Nate On Sports: Handicapping the Top 10 NBA Free Agents

If you’re a fan of the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, New Jersey Nets, New York Knicks, or heck, even the Los Angeles Clippers, Thursday is a day you’ve had circled on your calendar for months, if not years.  The same might apply if you’re a Cleveland Cavaliers fan too, but for far different reasons.

At midnight Thursday, the doors of opportunity will open for the much (and deservedly so) ballyhooed NBA free agency class of 2010.  For teams like Chicago and Miami, it is a chance to cement themselves as one of the league favorites (if not the league favorite) for next season.  For Cleveland, it is the only chance to remain relevant in the NBA landscape.  And for Toronto, well, there’s really nothing too look forward too (hint: Chris Bosh isn’t coming back.)

Already, there has been much speculation about where the “Big Five” of James, Wade, Bosh, Nowitzki, and Johnson will land.  To no one’s surprise, “sources” have come out of the woodwork and stated that the LeBron and Bosh to Chicago move is all but a done deal.  Other “sources” have LeBron and Bosh joining Dwyane Wade in Miami.  Still others have Johnson joining LeBron with the Bulls, Boozer joining Wade in Miami, and Bosh signing with the Minnesota Timberwolves (just kidding on the last one, but a T-Wolves fan can wish, right?)  Regardless, I think it’s almost a near certainty that at least two of the top five will be playing together somewhere.  Guessing where, however, is a crap-shoot. You get to see the results of that crap-shoot after the jump.

1. LeBron James (Cleveland Cavaliers) – With all due respect to Wade, Bosh and the others, LeBron is the prize of the 2010 free agent class.  Here’s a guy who is 25, with a couple MVPs under his belt, an absolute physical freak of nature, and a pretty good guy to go on top of all that.  It’s hard to find a fault.  Everything right now points to him as being the guy who will cause all the other dominoes to fall, simply because he is such a likable guy, and let’s face it, great players like to play with other great players.  If that’s the case, free agency may get off to a slow start, because I can’t see James making a fast decision.  About a month ago I had Chicago as a slight favorite, ahead of Cleveland and New York mainly.  Recently though, sources indicate Miami has become a viable option, and I’d be hard pressed to disagree.  Still, I’m going to stick with my original pick of Chicago.  The Pick: Chicago Bulls.

2. Dwyane Wade (Miami Heat) – Outside of Dirk Nowitzki (who will be discussed shortly), this is one guy I just can’t see leaving.  While Miami has been mediocre over the past two seasons, Wade has already won a championship there, and has a proven championship builder (in Pat Riley) running the organization.  Wade’s main beef with the Heat has been their inability to surround him with an adequate supporting cast, but given their cap room, that will change drastically this off-season.  I just can’t see him leaving.  The Pick: Miami Heat.

3. Chris Bosh (Toronto Raptors) – I have to believe that Bosh will play with either Wade or LeBron.  Picking between the two that is the hard part.  Bosh, who is better defensively than other PF/C options Stoudemire and Boozer, would be Miami’s number one choice of the three.  Unfortunately for Miami, I have to believe that Bosh would also be Chicago’s first non-LeBron preference.  Ultimately, there’s been a lot more smoke around a LeBron/Bosh pairing versus a Wade/Bosh pairing.  That’s why I’m going to pick the Bulls again.  The Pick: Chicago Bulls.

4. Amare Stoudemire (Phoenix Suns) – This is a tough one.  As mentioned, Miami is a definite possibility.  Another team to consider, however, is New York, where Amare’s former coach, Mike D’Antoni, is now currently coaching.  By most accounts, Stoudemire and D’Antoni have a good relationship, and D’Antoni’s system is perfect for Stoudemire’s skill-set.  I also wouldn’t count out New Jersey trying to make a big splash here, but they seem set in the front-court with Brook Lopez and number three overall pick Derrick Favors.  The Pick: New York Knicks.

