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What a Terrible NBA Free Agent Class

Maybe it's something to do with the summer of 2010 when there will be a plethora of quality free agents.  Maybe it's a hangover from the summer of 2008, when Baron Davis and Elton Brand were the mega-signings, and each promptly had the worst year of their careers.  Maybe Brand and Davis are just making me (and NBA GMs) look differently at free agency.  But perusing the free agent class available this summer, it seems as if there's nothing but damaged goods on the market.

I realize that we haven't gotten to the draft yet so it may be a little early to be talking free agents, but this subject has been percolating in my head for awhile.  Besides, we already know who the Clippers are taking in the draft, and even that hasn't kept us from spending a lot of time on the subject.  Shortly after the June 25th draft, free agency begins on July 1, the other way that teams re-model over the summer.

Rather than being completely subjective, let's try to put some objective terms around the concept of a quality free agent.  How about a guy who has made an all star team, who's under 30 years old?  That's an imperfect metric to be sure, but at least it's a metric.

Baron Davis (two all star game appearances, 29 last summer) met the criteria last July, as did Elton Brand (also two ASGs and 29).  And we know how those signings have worked out so far.  But what about this free agent crop?  Who are the youngish stars who are available?  Here's the list:

There are none.  There are All Stars, lots of them. But they're all over 30, in many cases significantly, and many of them have a lot of baggage beyond their age.

  • Allen Iverson has been in 10 straight ASGs and was the MVP of the entire league in 2000-2001.  But he's almost 34 years old, not to mention that the his last three teams all played significantly better after he stopped playing for them.  I don't know who would touch him at any price at this point.  I hope he likes Greek food.
  • Jason Kidd is a 9 time all star, and still a productive player if not the same guy he was five years ago.  But he turned 36 a couple months ago.  Any team signing him can't really be expecting more than a year of productivity - they can hope, but that's about it.  Even Sam Cassell lost it at that age.
  • Shawn Marion is a four time all star, and a comparatively young 31.  But his productivity has seen a significant decline ever since he stopped playing next to Steve Nash, so there's some reason to believe that he was in the right place at the right time in Phoenix.  How much money, and how many years, would you commit to a 31 year old tweener?
  • Rasheed Wallace is another four time all star - and he'll be 35 before next season starts!  Always a bit of a wild card in the locker room, he might be a great addition to the right roster.  But he's a risk - and did I mention he'll be 35 soon?
  • And I have to admit, I lied when I said there are no all stars under 30 in this free agent class.  There's at least one (and there could be one more that we'll get to in a minute).  Ron Artest made one all star team in 2004 - and he is only 29 (he'll turn 30 two weeks into next season).  So strictly speaking, he meets the criteria.  And oh by the way, he has a little baggage.

There are a few other big name unrestricted free agents this summer, most notably Mike Bibby (31), Andre Miller (33) and Lamar Odom (turning 30 in early November).  But on the heels of the summer of Baron and Elton, I just don't see anyone making 8 figure, long term commitments to these guys.

(Technically speaking, Stephon Marbury, Wally Szczerbiak, Jamaal Magloire and Theo Ratliff all fall into the 'former all star' category as well, but I don't think I have to go into why they won't be getting 'star' type money this summer.)

That's sort of the list of veteran unrestricted free agents - the guys who have made more than the MLE in their lives, and would like to get more than that this summer.  There's an exhaustive list at Depressed Fan.  I'll come back to some of the more intriguing guys who can likely be had for less than the MLE in a moment.

What about the restricted free agents?  Are there any 'stars' in that group?  The short answer is no, not really.  The best players (Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Andrew Bogut, Andrew Bynum) from the 2005 draft have already been extended.  That leaves a bit of a mishmash on the RFA list, the biggest names being Marvin Williams, Charlie Villanueva, Nate Robinson, David Lee, Ramon Sessions and Paul Millsap.  It's an intriguing list, in part because so many of the teams involved (Milwaukee, New York, Utah) have serious financial considerations that could keep them from matching an offer sheet.  Villanueva, Lee and Millsap will likely command more than the MLE - it's hard to say with the others.

There are also, as always, a number of players with Early Termination Options in their contracts.  The free agent market gets much more interesting if Kobe Bryant, for instance, suddenly becomes available.  But I think it's fairly safe to say that as a rule, players will NOT be exercising ETO's this summer - not with the economy hurting so badly, not with most NBA teams looking to cut costs, and especially not with the salary cap and the MLE expected to decrease this summer.  There may be a couple of exceptions of course, players who feel that their current value far exceeds their current contract.  Chief among this group is Carlos Boozer, followed by Hedo Turkoglu.  If Boozer decides to wade in, he immediately becomes the 'Elton Brand' of 2009 - the biggest prize in free agency by far.  He's a two time all star who turns 28 in November, so he meets our criteria for a major free agent. 

