Looking ahead to next years free agent class (ESPN Insider)

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Looking ahead to next years free agent class (ESPN Insider)

With the Monday night deadline for contract extensions behind us, it's time to turn our attention to the much-anticipated 2010 free-agent class.

As covered by Marc Stein here, a number of teams, including the Knicks, Nets, Heat and Bulls, have been frugal of late, anticipating the summer of 2010.

• Yao Ming, C, Rockets
• Tony Parker, PG, Spurs
• Pau Gasol, F/C, Lakers
• Tim Duncan, C, Spurs
• Caron Butler, G/F, Wizards
• Josh Howard, F, Mavs
• Richard Jefferson, F, Spurs
• David West, F, Hornets
• Tayshaun Prince, F, Pistons
• Jason Richardson, SG, Suns
• Andrei Kirilenko, F, Jazz
• Kenyon Martin, PF, Nuggets
• John Salmons, SG, Bulls
• T.J. Ford, PG, Pacers
• Troy Murphy, PF, Pacers
• Mike Dunleavy, F, Pacers
• Nick Collison, F, Thunder
• Samuel Dalembert, C, Sixers
• Michael Redd, SG, Bucks

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh headline what on paper is one of the greatest free agent classes ever. And at the moment, Kobe Bryant is on schedule to be a free agent, too.

Though most big free agents don't change teams, this year could be different. LeBron's supporting cast is pretty weak in Cleveland, while Wade's and Bosh's aren't much stronger in Miami and Toronto. All three set up their contracts to create early free agency, and they have all kept their intentions pretty close to their chests.

Over the course of the next few months, the rumblings will only grow louder. Can the Knicks score a superstar or two in an effort to bring some honor back to the Garden? Can the Nets, now led by a Russian billionaire (assuming the logistics of his acquisition work out), remake the team into a premier destination in Brooklyn? Will friends like James, Wade and Bosh decide to hook up together to create a permanent NBA dream team?

Only time will tell. Until then, here's a sneak peek at who could be available in 2010:

Group I: The "big 10" ETO or player option candidates

These are the players with an "early termination option" or "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 2010. Here's the star-studded lineup:

Key: player option (PO) | early termination option (ETO)

1. LeBron James, Cavaliers (PO)
The buzz surrounding LeBron's foray into free agency next summer has been the loudest in NBA history, and we've been hearing it for years. Several teams have focused their strategy on being a candidate to sign LeBron or another player on this list.

But first, the big question is whether he would actually leave the Cavs. The conventional wisdom on this has been all over the place. The Knicks and Nets were thought to be his biggest suitors, and they'll both have the money to pay him. The problem is that both teams could be so depleted from a talent standpoint that he might not want to come. A couple of other teams, including the Heat and Bulls, also will be far enough under the cap to pay him if he wants to go to a team that already has a more established roster. And don't count out the Clippers. They have a lot of talent and, with a little bit of work, could have the cap room to land one big free agent next summer.

If I were a betting man, I'd wager that LeBron ultimately will stay in Cleveland. But it should be fun watching him shop around next summer.

2. Dwyane Wade, Heat (PO)
There hasn't been nearly the hype around Wade's potential departure that there has been for LeBron's. Why? One, most people in the league believe Wade wants to re-sign in Miami. And two, Wade turns 28 in January. He's not the young franchise cornerstone LeBron is.

Still, there will be plenty of teams interested in Wade next summer. The Knicks, Nets, Heat, Bulls and Rockets will come courting with realistic pitches about why he should bolt South Beach. But it's just as likely the Heat will use Wade as a recruiter to get one of these top free agents to come to Miami instead.

3. Kobe Bryant, Lakers (PO)
It's unclear whether Kobe will stay on this list. He's eligible to be a free agent in 2010 or 2011, but there's virtually no chance Kobe will opt out of his contract with the Lakers. He's been working on a three-year extension with the Lakers, and it's a bit mysterious that he doesn't already have something in place.

If things were to fall apart in L.A., there would be a tremendous amount of interest from all of the aforementioned teams, especially the Knicks. Kobe and Mike D'Antoni have a great relationship.

