Tuesday July 1st, 2008

One of the thinnest free agent markets in recent history just added a little meat to its bones.

Three marquee players -- Golden State's Baron Davis and the L.A. Clippers' Elton Brand and Corey Maggette -- opted out of their contracts Monday night. Each player is now an unrestricted free agent and eligible to sign with any NBA team. While Brand and Maggette's decisions were mildly surprising -- Maggette would have been paid $7 million next season while Brand would receive $16.4 million in the final year of his contract -- it is Davis' decision to opt-out that is the most surprising.

Davis left $17.8 million on the table in Golden State and must now hope that the Warriors are willing to offer him a lucrative multi-year extension or that another team is able to convince Golden State to participate in a sign-and-trade.

Based on conversations with NBA sources over the last 24 hours, here is a handicapping of where Maggette, Brand and Davis might end up.

Suitors: L.A. Clippers, Warriors

While Davis turning his back on $17.8 million is shocking, his interest in leaving Golden State is not. Friction between Davis and Warriors coach Don Nelson began to develop at the end of last season. With the Warriors still mathematically in the playoff race, Nelson benched Davis in the second half of the penultimate game against Phoenix. While both Davis and Nelson brushed off the incident, rumors began to circulate around the league that a rift had developed between the two.

One possible option for Davis will be the Clippers, who now find themselves flush with salary cap space and in dire need of a point guard. L.A.'s decision not to extend a qualifying offer to injured point guard Shaun Livingston puts the Clippers in the market for a top of the line playmaker, and the 29-year-old Davis, an L.A. native, would fit the bill. Moreover, Brand has said that he is interested in seeing the Clippers sign an elite free agent before he makes a decision on re-signing. With Davis on board, returning to LA would become more enticing.

Still, it is unlikely Davis will come close to matching the exorbitant salary he walked away from. Golden State still needs to re-sign restricted free agents Monte Ellis and Andris Biedrins. Ellis, in particular, will command a lot of interest on the free-agent market, and the Warriors may be forced to make a decision: do they want to build around Ellis or Davis?

Best bet: Clippers

Suitors: Clippers, Sixers, Grizzlies, Heat

You can bet the ears of 76ers GM Ed Stefanski and Miami President Pat Riley perked up when they heard Brand had opted out. The 76ers are in the market for a power forward: they had eyed Antawn Jamison before Jamison agreed to terms with Washington and have a strong interest in Atlanta's Josh Smith, a restricted free agent whose athletic game would seem to be a perfect fit for Philadelphia's open-court style.

But while the Sixers have significant cap space (about $11 million after presumably re-signing Andre Iguodala) it may not be enough to entice Brand to switch coasts. Brand has made it clear that he wants to win -- in nine seasons with the Bulls and Clippers, Brand has been on one team with a winning record -- and while Philly would be significantly improved with Brand in the lineup, the addition of Brand alone may not be enough to propel the Sixers past Boston and Detroit.

Miami, however, is a different story. Brand has long been an admirer of Riley, dating back to 2003 when he signed a six-year, $82.2 million offer sheet with Miami, an offer that was matched by Los Angeles. Miami does not have the cap space to sign Brand; with Shawn Marion choosing not to opt-out of the final year of his deal, Miami could only offer Brand its $5.8 million midlevel exception.

But Miami could put together a sign-and-trade package, including Marion, that might be enough to entice the Clippers. The Heat would get Brand, who conceivably could be paired in a frontcourt with Michael Beasley, while L.A. would get future cap flexibility. With an explosive 2010 free agent class looming, that flexibility might be more valuable.

Best bet: Heat

Suitors: Suns, Clippers, Jazz, Warriors

While Maggette will have no shortage of possible destinations, I'm reasonably sure one of them won't be Los Angeles. Despite being a prolific scorer (he averaged 22.1 points per game last season), Maggette hasn't always seen eye-to-eye with Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy, who has had concerns about Maggette's defensive abilities. As a result, Maggette's name has frequently been floated in trade rumors.

Still, there will be a considerable market for an athletic, 28-year-old small forward. Phoenix, which could dangle point guard Leandro Barbosa in a sign-and-trade, would be a logical fit. As could Utah, which signed Maggette to a six-year, $42 million offer sheet in '03.

Wherever Maggette ends up, it will likely come via sign-and-trade. Maggette is leaving $7 million on the table, and only Philadelphia (which already has Iguodala at small forward) and Memphis (which has Rudy Gay) could offer him that much.

Best bet: Suns

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