I'm not Carlos Boozer's agent, but if I were, I'd tell him NOT to opt out.  He's scheduled to make over $12.5M next season.  He's coming off his least productive season, in which he only played 37 games, re-inforcing his reputation as injury-prone.  And the economy figures to be better in 2010 than in 2009.  I suppose that the counter argument is that he's the big fish in this free agent class, where he could be signficantly less big next year compared to the whales.  But don't forget that (a) lots of teams are working to clear cap space and be active next summer and (b) many of the biggest names will no doubt stay with their current teams, either playing out their current deals or signing extensions.  That could mean that instead of three teams who can pay him this summer (Detroit, OKC and Memphis), there could be many more next summer who find themselves with fewer chances to spend their money than they had hoped.  It's not a no-brainer, but I'd stay put if I were Carlos.

Having said all of that, there are some interesting free agents who could very well change teams this summer, and who could be a big help to their new employers in the right situation.  We've already mentioned restricteds Millsap and Villanueva and Lee, all of whom could move on.  There are also two guys playing in the Western Conference Finals who will be unrestricted FA's this summer and who stand to get pretty big raises this summer:  Chris Anderson of Denver and Trevor Ariza of the Lakers.  Denver remains right on the cusp of the luxury tax threshold, and have surely proven by this time that they don't intend to go back over it, so it will be very difficult for them to re-sign Anderson (or RFA Linas Kleisza, for that matter).  Meanwhile, the Lakers are already paying the tax, and Bynum's extension kicks in next year.  They have over $74M committed to 8 players so far, so just filling out their roster will be costly when you figure in the tax.  With it far from certain that the money is buying them a ring this season, it will be interesting to see what they are willing to spend to retain Ariza (or Odom). 

Having said all that, it's actually a pretty interesting free agency class for the Clippers.  They don't have the cap space to be players above the MLE at any rate, so the fact that there are few players worth paying big money to is irrelevant.  Those that might command decent money (Boozer, Millsap, Villanueva, Lee) all play a position where LA already has a glut of talent and salaries and where they're about to add the first overall pick.  Which leaves the team looking for the right pieces, at bargain prices, to fill out the roster.

It remains to be seen, but Donald Sterling 'buy and hold' philosophy could actually serve him well this summer.  The credit crisis put several owners who are highly leveraged into dire financial straits.  New Orleans, Milwaukee, Sacramento and many other teams are really hurting, and there are likely to be more sellers than buyers in the NBA bazaar this summer.  DTS has no debt, and a track record of simply buying up more assets when the economy is down, at least in his real estate business.

So what are the pieces the Clippers need?  Well, a 'glue guy' at small forward and backups at both guard positions would be on my wish list.  We'll no doubt go into the ad nauseum details later in the summer, but let's take a quick look at the small forward situation right now.

The Clippers don't, strictly speaking, have a starting position to offer a free agent (playing time being the other big lure after money).  Barring trades, we may not know who will be starting at the four and five, but we know they're already on the roster.  And clearly Baron Davis will start at the point and Eric Gordon will start at the shooting guard.  Al Thornton was the full time starter last season, so it's a tough sell to tell a free agent that they can have that starting job.  I am however coming around to the viewpoint that Thornton would be best utilized coming off the bench for this team, with a Battier-esque glue guy starting instead.  Thornton is a scorer, and he doesn't do much else to help the team.  But it's easy to imagine a Clippers roster next season in which, if Al were the starting small forward, he'd actually be the FIFTH option on offense.  That's a bad idea.  Better to have a glue guy playing perimeter defense and doing the little things for the first unit, letting Al carry the scoring load for the second unit.

And as it happens, there are some interesting candidates who fit that profile.  Ariza is probably my favorite.  He plays defense, he makes threes, he works hard, he's athletic.  Could he be coaxed to move across the hall?  What about Jamario Moon (an RFA)?  Or what about Quintin Ross?

Finally, there's Josh Childress.  It's far from clear that he could be had for the MLE, but by the same token it seems unlikely that anyone is going to pay much more for him, with the possible exception of the Hawks (he's still an RFA, despite his year abroad).  After a riot broke out at a Greek championship series game between Olympiakos and Panathaniakos, JChill sounded a little less chill about his current situation, and I wouldn't be surprised if he's ready to come back.  He'd be a great fit for the Clippers.