4. Chris Bosh, Raptors (PO)
Bosh has been pegged since last year as the young star free agent most likely to bolt his team. The Raptors have been struggling, and Bosh has been privately pining to return to the States. I don't think it's a foregone conclusion that he will leave, but the Raptors are really sweating it. They need to show huge improvement this season.

You can expect every one of the teams with cap space to make a big push for him. The Heat might be the most interesting option. A Bosh-Wade combination sounds very formidable. And don't count out the Bulls. They want him, and with young players such as Derrick Rose and Luol Deng on the squad, he'd have a bright future in Chicago.

5. Amare Stoudemire, Suns (ETO)
When he's healthy, Stoudemire is as good as any big man in the league. Just 26 years old, he's hyperathletic and a monster on the offensive end. But questions about his knees, an eye injury and his attitude have hurt his stock a bit, and he won't be pursued as vigorously as the first four.

The Suns sound as if they'd like to retain him, but there's a good chance he'll walk if Phoenix doesn't turn things around this season (or trade him first). A reunion with his old head coach, D'Antoni, in New York or his old boss, Bryan Colangelo, in Toronto would appear to be the two most likely scenarios should Stoudemire leave Phoenix.

6. Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks (ETO)
Nowitzki turned 31 in June but still plays like an All-Star. The question is, for how much longer? Dallas is hoping to get a few more seasons out of him, and he most likely will agree to an extension with the Mavs. Given their commitments to Shawn Marion and Jason Kidd over the next few years, I'd expect them to lock up Dirk, too.

7. Yao Ming, Rockets (ETO)
Yao obviously would be much higher on this list if his entire career weren't in jeopardy at the moment. Yao has had major surgery on his foot this summer and will spend the entire season rehabbing it. The Rockets are hoping he has a Zydrunas Ilgauskas-like recovery and goes on to several more productive seasons in Houston.

However, that's a big "if" right now. Given that Yao will be out the entire season, it seems unlikely he'll terminate his contract in 2010. But if he does and can show that he's healthy, he obviously will have interest from every team with cap space.

8. Paul Pierce, Celtics (ETO)
Pierce has been pretty adamant that he wants to be a Celtic for life, and it looks as though it will play out that way. Although he is still going strong, Pierce, who turned 32 in October, probably has only two or three more highly productive seasons left in him. Most likely, the Celtics will give him an extension.

9. Tyson Chandler, Bobcats (ETO)
There won't be a lot of great centers on the free-agent market next year, and if Chandler can have a productive, healthy season for Charlotte next year, he might want to opt out of his contract. He is just 27 years old, and if the top free agents all stay home, a team with a lot of cap room might be willing to open up its wallet in a long-term deal for him.

10. Richard Jefferson, Spurs (ETO)
The Spurs just traded for Jefferson and should be fielding a team that will be a championship contender for the next few years. Although Jefferson might try to opt out, it's highly unlikely he could earn anything close to the $15 million he'd be due in the 2010-11 season.

Other notables: Kenyon Martin, Nuggets (ETO); Michael Redd, Bucks (ETO); John Salmons, Bulls (ETO); Joel Przybilla, Blazers (ETO); T.J. Ford, Pacers (PO); Peja Stojakovic, Hornets (ETO); Vladimir Radmanovic, Bobcats (ETO); Grant Hill, Suns (PO); Channing Frye, Suns (PO); Willie Green, Sixers (ETO); Jason Kapono, Sixers (PO); DeShawn Stevenson, Wizards (PO); Sebastian Telfair, Clippers (PO); Eddy Curry, Knicks (PO)


Group II: The restricted free agents

Just six players from the first-round draft class of 2006 -- Roy, Aldridge, Rondo, Bargnani, Sefalosha and Balkman -- have signed contract extensions this summer. The remaining players who didn't get extensions will be restricted free agents in the summer. As we've seen in the past few years, it's very difficult for most restricted free agents to move to a different NBA team. While there will be more teams with serious cap space next summer, don't expect things to change for restricted free agents.

