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.
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.
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
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.
3. Marc Gasol, Grizzlies, C
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
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.