Last season, the free-agent pickings were a bona-fide feast of amazing players and jaw-dropping storylines. This year’s free-agent pool isn’t quite as dazzling, but the lockout-shortened season means Friday will kick off a fast and furious barrage of business, movement and change.
In 2010, the free-agency period kicked off July 1 and gave us LeBron James’ “The Decision” and a cluster of All-Stars like Amar’e Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer and Chris Bosh changing teams. Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki, prized free agents themselves, stayed where they were.
In 2011, though, teams will have only a few weeks to sign free agents, adapt to a new collective bargaining agreement and make preseason trades before games begin on Christmas day.
Here’s a primer on just what to expect.
Who are the best players available?
While there’s no Big Three to be scooped up, players like Nene and Tyson Chandler could be key additions to teams looking to make a jump forward. They’re among the best players out there for teams that still need to spend the league-required amount of money on their payrolls before the season starts, not to mention those teams that are one more talent away from truly contending. True centers have value almost anywhere, so put these two at the top of the list in terms of the most coveted of this year’s class.
Jason Richardson’s sharp shooting will have plenty of suitors calling, including teams like the Chicago Bulls, who some believe are one piece away from being championship caliber themselves. Shane Battier, Marc Gasol and Caron Butler are also high on teams’ wish lists. David West, Jeff Green, Kris Humphries and Jamal Crawford, among others, shouldn’t be wanting for offers either.
Which teams will be the most active?
Simply put, some teams have no choice but to be busy. The New Orleans Hornets and Denver Nuggets have only six players under contract, meaning they still need to fill half their roster. There are also several title-contending teams with glaring holes. The Miami Heat desperately need a center and a point guard, though many think Mario Chalmers will re-sign with and play the point for Miami. Battier might be the right fit for a Heat team that could use more of a veteran presence and ace defender.
The Bulls need that shooting guard, so if Richardson goes elsewhere they could target Arron Afflalo or Crawford. The defending champion Dallas Mavericks will do what they can to keep Chandler, one of their six free agents, as well as JJ Barea, one of the heroes of their title run.
Also expect the Sacramento Kings, who need to start spending money to get their payroll up, to be big spenders.
How does the new labor deal affect things?
Teams already over the salary cap won’t be able to offer the full midlevel exception, which is basically a contract that starts at $5 million per season. They will be able to offer the mini-exception, which starts at $3 million per season.
Teams like the Lakers, then, won’t have the cap space to sign someone that can make a real difference. But the most lasting impact of the new deal will kick in after the first two years — a punishing luxury tax for teams that go over. That gives major markets like Los Angeles, New York and Chicago an advantage over other teams and the time to get their houses in order before the real belt-tightening begins.
Will players still get overpaid?
Oh yeah. In the end, this is still a very competitive business, and teams fighting over players — even those like Nene and Chandler, solid contributors but not stars — will drive the prices up on one another.
Take the Houston Rockets and New Jersey Nets. With Yao Ming retired, the Rockets desperately need a big man. The Nets don’t think Brook Lopez is a true center. That means those two teams alone will pay a high price to land Nene or Chandler. Everywhere you look, there are teams, good and bad, with holes. It takes dollars to fill them up, often more dollars than a player is worth. That’s not going to change.
Will there be many trades?
There should be, as teams maneuver to get just the pieces they want as the next two weeks unfold in a rush of changing rosters. But the most glitzy and exciting moves could come from the free-agent class of 2012.
The marquee members of next years free-agent crop include the Magic’s Dwight Howard and the Hornets’ Chris Paul, both of whom have indicated in one way or another that they want out of their smaller markets and into places like New York and Los Angeles. There’s little reason for Orlando and New Orleans to hold onto players who will almost certainly leave after the season — and who will have the most trade value over the next two weeks.
The Lakers are reportedly drooling to get Howard, with reports saying a combination of Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom are all in play. Paul, too, has been linked to trade rumors involving the Lakers, Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Clippers. It’s also believed that he’d like to play for the New York Knicks, though they have less to give than some other major market teams.
Yes, the new CBA and the shortened season are going to lead to changes, most notably Friday’s mad dash to get rosters in order.
But for now, at least, one thing won’t change: The rich will get richer, and the poor will keep trying to scrape together ways to win.