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An early look at the 2012 NBA free agent class

Orlando Magic's Dwight Howard, center, answers questions from

Orlando Magic's Dwight Howard, center, answers questions from reporters during the team's NBA basketball media day. (Dec. 12, 2011) Credit: AP

Yes, the 2011 offseason ended less than a month ago. But in no way is it too early to take a look at the 2012 free agent class. So, I released my 2012 NBA free agent rankings, from 1-to-75, Thursday evening.

The rankings (which can be found here) were done using what we'll call the "Richard Jefferson rule." Remember in 2010, Jefferson unexpectedly declined his $15 million player option with the Spurs; he had been a shell of himself since joining San Antonio, and there was no possibility of him signing a deal worth $15 million per year on the open market. So, guys like DeJuan Blair and Patrick Patterson, all but assured of having their 2012 options picked up, were included on the list.

The top five, in order, are Dwight Howard (early termination option), Kevin Love (restricted free agent), Deron Williams (player option), Russell Westbrook (RFA) and Andrew Bynum (team option).

Howard, Love, Williams and Westbrook all figure to be in play on the open market, assuming they aren't traded before the deadline. It's unlikely the Lakers would let Bynum go, considering his potential and how difficult it is to find a big man on the market. (Though he could wind up being a sign-and-trade piece should the team go after Howard in the offseason).

Love may seem the most out of sorts among the top five considering how suddenly he became a star last season, and the fact Williams and Westbrook play thin positions. Looking out how motivated and fit he's been this season, though, along with how versatile his game has become, he is the second best player available.

Instead of going through the rest of the list, here are several players of note:

Steve Nash is still a top 10 free agent . . .

38 years old next year, it's easy to question whether or not Nash is still an elite point guard. Look at his career numbers, though. He hasn't missed more than 10 games since the 2000-01 season, he has led the league in assists five of the last seven years, and he is a year removed from just falling short of a 50/40/90 season (50 percent field goals, 40 percent 3-pointers, 90 percent free throws). Put him in an up-tempo offense, and your team gets markedly better. I think he'll still be worthy of a pricey two-year deal.

. . . but Jason Kidd is No. 53

Kidd is only a year older than Nash, turning 39 during this season. He's also a year removed from running the point for the NBA champions. Looking at Kidd's statistical regression is scary, though. His points and rebounds per 36 minutes dipped last season, his field goal percentage shrunk from 42 percent to 36 percent, and his 3-point percentage dropped from 43 percent to 34 percent. He can still pass the ball and can still run an offense -- though his early 2011-12 assist numbers (4.5 per game) are abysmal -- but outside of that, he's a liability.

Spencer Hawes (14), Ryan Anderson (15) and Matt Barnes (31)

Three guys that look to be a lot higher than they should be. Yes, they are all in contract years, so yes, their statistical improvements should be taken with a grain of salt. The biggest common thread between the trio, though, is that there minutes have surged. Hawes will wind up averaging around 30 minutes per game after 21 per game in 2010-11; Anderson will be up over 30 after averaging 22; and Barnes is starting for the Lakers after coming off the bench last season. Each player has improved their numbers across the board in the early going, and probably won't slow down.

Greg Oden fits right in the middle at 44

He's easily the biggest wild card of the rankings. If Oden never dealt with health issues, he'd be in line with Bynum. Considering how little he has played, you'd almost rather Nazr Mohammed over him. (Not a knock on Mohammed, by the way. Great role player off the bench, just not what you'd want with the No. 1 overall pick.) Chances are, he'll get more money than he deserves because of what he has shown he can do when he's on the court. But whoever signs him knows they are taking a huge gamble.

Where will Shannon Brown be by season's end?

I had him in the top 30 in last year's rankings. I wrote that he'd break out in Newsday's 2011-12 NBA preview. But in the early going, as a shooting guard in a score-happy Phoenix Suns offense, he's been terrible. Brown is shooting 33.8 percent from the field, his minutes haven't jumped, and he isn't passing the ball at all -- seven assists in 174 minutes. Right now, he fits in at No. 50 because of the potential he's got. At 26, though, this is a make-or-break year for him. He needs to emerge as a reliable scorer -- say, 20 points per 36 minutes -- or he'll wind up with a modest contract as an eighth or ninth man.

Robin Lopez did what?!

Sometimes, when you research players, you get eye-popping stats. Lopez was a prime example. Yes, we knew he wasn't a facilitator underneath. But Lopez has eight assists in 991 minutes in 2010-11. The craziest part? That rate was higher than the previous season, when Lopez had seven assists in 986 minutes. So Lopez earns himself a spot in the 0.1 club, for players who somehow average 0.1 assists, points or rebounds in significant action. (He's upped his average to a robust 0.6 assists in the early going this season.)

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