Start your planning early, the top 25 free agents of 2011

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Today, we’re not thinking about lockouts and franchise tags. Today, just for today, we’re going to pretend that the owners and players are not so stupid as have a protracted lockout during a recession killing the momentum the league is building this season. A man can dream, can’t he?

Along those lines, right about now is when some fans start thinking of next season, of free agents and draft picks that can have them dreaming of playoffs next season.

What follows is a list of 25 potential free agents of all classes (unrestricted, ones where the player can opt out, and restricted ones where their team can match). For a more complete list, check out some great work by Chad Ford at ESPN.

1. Carmelo Anthony (early termination option). Not sure we need to go into detail on a story you have heard plenty of — ‘Melo has said he is going to opt out (probably) and if he does you can bet the Knicks are the almost certainly the destination.

2. Marc Gasol, (restricted). Grizzlies’ owner Michael Heisley has said he wants to keep the entire core together, but what happens when he has to pay both Gasol and Zach Randolph this summer? The Knicks have already talked about coming after Gasol, and if not them another team with money will offer a big deal for the center. Will the Grizzlies match it?

3. Nene Hilario (early termination option). Gasol, Nene and you’ll notice this trend following — big men get paid. There is a shortage of quality centers in the league so if you are one your accountant is happy. Expect Nene to opt out of his $11.6 he is owed next year to get a five-year deal (or whatever the maximum length is allowed under a new CBA).

4. David West (early termination option). The Hornets have to keep him if they have any shot at keeping Chris Paul. But with no owner in place and plenty of questions about the future, West may well opt out and see if there is interest in a power forward who is a great pick-and-pop partner and can rebound. There will be. Plenty.

5. Tyson Chandler (unrestricted). He has changed Dallas defensively, and he’s good enough on offense not to keep other bigs honest. Sure, there’s that whole “history of injuries” thing but after this season he will get paid. And Mark Cuban rarely lets quality guys like that get away. (Except for Steve Nash.)

6. Zach Randolph (unrestricted). A couple of very productive, trouble-free seasons have done wonders for his reputation. And every team could use 20 and 13 a night. He just needs to be paired with another big who will defend.

7. Tayshaun Prince (unrestricted). Injuries have slowed him in recent years, but he is still a plus wing defender who can shoot the three. There are some good teams that will pay for him even at age 30 (if he’s not traded before the deadline and decides to extend wherever he lands).

8. Kendrick Perkins (unrestricted). Boston wants to keep him and he wants to stay. But if you are going to win in today’s NBA you need a big body who can protect the paint defensively and board and so Perkins will draw interest. Starting the the Heat (which will have to be tempting).

9. Jeff Green (restricted). He’s the third guy in Oklahoma City right now, behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. He’s good (except from three), solid, and is loved in the clubhouse. But the Thunder need to make some personnel upgrades if they are going to contend (they need a real presence in the paint at both ends) and that costs. Do they spend on Green and some free agents? If a big offer comes in does he get to walk?

10. DeAndre Jordan (restricted). He’s always been tremendous athlete but playing along side Blake Griffin he has matured quickly. He is a big body in the paint that is hard to shoot over. The Clippers should match any offer, but they are the Clippers so….

11. Carl Landry (unrestricted). Solid power forward at both ends of the floor. Ignore his numbers in Sacramento this year, he can play.

12. Jamal Crawford (unrestricted). The reigning Sixth Man of the Year can fill it up. With the Hawks committing big money to Joe Johnson and Al Horford and still more key parts to pay, Crawford may slide out the door.

13. Wilson Chandler (restricted). The Knicks didn’t extend him before the start of this season and now they are going to have to pay to keep him. If they do.

14. Shane Battier (unrestricted). Good wing defender, can knock down the three, plays smart. A contending team should pay this man, he’s the kind of role player you need in the playoffs.

15. Rodney Stuckey (restricted). With the Pistons ownership in limbo who knows if they match. He’d be better served as a two guard than a point, but the man can score.

16. Thaddeus Young (restricted). He has shown potential and a lot of guys have been overpaid on potential. He could be a great fit somewhere on a quality team. You’d think the Sixers would match but who knows?

