Offseason strategy is a years-in-the-making endeavor that requires careful -- and precise -- salary management. For that reason, NBA teams are always planning ahead. The draft, free agency and trade possibilities are all considered when making moves in the present, as teams need to be aware of the future repercussions of even their smallest dealings.
With that in mind, it's valuable to understand what's at stake beyond this season. You can peruse mock drafts to get a feel for what awaits lottery teams, but of even greater interest are the proven NBA players set to be available in a year's time. The 2014 free-agent class is layered with talent. Here is a first look at the top potential unrestricted free agents next summer.
For reference: ETO = early-termination option; PO = player option
1. LeBron James, F, Miami Heat (ETO): James, like Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, is signed for three more years but can opt out of the final two seasons of his contract next July. In truth, the league's maximum salary is a bargain for the world's best player. The four-time MVP would be a transformational addition for any NBA team, and he will essentially have his pick of suitors provided they have the requisite cap space or sign-and-trade assets to acquire him. He'll also be just 29 next summer, with the kind of hyper-intelligent game that should keep him in the league's elite through the length of his next deal. But whether James is available likely hinges on the fate of the Heat and the relationship of the team's three stars. Their trio of early-termination options are very obviously linked, and thus James could well decide to delay his free agency for a season (James, Wade and Bosh all have player options for 2005-16) in an effort to keep Miami's talented core together.
2. Carmelo Anthony, F, New York Knicks (ETO): Few players are capable of sustaining Anthony's level of offensive effectiveness when using up possessions in such incredible volume. For that reason alone, he'll be a coveted free-agent target -- be it in 2014, if he decides to exercise his early-termination option as a 30-year-old, or in 2015, if he elects to remain with the Knicks for another year at a salary of $23.3 million.
3. Dwyane Wade, G, Miami Heat (ETO): If Wade chooses to exercise his early-termination option, he would carry the intrigue of a top shooting guard and the warning label of a 32-year-old going on 50. Wade's injury history is rich and worrisome, which could end up deterring max-level offers despite his definitive standing as one of the top 10 players in the league.
4. Chris Bosh, F/C, Miami Heat (ETO): Bosh is far enough removed from his days as a first-option star that many have forgotten what he's capable of doing. Only three seasons ago, Bosh was the anchor of a top-five offense in Toronto -- a 24-and-10 machine who could score inside and out. Since that time, Bosh has grown into an even better rotational defender while honing his mid-range game. It would undoubtedly take an adjustment to shift back into a more ball-dominant role, but Bosh, who turns 30 in March, is still very well suited for a higher level of offensive responsibility should he look to relocate.
5. Tim Duncan, F/C, San Antonio Spurs (PO): It's to all of our detriment that the 37-year-old Duncan can't continue to fight off the nagging effects of aging forever. He had an outstanding year in leading the Spurs to within a single shot of the NBA title. Duncan is listed here because he's technically able to become a free agent next summer, but it seems fairly unlikely that he would decline his $10 million option for 2014-15, and he said last year that he's a "Spur for life."
6. Dirk Nowitzki, F, Dallas Mavericks: As jarring as it would be to see Nowitzki on any team but the Mavericks, the then-36-year-old forward would need to weigh Dallas' revamped roster against the other opportunities available next summer. He's been relatively patient as the Mavs have fruitlessly chased Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and Deron Williams in consecutive summers, but every season is precious at this stage of his career. Re-signing with the Mavs at a reduced rate still seems the most likely outcome (he will make $22.7 million this season), but Nowitzki has more than earned the right to see what else is out there. Regardless, Nowitzki's game will likely age well, provided that his team can account for the toll his dwindling foot speed will take on his already below-average defense.
7. Kobe Bryant, G, Los Angeles Lakers: Last we saw Bryant, he was one of the league's true offensive juggernauts. No one matched his total scoring and assisting burden last season, and Bryant pulled off a career-high shooting efficiency despite that volume. It was an astounding individual performance, especially in light of the Lakers' lack of chemistry. But by the time Bryant's free agency rolls around, he'll be a 36-year-old guard dealing with the fallout of a torn Achilles (an injury that tends to make an indelible mark on the performance of NBA players), a challenging personality moving into the twilight of his career and a businessman refusing to accept less than what he deems himself to be worth (Kobe will make a league-high $30.45 million this season). Like Duncan, though, Bryant doesn't seem inclined to shop around, saying, "I'm not going anywhere. I couldn't possibly [leave the Lakers]."
8. Pau Gasol, F/C, Los Angeles Lakers: The Lakers' 2012-13 season was an aberration in many respects, one that characterized Gasol in a particularly poor light. He wasn't solely a victim of circumstance; his lacking defense can be partially attributed to his effort, and Gasol's reluctance to play on the perimeter in Mike D'Antoni's offense could well have created a self-fulfilling prophecy for failure. But skilled big men with Gasol's basketball IQ don't tend to drop off so dramatically, leading me to believe that Gasol, who turned 33 in July, should have a better season with improved health and a return to normalcy. Age and injury will undoubtedly be a factor in Gasol's market price and appeal next summer, but he remains an intriguing target because of his wealth of skills at a position of value.
9. Zach Randolph, F, Memphis Grizzlies (PO): Randolph, 32, is no longer fit to be a central offensive player, but his cleverness around the basket, stellar offensive rebounding and mid-range shooting ability make him valuable as a complementary type. He packages high-volume rebounding with a nice scoring touch, a combination that's more uncommon than it should be.
