2018 NBA Free Agency: Ranking the 5 Best Players at Every Position

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 21, 2018

2018 NBA Free Agency: Ranking the 5 Best Players at Every Position

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    Zach Beeker/Getty Images

    Does your favorite NBA team need free-agent help this offseason? 

    Fortunately for you, we have just the players who can give the necessary boost. Assuming your favorite team can lure them into its clutches with a new contract that outdoes the offers of all other organizations, that is. 

    If you're looking for a point guard, we have five of those, though the position's talent pool dwindles quickly. Fortunately, the other spots in a traditional lineup are stronger, led by a trio of superstars at small forward. 

    How do they all stack up for 2018-19 and beyond? That's the question we're seeking to answer this time around, looking at age, untapped potential, current production and more to see which soon-to-be free agents are set to provide the most value going forward. 

No. 5 Point Guard: Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Age: 24

    Type of Free Agency: Restricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 8.3 points, 2.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.3 blocks

    Seeing Fred VanVleet listed as one of the five best point guards on the open market might come as a surprise. The Toronto Raptors backup doesn't boast eye-popping numbers and is playing just 19.8 minutes per game. 

    But the Raptors clearly trust him. 

    A staggering 44.4 percent of his minutes have come during the fourth quarterthe highest mark in the league among those with at least 1,000 minutes of runas head coach Dwane Casey loves putting him alongside both Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. During those final periods, he's averaging 15.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists per 36 minutes while turning the ball over just 1.8 times and slashing 41.8/39.4/85.6. Couple that with consistent, havoc-wreaking defense, and you can understand Casey's inclination to get him on the floor as much as possible in key situations. 

    VanVleet might not have dizzying upside, and he wouldn't be as productive in a 30-plus-minutes-per-game role. But he's found his niche with the Raptors, who have been 10.2 points per 100 possessions better when he's on the floor. 

    There's nothing wrong with making a living as an elite secondary point guard who serves as a reliable contributor in big moments. 

No. 4 Point Guard: Elfrid Payton, Phoenix Suns

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    Barry Gossage/Getty Images

    Age: 24

    Type of Free Agency: Restricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.4 blocks

    If Elfrid Payton wants to make serious dough this summer, he needs to finish the season like he's begun his tenure with the Phoenix Suns—with one notable exception. 

    Since a surprising midseason deal sent him away from the Orlando Magic, the 2014 No. 10 overall pick has averaged 13.5 points, 5.9 rebounds and 6.7 assists while shooting 45.5 percent from the field and 72.9 percent at the free-throw line. But then arises the problem: Payton is shooting only 23.8 percent from downtown but is still taking 1.4 long-range attempts per contest.

    Those ill-advised hoists are tanking his offensive efficiency, preventing him from showing off his skills in other areas and highlighting the weakness that has followed him throughout his NBA career. This youngster can do just about everything else, but defenders sag so far back against him that his mere presence gums up some offensive sets. 

    If that changes, he'll resume functioning as one of the league's more underrated 1-guards. And it was different during his final half-season with the Magic, as Payton connected on his 1.5 treys per game at a 37.3 percent clip. 

    Handing Payton a long-term deal will require some faith. But his passing vision, finishing ability and defensive profile could make that a gamble worth taking. 

No. 3 Point Guard: Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics

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    Bill Baptist/Getty Images

    Age: 24

    Type of Free Agency: Restricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 10.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.4 blocks

    We're cheating a bit here. 

    Marcus Smart has been far more of a shooting guard than a point guard with the Boston Celtics in 2017-18. Both Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass say he's spent just 5 percent of his minutes at the 1 this year, while he's split the rest of his time between the 2 and the 3. But the 24-year-old has largely played the point in previous years, and we're trying to maximize the amount of talent featured here, as this summer's free-agency class is teeming with talented 2-guards. 

    Plus, Smart's value stems from his positionless nature. 

    Teams shouldn't ask him to function as a primary playmaker or space the floor with his perimeter jumper. In fact, he's shooting just 30.1 percent from beyond the rainbow, easily the best mark he's produced in the last three seasons. 

    Smart makes the Celtics better by overcoming his flaws with relentless effort50/50 plays become 75/25 endeavors when he's on the courtand buckling down on every defensive possession. He has the lateral mobility necessary to stick with diminutive guards who rely on their wheels, but he also touts the strength and core necessary to bang in the post with frontcourt foes. He's a pest, but that word should have purely positive connotations in this context. 

