Free-agent signings and offseason trades can completely change the landscape of the NBA and the 2013 offseason is shaping up to be one of the biggest ones in recent years. With legitimate superstars available via free agency, a number of teams with cap space and a new collective bargaining agreement to account for, the league could be in for a number of major shakeups.
With that, we take a look at the 10 best upcoming NBA free agents.
Chris Paul, the league’s best point guard, will be a free agent at season’s end. Photo Credit: Chrishmt0423 (Flickr.com)
1. Chris Paul, PG – Los Angeles Clippers
Quite simply the best point guard in the league in the prime of his career. Chris Paul has had an outstanding seven-year career thus far and has almost single-handedly changed the culture and fortune of a former cellar-dwelling Clippers team.
The six-time NBA All-Star and Olympic gold medalist has not just increased the win totals for the Clippers but brought legitimacy, leadership and a win-first mentality to a team that desperately needed it. Along with an athletic frontcourt including fellow All-Star Blake Griffin, Paul has formed the infamous “Lob City,” one of the most dominant and entertaining teams in the entire league.
At just 27 years old and with a game based on skills, tenacity, fundamentals and smarts, Paul could potentially still be the best lead guard in the game for the entirety of his next contract. He is currently first in the league in steals per game (2.5), third in assists per game (9.4) and ranks third, only behind the unbelievable seasons of LeBron James and Kevin Durant, in PER with a score of 26.0. He is almost certain to finish in the top five in MVP voting by season’s end.
Literally every single team in the league would love to have Chris Paul at the helm. Any team with cap space this summer, regardless of whether they are in dire need of a point guard or not, will be offering Paul a maximum contract in an attempt to lure him away from LA. The Clippers will remain favorites to retain Paul, but if they fail to meet expectations in the playoffs Paul could jump ship and potentially change the landscape of the entire NBA.
The added pressure in Los Angeles could force Dwight Howard to sign elsewhere. (Photo via DeviantArt user angelmaker666)
2. Dwight Howard, C – Los Angeles Lakers
The NBA collectively shook its head as the Los Angeles Lakers yet again added the best big man in the league to their ranks in the offseason. Unfortunately for Dwight Howard and the Lakers, to say things have not gone to plan to this point would be a major understatement.
Howard was set to join two former league MVPs in Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash as well as All-Star big man Pau Gasol to form a super team, ready to take the league by storm. Instead, the Lakers have struggled all season long with a multitude of issues from coaching changes, personal conflicts, injuries and, recently, the tragic passing of owner Jerry Buss.
We have already seen in Orlando that Howard can take a bad situation and make it worse with his own indecisiveness. For months he led the Magic, the media and fans on a wild goose chase trying to work out whether he would stay, request a trade or wait until free agency. He has failed to form chemistry with Lakers legend Bryant and the lack of team success has put extra pressure on a player known for wanting to enjoy himself.
With the lack of chemistry with his teammates, the lack of team success and his proven tendency to change his mind on where it is he wants to play, the Lakers run a huge risk of losing their new addition in free agency. Despite some concerns, Howard is still a seven-time All-Star, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and arguably the most impactful big man in the league.
A number of teams with cap space this summer, including the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks, have chased Howard in the past and possess the will and the ability to offer him a maximum contract. The Lakers’ hopes of retaining Howard could well be decided on whether they fail to make the playoffs. The backlash of failing to make the postseason with such a stacked roster may be too much for Howard to shoulder and he could be again changing teams before next season.
Despite not playing a game this season, Andrew Bynum will be a coveted free agent. Photo Credit: Keith Allison, Flickr.com
3. Andrew Bynum, C – Philadelphia 76ers
In the same trade that sent Howard to LA, the Philadelphia 76ers acquired All-Star center Andrew Bynum to seemingly be their franchise player going forward. With a young core of Bynum and first-time All-Star Jrue Holiday, the team was seemingly in a great position. Now, with only a third of the season remaining, Bynum still is yet to play a game for the 76ers due to injury and both parties are running out of time to see how the pairing fits before the offseason.
The 76ers are about to find themselves in a tricky situation. Even if Bynum fails to play a single game this season, if he can pass a physical there will still be a number of teams willing to offer him a maximum deal. Last season Bynum averaged 18.7 points per game along with 11.8 rebounds. In a league starved of high-quality, two-way big men, Bynum is a rare breed and teams will be willing to take a risk on his health knowing he could potentially be a franchise-changing star.
