2010 Free Agency: Teams on the Brink

The 2010 free agent class is poised to be among the best in N.B.A. history. Nearly one-third of all the teams are attempting to position themselves to maximize cap space in order to make a run at one or more of them. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are the headliners.

There are currently just four teams competing with the Heat to produce the necessary cap space to make a serious run at them: the New Jersey Nets, New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls, and Los Angeles Clippers. With the February 18 trade deadline now less than three weeks away, each will be looking to further improve their financial flexibility.

Here’s a look at how each are currently positioned (assuming a $54 million cap):

The Nets currently have a guaranteed payroll of $22.7 million from five players (Devin Harris, Yi Jianlian, Kris Humphries, Brook Lopez, Terrence Williams, and Courtney Lee) for next season. As of now, they stand to have about $28.4 million in cap room.

While they seem poised to break the all-time N.B.A. record for futility this season, five months from now they could offer an intriguing array of talent. The Nets will have a 25% chance of getting the first overall pick in the 2010 draft. If the balls bounce favorably, they will select Kentucky point guard John Wall. Paired up with center Brook Lopez, this would figure to be a solid core. The move to Brooklyn and the promise of free-flowing cash from new owner and Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Prokhorov, might make such a proposition difficult to resist for premier free agents.

Nets at the Trade Deadline: The only long-term contract they have belongs to Harris, who has occasionally come up in trade discussions because he’s regressed so badly this season. The Nets seem a bit fed up with him, but they likely won’t look to move him until they get assurances on Wall in June. If they do, their cap space would jump to $33.1 million even with Wall. That would leave them comfortably in range for two maximum contract free agents.

The Knicks currently have a guaranteed payroll of $27.3 million from six players (Eddy Curry, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Toney Douglas, Jared Jeffries, and Jordan Hill) for next season. As of now, they stand to have about $23.8 million in cap room.

They want more. As much as they’d like to lure LeBron James, they’d love to pair him with a second maximum contract free agent. General Manager Donnie Walsh has tried all season to find a taker for Eddy Curry and his bloated $11.3 million salary, but he hasn’t been easy to move. In fact, he has one of the least desirable contracts in the league.

Knicks at the Trade Deadline: They’ll be looking to clear Jared Jefferies’ $6.9 million salary. If they do, their cap space will jump to $31.2 million. That would leave them just about $1.5 million short of their target goal. But they’d be able to bridge that gap by giving away some of their desirable youngsters. One problem for the Knicks is that even if they do get them, they’d have nobody of significance with which to pair their two new additions.

The Bulls currently have a guaranteed payroll of $37.7 million from seven players (Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich, Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, James Johnson, Taj Gibson, and John Salmons) for next season. As of now, they stand to have about $14.0 million in cap room.

Chicago has the best array of existing talent on minimal contracts in All Star point guard Derrick Rose and center Joakim Noah, and could therefore be a major player in free agency. While they don’t currently have enough cap room for even one maximum contract player, their situation is a bit of an illusion. Deng would figure to be a possible trade target for several teams, and would clear $11.3 million off the books. But, as one of the better defensive small forwards in the league when healthy, don’t expect such a trade until a more definitive replacement is identified in the summer.

Bulls at the Trade Deadline: They’ll be looking clear either Kirk Hinrich’s $9.0 million salary or John Salmons’ $5.8 million salary. If they do, their cap space would jump to at least $19.3 million which, when paired with a potential Deng trade later in the summer, could free up at least $30.2 million. That would leave them around $2.5 million shy of the room required for not one but two maximum contract free agents. If it’s one, they’ll target Wade. If it’s two, it could be James and Wade or Bosh. The Bulls figure to be a significant and dangerous player this summer.

The Clippers currently have a guaranteed payroll of $39.0 million from six players (Baron Davis, Chris Kaman, Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon, Al Thornton, and Sebastian Telfair). As of now, they stand to have about $13.0 million in cap room.

The Clippers, to this point, have not been seriously mentioned as a viable threat to lure James away from Cleveland in free agency. That’s despite the fact that they can offer him a promising group of potential sidekicks — led by All-Star center Chris Kaman, forward Blake Griffin and guards Eric Gordon and Baron Davis — as well as proximity to the many off-court business opportunities that only Hollywood can provide. But the reason the Clippers have not been mentioned as a serious suitor is no mystery. Owner Donald Sterling has a reputation as one of the league’s worst owners to play for, caring more about generating a profit than he does about spending what it takes to build a contender.

Clippers at the Trade Deadline: The Clippers feel they have a title-caliber starter at every position but small forward. They’ll hope to attract LeBron James. To get there, they’ll first be looking to clear the $2.8 million and $2.7 million expiring contracts of Al Thornton and Sebastian Telfair. If they do, their cap space will jump to $17.5 million. That’s more than enough for James.

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Note: The Cleveland Cavaliers do not have any cap space for the summer of 2010 but they can offer LeBron James a full maximum contract by utilizing his Bird rights. They also have the assets with which to complete a sign-and-trade for a second maximum contract free agent. Thus, they cannot be discounted from any discussions revolving around the possibility of acquiring two such players. It does, however, seem unlikely because Cleveland is not widely considered a desirable free agent destination. 

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