1. Rudy Gay, Grizzlies
The Grizzlies have been running a bare-bones operation for the past few years, and it's unclear whether owner Michael Heisley is ready to break the bank to keep Gay. The 23-year-old swingman is a terrific athlete and an accomplished shooter, but his game is a bit one-dimensional at the moment. Gay might have to take a backseat this year to O.J. Mayo, Allen Iverson and Zach Randolph on offense -- not ideal for a contract year.

2. Luis Scola, Rockets
Scola has been a pleasant surprise for the Rockets, proving to be a legit threat in the paint over the past two seasons. He's already 29, so he doesn't have more than one more big contract in him. But unless the Rockets have a real shot at one of the elite free agents in the group, I expect they'll re-sign him.

3. Tyrus Thomas, Bulls
Thomas might be the most difficult guy in the group to peg. He's as talented as anyone in his draft class, but he's been terribly inconsistent and has had numerous attitude issues during his time with the Bulls. The word this summer was that Chicago was trying to trade him. That's a pretty good sign that they probably won't be willing to break the bank for him next summer.

4. Ronnie Brewer, Jazz
Brewer's numbers aren't sexy, but he's a versatile guard who can defend and get to the basket. If he would ever figure out how to shoot a jumper, he could be really good. His numbers have improved every year he's been in the season, and with the Jazz in somewhat of a financial crunch, Brewer could be one of those restricted free agents who can work themselves free if the right offer came along.

5. Randy Foye, Wizards
Foye hasn't lived up to his lofty draft status yet, and he might forever be known as the guy for whom the Wolves swapped Brandon Roy. However, when he's been healthy, Foye has been an effective scorer in a combo-guard role. He'll have less pressure on him to carry the team in D.C., and I actually think it will make him a more attractive free-agent target next summer.

6. Josh Childress, Hawks
Childress went back to Greece for a second straight season after failing to be wowed by an offer from an NBA team. The Hawks still hold his restricted rights, but by now, no one thinks they actually would match an offer for him. If he has a good year in Europe, he might be able to garner more than the midlevel exception from someone next year. But as of now, it looks as though Childress' European experiment might have paid him big bucks in the short run but damaged his value in the league in the long run.

7. Kyle Lowry, Rockets
Lowry is still more about potential than production right now. He has dynamite energy and can be a tenacious defender, but his offensive game is still lacking. Maybe a full year in Houston will give him the minutes he needs to establish himself as a legit starting point guard. If he can't, he still has a lot of potential as a feisty backup off the bench.

8. Jordan Farmar, Lakers
Farmar was viewed as one of the top young point guards in the league. But he showed serious signs of regression last season -- he seemed to totally lose his confidence, and his game suffered in every aspect. Still, if his future isn't with the Lakers, some team will take a flier on him. He is young and still has upside.

9. J.J. Redick, Magic
Redick hasn't made the splash many thought he would in the league, but a number of scouts blame that more on a lack of playing time than a lack of talent. He should have more opportunities to prove himself this season. If he can show he can be an efficient marksman from off the bench, someone will pay him.

10. Hilton Armstrong, Hornets
He's big, and the rest of the remaining players from the Class of 2006 are even worse. If we didn't have to list 10 guys, he wouldn't be on the list.

Other notables: Adam Morrison, Lakers; Josh Boone, Nets; Sergio Rodriguez, Kings.


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. Carlos Boozer, Jazz
Everyone expected Boozer to opt out of his contract in 2009, but a series of injuries combined with an awful free-agent market persuaded him to stay with Utah another season. The Jazz have him on the trading block, and if they trade him, wherever he lands likely will be his final destination in free agency. If Boozer is going to earn anything near the money he's asking for, he's going to need to stay healthy all season. No one wants to commit to a long-term deal with a broken-down power forward.

2. Joe Johnson, Hawks
Johnson is coming off yet another terrific year for the Hawks. He can score in a lot of ways and can play both backcourt positions. He just turned 28, so he still has four or five years left in him. If the Hawks don't take another big step toward being a contender this year, he could decide to leave for a team with a better chance of helping him win a title.

3. David Lee, Knicks
Lee was a coveted restricted free agent in 2009, but a lack of teams with cap room combined with Lee's restricted status forced him to sign a one-year deal with the Knicks. He should continue to put up huge numbers in coach Mike D'Antoni's system this season and be able to cash in. If the Knicks can't land LeBron or Amare, they'll probably re-sign him. But if they do strike gold on a big free agent, Lee's probably changing uniforms.

