Ranking the Top 10 Free-Agent Targets of the 2016 NBA Offseason
If you think March Madness is going to be crazy in college basketball, just wait until July Lunacy in the NBA.
Come the summer, most teams around the league will have the requisite combination of cap room and roster flexibility to make way for at least one free agent in search of a maximum salary. Players in line for life-changing paydays can thank the Association's new national television deal with ESPN and Turner Sports (which owns Bleacher Report), which will send the salary cap soaring north of $90 million on a blast of new league revenue.
Those same players can also pay their respects to a class of free agents that's relatively dim on star power. LeBron James and Kevin Durant aside, there aren't many (if any) franchise cornerstones to soak up all that sweet cash for themselves.
Not that the market will be devoid of talent by any means. Even decorated stalwarts such as Pau Gasol, Dirk Nowitzki, Rajon Rondo, Joakim Noah, Tim Duncan, Luol Deng and Al Jefferson would have a tough time cracking a top-10 list. So, too, would some promising prospects and potential All-Stars, including Harrison Barnes, Chandler Parsons, Ryan Anderson, Nicolas Batum and Jordan Clarkson.
None of those names just mentioned cracked our list of the 10 best players available. Read on to see who made the cut.
10. Dwyane Wade, SG, Unrestricted
How does an undersized, 34-year-old swingman with bad knees and an allergy to threes wind up on this list? Because, on any given night, Dwyane Wade can still be the best player on the floor, regardless of who else is out there.
Granted, those nights are fewer and farther between—and require more and more maintenance—with each passing year. And the slip in his efficiency and share of close shots since LeBron James left town are impossible to ignore.
|TS%||% FGA From Inside 5 Feet|
|With LeBron (2010-14)||57.5%||43.5%|
|Since LeBron Left (2014-16)||52.3%||31%|
After settling for short pacts in each of the last two offseasons, Wade will likely be looking for one last long-term deal. Will any team other than the Miami Heat be willing to meet his demands?
Heck, will the Heat, who have another free agent on this list, be keen to shell out beaucoup bucks over, say, three or four years to retain the 12-time All-Star?
Probably, if Wade continues to produce. Through his first 61 games of 2015-16, he scored 20 points or more 30 times and dropped 18 or 19 on 11 other occasions. The tricks in Wade's bag alone are worth the price.
And for Miami, his three rings carry an unmistakable weight around town and within the organization.
9. Bradley Beal, SG, Restricted
Like Wade in Miami, Bradley Beal is and has been a constant question mark for the Washington Wizards. He's missed time with stress injuries in his right leg during each of his four NBA seasons, including a 16-game stretch across December and January during the current campaign.
Bradley, though, has the advantage of being nearly 12 years younger than Wade. At 22, he's still young enough to fend off the usual advances of Father Time for a while longer.
When healthy, Beal's skills are commensurate with those of just about any All-Star at his position. He's nailed nearly 40 percent of his threes as a pro and, this season, has emerged as an assassin inside the arc as well.
|0-3 Feet||3-10 Feet||10-16 Feet||16 Feet||3P%|
Throw in Beal's burgeoning ball skills, and it's no wonder the Wizards are keen to keep him at all costs, despite his apparent frailty. As former NBA player and coach Vinny Del Negro explained to The Sports Junkies on 106.7 The Fan in Washington, per CBS D.C.'s Bryan Frantz:
He’s too good to let go. They throw the max [contract] thing around…when I played, the max thing was a guy — David Robinson, you put four other guys out there and you’re going to make the playoffs. And now everybody seems to want a max deal. It’s funny, but it’s just part of the landscape of the NBA … I don’t think you can lose him. He’s too young, he’s too talented. But also, what else is out there, in terms of the market? But he’s such a dynamic young player. The problem is he’s had so many injuries, and at what point does that catch up with him? You start giving him a five-year max deal, he’s still gonna be very young, but what are you actually gonna get out of that?
