5. JOSH SMITH (unrestricted)
2012-13 salary: $13.2 million
How good is Josh Smith? Well, we really don’t know. He’s never played in a system that could best utilize his talents, and he’s never played with a point guard capable of throwing him three or four lobs a game. Instead, he’s been left to fend for his own numbers in Atlanta, and when that happens, you know what it means. Long jumpers. Overdribbling. A lot of bitter bloggers.
In the right situation, J-Smoove is one of the most unique players in the league, capable of getting 20 on one end without any plays called his way, and locking down the paint on the other. Someone is going to give him max money, but we’re not sure it’ll be Atlanta. New GM Danny Ferry made it clear with the Joe Johnson trade that he’s looking for more flexibility to improvise. In the short term, that probably means less wins. It could also mean Smith finds his way to another team through free agency or a trade.
4. JAMES HARDEN (restricted)
2012-13 salary: $5.8 million
After seeing Serge Ibaka sign a four-year, $48 million extension in OKC this summer, the writing may not be on the wall, but someone is reaching for the chalk. We’re not even sure Sam Presti can get creative enough to keep Harden around while navigating the ugly luxury tax line between “Robert Sarver” and “the Lakers.” A best case scenario would still see the Thunder paying upwards of $15 million in luxury tax. But Presti is no dummy. If he can’t keep Harden around, he’ll trade him for assets – like he nearly did to get the No. 2 pick in this summer’s draft.
One way or another, the Beard will get his money. From there, things get tricky. If he goes somewhere like Phoenix – who is going after every hot young shooting guard in the league lately – he’ll be the featured player on a garbage team. He’ll be an All-Star. Every year. But if he stays with the Thunder, he’ll be the league’s best sixth man, possibly win titles and definitely get to play lots of video games.
3. ANDREW BYNUM (unrestricted)
2012-13 salary: $16.1 million
Bynum may be the most entertaining player in the league. He’s one of the few who clearly avoids being P.C. At the press conference introducing him as the newest 76er, Bynum basically said he can’t wait for the season this year. Why? Well now that he doesn’t have to share the ball with anyone, he’ll get more shots and everything will run through him. Okay then.
Bynum might be the most immature mature player in the league (he fixes cars and builds computers in his free time), and he’s easily the second-best center in the league (still only 24 years old). But he’s also missed at least 17 games in five of his first seven years in the NBA. For a 7-footer, that’s not good. But he’s the first franchise player Philly has had since Allen Iverson. He grew up an hour away. He will also get every opportunity to break both his arms from shooting so often. He’s not going anywhere.
2. CHRIS PAUL (unrestricted)
2012-13 salary: $17.8 million
The best point guard in the world is doing what any smart, cerebral man would do in his position: make the Clippers prove themselves. Remember, this is the same franchise who watched Bill Walton’s body turn into Silly Putty the minute they acquired him, and had 22 games of No. 1 pick Danny Manning before he blew out his ACL. This is the same franchise who traded Moses Malone for virtually nothing. This is the same franchise who drafted Michael Olowakandi No. 1. Even Blake Griffin is not a lock to stay healthy. Paul will get max money wherever he goes – Dallas has to be considered his top destination if he were to leave L.A. – but we’re guessing he ultimately decides to stay with the Clippers.
1. DWIGHT HOWARD (unrestricted)
2012-13 salary: $29.5 million
Fresh of the Dwightmare saga where Howard attempted to do to his rep what an iceberg did to the Titanic, we can probably expect a career year from him in Los Angeles. Sure, his numbers may not be as high – Kobe goes after shots like Charles Barkley goes after Krispy Kremes – and he still isn’t fully recovered from his back surgery. But unless he’s a zombie, Dwight must know he needs to go deep in the playoffs.
The Lakers are banking on the extra money they can offer, the franchise’s center legacy, the beautiful women and the lure of Hollywood to keep Howard around. Their only competition to keep the best big man in the game might be Dallas, which still harbors dreams of bringing Howard and Chris Paul together in Texas.
Which players are most likely to leave their current teams?
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