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With LeBron back, Cavaliers have all the pieces of a championship team
3:43 | NBA
With LeBron back, Cavaliers have all the pieces of a championship team
Tuesday June 30th, 2015

Think of the 2015 NBA free agency period as an overlooked middle child, wedged between a 2014 summer that saw LeBron James’s return to Cleveland turn the East upside down and a 2016 summer that will feature an unprecedented surge in the salary cap coupled with a ridiculously deep talent pool.

Last year, the Heat’s dynasty crumbled, and the Cavaliers formed a Big Three of James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving that took immediate control of the conference. Next year, Kevin Durant will get his first shot at unrestricted free agency, and he could be joined by the likes of James, Love and others looking to get a slice of a record $89 million salary cap in 2016-17, up from an anticipated $67.1 in 2015-16.

This year? The league is stuck in the middle, where both free agents and teams are forced to weigh certainty and flexibility like never before. Rather than simply signing the longest, fattest contract as quickly as possible, free agents must decide whether it makes more sense to take a shorter deal that allows them to swim in a deeper pool in 2016 or 2017. Teams, meanwhile, must decide between handing out long-term contracts this summer that could look great down the road and sticking to short-term deals that allow for maximum cap space that could facilitate multiple superstar signings in 2016 or 2017.
 
MORE NBA: Free agency primer | Position rankings | Burning FA questions

There is no blueprint for players or teams to follow, as the NBA has never faced a similar situation, and there is no “one size fits all” answer for players or teams. The intrigue over the next month will come from the disparate approaches both sides take to the “How long?” question. Even if this summer might not be able to match 2014 and 2016 in terms of headlining fireworks, there’s plenty of unpredictability at work here to prevent it from being a dud.

Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

1. LeBron James, Cavaliers, SF

UPDATE: James re-signs with Cavs on two-year, $47 million deal

2014-15 stats: 36.1 MPG, 25.3 PPG, 6 RPG, 7.4 APG, 25.9 PER, 10.4 Win Shares, +9.8 Net Rating
Age: 30 | Status: Unrestricted (Declined $21.6M player option)

After The Decision in 2010 and The Letter in 2014, look for LeBron James’s free agency decision to be The Formality this time around. James’s return to Cleveland was a long, bumpy road, but it ended in a very good place: the four-time MVP made his fifth straight Finals appearance and wound up just two wins shy of his third title thanks to the most dominant individual postseason performance of his career.

The regular season saw mild concerns about James’s career arc: He missed an extended stretch of games to injuries for the first time ever, his shooting percentages regressed for the first time since 2007, his PER was at its lowest mark since he was 22, and he struggled to find instant chemistry with his new cast of teammates. Those concerns began to dissipate after Cleveland’s midseason trades and then totally disappeared after James singlehandedly carried an injury-ravaged squad to the Finals. James wasn’t beginning to slide; he had merely been biding his time and saving his energy. James wasn’t actually handcuffed by a young and immature roster; he was suddenly the major force on a reshaped team that is already viewed as the Las Vegas favorites to win the 2016 title.  

James’s decision to opt out of the final season of a two-year contract ensures that he can receive a $500,000 raise for next season, and it keeps the pressure on Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert to spend big to put a title-worthy supporting cast around James. Look for James to maximize his flexibility and future earning power by building in another opt-out for next summer, when he will be able to claim a contract that starts in the $29 million per year ballpark. Even though he fell short against the Warriors, life is still pretty good for the game’s top talent.

2. Kawhi Leonard, Spurs, SF

UPDATE: Leonard re-signs with Spurs for five years and $90 million

2014-15 stats: 31.8 MPG, 16.5 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 2.5 APG, 22 PER, 8.6 Win Shares, +12 Net Rating
Age: 24 | Status: Restricted (Completed rookie deal)

What a run Kawhi Leonard had on his rookie deal: Two Finals appearances, one championship, the 2014 Finals MVP award, the 2015 Defensive Player of the Year award, two All-Defensive selections, and, despite going No. 15 in the 2011 draft, he is tops in his class in career Win Shares, surpassing All-Stars Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Klay Thompson. In truth, his list of accomplishments easily could have been longer: Leonard was fully deserving of an All-NBA selection in 2015, and he would have had a good All-Star case if he hadn’t been limited by an eye infection early in the season.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has gradually increased Leonard’s role on offense, and the 2014-15 season saw Leonard utilized as a lead option like never before. Whether operating out of the post, in transition, or off the dribble, Leonard displayed extended flashes of alpha dog potential. On the other end, he’s already as good as it gets. Leonard’s quickness, instincts, commitment and length combine to make him the league’s top perimeter defender: he led the league in both defensive rating and steals, and San Antonio’s defensive rating improved from 102.2 when he was off the court to 97.1 when he was on it. Put it all together, and Leonard has a case as the NBA’s third-best small forward, trailing only LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

Although the Spurs went out early in the playoffs, downed by the Clippers in the first round, Leonard’s free agency is totally lacking in drama. Yes, Leonard seemingly could have done more in the series, especially as L.A. rallied from a 3-2 hole to win in seven games, but his total body of work set the terms of this upcoming negotiation long before the 2015 playoffs. San Antonio always handles its business, and re-signing their starting small forward is the most important step the franchise can take to set up a successful run after the eventual retirement of the ageless Tim Duncan. Leonard does face the contract length question—he’s perfectly positioned to go with a shorter term and enter the larger cap environment in a few years if he wants to—but there’s no doubt he’ll be in a Spurs uniform come training camp.
 
