As the marketplace prepares to be flooded with a massive infusion of cash and salary cap space, the NBA opens its free agency period Friday and some of the league’s best young and veteran players are free to go to the highest bidder.
Though it might pale in comparison to 2010’s free agent class, which featured the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, 2016 offers a number of the NBA’s premier scorers, rebounders, defenders and leaders, many of whom could help several teams reach contender status or get over the championship hump.
This year, in particular, fans around the league will see unseemly and perhaps overinflated salaries thrown around due to a tremendous raise in the salary cap. The NBA is about to enter the first year of its new $24 billion television rights deal, which, due to the league’s collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union, directly increases basketball related income (BRI) and thus how much money is available to players seeking new contracts.
The NBA set the salary cap for the 2016-17 season at $94 million, which represents a $22 million or a 30.5 percent increase compared with last year’s $72 million cap. That in turn has also raised the luxury tax threshold to $113 million, which will also make it easier for teams to retain some of their own free agents.
It’s important to know those figures, but it’s of equal importance to know who is truly on the market. Yes, there’s a significant number of stars who will be unrestricted free agents at the stroke of midnight July 1, but many are restricted free agents who can sign an offer sheet with another team only to have it matched by their current squad. There are also several players with options to enter the market (James, DeMar DeRozan, Dwight Howard); however, we’re focusing solely on the players we know are absolutely available.
Here are the six top unrestricted free agents who could completely change the future of their current or future teams.
Kevin Durant, SF, Oklahoma City Thunder
The biggest prize of them all and a player who can actually shift the power paradigm no matter where he lands. Durant’s a four-time scoring champion, only two years removed from an MVP campaign, and has a mountain of playoff experience. Over nine seasons Durant has averaged 27.4 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.7 assists while shooting 48 percent from the floor and 38 percent from deep range.
Al Horford, C, Atlanta Hawks
Unquestionably the best big man to hit the market, Horford has put up 14.3 points and 8.9 rebounds per game and shot 53.5 percent in eight years with the Hawks. But his biggest and best attribute is a rare blend of size and hustle to defend anyone along the frontcourt. Atlanta can give him an extra year on his new contract, and the four-time All-Star may wish to stay with the only team he’s known in the NBA.
Dwyane Wade, SG, Miami Heat
The Heat has roughly $44.2 million in cap space, the fourth-highest total in the league, according to Spotrac.com, but given Wade’s age, 34, it seems unlikely the team would devote a significant amount of that money to him. Still, the 12-time All-Star and three-time NBA champion is one of the best scorers in the game and could be an excellent No. 2 or No. 3 scorer for a team in need of offense. That is, if the price is right for a player who's clearly on the decline. However, he has also spent his entire 13-year career in Miami, so a change of scenery doesn't appear likely.
Mike Conley Jr., PG, Memphis Grizzlies
Due to a rather shallow crop of available top-flight point guards this year and the higher cap, Conley is going to receive a hefty deal from any team in need of a true floor general. Though his 2015-16 season was cut short due to an Achilles injury, Conley’s one of the most consistent showrunners in the league with career averages of 13.6 points, 5.6 assists and 1.5 steals per game. He also plays excellent defense, and looks to get others involved far more than trying to find his own.
Hassan Whiteside, C, Miami Heat
A rare commodity in today’s NBA, Whiteside has stood out the last two seasons as a double-double machine and just put up a whopping 3.7 blocks per game this past year. Along with averaging 14.2 points and 11.8 rebounds this season, Whiteside certainly has the talent to single-handedly revamp any team’s frontcourt, but there have been questions about his hustle before.
Rajon Rondo, PG, Sacramento Kings
For a while there it seemed like Rondo’s best days were behind him. But the 30-year-old did the impossible and at times made the Kings seem relevant by leading the league with 11.7 assists per game and was seventh with 1.96 steals a contest. Rondo used the last season to prove he’s worthy of a mega contract, and any number of teams could use his championship experience and creative playmaking to return to the postseason.