NBA's Power Players of 2014
Will next summer change the NBA as we know it? One of the most anticipated offseasons in history could shake up the league's power hierarchy. With a free-agent class potentially headlined by LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony and a possible once-in-a-generation draft class expected to be led by Andrew Wiggins, the buzz has started to build already. With so many big names potentially on the move and the future of countless franchises hanging in the balance, SI.com assembled a panel of writers to take an early look at 14 Power Players for the summer of 2014.
The Go-To Scorer
Carmelo Anthony has never made the NBA Finals and isn’t likely to get there as long as he’s playing in the same conference as LeBron James. All the same, it’s hard to imagine him leaving New York. He's in the NBA’s No. 1 market and making max money as the best player of the Knicks, with whom his agent (Leon Rose of CAA) has a strong relationship. If he were to move to the Lakers, as some rumors have suggested, he would be taking a salary cut to serve as the sidekick to Kobe Bryant on behalf of coach Mike D’Antoni, with whom Anthony already butted heads in New York. Unless the Knicks suffer a spectacular collapse, it’s likely he'll re-sign for a bigger deal, wait for Amar'e Stoudemire's contract to expire in 2015 and then help a recruit a complementary star. But if New York does disappoint in 2013-14, there's always a chance Anthony could bolt to his third team in search of a title. -- Ian Thomsen
The question facing Kobe Bryant isn't "Will he re-sign with the Lakers?" but "How much will it cost?" The preservation of Bryant's legacy and the Lakers' lack of talent on hand would seem to guarantee his return, and the two sides reportedly have already begun extension talks. Bryant is far and away the league's highest-paid player, earning $30.5 million this season, more than half of the $58.7 million salary cap. It will be virtually impossible for the Lakers to construct a contender around Bryant if his salary continues to approach that figure. The likelihood that other star free-agents-to-be will bypass the Lakers coupled with Bryant's immense popularity leaves L.A. with little negotiating leverage. In a Lakers fan's dream world, Bryant would agree to take a steep hometown discount, but such a concession would be essentially unprecedented and seems unlikely. If he doesn't make a meaningful financial sacrifice, Bryant, 35, will be hard-pressed to capture his sixth, MJ-matching title and the Lakers could be in for a longer-than-expected retooling. --Ben Golliver
Say what you will about John Calipari's ability to coach in the NBA -- in two-plus seasons he was 72-112 -- but you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who doubts his ability to prepare players for the NBA. From Marcus Camby to Derrick Rose to Anthony Davis, Calipari-coached teams have been a pipeline to the next level. This year, Calipari may have his best pro crop of all. In addition to Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein -- sophomore holdovers from last season's ballyhooed freshman class -- the 'Cats replenished the ranks with a glittering class of prospective one-and-doners. The backcourt will be manned by twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison, two big, physical guards, and James Young, a quick two-guard. Up front, they brought in Julius Randle, a dynamic inside-out threat and potential top pick. After averaging 67.5 points last season -- Kentucky's lowest since 1952 -- Calipari plans to emphasize the dribble-drive offense more, and says this team has the talent to be the best to play in that system. Indeed, UK's success this spring could be the NBA's gain next summer. -- Chris Mannix
The Wild CardDallas has had rotten luck in courting free agents in recent years. Chris Paul was traded from New Orleans to the Clippers ahead of schedule; Dwight Howard opted in to the final year of his contract to delay his free agency; Deron Williams chose Brooklyn over Dallas; Paul re-signed with the Clips; and Howard spurned the Mavs again by later signing with Houston. Still, next summer could see a loaded free-agent class hit the market without all that many attractive franchises capable of carving out room for a max contract. Dallas should be in the running for high-level talent again, in which case Cuban might finally land the big fish he's chased for the last three seasons. Dallas' contingencies haven't been perfect, but Cuban -- along with president of basketball ops Donnie Nelson -- has made it possible for the Mavs to sign a max player to complement his team's existing core. Things will only be made easier if Cuban can persuade his longtime star, Dirk Nowitzki, to sign a cap-friendly deal. -- Rob Mahoney
The Dark Horse
Who would have thought in 2010 that Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, Mr. Comic Sans himself, would emerge as the consensus favorite to peel LeBron James away from the Heat in 2014? Gilbert's position is stronger than you might think. A return to Cleveland for James would provide redemption and a whole new level of hero worship, and the Cavs have assembled a nice base of young talent -- Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Anthony Bennett and Tyler Zeller -- that should aid their recruiting efforts. The Cavs can part ways with Andrew Bynum, Anderson Varejao and others next summer to sign James to a max deal, so there's no financial giveback required from this theoretical homecoming. The question remains: Would James really be ready to take a second plunge with the eccentric Gilbert after spending four years enjoying sustained success in Miami? Thanks to young talent and their flexible cap position, the Cavs will be poised to be major players come July, even if their James dream scenario doesn't come to fruition. --B.G.
