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Monday, September 15, 2008
Looking ahead: The free-agent class of 2009

By Chad Ford
ESPN.com

Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson
Allen Iverson will be available in the summer of 2009. Kobe? Well, there's always the possibility.
This summer, a few free agents cashed in big time. Elton Brand walked away from the Clippers to the tune of $80 million from Philly. Baron Davis made some big bucks in L.A. And a number of restricted free agents, such as Andre Iguodala, Luol Deng, Emeka Okafor and Josh Smith, scored nice deals as well.

Also, three players from the 2005 NBA draft who were eligible for extensions -- Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut -- found some love from their teams.

The rest of this summer's free-agent class?

Only a handful found anything near the money that other free agents got on the open market. Several, including Josh Childress and Nenad Krstic, bolted for Europe. And one prominent restricted free agent, Ben Gordon, still has not signed a new deal.

And most of the the 2005 first-round picks, including stalwarts like Andrew Bynum and Danny Granger, are still trying to work out deals with their respective teams.

Once again, the main culprit was the dreaded NBA salary cap. Only a few teams -- the Sixers, Clippers, Warriors and Grizzlies -- really had the money to pick up a free agent from another team. One of those teams, Memphis, decided not to spend its money (although they did make a play for Josh Smith) and is going into the season nearly $10 million under the cap.

The other key factor is LeBron James. A number of teams are trying to get cap space for the summer of 2010. That happens to be the summer that LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, among other stars, can hit free agency. So, for the first time in years, teams like the Knicks are being financially responsible.

Those two factors could end up causing some problems for a stellar free-agent class of 2009. But it also means there will be more teams with money to spend next summer.

Given current projections, five teams -- the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trail Blazers, the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers -- will have significant money to spend in 2009.

Given a projected $62 million cap next year, the Thunder could have roughly $25-$30 million in cap space next summer.

The Grizzlies could get somewhere between $18 million and $24 million below the cap, depending on what they decide to do with Hakim Warrick.

The Blazers could be anywhere from $15-$32 million under the cap, depending on whose contracts they decide to renounce. The three key players will be Channing Frye, Steve Blake and Travis Outlaw. If they let those three go (along with Ike Diogu and Martell Webster), they could be awash in cash. But there's one fairly big caveat: The Blazers are counting on not having Darius Miles' $9 million salary on the books. However, if he plays 10 games for the Celtics this season, his salary goes back on the Blazers' books, taking away a big chunk of their free-agent cash.

The Pacers could be around $11 million under the cap if they end up renouncing all of their free agents except Danny Granger. They could get even further below the cap if they find a way to move Jamaal Tinsley.

And the Heat could be around $10 million under if they let Shawn Marion walk at the end of the season.

Two other teams will also have a shot at some cap room, depending on how things play out. The Bobcats would be roughly $10 million under if they were to renounce the contracts of Raymond Felton, Sean May and Adam Morrison -- but that seems highly unlikely. The Wolves could get around $9 million under if they were to renounce the contract of Rashad McCants.

With that said, let's take a look at who could be available in 2009:

Group I: The "Big 10" ETO or Player Option candidates

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 2009. Here's the star-studded lineup:


1. Kobe Bryant, Lakers (ETO)
Last summer, when Kobe was pining for a trade, it look as though he would tear up his contract in 2009 and likely leave the Lakers. Now, the Lakers are poised to be a serious championship contender for the next few years. You've got to believe Kobe's going to hang around for the ride.


2. Carlos Boozer, Jazz (PO)
Boozer is probably the biggest threat to leave his team next summer. He's had his eye on Miami for some time, and with some maneuvering, the Heat should be able to get far enough under the cap to deliver the dollars that Boozer is looking for.


3. Richard Hamilton, Pistons (ETO)
Hamilton is not expected to opt out of his contract. He turns 31 in February and is unlikely to earn more than the $11.6 million he's owed in the final season of his contract. More likely, the Pistons will work out some sort of extension with Rip.


4. Jermaine O'Neal, Raptors (PO)
There's virtually no chance of O'Neal opting out of his deal. He's owed a whopping $23 million in 2009-10 and there's no way he could get anything like that on the open market. O'Neal will be trying to work out some sort of contract extension if he can prove to the Raptors that he's healthy.


5. Mehmet Okur, Jazz (ETO)
Okur is also an unlikely candidate to opt out of his contract. He, too, would struggle to find more money on the open market. Like some of the other players on the list, his goal is to work out an extension.


6. Hedo Turkoglu, Magic (ETO)
After Boozer, Turkoglu is the candidate most likely to opt out. He's coming off a career year for the Magic, and if he can repeat his 2008 Most Improved Player performance (19.5 points per game), he should be able to cash in with a bigger deal next summer.


7. Jamal Crawford, Knicks (ETO)
It's hard to believe that Crawford would be willing to leave nearly $20 million on the table to opt out, but it's not inconceivable. If he has a big year playing for Mike D'Antoni, it might be worth the gamble. Crawford turns 29 in March and has never played for a winning team. If he thinks he could get a longer-term deal for a better team, it might be worth the risk.


