NBA free-agent class could be best ever

FRANK ZICARELLI

, Last Updated: 2:15 PM ET

The mid-season point will soon arrive in the NBA, a time when teams take stock of their rosters.

It is a time when teams begin to decide whether to be buyers or sellers with the Feb. 19 trade deadline looming.

It is a time of change, but this year is shaping up to be unlike any other, a year in which most eyes and attention are being drawn to the summer of 2010.

Followers of all things related to roundball have no doubt noticed how teams began to clear cap space even before the season's first tip in anticipation of '10, when the most celebrated free-agent class in NBA history is expected to hit the open market.

More than just acquire a scorer or a rebounder for the short-term, the real purpose behind many of the completed transactions were designed to create financial flexibility for the summer of '10.

It is a who's who of the game's most dominant players, but who will go where remains open to considerable debate and speculation.

In many ways, the behind-the-scenes games have taken on a life of their own.

At the centre of this summer of 2010 intrigue is LeBron James, the larger-than-life mega star of the Cleveland Cavaliers whose ambition, among others, is to be a global icon.

In theory, the league's collective bargaining agreement gives teams a better chance to retain their free agents because they can offer more money.

But, it is expected that owners will not exercise their option to extend the current CBA through the 2011-12 season, meaning the existing agreement between the NBA and its players is set to expire on June 30, 2011.

With that in mind, Billy Hunter, who serves as executive director of the NBA Players' Association, has encouraged players who can opt out in 2010 to do so because contracts that get signed will be delayed in the event of a lockout in 2011. There is also this belief that owners want to tighten their belts, which will have an impact on the amount of money players can earn.

The above scenario adds yet another layer of drama as the countdown to the summer of 2010 begins.

"It seems every day (the media) has me going some place else," James said.

"I'm very happy here (in Cleveland) and I have said that over and over."

It's just that nobody believes him, not even when James said he'd consider signing an extension this upcoming off-season.

Certainly, the way the New York Knicks and New Jersey Nets have addressed their salary structure speaks volumes.

Each team has jettisoned big-ticket salaries for players whose contracts come off the books either this summer or next summer.

In the coming weeks and months, expiring contracts will be as valued as any perimeter or post presence.

It is why the Knicks aren't so much interested in winning now as they are in creating an entertaining environment and clearing the decks in anticipation of James' expected free agency.

In addition, James' endorsement deal with Nike ends in 2010.

"The Knicks are not worried about me,'' Miami Heat superstar Dwyane Wade said.

"They're worried about No. 23 and he's in Cleveland.

"He's one of the best players in the game and you only could see him getting better. I'm in a good market in Miami. He's not in a good market in Cleveland, marketing-wise, so it just makes sense that everyone wants to see one of the best players in one of the best markets.

"Kobe's in one of the best markets already in L.A. Everybody wants LeBron in a great market and that's why they already put him in a New York jersey."

Added James: "I definitely want to keep an open mind. I will look at everything."

Wade can also opt-out next summer as can Toronto's Chris Bosh, who were drafted in 2003 when James went first overall. Each followed LeBron's lead when James agreed in 2006 to a shortened deal.

Wade has been linked with the Detroit Pistons, a team that traded Chauncey Billups to the Denver Nuggets for Allen Iverson, whose contract comes off the books this summer.

The Pistons, much like the Knicks, Nets, Raptors, Atlanta Hawks, Memphis Grizzlies, Portland Trail Blazers, Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder, will have considerable cap space to spend next summer.

The list of teams will grow considerably based on what transpires this summer, when another group of high-profiled players gets set to hit the market, only it's not as deep as next year's class.

In the case of Portland, a lot of its cap space will be used to lock up the team's many young studs.

The irony of Detroit's apparent affection for Wade is that the Pistons could have taken Wade in '03 when the club had the second overall pick.

Instead, Detroit drafted Darko Milicic ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Bosh and Wade.

The Wade to Motown talk is just one of many that continues to circulate.

And there will be plenty more as teams make further moves in anticipation of next summer, dubbed the Mother of all NBA free agency.

---

CLASS OF 2009

A look at unrestricted and restricted free agents and players who can exercise options to become free agents this summer.

PF Carlos Boozer (Utah): Will opt out, forgoing $12.7 million.

SF Shawn Marion (Miami): Prime candidate to be moved prior to Feb. 19 trade deadline.

PF Rasheed Wallace (Detroit): Still a force when he wants to be.

SF Lamar Odom (LA Lakers): If he proves himself in post-season, can cash in on open market.

PG Allen Iverson (Detroit): Little chance he'll be back in Motown.

SG Ron Artest (Houston): Looking for big bucks, meaning he'll be looking for a new home.

PG Mike Bibby (Atlanta): Has one good contract left in career.

SG Wally Szczerbiak (Cleveland): Expiring contract is the envy of many.

SG Kobe Bryant (LA Lakers): No way he'll exercise early termination option in his contract.

PF Jason Maxiell (Detroit): Restricted free agent, but Pistons will match any offer.

PF Paul Millsap (Utah): Restricted free agent in line for huge pay raise.

SG Anthony Parker (Toronto): Expiring contract interests teams.

PG Jason Kidd (Dallas): No longer a max player; he'd look good playing next to Kobe.

PF/C Jermaine O'Neal (Toronto): No way he'll opt out of $23 million.

CLASS OF 2010

A list of the potential free agents who can hit the open market in summer 2010.

SG Paul Pierce (Boston): Played entire career in Beantown; what about a return to Tinseltown, the Truth's hometown?

PG Steve Nash (Phoenix): Days in desert are numbered; it's either a reunion with D'Antoni or a return to Canada to finish career.

SG Manu Ginobili (San Antonio): despite age and ankle woes, he's very much coveted.

SG Joe Johnson (Atlanta): Can flat-out score; face of the Hawks franchise.

PF Dirk Nowitzki (Dallas): Needs Nash more than cash.

SG Ray Allen (Boston): Any veteran who can shoot the lights out is coveted.

C Tyson Chandler (New Orleans): Would be foolish to leave Chris Paul, but the attraction of big bucks makes people do foolish things.

C Yao Ming (Houston): Hard to tell what he'll do, but he'll have options and a lot of suitors.

SG/SF Tracy McGrady (Houston): Seems to have worn out his welcome in Houston.

SG Michael Redd (Milwaukee): Big scorer in small market who should consider a change.

SF Richard Jefferson (Milwaukee): Versatility makes him a valuable piece on any team.


Photos