Commentary

Money tight for free-agent class of 2009

Free agents will feel the effects of an economic pinch and teams' saving up for LeBron

Originally Published: February 26, 2009
By Chad Ford | ESPN.com

This past summer, a few free agents cashed in big-time. Elton Brand walked away from the Clippers to the tune of the $80 million he's earning in Philly. Baron Davis made some big bucks in L.A. A number of restricted free agents, such as Andre Iguodala, Luol Deng, Emeka Okafor and Josh Smith, scored nice deals as well.

Also, during the summer and early fall, eight players from the 2005 NBA draft who were eligible for extensions -- Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Andrew Bogut, Andrew Bynum, Danny Granger, Francisco Garcia, Jason Maxiell and Martell Webster -- received some love from their teams.

The rest of the 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. (Krstic subsequently returned to the NBA with the Thunder.)

And a number of 2005 first-round picks, including folks such as Marvin Williams, David Lee and Raymond Felton, were unable 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 it did make a play for Smith) and entered the season nearly $10 million under the cap.

This summer, things should only get worse. The NBA is suffering from the financial crisis, too. For the first time in a while, the NBA salary cap is projected to go down. So is the luxury tax threshold. With owners feeling the pain, this market is looking like one of the worst ever for free agents.

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

Those two factors should end up causing major problems for a good but no longer stellar free-agent class of 2009.

With the trade deadline now passed, here's an updated look at who could be available in 2009:

Group I: The "Big 10" early termination or player option candidates

These are the players with an early termination option or a 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 2009. Here's the star-studded lineup:


1. Kobe Bryant, Lakers (ETO)
Two summers ago, when Kobe was pining for a trade, it looked as though he would tear up his contract in 2009 and leave the Lakers. Now, the Lakers are poised to be a serious championship contender for the next few years. You have to believe Kobe will hang around for the ride.

2. Carlos Boozer, Jazz (PO)
Boozer was thought to be the biggest threat to leave his team in the summer. However, an injury-plagued season now puts some doubt into whether he'll actually opt out. If he does, there's really only one team with cap space that appears a fit: the Detroit Pistons. That could be a problem for Boozer. With the Jazz looking to re-sign Paul Millsap too, Boozer could be in a tough negotiating position.


3. Hedo Turkoglu, Magic (ETO)
Besides Boozer, Turkoglu is the candidate most likely to opt out. He's having another stellar year for the Magic, and should be able to cash in with a bigger deal in the summer. Then again, with so few contenders sporting cap space, he may have to settle for less to return to Orlando.

4. 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. I think Fegan will try to get him moved to a team that's willing to pay him more.


5. Al Harrington, Knicks (PO)
Harrington has to be thrilled to be in New York. Mike D'Antoni's system has him putting up the best numbers of his career. However, it's really unlikely he opts out. There just isn't a huge market for him right now in this economy. He'd have to decide that he's willing to take less money now to get a long-term deal somewhere else. With the Knicks looking at cap room in 2010, he'll move on sooner or later.


6. Jermaine O'Neal, Heat (PO)
There's virtually no chance that O'Neal will opt 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 try to work out some sort of contract extension if he can prove to the Heat that he can stay healthy. But with the Heat eyeing a ton of cap space in the summer of 2010, he's unlikely to get it.

7. 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.

8. Jamal Crawford, Warriors (ETO)
It's hard to believe that Crawford would be willing to leave nearly $20 million on the table to opt out, especially now that he's out of New York and on a team that wants him. Still, Crawford will turn 29 in March and has never played for a winning team.


9. Eddy Curry, Knicks (ETO)
Curry is in a similar situation to Crawford. He's worth a lot less than what his contract is paying him (about $31.5 million over this season and the next two combined), so it's inconceivable he'll leave so much cash on the table -- especially with a perceived heart condition. But the Knicks will do backflips if he decides to move on.

10. Kyle Korver, Jazz (ETO)
Korver is one of the top shooters in the league, but it will be hard for him to find a team willing to give him much more than what the Jazz are paying him.

Other notables: 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

Eight players from the draft class of 2005 -- Andrew Bogut, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Andrew Bynum, Danny Granger, Francisco Garcia, Jason Maxiell and Martell Webster -- have signed extensions. The remaining players listed below will be restricted free agents in the summer. As we've seen in the past few years, it's next to impossible for restricted free agents to move to a different NBA team. This past summer, not one major restricted free agent signed with another NBA team. A few grew so desperate that they signed with European teams instead (though that option has basically dried up with the economy taking an even bigger hit in Europe). Given the lack of teams with serious cap space in the summer, don't expect things to change for restricted free agents.


1. David Lee, Knicks
Lee is a fan favorite in New York and among coaches around the league. And he's having a huge year in New York this season in D'Antoni's system. Lee is a double-double machine. 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, would the Knicks really match?

2. Paul Millsap, Jazz
With Carlos Boozer out for most of the season, Millsap has proven he has the potential to be an All-Star some day. Millsap is a beast on the boards and can put the ball in the basket. The Jazz want to keep him, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a number of teams, like Detroit or Memphis, make a big run at him. If Boozer doesn't opt out, there's a chance the Jazz won't be able to afford both of them.

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 four years with the Hawks. He's not playing well enough to earn anything close to the $60-64 million over five years that Granger got last fall.

4. Josh Childress, Hawks
Childress shocked many in the NBA by deciding to bolt for Greece last summer. With the economy tanking in Europe, you can expect to see him back in the NBA this fall. But it seems unlikely Childress will ever wear a Hawks uniform again. There's a lot of bad blood on both sides concerning what went down.


