11 2014 NBA Free Agents Who Will Be Difference-Makers Next Season

Dave Leonardis@@FrontPageDaveContributor IIIApril 25, 2014

11 2014 NBA Free Agents Who Will Be Difference-Makers Next Season

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    The object of free agency is for NBA teams to find players who will help make their franchise significantly better. This summer, there's a group of guys for hire who can be difference-makers next season.

    Now, as evidenced by the cover photo, some of the names on this list are pretty obvious. However, there are a couple subtle free agents who could be huge additions in the right situation. All of these players are guys with at least a slight chance of leaving their current team (sorry, Dirk Nowitzki). 

    Today, we will break down what potential impact each individual brings to the table and perhaps even take a stab at what new team would be a good fit. 

    As always, crowd participation is encouraged. If you see someone you disagree with or want to go to bat for someone who didn't make the cut, feel free to contribute your feedback in the always entertaining comments section. 

Honorable Mention: SG Thabo Sefolosha

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    Oklahoma City Thunder guard Thabo Sefolosha is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league and would provide a huge boost in that area wherever he lands this summer. The problem is the Swiss sensation doesn't offer much else. 

    For his career, Sefolosha averages 5.8 points per game while shooting 44 percent from the field and just under 35 percent from three. This year, his shooting numbers took a slight dip as he shot 41.5 percent from the field and just under 32 percent from behind the arc. 

    It's hard to imagine Sefolosha not in a Thunder uniform next season, but it isn't outside the realm of possibility. OKC has a slew of young guards waiting in the wings (albeit without Sefolosha's defensive chops), and the team already has roughly $68 million committed for next season. 

    Sefolosha will probably fetch a contract similar to what Tony Allen signed to re-up with the Memphis Grizzlies last year (four years, $20 million). They are close in age (Allen was 31 last year, Sefolosha will be 30 in May) and are both solid defenders who are limited offensively. 

    The team that needs him the most is the Houston Rockets, who have been torched by perimeter scorers all season (cough cough...Corey Brewer...cough cough). However, that's contingent on Sefolosha accepting a reserve role. 

    Beyond that, any team willing to pay about $5 million annually that has a guard spot open and could use an uptick on the defensive end would be wise to give Sefolosha's agent a call. 

SF Luol Deng

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    Luol Deng's walk year didn't go quite as he might have hoped. He got off to a strong start in Chicago, averaging 19.4 points per game in November and 22.3 points in December for the Bulls. In early January, he was traded to Cleveland for Andrew Bynum and averaged 14.3 points a night the rest of the way for the Cavs.

    Inevitably, the Bulls made the playoffs despite Deng's absence while the former Duke star and his new teammates were forced to watch the postseason from their couches. Deng missed the final three games of the season and finished the month of April with a stat line of 9.8 points and 2.3 rebounds per game. 

    While you can never say never, it seems like a long shot that Deng sticks around in Cleveland. The Daily News' Mitch Lawrence reported back in February that Deng was unhappy with the Cavs, which Luol later denied (h/t to The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Mary Schmitt Boyer and Jodie Valade).

    Still, with so much mileage on his 29-year-old body, it would make more sense for Deng to find a change of scenery. He's a two-time All-Star who can contribute on both ends of the court. He could be a solid No. 2 or 3 option on a contender. 

    The Phoenix Suns could use Deng's services on the perimeter as the final piece of a team that just barely missed the playoffs. Another team is the Los Angeles Lakers, who will hopefully get back a healthy Kobe Bryant and could use their high lottery pick to get a promising rookie or trade for an established veteran (Kevin Love?). 

SF Trevor Ariza

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    Speaking of guys who can contribute on both ends of the court, Trevor Ariza has managed to find his way onto the last few free-agency columns I've written. He's having the best season of his career with the Washington Wizards and will only continue to boost his value as the team advances in the playoffs. 

    Ariza finished the regular season averaging 14.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game. He also shot just under 46 percent from the floor, including nearly 41 percent from behind the arc. With Martell Webster and Otto Porter on the roster, Washington already has a contingency plan in place if Ariza opts for greener pastures elsewhere.

    Ariza's future ultimately comes down to what he covets most. Most potential championship contenders won't be able to pay him the $7.7 million he made this year with the Wiz. Meanwhile, teams with the cap space to pay Ariza big money are probably also a little further away from competing for a title. 

    As with Deng, Ariza is a solid perimeter defender with the chops to be a viable option on offense. He's made strides in his outside shooting and could thrive in a role similar to the one he has in Washington (No. 3 option who can feast on open jumpers). 

    It just depends on Ariza's preference. Would he rather be a rich starter on a second-tier team or a modestly paid role player/sixth man who chases NBA championships each year? If it's the former, teams like Philadelphia or Charlotte could have a spot for him.

    If it's the latter, Phoenix or Houston (if they can find the money) make sense as well. 

SG Lance Stephenson

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    The potential impact of Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson depends on which version of the man his future employer gets. Will his employer be getting the breakout star who finished second to Phoenix's Goran Dragic for this year's Most Improved Player award, or will it get the guy who got into spats with teammates George Hill and Evan Turner on separate occasions? 

    Regardless, after making just under $1 million this season, Stephenson is about to get a significant raise. 

    For starters, the former Cincinnati product will be 24 years old in September and is coming off the best season of his short career. He raised his scoring average from 8.8 points per game in 2012-13 to 13.8 points this season. He also upped his work on the glass from 3.9 boards a night last year to 7.2 rebounds a game this season. 

    Defensively, opponents shot 46.1 percent against Stephenson, according to 82games

    With numbers like that and plenty of room to grow, Stephenson will fetch a pretty penny on the open market. He'll probably price himself out of Indiana's range, but these recent events will certainly have an effect on his bottom line. 

    “Stephenson is a guy who has talent, but if you have a young team and you’re building up a culture, you have to consider that before you pursue a guy who might affect your locker room negatively," one general manager told the Sporting News' Sean Deveney. "You have to do your due diligence. But that sort of thing is going to affect the market for him, for sure. If a guy has issues, you better know about them and you think twice about going after him."

    Stephenson and his handlers will have to spend the summer repairing his image in hopes of securing the kind of huge payday he's looking for. Deveney's report suggests the guard will make somewhere between $7-8 million annually, which is still a substantial pay increase from this season. 

    Whoever signs him will be getting an explosive No. 2 scoring option with solid defensive chops who hasn't even scratched the surface on his peak yet. If his employers are willing to write off his recent transgressions as an aberration, they could be getting one of the offseason's biggest steals. 

SG Gordon Hayward

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    Gordon Hayward's spot on this list is based mainly on the belief the restricted free agent will be leaving Utah this summer. That's not to say the 24-year-old can't have an impact on the Jazz for years to come. It's just that he'd have a larger presence playing alongside more proven players elsewhere. 

    The Jazz have a roster filled with young, unpolished talent. That group is only going to get bigger with whomever the team drafts with its high lottery pick this June. Hayward could certainly grow with a team that could be a real force in a few years. 

    However, Hayward's going to command some serious offers from potential suitors, and Utah will have to decide whether it is worth keeping someone it could potentially replace in the draft. The former Butler star is coming off a season where he averaged 16.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.2 assists per contest. 

    He did struggle a little with his outside shot, converting just 30 percent of his attempts from behind the arc. However, he's shot 36.5 percent from three during his four-year career in the pros. 

    Hayward's fate is in Utah's hands, but there are plenty of teams that would be wise to see if the Jazz's loyalty to him has a price. Boston would be the most obvious choice, given the presence of Hayward's former college coach, Brad Stevens. Charlotte would also be a nice fit as a third option alongside Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson

PF/C Greg Monroe

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    Much like Gordon Hayward, Greg Monroe's restricted free-agent status hinders his potential impact. On the open market, he'd be arguably the best young big man available and could be a franchise anchor up front for years to come. 

    However, Monroe's summer will go one of two ways. Detroit will either decide that, with a limited amount of cap space and a long-term deal for Andre Drummond coming up, Monroe is too pricey to hang on to or it'll match any offer for the soon-to-be 24-year-old and figure things out later. 

    With a new front office coming in, it's hard to forecast which way the Pistons will lean. The team has proven that a frontcourt of Drummond, Monroe and Josh Smith isn't going to work together, but Monroe is the kind of talent who you can't just let walk. 

    The former Georgetown standout averaged 15.2 points and 9.3 rebounds per game for the Pistons. He's better suited as a power forward, but he could probably survive playing center as well. A team that could use an interior offensive presence should covet Monroe's services. 

    The Dallas Mavericks, who have been chasing size for years and have Mark Cuban's deep pockets, would be a nice fit for Monroe. There are also the Los Angeles Lakers, who might be in the market for a big man if Pau Gasol walks. He'd be a nice Plan B if the team can't make a deal for Kevin Love or find a quality big man in the draft.  

PF Pau Gasol

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    There are plenty of reasons to write off Pau Gasol. He'll be 34 in July, and he's been banged up the last two years. He hasn't played a full 82 games since 2010-11 (although, to be fair, he played almost the entire strike-shortened season in 2011-12).

    However, despite the big man's warts, you're not going to find someone with Gasol's skill set and proven track record on the open market. Even as injuries held him to 60 games this season, the Spanish 7-footer still contributed 17.4 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game.

    He can still be a solid No. 2 option if he chooses to finally leave the bright lights of Los Angeles. Even if he chooses to stick around with the Lakers, he'll be a large part of whatever resurgence the team makes next season. 

    He may not have much left in the tank, but Gasol still has a couple more good seasons to provide. Teams with a need for a proven option up front such as Dallas or Phoenix could give Gasol a look. The Suns explored trading for Gasol at the deadline, according to ESPN's Marc Stein, so it's clear they have interest. 

C Spencer Hawes

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    Continuing on with impactful big men, Cleveland Cavaliers center Spencer Hawes could very well be Pau Gasol Lite. He's a capable scorer with range out to the three-point line (nearly 42 percent from deep this year). He can clean the glass (8.3 rebounds per game), and he can protect the rim (1.2 blocks per contest). 

