A weak free-agency class was weakened when the Clippers traded for coach Doc Rivers this week, a move expected to secure a long-term commitment from point guard Chris Paul. That leaves one superstar available, and he isn't necessarily going to the highest bidder. Here's a look at what to expect when free agents are courted starting July 1:
The First Tier Of Free Agents
The likely abandonment of the free-agent stage by Paul enables Howard to have the attention all to himself. The Lakers are placing billboards throughout Los Angeles in hope of convincing him to re-sign, but it comes as no surprise that Howard is sending out signals that he'll be more likely to consider the offers of the Mavericks or Rockets. Howard might prefer Dallas because Dirk Nowitzki would step aside and enable the Mavericks to become Howard's team; James Harden is unlikely to be quite so accommodating, and for good reason.
If Howard doesn't re-sign with the Lakers, then his departure isn't going to be as devastating as when he was traded by the Magic last year, and it's nothing like when LeBron James left Cleveland in 2010. Pau Gasol would step in as the Lakers' low-post center, and his expiring contract would leave the Lakers with cap space to sign one or more max free agents in 2014, depending on the future plans of Kobe Bryant.
There is some thought in the league that the Lakers would be better off without Howard, based on the view that he will never lead a team to the championship. Gifted as he is at 27 with an unmatched presence defensively around the basket, Howard may yet be able to make good on his potential.
If Howard decides to stay with the Lakers, then the luxury tax is expected to force the Lakers to consider waiving Gasol via amnesty. In that case several options would be available, including this: the Spurs could re-sign Manu Ginobili, renounce Tiago Splitter and have money under the cap to put in a competitive claim for Gasol. In that case, it could be argued that Gasol would have a greater impact on the championship race than Howard.
David West. He's likely to stay with the Pacers, a likelihood that only improved with the return of Larry Bird as team president. Indiana will improve by virtue of returning a healthy Danny Granger to the rotation and restoring some of the second-unit speed that was lost during Bird's year-long sabbatical.
Josh Smith. He won't be returning to the Hawks. Smith is a versatile talent entering his peak years, but he has never been an All-Star, and his salary will serve as a referendum on the impact of the new CBA. In previous years he might have been able to demand a max contract on the open market; that isn't expected to happen this summer.
Andre Iguodala. The Nuggets have talked about keeping him, and the market may help keep him in Denver by driving down his salary from the $16.2 million he could have earned next season (he opted to become a free agent instead).
Monta Ellis and J.J. Redick. It's unlikely to play out this way, but the Bucks could lose all three of their guards if restricted free agent Brandon Jennings is signed to an offer sheet worth more than Milwaukee is willing to spend.
Manu Ginobili. He is expected to re-sign with the Spurs for relatively cheap, which would help their chances of improving the roster and returning to the Finals next season.
JR Smith. The reigning Sixth Man of the Year was ineffective after being suspended in the first round of the playoffs. How much are the Knicks willing to invest in him?
Tiago Splitter. Will the cost of re-signing him on the open market be prohibitive for the Spurs?
Most Interesting Restricted Free Agents
Brandon Jennings. The Bucks guard has spoken of refusing to seek offers this summer in order to leave Milwaukee in 2014 as an unrestricted free agent.
Jeff Teague. The Hawks, flush with cap space, should be able to keep their explosive young point guard.
Andrew Bynum. The Sixers' investment in rookie big man Nerlens Noel provided another sign that they're no longer interested in bringing back Bynum, who didn't play a minute last season because of knee problems. The best he can hope for is a short-term deal.
Teams That Could Have $10M Or More In Cap Space
New Orleans Pelicans
Portland Trail Blazers
San Antonio Spurs