    Play him at the point. Throw him out as a shooting guard. Let him go to work as a small forward. No matter the situation, he'll make the team better unless he's forced to use his broken shooting stroke. 

No. 2 Point Guard: Isaiah Thomas, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    Age: 29

    Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 15.2 points, 2.1 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.1 blocks

    Isaiah Thomas' stock has gone through quite the roller coaster in 2017-18.

    The Boston Celtics unexpectedly traded him to the Cleveland Cavaliers in August. At first, he struggled to recover from the hip injury he suffered late last season. He then struggled even more once he returned to the court in Northeast Ohio. Cleveland shipped him to the Los Angeles Lakers at the trade deadline, where he finally started reminding the world of his Celtics tenure. 

    So, who's the real Thomas? 

    At 29 years old, the minuscule point guard has reached the stage of his professional career at which teams must exercise financial caution. But he's also in possession of skills that should delay his decline, since he can make shots from all over half-court sets and create plenty of space with his water-bug ball-handling.

    Can we expect him to stave off Father Time? Will the hip injury have any lingering effects? Will a team give him a shot to serve as a leading scorer? No one knows the answers with any semblance of certainty.

    Speculation must reign supreme here, and the way Thomas closes his half-season in a Lakers uniform will affect his earning potential this summer. Fortunately for the deposed "King in the Fourth," he's at least put together a somewhat lengthy stretch of quality offensive play. 

    In his eight games prior to his 1-of-9 brickfest against the Miami Heat, Thomas averaged 19.4 points and 6.4 assists while shooting 39.7 percent from the field, 37.9 percent from downtown and 90.6 percent at the stripe. Progress, not perfection.  

No. 1 Point Guard: Chris Paul, Houston Rockets

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    Age: 32

    Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 18.7 points, 5.5 rebounds, 8.0 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.3 blocks

    Even though Chris Paul will celebrate his 33rd birthday in May, pushing him well past the age at which most point guards begin succumbing to the advances of the AARP catalog, he's continuing to perform at an All-NBA level

    He ranks outside the top 100 in minutes played but sits at No. 12 in NBA Math's total points added, which rewards players for both volume and efficiency. No player has a higher scorer in ESPN.com's real plus/minus (RPM), and Paul once again overcomes the time-on-the-court deficit to sit at No. 12 in the volume-based RPM Wins

    In other words, he remains the league's resident Point God. 

    Whichever team hands Paul his next contract—most likely the Houston Rockets, given how well he's worked alongside James Harden and under the supervision of head coach Mike D'Antoni—will have to exercise some caution. It likely won't want to pay this veteran a max salary as he moves closer to age 40 than 30.

    But at the same time, Paul might be worth that type of long-term compensation. He's still a two-way stud playing with unrelenting efficiency, and his competitive fire might prevent a precipitous drop-off from ever taking place. 

No. 5 Shooting Guard: Rodney Hood, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

    Age: 25

    Type of Free Agency: Restricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 15.1 points, 2.8 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.2 blocks

    Avery Bradley and Will Barton are lurking, trying to take this spot from Rodney Hood. But the former will be coming off a putrid campaign during which he split time with the Detroit Pistons and Los Angeles Clippers before succumbing to injury, while the latter's ball-commandeering habits and defensive woes are propelling him downward as the Denver Nuggets fall outside the playoff picture. 

    To be fair, Hood isn't having much more success for the Cleveland Cavaliers. 

    Since leaving the Utah Jazz at the trade deadline, the Duke product is averaging only 9.8 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 40.7 percent overall and 31.8 percent from three-point range. But that also isn't too surprising, since he thrived in Salt Lake City when he was permitted to control the ball, patiently probing for a weakness in the defense that he could exploit off the bounce. 

    Hood staying in Cleveland seems unlikely unless LeBron James moves to another team, since his high-scoring habits don't work nearly as well when he's forced to play off the ball. As such, don't take his second-half numbers as an indication of what he can produce in the right schemes.

    Barton has been more effective in 2017-18. Bradley has the better pedigree, based on his work over the last few years. But Hood has the advantage of youth and untapped upside, which always plays well during the NBA's spending frenzies. 

