Perfect Landing Spots for NBA's Top Remaining Free Agents
NBA free agency never ends.
The summer's biggest splashes are always made in July. Sometimes, they leak into August. Players remain available for the taking beyond that, but the names are typically inconsequential.
Not this year.
Plenty of recognizable faces are still searching for new (or old) digs—more than usual. Few anticipated this offseason's free-agent market crunch, and these surprisingly tepid waters have left quality contributors on the prowl, scouring the Association for paydays and destinations they deem worthy.
Some will inevitably cave to rampant inactivity and a dearth of league-wide cap space. Nerlens Noel already did; he signed his qualifying offer when no lucrative long-term pacts came his way. (Though, according to ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski, he did turn down a four-year, $70 million pitch from the Dallas Mavericks at the start of free agency.)
Others will continue to survey their options. A few might even broker themselves deals that approach market value.
Whatever the end result, each of these names should be on a roster by the time training camp rolls around. They're too talented to remain unemployed—particularly when obvious fits can still be found.
These landing spots take into account play styles, roster needs and cap situations. Players appear in order of increasing value and are ranked according to the impact they're equipped to have through next season.
10. Alex Len (Restricted): Phoenix Suns
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 8.0 points, 6.6 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.3 blocks
Feel free to judge this pick. Alex Len almost didn't make the cut...as a top-10 name among free-agency dregs...which says a lot about the plunging trajectory of the No. 5 pick from the 2013 draft.
Len's size and youth swayed the verdict in his favor. Well that, and spitting game for the 35-year-old Boris Diaw ended up being too much of a stretch.
Surround the 7'1" Len with lockdown perimeter pests and savvy playmakers, and he might emerge as a viable rim protector and pick-and-roll diver. But that situation doesn't exist—not when he forecasts as a third-string big on most squads.
It makes more sense for him to stick with the Phoenix Suns. Their frontcourt rotation is fluid despite re-signing Alan Williams and employing Dragan Bender, Tyson Chandler and Marquese Chriss.
If Chandler gets dealt midseason and either one of Bender (shooting) or Williams (rim-running shot-swatter) fails to progress in his respective role, Len will be in line for more playing time. But he better hurry up.
The longer he waits, the more likely Phoenix is to renounce his $12.1 million hold and push forward with the extra wiggle room.
Second-Best Landing Spot: Chicago Bulls (A more athletic alternative to Cristiano Felicio and Robin Lopez, and they have the maneuverability to make an expensive one-year offer.)
9. Deron Williams: Utah Jazz
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 11.0 points, 2.3 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.1 blocks
Deron Williams brings absolutely nothing to the defensive end anymore, and his NBA Finals cold streak (2-of-16 shooting) is still fresh in our memories. But point guards who can play on or off the ball always have a place in this league.
Squads that need an emergency playmaker who doesn't have to dominate the ball when in the game should be more than willing to give him a look.
Hello, Utah Jazz.
During a March episode of The Basketball Analogy podcast, ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon revealed that Williams wants to end his career with the Jazz. The end may be drawing near sooner than the three-time All-Star would prefer, but Utah has a need for him.
Losing Gordon Hayward and George Hill in the same summer compromises the Jazz's collective shot creation. Ricky Rubio is a tested playmaker, and Joe Ingles can run point forward, but they'll also need to lean on the more unproven Dante Exum, Rodney Hood, Donovan Mitchell and Raul Neto to get by. Williams is at least more of a predictable entity.
Personnel roadblocks render a reunion unlikely. The Jazz have zero roster spots to their name and no clear path toward creating one. They'll need to dispatch Neto or Alec Burks to make room for Williams.
Yet, with the playoffs still in their sights following an offseason pivot, it wouldn't be a bad idea for the Jazz to try sweetening the final two years and $22.4 million on Burks' deal enough to send him elsewhere. They could use the depth-chart flexibility, and a team like Phoenix might be willing to bite in exchange for a first-round pick.
Second-Best Landing Spot: Charlotte Hornets (Michael Carter-Williams and Malik Monk aren't steady enough options to fill the playmaking void behind Kemba Walker.)
8. David Lee: Boston Celtics
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 7.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.5 blocks
How has this not happened yet?
At the bare minimum, how has it not been talked about?
The Boston Celtics have showed "preliminary" interest in Andrew Bogut, according to the Boston Globe's Adam Himmelsbach, but while their thought process makes sense, their target does not.
David Lee, unlike Bogut, isn't working his way back from a broken leg. Granted, he's recovering from a knee injury, but he avoided surgery and declined his player option after the fact, suggesting the situation isn't dire. And like Bogut, he helps address the Celtics' annual need for strong rebounding presences.
