2010 NBA Free Agent Forecast


2010 NBA Free Agent Forecast
M.D. Wright
6.30.10

The much discussed 2010 NBA Free Agent class is nearly in session. Teams can begin officially negotiating contracts with unrestricted free agents, and some players will officially become restricted free agents (able to opt out of their deals, exercise player options and teams can void contracts if they have options on a player) at 12:01 AM, EDT on July 1.

With all the talk about where LeBron James will go (Cleveland is 99.999% not going to be the locale) along with Dwyane Wade (if anywhere at all), Chris Bosh and a host of other players, the time is fitting to put the official stamp on the entire magilla right here and right now.
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First of all, here is what I wrote back on May 23, 2010:

I get asked daily “Mike, where do you think so and so is going after the season???” Hey, I’m not in those guys’ heads. I dunno. People think “going back home” is automatically atop a guy’s list of priorities when considering signing with a different team. It rarely is, in reality — going back to familiar surroundings usually means more trouble than success; as guys like Ken Griffey, Jr. and others have realized. So to propose with authority that I know where someone is going to sign is ludicrous. I can only guess, based off factors such as teams’ salary cap space, existing rosters/teams’ needs, who is truly a “max player” (there are only 7 or 8 in the NBA in 2010 — and that’s being generous) and how championship-ready a team is. Some teams run their franchises as a business. Others are in it SOLELY focused on winning ‘chips — and money comes as a result.

With that said, here is the list:
(Again, note that with the Collective Bargaining Agreement, there is contract-specific language and there are different types of Free Agents)

Unrestricted Free Agents:
Joe Johnson, Atlanta
Ray Allen, Boston
Emanuel Ginobili, San Antonio
Marcus Camby, Portland
Tracy McGracy, New York
Shaquille O’Neal, Cleveland
Brad Miller, Chicago
Jermaine O’Neal, Miami
Mike Miller, Washington
Richard Hamilton, Detroit

There are some intriguing names on this list. None of them are superstars (the one or two who once were are DONE), but they can be effective players on new teams. A few will have to take massive pay-cut (McGrady, Allen, BOTH O’Neals, for instance) just to be able to crack a roster on a good team, because most of the contenders are pressed against the cap, well over the cap, aren’t necessarily looking for another superstar (and obviously unable to afford one), so thus will be using their mid-level exceptions (and any other exception the NBA grants them) to sign players.

Speaking of exceptions, the number of lackwit buffoons on message boards, Facebook, team pages running around with theories about where certain players “definitely won’t be going” astounds me and sometimes makes me chuckle. I see and hear anti-Knick hatred all the time. Fans who hated the Knicks in the 90s took delight in watching the Knicks struggle like a dyslexic reading Latin, but one of my favourite jabs is “the Knicks only have 3 players under contract for next season” (we have 6, and another has a player option — Eddy Curry, who I HOPE doesn’t use it ha), and “how can the Knicks sign LeBron, Wade or Bosh AND the 5 other spots that need to be filled?”

Look, there are a dozen different salary cap exceptions in the NBA. Most hacks only know about the Bird exceptions and the mid-level exceptions. But those are elementary both in intent and usage. Teams also have what is called a MINIMUM SALARY EXCEPTION — which enables a team to sign as many players at the NBA League Minimum salary, guaranteed, for up to two years each — as the team sees fit in order to fill their roster. In all honesty, in a scenario where the Knicks were to land two of the players they’d like and filling their roster, they can easily do this. #shotsfired at people who continue to think “there is no way LeBron is leaving Cleveland”. Don’t be so sure, the Knicks’ stock hit the NYSE (as “MSG”) last fall, and James would have the ability to buy stock in the team if he saw fit. Do we really want to count the number of benefits that playing in New York offers a player of his calibre — a number which far exceeds any other city? INCLUDING Los Angeles?

Back to the column.

***MAX PLAYERS (IN MY OPINION):
LeBron James
Kobe Bryant
Dwyane Wade
Pau Gasol
Carmelo Anthony
Dirk Nowitzki
Chris Paul (when healthy)
* Dwight Howard

* – Denotes PENDING DEVELOPMENT OF LOW-POST GAME
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AS FOR PENDING FREE AGENTS —

I’m going to tackle each one of these players’ attributes and surmise where I believe their options are in terms of a potential new team.

Joe Johnson.
You know me, I’m a blunt, straight-forward and honest guy. This dude is overrated. I heard people say for years “he’s so underrated!” How so? He played for a bum team for years until Mike Woodson brought them to playoff level in 2008. Putting up big (hollow) numbers on bad teams isn’t impressive to me. Especially when you don’t get near the number of rebounds that you should, nor assists, and your defense is virtually non-existent.

