Ranking the top 20 free agents

And you thought the draft was bad …

The 2009 free-agent class, never one to roar about before, watched its ranks further thin out Tuesday when Kobe Bryant(notes), Carlos Boozer(notes) and Mehmet Okur(notes) all decided to opt into the final season of their contracts. Bryant, according to the Los Angeles Times, will sign a three-year extension with the Lakers later this summer.

As for Boozer and Okur?

Well, the money just wasn’t there.

That’s notable because the money is always there. Finding someone willing to pay for a player of Boozer’s or Okur’s caliber has never been too difficult. But not this summer. As one Eastern Conference general manager said, “When the players start to feel it, that’s saying something.”

League executives expect the NBA’s salary cap to possibly drop by as much as $1 million this summer. Only three teams – the Detroit Pistons, Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies – have double-digit cap room to spend. The Pistons plan to spend theirs on a scoring guard (likely Ben Gordon(notes)) and a forward (maybe Charlie Villanueva(notes)). Rival GMs expect the Grizzlies to pursue New York Knicks restricted free-agent forward David Lee(notes), provided they decide to spend at all. The Thunder will likely be conservative with their money: Why throw a big offer at Paul Millsap(notes) when they’re still trying to figure out what kind of player Jeff Green(notes) can become?

Contending teams, especially those willing to pay the luxury tax, will be happy with what they find. With so many franchises saving their cap room for the Summer of LeBron (and Dwyane Wade(notes) and Chris Bosh(notes)), any team needing a quality player or two to strengthen their roster should be able to add them with the midlevel exception. The Portland Trail Blazers, who have nearly $9 million to spend, should be able to sign a Hedo Turkoglu(notes) or Andre Miller(notes).

The Houston Rockets, nervous about Yao Ming’s health, immediately announced their pursuit of center Marcin Gortat. Rockets GM Daryl Morey even urged the team’s fans via Twitter to voice their support for Gortat. The Spurs also have shown interest in Gortat.

“The Dallases, Clevelands, San Antonios and Orlandos should be really happy this summer,” said one Western Conference player personnel director. “They’re all going to get good players.”

Here’s a look at 20 of the top free agents:

1. Lamar Odom(notes): Yes, he floats through some games. Yes, he eats too much candy. But Lamar Odom is still a 6-foot-10 forward who can handle the ball and shoot the 3-pointer, sometimes even accurately. His inconsistency wears on coaches, but there are plenty of GMs who drool over his talent. Good teams want him for the matchup problems he’ll cause. The Lakers hope to keep him, but they’re also facing a hefty luxury-tax bill and don’t want to overpay. The Portland Trail Blazers could try to bid him up, but they seem more focused on Hedo Turkoglu. One thing is for sure: Odom won’t lack for midlevel suitors. In the end, that might not be enough to get him out of Los Angeles.

2. Ben Gordon: The Bulls are telling rival teams they’ll do anything and everything to re-sign Gordon. Typical free-agency bluster? A little. The Bulls want to keep Gordon, but everybody has a breaking point. The Pistons figure to make a hard push for Gordon and have the money to land him. If the Bulls do re-sign Gordon, opposing teams expect Chicago to finally trade Kirk Hinrich(notes).  SIGNED  Detroit Pistons, five years, $58 million.

3. Paul Millsap (R): Carlos Boozer’s decision to forego free agency helps his backup. Millsap is 24, a bull on the boards and, unlike Boozer, more inclined to defend. The Jazz can match any offer Millsap gets, but he won’t be cheap. The Pistons, who want a forward in addition to a scoring guard, focused on Charlie Villanueva and Gordon. The Thunder figure to be more conservative with their spending than Detroit, but they also could get in the mix.


4. David Lee (R): The Grizzlies figured to target Lee, but that was before they were able to revive trade talks with the Los Angeles Clippers and swing a deal for Zach Randolph(notes). The Knicks, who don’t want to over-commit to Lee or Nate Robinson(notes) when they’re still trying to save their money for a run at LeBron James(notes) next season, also could explore sign-and-trade options if he’s too expensive to keep.

5. Hedo Turkoglu: After trading for Vince Carter(notes), the Magic don’t figure to spend big to keep Turkoglu. The forward has always preferred warm-weather cities, but he’ll go where the money leads him. The Trail Blazers, who could use a starting small forward, figure to be his prominent suitor, for now. Though Turkoglu is 30, versatile, ball-handling, 6-foot-10 forwards are hard to find, even if there’s two of them on this list.  SIGNED  Toronto Raptors, five years, $53 million.

6. Trevor Ariza(notes): Ariza is coming off the best season of his career, including a strong performance in the playoffs. He’s athletic, an above-average defender and a dependable 3-point threat. And he’s just 24 years old. The Lakers would like to keep both Ariza and Odom. A big offer for Ariza, however, could make them choose. The Raptors and Cavaliers have shown interest.  SIGNED   Houston Rockets, five years, $33.5 million.

