Free Agency Preview

With free agency starting at midnight EDT, there are five questions that will define the offseason. There are several teams with huge cap space (Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Utah) and several others that are close enough to clear big space (Charlotte, Dallas, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Portland), and it’s clear that some big player movement is happening.  Let’s take a look at each of the questions facing the league:

Where will Dwight Howard end up?

This is the first and most important question to be answered in free agency. Howard may not have played as well last season as he did during his tenure in Orlando, but he is still the biggest prize to be had this summer given Chris Paul’s age and the recent trade for Doc Rivers that will likely keep him in a Clippers uniform.

Howard is less of a sure thing than he once was considering his (perceived, at least) unprofessional behavior and back injury, which rendered him far less effective than in previous seasons. This effect manifested itself more on the defensive end, where he previously used every bit of his athleticism to terrorize opponents. Last season he was still solid, but lacked the tenacity to smother pick and rolls on the perimeter or challenge every shot at the rim.

That said, he is still a 27 year old All-Star center that tossed up a 17 and 12 with 2.4 blocks last season, all while recovering from injury. Howard is absolutely worth the max contract he is going to get, and anyone who says they don’t want him is kidding themselves. Houston and Dallas seem to be the frontrunners for his services, with a number of other possibilities floating around, including the Lakers, Atlanta, and some scenarios involving sign and trades with the Warriors or Clippers.

The best fit for Howard is probably Houston, where he can team with James Harden and learn from Kevin McHale. Both Dallas and Atlanta offer sweet-shooting power forwards in Dirk Nowitzki and Al Horford who would both complement Howard well, but Dallas would need to complete a trade to clear enough room for him, and there is some doubt that a return to his hometown of Atlanta is in the cards.

Wherever he ends up, Howard will be the first big domino to fall in free agency.

How will the outcome of the draft affect teams’ decisions?

The draft was a wild ride, and in the aftermath we have to take a look at how it will affect the coming free agency period. While most of the action that occurred won’t have any affect on the players that are targeted by teams blessed with cap space, it may impact who is retained. For instance, with Philadelphia trading away it’s best player from last season to acquire center Nerlens Noel, it’s safe to say they won’t be bringing back Andrew Bynum.

A few other draft decisions are a little harder to read, but may have similar impacts. Some, like Atlanta selecting Dennis Schroeder, could be a sign that they are not interested in bringing back Jeff Teague, but it could also be seen as a reasonable effort to shore up the backup point guard spot. Other draft picks aren’t likely to affect starters, but bench roles are always in flux, and the mid and low tier free agents could end up switching teams as a result of the draft.

What’s going on with Andrew Bynum?

The biggest trade flop of the year, Bynum managed to generate plenty of headlines about bowling and hair, but never actually suited up for the 76ers. This was a huge blow to a team that gave up Andre Iguodala, the team’s most consistent player, in the deal. Bynum has a not-undeserved reputation of being both fragile and a headcase, given his erratic behavior and the fact that he has only played more than 65 games in a season once (he was on pace to top this in the lockout season) and missed last year entirely. All of this creates a lot of uncertainty that any interested teams would love to mitigate with a shorter contract or less money.

Unfortunately for them, the league sometimes doesn’t work that way. Especially since Bynum is a 25 year old, seven-foot behemoth who is a double-double machine and defensive anchor when healthy. Someone will bite, and the easy answer – at least until the draft – has been to assume that Philadelphia will try to bring him back and hope for a return on their investment. That line of thinking is no longer be relevant with the trade for Noel. Even before the draft-day trade, new GM Sam Hinkie had given the impression that he wanted to start over.

That basically leaves the losers of free agency in the running for Bynum’s services. Whoever misses out on Howard among the teams with high cap space could roll the dice, but an even more interesting option remains available: Charlotte. This almost certainly won’t happen, but of the teams with the ability to offer big money, the Bobcats are the only ones that need a center, and have a bad enough roster to take a risk.

This actually makes sense in some interesting ways. If Charlotte is looking to tank until they have enough talent to be competitive, an injured or disinterested Bynum is as good as anyone else. If he comes back strong, suddenly the team is competitive for a playoff spot with him, Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and potentially Cody Zeller. If Bynum is good, but the team is still awful, the Bobcats are suddenly in possession of a killer trade asset. Again, this won’t happen, but maybe it should.

What will the teams that miss out on big names do with their cap space?

There are a number of teams with cap space this offseason, and there just aren’t enough notable free agents to go around in all likelihood. While one could construct some interesting scenarios in which a lot of restricted guys switch teams, leaving the likes of Brandon Jennings and Nikola Pekovic playing in different uniforms next season, the much more likely outcome is that most (but probably not all) of these players will stay put. Interestingly, Jennings may be the most likely to move.

Sure, some of the teams listed up top are rebuilding and aren’t that worried about using their space, but what happens when Dallas, Atlanta, or Houston end up missing out on Howard, Iguodala, or a couple of other difference makers? Their entire strategy this offseason is to find big names to join their one remaining All-Star, and if they strike out, things could get interesting. We might end up seeing some ridiculous offers beyond what a player is worth, something like Teague getting a $13 million offer. There are a slew of veteran free agents, including Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, and Nate Robinson, who could be in for big paydays.

The Pistons remain a wild card as well, since they have acquired several interesting young assets and may look to augment that core before rookie contracts start expiring. They have been noted as targeting Josh Smith, and could end up tossing a ton of money at someone if they feel the opportunity to add a quality player slipping away.

Of course, these teams have been frugal and thoughtful lately, but it still bears watching in case the desperation becomes too much.

Which team(s) will end up with game changing margin signings?

Signing a guy on the cheap who can fill a vital role and potentially start is how teams like San Antonio stay relevant. It’s impossible to tell which team will accomplish this feat (if any) this offseason, but at least there are a few candidates for “best value in free agency”.

Let’s start on the wing, where two of my favorite value players are flying under the radar. Dorell Wright is a lanky 27 year old small forward who can hit threes at a little above a league average rate and is solid on defense. That description isn’t blowing anyone away, but he could be a huge value signing next season for a playoff team if anyone is paying attention. At this point, he’s giving you as much as Caron Butler, but at about a quarter the price. Some team that needs either a starting small forward or a combo forward off the bench should snatch him up as soon as they get the chance.

The other potential steal on the wing is Ronnie Brewer, who suffers from lacking an outside shot, but can thrive as a defensive specialist who uses backdoor cutting and finishing to keep defenses honest. He may not be able to start, but off the bench he could benefit most teams if he’s not asked to do too much.

Up front, the specter of Greg Oden looms large. If a guy who has managed to play more than one total season’s worth of games is what a team is looking for, Chris Kaman and Samuel Dalembert offer veteran options as backups. Both provide sound defense and could hold down the middle capably for 20 minutes a night.

With a harsh luxury tax, teams that strike gold with low-dollar signings are in the best position to maximize the rest of their cap.