Don’t get me wrong, he can score and he shoots a decent percentage. But that just makes him Glenn Robinson Lite, not a MAX PLAYER. And what’s more, his disappearance in the past two seasons’ playoffs should be enough of a warning to teams who still had an idea that Johnson was a max-level player. He doesn’t have the heart, complete skill set, the killer instinct, nor the explosive ability to change a game. Max players MUST have two of those four attributes to warrant a maximum contract, in my opinion. Johnson is a good complimentary piece, or he can dupe the Hawks into an Allan Houston move (getting the team to bid against itself, when no one else was offering near the contract that was eventually awarded). He isn’t a guy you build around, but he’s a good 2nd or 3rd option with the right mix of players.

POSSIBLE DESTINATIONS: Atlanta, New Jersey, Miami, Washington.

Ray Allen.
Old Man Allen. The ex-Husky from UConn. He gets respect from me (although he lost some of it for a while there due to his verbal jabs/hating lobbed at Kobe a few years back when he was with Seattle), but he will be 35 in two months. And he was making $20M this season. That’s not going to happen again, obviously. Two big questions arise with Allen, ESPECIALLY if the Celtics do not win the 2010 NBA Finals — 1) Does he even want to continue playing? If so, for how long? and 2) How much of a pay cut is he willing to take? He may have to take a 40% cut down to $12M or even about a roughly 2/3 cut to accept the veteran’s minimum and either remain in Boston and squeeze one more year out there, or play nomad and hitch his wagon to the Lakers or wherever LeBron James lands.

His situation is actually more alluring to me than most of the so-called “Top Tier” free agents, because he can still stroke it and is a glue guy who you can depend on every night to give you his best. I just do not see anyone paying him more than $10M-$12M.

POSSIBLE DESTINATIONS: Any contender — seriously (Boston, Cleveland — should James remain, Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas and non-contenders such as Chicago and New York).

Emanuel Ginobili.
I just don’t see the Spurs parting with him under any circumstances. Although Richard Jefferson’s contract was a bad move ($14.2M) by RC Buford and Gregg Popovich, the Spurs do still maintain enough flexibility to retain Ginobili. I honestly cannot see him playing elsewhere and the aforementioned front office tandem always knows how to work the cap and makes smart personnel moves.

POSSIBLE DESTINATIONS: San Antonio.

Marcus Camby.
Interesting and intriguing. The guy was brittle when he was with the Knicks, but at the same time, his production here is what made him somewhat coveted in the 6 or 7 years since he was moved to Denver. I just have concerns about his age now. He is 36. However, he has been healthy the past 2-3 seasons and contributed mightily. Maybe all that time he sat over the years makes him more like 32, 33 than 36 ha?

We’ll see, but I think Portland may keep him for a year or two, unless he really thinks he is worth more than the $7.6M he received last year — just a shade over the mid-level exception. Could he return to New York? Who knows. The fans still love him here.

POSSIBLE DESTINATIONS: Portland, Detroit, Toronto, Charlotte.

Tracy McGrady.
The Knicks only traded for him in order to secure his expiring contract of $23M. He was easily the highest paid player in the NBA last season, which is embarrassing. Yes, he’s been injured, but even at 100% health and 5 years ago McGrady wasn’t worth that much money. However, the Knicks are glad he’s coming off THEIR books. That frees up such cap space that the Knicks can sign two maximum level players. Thanks Tracy.

As to where he goes? It’s tough to call. That balky knee of his flared up after just one (very good game, BTW) with the Knicks after the trade. He was hobbled and icing his knees like 1998’s Patrick Ewing after that. Hard to imagine anyone wants him for anything more than the veteran’s minimum or the MLE — and even then, it would have to be a contender. None of the contender really needs someone of McGrady’s ilk unless he is HEALTHY. And there is no guarantee that will be, after 5 straight seasons of various nicks and bumps, and trips on the injured list.

POSSIBLE DESTINATIONS: New York (VM), Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio, Oklahoma City.

Shaquille O’Neal.
Hard to say what he will do. He says he still wants to play (and claims he has 3-4 good years left?)

…………….

Anyway, his contract expired at the $20M annually he received when he initially went to Miami for 5 years, $100M. Everyone knows he’s not getting that, and he’s finally come back to earth long enough to realize he’s not a #1 guy or even a #2 anymore. But if he is willing to subjugate himself into a proper role with the right team, he might be able to ride another team’s coattails to another ring. But it won’t be at $20M per. Nor $10M (unless Prokhorov decides to get crazy with the spending, and all indications are that he WON’T).

POSSIBLE DESTINATIONS: New Jersey (Shaq is originally from Newark and could be a good backup), Orlando (irony on two levels, although it is only a funny possible storyline as the Magic are woefully over the cap due to the horrendous contracts of Rashard Lewis and Vince Carter), San Antonio, Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City.

Brad Miller.
He doesn’t have much left in the tank. When big men hit 33, 34, they really slide QUICKLY when it comes to athleticism. Miller, his age compounded by his past injuries looks the part. He doesn’t give the Bulls much, as they would prefer to run. He’s a better halfcourt player than anything else. Would be a good fit on a younger team such as Philadelphia or maybe Atlanta. And certainly not at $12.2M.