4. Manu Ginobili, Spurs
Ginobili continues to be one of the most dynamic guards in the league, but age and injuries are starting to catch up with him. Ginobili turned 32 in July, and his fearless style of play is leading to more and more injuries. Ginobili played just 44 games last season for the Spurs, and a number of GMs I spoke with question how much longer he can keep it up. Most likely, the Spurs will re-sign him to an extension. But if he hits the free-agent market, he might not be able to garner as much as you'd think.

5. Shaquille O'Neal, Cavs
Shaq's game had been in slow decline for years before a sudden surge last season for the Suns. Now he's coming to Cleveland to play second fiddle to LeBron and prove he can still win a title. If he pulls it off, there's probably a GM or two willing to offer him lots of money on a two- or three-year contract. But if you look at other facts, you have to wonder whether this is Shaq's last hurrah. He is 37 years old, has played more games than any other active player in the league and has so many outside interests that it wouldn't shock me if he just called it quits.

6. Ray Allen, Celtics
Allen is another player whose game has been in decline the past few years. He just turned 34 and can't have much left in the tank. Can he? The truth is that Allen will still get lots of interest because he has a skill that doesn't deteriorate much with age -- he still can shoot the lights out. Although he has become a liability on the defensive end, Allen can still stretch defenses as a shooter, and some GM will be willing to pay him a solid salary to do it until he's 38 or 39 -- the same age at which Reggie Miller retired.

7. Tracy McGrady, Rockets
When he's healthy, McGrady is still a heck of a player. But more and more you have to question whether he will ever be totally healthy. T-Mac played just 35 games last season and only 62 games the season before. He had back issues and is in the process of rehabbing a shoulder and recovering from microfracture surgery in his knee. When McGrady will return to the court is still a question mark. Given the seriousness of his knee injury, you have to wonder whether he'll ever be really healthy again. If McGrady does come back and plays well toward the end of the season, teams will be interested. But most likely he'll struggle to get a long-term commitment from anyone.

8. Raymond Felton, Bobcats
Felton was really in the same boat as David Lee this summer -- a lack of teams with cap room and his restricted status hurt his ability to get a real offer sheet. With a strong season, he can probably find a team to give him a sizable deal. With DJ Augustin coming on in Charlotte, Felton's days as a Bobcat look numbered.

9. Marcus Camby, Clippers
Camby continues to be a shot-blocking and rebounding force despite the fact that he turned 35 in March. Although no one is going to be willing to commit to him in a long-term deal, he could be the missing piece for another year or two for a team trying to add some size and shot-blocking in the paint.

10. Travis Outlaw, Blazers
Outlaw has been somewhat a forgotten man in Portland. He's been a solid scorer and shooter for the Blazers the past few seasons. He's still young and athletic, and given all the money the Blazers are going to have to commit to young players such as Roy and Aldridge, he probably won't be re-signed by the team.

Other notables: Al Harrington, Knicks; Mike Miller, Wizards; Nate Robinson, Knicks; Drew Gooden, Mavericks; Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Cavs; Jermaine O'Neal, Heat; Brad Miller, Bulls; Udonis Haslem, Heat; Brendan Haywood, Wizards; Darko Milicic, Knicks; Luke Ridnour, Bucks; Steve Blake, Blazers; Derek Fisher, Lakers; Larry Hughes, Knicks; Kyle Korver, Jazz; Chris Duhon, Knicks; Craig Smith, Clippers; Roger Mason, Spurs; Earl Watson, Pacers; Antoine Wright, Raptors; Amir Johnson, Bucks; Raja Bell, Bobcats; Bobby Simmons, Nets; Rasual Butler, Hornets; Mike James, Wizards; Dorell Wright, Heat; Kwame Brown, Pistons; Joe Alexander, Bucks; Oleksiy Pecherov, Timberwolves; Javaris Crittenton, Wizards; Alando Tucker, Suns; Sean Williams, Nets; Ian Mahinmi, Spurs; J.R. Giddens, Celtics.

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