It’s true — LeBron James is going to be a free agent next year, and he’s not leaving the Heat. In all likelihood, neither are Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade, even though they could each opt out of the final year on their individual contracts. They’re not going on this list, as it’s highly unlikely that they land anywhere other than Miami — not with the streaks they’re having. We’re also going to leave off Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan, two other free agents, since they’re staying with the Mavericks and the Spurs, respectively.
This list, though, is for players who might end up seeing greener pastures. The really interesting prospects that, for one reason or another, are gearing up to start paying rent in a different area code. No, we’re not including Kevin Love in this list — he’s got one more year on his contract before he becomes a free agent, even if he does get traded this year.
So, looking at the restricted and the unrestricted free agents for 2014, here’s what we’ve got. It’s an intriguing list, full of players who could shift the fortunes of all the teams that’re outside looking in as the Conference Finals play out this week. So without further delay, here are the seven best free agents in the upcoming free agency period.
7. Greg Monroe — Center/Power Forward
Greg Monroe is an interesting study. Taken with the seventh pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, Monroe was envisioned as half of the new Detroit frontcourt, a low post scorer whose lefty shot and better than average passing would fit nicely next to Andre Drummond, their 2011 pick. That’s the ideal, anyway. When Monroe is in the low block, he commands attention. The question for Detroit, who can match any offer that Monroe gets — that’s the difference between restricted and unrestricted free agency — is whether or not he’s ever going to get better.
That sounds like an absurdity on the face of it. Monroe is just 23, so he’s almost assuredly going to get better, especially with all his game experience. Over the last four seasons, he’s missed exactly three games. Over those four years, though, he’s essentially averaged 15 points and nine rebounds while being absolutely awful on the defensive end. Think of him as the new version of young Al Jefferson. Monroe’s contract will be one of the first stumbling blocks for new GM/Coach Stan Van Gundy, so be sure to keep tabs on his status during the off season.
6. Eric Bledsoe — Point Guard
Another restricted free agent, Eric Bledsoe was traded from the Los Angeles Clippers to the Phoenix Suns in the 2013 offseason for Jared Dudley, who promptly sat on the bench for the majority of the Clips playoff run because Doc Rivers is a better coach than general manager. Anyway, Bledsoe, who would only play 43 games for the Suns after having knee surgery to repair torn cartilage in January, emerged as every bit the player we all thought he was when he shined as Chris Paul’s backup and backcourt mate. The Suns had arguably the best twin point guard backcourt in the league this year, between Bledsoe and Goran Dragi?. Look for Phoenix to be aggressive when it comes to holding on to him. Also, check out his highlights below.
5. Pau Gasol — Power Forward/Center
Ever since the Lakers were swept from the playoffs by the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, Pau Gasol’s name has come up in trade talks constantly, despite the fact that he was far and away the best player on those championship Lakers squads. Sorry, Kobe fans, but it’s true. Despite that, Gasol is far from the face of the franchise that Kobe is, and he was certainly one of their most appealing trade assets, especially since he was clearly having on-the-court struggles with coach Mike D’Antoni. That time’s past, though, as Gasol’s status as an unrestricted free agent means he can go anywhere, and word from Twitter is that the big man will be looking at Memphis, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Antonio over the summer. Frankly, all of those landing spots sound great for the elder Gasol sibling (and San Antonio sounds downright terrifying.)
4. Luol Deng — Small Forward
The erstwhile Chicago Bull — one of head coach Tom Thibodeau’s favorite players — was sent packing over the franchise’s pervasive fear of the luxury tax, and traded to Cleveland for the expiring husk of Andrew Bynum and a draft pick, who was almost immediately waived. Deng, who started 40 games for the Cavs as the squad tried to end their post-LeBron playoff drought — an effort that was ultimately all for naught as the team, starring precocious star Kyrie Irving — finished with 33 wins and the 10 spot in the Eastern Conference.
Deng, the ultimate role player and the consummate professional — he spent the better part of two years playing with a torn ligament in his wrist because he didn’t have time to let it heal — is almost assuredly going to field offers from around the league, especially after missing the playoffs for just the fourth season in his career. Here’s a look at what might have been his best game in a Cleveland uniform.
3. Kyle Lowry — Point Guard
Kyle Lowry is, for whatever reason, a guy who wears out his welcome quickly. An about average starting point guard, Lowry has played for three teams in his nine NBA seasons, beginning in Memphis and continuing to Toronto by way of Houston. Over his career, he’s averaged about 11 points and five assists on 41/35/79 percent shooting splits (total, three pointer, and foul shooting.) Not bad, but not exciting.
What is exciting was the growth and development he’s shown since heading to Toronto. Even though we’ve got to be aware of the small sample size bias that accompanied the seven games that fell between the Brooklyn Nets and the Raptors that year, Lowry upped his game impressively, finishing with averages of 21 points, almost five assists, and almost five rebounds. Not to mention he was one Paul Pierce block and a swallowed whistle away from bringing Toronto to it’s first semifinal appearance since 2001.
2. Lance Stephenson — Shooting Guard
Good Lance Stephenson is a player that 30 NBA teams would love to have on their roster — he’s the player that Tyreke Evans was supposed to be, a whirling dervish with the insane confidence of Colonel Kilgore. That player is awesome, and that player would probably fetch a tremendous asking price in the open marker, especially since he’s a UFA this offseason. Unfortunately, there’s also Lance Stephenson, and that player and personality rubs a lot of people the wrong way. Stephenson can be brash in the way that only a New York-born basketball messiah can be (he’s the best high school hoops player for what is still one of the basketball wonders of the world), and that can manifest itself in a way that’s best described as ugly. While he’s said he’d like to stay with the Pacers, another team may make him an offer he can’t refuse.
1. Carmelo Anthony — Small Forward/Power Foward
Then we come to the best player on this list, Knicks star Carmelo Anthony. Despite being labelled with all kinds of knocks in recent years, it’s important to note that Anthony was not only the sole bright spot on a seriously dismal Knicks team, he was also the only player that didn’t suffer a serious regression on that team (seriously — compare the team in 2013 and largely the same squad from 2014), a team that was so bad he finally finished with a losing season for the first time in his career.
Of course, Anthony reportedly wants “the Dwight Howard treatment,” so this summer is sure to be full of more ‘Melo headlines than anyone wants or needs. Awesome. That’s going to be great. Rumors have him looking hard at Chicago, and it would certainly be a really bad scene for Phil Jackson if he took his talents to the Windy City.