With the 2013 free agent class settled, we can look at the following offseason when the landscape of the NBA can change more meaningfully. Beyond LeBron James and even without Paul George or Larry Sanders, there are a number of other impactful players that will hit either the Unrestricted or Restricted Free Agent markets. Combining this strong free agent group with the remarkable expected 2014 NBA Draft class and we could have an atypically large quantity of talent on new teams next summer.
Keeping that in mind, here is a quick look at the potential difference-makers in that class. It is important to note that some of these players could sign extensions between now and then and thus leave the class.
The players are listed in order of their expected impact on their next contracts and the number in parenthesis is their age at the start of the 2014-15 season.
1. LeBron James (29), Early Termination Option- The best player in the NBA today hitting free agency also marks another important league moment: the next legitimate MVP candidate to potentially hit the unrestricted market will be Kevin Durant a full two years later. Elite players win championships in the NBA and are extremely difficult to acquire, so every time one becomes available it means a ton to the future of the league. When that player is also the best in the world and remains in his twenties, it takes on a whole different level of significance.
2. Derrick Favors (23), Restricted Free Agent- Favors intrigues because he is a big man who can play both positions, but is just scratching the surface of his potential. He has done well in limited minutes for the Jazz, yet Favors still has enough mystery to make a middle ground on an extension somewhat hard to find at this juncture. Fortunately we should get the chance to see him play enough to answer these questions after the departures of both Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. If he makes it all the way to restricted free agency, look for a team that misses out on James to make him a big offer.
3. DeMarcus Cousins (24), Restricted Free Agent- Cousins is likely No. 2 on this list in terms of pure talent, Cousins has shown attitude problems that have bled onto the court. He has the ability to dominate yet has shown too much willingness to take bad shots and has not forced opponents to gameplan for him like he should have at this stage. While a change of scenery would likely do him good, the new ownership for the Sacramento Kings would not likely give up their best asset without some nice players in return.
4. Greg Monroe (24), Restricted Free Agent- Another fascinating case because we still have to see how he fits on the floor with Andre Drummond and new frontcourt mate Josh Smith. Those combinations working would likely propel Detroit into the playoffs, though the team will need to decide quickly since there should be numerous teams intrigued by what Monroe brings to the table.
5. Carmelo Anthony (30), Early Termination Option- Anthony exercising his ETO would make him a free agent at age 30, likely allowing for one last big contract. His scoring has continued to be excellent and playing power forward has allowed the remarkable depth in his offensive game to shine through. That said, his defense continues to be problematic and likely peaked offensively last season.
6. Ed Davis (25), Restricted Free Agent- The most interesting of the 2014 RFA’s because of his team situation with the Memphis Grizzlies. While just about every other youngster on this list has an established role and value, the presence of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph on the Grizzlies takes the spotlight away from one of the league’s most exciting young bigs. We absolutely could see Memphis choose to keep the underappreciated crown jewel of the Rudy Gay trade either with, or instead of Randolph, who turns 33 before the beginning of 14-15 (the last year of his contract).
7. Luol Deng (29), Unrestricted Free Agent- An impact player on both ends of the floor when he can stay on it, Luol Deng would make sense for a multitude of different franchises and should get his pick of a variety of different team situations. He could stay in Chicago with largely the same roster or take a chance on something new and different at a similar salary.
8. Eric Bledsoe (24), Restricted Free Agent- The player currently known as Chris Paul’s backup will finally get the chance to play on the Phoenix Suns. While the fit with Goran Dragic could be strange, increased playing time will allow teams to more accurately calibrate Bledsoe’s potential and proper market value. He still has plenty of room to grow as a player and likely will need to make major improvements to deserve the contract he will receive.
9. Chris Bosh (30), Early Termination Option- A pivotal part of Miami’s big run, Bosh stands at an interesting place in his career made more compelling by the uncertainty surrounding the other two of the Big Three. If LeBron leaves Miami, I fully expect to see Bosh head elsewhere if he exercises his ETO since combining with an aging Dwyane Wade does not exactly have the same potential it did in 2010. If LeBron stays, it seems likely that the gang will stay together for another three-year period and Bosh could see a few more rings and become an interesting part of NBA history.