5. Dirk Nowitzki (Dallas Mavericks) – While Dirk isn’t necessarily the type of player you can (or want) to build your team around anymore, I think he would almost be a better complimentary player to either LeBron or Wade as opposed to Bosh or Stoudemire.  Whereas Bosh and Stoudemire are still in the upswing of their careers, Dirk has peaked by this point and is now best suited to be a number 2 guy.  Not that he can’t be a number 1 guy anymore, I just believe he’s best suited to be a number 2 guy… just see his history with the Dallas Mavericks as evidence of this.  With as loyal as owner Mark Cuban has been to Dirk, and as loyal as Dirk seems, I can’t see him signing elsewhere, much like Wade.  If he does, it’s to play with LeBron or Wade, but I think he’s happy in Dallas.  The Pick: Dallas Mavericks.

6. Joe Johnson (Atlanta Hawks) – Joe Johnson doesn’t have the name value or star power of the names before him on this list, but the guy is a legitimate All-Star and a guy who is capable of carrying a team.  His name, too, has been linked with the other big names and has been linked with the teams with tons of salary cap room like Chicago and New York.  New Jersey also makes sense here, as they have a need for a big-time scoring two-guard.  But in the end, I believe the lights of New York are brighter than the lights of New Jersey, and the Knicks get another player who would be great with D’Antoni’s system.  The Pick: New York Knicks.

7. Carlos Boozer (Utah Jazz) – Earlier, I mentioned how Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki were the two guys most likely to stay with their current teams.  On the flip side, I believe Chris Bosh and Carlos Boozer will be the two most likely to leave their current teams.  Utah, as it stands, is already over the cap. Furthermore, they have a guy on the bench in Paul Millsap who is basically Carlos Boozer lite, with a little more defense and half the salary demands.  If everything else breaks down as I propose here (yeah, right) I can’t see anyplace but Miami as being the destination.  Boozer has always expressed a liking for Miami, and a friendship with Dwyane Wade only cements this deal.  The Pick: Miami Heat.

8. David Lee (New York Knicks) – Again, if everything falls like I foresee, there’s no chance of Lee being back with the Knicks (that I can see, anyway.)  Stoudemire, like Lee, is a PF, and one that has shown an ability to prosper in an uptempo system.  Personally, I could very easily see Lee and Stoudemire simply trading places, with Lee taking Amare’s spot in Phoenix.  That, and I can’t think of another place that would make sense right now.  The Pick: Phoenix Suns.

9. Rudy Gay (Memphis Grizzlies) – Unlike the rest of the names on this list, Gay is a restricted free agent, which means that Memphis can match any offer made to Gay, despite salary cap implications.  Common thought, however, has Memphis letting go of Gay if someone shows a willingness to overpay for him.  And it’s hard to imagine a scenario where someone doesn’t overpay for him.  There are two lines of thinking here: a team that misses out on Plan A targets will feel the need to spend money, and thus overpay for a player such as Gay (see: New Jersey.)  The second type of team that could pursue him is a team that has cap space, but, for whatever reason, is unattractive to other free agents (see: Minnesota.)  This sounds like a Clippers-type signing too, but in the end, I’ll say New Jersey.  The Pick: New Jersey Nets.

10. Ray Allen (Boston Celtics) – Boston has a very real need to get younger, but without a lot of cap space, that may prove difficult.  Allen still showed that he had some life this last postseason, and still has immense value as a three-point specialist, if nothing more.  I could easily see him resigning with Boston for another year or two, but I could just as easily see him signing with a team who is one guy away from being a legitimate contender – Utah would make a lot of sense, come to think of it, but that’s just speculation on my part.  The Pick: Boston Celtics.

Needless to say, the obvious losers here are Cleveland and New Jersey.  Cleveland for losing LeBron and New Jersey for losing out on everyone but Rudy Gay, despite hordes of cap space.  The winners are just as obvious: Chicago and Miami, with New York also getting an impressive haul despite losing out on the top tier stars.  Of course, this will probably be wrong, but that’s what makes it so fun.

Enjoy it sports fans… chances are, you won’t see a NBA off-season like this one in quite some time.

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