Aron Baynes will make a difference, but with Al Horford most likely starting at center, they'll need an extra glass-crasher for those times when head coach Brad Stevens doesn't want to run out four wings. Lee can soak up spin at the 4 in a pinch, and his defensive rebounding rate with the San Antonio Spurs (21.9) would have comfortably paced the Kelly Olynyk-led Celtics.
And let's not pretend Lee isn't the closest thing left to a Horford knockoff on the market. He doesn't shoot threes, but he's a crafty passer with disarming foot speed. He showed in San Antonio that he can work as a stationary rim protector and stands a better chance than Baynes of thriving as the lone big in Boston's offensive system.
Second-Best Landing Spot: San Antonio Spurs (Duh.)
7. Monta Ellis: Charlotte Hornets
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 8.5 points, 2.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.4 blocks
Ball-dominant guards who don't stroke threes or move the defensive needle are ice-cold commodities, and Monta Ellis hasn't flashed signs of escaping that stereotype. On the contrary, he's falling deeper into it. He wouldn't have been stretched by the Indiana Pacers if he were on the verge of reinventing his ways.
Few teams have the motivation to gamble on this type of player. The Charlotte Hornets are one of them.
Even after signing Michael Carter-Williams and drafting Malik Monk, they remain short on playmaking behind Kemba Walker. Ellis isn't a pass-first point guard by any means, but he's averaged five assists per 100 possessions every year since his rookie season.
Putting him on the payroll, at the minimum, gives the Hornets a viable safety net in case Carter-Williams or Monk isn't ready to pilot lineups that don't include Walker or Nicolas Batum as a buffer. And if, for some reason, Monk's shot creation doesn't immediately translate to the pros, Ellis is the better bet than anyone else left to generate scoring opportunities against second units.
Second-Best Landing Spot: Miami Heat (Erik Spoelstra turned around Dion Waiters' career. Maybe he can do the same for Monta Ellis.)
6. Dante Cunningham: Minnesota Timberwolves
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 6.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.4 blocks
A 6'8" combo forward who shot 39.2 percent from beyond the arc last season, has the lateral gait to hang with wings and the footwork to jostle with plodding 4s?
Where do the Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves and New Orleans Pelicans sign?
Minnesota and New Orleans project as the most serious suitors, according to Wojnarowski. Cunningham can't go wrong—especially if the Pelicans are prepared to fork over their bi-annual exception. But the Timberwolves are the superior fit.
Cunningham won't get enough minutes at the 4 in New Orleans with DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis in front of him. Minnesota is more flexible and desperately needs to improve upon its NBA-worst three-point-attempt rate.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau needn't make a fuss over tabling Nemanja Bjelica, Gorgui Dieng and Taj Gibson to make room for lineups that slot Cunningham and Karl-Anthony Towns at the 4 and 5, respectively.
Second-Best Landing Spot: New Orleans Pelicans (No other team in the league has a bigger need for wings who can shoot.)
5. Shabazz Muhammad: Los Angeles Lakers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 9.9 points, 2.8 rebounds, 0.4 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.1 blocks
Don't you just love it when the rumor mill aligns with idealistic logic?
Bleacher Report's Eric Pincus was told at the end of August that Shabazz Muhammad is open to joining forces with his former agent-turned-general manager Rob Pelinka on the Los Angeles Lakers. Though, to be fair, we needn't connect the guy-love dots.
Muhammad is now an unrestricted free agent after the Timberwolves renounced his rights, and he doesn't have a lot of options at his disposal if he's looking to make more than chump change. Relative to the rest of the league, the Lakers' $4.3 million room exception will look pretty darn good, even if they aren't willing to pay him beyond next season.
Bringing in a one-year mercenary who doesn't pass or play defense isn't an experiment every rebuilding team can embrace. The Lakers are different.
Jordan Clarkson will be their lone real shot-creator in the second unit if, as expected, they start Lonzo Ball, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle and Brook Lopez. Head coach Luke Walton can stagger minutes, but that only gets them so far. Muhammad knows how to manufacture offense from scratch. He draws fouls on the move and boasts stellar post-up moves for a wing.
Many of his most glaring offensive warts won't be as damning while headlining bench-heavy units. He tied Noah Vonleh for the NBA's lowest per-possession assist rate among players to average 15 or more minutes last season, but he won't be taking shots from any major building blocks when stashed away from Ball and Ingram. When he is among the starters, he should be more comfortable working from stage left.
Muhammad is a career 32.3 percent shooter from deep and has put down under 33 percent of his spot-up treys in three of the past four seasons, with 2014-15 the sole exception. But he drilled 48.6 percent of his triplets during a 28-game stretch from late December through February. His accuracy should jump whenever he plays off Ball, Ingram and Randle.
