Commentary

What other free-agent surprises can we expect this summer?

Originally Published: July 3, 2008
By John Hollinger | ESPN Insider

So much for our nice, orderly summer.

What was supposed to be a humdrum offseason has been thrown into disarray in just 48 hours by the unexpected free agencies of Baron Davis, Elton Brand and the Sonics (or the Claymations or the $75Mers or whatever they're calling themselves now); already, two of the three have changed cities.

In doing so, the rest of the free-agent chase is suddenly upside-down. Most notably, no longer does Philadelphia own the most cap room. With Davis gone to the Clippers (and Kate Hudson and Jessica Alba spared the annoyance of rubbing elbows with the commoners in Oakland), the Warriors now have $6 million more in their war chest than Philly. They don't seem afraid to use it, either.

That, in turn, means teams with restricted free agents no longer can rest quite so comfortably with the assurance that they'll be able to match any offer -- not if Golden State wants to drive up the prices on the likes of Emeka Okafor, Luol Deng, Andre Iguodala and Josh Smith.

As a result of those events and a few others like them, we have way more to discuss than we thought we would at this point in the summer. So let's break it down. Here's one man's quick look at the top questions from free agency so far and what some of the answers might be:


What does Golden State do now?

Well, the team has started with the right plan. The Warriors have swung for the fences with the other star free agents out there, offering their pile of cap space to Gilbert Arenas and Brand; Arenas seems nearly certain to say no, but Brand will at least ponder an offer worth $20 million more than the Clippers are bringing to the table.

If Brand takes the Warriors' offer, it will be an ironic reversal of the loss of Davis to L.A. earlier this week. On the other hand, the Brand-Davis dual free agency seemed so unusually well choreographed that it's hard to imagine Brand landing in Golden State.

So let's suppose that one falls short, too. In that case, the Warriors have a few options. First, they can make a run at restricted free agents, with Josh Smith likely the first choice, given Atlanta's bumbling ownership. They'd overpay him, but to nab a restricted free agent, a team almost has to.

Second, Golden State can go after the other top unrestricted free agent, Corey Maggette. He doesn't fit a need necessarily, but he can really score, and Don Nelson always has found uses for players like that. And Maggette probably would use only about half of the Warriors' available cap room, leaving enough space to make a run at another quality player through either free agency or trade.

The latter might be the more promising alternative. The Warriors are far enough under the cap that they could, for instance, just trade a second-round pick to New Jersey for Vince Carter (not that I've heard this, mind you … I'm just saying). A number of other trades are available, too -- it would just depend on which other team's unwanted contract they wished to take on and how cheaply they could get it.

As for the specific void at point guard left by Davis' departure, the Warriors have one other option if nothing else works out -- a seemingly too-sensible-not-to-happen swap of Al Harrington to Chicago for Kirk Hinrich.



How good are the Clippers now?

Assuming Brand stays, they're decent … and that's about it. I'm not sure they're even a playoff team in the West. Seemingly everyone is talking about the 2005-06 Clippers who won 47 games and comparing this bunch to that group, but what about the gang from 2006-07?

That team had Brand, Maggette, Chris Kaman, Tim Thomas and Cuttino Mobley healthy all year, and it went 40-42. Replace Maggette with Al Thornton, and replace Sam Cassell with Davis, and you basically have the 2008-09 Clippers … except with Mobley halfway to the glue factory and no depth whatsoever. So we're really supposed to buy that they'll rocket into the West's upper crust?

I wonder whether everyone is overlooking the personality angle, too. On paper, few pairings seem more flammable than Mike Dunleavy and Baron Davis. Dunleavy is a control guy at the offensive end who likes to call set post-up plays over and over, while Davis has bristled under every coach who didn't give him free rein to launch contested 3s off the dribble with 21 on the shot clock.

Don't get me wrong, Davis is a fantastic player. But I wonder how it's going to work when Dunleavy calls 4-down six plays in a row and whether Davis' disdain for structure ultimately will cause him to underachieve the same way he did for Tim Floyd, Byron Scott and Mike Montgomery.

While I'm on a roll, one other thing -- let's not overreact to Donald Sterling spending money on talent. Signing both Davis and Brand takes the Clippers to the salary cap … and that's it. Granted, that's a pleasant departure from the days in the late '90s when they were making trades just to meet the league's minimum salary, but it's not like he's going dollar for dollar with Mark Cuban. Of course, this will become more obvious when The Donald fills out the last five spots on his roster with minimum-wage guys, but that won't happen for a couple more months.



Will the curse of the midlevel strike again?

Over the past half-decade, the history of players who sign for the full midlevel exception has been an unmitigated disaster. You'd think this would dissuade teams from offering it in all but the most overwhelming bargains, but once the silliness of free-agent season starts, it seem they just can't help themselves.

For instance, the two players to get the full midlevel exception so far this summer are Beno Udrih and DeSagana Diop.

Ugh.

Udrih had a nice run as the Kings' emergency replacement at the point this past season, but that's the whole point: He was seen as a success mainly because the expectations were so low. Sacramento signed him as roster filler and was pleasantly surprised when it turned out he actually could play a little.

That doesn't mean the Kings should pay him the full midlevel for a half-decade, though. Udrih is 26 and a career 43.9 percent shooter. The most similar players at the same age are Vonteego Cummings, Khalid Reeves and Doug Overton, and his projected PER for 2008-09 comes in at 12.99. He's a good backup, but that's about it.

Given the Kings' recent history with their midlevel (coughShareef Abdur-Rahimcough), you'd think they would be a little more reticent to shell out -- especially given Geoff Petrie's rep as one of the game's shrewdest talent evaluators. One has to wonder whether the Maloof brothers' enthusiasm for their own players was a driving force here, and if so, whether it will come back to bite them again -- just as it did when Mike Bibby hit free agency in 2002.