17. Jason Richardson (unrestricted). He’ll be 31 next season but he can knock it down from three with the best of them. Needs to be in the right system but he should get paid.

18. Mo Williams (early termination option). You get the feeling he wants to go back to being on a contender.

19. Caron Butler (unrestricted). Coming off major surgery, but he was playing very well before he went down. It’s a good risk for some team to take.

20. Aaron Brooks (restricted). Everyone wants and needs a speedy point guard. Expect the Rockets to match any offer, unless it is just ridiculous.

21. Nick Young (restricted). He has looked like a quality NBA starter since the shadow of Gilbert Arenas left town and he got to start. I would expect the Wizards to match.

22. Arron Afflalo (restricted). He can defend on the wings and can shoot the rock. Great role player. I’d say the Nuggets will never let him go and would match, but it’s not clear what the post-Carmelo plan is in Denver.

23. Boris Diaw (player option). Not sure he will actually opt out of the $9 million he’s owed, but we put it out there as a possibility.

24. Samuel Dalembert (unrestricted). Guys who can defend the paint and rebound get paid.

25. Andrei Kirilenko (unrestricted). AK-47 is always a tempting talent. If you’re willing to risk injuries.

LeBron James helps Cavaliers hold off Pacers, earn sweep into 2nd round

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) LeBron James made a 3-pointer with 68 seconds left Sunday and the Cleveland Cavaliers hung on for a 106-102 series-clinching victory at Indiana.

James finished with 33 points and 10 rebounds as he became the first player under the current playoff format to win 21 straight first-round games. He also set a league record with his 10th career playoff sweep.

It sure wasn’t easy. After taking a 96-83 lead with 9:29 to go, the Cavs found themselves in a 102-100 deficit with 1:31 left.

But James answered with the go-ahead 3-pointer and Cleveland sealed the win on James’ free throw with 1 second left.

Lance Stephenson scored 22 points and Paul George added 15 but missed a 3-pointer that could have forced overtime in the closing seconds. It’s the first time the Pacers have lost a series 4-0 in their NBA history.

Kyrie Irving added 28 points for the Cavs, who await the winner of the Bucks-Raptors series.

Indiana got back into the game with a 7-0 spurt early in the in the fourth, then methodically continued chipping away at the lead until Thaddeus Young tied the score at 100 with a short jumper and broke the tie on a tip-in with 1:31 left.

But James, whose teams were 51-0 when starting the fourth quarter with double-digit leads in the postseason, made sure the perfect record remained intact.

Cleveland has won seven straight playoff games overall and 11 straight in the first round since James returned to his hometown team.

It was another milestone day for James, who moved past Michael Cooper, Magic Johnson and James Worthy on the league’s list of consecutive first-round wins, and past Tim Duncan for most career sweeps, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

James also went 13 off 25 from the field, tying Kobe Bryant for fourth on the career playoff list for field goals. Each have 2,014 baskets.

Indiana has lost five straight postseason games and six of its last eight.

TIP-INS

Cavaliers: Will make their 11th appearance in the conference semifinals. … Cleveland has swept all eight series in which it has taken a 3-0 lead. … Tristan Thompson grabbed 11 rebounds Sunday, giving him double digits in all four games. … Deron Williams scored 14 points and Kevin Love had 16 rebounds.

Pacers: George finished with a series-low point total Sunday and was 3 of 9 on 3s after entering the game with a league-high 15 3s in the playoffs. … Teague scored 15 points and was the catalyst in the final spurt, including blocking one of James’ shots. He can become a free agent this summer. …Myles Turner had 20 points and nine rebounds, while Young had 13 points and 10 rebounds.

UP NEXT

Cleveland gets some extra rest before finding out who it will play in the second round. Indiana embarks on a crucial offseason that could dictate the franchise’s future.

More AP NBA: apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

JR Smith turns it over with behind-the-back pass, Paul George misses rim on tying 3-pointer (VIDEO)

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The Cleveland Cavaliers sweep of the Indiana Pacers was not easy. Sunday’s Game 4 matchup was tight through the first two quarters, and despite the Cavaliers opening up a sizeable lead in the third, it was the Pacers who battled back late to make it a game.

