The trade deadline has the spotlight in February, but fueling much of the movement will be the anticipation of the summer ahead, when a booming salary cap figures to make it a lucrative time to be a free agent. We’re ranking those at the front of the line to snag that cash, just as we’ve done from time to time since last summer’s free agent market died down. Here’s where the top 2016 free agents stand as the NBA enters a pivotal month:
- Kevin Durant — No one’s better than the New York media at eliciting a response from prospective free agents who’ve been otherwise reluctant to talk. Durant’s respect for the charm of Madison Square Garden aside, he’s given no major hints that he’s ready to leave Oklahoma City. Of course, the Thunder still have half a season and two Western Conference juggernauts to overcome, and nothing’s settled yet. Last time: No. 1.
- LeBron James (player option) — He might not have his top choice as coach, but the Cavs have given LeBron someone he apparently likes better than David Blatt, and the results, save for a hiccup against the Bulls in Tyronn Lue‘s first outing, have been encouraging so far. Last time: No. 2.
- Andre Drummond (restricted) — No, he can’t shoot free throws, but Drummond does so much to offset that. The league’s leading rebounder is also tops in defensive win shares, according to Basketball Reference. It’s enough to vault him into the No. 3 spot here, though it’s a virtual certainty he’ll remain with the Pistons. Last time: No. 4.
- Al Horford — Recent reports that the Hawks aren’t entirely certain he’ll re-sign and that the Celtics have asked the Hawks about him cast doubt on the future whereabouts of the once-again Wasserman Media Group client, but there’s no doubting his game. Horford’s sudden addition of the 3-point shot to his arsenal this season adds intrigue, even if he’s only hitting them at a 33.1% clip. Last time: No. 5.
- Mike Conley — It was a tough January for the usually durable 28-year-old point guard who missed six games with a sore left Achilles tendon and averaged just 11.6 points in the eight that he played. He’ll no doubt return to more familiar form, but for now, he goes down a couple of pegs. Last time: No. 3.
- Dwight Howard (player option) — The 30-year-old is exhibiting some self-awareness this season, one in which he’s concentrated his shot attempts to within 3 feet of the basket like never before, as Basketball-Reference shows. Consequently, he’s nearly at a career high in field goal percentage, and his rebounding numbers are better after a regression in his injury-shortened campaign last season. Last time: No. 6.
- DeMar DeRozan (player option) — Even the 26-year-old’s maligned 3-point shooting is up to a nearly-decent 31.8% this season, a well-timed career year for the Aaron Goodwin client. Max offers reportedly await, but DeRozan has repeatedly expressed his affection for Toronto and the Raptors, saying recently he’d like to spend his entire career with the organization. Last time: No. 8.
- Bradley Beal (restricted) — Beal’s admitted that he’ll probably have to deal with a minutes limit for the rest of his career, his defense has slipped, and an opposing GM said that he’s “scared” of the shooting guard because of his track record of injuries. Red flags abound, but it’s remarkably tough to see Washington turning its back on a 22-year-old averaging 18.1 points and shooting 39.3% from 3-point land. Last time: No. 7.
- Harrison Barnes (restricted) — He lacks eye-popping stats in part because of all the talent around him, but the numbers that matter — a 44-4 record and his 24th birthday this May — point to a significant payday ahead for the new Jeff Schwartz client. Last time: No. 10.
- Hassan Whiteside — The league’s leader in blocks per game did himself no favors when he said recently that his upcoming free agency weighs into his decision-making about whether to play with injury. Questions about his approach to the game abound, but he’s still talented enough and, turning only 27 in June, young enough to loom as a tantalizing figure on the market. Last time: No. 9.
We don’t always carry the rankings past the top 10, but we’ll do our next 10 here. Batum, who’s likely in line for the max, was a particularly difficult omission from the main group:
11. Nicolas Batum
12. Rajon Rondo
13. Dwyane Wade
14. Pau Gasol (player option)
15. Chandler Parsons (player option)
16. Ryan Anderson
17. Kent Bazemore
18. Evan Fournier (restricted)
19. Eric Gordon
20. Deron Williams (player option)
Think one of these soon-to-be free agents should be higher on the list? Lower? Leave a comment to share your thoughts.