POSSIBLE DESTINATIONS: Golden State, Philadelphia, Atlanta.

Jermaine O’Neal.
He’s done. I always thought he was slightly overrated even at his apex. He’s nearing the nadir of his career (I’m not entertaining the injury excuses anymore at this point) and with the astronomical contract he had before, there’s no way he’s getting more than the mid-level exception to maybe help the Rockets or Grizzlies. The Heat need his cap space to sign a couple of big name players.

POSSIBLE DESTINATIONS: Houston, Memphis.

Mike Miller.
Mike Miller is a nice player, shoots well, sometimes plays defense and won’t KILL you, causing you to lose games — but he won’t win them, either. He’s just a nice addition to the right team. Indications are he’s staying put, but it’s hard to see how he’s going to warrant a raise. He’s making $10M at this point and the Bullets Wizards value the near-$30M in cap space they’ll have should the front office decide not to pick up the $12M option on Josh Howard. Very interesting scenario in Washington.

POSSIBLE DESTINATION: Washington, Houston, Miami, Boston.

Richard Hamilton.
Pretty much a one-trick pony at this point in his career — definitely heading toward the downside. He was never strong enough to create his own shot consistently and at 32, obviously has lost a step. But the Pistons have a glut in their backcourt and with Ben Gordon tied up for 4 more years and $11M per, Hamilton is likely the odd man out. There’s not a huge market for him. He’s likely going to be one of those guys whose destination will be determined by what the Top Tier players decide to do, as he’s gone from a Second Tier guy to a Third Tier guy in the past two seasons.

POSSIBLE DESTINATIONS: Detroit, Milwaukee, Denver, Los Angeles (both teams).

There are guys with Player Options/Early Termination Options for 2010-2011, and can opt out this summer (2010) as well:
Yao Ming, Houston.
Amaré Stoudemire, Phoenix.
LeBron James, Cleveland.
Dwyane Wade, Miami.
Chris Bosh, Toronto.
Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas.
Josh Howard, Washington.
Michael Redd, Milwaukee.
Tyson Chandler, Charlotte.

A lot of room for hit-or-miss signings with these guys. James, Wade and Nowitzki are sure things. You know what you are going to get with them. Bosh, depending on the scenario, you do not know. Stoudemire can put up offensive numbers at times, but he doesn’t play defense nor rebound as well as his height and athleticism would suggest. Chandler MUST be paired with a good-to-great point guard to even be effective, Josh Howard can’t stay healthy and poor Michael Redd might just be done with those Patrick Ewing knees of his. Same with Yao and his Bill Walton feet.

Yao Ming.
You’d think Houston would be trying to hang onto him, broken foot and all — injury history as a whole and all. I can’t see them moving him, especially since they did nothing to fill the void (with the hopes he will return in 2010-2011; quite frankly he needed the rest after playing basketball year round on three continents for 8 straight years). I’m going to put this down as a lead-pipe lock pick that he’s not moving. The Rockets even still have the cap space to re-sign him. What will be interesting is how Houston deals with the need to re-sign Luis Scola and Chuck Hayes, both of whom are up (Scola being unrestricted, Hayes with a team-option).

POSSIBLE DESTINATION: Houston.

Amaré Stoudemire.
I have seen him drop big numbers. He did so tonight (May 23, 2010). But his defensive deficiencies and lack of consistent rebounding preclude him from becoming a max player in my opinion. Nevertheless, he is 6’10”, 240, still runs like a gazelle and is in the prime of his career, 7 years into the NBA and at age 28. Someone will make a run at him, although he is a 1b. type player. Not QUITE a max player, but just a hair under. Not a guy who would flourish without a Top 5 point guard. Will also be interesting to see how he works outside of a pick and roll system. However, someone will make a huge offer, and Stoudemire has the right of first refusal, as he has a player option to return at $17.7M next year in Phoenix.

POSSIBLE DESTINATIONS: Phoenix, Chicago, Miami, Wherever LeBron James goes.

LeBron James.
Listen, I’ve written extensively about this — there is a nice summation on my Facebook page (for those who are friends with me on there), so I won’t get into the whole deal again. Let’s just break down the realities and diffuse all the armchair psychiatrist/wannabe GM talk.

1. No one knows what he is thinking, not World Wide Wes, not Jay-Z, not the city of Cleveland nor his most ardent fans, NOR DO YOU.
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Now that we have that out of the way.

1. Playing and excelling/winning in New York trumps everything. It trumps anything Chicago can possibly offer, anything Los Angeles can offer, as well as Washington, Miami and any other team whose fans have concocted baseless reasons for believing James is going to sign there. For all we know he has no intention to leave Cleveland whatsoever, but in lieu of recent events, that looks scant at best.