    Unlike Gasol, Hawes doesn't really have the chops to be a team's No. 2 option. He's more of a quality role player with the potential to put up some nice all-around numbers. After suffering on losing teams the last few years (including two this season), Hawes could thrive playing with a purpose on a contender. 

    His ability to score from the inside or on the perimeter makes him an option at center or power forward. He doesn't have an elite defensive presence, but he's a capable shot-blocker who can make things difficult in the paint.

    With Cleveland projected to have about $17.5 million in cap room according to Spotrac, Hawes could stick around with the Cavs and pair with Tristan Thompson up front. He's also a nice consolation prize for any of the size-deficient teams mentioned earlier in the article (Lakers, Suns, Mavs, etc.). 

C Marcin Gortat

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    Washington Wizards center Marcin Gortat is another quality big man in the Pau Gasol/Spencer Hawes mold who could fetch some serious money this summer. Like Hawes, Gortat is a potential third or fourth option who can score on the inside or outside of the paint (as evidenced by this shot chart, courtesy of Vorped). 

    Gortat averaged 13.2 points on a Wizards team that had a number of different scoring options. He also grabbed 9.5 rebounds and contributed 1.5 blocks per game. At 30 years old, Gortat is a little older than Hawes (who will be 26 next week), but their contracts should be similar. 

    Big men with Gortat's skill set come at a premium. If he decides to stay in Washington, he'll continue to form a nice duo up front with Nene, but he'd have more of an impact on a team with less versatility on offense. Boston could use another big man to pair with youngsters Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger. 

    As has been the theme here, the Lakers, Mavericks and Suns (Gortat's former team) could also use Gortat's services. If they can manage to make a little more cap room (a big IF), the New Orleans Pelicans would be a nice fit for Gortat alongside emerging superstar Anthony Davis. 

PG Kyle Lowry

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    (Note: During the initial posting of this article, Kyle Lowry was accidentally and inexplicably left off the list. My apologies to Raptors fans, Lowry fans and, of course, Drake for the oversight.)

    Truth be told, I think Lowry's chances of bolting Toronto this summer are pretty slim. When you take time to think about it, he's already in a pretty good situation. He's the floor general for a young and promising Raptors team that will only going to get better as the core continues to grow. 

    That being said, money has always been one of the biggest detriments to loyalty. Lowry is 28 years old and in the midst of the best season of his career (which should've been highlighted by an All-Star appearance). This is likely his last chance at nabbing a big payday while still in his prime.

    If there's an obstacle that could hurt Lowry's value, it's that the point guard position is the deepest it has been in quite some time. The market for even someone as good as the Villanova product isn't as large as it has been in years past. 

    Still, needy teams are going to make a play for a guy that averaged 17.9 points, 7.4 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game. Teams with cap room and an opening at point guard such as the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers and Orlando Magic could use a two-way talent like Lowry. 

    Toronto seems like the favorite to keep Lowry, but they'll have some wealthy competition. 


SF Carmelo Anthony

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    Lastly, there's the gem of this year's free-agent class: New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony. By now, you should know what 'Melo brings to the table. He's one of the game's best pure scorers and can immediately change the outlook of a franchise just by his mere presence. 

    With smaller lineups becoming more prominent in today's NBA, Anthony's value is even higher because he has the size and post game to be an excellent small-ball power forward. Anthony can also put in work on the glass, as evidenced by his career-high 8.1 rebounds per game this season. 

    The catch with 'Melo is that only a select few will be able to vie for his services. If he were available on eBay, his handlers would put up a disclaimer asking for only serious bidders. As he gets set to turn 30 next month, Anthony is only going to entertain offers from teams with a legit chance at a ring (sorry, Lakers fans). 

    The Knicks will have the inside track because of 'Melo's love for the Big Apple and the fact that they can offer more money. They also have the presence of "The Zen Master," Phil Jackson, as the carrot they can wave in front of Anthony's face. 

    The other two teams that have been mentioned are the Houston Rockets and Chicago Bulls. Houston would need to do a little maneuvering with the cap to be able to afford Anthony. There's also the issue that the Rockets already have two solid forwards in Chandler Parsons and Terrence Jones.

    As for Chicago, it is the team that makes the most sense if championships are truly 'Melo's sole concern. The Bulls have the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Joakim Noah and the inevitable return of former MVP Derrick Rose.

    Beyond that, they have a great coach in Tom Thibodeau and a solid supporting cast that includes Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson. Anthony would give them a proven scorer (especially in crunch time) who can take pressure off Rose as he eases his way back from his second consecutive knee injury. 

    The Bulls could probably fit Anthony under the cap by amnestying Carlos Boozer, but they also have the resources to facilitate a sign-and-trade with New York. 

    The smart money is on 'Melo staying in MSG, but as we saw with Dwight Howard last year, the chance at a title means more to some people than large sums of money. Even with Jackson at the helm, the Knicks aren't as close to being contenders as the others competing to sign 'Melo.