Adding this extra wing is also a big deal for the Lakers. They get to tinker with different "Death Lineup" combinations—sign us up for Ball, Caldwell-Pope, Ingram, Luol Deng and Kyle Kuzma—without worrying about completely emptying the perimeter chest.
Second-Best Landing Spot: Milwaukee Bucks (They need a Michael Beasley replacement off the bench if it turns out Muhammad's value has fallen low enough.)
4. Tony Allen: New Orleans Pelicans
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 9.1 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.4 blocks
The Pelicans need two things in the aftermath of injuries to Frank Jackson and Solomon Hill, along with the Quincy Pondexter salary dump: wings and floor-spacers.
Tony Allen is neither. He's barely 6'4" and shoots just 28 percent from downtown for his career. He doesn't even add value as a finisher from gimme areas.
Among the 101 players to get off 250 or more shots inside the restricted area last year, Allen's 51.9 percent conversion rate placed 99th. He also finished as a net negative in every offensive situation imaginable, according to NBA Math's Play Type Profiles.
The Pelicans, like the Memphis Grizzlies before them, will be playing a man down on the more glamorous end whenever he takes the court. But they don't seem overly concerned with preserving offensive space. Hill is a half-reliable sniper on his best nights, and they worked out Josh Smith, in addition to Chase Budinger and Martell Webster, according to Wojnarowski.
Signing Allen at least begins to replace defensive options the Pelicans lose with Hill. Darius Miller is the only true wing left on the roster, and not one of their guards aside from E'Twaun Moore can be entrusted with sliding up to the frontcourt.
Despite being woefully undersized for the position, Allen spent more than 20 percent of his court time at the 3 last year. And in the 50 minutes he played as the de facto small forward with Mike Conley and Andrew Harrison, the Grizzlies allowed 93.2 points per 100 possessions—league-best efficiency by far and away.
Small samples are the enemy of substance, but this idea isn't anything new. Allen has seen time on bigger wings in the past—including and up to Kevin Durant. He is ferocious when denying the ball and won't be overpowered by 3s or small-ball 4s looking to work from the blocks.
If the market on him has cooled to the point he'll join a playoff contender at the minimum, the Pellies should scoop him up. Start Allen alongside DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo, and they might find they don't feel Hill's absence.
Second-Best Landing Spot: Oklahoma City Thunder (The spacing would be terrible, but think about the defensive ceiling of a Russell Westbrook-Tony Allen-Andre Roberson-Paul George-Patrick Patterson Death Lineup.)
3. Nikola Mirotic (Restricted): Chicago Bulls
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 10.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.8 blocks
Default pick inbound.
Nikola Mirotic deserves to be on a team that can slot him full time at the 4. The Chicago Bulls cannot guarantee that with Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis on the roster.
But they desperately need wings. Right now, they're brimming with point guards, swingmen who will masquerade as 3s (Justin Holiday, Dwyane Wade) and Paul Zipser. They might as well add a should-be 4 who dabbles in spot minutes at small forward to that list.
Mirotic does not put the ball on the floor with the frequency of a go-to scorer. More than 85 percent of his looks last season came off fewer than two dribbles. But he's not incapable of playing that way. He shot 10-of-20 in isolation and averaged about as many points per drive as Kristaps Porzingis.
Establishing himself as a legitimate three-point threat still won't be especially easy with the Bulls. They're once again light on shooters, and Mirotic needs about six to nine feet of space before he's genuinely comfortable.
Still, the offensive mismatch potential is there. Chicago has the flexibility, even while rebuilding, to expand his off-the-dribble workload, and he canned 43.5 percent of his long balls over his final 16 appearances in 2016-17.
Plus, the option of sticking him at small forward, while not ideal, unlocks different lineup combinations. The Bulls can even use him in five-out, screw-playing-defense arrangements that feature Markkanen at center with him at the 4. Head coach Fred Hoiberg hasn't seen that many open driving lanes since his days at Iowa State.
Investing long-term money in an unproven 26-year-old doesn't typically top the list of priorities for transitioning tankers like the Bulls. But both parties were interested in a reunion long after the Jimmy Butler blockbuster, per the Chicago Sun-Times' Joe Cowley.
This summer's free-agent squeeze has created a window of opportunity for the Bulls to retain Mirotic on a below-market agreement or one-year flyer. They should seize the chance to keep him around, if only because his price tag may develop into a valuable trade chip later.
Second-Best Landing Spot: Phoenix Suns (They have cap space and could theoretically use insurance against Bender's going bust and T.J. Warren's restricted free agency in 2018.)