• MORE NBA: FA position rankings: Ballhandlers | Wing players | Big men   

3. Marc Gasol, Grizzlies, C

UPDATE: Gasol re-signs with Grizzlies for five years and $110 million
 
2014-15 stats: 33.2 MPG, 17.4 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 3.8 APG, 21.7 PER, 10.2 Win Shares, +3.4 Net Rating
Age: 29 | Status: Unrestricted (Completed 4-year, $57.5M deal)

The strength of the 2015 free agency crop is the center position, and Marc Gasol leads the way. The All-NBA First Team selection enjoyed a career year in 2014-15, taking his scoring and PER to new heights, captaining a top-five defense for the second time in three years, and helping the 55-win Grizzlies advance in the postseason for the third time in five years.

Memphis’s “Grit and Grind” approach—prioritizing size and defense rather than pace and space—has succeeded in zigging where the rest of the league is zagging primarily because of Gasol’s consistent, if somewhat underappreciated, brilliance. The 7'1" Spaniard is the most complete big man in the NBA: no other center can match his five-tool ability to shoot, pass, rebound, guard his position, and offer help. Aside from a knee injury in 2013-14, Gasol has also enjoyed excellent health over the last five seasons, demonstrating the reliability and competitiveness expected of a franchise centerpiece.

Because Gasol’s game isn’t overly reliant upon athleticism, and because fellow core pieces Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen are under contract, there really isn’t much risk in re-signing Gasol to max dollars from Memphis’s perspective. Gasol’s prime years align with Memphis’s current window of contention, and it’s safe to assume that the two sides will reach an agreement that keeps Gasol in his adopted hometown for years to come. In fact, ESPN.com reported Tuesday that Gasol will meet only with the Grizzlies.
 

  

4. LaMarcus Aldridge, Blazers, PF

UPDATE: Aldridge agrees to four-year, $80 million deal with Spurs
 
2014-15 stats: 35.4 MPG, 23.4 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 1.7 APG, 22.8 PER, 8.6 Win Shares, +5.7 Net Rating
Age: 29 | Status: Unrestricted (Completed 5-year, $62.5M deal)

LaMarcus Aldridge might rank fourth on this list, but he’s tops when it comes to this summer’s rumor mill. There are good reasons for the amount of attention Aldridge has drawn in recent weeks: he’s smack dab in the middle of his prime, he’s one of the top players at his position, his small-market Blazers just endured a hard-luck season and face the very real possibility of a dismantling this summer, he’s advanced in the postseason just once during his nine-year career in Portland, and he has distanced himself from teammates and moved out of the Portland house he was renting. Unlike LeBron James (and Marc Gasol), Aldridge has no hometown allegiance to the Rose City. Unlike Kawhi Leonard, Aldridge is an unrestricted free agent. Unlike all three of the names above him on this list, Aldridge isn’t necessarily set up to contend for a title in 2016 if he re-signs with his incumbent team.

This soap opera has all been a long time coming. Injuries to Brandon Roy and Greg Oden briefly left Aldridge alone in Portland, and he responded by stepping up as a lead scorer, averaging 21 or more points per game for five straight seasons while making four straight All-Star teams. His offensive game mixes a full arsenal of moves on the left block with a dependable mid-range jumper, and Aldridge regularly commands extra attention due to his size, length and scoring ability. On the other end, Aldridge is a solid and seasoned defender, capable of defending the basket area and stepping out situationally against ballhandlers.  
There has been no shortage of interest in Aldridge, with the Spurs, Mavericks, and Lakers all being linked regularly to him in rumors, and with Blazers GM Neil Olshey telling reporters after last week’s Draft that Portland was still planning to compete for Aldridge’s services. Over the weekend, L.A. reportedly began preparing a four-year, $80 million offer to Aldridge, who must decide whether to accept such an offer with an outside suitor, sign a five-year, $108 million max deal with the Blazers, or take a shorter deal that lets him become a free agent again in 2016 or 2017. His departure would almost certainly drop Portland into the 2016 lottery.

5. Draymond Green, Warriors, PF

UPDATE: Green re-signs with Warriors for five years, $82 million
 
2014-15 stats: 31.5 MPG, 11.7 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 3.7 APG, 16.4 PER, 8.5 Win Shares, +16.5 Net Rating
Age: 25 | Status: Restricted (Completed three-year, $2.5M contract

Which player delivered the best bang for the buck last season? Which player earned himself the most money last season? It’s quite possible that the answer to both of those questions is Draymond Green, Golden State’s do-everything power forward. Although Green fell to No. 35 in the 2012 draft, three spots behind the immortal Tomas Satoransky, he blossomed into the second-most important player on the Warriors' 67-win championship team.

Promoted into the starting lineup by first-year coach Steve Kerr, Green took full advantage of his opportunity, finishing second in Defensive Player of the Year voting and earning All-Defensive First Team honors. Green’s bread and buttered is his defensive versatility, as he’s capable of shifting up to center in small lineups, playing power forward in traditional lineups, and stepping out to harass guards and wings on the perimeter. His constant activity and high energy level helped make Green one of just six players to average at least one steal and one block last season. On the offensive end, Green’s passing ability was a key to beating defenses that loaded up on 2015 MVP Stephen Curry, and he shot the three-point ball just well enough to keep opponents honest.  

