Free agency preview: Once again, everything starts with LeBron

The top of this year's free-agent class -- featuring (from left) Chris Bosh, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony -- looks a lot like an All-Star team.

Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty Images

It doesn’t seem like all that long ago basketball fans breathlessly waited to see where LeBron James would continue his basketball career after opting out of his deal with the Cavaliers. And now here we are again four years later, eagerly awaiting word of where the world’s best player might be headed next, now that NBA’s free agency is about to open.

Unlike 2010, when many anticipated James would ultimately leave Cleveland, The Summer of LeBron Part 2 may not prove to be quite as dramatic, with the general assumption being that he will find a way to stay with the Heat. Miami isn’t taking LeBron’s return for granted, however, and already has started working on ways to entice him to stay.

Beyond LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — who also opted out of their deals over the weekend, ostensibly to give the Heat maximum flexibility to keep the gang together — there are several other quality pieces potentially looking for a new place to play this offseason.

One of them is Carmelo Anthony, a first-class superstar whose free agency would normally be the talk of the summer — and probably will be once LeBron and the Heat come to terms. Another is Lance Stephenson, who has proven as combustible as he is talented over the past couple seasons but who could drastically change a team’s fortunes should he get his head on straight. Other second-tier stars, like Greg Monroe and Eric Bledsoe, will be looking to join the ranks of the max contract players.


There are plenty of players to be had after free-agent negotiations begin Tuesday, and, undoubtedly, some of them will end up on your favorite team, but these are the top 10 free agents to watch (last team in parenthesis) as the summer kicks into high gear:

1. SF LeBron James (Heat): After taking a pay cut to form the Big Three in 2010, LeBron is reportedly looking for max money with his next contract, and there’s no doubt he deserves it. Unfortunately, that means that the Other Two will need to agree to another sizable reduction in salary in order to keep the gang together and add new pieces. All indications are that Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are prepared to do that, but if they’re not, there are 29 other teams in the league who would be more than willing to pay for James’ services.

2. SG Dwyane Wade (Heat): Though Wade won’t have the on-court impact some of this free agency class’ other top players will, his decision will be critical to the future of the Heat. The impression has always been that D-Wade will be a Heat lifer, and he’s never given much indication that he’s considering leaving. So the answer likely won’t be where Wade goes so much as how big of a pay cut he’s willing to take to keep the Big Three together in Miami. One has to assume team president Pat Riley has told Wade he’ll be taken care of.

3. PF Chris Bosh (Heat): Bosh is probably the biggest question mark among the Heat’s three stars, as he, unlike Wade, stands to command more on the open market than he’s apt to receive from Miami. The question will come down to whether he’s willing to accept less to keep the Heat’s core together. Bosh seems to fit well in the role of No. 2 star, but certainly there are teams out there that would be willing to pay him to be their biggest star. Given his rapport with James and Wade, however, you’d have to imagine he’ll find a way to stay.

4. SF Carmelo Anthony (Knicks): Anthony never was able to bring a title — or anything close to one — to New York, and now we’ll see whether he wants to give the Knicks another shot with Phil Jackson at the helm, or if he’d rather partner up with another star elsewhere. As frustrating as he can be, Anthony is still one of the NBA’s truly elite players, and whatever team gets him will be better for it. But Melo is not a guy who makes a team a contender on his own, so his supporting cast will need to play an equally huge role in his next team’s success.

Lance Stephenson offers a risk-reward mix of volatility and talent.

5. SG Lance Stephenson (Pacers): The shame with Stephenson is that the enigmatic guard will scare off as many teams with his attitude as he’ll attract with his play. There’s no question he’s one of the league’s most versatile guards when he’s on his game, but when his head is not in it, he can be quite the terror to deal with. Whether he stays with the Pacers or finds a new home elsewhere, his next contract has to come with a team that is willing to live with the occasional blow-up in exchange for his large on-court presence.

6. PG Kyle Lowry (Raptors): Lowry seemingly has been on the trading block for forever, and just last week his name was reportedly tied to a sign-and-trade with Miami, though that never came to fruition. But for all of the effort Toronto has allegedly put into finding a suitor for Lowry, don’t be surprised if Raptors GM Masai Ujiri makes a strong push to bring him back. After a stunning third-place finish in the East last season, Toronto can’t afford to take a step back, and there aren’t any better attainable point guards on the market than the one the Raps have.

Dirk Nowitzki is a free agent, but he’s not going anywhere.

7. SF Dirk Nowitzki (Mavericks): Nowitzki is on the market, but only technically speaking. He won’t be going anywhere and has said as much in recent weeks, quite literally laughing at a report that the Rockets could potentially be suitors, and telling The Dallas Morning News that the odds are “pretty slim to none” that he’ll leave. Instead, the question will be whether Dirk gives Mavs owner Mark Cuban a hometown discount so Cuban will have enough money left over to build a team that will be in a better position to once again be a championship contender.

8. C Greg Monroe (Pistons): It was easy to overlook Monroe on a team that included Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings and fellow big man Andre Drummond, but Monroe is an incredibly skilled player who is deserving of your attention — and one who will command big bucks this summer. Arguably the most talented big man in this year’s free-agent class, Monroe would probably do well with a fresh start in another locale, though playing under Stan Van Gundy in Detroit could go a long way toward making Monroe the type of defender he should be.

9. C Marcin Gortat (Wizards): Gortat is never going to be a superstar or a game-changer, but over the last several years as a starter with Phoenix and Washington, he has proven to be one of the game’s most consistent big men. Gortat likely earned himself a nice payday in this year’s playoffs, averaging 13.0 points and 9.9 rebounds, including a 31-point, 16-rebound performance in Washington’s second-to-last game. His next team shouldn’t expect those kinds of numbers on too regular a basis, but if you’re looking for reliable, Gortat is your guy, and Washington will certainly do everything it can to keep him.

10. PG Eric Bledsoe (Suns): The Suns have said they’ll hold onto Bledsoe, arguably the top restricted free agent on the market, even if that means signing him to a max deal. Is Bledsoe worth that? He is when he’s playing, but durability is  a problem. Bledsoe has seen two of his four NBA seasons cut in half by knee injuries, and that could give cause to pause for the Suns and other suitors. But he still may be the best young point guard in the game, and that alone should earn him a huge paycheck that likely keeps him in Phoenix.