2. The Cavaliers as presently constructed were overrated from the get-go. Throwing Shaq onto the team set them back two steps from the three steps forward they had made last year. 2007 — Finals appearance, 2008 — lose to Boston, 2009 — high expectations, reach conference finals and lose to Orlando, 2010, even HIGHER expectations and lose in the 2nd round to Boston once again. Mo Williams is a 3rd tier player getting 2nd tier player recognition (All-Star???) and top tier player expectation from Cavalier fans. Delonte West is a bona fide headcase, as “recent events” further prove. Shaq was done 3 years ago. Zydrunas Ilgaukas has been a nice story of resiliency, but expecting this much from a 37-year old is absurd. The rest of their players are (BAD) role players or flop artists.

SN: Ever notice that when a writer is trying to inflate a team’s success in a given season, but they lose in the 2nd round of the playoffs, they call it “Conference Semifinals” (which it technically is, but it is amazing the effect words have on their readers), but when piling on a team, it is called “2nd Round” to give an illusion that they did not accomplish much?

3. Despite all the reports, all the rumors, and assessing cap situations of all teams — the only VIABLE (logic, hometown alliances aside) options where 3 other teams do not need to get involved are the New Jersey Nets and the New York Knicks. There have been reports that Chris Bosh of Toronto has a 5-team list that basically patterns itself after the teams that LeBron James is most likely to chose should he leave Cleveland at all. To hitch your future to the uncertainty of another is folly, but understandable in this case.

Dallas is $30M over the cap BEFORE they ship away a player or two in a trade just to be able to RE-SIGN DIRK NOWITZKI — never mind even thinking about LeBron James.

Chicago would need to send Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich and hope Toronto accepts them as they’re both grossly overpaid (but whose salaries would match Bosh’s in a scenario where Bosh signed with Toronto for the maximum 6 years, $125M, or on the average about $21M annually) just to have the CHANCE to attempt to sign James.

Washington has the cap space, but there is uncertainty from the very top (The Pollin Family’s sale of the team to Ted Leonsis will be complete in the next two weeks — no guarantees that Grunfeld and Saunders will be there come November and no one knows whether Gilbert Arenas and his massive contract will be there either), even with the widely-understood idea that the Wizards are going to select John Wall out of Kentucky with their #1 Overall Pick in the 2010 NBA Draft.

Meanwhile, Miami, while maneuvering around to generate the cap space must attempt to persuade Wade to remain, before entertaining the internet-generated rumor that James would join Wade in Miami because they are “best friends” (not because the salary cap precludes this, though, huh? Or more importantly, owner Mickey Arison is loathe to pay the luxury tax?) Throw it out. The Heat are a bigger reach than both NY area teams combined.

New Jersey has the cap space, and a couple of young pieces, but in my opinion on PAPER they are a long shot. I just don’t know what new Russian owner Mike Prokhorov has up his sleeve. He sounds (from listening to him speak about his new toy, the Nets) like he knows how to work the NBA system. Besides, you don’t become worth $14B without knowing how to manage money and make shrewd deals and acquisitions. If you have followed Mike closely, you hear him emphasize his desire to make the Nets a GLOBAL brand — that most NBA owners think locally/Mom & Pop, while he’s looking to break down global barriers. What better way than to have the soon-to-be (sharing the spotlight with The Snake, no homo, until 2014) solo face of the NBA in James, Yi Jianlian and possibly Dirk Nowitzki to cater to three distinct fan bases, here in the US, Germany and parts of Europe and southeast Asia? Bears watching — I really think the Nets will be active in free agency. And they’re right in my backyard, so I have eyes and ears on it daily.

New York has the cap space, the amenities and fringe benefits that no other team’s city can offer. The Knicks’ players are currently no worse without LeBron currently, than the current Cavaliers team will be should James leave. In fact, the Knicks can lure the “other” superstar that the Cavs have never been able to do in Cleveland. They can also sign one of the aforementioned players coming off max deals who would be willing to play for an exception or two just to have the chance to play alongside James and superstar to be named later, as they’d become the best team in the Eastern Conference by default. Again, bears watching. I pass by both MSG and the NBA HQ every day that I am in the city. I will most likely be standing outside one or the other when the signing occurs. If anything breaks, you’ll hear it here ha.

POSSIBLE DESTINATIONS: All of the above and throw in both Los Angeles teams should a three-team deal be worked out in either circumstance.

Dwyane Wade.
Simple. Surround him with another star and better complimentary players or wave goodbye. No way he’s going to Chicago (this is where that “he can come home” BS needs to just go away, along with the Nancy Boys who think like this. There’s too much drama there off the court and Rose is a Wade clone. That is not going to work.

POSSIBLE DESTINATIONS: Miami, New York.

Chris Bosh.
He has hitched his wagon to LeBron James without saying as much in so many words. James’ signing will precipitate a domino effect, so the best bet when predicting Bosh’s destination is to just follow James’. He’s not returning to Toronto, and will most likely be accommodated by the team with a sign-and-trade deal (netting Bosh an extra year of making $2M more annually than signing outright with another team for five years).

POSSIBLE DESTINATIONS: Wherever LeBron James goes.

