Free-Agency Rankings: Top Available Small Forwards

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 15, 2017

Free-Agency Rankings: Top Available Small Forwards

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Small forwards get asked to do a lot in today's NBA, so the most desirable free-agent options are the ones who can make impacts in several ways.  

    Ideally, a modern 3 can defend most wings and some power forwards while stretching the floor with a reliable three-point shot and taking on playmaking duties in a pinch.

    Easy enough, right?  

    As you can imagine, there aren't many players at any position who can pull off all those jobs. So in addition to broader areas such as health, age and capacity for improvement, we'll rank these small forwards on their ability to do most of them. And failing that, those who are exceptional at one of the requirements grade out highly as well. 

    To keep this clean, only players who spent at least 40 percent of their minutes at the 3 or a greater percentage there than any other position, according to Basketball Reference, will be included. So even if we typically think of Danilo Gallinari as a small forward, he'll have to wait until we rank power forwards to be considered because he played over 60 percent of his minutes at the 4 last year.

    Everybody wants a do-it-all wing. These are the best available. 

Honorable Mentions

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Tyreke Evans, Sacramento Kings

    Not so long ago, it would have been Tyreke Evans' game that gave suitors pause. He's a low-percentage finisher at the rim who completed just one of his eight seasons with an effective field-goal percentage above 50, and his high counting numbers, though impressive to some, never amounted to wins. Classic fool's gold.

    Now, health is the real concern, as repeated knee injuries have limited him to just 65 total games over the past two seasons.

    Why is he even here then?

    Because Evans is only 27 and hit just under 36.9 percent of his threes in those two truncated seasons.

    Bojan Bogdanovic, Washington Wizards

    On offense, Bogdanovic is a rotation-quality weapon who can stretch the floor and keeps getting better at drawing contact. After coming over to the Wizards at the February trade deadline, he bumped up his free-throw rate to a career-high level.

    On D, it's best to just look the other way.

               

    Rudy Gay, Sacramento Kings

    You can do your own figuring on which was the greater factor in the decision, but Rudy Gay's plan to opt out of a guaranteed $14.2 million, at age 30, four months after tearing his Achilles, means two things. First, he's that anxious to escape Sacramento's perpetual dysfunction. And second, he's confident in his recovery plan.

    Achilles injuries are brutal. Nobody's ever quite the same afterward. But Gay may have seen Wesley Matthews get a max offer under the old collective bargaining agreement after tearing his and figured he could expect the market to treat him similarly.

    Even fully healthy, there'd be no max in store for Gay. But he's headed for greener pastures by default.

10. Thabo Sefolosha, Atlanta Hawks

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    Age: 33

    Free-Agency Status: Unrestricted

    2016-17 Salary: $3,850,000

    Long regarded as one of the league's best wing stoppers, Thabo Sefolosha fell out of the rotation in the Atlanta Hawks' short playoff run.

    Though he said he was fully healthy, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Chris Vivlamore, it was easy to connect the dots between his diminished role and the groin strain that cost him eight of the Hawks' final 10 regular-season games. Before that groin strain set him back, Sefolosha was his typical self.

    Ranking second among free-agent small forwards in ESPN's defensive real plus-minus on the year, the 33-year-old hit 34.2 percent of his threes and cut his turnover rate to the second-lowest figure of his career.

    He's not a perfect three-and-D wing, but Sefolosha is a low-usage standstill shooter who can convert an open look and guard the opponent's most dangerous perimeter scorer. Not bad for the 10th-best free agent at the position.

9. PJ Tucker, Toronto Raptors

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Age: 32

    Free-Agency Status: Unrestricted

    2016-17 Salary: $5,300,000

    PJ Tucker's defensive approach is different from Sefolosha's—the former bulldozes and intimidates, while the latter opts for willowy length and anticipation—but the results are similar. Tucker did as well as anyone could have on LeBron James in the Toronto Raptors' unceremonious second-round exit, earning his opponent's respect.

    "Any time you go against someone who wants to compete, you respect that. And PJ's been like that since we were kids," James told reporters. "He's always been a guy that, at the end of the day, he's never going to say, 'Did I leave it all out there?'"

    Tucker's bulk (6'6", 245 lbs) allows him to play the 4, which gives him an advantage over Sefolosha among defense-first small forwards. Not only that, but he's also a superior rebounder, and his physical intensity tends to infect those close by, upping the overall griminess of his team.

    The Raptors have free agents Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Patrick Patterson to worry about in addition to Tucker. But if their plan is to keep this thing together, they should consider prioritizing Tucker's toughness when they start cutting checks.

