Where are the best landing spots for the top free agents of 2013? Our panel assesses the situations of five premier players looking for new deals.
1. Which team should Dwight Howard sign with this summer?
Israel Gutierrez, ESPN.com: Houston Rockets. Let's be honest, nobody knows how much winning truly means to Howard when it comes to this decision. But if he's looking for a winning situation, both immediately and in the long term, Houston and James Harden provide more certainty than the Lakers and Kobe Bryant. Choosing the Lakers would be based on trust and history.
Andew Han, Clipper Blog: Rockets. This would be a different conversation with a healthy Bryant. But Achilles tears are notoriously difficult to quickly recover from, and the Lakers' stars were already aging. Houston offers a chance for a fresh start with a young core. And losing the extra contract year simply means Howard can lock in another deal three years from now (via early termination).
James Herbert, HoopSpeak: Rockets. Stars almost never ditch the Lakers and it's not a great look to walk out on two teams in two seasons, but the Rockets are his best option. In joining Harden and the emerging Chandler Parsons, Howard would immediately find himself on a title contender primed to improve in the next few seasons.
Aaron McGuire, Gothic Ginobili: Los Angeles Lakers. While Howard flirts elsewhere, the choice is clear cut. He can stay with L.A. and make more guaranteed money regardless of his back problems, or he can move to an uncertain situation in a smaller market. No, the coach doesn't fit. No, the roster's not great. But they have cap space coming and deep, deep pockets. And that guaranteed money.
Tom Sunnergren, Hoop 76: Rockets. If Houston's dogged pursuit of Howard -- lets call it the "Chandler Parsons Project" -- bears fruit, the sport's best center will be landing in an enviable situation: The Rockets are positioned to win now (they were ninth in the NBA in scoring differential last season), win later (Daryl Morey has a knack for roster building, I've read), and, the multimillion dollar cherry on top, play in a state that doesn't tax income.
2. Which team should Chris Paul sign with this summer?
Gutierrez: Los Angeles Clippers. With Doc Rivers in place and another All-Star in Blake Griffin to either build with or use as trade bait, Paul is in a good place. Even better than if, say, he and Howard decided to play together in Atlanta, because there's some semblance of continuity on the Clippers roster, and a head coach with a quality track record.
Han: Clippers. The Clippers have just given up a future first-round pick for the right to sign the highest-paid coach in the league in Rivers. This enables them to offer Paul the best combination of talent and coaching of possible landing spots. Oh, and there's the added benefit of the Los Angeles market.
Herbert: Clippers. Since arriving in Los Angeles, Paul has left his mark on every part of the Clippers organization. He recruited free agents, changed the dynamic of the locker room and led the team to its best season ever. Now with Doc Rivers about to take the helm, why start anew?
McGuire: Clippers. Even if Paul left the team, getting rid of Vinny Del Negro improves their future prospects. But no other team offers Paul the same allure. He has a young and improving core of top-tier big men, role-players galore, and Eric Bledsoe to keep him fresh. He'd make the most money in L.A., too.
Sunnergren: Clippers. L.A.'s junior team has a roster that's packed with high-ceiling talent, just made a massive upgrade at the coaching position, and, if the rumor mill can be trusted, may be getting some more reinforcements from eastern Massachusetts before the summer's out. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good, Chris.
3. Which team should Josh Smith sign with this summer?
Gutierrez: Dallas Mavericks. They have money to spend and Smith is an intriguing talent if he isn't required to score that much.
Han: Rockets. Perhaps this is the parachute for Houston if Howard decides to stay in Los Angeles. Smith would improve the Rockets' porous defense and their run-and-gun, up-tempo style would fit perfectly with J-Smoove's length and athleticism. If not H-Town, then Smith should play for whoever will meet his request and offer the max.
Herbert: Mavericks. It's time for a change of scenery and the Mavericks should have the cap space to invest in Smith. They also have the track record of building a title winner. Assuming the Mavericks miss out on Howard and Paul, landing Smith would be a nice step in remaking their roster.