No. 4 Shooting Guard: JJ Redick, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    Age: 33

    Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.7 points, 2.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.1 blocks

    JJ Redick has been exactly what the Philadelphia 76ers hoped for when they signed the veteran 2-guard to a one-year, $23 million deal. He hasn't created many shots for himself, but the mere threat of his three-point shooting opens up space for Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and the rest of this up-and-coming squad. 

    The second of our back-to-back Duke products does more than just threaten to make triples, though. He drains quite a few of them, too. 

    Redick is connecting on 41.2 percent of his treys while taking a career-high 6.5 per game. Those numbers don't just rest in the upper echelon; the combination is so impressive that only two qualified shooters in 2017-18 have been able to match both elements (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson). Expand the range to include everyone in NBA history, and the list doesn't grow by much: 

    • Ray Allen
    • Stephen Curry (five times)
    • Reggie Miller (shorter arc during his lone qualified season)
    • Dennis Scott (shorter arc during his lone qualified season)
    • Peja Stojakovic (twice)
    • Klay Thompson (five times)

    For a shooter of Redick's caliber, age is far more irrelevant than for most players. So long as he can keep fighting through screens and hitting spot-up jumpers, he'll remain plenty valuable. 

    If you need proof, just look at Kyle Korver's career trajectory. 

No. 3 Shooting Guard: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    Age: 25

    Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.2 blocks

    If you were expecting Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to suddenly blossom into a full-fledged superstar after he signed a one-year, $17.7 million deal with the Los Angeles Lakers this past offseason, you were always harboring overly optimistic expectations. That monetary figure rose so high because the Purple and Gold had money to spend and wanted to overpay for the luxury of preserved future financial flexibility. 

    This may seem like the opposite of any pervasive narratives, but Caldwell-Pope has actually grown into a better player with the Lakers.

    He hasn't justified that type of expenditure, and he has ceded the spotlight to the many promising youngsters in Hollywood. However, he's quietly become a capable three-and-D contributor who will be a more coveted commodity in his second straight venture into free agency. 

    Caldwell-Pope's size and athleticism give him the ability to lock down opposing wings, and he's been a key to the Lakers' widespread defensive improvement. He's also enjoying the best shooting season of his career, knocking down 38.5 percent of his 5.6 three-point attempts per outing. 

    In fact, the former Bulldog is one of five qualified players this season with a defensive box plus/minus north of 0.5 while taking at least five triples per game and hitting no fewer than 38 percent of those deep looks. Whenever you're in a class with Kevin Durant, Kyle Lowry, Chris Paul and Trevor Ariza, you're doing something right.

No. 2 Shooting Guard: Tyreke Evans, Memphis Grizzlies

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    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    Age: 28

    Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 19.5 points, 5.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.3 blocks

    Though rib cartilage damage derailed his inaugural season with the Memphis Grizzlies, Tyreke Evans completely flipped the narrative on his career.

    Rewind to last summer, and he was an aging wing without a reliable three-point stroke just looking for a home. He couldn't find anything better than a one-year, $3.3 million pact with the Grizz, which shouldn't have come as a surprise with his stock falling ever since he won Rookie of the Year in 2009-10.

    Here's what I wrote about Evans while ranking him as the 37th-best member of last year's free-agency class: 

    "Tyreke Evans is no longer the all-around threat he was during his Rookie of the Year season with the Sacramento Kings in 2009-10. He also hasn't developed a consistent jumper, though he's grown closer than ever in recent years. He connected on 38.8 percent of his triples in 2015-16, and a hot streak after returning to the Kings midway through 2016-17 allowed him to finish the season at 35.6 percent. 

    "But the 27-year-old's skill and ability to soak up time at point guard, shooting guard or small forward still makes him rather intriguing. He can fill so many different roles while providing unorthodox production from the wings, and he's even started to line up sporadically at the 4 in small-ball lineups."

    Oops. 

    Evans, who then ranked behind eight other 2-guards, earned praise for his versatility and little else. Now, he's become an offensive machine who did his darnedest to keep Memphis afloat after a season-ending blow to Mike Conley and unexpected struggles from Marc Gasol

    The three-point stroke is here to stay, opening up all sorts of new opportunities for this physical wing. 

No. 1 Shooting Guard: Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Age: 23

    Type of Free Agency: Restricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.2 blocks

    First, let's address the elephant in the room. 

    Zach LaVine has been ineffective during his first season with the Chicago Bulls, averaging solid per-game numbers that come on unfortunate shooting splits while paired with woeful defense. The uber-athletic 2-guard is hitting just 38.3 percent overall and 34.1 percent from downtown, which makes his high-scoring efforts far less valuable. 