2. Mason Plumlee (Restricted): Brooklyn Nets
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 10.4 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.1 blocks
Picking the right spot for Mason Plumlee is difficult business—and it has nothing to do with his vacuum value. As Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal wrote while slotting the center as a top-30 name ahead of free agency:
"Plumlee is one of the NBA's best passing centers, capable of fitting the ball into tight spaces and passing players open—as opposed to hitting them with a feed after they've done the work to create separation. He's an adequate rim protector and an adept rebounder, as well as a confident scorer when receiving feeds around the hoop. So long as you don't ask him to be a leading man, he can't help but surpass expectations on a nightly basis."
Teams won't trip over themselves to sign bigs who don't shoot threes anymore, but the league's depth charts don't do Plumlee any favors, either. Scroll through every roster, and you're hard-pressed to find a starting-center vacancy.
Plumlee's situation is further complicated by his restricted free-agency status. It'll take a sizable offer for the Denver Nuggets to show him the door, and that kind of money isn't available after Labor Day.
Things take a turn for the hairier following Nerlens Noel's decision to sign his qualifying offer. He has deepened an already vast 2018 center market by betting on himself. Next year's available bigs include: Cousins, Clint Capela (restricted), Ed Davis, Joel Embiid (restricted), Brook Lopez, Greg Monroe, Lucas Nogueira (restricted) and Jusuf Nurkic (restricted). Throw combo bigs Derrick Favors and Amir Johnson in there, too
Rolling the dice as a single-season placeholder isn't an option for Plumlee—not a good one, at least. He not only has to contend with superior names next summer, but the shortage of money makes it damn near impossible for him to flee Denver for a team that'll play him enough to buttress his market value.
That brings us to the Brooklyn Nets, Plumlee's old squad. They're not the same organization he left behind. General manager Sean Marks and head coach Kenny Atkinson have installed a light-hearted, free-flowing, effort-driven culture that perfectly jibes with Plumlee's play style. And it just so happens they could use another big.
Jarrett Allen, Trevor Booker and Timofey Mozgov are the Nets' best options at center. They have minutes to spare for Plumlee—especially with Booker's free agency in 2018. Price will be an issue, but the Nets have some flexibility left in the tank after serving as the Association's foremost salary-dumping ground.
Waiving their non-guaranteed deals gets them more than $6.5 million in breathing room. From there, they can try pawning off some combination of Quincy Acy, Joe Harris and Sean Kilpatrick. Ditching one wing (Harris or Kilpatrick) and Acy gets them closer to $10 million territory—spending power that could be enough to scare off the Nuggets on both a short- and long-term basis.
Second-Best Landing Spot: Denver Nuggets (Kenneth Faried is basically Nikola Jokic's backup now.)
1. JaMychal Green (Restricted): Memphis Grizzlies
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 8.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.4 blocks
Sources told CBS Sports' Matt Moore that JaMychal Green's contract situation should be figured out before training camp. This feels like code for: He isn't going anywhere.
Nor should he.
The Grizzlies can still offer Green the best of everything, because they need him. They can use Jarell Martin, Ivan Rabb, Brandan Wright or Rade Zagorac at power forward, but they shouldn't want to. Chandler Parsons will be an intriguing 4-man if he stays healthy, but he's ended each of the past three seasons with a knee injury.
No one else on the roster rivals Green's defensive switchability. Few players in the league do. Just one guarded as many isolation (111), ball-handler (50) and roll-man (45) possessions last season: Draymond Green.
The Grizzlies won't cover all those bases without their Green in the fold. They need him to chase around the mobile frontcourt assignments Marc Gasol cannot. Similar to the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, he's their ticket to small-ball lineups that inject versatility into one of the NBA's least malleable roster makeups.
Green only makes things easier on the offensive end. Memphis' attack was a statistical wash with him in the lineup, but it won't take much for that to change. He doesn't command a certain number of touches, and while he can attack the basket and chew through back-to-the-basket sets, he takes no issue tackling his complementary role.
Nearly 40 percent of his field-goal attempts came off the catch last season, on which he posted an effective field-goal percentage above 60—second-best mark on the Grizzlies, behind only Mike Conley.
Other teams would be lucky to get Green, and sussing out a quality fit takes almost no thought. But Memphis, unlike most of the league, can pay him close to market value without shedding salary. Unless an unknown suitor is prepared to jump through some serious late-summer hoops, he won't find this combination of money and playing time anywhere else.
Second-Best Landing Spot: Atlanta Hawks (Must find a taker for Kent Bazemore and/or Marco Belinelli to tender an offer that would price Green out of Memphis.)