Dirk Nowitzki.
I have heard questions even before Dirk announced that he will opt out of his contract after all. I predicted he would, but not because of Dallas’ playoff woes or to join James or Wade. The NBA has an obscure rule called the “Over-36” clause. Dirk will be 32 in June. Whereas the other major free agents are younger than 30, or are at least 6 years younger than their 36th birthday, Nowitzki is not. Why is this important, you ask? It isn’t a MAJOR deal unless he were to sign elsewhere. Otherwise, the difference in getting a further extension on his current contract would net him virtually the same monies as if he signed a brand new contract with Dallas — but he does have the option to sign for a 5th year with the team with that maximum annual salary that he will receive. If he were to sign outright with New Jersey, for instance, he could only receive a four-year deal with maximum salary. It is almost certain that he will remain in Dallas unless owner Mark Cuban is made an offer he cannot refuse.

POSSIBLE DESTINATIONS: Dallas, New Jersey, Miami.

Josh Howard.
So many missteps, so many times putting his foot in his mouth — and on top of that, he hasn’t been fully healthy in two seasons. He’s only 30, but it is hard to imagine he will garner more than $10-$12M on the open market — which is what he’s currently making — and most likely not in Washington, because he is not that type of impact player. I’ve been wrong before, but I just have a feeling he’s heading back to the Western Conference.

POSSIBLE DESTINATIONS: New Orleans, Golden State, Sacramento.

Michael Redd.
I wish son the best, but I haven’t seen more than a small handful of guys come back from multiple knee injuries with little to no cartilage and be anything more than a fringe player at best.

POSSIBLE DESTINATIONS: Decent backup on the Top 4 at the mid-level.

Tyson Chandler.
Tough market for him. He’s a big man, but limited skills. And after 9 seasons, he is what he is. He tries hard, but without even an above average point guard (neither Augustin [yet] nor Felton [will never be] is such) he cannot excel. Chris Paul made him look great, but he’s been average since leaving New Orleans — even when he is healthy. He is still just 27, so the Bobcats may keep him, as their main objective is to land a legitimate scorer on the wing who has a “closer” mentality. Right now, the only player available for the Cats to stand any realistic chance of landing (if he opts out) and meets that role is Jamal Crawford.

POSSIBLE DESTINATIONS: Charlotte.

More Opt-Out Guys:
Carlos Boozer, Utah
Chris Paul, New Orleans

I separate these two with good reason — their futures have so many caveats tied to them that it is fathomable for them to do anything from remain with their current teams or go to one of a number of different teams. STAY TUNED. Boozer is a semi-impactful player, but Chris Paul is one of the max players who can shift a team’s level of success just by stepping on the court.

And again, they may not even opt out, so it’s not important to address them anymore than noting they are ELIGIBLE to opt out this summer as well as the others above.

Other free agents for 2010:
Ben Wallace, Detroit.
Larry Hughes, Charlotte.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Cleveland.
Anderson Varejao, Cleveland.
Al Harrington, New York.
Darko Milicic, Minnesota.
Udonis Haslem, Miami.
Jamal Crawford, Atlanta.
Eddy Curry, New York.
Derek Fisher, Los Angeles Lakers.

(There are others, just none worth noting).
Wallace isn’t costing the Pistons anything, and no one else wants him at this point in his career. Larry Hughes is on the cheap also. A good backup/3rd player/spot starter. Ilgauskas and Varejao can both opt out of their contracts with Cleveland along with LeBron and that’s potentially huge. Al Harrington definitely will not be back with the Knicks at his cost and disjointed/missing production. Milicic is heading back overseas. Haslem is a decent player. Maybe he returns to Miami? Orlando could use an enforcer next to Howard. Crawford will remain in his division, in my opinion. Curry (if he is smart) will protect himself by using his player option for 2010-2011. However, the Knicks will protect themselves by using his then to-be expiring contract as bait to offer a trade either after the initial free agency period or later in February (Denver, for Anthony?) Fish is a Laker or retiring.

NEW YORK KNICKS NEEDS AND PERSONAL PREFERENCES:

1. The Knicks need someone to patrol the paint on both ends. Curry, even at his best, can only do that offensively. And he may not be back, anyway. There will be some question about who will be signed alongside any max player(s) the Knicks sign, as they will only have minimum cap space (before exceptions) to sign the other 5 players who will not be under contract — in order to reach the NBA requisite minimum roster number of 13.

*** It should be noted that draft picks do not necessarily count towards the cap number for each team.

2. A NEW COACH (but that’s personal).
D’Antoni may not be back, especially if that becomes a bone of contention for James and/or Bosh and determining whether they decide to come to New York or not.

PERSONAL:
What I’d like to see is Toronto execute a sign-and-trade with Chris Bosh, offer him the max deal he wants (although he is much like Stoudemire as a 1b.) and New York signs David Lee to a $12-$14M deal, sending another player (Rodriguez, who will then become an unrestricted free agent after next season) and cash considerations to Toronto.

