Who will have cap space in 2010?

ESPN’s Chad Ford lists nine teams that will have significant cap space next summer. [Insider subscription required.]

1. Nets ($25-$27 million)
2. Knicks ($24 million, assuming they don’t sign anyone for longer than a year)
3. Heat ($20-$22 million)
4. Timberwolves ($16-$18 million)
5. Bulls ($13-$15 million minus whatever they give Tyrus Thomas)
6. Thunder ($14-$15 million)
7. Rockets ($12-$14 million minus whatever they give to Carl Landry and Chuck Hayes)
8. Clippers ($10-$11 million)
9. Kings ($9-$10 million)

This assumes a cap of $53.6 million, which is an optimistic view. The cap could drop below $50 million.

It takes about $14 million of space to sign a max-contract player, so even under these optimistic circumstances, there really are only five teams — the Nets, Knicks, Heat, T-Wolves and Thunder — that will have that kind of space. (The Bulls are likely to keep Thomas and the Rockets are likely to retain Landry and Hayes, though they could make another move here or there to put them in position to add a superstar.)

Of these five teams, the Heat look to be in the best overall shape. Their projected payroll already includes Dwyane Wade, so they have enough to woo another superstar (LeBron, Bosh, Amare, Boozer?) to Miami. They also have a few good young players (Michael Beasley, Daequan Cook and Mario Chalmers) under contract, and the city boasts a great climate and nightlife. But the real draw is playing with Wade, who has already proven that he can win a championship if he has a little help.

The Thunder are compelling because they have a great young nucleus that includes Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green and James Harden. It would be a terrific spot for a big like Chris Bosh or Amare Stoudemire to go if they are serious about trying to win a championship.

The Nets are also appealing, though it would be nice if the team’s location were settled by next summer. Right now the plan is to play in Brooklyn starting in the 2011-12 season, so this would be a good landing spot for a star looking to up his Q score. They have an All-Star caliber point guard (Devin Harris), an up-and-coming off guard (Courtney Lee) and a rising star at center (Brook Lopez). Considering most of the major free agents next summer play off guard, small forward or power forward, the Nets will be a major player.

The Timberwolves are viewed as kind of a mess, and it will be next to impossible for them to attract LeBron or Wade to the Twin Cities. They would have an outside chance at Chris Bosh or Amare Stoudemire, but they are pretty set up front with Kevin Love and Al Jefferson. Joe Johnson would appear to be the best fit if he were willing to leave Atlanta.

Finally, the Knicks are in great shape financially, but if they can’t retain David Lee, they don’t have a whole lot of talent to attract a superstar who is more interested in titles than he is in playing in the biggest market in the country.

Ultimately, I think the Heat will acquire/sign an impact player like Bosh, Stoudemire or Boozer that will prompt Dwyane Wade to stay put. Those three bigs are likely to have new homes next season, though I think Bosh has the best chance to stay put with the moves that Toronto has made this summer. Joe Johnson will probably stick in Atlanta.

That leaves LeBron. I think the Cavs need to make a Finals appearance to keep him, though since they signed Anderson Varejao to a long-term deal, they don’t have the cap space to sign a big-name free agent to replace Shaquille O’Neal if they elect not to bring him back for another season. Will LeBron stay if the Cavs lose in the Finals and Shaq’s contract expires? The Cavs won’t have a lot of options in the summer of 2010 unless they can swing a trade to bring a superstar in his 20’s to Cleveland to be LeBron’s sidekick.

For a preview of the 2010 free agents, click here.

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