Two of the most dangerous teams in free agency this coming summer are the Rockets and the Mavericks. Both have owners and general managers willing to spend money and swing for the fences on potential superstar deals and it would surprise no one to see Mavericks owner Mark Cuban or Houston general manager Darryl Morey take a chance on Bynum. Despite the disappointment of this season in Philadelphia, Andrew Bynum could potentially be the most impactful player on the move in free agency if Howard and Paul decide to stay in LA.
Josh Smith could be playing his last season for the Atlanta Hawks. (Photo Credit: Mark Runyon, Basketball Schedule)
4. Josh Smith, PF – Atlanta Hawks
There is no question that Josh Smith is one of the most athletic, talented and statistically impactful players in the NBA. With contributions in every facet of the game and as one of the best defenders in the league, Smith has been extremely productive this season for the Hawks.
Now 27 and with Atlanta seemingly at a crossroads after dealing away former All-Star Joe Johnson, it would appear that Smith’s time with the Hawks may be coming to an end. Prior to the NBA trade deadline there were numerous discussions about Smith potentially being traded; a number of teams expressed interest, but a suitable deal could not be agreed on in time.
Smith and his agent are likely to demand a maximum contract this summer and this is where some concerns will be raised. With a game based around athleticism, Smith would be into his 30s by the time his deal ran out and would likely be on the downside of his career. Also, despite his huge defensive impact and inside finishing ability, Smith at times has extremely questionable shot selection which may not entice a number of general managers or coaches into bringing him on board.
With season per-game averages of 17.2 points, 8.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.1 blocks, Smith is having one of the most productive seasons of his career and could potentially be a huge game changer if put in the right situation. The questions will remain: How much will it cost? And how long he can keep up his current level of production?
A number of teams will be chasing the signature of Utah Jazz forward Paul Millsap. Photo Credit: LandRover164, Flickr.com
5. Paul Millsap, PF – Utah Jazz
At season’s end, the time will finally have come for the Utah Jazz to commit to a full youth movement. With two top-five lottery-pick big men waiting on the bench and free-agent veterans currently manning the position, it would seem that Paul Millsap and frontcourt partner Al Jefferson are likely to be relocating this summer.
Millsap has been as steady, productive and professional as ever this season as he has helped lead the Jazz into a potential playoff appearance. In just 30 minutes per game and while having to share the frontcourt with a high-usage player such as Jefferson, Millsap still averages 15.1 points and 7.3 rebounds per game.
In the prime of his career at 28 years old and with the experience of 48 playoff games under his belt, Millsap will be a highly coveted player in the offseason. His ability to play inside, shoot the ball from the perimeter and rebound the ball make him the ultimate complimentary piece and he would seemingly have little trouble adjusting to a new situation.
6. Al Jefferson, C – Utah Jazz
One of the most consistently productive frontcourt players in the league over his eight-year career, Jefferson is one of the few true low-post players left in the NBA. With Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors waiting on the Utah bench for their opportunity to shine, Jefferson, who is now 28 years old, seems likely to move on in an attempt to find a home on a contending team.
Despite his productivity and impressive statistics, Jefferson has yet to play on a strong playoff team. In his career he has only played a total of 11 playoff games, seven of which came in the 2004-05 season for the Boston Celtics. With a number of strong young teams with cap space to burn in the summer, Jefferson could finally get his opportunity to join a team capable of making a splash in the postseason.
Despite having one of his quieter seasons in 2012-13, he is still maintaining impressive per game averages of 17.6 points and 9.3 rebounds. He is one of the best low-post scorers in the league and ranks in the top 10 for defensive rebounding. Despite concerns over his defense, Jefferson could be a major contributor to a number of teams and, with a game that relies very little on athleticism, he should be able to maintain these levels of production throughout his next contract.
Nikola Pekovic has become one of the best centers in the league. Photo Credit: Keith Allison, Flickr.com
7. Nikola Pekovic, C – Minnesota Timberwolves
One of the lone bright spots in an otherwise disastrous season for the Minnesota Timberwolves has been the play of third-year center Nikola Pekovic. Pekovic, who is now 27 years old, could not have timed his impressive season any better as he now seems set to receive a big payday as a reward.
