willing to sign an extension with the new team.
The Clippers' wealth of big men -- Marcus Camby, Chris Kaman and Zach Randolph -- are available, with Camby the most coveted by rivals because of his defensive ability and his expiring $9.7 million salary.
7. How will the 2010 free-agent bonanza affect this year's shopping season?
Teams with max space in 2010 -- most prominently the Cavaliers and Knicks -- will be reluctant to spend this summer if it diminishes their chances of luring LeBron in '10. The Knicks need the space to recruit LeBron to New York; the Cavs need it to bring in a max player to join with LeBron in Cleveland.
8. Which players and teams are ideal fits?
It may turn out that the big moves have already been made by teams trading around the draft. Washington, San Antonio, Cleveland and Orlando already filled some needs by taking contracts off the hands of teams looking to rebuild.
Is Turkoglu the right fit at small forward for Portland? I wonder about that one, because the Blazers already have Brandon Roy dominating the ball in the fourth quarter.
Cleveland and New York should be interested in Kidd, but will the Mavericks let him go? They can't remain relevant in the West without Kidd, so they're likely to outbid rivals for him.
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