Next summer's free-agent crop has difference makers

If you're looking for a silver lining to the most moribund NBA offseason in memory, try this: Next year ought to be better in the sense that, while the free-agent class of '06 was a relative dud, several top talents figure to be on the market.

As many as six players worthy of max or near-max contracts could be available, while several others could add to that list with strong 2006-07 campaigns. The most notable ones all have one-year player options for 2007-08 that they would be unlikely to exercise, including Detroit's Chauncey Billups, Seattle's Rashard Lewis, Sacramento's Mike Bibby, Washington's Antawn Jamison and Charlotte's Gerald Wallace.

Alas, that list doesn't include a few players who technically will be free agents in 2007 but are likely to sign extensions later this fall. Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki is the prominent case, but he's virtually certain to ink the same three-year extension that Paul Pierce signed with Boston.

Additionally, several players on rookie contracts are likely to be locked up by this fall, including Dallas' Josh Howard, Chicago's Kirk Hinrich, New Orleans/Oklahoma City's David West, Phoenix's Boris Diaw, Boston's Kendrick Perkins, Toronto's T.J. Ford, and Seattle's Luke Ridnour and Nick Collison. And of course, the big names from the great 2003 draft already have extended their deals.

On the other hand, players such as Chris Wilcox and Drew Gooden could end up being part of the free-agent class if they settle for one-year tenders from their current clubs. That possibility looks increasingly likely as the summer drags on.

Because of the player options and extensions, we have to do a bit of reading tea leaves at this point to determine next summer's free-agent crop. Nonetheless, using a little bit of common sense we already can see the outlines of a very strong class. Here's how the market's top 25 players stand at the moment: