Way-Too-Early Predictions for the Top 10 2013 NBA Free Agents
It may seem silly to make a list of the top 10 2013 NBA free agents when this year's league champion has yet to be determined, at least until you consider that none of the most prized targets in this summer's sweepstakes are competing at the moment.
The two most coveted players in this class are widely viewed as the NBA's best at their respective positions, yet neither one of them were able to lead their teams to the second round of the playoffs.
That little bit of truth is not likely to deter the multitudes of teams who will be vying for the services of the NBA's best center and point guard, but there are also a few other players in this summer's mix who could change the fortunes of a franchise.
Chris Paul and Dwight Howard's decisions very well could shape the future of the Western Conference, and the NBA for years to come, but that doesn't mean the other top players on this year's free agency list will fail to make an impact.
In fact, some of the players behind Paul and Howard are talented enough to push border-line contenders to the next level, and elevate the fortunes of teams who already wear that label.
10. Andray Blatche
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The Brooklyn Nets have some serious issues when it comes to their bloated payroll and how it affects their ability to seriously compete for a title in the near future.
Ridiculous contracts gifted to guard Joe Johnson and forward Gerald Wallace have left little wiggle room for the Nets when it comes to improving their roster, but in Brooklyn's case, their top free agent target may already be on the team.
Forward-center Andray Blatche put up pretty good numbers for some pretty bad teams while he was in Washington, and Blatche was just as effective on a team with better players.
Blatche averaged 10.3 points and 5.1 rebounds as Brook Lopez's primary backup during the regular season, and he also managed to shoot 51.2 percent from the field as well.
Like Lopez, Blatche has decent range on his jump shot from about 15 feet, but unlike Lopez, what you see with Blatche is what you get.
Blatche also averaged 10.3 points in the first round of the playoffs, and his rebounding numbers and shooting percentage were almost a complete mirror image of his regular season statistics, which definitely illustrates consistency. But not much else.
Lopez makes the big bucks because he has the potential to be a dominant player, and while Blatche doesn't possess the same qualities, he could still be a very valuable piece on a team with a superior post player. And Blatche could be relatively cheap.
Mitch Kupchak, are you listening?
9. D.J. Augustin
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Indiana Pacers reserve point guard D.J. Augustin wasn't able to find many minutes during the regular season on a roster that included bigger, and more defensively inclined guards like George Hill and Paul George. And things haven't exactly improved for Augustin during the postseason.
Augustin averaged 16.1 minutes per game during the regular season and 16.7 minutes in the first round of the playoffs, but so far Augustin has only averaged 13.5 minutes through two contests in the second round.
Augustin's 4.7 points per game average during the 2012-13 regular season was the lowest of his career, and certainly not the type of numbers you would expect from a former lottery pick.
Maybe Augustin will never live up to the merits of his lottery selection or the promise he displayed as a Charlotte Bobcat, but I'm convinced that he will never get a chance to prove he deserves that distinction as long as he's a Pacer.
Augustin is not big enough, defensive-minded enough or tough enough to follow the script that guides the Pacers, but his jump shot and penetration skills could be invaluable in a different zip code.
8. J.R. Smith
New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith won the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award for the 2012-13 season, and he finally seemed to find a comfort zone that highlighted his superior athleticism, while hiding Smith's inconsistent tendencies.
And then the NBA Playoffs began.
Smith averaged 18.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists during the regular season, but those numbers have dropped to 14.4 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game in the postseason.
Smith's statistical decline is one thing, but the drop in his numbers can be mostly explained by his questionable decision-making.
Smith's 42 percent field goal percentage during the 2012-13 regular season is nothing to get excited about, and the nearly 10-point decline so far in the playoffs is even worse.
Still, Smith's insane athleticism and ability to play in the moment are qualities that should make every real contender salivate, and even though Smith has some personality issues that must be addressed, is there any other free agent available that has as much confidence in his own skills as Smith other than Kobe Bryant?
7. Al Jefferson
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Utah Jazz forward Al Jefferson may be one of the most talented free agents available this summer, but because he plays in Utah, Jefferson has floated mostly under the radar.
