It's going to be lonely at the top for Deron Williams in the free-agent class of 2012. Now that his pal, Dwight Howard, has opted in with Orlando for next season, Williams will be the only free agent worth a max contract come July.
His situation, and that of the Nets and several other teams, hinges squarely on whether he decides to re-up with Brooklyn after he opts out. Williams said this week he feels no obligation to the organization that traded for him in February 2010 and that he "has to look for the best situation for me." Those are ominous words for the Nets, who dealt Devin Harris, Derrick Favors and two first-round picks for Williams in the hopes that the allure of Brooklyn -- and a potential pairing with Howard -- would keep him with the franchise.
It's never too early to look ahead to free agency 2012, especially since it will be a complicated landscape. High-spending teams already have begun showing restraint with stiffer luxury-tax rules coming in 2013. And bearing in mind that cap space is amorphous based on which players re-sign with their existing teams, here are the teams in the best cap situation heading into the summer based on league salary sheets obtained by CBSSports.com:
Cavaliers, $21.9 million: Cleveland has been diligent with the flexibility it received in the sign-and-trade that ultimately sent LeBron James to Cleveland. And while a growing number of league observers believe the Cavs may very well end up holding onto their room until they have a chance to reclaim LeBron when his early termination option comes up in 2014, the Cavs have plenty to spend this summer if they so choose. (LeBron back in Cleveland? Never say never, Dorothy.)
Trail Blazers, $19.9 million: Portland started the purge by trading Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby, and there is more work to be done -- presumably by yet another new general manager at the Rose Garden. Portland almost certainly will retain restricted free agent Nicolas Batum, but if not, their cap room would balloon to $25.9 million without his cap hold.
Rockets, $15.9 million: Houston worked feverishly during the truncated offseason and at the trade deadline to pry Pau Gasol from the Lakers, to no avail. The fact that they're still in the playoff hunt with the potential to have $19.4 million in cap space (without Goran Dragic's cap hold) is impressive. Houston has roster and payroll flexibility, plus a deep-pocketed owner who's always willing to spend -- a perfect recipe to make a splash in the free-agent and/or summer trade market.
Suns, $22.8 million: That potentially big number would be available only if Steve Nash left Phoenix as a free agent. Until Nash either re-signs with the Suns or signs elsewhere, they only have $5.7 million to spend.
Celtics, $18.1 million: This figure presumes that both Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen leave as free agents. Until then, Boston is well over the cap but could wind up using amnesty on a player to create some cap space.
Pacers, $18.8 million: There could be a new front-office structure in Indiana, and the first order or business will be to re-sign Roy Hibbert and George Hill, whose cap holds shrink the Pacers' room to about $9 million.
Hornets, $15.3 million: This is another cap-room mirage, as New Orleans intends to sign restricted free agent Eric Gordon, whose cap hold lowers the Hornets' room to $6.3 million.
Bucks, $12 million: Until unrestricted free agent Ersan Ilyasova either re-signs or signs elsewhere, Milwaukee only has $7.2 million to spend.
Nets: New Jersey/Brooklyn will have at least $8 million if all its free agents (including Williams and Brook Lopez) re-sign, but a maximum of $44.8 million if everybody leaves. Of course, nobody's going to pay big bucks to watch cap space perform in the new Atlantic Yards arena.
Mavericks: Dallas would have a max slot of $16.6 million if Brendan Haywood is amnestied. If the Mavs got rid of everyone except Dirk Nowitzki, Roddy Beaubois and Dominique Jones, they'd have $24.9 million -- but since Howard is off the market, there's no point in that.
Nuggets: Denver has only $6.3 million as things stand now, but the Nuggets have a decision to make on JaVale McGee. If they amnesty Al Harrington, they could create a maximum of $13.8 million in room.
As for which players that teams are going to be spending money on, it's slim pickings. This isn't the free-agent class of 2010 by any stretch. Based on consultation with league executives, here are the top five tiers of free agents (excluding a slew of potential minimum-salary players):
Max: As we mentioned, it'll be lonely at the top as Williams will be the only max player on the market. He can either get a five-year, approximately $100 million deal if he re-signs with Brooklyn vs. a four-year, $74 million deal if he bolted for Dallas, his hometown, or another team with max room.
Mini Max: The next tier will likely command about twice the non-taxpayer midlevel (in the $8 million-$10 million range) and includes unrestricted free agents Nash and Garnett; restricted free agents Gordon, Lopez and Hibbert; and Wallace if he opts out of the $9.5 million he's due from the Nets.
Tweeners: This group figures to come in at slightly above the non-taxpayer midlevel of $5 million but below the "mini-max" tier and will include the likes of unrestricted free agents Allen, Terry, Tim Duncan, Chris Kaman, Lou Williams and Nick Young; and restricted free agents Batum and Ryan Anderson.
"Old" mid-level: Players in the $4 million-$6 million range -- the upper limit of which was approximately the full midlevel exception under the old collective bargaining agreement -- will get added scrutiny as executives try to avoid the trap of overpaying semi-productive players with more punitive tax penalties on the horizon. Players in this range will include the likes of unrestricted free agents Ilyasova, Raymond Felton, Chauncey Billups, Jamal Crawford and Spencer Hawes; and restricted free agents McGee, O.J. Mayo, George Hill, D.J. Augustin, Aaron Brooks, Robin Lopez and Michael Beasley.
Wild cards: Free-agent beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and teams often assign players different values based on their circumstances. The ultimate wild card is Knicks restricted free agent Jeremy Lin, who based on his overall body of work should receive offer sheets starting at well below the average player salary of $5 million. But Lin's value to the Knicks, both as their most sensible point-guard option and in terms of merchandise sales, could prompt teams to up the ante and force New York to overpay. Other players in this group, which could range from the room exception of $2.5 million or taxpayer midlevel of $3 million all the way to the non-taxpayer midlevel of $5 million and beyond includes Ramon Sessions (who has a player option and could increase his value substantially with a solid playoff run); Leandro Barbosa (who could command the non-taxpayer midlevel from a contender whose payroll is in order); Andrei Kirilenko (who could be worth more to the Nets' Russian owner than to other teams); and Jason Kidd (who probably would re-sign with the Mavs as Williams' backup or backcourt mate but could command more elsewhere from a team that's spent wisely but is ready to take a one-year chance on Kidd's championship experience).
So there you have it: What was supposed to have been the Summer of Dwight boiled down to what is expected to be the Summer of Restraint. Until some supposedly bottom line-conscious owners surprise us again and open up the checkbooks.