But Udrih might not even be the worst midlevel signing this summer. As of now, that honor goes to Diop, to whom the Mavs offered a five-year deal for the full midlevel a mere four months after happily including him as a throw-in in the Jason Kidd trade with New Jersey. If you're scoring at home, yes, this is a red flag that the Mavs still don't know whether they're coming or going.

At any price, Diop gives little bang for the buck on offense. In 52 games as a Mav this past season, he averaged 3.0 points per game. Ready for the punchline? It set a new career high. And when he was sent to New Jersey, he joined a team that was desperate for interior help, but the Nets played him only 15 minutes a game due to his offensive limitations.

I know, I know, Dallas wants Diop for his defense. But as with Udrih, there's no upside here -- he is 26 and is what he is as a player. The Mavs are going to be paying him until he's in his 30s, even though he lost his job to Erick Dampier a year ago and never came close to getting it back. You can find players like this much cheaper, and the Mavs of all people should know this -- that's exactly what they did when they first signed Diop in the summer of 2005.



Are the Wizards any better off by re-signing their stars?

In three seasons with the trio of Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler, the Wizards have won 43, 41 and 42 games and haven't made it past the first round of the playoffs. The three players are 26, 32 and 28, respectively, so it seems likely that we've seen about the best we're going to get from them. They're an average team, and without an infusion of vastly better players around them, they'll keep being an average team.

Yet instead of blowing that trio up, the Wizards took a Bob-Beamonesque leap of faith this week. First they extended Jamison for four years and $50 million, and then they offered Arenas a monstrous six-year, $127 million package. Given that Arenas is coming off a major knee injury that kept him sidelined nearly all of last season and is heavily dependant on his quickness to be an elite scorer, his offer in particular appears to be a reach.

Washington is committing to these two for another half-decade and, in the process, tying up most of its salary flexibility. If either's numbers plummet, his contract will make him nigh untradeable, except in exchange for somebody else's flotsam. For better or for worse, the Wizards are stuck with these guys.

The Wizards' alternate reality was letting both go in free agency and using what would have been a big chunk of cap space to try to remake the team around Butler -- their best player this past season and the least expensive of the three going forward -- and whomever else they could have signed. At worst, it seems they would have come away with Maggette, and their cap situation would have been far better over the next five seasons -- in fact, they might have been able to get into the LeBron bidding in 2010; James recently named Washington, D.C., as one of his favorite cities.

One can take a glass-half-full approach and say the likes of Andray Blatche (22), Nick Young (22), Oleksiy Pecherov (23) and JaVale McGee (20) give the Wizards hope that help is on the way for their high-scoring trio. On the other hand, almost every team in the league can make the "maybe our young guys will turn out to be awesome" argument, and in Washington's case, Blatche is the only one of the four who was any good last season.

If Arenas is healthy, and the kids are better, and the team improves on defense, and none of the veterans fall off … then maybe the Wizards will push into the mid- to high 40s in wins and grab a No. 3 or No. 4 seed in the East. Is that the upside they're investing close to $180 million in over the next half-decade? It sure seems to me the fear of losing out on big-name stars caused Washington to miss out on a fantastic opportunity to remake its roster.



Will any restricted free agents jump?

Josh Smith. Andre Iguodala. Luol Deng. Emeka Okafor. Jose Calderon. Monta Ellis. Andris Biedrins. Ben Gordon. Josh Childress.

With so many high-quality restricted free agents, this summer's market is theoretically as talented as any in memory. The problem is the "restricted" tag, however. With teams swearing to match any offer, as they have the right to do with restricted free agents, even the teams with cap space are reluctant to waste their time bidding on RFAs. And one of them, Calderon, already has pledged to stay with his club.

Inevitably, however, one or two of these players will wriggle free, either through a sign-and-trade or a sign-and-flinch. The latter scenario seems to be what teams have in mind in their pursuit of Smith and, at a lower level, Childress. Atlanta's ownership is notoriously fractious and, some still suspect, overly thrifty, and for that reason, teams are targeting the Hawks' duo as restricted free agents who could be portable.

I still doubt whether Philly's $12 million in cap space is enough to make the Hawks back off matching a deal with Smith, but Golden State's treasure chest is another story. The Warriors could max out Smith and frontload the deal, and his open-court game would be perfect in Don Nelson's system.

Of course, if the Hawks do retain Smith, one has to think that Childress will become even more poachable. A good strategy for both Philly and Golden State is to pursue Smith, then switch to Childress if the Hawks match the Smith offer. I greatly doubt they'll shell out for both.

Surprisingly, nobody is taking the same approach with the Bobcats -- a team that has been even more frugal than the Hawks and has a restricted free agent, Okafor, just waiting for somebody to ask him to dance. Just imagine Golden State with a frontcourt of Okafor and Biedrins, for instance, or the Sixers pairing him alongside Samuel Dalembert, or the Grizzlies (gasp!) spending the dough to create an Okafor-Marc Gasol frontline.

Another player who seems likely to have a new address is Gordon, but his move is likely to come via the more traditional sign-and-trade route. Nobody seems to be making a serious push for him, and the Bulls are likely to threaten to match offers unless a team agrees to a sign-and-trade anyway. Chicago doesn't appear to have much use for both he and Hinrich, and Gordon is more tradeable (unless the above Harrington deal happens), so it makes sense that he's the one who goes and the Bulls get something back in return.

Of course, why would anyone stick to the script now? In this summer of free-agent surprises, there's little left that would shock us.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.