    But context helps explain why the 23-year-old is still the most exciting member of this summer's shooting guard class, to the point that he could receive a contract brushing up against max figures. Not only is he recovering from a torn ACL that ended his Minnesota Timberwolves tenure, but he's attempting to bounce back on a team devoid of offensive options, allowing adversaries to focus far too much attention on slowing him down. 

    Whether he stays with a developing Bulls team sure to add more firepower through free agency and the draft or joins a more competitive organization, LaVine should look much better moving forward. His hops are returning, and his shooting form should follow suit. 

    Lest we forget, we're just one year removed from this youngster knocking down 38.7 percent of his triples while taking 6.6 per game as the 'Wolves figured out how deadly he could be in off-ball scenarios. 

No. 5 Small Forward: Trevor Ariza, Houston Rockets

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Age: 32

    Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.2 blocks

    Trevor Ariza's age will detract from his earning potential—he'll turn 33 in late June—but his enduring ability to serve as a three-and-D specialist should nonetheless help him make big bucks. 

    The Houston Rockets are still turning to Ariza rather frequently, handing him 34.5 minutes per game as they charge toward the NBA's best record. That makes perfect sense, considering his ability to shut down opposing wings with his stifling brand of defense and his knack for knocking down the long-range attempts upon which head coach Mike D'Antoni so frequently relies. 

    After a disappointing season from downtown in 2016-17, Ariza has bounced back with aplomb. He's now taking an even seven treys per contest and hitting them at a 38.0 percent clip, giving him a combination of volume and efficiency matched by only seven qualified shooters: Devin Booker, Stephen Curry, Wayne Ellington, Paul George, Kyle Lowry, Klay Thompson and Kemba Walker. 

    How's that for good company? 

    The defense, however, is slipping. Ariza is still a positive on the less glamorous end, but he's no longer the lockdown stopper he was in his prime. In fact, he now rests at No. 34 among small forwards in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus, which also depresses his standing in this particular countdown. 

No. 4 Small Forward: Kyle Anderson, San Antonio Spurs

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Age: 24

    Type of Free Agency: Restricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 7.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.8 blocks

    Every offseason has one: the unheralded up-and-comer whose value isn't yet recognized by scores of fans, leading to aghast reactions at the value of his next contract. 

    Last year's candidate was Joe Ingles, who has more than justified his new deal with the Utah Jazz. Next comes Kyle Anderson, whose utility for the San Antonio Spurs goes far beyond his meager scoring average of 7.9 points per game. 

    Anderson has been a defensive linchpin for the Kawhi Leonard-less team somehow still in the mix for a playoff berth in the brutal Western Conference, using his length and instincts to terrorize opponents on a nightly basis. He might not have much baseline-to-baseline speed, but he can shift laterally well enough to stay between his man and the basket, and he's rarely in the wrong position. 

    Robert Covington is the only small forward with a superior score in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus. The Spurs allow a stingy 100.8 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor. NBA Math's defensive points saved have him trailing only Andre Drummond, whose output is increased significantly by his glass-cleaning ability. He's in the 66.8th percentile for isolation defense, the 63.4th percentile against pick-and-roll ball-handlers and the 83rd percentile against spot-up shooters.

    Everything checks out, including the vaunted eye test. 

    Anderson's offensive game has grown enough that he's no longer a liability on the scoring end, instead functioning as a capable secondary ball-handler used in emergency situations. But so long as he keeps playing defense like this, he'll continue serving as one of the league's most underrated presences regardless of his point-producing plaudits. 

No. 3 Small Forward: Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Ned Dishman/Getty Images

    Age: 27

    Type of Free Agency: Player option

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 21.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.5 blocks

    Paul George is the first of three small forwards who will be rightfully seeking max contracts this summer. 

    We don't yet know if he'll remain with the Oklahoma City Thunder or pursue a departure to a new organizationthe Los Angeles Lakers, perhaps?but we can be certain he'll be worth however much money he receives. The do-everything wing is still in the midst of his athletic prime, and he's proved capable of contributing on both ends of the floor while suiting up alongside Russell Westbrook

    Need a defensive stop? George can get one against almost any guard or forward, and that isn't even what makes him most special on D. His true genius stems from his anticipatory skills and the ability to act upon them, allowing him to lead the league in deflections with room to spare. For that matter, he also ranks second in total steals, third in steals per game and fifth in steal percentage. 

