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Sunday, October 27
Skimming the cream of '03 free agent crop

By Chad Ford

Reading a 2003 free agent report before the 2002 season even begins? Let me guess, you're a Denver Nuggets season-ticket holder.

Jermaine O'Neal
After Tim Duncan and Jason Kidd, Jermaine O'Neal will draw the most attention next offseason.
The free agent summer of 2002 was as thin as Richard Hamilton on Dexatrim. No money and even less talent has led to player movement drought of Biblical proportions. But never fear, there's hope for the downtrodden. Next summer is a virtual smorgasbord of talent and salary cap room.

The Spurs, Nuggets, Jazz, Clippers, Pacers and Wizards will have max cap room next summer. Several other teams, including the Heat, Pistons, Sonics and Magic, will have significant cap room but not enough to offer a player a maximum contract.

And the players? This summer, Chauncey Billups and Malik Rose were hot prospects. Next summer? They wouldn't even crack the top 20.

Here's a sneak peek at the top 20 free agents (restricted or otherwise) next summer:

1. Tim Duncan, power forward, Spurs.
Free agent status: Unrestricted.
Outlook: The rumors will fly all season, but all signs point to Duncan staying in San Antonio next season.

2. Jason Kidd, point guard, Nets.
Free agent status: Player option.
Outlook: Kidd has told the team that he'd like to play the free agent market. Expect the Spurs, Sonics and Wizards to all make a big push to bring him into the fold.

3. Jermaine O'Neal, power forward, Pacers.
Free agent status: Unrestricted.
Outlook: His shaky play in the World Championships notwithstanding, O'Neal is the most coveted power forward on the market after Duncan. He's young and athletic and keeps improving every year. The Pacers will do what it takes to keep him in Indiana.

4. Michael Olowokandi, center, Clippers.
Free agent status: Unrestricted.
Outlook: Clippers owner Donald Sterling didn't open his wallet this summer and Olowokandi's agent, Bill Duffy, plans to make him pay. You may feel that this is a little high for Olowokandi, but if he keeps up the learning curve, he'll be the best center on the market. Nuggets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe already began wooing the Kandi Man this summer. The Nuggets will face stiff competition from the Spurs, who will need to replace a retiring David Robinson.

5. Andre Miller, point guard, Clippers.
Free agent status: Restricted.
Outlook: The Clippers can't afford to pay everyone and many feel that Miller will be the casualty. After Kidd, he's the best point guard on the board. Expect the Jazz and Wizards to make him a big offer.

6. Elton Brand, power forward, Clippers.
Free agent status: Restricted.
Outlook: He'll be right on the cusp. The Sonics, Wizards and Jazz will all have interest, but will anyone give him the max? Another double-double season and a Clippers playoff run should be enough to keep him in L.A. for the next seven years.

7. Gary Payton, point guard, Sonics.
Free agent status: Unrestricted.
Outlook: The Sonics still maintain that they want Payton to retire a Sonic, but it will cost them to the tune of three years and $40 million. While he's shown no signs of slowing down, he'll be 35 in July. If the Sonics can get their hands on either Kidd or Brand, Payton may have to hook up with Pat Riley in Miami.

8. Jerry Stackhouse, shooting guard, Wizards.
Free agent status: Player option.
Outlook: If he can get the Wizards into the playoffs, his stock will be high, but who will have the max money to throw his way? The Wizards have other players in mind and no one in their right mind is going to give him the max contract he'll demand.

9. Karl Malone, power forward, Jazz.
Free agent status: Unrestricted.
Outlook: He turns 40 in July but the Mailman continues to deliver. He won't get a huge, long-term contract, but he can still help a playoff contender. Still, can Malone really leave Utah?

Reggie Miller
Rasho Nesterovic
Kenny Anderson
Darrell Armstrong
P.J. Brown
Derrick Coleman
Tyrone Hill
Antonio Daniels
Steve Smith
Scottie Pippen
Travis Best
Eric Piatkowski
Samaki Walker
Gilbert Arenas (restricted)
Kenny Thomas (restricted)
James Posey (restricted)
Dion Glover (restricted)

Note: Several other potential free agents, including Antonio McDyess and Theo Ratliff, have already indicated that they will not exercise their opt-outs next summer.

10. Lamar Odom, small forward, Clippers.
Free agent status: Restricted.
Outlook: If he's healthy and gets his head on straight, he's a top-five talent. Pat Riley loves him but so does Clippers owner Donald Sterling. If the Heat give him some love, will the Clips match?

11. Wally Szczerbiak, shooting guard, Timberwolves.
Free agent status: Restricted.
Outlook: He isn't Kevin Garnett's best friend, but Wally is instant offense. Can the T-Wolves afford to let him slip away and get nothing in return? On the other hand, can they afford to pay both Wally and KG? Something has to give.

12. Juwan Howard, small forward/power forward, Nuggets.
Free agent status: Unrestricted.
Outlook: He'll take one of the biggest paycuts in NBA history, but teams still believe that Howard can help a number of teams. He's another guy Riley has coveted for a while and the price might be right.

13. Ron Artest, shooting guard, Pacers.
Free agent status: Restricted.
Outlook: He's tough, athletic and a little crazy. The Pacers have been trying to work out an extension with him the last few months, but right now, the two sides aren't seeing eye to eye.

14. Jonathan Bender, small forward, Pacers.
Free agent status: Restricted.
Outlook: It's tough to call. The Pacers are offering an extension at a mid-range rate. If he has a breakout year, he'll jump way up this list. But when you look at the Pacers' depth chart, how does he see more than 20 minutes a game? He's probably better off taking the Pacers' three-year deal and testing the market again when he's 24.

15. Richard Hamilton, shooting guard, Pistons.
Free agent status: Restricted.
Outlook: If he has a big year in Detroit, the Pistons are trapped in the same dilemma they faced with Stackhouse. Then again, with the free agent talent pool so deep, there may not be any money left by the time Rip bubbles to the top.

16. Jason Terry, shooting guard, Hawks.
Free agent status: Restricted.
Outlook: A 6-foot-2 shooting guard anyone? Anyone?

17. Brad Miller, center, Pacers.
Free agent status: Unrestricted.
Outlook: It's not a great year for big men in free agency or the draft. That could mean very big things for Miller if he has a solid year in Indiana. The Jazz, Heat and Magic will all show interest, but the Pacers have first dibs.

18. Clifford Robinson, small forward, Pistons.
Free agent status: Unrestricted.
Outlook: His age and his playoff woes likely add up to a serious paycut next summer. Still, he's got enough juice to help a veteran team like the Heat or Magic.

19. Elden Campbell, center, Hornets.
Free agent status: Unrestricted.
Outlook: Like Miller, his value is elevated because of the dearth of centers in the league. The Hornets are already pushing him to the curb to make way for Jamaal Magloire. He'll probably wait for Olowokandi and Miller to make their moves and then settle for the leftovers.

20. Corey Maggette, small forward, Clippers.
Free agent status: Restricted.
Outlook: He's just 23 years old and still learning the game. Maggette showed flashes of talent in relief of Lamar Odom last season. His athleticism and age should make him this year's Devean George.

Chad Ford writes the daily NBA Insider column for ESPN Insider. To get a free 30-day trial, click here.

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