Because Green is a complementary offensive option, rather than a primary or secondary scorer, his traditional stats and individual advanced stats, like PER, don’t jump off the page. His impact numbers—Golden State’s offense improved from 104.6 without him to 112.5 with him, and its defense jumped from 102.1 without him to 96 with him—do a better job of conveying just how perfectly he fits alongside Curry and Klay Thompson. The Warriors will happily fork over max-type money to keep Green—who made less than $1 million last season—as they look to mount a title defense.
 
More free agency rankings: Page 2 (6-15) | Page 3 (16-25)

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Joe Murphy/Getty Images

6. Jimmy Butler, Bulls, G

UPDATE: Butler returning to the Bulls on five-year, $90 million deal

2014-15 stats: 38.7 MPG, 20 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 3.3 APG, 21.3 PER, 11.2 Win Shares, +4.1 Net Rating
Age: 25 | Status: Restricted (Completed rookie deal)

Jimmy Butler enjoyed a textbook contract year en route to the 2015 Most Improved Player award: the 25-year-old shooting guard set new career highs in points, rebounds, assists, PER, Win Shares, free throw attempts and Usage Rate while earning his first All-Star selection and second All-Defensive team selection.

A key workhorse for ex-Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, Butler led the NBA in minutes per game and stepped up as Chicago’s No. 1 scoring option. Known mostly for his on-ball perimeter defense prior to last season, Butler proved he could help pick up the offensive slack when Derrick Rose missed time due to injury. Butler found points in a variety of ways: attacking the basket, getting to the line, hitting the offensive glass and improving his perimeter game. In light of those unforeseen developments, Butler now finds himself alongside the likes of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George when it comes to the top 25-and-under two-way perimeter players.  

Despite hiring Fred Hoiberg to replace Thibodeau after a second-round exit in the playoffs, the Bulls appear committed to matching any and all offers to Butler, who is a restricted free agent. After bypassing a four-year, $40 million extension offer last fall, it’s possible that Butler could bet on himself again by taking a shorter contract this summer. Assuming he re-signs as expected, Butler will join Rose, Hoiberg and company in trying to find a way to topple LeBron James, whose teams have now eliminated the Bulls from the playoffs in four of the last six seasons.

7. Tim Duncan, Spurs, PF/C

UPDATE: Duncan announces he will play next season for Spurs
 
2014-15 stats: 28.9 MPG, 13.9 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 3 APG, 22.6 PER, 9.6 Win Shares, +7 Net Rating
Age: 39 | Status: Unrestricted (Completed three-year, $30M contract)

Three years ago, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich announced the re-signing of Tim Duncan in a press release, adding: “We are all thrilled that he’ll spend his entire career as a San Antonio Spur.” Three years later: Duncan is still going strong at 39, comparing favorably to the likes of Blake Griffin (age 26) and LaMarcus Aldridge (age 29) when it comes to PER and Win Shares. The twilight of Duncan’s twilight is equivalent to everyone else’s prime.

That three-year, $30 million contract Duncan signed in 2012 now looks like a guffaw-inducing steal. The future Hall of Famer’s decision to take a significant pay cut to help Popovich and company build out a title-caliber rotation worked out beautifully: Duncan went to the Finals twice, won the 2014 championship, and earned two All-Star selections, two All-NBA selections and one All-Defensive selection. This past season, a turbulent one filled with injuries for San Antonio, Duncan predictably held things together, guiding the Spurs to a 55-win campaign, his 16th straight season winning 50+ games. If not for Chris Paul’s series-winner in Game 7, Duncan and the Spurs very well might have reached the Western Conference Finals for the fourth straight time. Add it all up, and Duncan’s financial give-back wound up being a heck of an investment in his own legacy.

Given his past sacrifice and the Spurs’ systematic ability to contend for titles, it’s fair to view Duncan as one of this summer’s biggest X-factors. San Antonio must re-sign Kawhi Leonard to max money, decide whether or not to retain shooting guard Danny Green, pay Manu Ginobili if he decides not to retire, and court free agents like LaMarcus Aldridge. Duncan’s willingness to play at a discount—and the scope of that discount—will directly shape the Spurs’ ability to handle the items on that checklist. 

8. Kevin Love, Cavaliers, PF

UPDATE: Love returning to Cavaliers on five-year, $110 million deal

2014-15 stats: 33.8 MPG, 16.4 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 2.2 APG, 18.8 PER, 8.7 Win Shares, +6.6 Net Rating
Age: 26 | Status: Unrestricted (Declined $16.7M player option)

Kevin Love’s first season in Cleveland went down as one of those “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” deals, especially after he sustained a season-ending shoulder injury in the first round of the playoffs. Optimists will point to the Cavaliers’ strong close to the regular season, and particularly the fact that Cleveland posted the league’s best offense after Jan. 21, as evidence of Love finally finding a fit as a third wheel next to LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Meanwhile, pessimists will take issue with Love’s diminished statistics, his defensive limitations, the postseason success Cleveland enjoyed without him, and persistent rumblings of a less-than-cozy relationship with James.

On one hand, Love didn’t even make the All-Star team in the depleted East and had to watch from the sidelines as Tristan Thompson stepped into his starting spot during the playoffs with strong results. On the other, Love’s floor-spacing, mismatch-creating versatility and all-around production were all sorely missed during the Finals. On one hand, Love’s talent seems somewhat wasted behind two ball-dominant superstars, and his defensive struggles were pretty glaring all season long. On the other, Love’s talent is absolutely a luxury worth keeping for the Cavaliers, who are desperately seeking the first title in franchise history and know now, better than ever, that James can’t deliver that alone.