    And yet, that relentless defensive activity hasn't prevented George from finding his niche on offense. 

    He can score in just about every feasible manner, but he's most special when leaving the ground from beyond the arc. Taking 7.6 deep attempts per game and tickling twine on 40.6 percent of those looks places him in undeniably elite territory. 

    George has served as a complete threat. Again. Just as he's done for years. 

No. 2 Small Forward: Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

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    Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

    Age: 29

    Type of Free Agency: Player option

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 26.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.9 blocks

    "I've been second my whole life. I was the second best player in high school. I was the second pick in the draft. I've been second in the MVP voting three times. I came in second in the finals. I'm tired of being second. I'm not going to settle for that," Kevin Durant told Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins back in 2013, as relayed by colleague Ben Golliver. "I'm done with it."

    Four years later, he's back in second. 

    That's not meant as disrespect aimed at the scoring superstar. He just happens to play at the same position as the best player in the world, one who can also turn down a player option and become an unrestricted free agent. In fact, Durant should be considered the No. 2 free agent in this class, regardless of position.

    He's still one of the NBA's deadliest scoring threats, if not the most potent scorer. He's an improving passer who understands how to make the right feeds in a growing number of situations. He's a staunch defender earning some Defensive Player of the Year hype for the first time, even if he likely won't win the award.

    More so than ever before, he's a complete player. And he's still operating in his absolute prime, with a game that should age gracefully as he moves into his 30s on his next long-term contract. 

    The only problem is that he isn't LeBron James. 

No. 1 Small Forward: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Barry Gossage/Getty Images

    Age: 33

    Type of Free Agency: Player option

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 27.3 points, 8.7 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.0 blocks

    Did you expect anything else? 

    LeBron James might not be having the best season of his career—that honor should be reserved for his 2008-09 heroics, though he's provided so many reasonable candidates. But given his advancing age and the number of miles he's racked up in professional basketball and intentional competition, this might be his most impressive yet. 

    As ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst detailed Monday, the accomplishments just keep piling up in a testament to James' work ethic and drive to keep his body in peak condition: 

    "Now, he's seen plucking a steal from midair in Phoenix last week and throwing down a windmill dunk that had people pulling out video from 2003 for comparison. Then, there was the dunk in Portland over Jusuf Nurkic, which had as much explosion and power as any move of James' long career.

    "That's just a recap of the past few days. From November, when James scored a Cavaliers career-high 57 points in a game, to February, when he averaged a triple-double for the month, James has repeatedly said this is the best he has ever felt. On Monday against the Milwaukee Bucks...James will play in his 70th consecutive game as he chases the first season in which he plays in all 82 games."

    In that Monday victory over the Bucks, James went for a cool 40 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists. He just refuses to slow down, leaving little doubt he's still playing like the world's premier player (even though James Harden should be this year's MVP). 

    If anyone is going to defy Father Time, it's James. His status atop the free-agency rankings shouldn't be up for debate. 

No. 5 Power Forward: Carmelo Anthony, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Michael Gonzales/Getty Images

    Age: 33

    Type of Free Agency: Early termination option

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.6 blocks

    According to NBA Math's TPA, no player in the Association has added more negative value than Carmelo Anthony during the 2017-18 season. His score of minus-167.23 is nearly matched by a pair of young contributors on the Phoenix Suns (Tyler Ulis' minus-162.28 and Josh Jackson's minus-157.79), but no one surpasses it.

    That doesn't mean Anthony is the worst player in the league. Far from it, considering he's playing 32.2 minutes per game for a playoff squad in the Western Conference. But the combination of his longstanding defensive porosity, his inability to produce more assists than turnovers and his slash line of 40.9/36.3/76.9 is legitimately detrimental. 

    And yet, he'll still be a coveted presence on the open market (assuming he opts out)—not just because of his reputation and enduring ability to put fans in seats. 

    The hope is that Anthony eventually will buy into a lesser role, perhaps one that comes with time more evenly split between the forward positions so he spends a larger share of his minutes out on the wings. He's been almost exclusively a power forward for the Oklahoma City Thunder (also spending time at the 5 in small-ball lineups), but teams should still view him as a player capable of running at the smaller positions. 

