LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers guaranteed NBA fans at least three more games before the season comes to an end. But unless you’re a Cavs or Golden State Warriors fan you might have little vested in the final outcome of this year’s Finals.
Instead, most fans are salivating over the potential in this year’s draft class as well as the host of top players hitting the open market when free agency begins at midnight Eastern Time on Wednesday, July 1.
Focusing on the latter, there’s a ton of talented players up for grabs. Many of whom could turn a middling franchise into a legitimate title contender in the 2015-2016 season.
Some of these players also probably wish their contracts were up in 2016. The NBA’s new national television rights deal will kick in then, ballooning the salary cap ceiling for each team and thus the amount of money teams will be allowed to spend on players. This will also play a major role for players who have the option to hit free agency or stay one more year when the maximum-level contracts will increase significantly.
Here are the 13 best free agents likely available this summer. It’s a mix of unrestricted and restricted free agents, as well as some who could opt-out of their current deals.
We’ll also try to gauge where they could land. This year a number of teams who either reside in a top market or are perennial title contenders will have plenty to spend, like the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs.
DeMarre Carroll and Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks
Perhaps two of the more underrated players at their positions, Carroll and Millsap were major contributors for Atlanta’s record-setting trip to the Eastern Conference Finals and both are likely to cash in. Carroll, a journeyman small forward who has played with five total teams over six years, notched a career-best 12.6 points and 5.3 rebounds while shooting 39.5 percent from three.
Millsap’s scoring and rebounding dipped from a year ago, but he’s one of the most consistent players in the league and has missed more than six games in a single season only once.
Atlanta has lots of space with only $39 million devoted to salaries next season, but they’ll have to be careful with All-Star Al Horford up for a new deal in 2016. It’s likely only Carroll or Millsap stays.
Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls (Restricted)
After passing on an extension before the start of this season, Butler exploded for his first All-Star berth while carrying the Bulls offense for most of the season while Derrick Rose re-acclimated to the league. An electric and high-flying scorer, as well as a lock-down defender, Butler will undoubtedly receive a max-level offer from a number of teams, with the Lakers very interested.
However, Chicago are unlikely to buckle under pressure since they won’t face a potentially mass exodus until 2017, when Rose, Taj Gibson, and Pau Gasol are all up for new deals.
Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers (Player Option)
The biggest question looming in free agency: Will Love stay in Cleveland or bolt? He’s one player who could greatly benefit by playing out the rest of his deal and waiting until the salary cap grows by leaps and bounds in 2016. But in his first year with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving Love was forced to play the No. 3 role in the offense, and his scoring and rebounding numbers precipitously declined as a result. There’s a good chance that whoever signs Love, should he opt-out, will make him the focal point of their offense.
The Lakers are a possibility, and have been for years now, while the Mavericks and Houston Rockets are also options.
Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors (Restricted)
The very definition of a player whose heart and hustle outweigh his overall talents, Green made only $915,000 this season while posting career-highs in points (11.7), rebounds (6.8), assists (3.7), steals (1.6), and blocks (1.3) per game. In the playoffs, he’s built on those numbers for a double-double of 13.6 points and 10.5 rebounds to put the Warriors in line for the title beside Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
Golden State’s already on the books for $78 million next season, and re-signing Green will eat into their considerable space in 2016. But he’s unlikely to go anywhere else.
DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers
Jordan’s one of the most gifted rebounders and defenders in the league, and he has to be the Clippers top priority this summer with no other starter up for a new deal until 2017. New owner Steve Ballmer is unlikely to let Jordan go, even if he does have to pay luxury taxes to keep this Clippers core together.
Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
The most prized center in the league, capable of altering shots in the lane and stretching a defense with a smooth jumper and drivwa to the hoop, Gasol’s unquestionably the most versatile and coveted big man in the league. The Knicks have been tabbed as suitors for quite some time, but Gasol actually said in a recent interview that he has a “simple life” and mentioned Memphis, San Antonio, L.A., and Atlanta.
In his case, the Grizzlies can offer Gasol an extra year and more money and he’s been very close to the Finals with this team. If he leaves, it would be a surprise.
Greg Monroe, Detroit Pistons
A consistent and fundamentally sound big man, Monroe’s all but packed to leave Detroit and head coach Stan Van Gundy. Over his five-year career he’s averaging 14.3 points and 9.2 rebounds with 2.3 assists. The Knicks are reportedly his top landing spot, but Monroe will likely explore his full-range of options.
LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers
An All-Star for four straight years, Aldridge is the top power forward on the market and Trail Blazers fans might take it to heart that he put his Portland home up for sale. He averaged 23.4 points and 10.2 rebounds a game this past season, and could completely revamp any frontcourt. But would he really leave an extra year and millions on the table to leave Portland? Aldridge already has All-Star point guard Damian Lillard on his side, and he’s routinely made the playoffs in Portland. However, Aldridge is originally from Texas, and a return home can’t be ruled out. He also might be itching to make a move to a more serious contender.
Tyson Chandler and Rajon Rondo, Dallas Mavericks
Chandler’s bread and butter is defense and rebounding, and he’s one of the best in the league at doing both. But he won’t garner a $14 million salary like he did last season. As the Dallas Morning News points out, the Mavs mistakenly let Chandler walk back in 2011 and might not make the same mistake again. But again the price has to be right with Dallas having $43 million in contracts next year, and only $28 million in 2016.
Rondo’s short-tenure in Dallas will almost certainly end after issues with head coach Rick Carlisle, which leave the Lakers, Knicks, and Sacramento Kings as contenders. This season Rondo was coming off a torn ACL, and at 29 he’s not the best young point guard in the league any more. The max-level offers might be too few for Rondo, but wherever he lands Rondo can be an impactful floor general and guide a team to the postseason. The Knicks and Lakers are most likely his top potential suitors, with Rondo and Kobe Bryant reportedly on good terms.
Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic, and Luol Deng, Miami Heat (Player Options)
Wade’s never known another NBA team during his career, and before the last few weeks it would have been unthinkable to see him in another uniform. But he reportedly wants a contract extension at $20 million a year, while the Heat prefer he opt-in to his final year and keep their books at $77 million next season and $29 million in 2016. That’s when Miami would like to re-sign him to a more cap-friendly deal at $10 million a season, which isn’t unreasonable given Wade’s age of 33, a time when most shooting guards decline.
Arguably that decline began five years ago, as Wade has yet to play more than 69 games in a season since 2010. However, he took less money to bring LeBron James and Chris Bosh to Miami, so Wade evidently wants to be rewarded.
The Knicks are a possibility, but maybe not at $20 million a season, though he and Carmelo Anthony could do some damage in the weaker East if Wade can stay healthy. At this point it seems unlikely Wade walks.
Deng comes off a solid and mostly healthy season with 15 points, 5.6 rebounds, and steal per game, and he’s capable of guarding most forwards and shooting guards. He owns a $10 million option for next season, and Deng might not garner much more from other teams given he just turned 30. He might be better served locking into a deal now rather than waiting for the expected salary cap growth in 2016.
Dragic, who joined the Heat at the trade deadline and had them poised for a playoff run before Bosh went down, is one of the more intriguing players in this year’s class. The Slovenian has been one of the best penetrators in the league and over the last few years one of the most efficient scorers in the league, with his shooting percentage above 50 the last two seasons. His option is worth only $7.5 million next season, a relatively low figure, and Dragic could get more than $10 million a season if a squad wants him enough.
Dragic is almost four years younger than Wade, and it’s not unreasonable to think Miami would re-sign him before Wade.