Group I: Option candidates
Note: These are the players with an early termination option (ETO), player option (PO) or team option (TO) in their contracts, meaning they may or may not become unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2011. Some NBA player agents think it's unlikely that most members of this group, among those who have a choice, will actually become free agents. Why? If the new CBA dramatically lowers the salary scale and the guaranteed years free agents can get, they'd be leaving a lot of guaranteed money on the table for the unknown.
Key: player option (PO) | early termination option (ETO) | team option (TO)
1. Carmelo Anthony, F, Nuggets (ETO)
If LeBron was the prize in 2010, Carmelo looks to be the guy in 2011 -- if he doesn't sign an extension first. As everyone who follows the NBA is aware, Melo has declined so far to sign a long-term extension with the Nuggets, who have been in on-again, off-again negotiations with a number of teams about trading Melo.
The catch? Virtually every team willing to offer the Nuggets anything of value wants Anthony to sign an extension before completing the deal. To date, it appears that the New York Knicks are the only team with which he would definitely sign an extension.
But the Knicks haven't made a compelling offer to Denver, nor have the Chicago Bulls, another team Anthony might be willing to join. Meanwhile, the New Jersey Nets have made the best offer for Anthony, but his reluctance to agree to an extension has caused them to pull out of trade talks.
If the Nuggets can't get him to agree to an extension by the deadline, all signs point to him bolting for New York in July.
2. Tim Duncan, Spurs (ETO)
Duncan has become such a staple with the San Antonio Spurs that no one really expects him to leave. He turns 35 in April but remains one of the best big men in the league. He can't keep going like this forever, but I expect he'll get an extension from the Spurs sometime before the end of the season so he can finish his career in black and silver.
3. Nene Hilario, Nuggets (ETO)
When he's healthy, Hilario remains one of the unique big men in the league -- he's both quick and physical, and he can be a handful in the paint when he wants to be.
It's hard to say a 28-year-old player who's spent eight seasons in the league still has upside, but Hilario does. If he chooses to terminate his contract, he will leave $11.6 million on the table. But I could see a team giving him as much or even more on the open market next year -- even with the CBA likely lowering the max for top players.
4. David West, Hornets (ETO)
There has been talk of West negotiating a contract extension in New Orleans, but under the current rules, the Hornets have a salary ceiling for a West extension that might be lower than he can get on the open market. Therefore, the Hornets' power forward, who turns 30 in August, might want to explore the market while his value is high.
What's more, the Hornets are facing a potential domino effect, because if West leaves, he might be followed out the door by Chris Paul, who can become a free agent in 2012 (under current rules).
5. Mo Williams, Cavs (ETO)
Williams, who was devastated by the news that LeBron James was leaving for South Beach, could end up following suit given the Cavs' woes. After getting a taste for competing for a championship, Williams and virtually every other player on the Cavs is miserable.
The biggest reason Williams may not exercise the ETO? He's struggled this season without LeBron -- and so he could lose a lot of money if he decides to walk away from the $17 million he's owed through the 2012-13 season.
6. Leandro Barbosa, Raptors (PO)
There's a good chance that Barbosa will pick up his player option this year. He's having a solid season, but the $7.6 million he's due in 2011 is probably a lot more than he could get on the open market.
7. Boris Diaw, Bobcats (PO)
Diaw is due to make $9 million in 2011, likely much more than he could command in free agency. I doubt we'll see him exercising his player option given the money he'd be leaving on the table.
8. Mickael Pietrus, Suns (PO)
The 28-year-old defensive stopper has had his moments, but he's mired in the worst year of his career. Some believed the trade that sent him to Phoenix would boost his stats, but he continues to struggle. He's due $5.3 million next season, and if he keeps playing like this, it's unlikely he could find that type of money on the open market.
9. Ronny Turiaf, Knicks (PO)
Turiaf has never been much of a box score stuffer, but many thought that could change this season in New York in coach Mike D'Antoni's system. Unfortunately, it hasn't been the case. Turiaf has been a solid defensive presence, but his numbers are actually a bit down on the offensive end -- a rarity on a D'Antoni team.
He turned 28 this month and has been one of the better bargains in the league the past few years. But I'm not sure he's willing to risk the $4.3 million he's owed next season to test the free-agent waters.
10. Goran Dragic, Suns (TO)
Dragic turned into a bit of a folk hero with some huge playoff performances last season. But he hasn't really taken a step forward this season, despite getting more minutes.
Nevertheless, he is due a very modest $2.1 million in 2011 and I'm sure he'll get out into the free-agent waters to try to double that number. With the Suns struggling and Steve Nash growing older, I don't think the Suns will want him to walk away.