I think [the Wizards are] gonna weigh their options, but at the end of the day, it’d be hard to not give him some type of deal to lock him up, because he’s going to be an asset moving forward regardless.
Fortunately for the Wizards, they can afford to wait and see what becomes of Beal's market value since he'll be a restricted free agent. Otherwise, they'd have to fork over the max before dipping deeper into the pool in July.
8. Hassan Whiteside, C, Unrestricted
The new and improved Hassan Whiteside will have executives across the league salivating over his services this summer—and not just because he leads the NBA in blocks (3.84 per game) by a country mile.
For one, the 26-year-old journeyman is hack-proof now that he shoots mini-jump shots from the free-throw line. Since the All-Star break, he's nailed 80.9 percent of his 5.2 freebies per game.
"I've never been one to stay bad at something," Whiteside explained to the Miami Herald's Ethan J. Skolnick. "I just keep working, keep working. I'm just shooting mid-range jumpers. I call them jump throws. I don't shoot free throws. I shoot jump throws. I've just got to show everybody in the arena my mid-range when I shoot free throws."
Over that same span, Whiteside's shown promising strides in terms of his attitude and approach. Rather than take his benching as a demoralizing demotion, he's pressed on as a bona fide game-changer among the Miami Heat's reserves. Since sliding into the team's second unit in early February, he's averaged 16.1 points on 59 percent shooting with 13.1 rebounds, 3.8 blocks and 15 double-doubles.
And when it comes to protecting the rim, Whiteside is one of the 15 best by opponent field-goal percentage, despite facing the second-most shots inside (10.5 per game) of any player in the NBA.
The Heat don't own Whiteside's full Bird rights, so they won't be able to exceed the salary cap to keep him. That restriction, along with Dwyane Wade's monetary demands, could force Whiteside to explore the market. He'd find no shortage of suitors, regardless of what concerns may linger about his mental makeup.
7. Dwight Howard, C, Player Option
Dwight Howard's best days are behind him, but that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of good days ahead for the former three-time Defensive Player of the Year.
His back is finally healthy again, a year-and-a-half after a disc removal that temporarily turned the former dunk champion earthbound. He's shooting a career-high 61.6 percent from the field, albeit on 8.9 attempts per game—his fewest since his rookie season in 2004-05.
Despite his shrinking offensive role for the Houston Rockets, Howard still ranks eighth in the league with 32 point-rebound double-doubles.
On a Rockets squad with James Harden clearly at the helm, Howard may have already run his course. Per The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski (h/t NBA.com), general manager Daryl Morey reportedly shopped him aggressively ahead of the trade deadline and more recently seemed less than thrilled about re-signing him to a max salary this summer.
Howard, for his part, may be eager to leave behind Space City and his shaky relationship with Harden. Per Zach Harper of CBS Sports, he expressed interest in joining the Milwaukee Bucks and could find lucrative offers in sunnier climes elsewhere if he so chooses.
6. Mike Conley, PG, Unrestricted
Achilles injury or no, Mike Conley Jr. will be the best point guard on the market this summer.
Granted, being the top option at the NBA's deepest position ain't what it used to be, not with so many squads already sporting quality floor generals.
That doesn't diminish the caliber of player Conley has become. He's no Stephen Curry, Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook, but Conley (15.3 points, 6.1 assists against 1.5 turnovers) has become a steady head on both ends of the court for the Memphis Grizzlies.
His old coach, Lionel Hollins, thinks Conley could switch cities in search of his next deal. As Hollins said during an appearance on SiriusXM Radio, per the New York Daily News' Stefan Bondy:
I don’t know if Michael looks elsewhere but that might end up being the best move. Mike is at that crossroads where he’s (28) years old. He’s coming up on a contract year. He wants to get paid.
Will Memphis pay him as much as somebody else? If he can get to a situation that has a future of winning or is he going to go to a team that doesn’t have a future of winning? That’s probably going to be important to him as well.
The Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks, both lacking at the point, could be in the mix. But neither situation figures to offer the sort of stability that comes with playing alongside a healthy Marc Gasol for a Grizzlies franchise that's made him a priority for years.
Former NBA player and current Memphis minority owner Penny Hardaway said on SiriusXM Radio:
It’s not really about the money, it’s about 'This is his team.' The franchise has definitely told him 'Hey, we’re behind you, we’d trade everyone else…' They even traded Kyle Lowry, and Kyle Lowry is playing great. He’s an All-Star now. They traded everybody to keep Mike happy. They letting Mike know 'This is your team, and we want you to be the future.' Mike probably will stay with them.
5. DeMar DeRozan, SG, Player Option
When it comes to shooting guards, DeMar DeRozan is a throwback.
He doesn't shoot many threes (1.8 attempts per game) and doesn't make many of those he takes (a career-high 32.8 percent). Nor does he shoot much off the catch; according to NBA.com, catch-and-shoot attempts comprise just 13.8 percent of his arsenal.
What he does do, though, is use the dribble—and use it well. According to NBA.com, DeRozan shoots his highest percentage off two dribbles.
Over the years, DeRozan has gotten better and better at using a patient pounding of the rock to snake his way through the floor and to the hoop. Along the way, he's racked up 8.7 free-throw attempts per game—third in the league, behind only James Harden and DeMarcus Cousins—and knocked them down at an 84.4-percent clip.
The result? A career-best 23.8 points per game to go along with 4.4 rebounds and 3.9 assists. That kind of production should earn him max-contract offers from teams across the spectrum, including his hometown Los Angeles Lakers, even though his outside shot leaves much to be desired.
The two-time All-Star has played a pivotal part in Toronto's post-Vince Carter renaissance, but for Sporting News' Mitch Lawrence, the true measure of the Raptors' relevance will come from their ability to retain DeRozan: "When all is said and done, the Raptors will know if they’ve had a breakthrough season if they go deep in the playoffs and then get DeRozan’s signature on a new long-term deal."
Sticking with the same squad? Now that would be old school.
4. Al Horford, PF/C, Unrestricted
Al Horford may not be the best center on the market this summer (more on who that is in a bit), but he'll clearly be the most well-rounded big man available.
At 6'10", he's slightly undersized for a center. He also shoots much better than your prototypical pivot, be it from the free-throw line (79.8 percent) or, now, from three (35.3 percent on three attempts per game). He's also a solid rebounder (14 double-doubles) and rim protector (49.9 percent field-goal percentage against 8.1 at-rim attempts per game) and an excellent passer for his position (3.1 assists per game).
According to The Vertical's Bobby Marks, teams around the league are well aware of Horford's overall value:
The 29-year-old has been pegged by many teams as the best free-agent center on the open market. Although he doesn’t have the upside of Hassan Whiteside or Andre Drummond, Horford has tremendous value based on his ability to play power forward and center. A trade-deadline target by teams, Horford will have plenty of suitors in July.
The Atlanta Hawks may be hesitant to max out Horford after shopping him ahead of the trade deadline. That could leave the door ajar for teams such as the Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic to swoop him out of his longtime nest in Atlanta.
Whoever wins the Horford sweepstakes will have a versatile veteran, an experienced winner and a model citizen all wrapped into one to lead the locker room.
3. Andre Drummond, C, Restricted
If you live outside the Motor City and are expecting your team to sign Andre Drummond, don't hold your breath. All indications are the All-Star center will recommit to the Detroit Pistons this summer.
According to the Detroit Free Press' Vince Ellis, Pistons owner Tom Gores asked Drummond to wait on a new contract rather than demand a max extension ahead of the Nov. 2 deadline, and the 22-year-old obliged.
"I will tell you I’ve learned from conversations that we had we’re really giving ourselves the flexibility to build this team up and do the right things to get us where we need to be," Drummond said, per Ellis. "I’m just ready to prepare for the season, and whenever that time comes again, I’ll be prepared for it."