Despite posting his worst numbers since 2010, and falling a few spots in rankings like these, Love didn’t cost himself any money by moving to Cleveland. On the contrary, multiple teams, including the Celtics and Lakers, would eagerly offer him max money to leave the Cavaliers. Love has opted out of the final year of his contract, a move that opens up a range of options: he can sign a five-year, $100+ million max contract with the Cavaliers, a four-year, $80+ million contract with an outside suitor, or he can follow James’s lead and take a shorter deal with more flexibility. The last option would make a lot of sense, as it would give Love and the Cavaliers a second chance at a title without requiring either side to fully commit to their somewhat uncertain partnership.

9. DeAndre Jordan, Clippers, C

UPDATE: Jordan de-commits from Mavs for max four-year deal with Clippers
 
2014-15 stats: 34.4 MPG, 11.5 PPG, 15 RPG, 2.3 BPG, 21 PER, 12.8 Win Shares, +11.2 Net Rating
Age: 26 | Status: Unrestricted (Completed four-year, $43M contract)

If TNT ever wanted to bring back “Leverage,” DeAndre Jordan would be a good candidate for a leading role. For so many reasons, the Clippers’ center is in a dream position entering free agency.

Let’s run them down as quickly as possible. Jordan plays for a team that needs to win now, an owner in Steve Ballmer with absurdly deep pockets, and a GM in Doc Rivers who has spent the last two years singing his praises publicly. He is arguably the NBA’s best athlete at the league’s most expensive position and he plays for a capped-out team that has no method for signing a reasonable replacement and no capable back-ups. He just led the league in rebounding and field goal percentage, he earned All-NBA and All-Defensive honors, he hasn’t missed a game in four seasons, and he’s a strong fit alongside his team’s two superstars, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.

In short, Jordan is completely, 100% irreplaceable, and he has every reason to expect the Clippers will fork over a five-year contract worth $100+ million. After a shocking collapse in the second round against the Rockets, Rivers can hardly let his carefully-crafted core crumble by failing to take care of Jordan. If snags do surface, the Mavericks, Knicks and Lakers are reportedly interested in Jordan’s services, knowing that his many positives vastly outweigh his glaring negatives (limited range and one-on-one game, atrocious free-throw shooting).

10. Dwyane Wade, Heat, G

UPDATE: Wade re-signs with Heat on one-year, $20 million deal
 
2014-15 stats: 31.8 MPG, 21.5 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 4.8 APG, 21.4 PER, 3.5 Win Shares, -1.2 Net Rating
Age: 33 | Status: Unrestricted (Declined $16.1M player option)

Perhaps the most unexpected development during the run-up to July 1 has been the very public impasse between Dwyane Wade, Heat icon, and Pat Riley, Heat president. During his 12-year career in Miami, Wade has won three titles and made 11 All-Star teams. Even more importantly, he helped bring together LeBron James and Chris Bosh in 2010 and he agreed to opt out of two years and $41 million last summer in hopes of keeping the band together. After James left, Wade re-signed for $31 million over two years, sacrificing eight figures so that Riley could max out Bosh and add Luol Deng in free agency.

That refashioned group faced a series of injuries to key players, and ultimately won just 37 games and fell short of the playoffs. Along the way, Riley was forced to pull out all the stops, digging up Most Improved Player candidate Hassan Whiteside and trading for Goran Dragic, who is seeking a lucrative five-year contract this summer. Suddenly, a perennial contender was below .500 and staring at a very expensive future if it wanted to keep its new core together. Suddenly, Wade’s long-expected golden parachute contract, in recognition of a decade-plus of service and his 2014 giveback, was in question. Suddenly, Wade was on ABC during the Finals, referring to his time in Miami in the past tense.

Conventional wisdom dictates that this negotiation breakdown will eventually work itself out. Wade, who missed roughly a quarter of the season as he managed various injuries, is a South Florida icon and the face of the franchise. The Heat need him, even in his post-prime state, to climb back up the East standings. Wade needs the Heat, too, as his inability to stay on the court for 70+ games and his ball-dominance are tricky fits for established teams and his advanced age isn’t very enthralling for rebuilding outfits. If the two sides are somehow unable to find a satisfactory middle ground, Wade will become one of the top talents to change cities while also claiming the No. 1 spot in 2015-16’s “Wow, he looks weird in that jersey” power rankings.

11. Paul Millsap, Hawks, F

UPDATE: Millsap re-signs with Hawks for three years, $58.9 million
 
2014-15 stats: 32.7 MPG, 16.7 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 3.1 APG, 20 PER, 8.3 Win Shares, +7.7 Net Rating
Age: 30 | Status: Unrestricted (Completed two-year, $19M contract)

Will Paul Millsap’s central role in Atlanta’s 60-win season and Eastern Conference finals trip be rewarded with a rich new deal this summer? It should be. The versatile, if undersized, power forward was one of the league’s better bargains in each of the last two seasons, earning All-Star nods despite making less than half of some of his colleagues. Although the Hawks’ flameout against the Cavaliers was a reminder that Millsap isn’t quite an A-lister, few players at his position are as dependable and multi-talented as him.