    Last year, Anthony shot well enough to finish in the 93.8 percentile as a spot-up marksman, but he's fallen to the 48.6 percentile in 2017-18. No matter how putrid his OKC efforts have been, a return to form in that area alone would justify his placement here, which comes at the expense of high-upside signings such as Montrezl Harrell.

No. 4 Power Forward: Derrick Favors, Utah Jazz

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    Michael Hickey/Getty Images

    Age: 26

    Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.0 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.0 blocks

    "People don't understand, we don't win some of the games we've won without him," Utah Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell said about Derrick Favors in late February, per Gordon Monson of the Salt Lake Tribune. "He's so consistent, doing things, diving on the floor, fighting for loose balls. He doesn't have the same screaming-and-yelling energy that some of us have, but his role for this team is huge, doing the dirty work that he does."

    That Favors' energy hasn't declined after his name floated around at the trade deadline should play well during free agency. He's been a true professional, refusing to let uncertainty affect him and instead continuing to provide two-way contributions. 

    Favors isn't a statistical standout. He doesn't provide glamorous contributions. But he does add value by doing what Mitchell called "the dirty work." By fighting for every rebound and engaging in 50/50 plays, by bodying up on defense and and letting opponents dig their shoulders into his chest as he fights for position, by setting hard screens and patiently waiting for offensive opportunities, he's made the Jazz more dangerous, even if their net rating has been superior in lineups that don't include him. 

    That introduces a common misconception: Negative on/off splits aren't always bad. 

    Favors is no longer a high-upside player who can drastically elevate a team's ceiling. But he's a steady presence who fills his role well and prevents his squad from dealing with too low of a floor. 

No. 3 Power Forward: Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Age: 23

    Type of Free Agency: Restricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.4 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.3 blocks

    Slowly but surely, Jabari Parker is working his way back into form for the Milwaukee Bucks. The progress is measured after the high-scoring forward tore his left ACL for the second time, but he's beginning to show signs of regaining his old form. 

    The Bucks can't count on him for much yet. They also shouldn't be expecting him to replicate his 20.1 points per game in 2016-17 after he's logged just 19 appearances and zero starts since his 2017-18 debut.

    Again, we're looking for progre...wait, what do you mean he's already lighting up scoreboards and playing with remarkable efficiency? 

    Whether he can maintain his offensive numbers while assuming a larger role remains to be seen, but Parker is indeed already looking like the threat he became during his breakout season. Look at the similarities between these per-36-minute numbers and shooting percentages over the course of the last two go-rounds: 

    • 2016-17: 21.4 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists while shooting 49.0 percent from the field, 36.5 percent from downtown and 74.3 percent from the charity stripe
    • 2017-18: 19.2 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists while shooting 50.6 percent from the field, 41.5 percent from downtown and 75.0 percent from the charity stripe

    Some turnover issues and diminished aggression attacking the basket will give teams pause before they make a play for Parker, but he's performing like he's well ahead of any schedule. So long as his injury woes are behind him, he seems a safe bet to continue functioning as a dynamic offensive threat. 

No. 2 Power Forward: Julius Randle, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

    Age: 23

    Type of Free Agency: Restricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 15.9 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.6 blocks

    "I haven't talked to a lot of other coaches about him, but what he's doing right now, he has to be on everyone's radar," Los Angeles Lakers head coach Luke Walton said about Julius Randle in mid-March, per ESPN.com's Ohm Youngmisuk. "He's playing unbelievable basketball. He's a matchup nightmare for teams; he's versatile. This is just me guessing, but I would imagine most teams are pretty impressed with what he's doing."

    A few months ago, Randle would've fallen behind Jabari Parker and Derrick Favors in these rankings. He didn't play much defense, failed to demonstrate any semblance of shooting range and still had a limited offensive arsenal that led to diminished production and nothing more than short spurts on the court. But much of that has changed, even if the Kentucky product has yet to develop a reliable three-point stroke. 

    Dating back to the beginning of February, Randle has averaged 21.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists while shooting 58.9 percent from the field. He's been a bowling ball of pent-up energy on offense, barreling through unsuspecting defenders and those awaiting his physicality alike. Keeping him away from the basket seems almost impossible, and he's developed a softer touch that allows him to finish plays through contact while earning 6.1 trips per game to the charity stripe. 

    "If he keeps his motor up, nobody can guard him," Isaiah Thomas told Youngmisuk. "Nobody can guard him."

