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2009 NBA Free Agency Preview: The top unrestricted free agents

Once the draft is over, the next step of the NBA offseason is the free agency period. Negotiations start July 1, but players have to wait until July 8 to actually sign on the dotted line. Due to the economy, this promises to be an interesting summer, as more franchises seem to be trying to cut payroll than add talent. There are eight teams with significant cap space this summer, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll be willing to use it. Teams that are over the cap can add good players in two ways: 1) they can sign a player to the Mid-Level Exception (MLE), which will be around $5.8 million per season (and can be split up between two or more players), or 2) they can work out a sign-and-trade with the player’s old team.

Below is a list of the top unrestricted free agents this summer. These are players who can sign with whomever they like. They’re ranked in order of total value, which is based on overall talent, age, injury history and cost.

For each player, I’ll provide his position, age, Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and an estimate of what kind of contract he’s likely to sign.

1. Carlos Boozer, PF (27 years-old)
PER: 17.28
At press time, Boozer hasn’t officially opted out, but he is expected to. He can play another year for $12.3 million, but he thinks he’s due for a raise, and I don’t think he’s going to get the kind of raise he’s expecting. Boozer is one of the top 20 players in the league when healthy, but it’s that whole “when healthy” part that’s the problem. Over the past five seasons, he has missed a third of his team’s games. At 27, he’s in his prime, and assuming he has the right supporting cast, I think he can be one of a twosome or threesome on a championship-caliber team. Boozer may not get a raise this summer, but he could get long-term security. The Pistons, Raptors, Kings and Thunder all have the space to make a run at him, but Sacramento and OKC might consider themselves too far away from contending to add a big piece like Boozer. The Pistons seem like the best fit, but they are rumored to have more interest in Ben Gordon. There’s always the possibility that another team works out a sign-and-trade with Utah, but I don’t think anyone is going to give him a max deal, not in this economy.
Value: $12.0 – $13.0 million per year

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NBA Free Agency Rumors: ‘Sheed, Boozer, Sessions and more

SLAM ONLINE has sources that are saying that the Cavs and Rasheed Wallace are working on a two-year deal worth $20 million. The interest was prompted by the fact that Dwight Howard pretty much had his way in the paint against the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals. Wallace will be 35 this September, and has averaged about 12 points and seven boards over the last three seasons. He has the ability to spread the court with his shooting ability and has a reputation for doing a good job defensively on Howard, though the Orlando big man averaged 22 points and 15 rebounds in three games against the Pistons this season. If the Cavs do indeed sign Wallace that kind of a contract, it would trim the team’s projected 2010 cap space from $38 million to $28 million. Also, since the Cavs are over the cap, to make this deal happen, they would have to swing a sign-and-trade with Detroit (for Anderson Varejao?). If the deal falls through, SLAM says that the Cavs may move on to Zach Randolph. Wait…whaaa? 6/11 Update: The Cleveland Plain Dealer says that the Wallace rumors are untrue (and would be illegal if they were true).

DESERET NEWS says that Carlos Boozer isn’t sure that he’s going to opt-out of the final year of his contract (that will pay him $12.7 million) by the end of the month. This contradicts everything he’s been saying up until this point. Maybe Boozer isn’t finding that the market for his services is as strong as he thought it was. It might behoove him to play out his contract, stay healthy (this is key) and join the free agent class of 2010. But by going that route, he will lose the security of a long-term deal. Devin Harris says that Boozer is welcome in New Jersey.

– The RENO GAZETTE-JOURNAL reports that Ramon Sessions‘ first choice is to stay with the Bucks, but he understands that the club is up against the luxury tax so things are a little dicey. I think the Bucks will wait to see what kind of offer sheet he gets from another team and then decide whether or not they’ll match, though it would be wise to start negotiations now.

– The NEW YORK POST is reporting that the Knicks are eyeing Magic center Marcin Gortat for their mid-level exception. The Knicks are on the hook for about $24 million in payroll heading into the 2010-11 season, which means that they currently project to have roughly $34 million in cap space. If the Knicks use their mid-level this season, it will trim that space by about $6 million.

– Contrary to earlier reports, if his agent has any say, it’s going to be tough for Ben Wallace to retire, according to the NEWS-HERALD. It would be the best thing for the Cavs, but Arn Tellem isn’t going to let him walk away from $14 million.

Which NBA teams will have cap space this summer?

The NBA free agency period starts July 1st, and as that date approaches I’ll preview this year’s free agent class in more detail. But for now, I’d like to take a look at which teams have the cap flexibility to be major players in free agency this summer. (Mind you, just because a team has cap space, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll use it. Just sayin’.)

