It's almost a full year away, but the maneuvering is well underway as teams from across the NBA set themselves up to be major players in the 2014 free-agency sweepstakes.
Compared with this past offseason, 2014 is shaping up to be a very different class of available free agents: more big names toward the top and, if some players don't reach contract agreements by Oct. 31, more up-and-coming stars.
However, when teams go about targeting and courting free agents, they must consider the added wrinkle of paying players for past performance (i.e., guys who are clearly over the hill), and it will be prudent for teams to make wise investments that don't anchor their cap flexibility with aging, deteriorating talent. Lastly, we can look to 2013 contracts as another benchmark from which to evaluate the value of 2014 free agents (e.g. last year, we saw that being a shooter carried a premium, etc.).
The following is my ranking of 2014's top 30 free agents, sorted by the average annual value (AAV) of the new contracts I believe each player deserves under the rules of the CBA.
To make my contract value estimates, I used many of the same factors I used as a member of the Phoenix Suns' front office: age, injury history, value of recent comparable player contracts, irreplaceability of skill set, contribution to winning, history of production, fit with style and culture, marketability, and current cap situation, among other things.
Please note that this is not a ranking of the best free agents and that the AAVs listed below represent my estimation of the approximate value of each player, not a prediction of what the player will receive on the market in 2014. (Values denoted in millions of dollars.)
The contract valuations for many of these players are almost guaranteed to change, as their 2013-14 performances will affect their worth, but it is important to get an early gauge of where the different prospects stand.
UFA = Unrestricted free agent; RFA = Restricted free agent; ETO = Early termination option; PO = Player option
Carmelo Anthony | SF | ETO
2013-14 team: NY Knicks
'13-14 salary: $21.4
'14-15 AAV: $23.5
Despite not being the best player in the league, or even the best 2014 free agent, Anthony still resides in the upper echelon of superstar players in the league who are talented enough to move a franchise forward and be competitive, but perhaps not good enough to be the best player on a legitimate title contender.
In 2012-13, Anthony enjoyed one of his finest seasons offensively, leading the league in scoring and feasting nightly on mismatches created by his move to the power forward position. Much of his offense was fueled by career highs in 3PM, 3PA and 3P%, which diverted FGAs from his less efficient sweet spots at the 20-foot range. Even if he's not the most gifted scorer in the league, he certainly has the most complete arsenal. Yet, for all his offensive excellence, Anthony hasn't shown the ability (or desire) to elevate the other parts of his game necessary to take a good team to greatness.
Anthony's AAV is based on exercising his ETO and signing a new three-year deal at his maximum allowable salary, with 4.5 percent raises (and a player option on the third year). If a franchise deems him to be worth the salary commitment to move its team forward, it will take the max to lure him from New York, but I would hesitate to commit to anything more. Even then, if the Knicks are willing to go all-in, they can offer as much as $129 million over five years ($25.8 million per year).
LeBron James | SF | ETO
2013-14 team: Miami Heat
'13-14 salary: $19.1
'14-15 AAV: $23.1
It feels as if "The Decision" was just yesterday, when the words "taking my talents to ___" entered the national lexicon. Now we are mere months from a possible sequel, as James can terminate the final year of his deal and enter the free-agency market in 2014. Although there will be no shortage of suitors, it is highly unlikely he'll leave the basketball Shangri-la that exists on Biscayne Boulevard in South Beach.
Despite being unequivocally the best basketball player on the planet, James ranks second in our AAV rankings behind draft classmate Anthony because of the terms he agreed to with Miami back in 2010. The only way the Heat were able to pull off their free-agency coup was by each of the Big Three accepting less-than-max deals; in James' case, he took a starting salary of $14.5 million instead of the $16.6 million he was eligible to sign for. Because the maximum allowable raises of 7.5 percent are based on the first-year salary, James' salary every year since has been lower than what it would have been had he accepted the full max in the first year of his deal.
Since the max in a new deal would start with 105 percent of 2013-14 salary, his new starting salary is $20.1 million, giving him a new deal of $115.3 million over five years (AAV: $23.1 million), with an ETO on the fifth year (because James deserves the best possible contract in his favor).
Miami's plan for the future certainly will weigh into his decision, but it should be noted that the most he can make anywhere else is $85.6 million over four years (AAV: $21.4 million), any new location would have to prove itself more superior by location, roster, ownership, management and coaching to make it worth James' while to leave almost $30 million on the table.
Chris Bosh | PF/C | ETO
2013-14 team: Miami Heat
'13-14 salary: $19.1
'14-15 AAV: $20.1
His numbers aren't quite what they were in Toronto, but Bosh is still an elite-level big in this league, and that's the reason he's been a perennial All-Star. Bosh's willingness to accept a smaller role and fewer touches and focus on efficiency is a hugely underrated aspect of Miami's success in the Big Three era, and no two plays speak louder than the offensive rebound he grabbed and kicked out to Ray Allen at the end of regulation and the game-saving block at the end of overtime in Game 6 of the Finals.
Bosh is the perfect complement to LeBron James, in terms of his game (as a high-IQ, pick-and-pop big) and his temperament (willing to adjust his game to do what's necessary) -- and that can't be understated. He's not good enough to be a franchise player, but he's one of the very best second bananas in the league. Ultimately, James' decision will play an enormous part in where Bosh ends up in free agency. But if the goal is to keep winning championships, they'll stay together.
A contract offer of $100.3 million over five years (AAV: $20.1 million) with a partial guarantee of $6 million in the final year achieves several things: (a) it allows Miami to structure Bosh's deal a flat $20.1 million per year (the max he can make in the first year of his new deal), bringing some measure of stability to Miami's rising payroll; (b) it gives Miami some flexibility to get out of the deal early should James leave, allowing it to reset with limited liability; and (c) it gives Bosh more guaranteed dollars (at least $86.4 million over four years) than should he sign with another team (max he could make would be $85.4 million over four years).