When the clock strikes midnight tonight some of the best players in the league will officially become homeless. Over the coming weeks, contenders will be made, top seeds decimated and when the dust settles, we could wind up with a more balanced league (East vs. West). The latest big name to enter the fray: Dirk Nowitzki.
A quick note on Nowiitzki first. With Nowitzki dipping his toes in the free agency market, Mark has to be absolutely kicking himself. Take Dirk's number off Dallas' books, then pull the plug on Erick Dampier and Dallas is probably $3 or $4M below the cap. In other words, they can't offer more than the MLE to a free agent. But if you rewind the clock to the trade they made with Washington last season for Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stephenson and, well, things could've been a lot different. If Cuban hadn't made that trade (a trade that bulked them up enough to get knocked out in the first round of the playoffs), Dallas would be sitting pretty with over $19M in cap space. I have a feeling Dirk will be returning to Dallas on a max deal, but if he walks, Cuban is going to be stuck with a lottery team with the ageless Jason Kidd and Caron Butler carrying the load. It's great to have an owner willing to spend for a winner, but eventually all that spending can come back to bite you.
Anyway, let's take a look at the name who will most likely become free agents at midnight, and the teams with cap space to chase them down. Keep a particular eye on the East vs. West divide:
- LeBron James (East)
- Dwyane Wade (East)
- Dirk (West)
- Chris Bosh (East)
- Amare Stoudemire (West)
- Carlos Boozer (West)
- Joe Johnson (East)
And now the teams with significant cap space:
- New York
- New Jersey
- Los Angeles Clippers
- Oklahoma City
I do believe some of these guys will wind up re-signing with their current teams. Tops on that list are Wade and Dirk. I just don't see them going anywhere. Ultimately, I think more top teams will be hurt by free agency than new contenders will emerge. If any team lands two of LeBron, Wade and Bosh, they immediately become contenders. If someone gets all three, we're talking about prohibitive favorites to win the championship for the next five seasons. Players like Dirk and Amare probably don't turn a bad team into a really good team, but they do hurt the very good teams they were on in the West. Boozer's absence will hurt Utah, but I think Sloan will piece together another 50-win season out there.
At the end of the day, I think the floor in the Eastern Conference will be raised, and one true contender will possibly be replaced by two. New York and New Jersey will improve, but barring a miracle LBJ signing, I don't see either as a legit contender this year. I see the ceiling for the Knicks as a first-round playoff loss for the foreseeable future. New Jersey has a pretty nice core of players, if they can land the right guy, they could be on the upward trend, but I don't think they'll get there this season. I do believe the Bulls will be legit contenders for this season and beyond. Miami is a wild card. Wade re-signing there seems to be a foregone conclusion, as does Pat Riley's return to the bench as head coach. The question is, who will they add to the mix. If LeBron and Bosh land in Chicago, I'm thinking it'll be either Boozer or Amare in Miami, and possibly David Lee as well. Does that make for a legit contender? Hard to say. They'd be better than they were this season, but I'm not sure they're elite.
Out West, you could see a precipitous drop from the numbers two and three seeds from last season. As far as elite teams with serious legitimate title aspirations, what was the number this season? Seven, maybe? Cleveland, Orlando, Boston, Los Angeles, possibly Dallas, Denver and Utah?
When the dust settles, how many will there be? Chicago or Miami, Lakers, Celtics (maybe), Orlando, Denver on their last legs, Dallas if they keep Dirk, Phoenix if they keep Amare, some unknown team?
Maybe we wind up with another team or two, probably in the East. Some cellar dwellers in the East will at least reach respectability, but one elite team is probably going to nosedive (Cleveland) and a middle-of-the-pack team is probably looking at very good odds in the lottery (Toronto).
I don't see the East coming out of this free agency bonanza as the stronger conference. I see them shuffle the deck a bit, and I don't think there will be as many teams to kick around, but overall, most of the strong teams in the West will remain so. What does this mean for the Sixers? Well, there's a very good chance the Nets will leapfrog them this season. The Knicks I'm not so sure about (a team built around Joe Johnson and Boozer doesn't scare me). In the Atlantic, I'd say Toronto is definitely going to be worse off than they were last season and Boston probably won't fall that far.
This was mostly an exercise in futility. No one, not even Stephen A. Smith, knows where these guys are going to wind up. There are going to be more losers than winners among the teams with cap space. There are going to be some big losers in terms of teams losing talent. My bet for the biggest winner when the dust settles is Chicago. The team to take the hardest hit will probably be Cleveland. It could be a long, long time before that team (and city) recovers from losing LeBron.
What do you guys think? Is the built in advantage of playing in the East going to disappear this season? Also, check out the home page to see the updated team roster with salaries.