Despite the clean basketball that was played throughout the game, the final minute was one of the weirdest we’ve seen in a swept series.

It started with LeBron James hitting a clutch 3-pointer with 1:09 left in the fourth quarter to give the Cavaliers a 103-102 lead.

The Pacers then turned the ball over with a chance to tie or take the lead with less than 15 seconds to go. JR Smith recovered the ball on the fastbreak, but flipped it behind his back on an ill-advised pass.

That gave the Pacers the ball once more, and Indiana’s Paul George got an open look at a 3-pointer. Unfortunately, it was a clanker that never even drew rim.

Cleveland beat the Pacers, 106-102, to complete the sweep. The Cavaliers await the winner of the Raptors-Bucks series, which is currently tied 2-2.

Rockets’ Patrick Beverley fined $25,000 for incident with Oklahoma City Thunder fan

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Chicago Bulls PG Rajon Rondo had to dole out a nice chunk of change on Sunday. The league fined Rondo $25,000 for attempting to trip Boston Celtics wing Jae Crowder. But Rondo isn’t the only point guard during these playoffs who earned a fine from the league.

Thanks to an altercation with a fan during Game 3 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets guard Patrick Beverley also found himself at the wrong end of a $25,000 fine from the league on Sunday morning.

Via ESPN:

In the first half, Beverley got knocked down after attempting a layup and landed at a fan’s feet, identified as Stuart Scaramucci, son of minority Oklahoma City Thunder owner Jay Scaramucci. Beverley got up and immediately started to complain about Scaramucci.

He pointed at Scaramucci as referee Scott Foster and several Rockets went to help him up. After the game, Beverley approached Scaramucci, who was sitting behind the basket, and they got into a heated discussion.

Rockets forward Sam Dekker went to pull Beverley away, and he left the court as fans yelled at him.

A live video of the incident that occurred after the game was posted to social media.

Ah, Patrick Beverley. There’s not enough players in the NBA to have beef with so why not have some with a fan? Or perhaps the son of a minority owner shouldn’t be such a goober and should try to represent the franchise a little better?

Let’s say both?

Houston leads the series, 2-1. Game 4 is on Sunday in Oklahoma City.

Report: Warriors coach Steve Kerr not expected back to coach in first round vs. Blazers

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Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr missed games last year due to a back injury that gave him chronic pain. Kerr also missed Saturday’s Game 3 win over the Portland Trail Blazers due to an unspecified illness, and reports out of Oakland are that Kerr will not return to coach the rest of the first round series.

What Kerr is battling is still unknown, apparently even to the Warriors. According to a report from the Mercury News, Kerr is having trouble walking and has been in excruciating pain.

Via MercuryNews.com:

Vague descriptions like “illness” and “not feeling well,” are usually a sign something is wrong. In this case, according to sources, it is.

At the worst of this current illness, Kerr was in excruciating pain, according to the sources, and he could barely walk. It was scary because it wasn’t a feeling he’s had before.

The worst part, the Warriors don’t yet know what is going. They had to say “illness” because there are no answers yet.

Kerr hasn’t felt well all series, according to people around him, and recently it become unbearable. It is unknown if these issues are even related to his past well-known health problems.

No matter your loyalty, I think we’re all hoping for Kerr to get an answer and feel better soon. If you’ve ever dealt with chronic pain it can be something that not only debilitates your body but grates at your emotional state, too.

Meanwhile, Kerr’s absence is a huge question for the Warriors moving forward. Last season it was Luke Walton who helmed the squad so well it earned him the head coaching position for the Los Angeles Lakers. But this injury comes late in the game for Golden State, and while they may be able to cut through the first rounds of the playoffs without Kerr, there’s no doubt they would rather have him on the bench for later rounds.

In Kerr’s absence, assistant coach Mike Brown took the helm for the Warriors against Portland in Game 3. The Blazers blew a huge lead they held most of the game as Golden State took a 3-0 series lead, 119-113.

Update:

Kerr was apparently feeling a bit better this morning. Some good news!