Group II: Restricted free agents
Five players from the 2007 first-round draft class (Kevin Durant, Al Horford, Mike Conley, Joakim Noah and Jared Dudley) signed a contract extension before the Nov. 1 deadline. Most of the rest will be restricted free agents this summer. Typically, restricted free agents struggle to get offer sheets from teams because their original teams can match any offer. But with the whole economic situation in turmoil right now, who knows what restricted free agency will look like next season?
1. Marc Gasol, Grizzlies
Here's one that GM Chris Wallace got right. Wallace believed Gasol would have a bright future when most did not, and in Gasol's first two and half years with Memphis, he has made good on that potential. Gasol isn't going to be as good as his brother, Pau, but he has become one of the steadiest big men in the game.
The big question now is, can the Grizzlies afford both him and Zach Randolph? They've shelled out big dollars to Rudy Gay and Mike Conley. They probably can't afford two more such contracts, especially given owner Michael Heisley's miserly tendencies. If the Grizzlies have to pick between the two, they're keeping Gasol.
2. Rodney Stuckey, Pistons
Stuckey continues his steady improvement in Detroit. He appeared to be a steal as the 15th pick in the 2007 draft but hasn't really reached his ceiling. He's still more comfortable as a slasher/scorer than as a point guard, and he hasn't found a consistent stroke from long range. But at this point he's a big part of the future of the Pistons, and I doubt there's any chance they'll let him walk.
3. Jeff Green, Thunder
Green gets lost in the shadow of Kevin Durant, but he's been solid in his own right in his first three and a half years in the league. He will never be the alpha dog, especially not in Oklahoma City, but he has proved to be a valuable role player.
Green is one of the few guys on this list who could end up wearing a new uniform next season. The Thunder like him, but they gave Durant the max last summer and likely will do the same with Russell Westbrook this summer. As a small-market team, the Thunder may not be able or willing to give Green a big contract, too.
4. Greg Oden, Blazers
Saying that Oden is a huge question mark is the understatement of the year. Right now he's making Sam Bowie look like an iron man. He has already had three major surgeries and will have played a total of just 82 games in four seasons.
But when he has played, he's shown signs of stardom. In the 21 games he played in 2009-10 before a broken kneecap ended his season, he was sporting a whopping 23.14 player efficiency rating.
If Oden can ever get healthy -- and it's a huge if at this point -- he still has time to become a dominant NBA big man (he just turned 23 years old). But whoever signs him to a contract will do so without having seen him play for more than a year and a half. Is any team, including Portland, willing to take that risk? Right now, it sounds like the Blazers are. We'll see how this intriguing story actually plays out.
While it's tough to gauge whether he's a potential star given his supporting role with the team, he'll get a nice offer from someone. The Sixers have some financial woes, which means they may not be able to afford to lock him up. He could join Green as one of the few players on this list that changes uniforms this year.
6. Wilson Chandler, Knicks
Chandler is having a career season in New York and continues to improve in virtually every facet of the game. If he could ever become a lights-out shooter, he'd be very tough to stop.
If the Knicks don't acquire Anthony this month (in a trade that could involve Chandler), they are likely to pursue Anthony as a free agent. In that case, they won't have the cap space to afford both Chandler and Anthony -- making Chandler another player likely to bolt this summer.
Young is one dimensional -- he scores and that's about it -- but the league is always looking for guys who can put the ball in the basket. The Wizards are likely to pay him, but if they don't, another team will be happy to give him some cash.
8. Aaron Brooks, Rockets
The league's reigning most improved player had a breakout third season, averaging 19.6 points and 5.3 assists. But he has failed to reproduce those numbers this season and lost his starting job to Kyle Lowry. Brooks is averaging just 12.2 ppg and looks better as a sixth man coming off the bench.
The question for the Rockets: What are they willing to pay him? The team is struggling and may undertake a major rebuilding plan. If the Rockets let Brooks, Yao Ming and Shane Battier walk as free agents, they should have significant cap space this summer.
9. Arron Afflalo, Nuggets
After earning a rep as a defensive stopper, Afflalo has put up some impressive offensive numbers this season. While he's not a star, his shooting ability and defensive prowess should earn him a nice raise this summer.
10. Marcus Thornton, Hornets
Thornton shot onto the scene in his rookie season and proved that there are gems in the second round if teams look hard enough, averaging 14.5 points and shooting 37 percent on 3-pointers. His numbers are down considerably in his sophomore season, but he's still likely to command a significant salary bump this summer.
Other notables: Brandan Wright, Warriors; Corey Brewer, Wolves; Yi Jianlian, Wizards; Jonas Jerebko, Pistons; Julian Wright, Hornets; Spencer Hawes, Sixers; Al Thornton, Wizards; Marco Belinelli, Hornets; Daequan Cook, Thunder; Mario Chalmers, Heat; Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Bucks.
