Free agency negotiations can begin at midnight Eastern time, but don’t expect much of substance to happen immediately. One major domino will need to fall before the real action begins, and that’s Carmelo Anthony. He will be pursued by any team with cap space, and until he makes up his mind (he has stated that he intends to take his time with the decision) no team that believes it has a shot at acquiring his services will want to tie up their available cap space.
It briefly looked like the waiting game could become even more intense when LeBron James opted out of his contract prior to his running mates in Miami, but now that Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have joined him it seems that they are more likely to stay together with the Heat and attempt to lure additional talent to join them. Anything is possible, but right now the smart money is on the big three remaining in Miami and angling for a fifth straight run to the Finals.
Meanwhile Kevin Love appears to be stuck in Minnesota for the time being, taking another big name off the table. Luol Deng and Lance Stephenson struggled down the stretch last season, lowering their potential market values. Some interesting restricted free agents are on the market, including Greg Monroe and Gordon Hayward, but if their teams want to hold onto them they will simply match any offer sheets those players sign. That only leaves Melo truly available.
Several teams have spent the last few days clearing cap space to try to take advantage of the market. Atlanta traded Lou Williams to Toronto for the right to waive John Salmons, Orlando cut loose Ed Davis, and a number of teams informed young players that they would not be tendered qualifying offers.
With every team that believes itself to be in contention for Anthony sitting on their cap space (and unwilling to spend three days with their money tied up in a bid for a restricted free agent) there is the chance that an opportunistic team will seek to grab up a useful player or two while everyone else is waiting for Melo’s answer. A smart team could snap up Chandler Parsons or one of the mid-tier unrestriced free agents before other front offices are willing to make a move.
Teams with a lot of cap space but limited free agent appeal would be wise to take this strategy before the losers in the Melo sweepstakes open their wallets. Michael Jordan and the newly re-branded Charlotte Hornets (who chose to overpay for Al Jefferson last year to compensate for their lack of market cache) could be on the short list to employ this strategy. Another way crafty teams can take advantage of the proceedings is to offer cap relief in exchange for future draft picks. Houston and Chicago, both strongly positioned to attract top free agents, could each use some cap flexibility to pull off major moves. A valuable asset or two (think 1st round picks and/or Nikola Mirotic) is usually the price of buying cap space this way.
Either way, the bulk of the action won’t take place at 12:01 tonight – it will take place after the other shoe drops on the top free agent in this class. The days of Jerry West waiting to talk to Shaq as the clock turns over to midnight are gone. Nowadays all there is to do is wait.