10. Avery Bradley (23), Restricted Free Agent- An unconventional impact player because he is at his best defending opposing point guards, but should not be considered a primary ballhandler at this time. Boston should be in full rebuild mode in 13-14 and likely will end up only retaining one of Rajon Rondo and Bradley at full market value since starting both would require massive scoring everywhere else without a ton of cap space to fill every remaining spot.
11. Dwyane Wade (32), Early Termination Option- Wade had an underappreciated season in 12-13, but I worry about how his body and game will change as the miles really start to wear him down. The 12-13 playoff run displayed both his importance and a potential warning sign of what could happen when a player who uses his body so aggressively gets older. This likely stands as Wade’s last chance to get a big contract, though there has been some speculation he takes less money with the Heat.
12. Gordon Hayward (24), Restricted Free Agent- Unfairly an afterthought when most national writers talk about the Jazz, Hayward has worked his way into being a very important part of a team that should be relevant for years to come. We still have to wonder if he can become either a lead scorer or a more versatile defender, but he provides value on the perimeter and will only improve over the next few seasons.
13. Chandler Parsons (26), Potential Free Agent- By far the most interesting free agent situation on the list because of the unique circumstances. In short, Parsons has a dirt cheap fourth season on his contract for 14-15, but if Houston picks up that season Parsons becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of it. In effect, they have to balance one cheap year and the chance of losing a key player or sucking it up and making sure he is a part of their future. The possibility of adding other players on this list may force Houston’s hand.
14. Andrew Bynum (27), Team Option- If Bynum reaches free agency in 2014, it means things did not go particularly well with the Cleveland Cavaliers this season. Considering his place as one of the elite big men in the entire league when healthy, a $12.54 million option would make sense if he can get on the floor and produce.
15. Andrew Bogut (29), Unrestricted Free Agent- A key piece on the Golden State Warriors’ surprising playoff run, Bogut may actually have more tread on his tires because of how much time he has missed early in his career. A solid defensive big man who should be able to contribute for the duration of his next deal, as long as he can stay on the floor.
16. Greivis Vasquez (27), Restricted Free Agent- My choice for Most Improved Player this season has finally established himself as a solid NBA starter. If General Greivis can add even more depth to his game and have a strong season for the Kings, he could hit that sweet spot in a comparatively weak point guard market. This season will have massive financial implications for Vasquez and we will have to see how he adapts to having pressure and expectations to produce on a new team.
17. Marcin Gortat (30), Unrestricted Free Agent- A true center hitting the unrestricted market at age thirty poses some different challenges for player and team alike. Gortat’s per-year salary may actually benefit from the CBA rules limiting the length of deals since teams will not have to be wary about paying for his age 35 or 36 seasons right now. It would be a blast to see Marcin on a deep and dangerous team since his only times in the playoffs were as a valued role player off the bench with the Orlando Magic.
18. Pau Gasol (34), Unrestricted Free Agent- After a lost season as the forgotten man on the Los Angeles Lakers, Pau Gasol still has plenty to contribute to professional basketball. His passing and savvy should age relatively well though I worry about his defense as he ages. Since he likely becomes more of a pure center as he slows down, Dwight Howard’s decision this summer could play a major role in where Gasol signs his next contract. Even though it would be strange, playing with his brother Marc in Memphis would be awfully cool to see.
19. Rudy Gay (28), Player Option- As has been the case for years, the biggest question mark with Rudy Gay is whether he will ever put it all together and get close to touching his ceiling as a player. He has the ability to be the straw that stirs the drink on offense and a difference-maker on defense, but has not been the same as a shooter since his shoulder injury. While some expect him to pick up his player option due to the fact that he likely will not make that much per year on his next deal, I expect his decision to parallel Andre Iguodala’s and the added bonus of opting out in a year when so many teams have money to spend and will miss out on the players they want. Those factors could make Gay a tantalizing fallback that could drive his price up a few days or weeks into the offseason.
20. Kyle Lowry (28), Unrestricted Free Agent- Lowry has the chance to rebound after a disappointing first season with Toronto. He also benefits from hitting free agency at a very good age for a reliable point guard since teams do not need to be concerned about paying for the steep downside so many older lead guards hit in their mid-thirties thanks to the contract length limits in the new CBA. Likely his last big contract.
21. Zach Randolph (33), Player Option- While it may appear unlikely that Randolph would turn down a $16.5 million player option, he could opt for the security of one last meaningful contract either in Memphis or somewhere else. Having the decisions on Randolph and Ed Davis occur the same summer could actually help crystallize the options for the Memphis front office.