Not familiar with the NBA salary cap? Here’s a quick primer…

1. The cap for the 2008-09 season was $58.7 million. The general consensus is that the cap will stay flat or decrease slightly. We’ll assume it sticks at $58.7 million.

2. If a team is over the cap, the only free agents they can sign are their own, unless they elect to sign a player to the mid-level exception (~$5.8 million per season), the bi-annual exception (~$2.0) or to a minimum contract. (The bi-annual exception may not be used in two consecutive years.)

3. If a team is under the cap, they can sign any free agent they want as long as they do not exceed the cap. They can also take on salary via trade up to the cap, so a team like the Grizzlies (with almost $20 million in cap space) could conceivably trade their first round pick to the Suns for Amare Stoudemire or to the Raptors for Chris Bosh.

Here’s a list of the bigger names in the free agent pool this summer:

Unrestricted: Carlos Boozer, Ben Gordon, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Andre Miller, Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd, Hedo Turkoglu, Allen Iverson, Mehmet Okur, Rasheed Wallace, Mike Bibby, Anderson Varejao, Grant Hill, Kyle Korver, Trevor Ariza, Brandon Bass, Chris Andersen, Zaza Pachulia, Chris Wilcox and Drew Gooden

Restricted: David Lee, Paul Millsap, Ray Felton, Josh Childress*, Marvin Williams, Glen Davis, Ramon Sessions, Charlie Villanueva, Nate Robinson, Leon Powe, Hakim Warrick, Linas Kleiza, Jarrett Jack and Shannon Brown

* It appears that if Childress does return to the NBA, the Hawks still hold his rights, so he would be a restricted free agent.

There are eight teams that project to have more than $5.8 million (the value of the mid-level exception) in cap space this summer:

Memphis Grizzlies
Projected Cap Space: $19.7 million
Memphis has been reluctant to spend for several years now and is probably one of the franchises that’s struggling the most in the current economy. I lived in Memphis for three years, and given its small size and overall lack of wealth, I always thought that it would struggle to support a professional sports team. With a core of Rudy Gay, O.J. Mayo and Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies have to feel pretty good about what they have at off guard, small forward and center. The big decision this summer is what to do with restricted free agent Hakim Warrick. When dealing with bad teams, numbers can be deceptive, because no matter what, somebody has to score and rebound, right? Warrick’s PER (16.91) is #24 amongst power forwards, so ideally he’d be coming off the bench for a playoff team. The Grizzlies projected cap space assumes they make the qualifying offer to Warrick ($3.0 million). Memphis is one of those teams that could really use the services of a Carlos Boozer, David Lee or Paul Millsap, but in this economy, are the Grizzlies willing to make that kind of a commitment? They could try to make a run at Chris Bosh or Amare Stoudemire next summer, but the odds are long that either guy would want to play for the Grizzlies.

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NBA Free Agency Rumors: Wade, ‘Sheed, Boozer and more

SLAM says that Rasheed Wallace will retire if he doesn’t get at least $8 million to play next season. By my count, there are seven teams — Memphis, Atlanta, Oklahoma City, Sacramento, Toronto, Portland and Minnesota — other than the Pistons that could give him that kind of money. Who would be interested in ‘Sheed? I’m guessing only teams that are on the verge of competing for a title and have a need for a big man with championship experience. The only “contenders” on that list are Atlanta and Portland, and neither seems to be a good fit. Portland already has a slender sharp-shooting big man in LaMarcus Aldridge, and the Hawks will likely spend their cap space on re-signing Mike Bibby (though that isn’t necessarily the right thing to do). So if Portland and Atlanta pass on Wallace, someone will offer him a mid-level deal (~$5.8 M) and he’ll have to decide if it’s worth it. Any team in the league can sign him for that, so if he lowers his price, demand will rise.

Dwyane Wade reiterated that he will consider signing an extension once he’s eligible to on July 1st, but that he hasn’t given the idea much thought. The Heat would have a ton of cap space this summer had they held onto Shawn Marion and his expiring contract, but they instead traded for Jermaine O’Neal whom they thought would help their chances in the playoffs over the next two seasons. In the end, I doubt D-Wade will leave Miami. He’s a star there, the weather is great, and with Michael Beasley and a yet to be named big man (Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire) to be signed in the summer of 2010, the Heat have a good foundation for success. To me, the big question is whether or not Beasley can play small forward. If so, then the team should try to put together a starting lineup of Mario Chalmers, Wade, Beasley, Udonis Haslem and either Bosh or Amare.

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