Millsap has always been a productive rebounder and hard-working defender; since arriving in Atlanta in 2013, he’s emerged as a solid three-point shooter and a strong fit in the Hawks’ passing-oriented offensive system. Atlanta’s new ownership group, led by Tony Ressler and Grant Hill, has expressed a willingness to spend and will be highly motivated to retain Millsap in hopes of building on the franchise’s first trip to the conference finals since joining the East in 1970. Keeping Millsap shouldn’t require max-level spending, and his consistent track record of production—he’s averaged at least 17 points and 8 rebounds per 36 minutes in each of the last five seasons—should help alleviate any hesitation if a bidding war develops.

12. Brandon Knight, Suns, G

UPDATE: Knight returning to Suns on five-year, $70 million deal

2014-15 stats: 32.3 MPG, 17 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 5.2 APG, 17.1 PER, 4.5 Win Shares, -1.1 Net Rating
Age: 23 | Status: Restricted (Completed rookie deal)

Brandon Knight is one of the trickiest free agents in this class to pin down. A fringe All-Star candidate before he was traded by the Bucks to the Suns at the deadline, the 6'3" Knight possesses three-point range while boasting good size and athleticism for his position. More play-maker than pure passer, Knight can be successful running the pick-and-roll or spotting up off the ball. There are still some major questions though: Knight has yet to run an above-average offense, he isn’t a standout finisher at the rim, his in-between game needs some work, and he struggled badly in Phoenix after the trade before undergoing off-season ankle surgery.

Phoenix was willing to sacrifice a quality first-round pick to acquire Knight largely because he is still a few years removed from being a finished product. The Suns are betting that a good player at age 23 can become a very good player once he hits his stride. To wit, Phoenix is reportedly prepared to pay Knight $70 million over five years. That might sound like an insane amount of money for a developing point guard, but it’s not totally out of line once the cap increase is factored in. A $14 million average annual salary in a $90 million cap environment is roughly equivalent to a $10 million salary under the current system, which would put Knight in a tier with guys like Jrue Holiday, Kemba Walker and Ty Lawson. That sounds about right if Knight returns to his pre-trade and pre-surgery level of production.

13. Goran Dragic, Heat, G

UPDATE: Dragic returning to Heat on five-year, $90 million deal

2014-15 stats: 33.8 MPG, 16.3 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 4.5 APG, 17.4 PER, 6.8 Win Shares, +0.6 Net Rating
Age: 29 | Status: Unrestricted (Declined $7.5M player option)

Even though Goran Dragic put together his career-year one season too early, the Slovenian point guard is still headed for a handsome payday this summer. Squeezed by a strange three-guard setup in Phoenix, where he split touches with Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas last season, Dragic was unable to replicate his strong 2013-14 production (career-highs of 20.3 points, 5.9 assists, 21.4 PER, 6.8 Win Shares). His logical solution to the logjam was to encourage the Suns to trade him to the Heat, where he plugged in as a full-time starter.

Although Dragic’s arrival in South Florida wasn’t an immediate smash hit, Heat president Pat Riley isn’t really in position to haggle too extensively with Dragic after parting with three first-round picks to acquire him. If Dragic and Dwyane Wade both re-sign as expected, the Heat would enter next season with one of the league’s best backcourts and one of the East’s top starting lineups (Dragic, Wade, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside). Dragic is said to be seeking a five-year, $80 million contract and he will need to deliver big in the postseason if he’s going to really make good on those terms. He can’t live on his 26-point performance in Game 6 of the 2010 West semis against the Spurs forever. 

14. Brook Lopez, Nets, C

UPDATE: Lopez returning to Nets on three-year, $60 million deal

2014-15 stats: 29.2 MPG, 17.2 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 22.7 PER, 7 Win Shares, -2.5 Net Rating
Age: 27 | Status: Unrestricted (Declined $16.7M player option)

On pure talent, Brook Lopez deserves a top-10 spot on this list. As Nets fans know all too well, things are never quite that simple when it comes to the oft-injured 7-footer. Lopez has missed 46% of Brooklyn’s regular-season games over the last four years due to multiple foot injuries, and he’s never suited up in the second round of the playoffs despite playing in the weaker East.

One of the league’s premier scorers at the center position thanks to a polished repertoire, Lopez finally recaptured his 2013 All-Star form down the stretch of 2014-15, averaging 19.7 points and 9.2 rebounds after the All-Star break. That strong run and the ever-present possibility of re-injury surely shaped Lopez’s decision to turn down a $16.7 million player-option in search of more guaranteed money this summer. Even though Nets coach Lionel Hollins repeatedly criticized Lopez last season, questioning his center’s toughness and aggressiveness, Brooklyn has no choice but to retain its starting center, especially after dealing Mason Plumlee to the Blazers on Draft night. All signs point to a Nets return.

15. Greg Monroe, Pistons, F/C

UPDATE: Monroe signing with Bucks on three-year, $50M contract
 
2014-15 stats: 31 MPG, 15.9 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 2.1 APG, 21.2 PER, 6.8 Win Shares, -1.7 Net Rating
Age: 25 | Status: Unrestricted (Completed one-year qualifying offer worth $5.5M)
 
Greg Monroe’s long wait is over: he finally gets to control his own destiny. After five years, five coaches and zero playoff appearances in Detroit, Monroe enters the summer as an unrestricted free agent because he took the unusual step of bypassing a multi-year deal in restricted free agency last summer to play on a qualifying offer. That now looks like a shrewd decision: the 6'11" big man is an awkward fit for coach Stan Van Gundy, who prizes spacing and low-post defense. Those areas both happen to be weaknesses for Monroe, a throwback-style big man with an array of low-post moves, a knack for offensive rebounding, and a demonstrated ability to get to the line.   