With Kevin Love spending a significant amount of time on the sidelines due to injury this season, Pekovic has become the focal point of the Timberwolves frontcourt and has relished the opportunity. Averaging career-high statistics across the board, Pekovic has become one of the best centers in the Western Conference. Shooting better than 50 percent for the season, Pekovic is averaging 16 points and 8.9 rebounds per game.
In a league where big men are paid a premium and post scoring is a rarity, Pekovic is likely to receive a number of large offers from across the league. Despite his age, playing in the NBA is still relatively new to Pekovic and after the season he has had, it is likely he can continue to work on his game and become more confident in his abilities. With the size of the contracts that have recently been handed out to big men such as Brook Lopez and Roy Hibbert, the Timberwolves will have a big decision to make with just how much they are willing to match when the offers start rolling in.
8. O.J. Mayo, SG – Dallas Mavericks
After a disappointing two-season stretch with the Memphis Grizzlies where he came off the bench and averaged well below his career averages, O.J. Mayo has had an outstanding first season in Dallas. Starting the season without former MVP Dirk Nowitzki allowed Mayo to take over the primary scoring load for Dallas and he relished the opportunity. He was among the league leaders in scoring during the opening weeks of the season.
He has since come back down to earth, but has still maintained impressive averages over the course of the season and has played well alongside Nowitzki since his return. Mayo is averaging 17.5 points per game this season and shooting an impressive 40 percent from 3-point range. His 4.4-assist-per-game average is the highest of his career and he has embraced the opportunity to run the offense as a primary ball handler with more regularity.
One of the most durable guards in the league, Mayo has missed just 11 games in his five NBA seasons. It is unlikely that he will ever become the star he was widely touted as prior to being drafted in 2008, but this season in Dallas has proven he is a consistent scorer, capable of running an offense and shooting efficiently even as a go-to option. After struggling to find any significant interest in free agency last season, Mayo has redeemed himself and will likely be rewarded with a significant contract whether it is with Dallas or another team in need of a scoring guard.
Brandon Jennings may look to play in a bigger market next season. Photo Credit: Keith Allison, Flickr.com
9. Brandon Jennings, PG – Milwaukee Bucks
Now into his fourth season in the NBA, the Milwaukee Bucks’ leading scorer, Brandon Jennings, will get his first opportunity to test the free-agent market after he was not given an extension by the team before the deadline last fall. Jennings, who is just 23 years old, is averaging 18.9 points per game to go along with 6.1 assists this season.
Despite obvious concerns over his efficiency shooting the ball, the numbers alone will prompt Jennings and his agent to command a hefty price on the open market. A California native, Jennings appears likely to entertain the opportunity to play in a larger market and the Bucks may be unwilling to pay the price to keep him around.
With new addition J.J. Redick also off contract at the end of the season, the Bucks’ experiment with Jennings and fellow scoring guard Monta Ellis in the backcourt may have run its course. Any team that signs Jennings will be hoping that a new situation may help him develop into a better playmaker and a more efficient scorer.
10. Tyreke Evans, SG – Sacramento Kings
Since winning the Rookie of the Year award in 2010, not much has gone right for Tyreke Evans and the Sacramento Kings. Now in his fourth season, Evans has seen his minutes, points and assists progressively get worse each year while the Kings coaches struggled to find the best position to use him in.
With recent struggles it is easy to forget just how good Evans was when he entered the league. He joined an exclusive club when he averaged more than 20 points, five rebounds and five assists per game in his rookie year. The only other players in history who had completed that feat were Oscar Robinson, Michael Jordan and reigning MVP LeBron James.
There were obvious areas for improvement in Evans’ game, most importantly the development of a jump shot that would allow him to continue on his path to stardom. That progression has seemingly never occurred and Evans appears to be the same player he was when he first entered the league. He still has a unique skillset and the ability to get to the rim and score points but without a jump shot he has become an easier task for opposing teams to account for.
Still just 23 years old, a change of scenery at this stage may be exactly what the doctor ordered for Evans who seems to be stuck going nowhere in Sacramento. It may be that a coaching change could help him further develop his game or simply identify the best role for him to contribute to a winning team, but if he gets a reasonable offer it would not be a surprise to see Evans changing teams in the summer.