8. Luc Mbah a Moute, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Age: 30

    Free-Agency Status: Player Option

    2016-17 Salary: $2,203,000

                  

    It's hard to know if the sudden spike in Luc Mbah a Moute's three-point shooting is real because his journey to becoming a 39.1 percent threat from that distance has been so strange.

    Prior to the 2014-15 season, when the Philadelphia 76ers turned him into a high-volume chucker, Mbah a Moute had never taken more than 37 treys in a year. He flung up 202 that season, hitting just over 30 percent of them. He then holstered the long ball in 2015-16, trying only 40 threes and hitting at 32.5 percent clip.

    Last year, he found the right mix of quality and quantity, posting that career-best 39.1 percent hit rate on 110 attempts.

    Why does this matter?

    It matters because if Mbah a Moute is almost a 40 percent shooter from deep on a decent volume, he's immensely valuable. Throughout his strange shooting evolution, he's always been a rangy, bothersome defender who, at 6'8", can even handle some big men down low.

    Do you trust Mbah a Moute's development?

    Asking for the 30 teams who could use a (maybe) deadeye shooter who can defend.

7. Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Age: 25

    Free-Agency Status: Restricted

    2016-17 Salary: $2,183,072

    Even if Russell Westbrook's one-man, triple-double fueled offensive exploits were the most conspicuous part of the Oklahoma City Thunder's season, defense defined the team.

    OKC ranked 17th in offensive rating (105.0 points scored per 100 possessions) and 10th on D (105.1 points allowed per 100 possessions) this year.

    Andre Roberson was vital to that latter figure, as his presence on the floor improved Oklahoma City's defense by 4.6 points per 100 possessions. When he sat, the Thunder posted a defensive rating of 107.9, which would have knocked them down into the bottom third of the league.

    Though Roberson's shortcomings are well-documented—his inability to shoot from distance or the free-throw line routinely get him yanked off the floor in playoff games—his ability to shut down opposing wings, guard power forwards in a pinch and wreak havoc as an off-ball helper make him a positive contributor.

    And even if the chances seem minuscule given a four-year track record marred by 26 percent shooting on threes and 49.3 percent from the line, there's always the possibility of improvement. We just finished discussing Mbah a Moute suddenly becoming a near-40 percent shooter from deep, after all.

6. CJ Miles, Indiana Pacers

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Age: 30

    Free-Agency Status: Player option

    2016-17 Salary: $4,583,450

    Though he's five years older than Roberson and probably won't command the dollars or years of his defense-first foil, CJ Miles' plug-and-play appeal as a knockdown shooter with good size makes him the more broadly useful option at small forward.

    Of the 24 players to attempt at least 300 catch-and-shoot triples last season, only five converted at a more accurate rate then Miles, who shot 42.6 percent: Stephen Curry, J.J. Redick, Otto Porter Jr., Klay Thompson and Ryan Anderson.

    Miles is a true sniper who could be put to even better use in a higher-volume role. The Indiana Pacers only gave him 23.4 minutes per game last year, which is difficult to understand considering their net rating was positive when he played but negative when he sat.

    Miles, 6'6", has the size to defend either wing and even spent spot minutes at power forward in small lineups. Stick him in an offense that moves the ball and features a rim-rolling threat, and he'll bury threes all day long (shot 41.3 percent last campaign).

    Plus, you've got to love the confidence and perspective he showed in responding to Paul George's criticisms after Game 1 of Indy's first-round loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

5. Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz

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    Age: 29

    Free-Agency Status: Restricted

    2016-17 Salary: $2,150,000

    Gordon Hayward and George Hill will be bigger free-agent priorities for the Utah Jazz, but Joe Ingles is going to draw significant interest on the market. And if Utah wants to keep the momentum going on its four-year upward trajectory, it had better not forget about him.

    Ingles outperformed Rodney Hood and Alec Burks all season, and he was better (and healthier) in the playoffs as well.

    A flat-out elite three-point shooter (44.1 percent in 2016-17; 39.9 percent for his career), Ingles is more than a specialist. Put the ball in his hands, and he can make plays off the dribble and in the pick-and-roll. Look past his plodding pace and lack of bounce, and you'll see a defender who, somehow, can stay in front of point guards and wings.

    If you only give Ingles a cursory look, he might fail your eye test.

    But longer study reveals innate court sense, great hands, a reliable stroke and no shortage of competitive fire. He's a no-questions-asked rotation staple for any team in the league.