There are other reasons to believe a change of scenery could be coming. Monroe was often set up for failure in Detroit, where he was briefly paired with both center Andre Drummond and small forward Josh Smith in a jumbo frontline look that was utterly cramped. Drummond is firmly in place as the franchise’s center of the future, and the two big men just don’t complement each other all that well, especially defensively. The Pistons recently traded for Ersan Ilyasova, a stretch power forward who fits the preferred style Van Gundy employed during his days in Orlando. Monroe told The Advocate this week that he’s seeking a three-year contract with a player option and that he plans to meet with the Knicks, Lakers, Celtics, Bucks and Blazers. New York, in particular, has long been rumored to be a possible destination for Monroe given president Phil Jackson’s spending power, preference for skilled bigs, and desperate need for anything resembling NBA talent in the middle.

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Khris Middleton
Khris Middleton
Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images

16. Khris Middleton, Bucks G/F

UPDATE: Middleton returning to Bucks on five-year, $70 million deal

2014-15 stats: 30.1 MPG, 13.4 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 2.3 APG, 15.6 PER, 6.7 Win Shares, +6.9 Net Rating
Age: 23 | Status: Restricted (Completed three-year, $2.2M contract)

Good timing gets you paid, and Khris Middleton has great timing. The 2012 second-round pick posted career-highs across the board in his third season, generating plenty of Most Improved Player buzz thanks to his quantum leap forward in key advanced metrics. The 6'7" wing posted a team-best 6.7 Win Shares and a +6.07 Real Plus-Minus (No. 10 in the league), both way up from his 2013-14 production (2.7 Win Shares and a -2.28 Real Plus-Minus). His stock was further aided by Milwaukee’s jump from the worst record in the league to the East’s No. 6 seed.

Although Middleton doesn’t project as a lead scoring options, he’s already a solid complementary contributor at age 23, a player capable of scoring in catch-and-shoot situations and knocking down the three-ball. Also a key piece in Milwaukee’s No. 2 ranked defense, Middleton can guard either wing position and swing up to defend some fours if needed. The Bucks are expected to “reach a quick agreement” with Middleton, according to the Journal-Times, as they look to solidify a promising young core that also includes Jabari Parker, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Michael Carter-Williams. There’s a strong chance Middleton will earn more than 10 times his 2014-15 salary of $915,243 next year. Once again: great timing.

17. Danny Green, Spurs, G

UPDATE: Green returning to Spurs on four-year, $45 million deal

2014-15 stats: 28.5 MPG, 11.7 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 2 APG, 16.5 PER, 7.8 Win Shares, +9.9 Net Rating
Age: 28 Status: Unrestricted (Completed three-year, $11.3M contract)

Danny Green filled his role so splendidly in San Antonio that he became an archetype. The “Danny Green type”—a floor-spacing knockdown shooter that doesn’t need the ball who can also tirelessly defend all three perimeter positions—is coveted by everybody that’s anybody in today’s NBA. Green distinguished himself by being a key contributor on Spurs teams that went to back-to-back Finals in 2013 and 2014, and his torrid catch-and-shoot game was a perfect complement to Tony Parker’s drive-and-kick style. He received so much attention during those two deep postseason runs—he shot 48.2% on threes in the 2013 playoffs and 47.5% in the 2014 playoffs—that he will likely prove too costly for San Antonio to retain, especially if they make a play for LaMarcus Aldridge. 

Interested suitors will need to spend big to acquire Green—who should expect to command eight figures per year—but they must do so with a clear understanding of his limitations. The 2009 second-round pick is prone to streakiness, and he struggles mightily when asked to create off the dribble. For best results, Green must be paired with a ball-dominant point guard and, preferably, another wing creator. If not, the game will become much more difficult for him, and his impact on his team’s offense will subsequently be more difficult to ascertain.

18. Tristan Thompson, Cavaliers, PF

2014-15 stats: 26.8 MPG, 8.5 PPG, 8 RPG, 0.7 BPG, 15.6 PER, 6.8 Win Shares, +4.5 Net Rating​

Age: 24 | Status: Restricted (Completed rookie deal)

Regardless of how last season played out, the Cavaliers were on the hook for big money to Tristan Thompson. That’s an indisputable fact of life when Thompson’s agent, Rich Paul, is best known as LeBron James’s right-hand man and when the capped-out Cavaliers need to do everything possible to retain their current talent as they pursue the 2016 title. But the 6'8" Canadian forward proved he wasn’t willing to settle for a spot on the gravy train, following up a solid season with a strong postseason run once Kevin Love was lost to a season-ending injury.

Known first and foremost as a voracious offensive rebounder, Thompson showed in the 2015 playoffs that he’s also a versatile defender who can play power forward in traditional lineups or center in small looks. Early in the Finals, Thompson’s ability to step out on Stephen Curry was a key to slowing Golden State’s offense, and his ability to swing positions will give David Blatt plenty of intriguing options to work with if Love does return next season. James told reporters recently that Thompson “should probably be a Cavalier for his whole career.” From James’s mouth to Thompson’s wallet. Re-signing Thompson could easily set the Cavaliers back at least $15 million per year.