Sign Dwyane Wade OR LeBron James.

With remaining cap space offer deals to either Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton or another player at the MLE and draft wisely.

OR

Sign LeBron James, Rudy Gay, trade for Caron Butler and offer one of the aforementioned players at the MLE. Yes, if you’ve put 2+2 together with these names, it APPEARS “that’s” what I’m implying, but I’m not on that hokey “fill a roster with guys from the same school” nonsense — it’s just highly convenient that certain players are in walk years and others are coming up on them next year and would be effective on the same team.

To go with young Toney Douglas, Will The Thrill Chandler and Young Gallo (Danilo Gallinari) that would be a tough core and the best in the Eastern Conference.

Too many ifs, in-turns, and only once so and so does this, that or the third — type scenarios to do more than speculate at this point. However, I will have bi-weekly updates once the NBA Finals conclude and especially (as situations warrant) once the NBA Draft is complete. I am planning to be present at the Draft this year, while failing last year to secure tickets while standing on a line with Jayson Albert in front of Madison Square Garden for over an hour. Live reports from inside if I am able to get in this year.
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AS FOR NOW, about six weeks later on June 30, 2010, a great number of beneath-the-surface caveats have formed. It is time to turn off ESPN, CBSportsline and Yahoo and break out the abacus, accounting notebook and learn the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement. Because if you listen to ESPN hacks like Chad Ford and CHRIS BROUSSARD, you’d think the NBA’s CBA was non-existent. Some of these supposed deals cannot happen. Plain and simple.

Breaking news:

Small Forward Paul Pierce opts out of his contract with the Boston Celtics. Interesting of note for a few reasons 1) Pierce will be 33 upon the arrival of the 2010-2011 NBA season. The Over-36 Rule weighs heavily into contract negotiations regarding an extension, as Boston cannot offer him more than 3 years on a new deal. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement may also prove to be prohibitive for Pierce. 2) Opting out gives the Celtics flexibility to potentially re-sign Shooting Guard Ray Allen. 3) Doc Rivers, in his poor attempt at imitating Brett Favre and Phil Jackson, decides today he will return to coach Boston and 4) Pierce DOES stand to receive an all-important 4th year and potentially $96M from a team outside of Boston. Celtics’ GM Danny Ainge realistically and openly admitted the possibility that Pierce could bolt to another team for such a deal. Pierce leaves $21.5M on the table for the 2010-2011 season by opting out of his current deal. There is no way Boston is giving him that much on any contract going forward, because he is not worth it anymore, and again, will be 33 in October. Furthermore, the best the Celtics will probably offer is 3 years and about $49M. Even in doing so, signing Ray Allen will certainly put the Celtics over the luxury tax threshold and be a tell-tale sign that the Celtics are gearing up for another season with the thought that they can coast through the season (again) and hope to get hot late, as all three of their leading scorers are a year older. Bears watching, especially if Pierce does indeed leave Boston under some currently unforeseen circumstance.

Dallas Mavericks’ Power Forward Dirk Nowitzki opts out of his contract with the team, but is in the same situation as Pierce with the Over 36 rule and potentially using the leverage that the player option provides to get close to the same $21M salary from Dallas for four more years without giving up the $3-$4M that he would almost certainly be giving up if he were not to be given an extension from Dallas or leave for another team (and only receive four years instead of five). There is an outside shot that Nowitzki leaves Dallas, but only to line up with a player like Dwyane Wade. There isn’t a situation where Dirk will team with LeBron James, so anyone mentioning this is wishing.

The New Jersey Nets cleared $3M in cap space on June 29 by waiving Yi Jianlian. It doesn’t do much for their hopes, because they still do not have the cap space to sign the requisite two max-level players it will need in order to acquire LeBron James. Dwyane Wade was out of their reach to begin with, and a player like Amaré Stoudemire was making more than most of the actual Top Tier free agents, meaning his max-contract dollar amount would be higher (he can make up to 105% more annually on a new deal, as can the others), so the prospect of signing any of those players in tandem is out. The Nets would have to trade one of the players they are building around to have an outside shot of signing two max-level players and hoping to be able to use a couple of league exceptions to lure another guy who they would be able to pay about $8-$9M annually to — or stand pat and build wisely as Mike Prokhorov stated they would upon acquiring the team from Bruce (Rat)ner.