10. Luol Deng, F, Chicago Bulls: Deng might have logged the minutes of a 14-year veteran at this point, but he'll be just 29 years when he hits free agency and holds plenty of appeal on both sides of the ball. Projecting the career arcs of perimeter defenders can be difficult, but Deng's length gives him a natural advantage in coverage that should allow him to keep up with opponents even as he slows down. He should be capable of high-level perimeter defense for at least a few more seasons at the least, while scoring well via off-ball movement and better-than-advertised shooting.
11. Paul Pierce, F, Brooklyn Nets Pierce isn't quite the two-way force he once was, and the soon-to-be 36-year-old is at the stage in his career when a slip in production could come without much warning. Still, he seems likely to be a valuable contributor for a few more seasons, provided that his team has room to adjust his role and responsibilities if need be. At worst, he'll be a talented shooter and situational playmaker, and enough of a worker defensively to avoid becoming a liability. More likely, Pierce will continue to function as one of the league's better do-it-all wing players in the short term while sporting the kind of balanced, skill-driven game that should age gracefully.
12. Rudy Gay, F, Toronto Raptors (PO): Gay, who turned 27 last month, could be one of the better shot creators available next summer if he decides to decline his whopping $19.3 million player option for 2014-15. He's flawed enough in other respects to make potential suitors carefully consider the price and length of their offers, but Gay would still likely to be rewarded handsomely if he can salvage his shooting percentages after a career-worst season in 2012-13.
13. Andrei Kirilenko, F Brooklyn Nets (PO): Considering that Kirilenko's high-energy style is such an asset, the fact that he'll turn 34 midway through the 2014-15 season is a bit of a concern. That said, he still brings a role-player mentality and a star-level skill set to whichever team is lucky enough to sign him. Kirilenko is very aware of his limitations and understands how to best work around them, a combination that allows him to function as an off-ball complement to more control-dependent stars. He also offers brilliant work in the game's margins (help defense, loose-ball situations, offensive breakdowns) and bends his game to fill whatever gap deemed necessary.
14. Danny Granger, F, Indiana Pacers: Granger's prolonged absence does give reason for worry, but NBA teams will have a full season of post-injury play to evaluate by the time he becomes a free agent. If he picks up more or less where he left off before a knee injury limited him to five games last season, Granger, 30, would be poised to provide volume scoring and feisty perimeter defense. That package is typically well-taken in the NBA and would position him well for a supporting role on a winning team. It remains to be seen if Indiana has evolved beyond need for Granger, but his four previous seasons as a 20-point scorer would undoubtedly entice other teams.
16. Kyle Lowry, G, Toronto Raptors: Lowry, 27, is a frustrating player, for both teammates and opponents. His play is inconsistent, and even at his best Lowry still tends to force drives and miss opportunities to set up his teammates. But that same player doubles as a physical, skilled point guard who can create offense and jam up opponents' ball handlers. He'd be a more attractive free agent if his focus and attitude weren't flagged as concerns, but as it stands Lowry still does far more good than harm and could help round out a winning rotation.
17. Amar'e Stoudemire, F/C, New York Knicks (ETO): Stoudemire, who will be 31 in November, has missed roughly half of New York's games over the past two seasons. He's set to see his athleticism-driven game decline over the next few years, and, as is, he's a poor defender and underwhelming rebounder. There's also exceedingly little chance that he will forgo his $23.4 million salary in 2014-15 to become a free agent. That figure is two to three times larger than than the offers he'd likely receive as a free agent, making it far more sensible for Stoudemire to remain with the Knicks for another year to earn top dollar and attempt to regain some career momentum.
18. Andrea Bargnani, F, New York Knicks (ETO): The former Raptor, who will turn 28 next month, is coming off a two-year stretch of lingering injury and regressed play. When healthy, engaged and used effectively, Bargnani is a terrific pick-and-pop player and a deserving offensive focal point. When those factors aren't aligned, he's a characteristically lazy defender, crummy rebounder and inefficient scorer. Things could turn around for Bargnani if New York ends up being a better fit than expected, but at the moment he isn't exactly a free-agent prize.
19. Emeka Okafor, C, Washington Wizards: The consistently overlooked Okafor has put together a solid career as one of the NBA's better rebounders and interior defenders. He's still a disappointing finisher around the basket and a robotic post-up player at best, but Washington had a top-five defense last season in part because of Okafor's chops on that end. Ultimately, he's not athletic enough to replicate that level of success without ample help. But in the right situation, Okafor, who turns 31 this month, could help elevate the play of an already competent team, be it a lower-level playoff club or a potential contender.
20. Marcin Gortat, C, Phoenix Suns: Playing without Steve Nash translated to fewer opportunities and reduced efficiency for Gortat in 2012-13, but he's a worthwhile center even in that slightly less impressive form. Teams could certainly do worse than an all-around solid finisher, rebounder and defender, particularly given Gortat's ability to reclaim his previous career highs if paired with the right kind of playmaker. There's also something to be said about his balance while executing the pick-and-roll. While other big men are limited to only the most direct lines to the basket, the 29-year-old Gortat can change direction after the catch and finish with either hand. That kind of flexibility makes him a more robust offensive option because he's harder for opponents to counter. Other notables: Ray Allen, Chris Andersen (PO), Trevor Ariza, Jerryd Bayless, Andray Blatche (PO), Andrew Bogut, Elton Brand, Shannon Brown, Caron Butler, Vince Carter, Mario Chalmers, Darren Collison (PO), Ben Gordon, Devin Harris, Spencer Hawes, Kirk Hinrich, Kris Humphries, Chris Kaman, Shawn Marion, Greg Oden, Luke Ridnour, Nate Robinson, Thabo Sefolosha, Ramon Sessions, Rodney Stuckey, Marvin Williams, Mo Williams (PO), Metta World Peace (PO).