Make no mistake, the NBA’s two-time champ and four-time MVP controls the entire market. He can opt out each of the next two summers, or wait until his contract expires outright in 2016. James will turn 29 in December, which means he’ll carry the promise of more championships for the Heat, Lakers, Bulls, Cavaliers or any other contender lucky enough to sign him. Unlike 2009-10, when he appeared to be too enchanted by free agency, LeBron has made it clear that he won’t be abetting the global speculation of his future. The likelihood is that he’ll pursue a three-peat and then decide on his immediate future -- perhaps in conjunction with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who can also opt out. One school of thought is that James should not commit to any team for more than one season for the remainder of his career: that he should give himself the option to leave every summer, in pursuit of the next team best suited to help him fulfill his goal to become the greatest player of all time. -- I.T.
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The Sixers are headed for the darkest depths of the lottery pool, even if general manager Sam Hinkie has to trade Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner to get them there. This is very much a losing season by design. There's room for improvement and instruction, but wins themselves are of little value to a team playing for next season and beyond. By 2014, Hinkie will be in a position to make waves -- first and foremost with the use of at least one high-value draft selection. A possible league-worst record would guarantee the Sixers a top-four pick, which corresponds to the chance to draft Andrew Wiggins or other premier prospects. In addition, Philadelphia could have further picks through subsequent trades, the reigning Rookie of the Year if Michael Carter-Williams continues apace and a potential impact defensive player waiting in the wings in Nerlens Noel. They will have the cap flexibility to consider all kinds of moves, and they look to have a sharp, creative coach in Brett Brown to put it all together. Behold the power of the blank slate. -- R.M
The Talent Scout
The USA Basketball program hinges on the support of Nike, the orchestration of Jerry Colangelo and the allure of superstars. Yet it's Mike Krzyzewski, the coach of Team USA, who brings it all together, marrying the basketball and the business into a prime product. Chris Paul essentially tied his future involvement in the program to that of Krzyzewski, and other Team USA regulars -- LeBron, Kobe, Kevin Durant, etc. -- undoubtedly feel the same way. Like him or not, the Duke coach has become one of the primary voices behind yet another powerful basketball program, and he could be the key in getting the biggest names in the sport to give up their summer to compete in the 2014 FIBA World Cup. Krzyzewski will be doing some important recruiting in 2014 -- but neither the Blue Devils nor any NBA team will benefit from his work. -- R.M.
Few hold the ear of LeBron James better than Paul, a member of James' inner circle of longtime friends dubbed The Four Horseman, and now his agent. After meeting James when the four-time MVP was in high school, Paul helped form a marketing firm around James with those friends before leaving to recruit clients for LeBron's former agent, Leon Rose, at CAA. In September 2012, Paul left again, this time to form his own agency, Klutch Sports, based in ... Cleveland. Most important, though, he took James with him. Paul has gained a reputation for his willingness to speak frankly, be it trading James-inspired shoe design ideas with Phil Knight or telling LeBron his loss in the 2010 Finals was the sort of humbling moment he needed to improve. What he'll tell him next year about where to play could shift the balance of power in the NBA. -- Paul Forrester
The Missing Piece
Unrestricted free agency is a power all its own, and next summer Pierce will be able to wield that power to bolster a contending team if he so chooses. By the end of this season, Pierce will have made nearly $185 million in salary over his career, along with endorsements and bonuses aplenty. He's at a perfect point in his career to take the plunge. Though 36, Pierce could fill a void for any number of teams with his shot creation, perimeter shooting and competitive defense. All he needs to do is name his price within range of what an elite team could conceivably pay, unless he chooses to pursue a more lucrative return in re-upping with the deep-pocketed Nets. If he does decide to bolt Brooklyn, he could have a similar effect on a team as his former teammate Ray Allen had on the Heat last season. -- R.M.