5. Charlie Villanueva, Bucks
Villanueva has talent. The question has always been about his heart. He's having the best season of his career under Scott Skiles. Teams are still wary of him and his reputation, but the talent speaks for itself. When you factor in Milwaukee's growing financial problems, he could be a free agent other teams target.

6. Ramon Sessions, Bucks
Teams are always in hot pursuit of point guards. Because Sessions is once again starting in Milwaukee, his high scoring and assist numbers are turning the heads of a number of GMs. The Bucks can't afford to keep Villanueva, Sessions and their core. Something has to give.

7. Raymond Felton, Bobcats
Felton has been looking over his shoulder at Larry Brown's young protégé, D.J. Augustin. Felton can dish out assists, but his poor shooting has hurt his stock. Augustin has performed well enough that it's unlikely the Bobcats would match a big offer sheet for Felton.

8. Nate Robinson, Knicks
Robinson's career has taken off with the Knicks. He's been on fire the past month or so and his stock has been skyrocketing. The Knicks can't afford to keep him and Lee, and pay LeBron James or another elite free agent next summer, so you know teams will be on the hunt. Look for Sacramento to make a run at him. They made a big play for him at the trade deadline.


9. Leon Powe, Celtics
Powe slipped into the second round on draft night because of concerns about his knees. But he has made a solid contribution off the bench for the Celtics this season. Someone could offer him a midlevel-type deal. Still, it seems likely the Celtics would match.

10. Linas Kleiza, Nuggets
Kleiza has been a pivotal sixth man for the Nuggets this season and drew a lot of interest at the trade deadline. He could be a guy who gets the midlevel exception from someone.

Other notables:: Channing Frye, Blazers; Rashad McCants, Kings; Sean May, Bobcats; Johan Petro, Nuggets; Hakim Warrick, Grizzlies; Jarrett Jack, Pacers; Luther Head, Rockets; Ike Diogu, Blazers; Jamario Moon, Raptors; Glen Davis, 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. Although there is a lot of star power here, most of the big names are on the back end of their careers.


1. Ben Gordon, Bulls
Gordon is an explosive scorer and has one of the sweetest jump shots in the game. But he is undersized and streaky, and he doesn't play great defense. On virtually every team, his best position will be coming off the bench as a high-scoring sixth man. What is that worth in today's NBA? Not the $50 million the Bulls offered him and he turned down. Gordon will have plenty of suitors, but as his agent learned the hard way this summer when he sought to get him traded to another team via a sign-and-trade, no one is going to break the bank for Gordon … not even the Bulls now that they've added John Salmons to the mix.


2. Shawn Marion, Raptors
Marion is a super-talented forward who can score, defend and rebound. But he turns 31 in May and has seen his production slip the past two years. Even if he starts putting up big numbers in Toronto, how much will a team be willing to spend on him given his age and reputation for being difficult? The Raptors seem to be his best chance of landing more than a midlevel deal.

3. 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 who can rebound the ball and initiate the offense. And he doesn't need the ball to be effective. If he doesn't stick in L.A., a line of teams will be waiting to snatch him up.

4. Andre Miller, Sixers
Miller, at age 32, had one of the best seasons of his career in 2007-08. Although 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. He's slowed down a little in 2008-09, but some GM will gamble on him this summer. Then again, can the Sixers afford to lose him?


5. Jason Kidd, Mavericks
Kidd continues to claim that the reports of his demise are exaggerated, and his solid play this season backs him up. Still, he's a 35-year-old point guard who can't keep it up forever. Some team is always willing to give up some money for a point guard with eyes in the back of his head, but I wonder whether he'll be able to garner more than a midlevel deal, should Dallas decide to move on.

6. Mike Bibby, Hawks
Bibby is having a solid season as the Hawks' starting point guard, but it's hard to see him making anything near what he's made the past few years. The Hawks are a young team still searching for a long-term answer at the point. Bibby is a nice stopgap for 18 months, but I doubt he has a long-term future in Atlanta unless he's willing to take much less.

7. 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'll turn 34 in September, which makes you wonder whether he's still worth the risk. Short of his making a jump to Charlotte -- he and Larry Brown remain close friends -- would any other team in the league be open to paying this guy?


8. Allen Iverson, Pistons
Although Iverson is 33, he continues to fill up the stat sheet with points, assists and steals. However, Iverson's presence on the Pistons hasn't helped them win basketball games. 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, does he have any game left? The answer to Question 1 seems to be no. The answer to No. 2 seems to be yes. I just don't know how much he'll earn this summer. At best, he'll find a three-year deal for the midlevel exception.


9. Ron Artest, Rockets
Artest has been on pretty good behavior off the court, but all you need to know is that the Rockets shopped him pretty hard at the trade deadline. What team will have the courage to take this guy on at this point?

10. Trevor Ariza, Lakers
Ariza's combination of athleticism and defense make him a valuable prospect. He's also one of only two guys on the list who has youth going for him. The Lakers may have to choose between him and Odom.

Other notables: Antonio McDyess, Pistons; Chris Wilcox, Knicks; Drew Gooden, Bulls; Anthony Parker, Raptors; Zaza Pachulia, Hawks; Brandon Bass, Mavs; Wally Szczerbiak, Cavs; Joe Smith, Thunder; Stephon Marbury, Knicks; Grant Hill, Suns; Stromile Swift, Nets; Robert Swift, Thunder; Rasho Nesterovic, Pacers; Keith Bogans, Bucks; Bobby Jackson, Kings; Damon Jones, Bucks; Desmond Mason, Thunder; Chris Mihm, Grizzlies; Jason Collins, Timberwolves; Jarron Collins, Jazz.

Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.

Chad Ford

Senior Writer, NBA Insider

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