4. Otto Porter, Washington Wizards

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    Age: 23

    Free-Agency Status: Restricted

    2016-17 Salary: $5,893,981

    It's been a gradual process for Otto Porter Jr., but by developing incrementally in each of his four NBA seasons, he's at a point where a max contract feels more likely than not.

    Porter's averages in points, rebounds, steals, field-goal percentage and three-point percentage have climbed every year since he came into the league as the No. 3 overall pick in the 2013 draft. Because of the expectations heaped on lottery selections, his slow progress earned him more than a few "bust" labels early on.

    Now, though, he's a trey-drilling versatile defender who spaces the floor perfectly alongside John Wall and Bradley Beal.

    When opponents put smaller defenders on him, the 6'8"Porter sneaks inside for offensive rebounds. Bigger opponents can't hang with him in transition.

    Spectacular plays are few and far between for the moderately athletic and wiry small forward, but there's something to be said for constant improvement and enough skill balance to impact the game in several facets.

    If this is where the growth stops—13.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.5 steals and 43.4 percent shooting from beyond the arc—that's fine. Actually, that's great. But if Porter keeps getting better, watch out.

3. Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors

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    Age: 33

    Free-Agency Status: Unrestricted

    2016-17 Salary: $11,131,368

    There may come a point when Andre Iguodala's intellect isn't enough to compensate for declining athleticism. But watching him fly around the floor, deny catches on the perimeter, strip anyone foolish enough to show him the ball and dunk with regularity, it's difficult to imagine crossing that threshold anytime soon.

    Iguodala averaged one dunk per game this year, the first time his slam rate has been that high since he was a 29-year-old rim-rocker with the Denver Nuggets four years ago. The Golden State Warriors training staff and an emphasis on minutes management have Iguodala fending off gravity better than most players his age.

    In terms of per-minute production, it's hard to find more impactful small forwards.

    Iguodala runs Golden State's offense as a de facto point guard most of the time he's on the floor, and he usually does it while defending the opponent's best wing scorer. His turnover rate of 11.2 percent was a career best in 2016-17, and his three-point shooting mark (36.2 percent) was the second-highest figure of his career.

    He ranked seventh in RPM among small forwards overall and second among free agents at the position.

    This is not an athlete in decline. This is a stud accepting a diminished role and leveraging his innate smarts to make a massive impact.

2. Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Age: 27

    Free-Agency Status: Player option

    2016-17 Salary: $16,073,140

    In his age-26 season, Gordon Hayward did it.

    He became a full-fledged star—one with the production, team success and highlights necessary to draw notice outside the insular world of Utah Jazz fandom.

    With per-game averages of 21.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists and a 39.8 percent accuracy rate from three-point range, Hayward earned his first All-Star bid. And it's worth noting too that his continually improving athleticism and strength made him the Jazz's most reliable perimeter defender.

    He's made himself into a physical force.

    It remains to be seen if Hayward can be the best player on a team with a championship ceiling. The answer is probably "no," but let's give him more than one postseason run before judging that question definitively.

    Hayward is the first absolute lock on this list for a max contract (Otto Porter might fall a few pennies short), and he'll have interest from anyone with cap space, a group likely led by the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat.

    Hayward hasn't decided if he'll opt out this summer (HE WILL), and a return isn't a foregone conclusion.

    Isn't this what you usually hear from guys planning to leave but hoping to avoid ill will?

    "It's been so much fun for me here in Utah. Kind of growing up here, starting a family," he told reporters recently. "I have nothing but love for everybody here in Utah."

    Stay tuned on this one.

1. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Age: 28

    Free-Agency Status: Player option

    2016-17 Salary: $26,540,100

    OK, let's see.

    Anybody else on this list been an MVP?

    Won four scoring titles?

    Been in the 50-40-90 club as a 24-year-old?

    Does anyone in the nine spots above this one handle the ball and create ultra high-efficiency offense at 6'9" while shoving his way toward All-Defensive Team consideration?

    All right then. I guess that means Kevin Durant deserves to rank No. 1 among free-agent small forwards.

    In the absence of any ranking drama, it's worth noting that Durant's decision after opting out this summer could impact the Warriors' chances of continuing their dominant run. If he takes slightly less than the full max available to him, Durant can leave the Dubs with the sliver of cap space they need to use Bird rights on Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, effectively keeping the core rotation intact going forward.

    If he insists on the biggest contract possible, Golden State can't use anything other than minimums or roster exceptions to retain some of its vital supporting cast.

    Expect one of the greatest scorers of his era to embrace that assist.

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    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or NBA.com. Salary info courtesy of Basketball Insiders. Accurate through May 12.