If the Heat prevail in the 2014 Finals, Pat Riley, the man who trademarked the term "three-peat" in the late 1980s, will have won three consecutive titles for the first time in his decorated career. Then what? Whispers that the 68-year-old Heat president might retire popped up briefly last summer, but nothing substantial materialized. Title or not, Riley would be facing a complex series of decisions involving the futures of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, as all three can become free agents. Will the Heat try to keep the trio together, even if it costs well more than $60 million? Could James be talked into opting in for the 2014-15 season, delaying The Decision 2.0 for a year? Can Wade hold up for the duration of a new, multiyear contract? Will Bosh be a casualty of a roster rejiggering? How will Miami fill out its rotation, with Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis heading for free agency, too? Will Riley -- the architect of the Heat's destiny-altering 2010 -- have the desire to dig in and find the answers, or might he decide it's time to step away? --B.G.
The New Sheriff
Deputy commissioner Adam Silver is set to take over the big chair in February, and no one knows quite what to expect after three decades of David Stern's leadership. Silver's first offseason on the job should be less dramatic than Stern's last few years, which have seen a lockout, the vetoed trade of Chris Paul by the league-owned Hornets and the messy Kings relocation saga. Without any teams currently up for sale or relocation, Silver could very well be spared the biggest headaches, and nobody will complain if the highlight of his summer is shaking hands on stage with Andrew Wiggins. Still, there are plenty of potential hot-button issues he could choose to examine: "tanking" and the draft lottery's configuration, the one-and-done rule, HGH testing, the flopping policy, moving in-game video reviews to an off-site location, the location of future All-Star Games and perhaps even expansion. The biggest issue that is definitely facing the new boss: the NBA's TV rights deals, which run through the 2015-16 season. New contracts could be completed in 2014, according to reports, which would be the ideal way for Silver to kick off his tenure. --B.G.
Who is "Worldwide" Wes? That's a difficult question to answer, although many have attempted. He's been name-dropped by Jay-Z, credited as a close confidant of LeBron James, called "the most powerful man in sports" and known to be friends with Michael Jordan, John Calipari and Leon Rose, among other high-profile figures. While it's difficult to quantify his potential impact on the 2014 summer, there's no doubt that some of the most influential people in the league will be seeking out his advice when the time comes. As an agent at CAA, he helps oversee the firm's coaching division, working with the likes of Miami's Erik Spoelstra and Chicago's Tom Thibodeau. But it's been widely speculated that the power broker's reach goes far beyond the coaching ranks. With connections to some of the biggest stars in both sports and entertainment, the NBA kingmaker has the Rolodex to build empires. -- Matt Dollinger
The Lottery Ticket
"Tanking" is a staple of the average basketball fan's lexicon this season because of Andrew Wiggins' presence. The celebrated Kansas freshman has some teams all but punting the 2013-14 season in an attempt to earn a better shot at drafting him. The 18-year-old Canadian-born player won every prep award imaginable last season and has drawn comparisons -- and a similar amount of hype -- to LeBron James for his potential impact on an NBA franchise. With Wiggins headlining what is shaping up to be one of the most talented classes in years -- don't forget about Julius Randle, Marcus Smart, Jabari Parker, Dante Exum and others -- lottery balls will be at a premium next spring. Whichever team lands the 6-8 Wiggins, might emerge as the offseason's biggest winner -- barring a change of teams from the man to whom he's been compared. -- M.D.