However, it's hard to hide a player that averaged nearly 18 points per game and more than nine rebounds, and that productivity might make Jefferson one of the most highly sought after, discreet free agents of this offseason.
Jefferson's offensive post game is highly polished and even though his defense in the paint leaves a lot to be desired, Jefferson's impact on the other end of the court could prove indispensable when the games really count.
6. Jarrett Jack
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Golden State Warriors' reserve point guard Jarrett Jack has always been a strong complementary player, but under the tutelage of coach Mark Jackson, he might be evolving into a star.
Jack is a career 11-point scorer and he averaged nearly two more points per game during the 2012-13 regular season, but his 17 points per game average during the postseason is really turning heads.
Of course, there are people who will say that Jack's success is a by-product of the attention that is paid to Golden State's starting backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
That opinion is merited when you consider the shooting ability of Thompson and Curry, but where would the Warriors be without Jack's tenacious attitude and ability to get to the rim?
Warriors' coach Mark Jackson definitely understands the value of consistent point guard play which makes me think re-signing Jack could, and should be Golden State's biggest priority in the offseason.
5. Brandon Jennings
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Milwaukee point guard Brandon Jennings has a player option entering next season, but I'm guessing Jennings will choose to explore his options as a free agent.
Jennings has been exposed as a shoot-first, pass-later type of point guard, but his youth and athleticism makes him an intriguing prospect.
It's not likely that Jennings will ever fit the profile of a "true" point guard, but with his ability in the open floor and around the rim, does he really have to?
4. David West
David West's 12.8 points per game scoring average last season was his lowest since 2004-05, which means West's nearly five-point increase to 17.1 during the 2013 NBA playoffs might be indicative of a return to relative health, and dominance.
Is it a coincidence that West's leap to a borderline NBA star began right after his second professional season, where he only started eight games and averaged 6.2 points per contest?
Maybe not when you consider that West's third season ended with a scoring average of exactly 17.1 points per game and 74 starts out of a possible 82.
After that break-out season in 2005-06, West went on to post the best numbers of his career over a five year period, and ironically West finds himself at nearly the same place with the same type of momentum for the future.
West has reached another crossroads in his career, but the path forward for the Pacers should be abundantly clear.
The Miami Heat are the clear favorites to reach the 2013 NBA Finals and repeat as league champions, but West's presence in the paint is also one of the only reasons Indiana is seen as a viable threat to Miami's goal.
3. Josh Smith
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Atlanta Hawks forward Josh Smith has great size, strength and is extremely athletic, but do any of those qualities mean Smith deserves a max contract for next season?
Probably not, but that doesn't mean another NBA team will not fall in love with Smith's enormous wing span and vertical leap then offer him much more money than he's really worth.
Smith's biggest issue seems to be finding consistency in his offensive game, but maybe what Smith really needs is someone who is not afraid to point that out to him. Emphatically.
2. Dwight Howard
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Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard may not be a true franchise player like Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal, but right now he may be the only hope for the Lakers' future.
Kobe Bryant's Achilles injury could sideline him well into next year's regular season, and most people feel that a potential Pau Gasol trade has already reached the point where the question is not if, but when it will happen.
Howard may have the opportunity to assert himself as a leader of the Lakers, and set the franchise up for the blockbuster free agency summer of 2014.
If Howard chooses to stay, that is.
After witnessing Howard shift position roughly a dozen times during his fiasco in Orlando, it's silly to speculate on what he may do now. Or maybe not?
The Lakers can offer Howard roughly $30 million more than any other team, so a decision to leave Los Angeles would signal that he really hates life on the left coast, or he feels that his championship aspirations would be better realized in a different city.
1. Chris Paul
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Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers may have lost in the first round of the postseason, but that doesn't change the fact that Paul is the best player to hit the open market since LeBron James made his infamous decision.
Paul is a visionary point guard in every sense of the word, and his ball-handling skills coupled with his feel for the game puts him in a class all by himself.
Most people expect Paul to re-sign with the Clippers since they reserve the right to offer him more years and money than any other team, but can they ever assemble the type of roster that will make L.A.'s other team a viable contender?
As good as Paul is, he can't do it alone, and his ultimate decision may hinge on the belief, or lack of that the Clippers can surround him with players that can.