Drummond's delay would have given Detroit an extra $13 million to play with in free agency had Stan Van Gundy not traded for Tobias Harris in February. In the meantime, the UConn product has fashioned himself into the NBA's most prolific rebounder. He leads the league in boards (15 per game) and double-doubles (56) while carrying the Pistons to the brink of their first playoff appearance since 2009.
The rest of his game still has plenty of room for improvement. He's the worst free-throw shooter in basketball (36.3 percent), and his low-post game (0.74 points per possession) remains a work in progress.
But Drummond is the present and future of this storied franchise. For that, he'll be rewarded handsomely as soon as Gores and Van Gundy can show him where to put his signature.
2. LeBron James, F, Player Option
What everybody who’s close to him continuously reminds me of is: don’t you dare take LeBron for granted or think he’s trapped into staying in Cleveland just because he came back. Don’t put it past him that he’ll get so annoyed that he’ll leave again if he feels like he’s being taken for granted, ran into the ground and, essentially, misused.
Smith went on to explain that he doesn't think James will leave until he's brought the Larry O'Brien Trophy back to northeast Ohio—which, given the inevitability of the Golden State Warriors, likely means the King won't be ditching his domain in the coming months.
Wherever James lands, he'll do so not as the pre-eminent talent in basketball but still as one of the elites. His age (31) and career workload (soon to be in the top 40 in regular-season minutes, already seventh in playoff minutes) portend a coming decline.
That is, if he isn't already on the down slope of his Hall of Fame career. He's scoring points (24.9 per game), shooting free throws (6.6 per game) and picking off passes (1.4 per game) less frequently than at any point since his rookie season. And his three-point shot, once a legitimate weapon, has been the third-least reliable in the league (29.3 percent) among leaderboard qualifiers, behind only those of Kobe Bryant (27.5 percent) and Corey Brewer (29.1 percent).
But where most mere mortals can't compete with Father Time, James remains a singular force with the strength and smarts to shadowbox with his destiny. His understanding of court geometry is second to none, as is his knowledge of what it takes to win at the highest level. Put him on your team, and you have an instant title contender.
And it's not like he's lost anything off his vertical, either (see the video above).
1. Kevin Durant, SF, Unrestricted
Kevin Durant is the kind of player who could cause even the NBA's best teams to rearrange their rosters to make room for him.
In February, The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Durant could join the Golden State Warriors. When asked by ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss about adding the former MVP to a team that's been on a historic run without Durant, Warriors legend Chris Mullin responded simply, "Bring him on."
According to The Vertical's Chris Mannix, the San Antonio Spurs may wind up in the mix as well, along with every other team that either has cap space to accommodate Durant's max contract or could clear enough to make it work.
Any team that can chase KD would be foolish not to try. If not for Stephen Curry rewriting the record books, Durant would be a bona fide threat to take home his second Maurice Podoloff statuette. He ranks third in the league in scoring (28 points per game), 26th in rebounding (8.2 boards per game) and 26th in assists (4.9 per game), with shooting splits (50.5 percent from the field, 39 percent from three, 89.8 percent from the free-throw line) that put him within spitting distance of a second 50-40-90 season.
Those numbers, along with his 61 games played through the Oklahoma City Thunder's first 68, are as clear indicators as any of the health of Durant's foot, which turned his 2014-15 campaign into a lost one. The odds of keeping KD around are currently in OKC's favor, in part because of the talent already on the roster (i.e. Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka) but also because of the cash with which it can splash him. As Mannix explained:
Yet in so many ways, a return to Oklahoma City remains the most logical, most reasoned outcome. The Thunder are prepared to meet Durant’s contract terms, to sign him to a one-year deal, if he seeks it, and then open the vault in the years to come.
In today's NBA (or any era, for that matter), Durant is practically priceless. You can count on one hand the number of near-7-footers who can shoot, pass, dribble and defend.
And if you want to tally those who can do all those things as well as Durant does, you only need one finger.