By Ryan Mayer
The NBA Draft has come and gone and now it’s time for that fun period of the year where we all speculate about the top free agents that will be on the market and dream about them coming to our favorite teams. With the July 1st start of the “moratorium” period that allows teams to negotiate, but not officially sign free agents right around the corner, let’s take a look at the top guys that are available on the market this summer.
LeBron James, F, Cleveland Cavaliers
I know, I know, I know. LeBron’s technically not a free agent, Ryan. Yeah, well, let’s be real. He’s going to decline his player option for this upcoming season, which means he will become an unrestricted free agent. At 31, James isn’t the dominant physical force that he was a few seasons ago, but you saw what he is still capable of doing during Games 5, 6 and 7 of the NBA Finals – much to the chagrin of Warriors fans and LeBron haters everywhere. It’s not like his regular season numbers were bad either averaging 25.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game.
LeBron is eligible for the top of the max-contract pyramid after 13 years of NBA experience, but he will likely do another 1+1 deal to maximize his salary when the cap explodes again after this season. As for where James is going? Nowhere. He’ll be back to defend his title in Cleveland despite whatever rumors are out there about a return to Miami or a jump to the Lakers.
Kevin Durant, F, Oklahoma City Thunder
The anticipation of this summer has been building over the last two seasons. Durant and James are the clear cream of the crop and teams have been jockeying for position and salary cap space to sign the Thunder star. You know what Durant brings to the table – an MVP, multiple time scoring champion, who brings a rare combination of skills for someone his size. He’s one of the five best players in the NBA and arguably top three depending on your preference. He has already said that he will be taking meetings with six teams: the Thunder, Heat, Celtics, Clippers, Warriors and Spurs. For those of you that are fans of any of the other 24 NBA franchises, look elsewhere.
With nine seasons of NBA experience under his belt, Durant is eligible for 30 percent of the salary cap max contract. With salary cap projections for next season in the $89-94 million dollar range, that would mean that the price tag on Durant is between $26.7 and $28.2 million per year. It’s entirely possible that he could go the LeBron James route and sign a 1+1 deal that allows him to re-enter the fray next year as a 10-year vet, which would allow him to get 35 percent of the cap on a max deal.
Now, all that said, the question of the summer is where Durant will go. Will he return to OKC? Will he form his own super team in the Bay Area? This just in: no one knows. Speculation will run rampant the next few days before we ultimately get the final decision. That said, allow me to join the parade of people making predictions for Durant. He stays in OKC. Basketball wise, short of joining the Warriors, this is the best roster available to him and there’s not a question of figuring out chemistry with new teammates that there would be in Golden State. The other problem for the Warriors is while adding Durant would be great, their roster would be left pretty bare outside of Curry, Thompson, Green, Durant and their draft picks as they’d need to renounce the rights to all of their free agents in order to make room for Durant’s max deal.
Al Horford, PF/C, Atlanta Hawks
Horford is a name that consistently gets lost in the talk about top players in the game today. Sure, he’s not in that top 10 tier of guys, but he’s in that next tier of players that all teams would love to have on their roster. He’s averaged 15 points and just under 9 rebounds during his career while playing solid defense at the rim and adding some versatility to his offensive game by showing the ability to step out and knock down the three, hitting 34 percent of the 256 triples he attempted. Any team in need of a starting center should be looking for Horford’s agent’s phone number.
Like Durant, Horford has played nine years in the NBA which means he’s eligible for that 30% of the cap contract. With the influx of cash this off-season, expect him to get that max level deal. At least three teams in the Lakers, Magic, and Pistons along with the Hawks have expressed interest in signing the big man.
The Hawks, due to the benefit of owning Horford’s Bird rights, can offer the longest deal with the most money, which generally puts them in the driver’s seat. Like Durant, I think Horford stays home. Not sure any of the teams that are interested offer a better situation than the one he’s in with the Hawks.
DeMar DeRozan, SG, Toronto Raptors
DeRozan, at age 26, is one of the youngest players to hit the free agent market this summer. He’s coming off a career year in terms of points (23.5) and assists (4.0). He’s kind of the opposite of what the league is moving to in terms of guard play. He doesn’t shoot the three particularly well (33.8 percent this year, a career high, but still below average) and is better in the mid-range game and attacking the rim. That doesn’t make him invaluable, however. He gets to the line frequently, averaging 8.4 free throw attempts per game this past season and that number has improved every year he’s been in the league. He makes 85 percent of those attempts too, by the way.
Salary wise, DeRozan just completed his seventh year in the league, which puts him in the same bracket as Durant and Horford for a possible max contract. Now, some of you may be saying ‘A max contract for DeRozan? Really?’. Yes, really. Again, the influx of cash and the need to at least spend to the salary cap floor will make for a bidding war this summer. So, yes, DeRozan will likely get a max contract. That contract will more than likely come from the Raptors as he’s not currently taking meetings with any other teams.
Hassan Whiteside, C, Miami Heat
Whiteside is an interesting case. Originally a second round pick of the Kings back in 2010, he never made a mark in Sacramento and was forced to play overseas to try to restart his career. After dominating in his stints there, he’s made a splash in Miami over the last season and a half, averaging a double-double and 2.9 blocks per game. Yet, the Heat seemed to play better when he wasn’t on the floor.
Whatever the case, Whiteside is looking at a huge payday. He’s in the 0-6 years of NBA service category, which means his “max contract” would garner 25 percent of the cap. There are plenty of teams interested in the 27-year-old center with the Mavericks, Lakers, Trail Blazers, Warriors and of course, the Heat among them. As for where Whiteside will land, I’ll go with the Lakers, making him the first of these big name free agents to actually switch teams. He would fit nicely alongside the young pieces the Lakers have and they are desperately in need of a center.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.