8. Eddy Curry, Knicks (ETO)
Curry is in a similar situation to Crawford's. Right now he's worth less than what his contract is paying him, which means it's unlikely he'll leave so much cash on the table -- especially with a perceived heart condition. But the Knicks will be doing backflips if he decides to move on.


9. Anderson Varejao, Cavs (PO)
Varejao is another player who is quite likely to opt out. The relationship between Cavs GM Danny Ferry and Varejao's agent, Dan Fegan, is rocky, and unless Varejao has a terrible year, I think Fegan will try to get him moved to a team that's willing to pay him more.


10. Al Harrington, Warriors (PO)
Harrington is unlikely to opt out. He's making more money than his production suggests he deserves, and there will be just too much competition in the open market for Harrington to score a big deal next summer.

Other notables: Kyle Korver, Jazz (ETO); Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Cavs (ETO); Ricky Davis, Clippers (PO); Kwame Brown, Pistons (PO); Etan Thomas, Wizards (ETO); Mark Blount, Heat (ETO).


Group II: The restricted free agents

So far, only three players from the draft class of 2005 -- Andrew Bogut, Chris Paul and Deron Williams -- have signed extensions. It's possible more extensions are coming over the course of the next six weeks, but most of the players listed below will likely be restricted free agents next summer. As we've seen over the past few years, it's next to impossible for restricted free agents to move to a different NBA team: This summer, we didn't have one major restricted free agent sign with another NBA team. A few got so desperate they signed with European teams instead. Given the lack of teams with serious cap space next summer, don't expect things to change for restricted free agents.


1. Andrew Bynum, Lakers
If Bynum's surgically repaired knee is healthy and he comes back and builds on what he was doing last season before he got injured, he'll be a candidate for a max salary. There's no way the Lakers will let another team outbid them for Bynum as long as he's healthy; he's the future of the team.


2. Danny Granger, Pacers
Granger slipped on draft night three years ago because of concerns about a knee injury. But he's proven he should've been a top-six pick. Granger averaged more than 23 ppg for the Pacers over the last few months of last season. He's the Pacers' brightest hope right now, which means they'll likely have to give him a contract in the same ballpark as what Luol Deng or Josh Smith got this summer.


3. Marvin Williams, Hawks
Williams has as much raw talent as anyone in the class of 2005, but he's been frustratingly inconsistent in his first three years with the Hawks. He needs a big year if he wants to earn anything close to what Granger or Bynum might get next summer.


4. David Lee, Knicks
Lee is a fan favorite in New York and among coaches around the league. But what is he worth? It sounds like new head coach Mike D'Antoni is unsure if Lee is a great fit and the Knicks explored trading him this summer. Given the Knicks' goal of getting under the cap in 2010, Lee might be the best player on this list for another team to try to sign to an offer sheet. As long as it's a substantial deal, I doubt the Knicks would match.


5. Josh Childress, Hawks
Childress shocked many in the NBA by deciding to bolt for Greece this summer. If he plays well overseas, he'll be better positioned to get a bigger contract offer next summer. However, it seems unlikely that Childress will ever wear a Hawks uniform again. There's a lot of bad blood on both sides concerning what went down this summer.


6. Raymond Felton, Bobcats
Felton has to be looking over his shoulder after the Bobcats made a strong play for T.J. Ford and then drafted D.J. Augustin in the lottery. Felton can dish out the assists but his poor shooting has hurt his stock. If Augustin performs well this season, Felton will be another player some team can snag with an offer sheet.


7. Charlie Villanueva, Bucks
Villanueva has talent. The question has always been about his heart. With Yi Jianlian now playing in New Jersey, Villanueva should start seeing significant minutes this season. If he produces (and plays a little defense), he could land himself a big contract next summer.


8. Channing Frye, Blazers
After his first season with the Knicks, Frye looked like a star in the making, but his last two seasons have been much less impressive. Still, Frye is big, has some offensive skills facing the basket and is a decent rebounder. If he ever started playing defense, he'd certainly be considered a capable big man. The Blazers are looking for cap room next summer and Frye isn't part of their core group, which means he's also a good candidate to change teams next summer.


9. Nenad Krstic, Nets
Krstic was a borderline All-Star before an ACL injury set his career back. He's now off to Russia to prove that he's 100 percent healthy and ready to contribute. If he has a big year over there, NBA teams will come calling next summer. But will they be willing to offer him as much money as he can make in Europe?


10. Rashad McCants, Timberwolves
McCants is a good scorer and showed that he can be an excellent 3-point shooter. But it appears he's really more of a sixth man than a dominant 2-guard. With Mike Miller and Corey Brewer on board, McCants could see his production dip a bit this season.

Other notables: Jason Maxiell, Pistons; Nate Robinson, Knicks; Sean May, Bobcats; Martell Webster, Blazers; Linas Kleiza, Nuggets; Hakim Warrick, Grizzlies; Jarrett Jack, Pacers; Francisco Garcia; Kings; Luther Head, Rockets; Ramon Sessions, Bucks; Johan Petro, Thunder; Ike Diogu, Blazers; Jamario Moon, Raptors; Glen Davis, Celtics; Leon Powe, Celtics.