7. Shawn Marion(notes): The Phoenix Suns and Marion both would have been better off had they stuck together. After leaving Phoenix, Marion didn’t do much to improve either the Miami Heat or Toronto Raptors. He’ll likely now have to settle for a midlevel offer if he wants out of Toronto.  SIGNED   Dallas Mavericks, five years, $40 million.

 

8. Ron Artest(notes): Artest played – and behaved – about as well as could be expected last season in Houston. The Rockets said they hope to keep him, but that was before learning they could be without Yao Ming(notes) for most, if not all, of next season. If the Rockets decide to trade Tracy McGrady(notes), they’d be better off letting Artest walk. Ron-Ron worked fine as a complementary player, but you’ve got problems if he’s the No. 1 guy on your roster. If Odom or Ariza leave L.A., the Lakers could call.  SIGNED   Los Angeles Lakers, five years, $33.5 million.

9. Jason Kidd(notes): The Knicks have set up a meeting with Kidd. The Mavs are meeting with him, too. The Blazers will be in the mix. Who says 36-year-old point guards aren’t popular? In the end, Kidd’s best bet – unless he wants to sacrifice money and wins by playing for Mike D’Antoni – is to stay in Dallas. The Mavs need him too much now to watch him leave.  SIGNED   Dallas Mavericks, three years, $25 million.

10. Marvin Williams(notes) (R): Remains to be seen how much the Hawks will spend to keep him. He’s long, athletic and his defense has steadily improved. At 23 years old, Williams has the potential to make some team very happy.

11. Andre Miller: Some rival GMs speculate Miller could end up in Portland via a sign-and-trade deal, if the Blazers don’t sign him outright. And if the Blazers don’t pay him, he’ll be looking at midlevel offers.

12. Mike Bibby(notes): See above. The Hawks’ trade for Jamal Crawford(notes) could end Bibby’s days in Atlanta, if he doesn’t take a substantial pay cut. Either way, some team will probably get a quality point guard at a bargain price.  SIGNED   Atlanta Hawks, three years, $18 million.

13. Charlie Villanueva: The Bucks’ refusal to make Villanueva a restricted free agent mystified more than a few of their peers. “They must really have money troubles,” one East GM said. The Pistons have Villanueva high on their list. The Cavs like him, too.  SIGNED   Detroit Pistons, five years, $37.5 million.

14. Anderson Varejao(notes): The Cavs would like to re-sign Varejao, who opted out of the $6.2 million he was due to make this season, but it remains to be seen how much they’ll spend considering they just traded for Shaquille O’Neal(notes) and have other forward options in Villanueva, Antonio McDyess(notes) and Rasheed Wallace(notes).  SIGNED   Cleveland Cavaliers, five years, $50 million ($38 million guaranteed).

15. Ramon Sessions(notes) (R): Bucks can match, but if you listen to Brandon Jennings(notes), Sessions might as well not think about returning to Milwaukee. He’s coming off a productive season in which he averaged 12.4 points and 5.7 assists, but gambling a good chunk of the midlevel exception on him could be a risk.

16. Nate Robinson (R): If you’re into thrilling dunks or even green capes, he’s your man. But it also says something that the Knicks nearly traded him to the Sacramento Kings at the February deadline. When Mike D’Antoni thinks you shoot too much …

17. Allen Iverson(notes): This might be a little far down the list for A.I., but that reflects his value these days. His refusal to accept a reserve role in Detroit didn’t help his stock for contending teams that might need a scorer off the bench. Iverson has told friends he wouldn’t mind signing with the Charlotte Bobcats and playing for Larry Brown again. His reasoning: At least he knows what to expect with Brown.

18. Antonio McDyess: He still rebounds well, he can hit the 18-foot jumper and on the NBA’s Good Guy list, few rank higher. If the Pistons can’t keep him, the Cavs and San Antonio Spurs will be among McDyess’ biggest suitors.  SIGNED  San Antonio Spurs, three years, $14.5 million.

19. Rasheed Wallace: The Spurs like big men who can space the floor for Tim Duncan(notes) and Wallace can do that. He and Duncan had a friendly rivalry dating to their ACC days and could form an impressive, albeit aging, frontcourt tandem. And if Gregg Popovich can’t keep Wallace motivated for one season, well, no one can. The real question: Does Rasheed have anything left in the tank?  SIGNED  Boston Celtics, three years, $18.9 million.

20. Raymond Felton(notes) (R): D.J. Augustin(notes) looks capable enough to become the Bobcats’ starting point guard. Still, the Bobcats sound confident they’ll do what’s necessary to keep Felton.

Five more to watch: Grant Hill(notes), Marcin Gortat(notes), Chris Andersen(notes), Drew Gooden(notes), Zaza Pachulia(notes).

Key: (R) – restricted free agent.

Johnny Ludden is the NBA editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Johnny a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Jul 1, 2009