19. Tyson Chandler, Mavericks, C

UPDATE: Chandler signs with Suns on four-year, $52 million deal

2014-15 stats: 30.5 MPG, 10.3 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 20.1 PER, 10.3 Win Shares, +5.5 Net Rating

Age: 32 | Status: Unrestricted (Completed four-year, $55.4M contract)

All the major ingredients for a bounceback season—a change of scenery, a return to good health, a familiar fit—were there for Tyson Chandler in 2014-15, and he delivered. Returned to the Mavericks by the rebuilding Knicks, the 7-foot-1 Chandler reclaimed his position as a reliable backline defensive anchor and alley-oop finisher. Chandler enjoyed a particularly efficient season in his offensive role as the over-the-top, keep-defenses-honest guy: he led the NBA with a 133 offensive rating, he shot a devilish 66.7% from the field and he converted a whopping 179 dunks for the Mavericks’ No. 5 ranked offense.  

The Mavericks have been linked to interest in DeAndre Jordan—a younger, springier, next-generation Chandler—and if that bid fails they will gladly return once again to the original Chandler as the answer in the middle. The 2012 Defensive Player of the Year and 2013 All-Defensive First Team selection still has plenty of basketball left in him, although he’s far enough past 30 that he shouldn’t command a truly premium price this summer. Owner Mark Cuban paid the price for letting Chandler go four years ago, and the Mavericks, who haven’t won a playoff series since their 2011 title, would be up a serious creek if their starting center departed again without a comparable replacement taking his place.  

20. DeMarre Carroll, Hawks, F

UPDATE: Carroll signs with Raptors on four-year, $60 million deal

2014-15 stats: 31.3 MPG, 12.6 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.7 APG, 15.9 PER, 7 Win Shares, +5.7 Net Rating
Age: 28 | Status: Unrestricted (Completed two-year, $5M contract)

DeMarre Carroll had the basketball world holding its collective breath during the Eastern Conference finals. The well-traveled forward with the “Junkyard Dog” nickname went crashing to the court, and a career-best season in a contract year looked like it might be undone by a serious knee injury. Thankfully, that scare proved brief, and Carroll’s value will now be set by his willingness to defend multiple positions, compete with high energy, move without the ball, and knock down open three-pointers, rather than health-related anxiety.

It took a long list of stops—Memphis, Houston, Denver, Utah and finally Atlanta—but Carroll finally found real acclaim this season thanks to the spotlight created by the Hawks’ 60-win season them. The only member of Atlanta’s starting five not selected to the All-Star Game, Carroll nevertheless continued to to be an invaluable two-way contributor, filling a starting role for coach Mike Budenholzer for the second straight season. Carroll raised his game even further in the playoffs, when he surprisingly topped 20 points in six straight games against the Nets and Wizards. Thanks to the new-found attention and Atlanta’s desire to keep its positive momentum going under new ownership, it’s fair to expect Carroll’s next contract to pay him more on a per-year basis than the $7.9 million he’s made combined during his five-year career.

Christian Petersen/NBAE/Getty Images

21. Wesley Matthews, Blazers, G

UPDATE: Matthews agrees to four-year deal with the Mavericks

2014-15 stats: 33.7 MPG, 15.9 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 2.3 APG, 16.1 PER, 6.2 Win Shares, +6.5 Net Rating
Age: 28 | Status: Unrestricted (Completed five-year, $32.5M contract)

If. If. If. If Wesley Matthews hadn’t torn his Achilles tendon in March, he would be 5 to 10 spots higher on this lis as an in-his-prime 3-and-D wing with playoff experience and an impeccable locker-room leader. If Matthews hadn’t torn his Achilles, perhaps Portland doesn’t bomb out in the first round against Memphis. If Matthews hadn’t torn his Achilles, perhaps the Blazers are better positioned to keep together a strong starting unit that was broken apart by the trade of Nicolas Batum and could see further defections depending on the free-agency decisions of All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge and center Robin Lopez.

But Matthews did tear his Achilles, and he must now face the inevitable questions about whether he will be able to return to pre-injury form and he must grapple with the reality that his asking price is going to take some sort of hit. CSNNW.com reported recently that Matthews believes that $15 million per year is “not unreasonable,” and he would be correct without the health concerns. Where the final number lands, and how many years he’s able to secure while technically in the middle of a lengthy rehabilitation, remains to be seen. A shorter deal that lets him return to the court and reestablish his value before the cap increase next summer would be a very sensible compromise if the huge money doesn’t materialize.

22. Tobias Harris, Magic, F

UPDATE: Harris re-signs with Magic for four-years, $64 million

2014-15 stats: 34.8 MPG, 17.1 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 1.8 APG, 16.7 PER, 4.8 Win Shares, -6.6 Net Rating
Age: 22 | Status: Restricted (Completed rookie deal)

This summer’s restricted free agency class isn’t all that deep, putting forgotten up-and-comers like Magic forward Tobias Harris in position for some legit courting. There’s a lot to like here: Harris has ramped up his production consistently over the course of his career, he joined Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving and teammate Victor Oladipo as the only 22-and-under players to average at least 17 points per game last season, he has the size and frame to play three or stretch four, and he just shot a career-best 36.4% from deep last season.