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. While there is a lot of star power here, most of the big names are now on the back end of their careers.


1. Shawn Marion, Heat
Marion is a super-talented forward with the ability to score, defend and rebound. But he turns 31 in May and has seen his production slip the past two years. Even if he puts up big numbers in Miami this season, how much is a team going to be willing to spend on him, given his age and reputation for being difficult?


2. Allen Iverson, Nuggets
At the age of 33, Iverson continues to fill up the stat sheet with points, assists and steals. And, last season, AI posted his highest field-goal percentage and lowest turnovers per game since his second year in the league. He's still a dominant player, but two nagging questions will hurt his case for a big deal: One, with the exception of that magical season in Philly under Larry Brown, is Iverson a winner? Two, how much game does he have left? Still, Iverson has one thing going for him that Marion doesn't: He still sells tickets.


3. Ron Artest, Rockets
It's difficult to know where to place Artest on this list. If he stays on his best behavior and helps the Rockets get deep into the playoffs, he's going to make some money. He may not get four- or five-year offers, but teams will come calling if his time in Houston is a success. On the other hand, if Artest self-combusts, he's going to struggle to find anyone willing to give him more than a one-year deal next summer.


4. Lamar Odom, Lakers
Odom will be one of the most coveted free agents on the open market. Phil Jackson likes him, but with Kobe, Bynum and Pau Gasol on the roster, the Lakers don't need him and might explore trades for him in the coming months. Odom's penchant for disappearing in big moments (see: 2008 NBA Finals) hasn't helped his rep in L.A. But he is a great team guy, he can rebound the ball, he can initiate the offense and he doesn't need the ball to be effective. If he doesn't stick in L.A., there will be a line of teams waiting to snatch him up.


5. Rasheed Wallace, Pistons
'Sheed continues to be one of the most baffling players in the league. When he's on, he's one of the best big men in the game. When he's off … he can be way off. He turns 34 in September, which makes you wonder if he's still worth the risk. Short of him making a jump to Charlotte -- he and Larry Brown remain close friends -- is there any other team in the league that will be open to paying this guy?


6. Jason Kidd, Mavericks
Kidd continues to claim that the reports of his demise are exaggerated, but I'm not so sure. He's a 35-year-old point guard who really started to show his age last season. Rick Carlisle is going to try to get him turned around, but I'm not sure he's the right coach for the job. There will always be someone willing to give up some money for a point guard with eyes in the back of his head … but if Kidd continues to slip, I wonder if he'll be able to garner more than a midlevel deal next year, should Dallas decide to move on.


7. Andre Miller, Sixers
Miller, at the age of 32, had one of the best seasons of his career in 2007-08. While many (including me) were calling for GM Ed Stefanski to trade him to create more cap space, Stefanski held on to Miller and rode him to an unexpected playoff berth. Now with Elton Brand in the fold, the Sixers should be formidable. The team has been trying to get Miller locked up to an extension, and once Miller decides to hire an agent, he should move off this list.


8. Chris Wilcox, Thunder
We continue to use Wilcox and the word "upside" in the same sentence, but it's probably time for that to end. By now it is fairly clear what he is -- a super-athletic big man who still relies on dunks for a lot of his points. He is not a great defender and doesn't look like he'll ever be more than a solid contributor. But given the constant need for talented big men in the league, some team is going to want him. OKC is developing Jeff Green and Kevin Durant to be its frontcourt of the future, which should leave Wilcox looking for new digs next summer.


9. Mike Bibby, Hawks
Bibby was decent as the Hawks' starting point guard at the end of last season, but it's hard to see him making anything near what he's made the last few years. The Hawks are a young team still searching for a long-term answer at the point. Bibby is a nice stop-gap for 18 months, but I doubt he's got a long-term future in Atlanta unless he's willing to take much less next summer.


10. Drew Gooden, Bulls
Gooden is coming off the worst year of his career, and it couldn't be worse timing. With the Bulls still trying to develop young players like Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah, it's unclear what role Gooden will play this season. Still, he's a legit power forward who rebounds well. He may not be the headiest player in the league, but he is a talented 4.

Other notables: Trevor Ariza, Lakers; Anthony Parker, Raptors; Zaza Pachulia, Hawks; Jeff Foster, Pacers; Brandon Bass, Mavs; Marquis Daniels, Pacers; Wally Szczerbiak, Cavs; Joe Smith, Thunder; Stephon Marbury, Knicks; Grant Hill, Suns; Stromile Swift, Nets; Robert Swift, Thunder; Rasho Nesterovic, Pacers; Keith Bogans, Magic; Jason Williams, Clippers; Bobby Jackson, Kings; Damon Jones, Bucks; Desmond Mason, Thunder; Chris Mihm, Lakers; Jason Collins, Timberwolves; Jarron Collins, Jazz.

Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.