22. Evan Turner (26), Restricted Free Agent- Turner needs to show the talent and game that made him the second overall pick in a draft that has produced a surprising amount of quality players. The RFA market for The Villain should be interesting because it only takes one team to fall in love with him and I am unsure how willing Philadelphia would be to match a substantive offer at this juncture, particularly with new management.
23. Andrei Kirilenko (33), Player Option- After shockingly declining his player option and taking much less money to play for the Brooklyn Nets, Kirilenko gets the chance to jump to a new team if he likes. Considering the wild card role he played in 2013, it seems strange to predict what Kirilenko will do next.
24. Dirk Nowitzki (36), Unrestricted Free Agent- Just two months older than the Black Mamba, Nowitzki has shown more willingness to extend his career so he makes it a little higher on the list. While clearly on the downside of his Hall of Fame run, Nowitzki can still be an integral part of a very good team for a few more seasons. His unique set of skills makes him well-suited to moving into more of a role player niche as his defensive abilities wane with age. Nowitzki’s willingness to give up salary to make his team better could play a big role in both his future in Dallas and the team’s success over the next few seasons.
25. Danny Granger (31), Unrestricted Free Agent- Granger fortunately gets another season to show that he can stay on the court more than he did in 12-13. In a situation that has some parallels to JJ Redick’s choice this summer, Granger likely will have to choose between money, location and team situation since he fits right into the grouping of players shakier franchises would be willing to overpay to bring on for three years or so. A return to his hometown of New Orleans to be a leader on a young and talented team would be a logical move, though I could certainly see him electing to play for a contender in Indianapolis or elsewhere.
26. Kobe Bryant (36), Unrestricted Free Agent- It feels legitimately weird to have one of the best players in the history of the league this low. However, we all know that Father Time is undefeated. Kobe’s Achilles injury scares me in terms of his basketball future and he has absolutely nothing left to prove in the league. It would be great to see him have a major impact in his late thirties, but it does not feel like a likely outcome.
27. Greg Smith (23), Restricted Free Agent- Win Share darling who had a nice season as a backup and spot starter for the Rockets in 12-13.
28. Mario Chalmers (28), Unrestricted Free Agent- Unlike nearly every other member of the Heat, Chalmers still has to create his own legacy in the league. He will be young enough to have a nice run, but not enough to wait out another smaller contract. As was the case with Chris Bosh, I fully expect LeBron’s choice of teams to have a major impact on whether or not Super Nintendo Chalmers stays in South Beach for another few years.
29. Darren Collison (27), Player Option- Taking a discount to come home to Los Angeles with the Clippers also gave Collison a player option for next season. While more of a backup than a starting point guard, Collison’s ability to hit free throws and provide energy off the bench could be useful on nearly every contender.
30. Spencer Hawes (26), Unrestricted Free Agent- With plenty of untapped potential, Hawes continues to benefit from playing a position with so few players worthy of rotation minutes.
31. Patrick Patterson (25), Restricted Free Agent- Young enough to become a stronger all-around player, Patterson feels like more of a non-starting rotation player than starter at this point. That middle ground at a loaded power forward position makes him hard to project value-wise.
32. Brandon Rush (29), Unrestricted Free Agent- Recovering from a devastating ACL injury, Rush will have to show that he can be a valued shooter and underrated defender off the bench like he was in 11-12 for the Warriors.
33. Emeka Okafor (32), Unrestricted Free Agent- A solid player when he can stay on the floor, Okafor actually only missed three games last year and ten in 10-11. Unfortunately, he only appeared in 27 contests in the season between.
34. Trevor Ariza (29), Unrestricted Free Agent- At this point, we have a pretty good idea what Ariza’s role on an NBA team should be: play meaningful rotation minutes as a defender and scorer in transition while not taking many shots in the halfcourt.
35. Shawn Marion (36), Unrestricted Free Agent- Still able to contribute, though likely in a diminished role as he moves towards the end of a strong tenure in the NBA.
36. Caron Butler (34), Unrestricted Free Agent- After a strange and interesting career, 2014 could mark the point where Butler takes less money to go to the right team for his final few seasons.
37. Paul Pierce (37), Unrestricted Free Agent- Like the final few players on this list, we do not know how much longer The Truth wants to play professional basketball. He will provide value as long as he stays in the league and can continue to be a great mentor for young guys entering the league.