McGuire: Rockets. Of the max-contract players on the market this summer, few are as controversial as the mercurial forward. Smith has the ability to be a spectacular player, dominating above the rim and distributing from the elbow. Instead? He jacks up shots and frustrates fans everywhere. Where better to put him than in McHale's mentorship, alongside Harden and Omer Asik?
Sunnergren: San Antonio Spurs. This is a long shot -- San Antonio reportedly kicked the tires on Smith at the trade deadline before deciding he didn't have "Spurs DNA," but there isn't a better place on the planet for a talented, mercurial player of Smith's ilk than the unique ecosystem Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich have cultivated. Think Stephen Jackson, part two.
4. Which team should Andrew Bynum sign with this summer?
Gutierrez: Atlanta Hawks. Why not? The Sixers probably don't want to take another pricey gamble with Bynum. Not many free agents will be attracted to Atlanta. So why not let the Hawks overspend on this risky big man, create a twin towers situation with Al Horford and hit the champion Miami Heat where they're weakest, in the middle?
Han: Hawks. Most teams probably will be reluctant to throw a long-term contract at Bynum after he sat on the sidelines this past season with knee issues. But with mountains of cap space, the Hawks can offer a large, shorter deal and roll the dice on a bruising frontcourt of Bynum and Horford.
Herbert: Philadelphia 76ers. While some of Philly's fan base wants to move on after Bynum missed all of the 2012-13 season, most teams possessing cap space already have centers locked up and probably won't gamble on Bynum and his injury history. It makes sense to stay with the 76ers, even if it has to be a short-term deal.
McGuire: Sixers. Nobody wants a repeat of last season. Nobody really wants to give Bynum a full max deal. But with his reputation in the tank, Bynum could quell all doubters by returning to Philadelphia on a one-year contract and make good on his original pledge. Play up to par, and his market's fixed. Your move, Drew.
Sunnergren: Sixers. The quick, qualified argument for Philadelphia: The Bird Right-holding 76ers give Bynum the best opportunity to maximize his career earnings, play with an All-Star point guard, and -- if his lower body holds up and new GM Sam Hinkie is who we think he is -- be the focal point of a good team.
5. Which team should Andre Iguodala sign with this summer?
Gutierrez: Spurs. They may not currently be in position to pay Igoudala what he's worth. But given how great a fit he would be, the Spurs could either create enough space to acquire him, or Iggy can play for one of those "championship discounts" on a short deal. It depends on his priorities, of course, but the Heat have benefited from players making that kind of sacrifice. Teams like the Spurs deserve a break like that, too.
Han: Denver Nuggets. Iguodala was an integral piece to a Denver team that won 57 games this past season. If the Nuggets hadn't stumbled into a poor matchup in the first round, this might not even be an issue. Denver is still set up to be quite good in the future with several players on reasonable contracts should they want to mix things up.
Herbert: Nuggets. While Iguodala's skill set makes him valuable on any team, he'll have a tough time finding a better situation than he has in Denver. It stings that Masai Ujiri and George Karl won't be back, but the Nuggets still have an extremely promising roster capable of more than they showed against the Golden State Warriors in the playoffs.
McGuire: Spurs. This one's the biggest reach, but it's possible. For Iguodala to cross their radar, Manu Ginobili would need a sub-market contract and Tiago Splitter would have to get overpaid elsewhere, giving them just enough cap room. In San Antonio, Iguodala would add ample distribution from the wing and form an incredible defensive trio with Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan. A very fun, but unlikely, situation.
Sunnergren: Cleveland Cavaliers. If Cleveland doesn't hoard its cap space this offseason for a quixotic run at the city's prodigal son in 2014 -- which is probably what it should do -- this is a terrific landing spot for Iggy. The team's flush with cash, has a supremely talented roster that will get more talented still on Thursday, and has hired a coach with a defensive pedigree that should suit Iguodala perfectly.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Israel Gutierrez covers the NBA for ESPN.com. Andrew Han, James Herbert, Aaron McGuire and Tom Sunnergren contribute to the TrueHoop Network.
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