Group III: Unrestricted free agents
Finally, here are the guys who will be on the market with no strings attached.
1. Tyson Chandler, Mavericks
Chandler has struggled with injuries for much of his career and continues to be a so-so offensive player. But he's been a key man for Dallas this season and has proven that, when healthy, he can be a beast on the boards and a game-changing presence on the defensive end.
Given the relative weakness of the free-agent class combined with the dearth of pure centers in the league, Chandler is likely to get a big payday, most likely from the Mavs.
2. Zach Randolph, PF, Grizzlies
In terms of talent, Randolph may be the second-best free agent in the 2011 class, behind only Carmelo Anthony. He's a double-double machine who's having another terrific season.
In the past, his baggage has scared away some teams, but he has remained relatively free of controversy of late, and his production on the court is impossible to ignore. Given how much the Grizzlies have spent on Rudy Gay and Mike Conley and will likely spend on Marc Gasol, the team will have a hard time affording Randolph, too.
3. Carl Landry, PF, Kings
Landry may not be a household name, but he's a very efficient power forward who has produced most of his career. He's struggled with the Sacramento Kings this season and the word around the league is that he wants out at any cost.
He's been underpaid for most of his career, but that should change in a big way next summer. He'll be the 2011 version of Paul Millsap.
4. Tayshaun Prince, F, Pistons
Injuries have slowed the 30-year-old small forward at times, but when Prince is at his best, he's a lock-down perimeter defender who can hit open shots.
With the Pistons in rebuilding mode, it's very likely he'll bolt this summer if they don't trade him first.
5. Jason Richardson, SG, Magic
His numbers no longer pop out at you (especially since the Suns traded him to Orlando), but Richardson continues to play well. He is a big threat from behind the arc and still has some bounce in those 30-year-old legs.
The Magic have incurred a massive payroll. Unless they win a title this season, it's unlikely they'll be willing to pay Richardson to stay around.
6. Jamal Crawford, G, Hawks
Crawford is the reigning sixth man of the year, and this season he's the Hawks' leading scorer despite coming off the bench. But it's hard to see this relationship lasting much longer. With Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Marvin Williams and Al Horford now on the Hawks' books at big dollars, it's doubtful they'll bring back Crawford, too.
7. Caron Butler, G/F, Mavs
Butler ruptured his right patellar tendon in January and will likely miss the rest of the season in rehab.
The timing couldn't be much worse for his free agency. He had already seen his numbers decline since his All-Star days, and now, with a knee injury at the age of 30, he's going to have to slash his asking price. Still, if he can return to health, he still has a few years left as a scorer.
8. Andrei Kirilenko, F, Jazz
For Kirilenko, last season was his best since 2005-06. While he's struggled to regain the mojo this season, he remains a player who can fill up a stat sheet and wreak havoc on the defensive end.
You can expect Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov to make a strong push to get Kirilenko, either via trade or in free agency.
9. Samuel Dalembert, C, Kings
Slammin' Sammy may not be an All-Star, but the big man can still rebound and defend, so there's been a lot of interest as we approach the trade deadline, demonstrating the premium on size and shot-blocking.
Dalembert turns 30 this summer, but he's still likely to get a number of offers in the offseason.
10. Yao Ming, C, Rockets
If Yao were healthy, he would be the top unrestricted free agent on this list. But after yet another serious injury for Yao, his durability and future are much in doubt.
The Rockets have explored the trade market for Yao but haven't had a lot of luck. Someone will sign him if he appears to be able to play again, but he's not the big catch teams thought he'd be two years ago.
Other notables: Kendrick Perkins, Celtics; Mike Dunleavy, F, Pacers ; Shane Battier, Rockets; Kenyon Martin, Nuggets; Grant Hill, Suns; Nenad Krstic, Thunder; Joel Przybilla, Blazers; T.J. Ford, Pacers; Troy Murphy, Nets; Glen Davis, Celtics; Chuck Hayes, Rockets; Peja Stojakovic, Mavs; Vladimir Radmanovic, Warriors; Jeff Foster, Pacers; Jason Kapono, Sixers; Sasha Vujacic, Nets; Michael Redd, Bucks; DeShawn Stevenson, Mavericks; Nazr Mohammed, Bobcats; Kelenna Azubuike, Knicks; Morris Peterson, Thunder; Sebastian Telfair, Wolves; Anthony Parker, Cavs; Jamario Moon, Cavs; Erick Dampier, Bobcats; Willie Green, Hornets; Solomon Jones, Pacers; Josh McRoberts, Pacers; Marcus Banks, Hornets; Reggie Evans, Raptors; Dan Gadzuric, Warriors; Jared Jeffries, Rockets; Eddy Curry, Knicks; Alexis Ajinca, F/C, Raptors; Earl Clark, F, Magic.