I have never understood the hype about the Bulls. Yes, Derrick Rose is a fine player who only stands to be great (his ceiling is higher than Rajon Rondo’s and Deron Williams is already all that he will ever be, believe it or not), but there is no way the Bulls are getting LeBron James. The reason? They STILL do not have the cap room to sign two max players, especially not the ones they have been “rumored” to be after. I do not know how message board buffoonery ends up as front page fodder on ESPN or even mentioned over the airwaves as fact, but this has never been true. Had they not pulled a panic move and given away one of their main players (Kirk Hinrich $9M) and their 1st Round Pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, Kevin Seraphim, they would barely be able to afford a max contract and enough money to add to the full mid-level exception to POSSIBLY pay another player $10M annually. That $10M certainly isn’t going to be enough to lure any of the top names, and certainly not Chris Bosh, who is reportedly following LeBron James like a little brother with regards to signing destinations. Not when these guys were making 30%-40% more on their previous contracts. Winning is a great salve, but I doubt anyone (despite their declarations to the contrary) is SOLELY about winning and has a total disregard to finances, when they’re looking at taking a nearly 50% pay cut (factor in the escalation in salary due to inflation written into the CBA) just for the PROSPECT of winning with a team that isn’t more than a paper threat to uproot both of the current conference champions. A team of James, Rose, Noah and Bosh looks promising, but the Bulls would have a very thin bench, with currently only six players guaranteed signed through next season (including Noah and Rose). Yes, there are exceptions galore, and all teams under the cap can spend and bring in players who would otherwise set them over the spending limit as long as they are under the cap BEFORE the transaction takes place, but the Bulls’ best options are to focus on acquiring a shooting guard (Joe Johnson) and a solid, albeit not great — big man (Stoudemire). It is the most they can do unless they are able to find a taker for Luol Deng’s embarrassing contract (Bryan Colangelo are you listening?)

Don’t understand the Miami hype either. Bosh isn’t one to spew lip service, and he echoes my sentiments (regarding the Wade, James, Bosh, player to be named later talks that have surfaced from NBA Trade Machine hacks and rabid Heat fans) “I don’t see how it can happen”. And I agree. People widely reported the Heat have $40M in cap space. They do not. The only way they can do so is if Wade opts out of his contract. By doing so, they will initially have space, but obviously the intent is to keep Wade and add two pieces for a “super team”. And re-signing Wade to a new deal, with the 105% increase makes it prohibitive for the Heat to sign any more than one max player. Someone would have to be willing to take a contract in the range of $10-$12M in order for it to work the way the imbeciles on the sports message boards and talk radio claim they have “inside knowledge” about. The Heat have basically declined every team option and traded, waived and bought out everyone on their roster. They cannot re-sign PF Udonis Haslem and acquire any more than one of these guys and no GM is going to be willing to take SF Michael Beasley nor PG Mario Chalmers without the Heat mortgaging their future by giving up a 1st Round Pick or two (this is my insinuation regarding a possible sign and trade for Bosh or Nowitzki). If you’re counting at home, that would leave the Heat with 5 contract players, no cap space for a bench, no 1st round picks in 2011 and/or possibly 2012 and still no lock to even make the Eastern Conference Finals. The Heat are better off (if Wade stays) signing Carlos Boozer for a little less than the max and HOPING that is enough to lure James to Ocean Blvd. They could then use their mid level exception to bring in the shooter they will desperately need as they basically gave away Daequan Cook to the Oklahoma City Thunder along with their 18th pick in the 1st round of the 2010 NBA Draft. The nonsense needs to die. The Heat made a last ditch effort to get in position to be able to TALK, but they’re not any closer to signing the players people seem to think they will.

SF Rudy Gay was given a qualifying offer from the Memphis Grizzlies. This is big, because it sets the market for Gay. Teams know how much they are going to have to offer to lure him from Memphis and any talks about lining him up with wherever Wade or James goes has to be taken into consideration with the offer sheet granted by Memphis. No news yet regarding the qualifying offer, but if I know my hoops, I’m figuring it is in the $11-$12M range.

San Antonio Spurs’ SF Richard Jefferson opted out of his contract today (doing the Spurs a HUGE favor in the process). The Spurs were deadlocked by Jefferson’s contract, which paid him $15M next season. He knows his best chance to win is playing 3rd wheel on the right team and making closer to $10M instead of what he had been making the past three seasons; he had never been worth it, as he is still very much one-dimensional and coming up on 30, that’s not worth anything more than $10M. The Spurs may still keep him, as RC Buford is the best GM in the NBA hands down — he’ll either find a way to make Jefferson work, or allow Jefferson to walk and then use the cap space to lure in a player that no one saw going to the Spurs — which is the way the Spurs seem to always get it done. Jefferson could end up anywhere from Chicago, Miami, Charlotte, back in New Jersey or even Memphis (if Gay leaves).

I have always felt that Joe Johnson would remain in Atlanta. He met with the team today. I believe all talk regarding him going to this team or that team is leverage created by his camp to cause the Hawks to bid against exactly no one for the rights to sign Johnson. He’s clearly not a max player (strictly a scorer and doesn’t even do THAT when it matters, plays no defense, doesn’t set anyone up and only gets incidental rebounds — slimmer Glenn “Black Hole” Robinson) and even the dumbest GMs and those in the worst situations (Toronto, Golden State, Indiana) wouldn’t offer Johnson the max contract. He’s not a splash anywhere. The Hawks fans may have turned on him, and it would be his own making, but the only place he’s getting a max contract is in Atlanta. The only way he teams with the likes of James or Wade is to be a $10M-$12M guy and STILL be the 3rd option. A lineup of Wade, James and Johnson in Miami is not a winner. Nor is Rose, James, Noah and the Brothers Johnson in Chicago. Once the first domino falls, expect Johnson to quickly stay put in Atlanta and accept that he will be 33 when he comes up for his final contract and eventually have to go through this “take a pay cut and play on a contender” thing once again. Atlanta is about to fall back to mediocrity for a couple of years and by the time Johnson is 33, he will either tire of losing or be nowhere near being in position to use leverage for anything more than the market holds for him in 2015.

