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The Shallow Free Agency Pool of 2016

Less than a year from now, NBA free agency will once more rear its majestic head. Millions upon millions will be handed out in the space of mere hours. And likely even more so than in year’s past, due to the league’s expanded cap, coming at the hands of the nine-year, $24 billion TV-deal made with ESPN and Turner back in 2014.

In that sense, it’s almost unfortunate that the free agent pool next year isn’t great. Oh sure, on the surface you have LeBron James, one of the most polarizing players over the past 20 years, but the odds of him leaving behind Cleveland, again, are similar to my chances of walking out of a bar with Anne Hathaway. I despise bars, you see.

LeBron, having left Cleveland before, isn’t likely to do so again. He just saw teammate Kevin Love re-up for five seasons, he’s doing whatever he can to get his buddy Tristan Thompson paid, and his point guard is on a long-term extension. If there’s ever a time to leave Cleveland, now isn’t it. Not to mention, of course, the backlash LeBron will see to his personal brand. It took him years to regain the trust of NBA fans around the world, and another step like this could very likely develop into a worse situation than that of 2010.

Next on that list, and the sole free agent worth re-arranging your entire team for, is Kevin Durant. We’ll get back to him in a bit, after look at the names following his.

Bradley Beal and Andre Drummond, if they even hit the free agent market, would be Restricted Free Agents, which is a kind way of saying “You’re free agents, but not really”. While Beal has been overrated for a while now, Washington would still match whatever offer he gets based on his fit with John Wall.

Detroit is likely to extend Drummond before the November 2nd deadline, as he’s already one of the best centers in the league and an elite rebounder. Should he reach Restricted Free Agent status, it would be far more likely for Detroit to wrap him up on July 1st, much like San Antonio did with Kawhi Leonard, and the Chicago Bulls did with Jimmy Butler, this very summer.

Also on that restricted list: is Golden State Warriors forward Harrison Barnes. Unlike Drummond and Beal, there’s some uncertainty surrounding Barnes’s future with the Warriors. He isn’t a guy the team uses a lot of plays on, and he recently rejected $64 million, which was by all accounts a fair number even considering the cap increase. Plus, should Golden State make a play for Durant – which shouldn’t be ruled out – he’ll be the sacrificial lamb.

On we go to the unrestricted players!

Tim Duncan is on that. Except, he really isn’t. The same goes for Dwyane Wade. He may have made some noise this summer about potentially not returning to Miami, but it was pretty much smoke and mirrors so he could make the money he was looking for. Even if Miami isn’t much inclined to pay Wade what he wants next summer, doesn’t it seem rather unrealistic to think they somehow wouldn’t get a deal done?

Then there’s Pau Gasol. Now we’re going somewhere. Gasol is 35 and is looking to add one more ring to his collection. Chicago may not present the best option for him to do so, which makes him a candidate to opt out and leave. Signing Gasol, even at 36, is still a good get, but it isn’t franchise altering. He could sign on in Memphis and back up his younger brother and Zach Randolph, which admittedly would be a solid way of wrapping up his NBA career, but is Gasol more than just a solid signing? At this point, probably not.

Moving onto a younger core of players available next July, there’s Dwight Howard, who made it to the Western Conference Finals last season. He is s deeply appreciated in Houston where he’s finally acquired peace and quiet after a tumultuous year in Los Angeles, and before that two years of public speculation about his future in Orlando. Howard has a player option for 2016/2017, and should he decline to exercise it, it’ll likely be to make a bigger paycheck for the same team. Much like LeBron, Howard leaving a team, or forcing himself out of one, was met with a lot of negative publicity, and unlike LeBron, he’s never quite won that back again. Another departure for his fourth team would make him look not only indecisive, but you’d question if he knew what was best for him, given the opportunity and teammates he has in Texas.

Then there’s DeMar DeRozan, who might actually bolt if he receives a strong offer. But let’s be honest, his name is bigger than his game and thus wouldn’t really change much in the grand scheme of things, unless he went to a stacked contender, which is a flawed premise as most of those are capped out, and those who aren’t will look at Durant.

Al Horford and Joakim Noah went to school together at Florida. The two decided to stick around another year on campus to win another National Title, which they delivered, so it’s safe to say that both are tremendously loyal. Noah signed a very friendly extension with the Bulls back in 2010, worth $60 million over five seasons, and with injury concerns looming over him, he’ll likely not receive a lot of offers next summer unless he proves he’s healthy. But at 31 by that time, and with very little offense to speak of, it doesn’t seem like Noah would qualify as a major game-changer either.

As for Horford? He also experienced injuries but overcome them. And with teammate Paul Millsap earning almost $20 million a year over the next three, it’s very likely that Horford will once more re-up with Atlanta, who wasn’t going to pay Millsap that money if they weren’t ready to also offer the same to Horford.

In fact, there are only two players who could really change a franchise if they were to leave their teams, and that’s the aforementioned Durant and Mike Conley of the Grizzlies.

But even here are elements of loyalty, as Conley was awarded a five-year extension for $45 million he wasn’t deserving of in the public eye back in 2010. Memphis, though ridiculed for their decision, stuck to their guns, and now Conley is going to earn about $20 million a year, given his improvements and ability to run a team. So in that sense, the Grizzlies should afford themselves the luxury of seeing themselves as having the inside track, even if Conley is adamant in wanting to test the field.

That leaves Durant, and oh boy is this the guy to get. Looking at all the previous names, regardless of how likely they are to leave, and Durant blows them all out of the water. Because he may very well leave.

In 2016, he will have given Oklahoma City nine solid years, in which he’s been an MVP and made an NBA Finals appearance. For as good as Russell Westbrook is, there was never anyone denying the obvious—that Durant was the better player and the guy who made that team go. This is not just a future Hall Of Famer, but a super-duper star who already is one of the best small forwards in league history, and one of the greatest scorers to ever play the game.

This is a 27/7 player with a career TS% of 60.1 who, at 6’10, is able to handle the basketball, create his own offense, a willing passer, a good defender, and a tremendous closer, who by next season’s start will have just turned 28, and thus be in the utter middle of his absolute prime. This is a guy who will immediately change the perception of your team, and make you, at worst, an on-the-bubble championship contender.

Everyone else? An afterthought. Because of that, it should come as no surprise to see teams dump players at the trade deadline to clear up funds for Durant come July. Some teams even on the prowl for a ring might actually make some moves and sacrifice that one year in order to get a real shot at becoming a dynasty – I’m looking at you Golden State.

Unless of course Durant decides to re-sign on opening day and make next year the most forgettable free agency period of all-time.

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