What’s the catch? Well, for starters, Harris arguably hasn’t yet played a single meaningful NBA minute, getting limited run in Milwaukee before trudging through two long rebuilding seasons in Orlando. Harris fares quite poorly by Real Plus-Minus, and Orlando’s defense, which was consistently bad last season, got even worse when he was on the court (plunging from 102.9 when he was on the bench to 106.7). According to reports, Harris is seeking a max offer sheet, which seems overly rich even in the most optimistic light. His suitors reportedly include Detroit and Boston; Orlando, with a ton of young pieces and a new coach in Scott Skiles, would probably be better served letting Harris walk than overpaying just for the sake of keeping him. 

23. Reggie Jackson, Pistons, G

UPDATE: Jackson re-signs with Pistons for five years, $80 million

2014-15 stats: 29.5 MPG, 14.5 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 6 APG, 17.2 PER, 4.9 Win Shares, +1.6 Net Rating
Age: 25 | Status: Restricted (Completed rookie deal)

Stuck behind Russell Westbrook for the first three-plus years of his career, Reggie Jackson was traded by Oklahoma City to Detroit at last year’s deadline following months of reports that he wanted to run his own team. Jackson made the most of his opportunity in Detroit, averaging 17.6 points and 9.2 rebounds after the trade while stepping into an open starting role created by a season-ending Achilles tear for Brandon Jennings. Of course, Jackson compiled those stats for a lottery-bound team playing without meaningful stakes.

The question facing the Pistons, and other interested teams, is whether Jackson can sustain his post-trade level of production if remains in a starting role. At 25, and with a fairly mediocre statistical track record, Jackson faces very real questions about his ceiling. Is he capable of becoming an above-average starter at his position given that he’s a career 29.4% three-point shooter who is a so-so finisher at the hope and who has yet to average even three free throw attempts per game during his career? With Jennings still on the mend, Pistons president Stan Van Gundy called re-signing Jackson “priority No. 1” this week, and Detroit is expected to match reasonable offer sheets made to the restricted free agent.

24. Paul Pierce, Wizards, F

UPDATE: Pierce reunites with Doc Rivers in L.A. on three-year deal

2014-15 stats: 26.2 MPG, 11.9 PPG, 4 RPG, 2 APG, 152 PER, 5.5 Win Shares, +5 Net Rating
Age: 37 | Status: Unrestricted (Declined $5.5M player option)

To co-opt a football phrase, Paul Pierce is now years – plural – removed from being an “every down back.” The future Hall of Famer’s scoring average has dipped for four straight seasons, he averaged a career-low minutes last season, and his 2014-15 PER also represented a career-low. Still, things went damn near perfectly during his only season in Washington, as he made a major impact in the postseason. Pierce beat the Raptors with his mind games and dagger jumpers in the first round before nearly hitting three game-winners in a second-round series loss to the Hawks. It’s been awhile since a veteran-for-hire’s experience, poise and swagger carried a younger squad quite like this.

After spending 15 seasons in Boston, Pierce has played for three teams in the last three years, and he has every reason to chase a second ring at this point in his career. Pierce briefly flirted with retirement after Washington’s postseason exit, but he is now reportedly considering a return with the Wizards or a reunion with former Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who now runs the Clippers. The former option could lead to a raise relative to his declined player option; the latter would require taking a discount. Both options offer a good chance at more postseason heroics. Either way, Pierce works best as a stretch forward, where he can get the most out of his outside shooting touch while hiding his diminishing athleticism.

25. Monta Ellis, Mavericks, G

UPDATE: Ellis signs four-year, $44 million deal with Pacers

2014-15 stats: 33.7 MPG, 18.9 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 4.1 APG, 16.5 PER, 3.6 Win Shares, +4.2 Net Rating
Age: 29 | Status: Unrestricted (Declined $8.7M player option)

Monta Ellis was the leading scorer on a top-five offense last season, but the story doesn’t quite end there. Life with Ellis always involves taking the good with the bad.  The good: Ellis averaged 20+ points before the New Year, including multiple game-deciding shots. The bad: Ellis shot an abysmal 16.9% from deep after the All-Star break as rumors suggested Dallas was plagued by locker-room issues. The good: Ellis is a wiz at creating shots, applying pressure to opposing defenses, and generating steals. The bad: Ellis is also a wiz at missing shots, coughing up the rock, and taking ill-advised gambles on defense.

If there’s one underrated aspect of Ellis’s game, it’s his durability. Over the last five seasons, no player has logged more minutes than Ellis, who played for the Warriors, Bucks and Mavericks during that timeframe. You might not always know what you’re getting from Ellis, but at least you know he will be in uniform. ESPN Dallas reported earlier this month that Dallas wouldn’t re-sign Ellis if he opted out, although the cynics in the crowd might view that as mere posturing. RealGM.com reported that the Hawks and Heat were interested in Ellis’s services, although Miami would be hard-pressed to make things work financially. ESPN.com also reported interest from the Pacers, who could certainly stand to add some electricity to their backcourt. Ellis is unlikely to command significantly more, per-year, than the $8.7 million option he turned down, but he may be able to add a guaranteed year or to the back end of his deal if things break right. 

Just missed the cut: Robin Lopez (Blazers), David West (Pacers), Josh Smith (Rockets), J.R. Smith (Cavaliers), Brandan Wright (Suns), Thaddeus Young (Nets), Jae Crowder (Celtics), Lou Williams (Raptors), Al-Farouq Aminu (Mavericks), Enes Kanter (Thunder).

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