Tom Ziller published the final 10 of the top 50 free agents in the summer of 2013.
His top 3?
3. JAMES HARDEN
Harden is the most obvious threat to leave this list via early extension — there’s little chance, in my estimation, that the Thunder let Harden prove he deserves a full max by letting him play out the season. And he does deserve a full max. He’s possibly the best two-guard in the entire NBA right now, even though he comes off the bench and is the No. 3 option for Oklahoma City. A brilliant scorer, a heady ball-handler, an inspired if uneven defender, a consummate teammate, a magnificent beardsman. All hail Harden.
2. DWIGHT HOWARD
Howard, the new Laker, hasn’t inked an extension, but should remain with L.A. long-term after arriving with such fanfare. But if things go poorly this season … you never know. As I have said before: never trust a grown man who can be bribed with jelly beans. Never.
1. CHRIS MFING PAUL
After the last two seasons, I like to hope that the entire world sees what a marvelous point guard CP3 has been. There was that infamous series against the Lakers, and then the salvation of the Clippers. With Jamal Crawford (a credible bench scorer), a healthy Chauncey Billups (a devastating second point guard in the backcourt), Lamar Odom (a versatile scorer-rebounder-passer) and Grant Hill (a good defender and cagey veteran), this team is stacked, and CP3 might be on his way to threatening for the MVP award. The front office (whose make-up is a mystery, frankly) has done its job to build a winner around Paul, so you have to believe that he’s feeling good about L.A. right now … even though he won’t sign long-term until July. But remember as always that this is the Clippers. S—t happens. Stay tuned.
They’re all members of upper-tier playoff teams (the Clippers actually did pretty well this summer in free agency, but Ziller’s warning isn’t crazy since, unfortunately, Sterling is still the owner), and they’re all ostensibly free agents next summer. But even thought they’re all in good spots, they all might leave, too.
Harden is the greatest threat to leave since Ibaka has been signed and a small-market team like OKC can’t pay 4 contracts that size (Russ and Durant are locked up for another 4 years, near or at the max). Since Harden mysteriously disappeared in last year’s finals series (except for the first half of game 2), people forget what Ziller put down: he might be the best 2-guard in the league right now (yes, better than Kobe and Wade) even though he comes off the bench. He absolutely deserves max money, but OKC can’t pay that luxury tax. Sam Presti has his work cut out for him.
Dwight, when he’s not busy taking ads out to thank the fans he doesn’t give a shit about, has even more pressure on his—now fragile—back to win a title. It’s the 2004 Lakers all over again, but instead of signing two way-past-their-prime players like GP and the Mailman, the Lakers locked up a top point guard who can’t guard a chair, and the best center in basketball; plus, the best defensive player in all of basketball (sorry Tyson). Yeah, Dwight will probably re-sign because all of LA is hanging off his jock right now, but if they fail miserably in the playoffs next May and June, maybe not. Dwight is more fickle than Romney on abortion.
Chris Paul is the biggest enigma because Sterling is so freakin’ crazy (plus racist!) and they still don’t have a GM (Vinny did a better job this summer as a pseudo-GM than he’s ever done coaching). All their work over the last couple months will be for naught if Paul bounces next year, but they have the igredients to push SAS, OKC and LAL in the playoffs. God, the West is sick this year. Maybe Paul will leave just to get out of the conference and get a chance to actually play for a title? Who knows, but the evil specter* of Sterling looms over all.
*I just assume he looks like an eminently Caucasian ghost.