I think Boozer either remains in Utah or goes to Miami in some scenario with just Wade or another $12M+ guy. But the Heat won’t be landing two max players.

I don’t think the Nets are going to be as wild spending as some people think. Prokhorov has made it clear that he wants to win, but using the successful business model (i.e. wise investing, building piece by piece ala Sam Presti in Oklahoma City and not always making the sexy splash all at once). The Nets may very well stand pat and see what happens in February when they can be in the running to acquire Chris Paul AND/OR Carmelo Anthony.

In all actuality, the team with the best chances to sign the headline players is the Knicks. They are the only team that can truly sign two max contracts and still have six other players on the roster before signing draft picks (or trading them for another player), using their full mid-level exception and the vet minimum as they did with Chris Duhon two years ago. I do not know where all the talk about counting the Knicks out came from, and while our owner is a certified dolt who is clueless about sports, he merely signs off on what GM Donnie Walsh does. Long gone are the days of him mandating signings (commanding the best President the Knicks have ever known in Dave Checketts — to sign Allan Houston to that dreaded 6 year/$99M contract in 2000) and trades (again, forcing Checketts to trade Oakley to Toronto for Camby in 1998 and trading Pat Ewing to Seattle in 2000), while basically making sure otherwise decent GM (yes, I’m saying this, because a lot of his moves weren’t of his own making, but yet again, DOLAN’S) Scott Layden was the fall guy once the Knicks plummeted by forcing him to shed Latrell Sprewell in 2003. Layden was fired soon after and Knicks fans were forced to sit and watch Sprewell nearly make the NBA Finals in 2004 with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Dolan trusts Walsh and the Knicks are in the driver’s seat in several regards:

1. They have exact cap space (as of June 30, 2010) to sign “2.06” max contracts. That is, roughly $37-$40M (depending upon escalators in certain players’ contracts and the team exercising David Lee’s BIRD RIGHTS — something else KNOW-NOTHINGS on message boards fail to realize the Knicks did to protect themselves coming into this season, knowing that Lee was part of their future plans along with whoever they signed.

2. Contrary to what people who only watched highlights of Knicks games claim, the team has four very good young players to build around. David Lee being the oldest player on the team (who matters) at only 27, along with league-best shooter SF Danilo Gallinari, young PG Toney Douglas who came on late in the season while finally garnering playing time of note and steady SG/SF Wilson Chandler.

3. The Knicks can sign James and/or Bosh OR Wade OR Stoudemire outright. That would give the team 7 players under contract (before discussing PF Sergio Rodriguez’s option). C Eddy Curry wisely (for himself, anyway) exercised his player option for next season, which gives the Knicks flexibility for both now, or February or even next June.

4. If the Knicks are working one of the plans that was widely circulated — that they are trying to construct a deal that involves a team taking Curry in exchange for a sign and trade, along with the rights to the Rockets’ 1st round draft pick in 2011, thus freeing up nearly $12M MORE in cap space that could afford the Knicks the opportunity to make a run at free-agents-to-be in 2011, Carmelo Anthony (who the Nuggets don’t want to lose for literally nothing) and Chris Paul (who the Hornets secretly would rather move and play Collison at a huge fraction in salary and just as productive — as Shinn tries to sell the team once again), then things would be even more amenable for Walsh. This is never reported with all the redundant “Wade: I want to remain in Miami”, “Bosh: I don’t know nothin’ about nothin'” and James’ playing coy and acting like he wants to win more than he wants to be a billionaire brand like his mentor Jay-Z, but this is a VERY REAL scenario that teams are talking to the Knicks about.

5. Look for the Knicks, who were criticized for taking two identical players in the 2010 NBA Draft to package one or both along with another player who they will make a qualifying offer (Rodriguez, Harrington or Duhon) to acquire another $6M-$8M in cap space to add along with the full mid-level exception to potentially sign a player such as Ray Allen or Rudy Gay (at about $12-$13M per).

Why none of this is ever reported, and why ESPN and the other outlets willfully and ERRONEOUSLY reported that the Bulls and Heat have cap room to sign two max players is beyond me, but this is where we stand as I wrap this up 30 minutes before teams and players are free to begin negotiations. Now it is time to watch the ESPN crawl at the bottom of the screen and check our BlackBerries and iPhones incessantly for the next few weeks.

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