    This is the Randle we've been waiting to see ever since he entered the NBA. And given the enduring holes in his game—defensive consistency, shooting range and the ability to thrive when moving to his right—the 23-year-old still has quite a bit of untapped potential. 

No. 1 Power Forward: Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic

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    Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

    Age: 22

    Type of Free Agency: Restricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 18.3 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.8 blocks

    Just imagine what Aaron Gordon might be able to do with the right surrounding pieces. 

    If he stays with the Orlando Magic, they'll hopefully put more offensive talent around him, allowing him to maximize the skills he's developed over the last few years while bouncing between forward spots. And if he goes to a new organizationwhich would likely require a max offer sheet that the Magic still might matchhe could get a fresh start as a new-age power forward capable of tormenting opponents with his combination of athletic prowess and developing technique. 

    Gordon's appeal stems more from potential than production at this point of his career. His hot shooting at the start of the season was always too good to be true, and he's regressed substantially throughout the year. Now hitting just 34.8 percent of his deep attempts, he'd hardly be mistaken for a stretch 4. 

    But we've seen him find the bottom of the net with accuracy and frequency. We know what he can do, even if that has yet to translate into consistent numbers and victories for the hapless Magic.

    The same is true of his wide-ranging defense and the hope of future rim protection. Ditto for his ability to initiate offense from the perimeter. Remember when Orlando wanted to turn him into its own version of Paul George? 

    The appeal here is obvious. Now it's on the 22-year-old to justify the hype. 

No. 5 Center: Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    Age: 23

    Type of Free Agency: Restricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.1 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.3 blocks

    If you only watched Jusuf Nurkic during nationally televised outings, you'd be convinced this 23-year-old center was a max-contract candidate set to take the league by storm—the center version of the old Rajon Rondo effect, if you will. But the reality isn't quite so rosy, since Nurkic has a habit of underperforming and then putting together one marquee outing that buys him a longer leash. 

    On the flip side, those outings allow for lasting belief that he'll eventually put the pieces together and become a two-way threat. 

    Nurkic is a solid scorer who can make the most of his physicality while displaying the occasional sweeping jump-hook, but he's also devoid of range and is inept in the post. Though he's found a bit of success on shorter mid-range jumpers, just over a quarter of his attempts come from beyond 10 feet. Meanwhile, 21.9 percent of his possessions come as post-up tries, where he's scoring only 0.73 points per possession and sits in the 20.6th percentile

    The big man from Bosnia and Herzegovina presents a similarly up-and-down profile on defense, where he can body up against bigger players but often gets exposed in actions that require more movement. He's in just the 25.9th percentile for isolation defense, for one example.

    But again, there's room for this up-and-comer to grow. And someone is going to give him that chance. 

No. 4 Center: DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Gary Dineen/Getty Images

    Age: 29

    Type of Free Agency: Player option

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.0 points, 15.4 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.0 blocks

    At this stage of DeAndre Jordan's career, everyone should know exactly who he is. 

    The jaw-droppingly athletic center isn't going to become an offensive stud with shooting range. You'll rarely see him knock down even a single mid-range jumper; he's made exactly zero shots from outside the paint during the 2017-18 campaign. Similarly, Jordan isn't going to become a facilitating hub or a switchy defender who's at his best guarding on the perimeter. 

    But his strengths aren't going anywhere. 

    Jordan's athleticism will eventually decline, but it hasn't happened yet. His hops still let him protect the interior of the Los Angeles Clippers' defensive schemes. They also let him punish absent-minded defenders who give him unabated lanes to the rim, allowing him to score 1.28 points per possession as a pick-and-roll roller and fall in the 82.6th percentile even as he forges new lob connections with point guards not named Chris Paul. 

    Oh, and he remains arguably the league's best rebounder. Only Andre Drummond generates more chances per game on the glass, but Jordan translates a higher percentage of them into actual boards. Even if you want to give more credit to the Detroit Pistons center for the contested nature of his contributions on the glass, it's clear he and his Clippers counterpart are in a class of their own. 

No. 3 Center: Clint Capela, Houston Rockets

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    Bill Baptist/Getty Images

    Age: 23

    Type of Free Agency: Restricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats14.2 points, 11.0 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.8 blocks

    Though he doesn't yet enjoy the name recognition boasted by DeAndre Jordan, Clint Capela has become a simulacrum of the athletic big man...and he's doing so while six years younger. 

    Capela leads the league in field-goal percentage by connecting on 65.2 percent of his shooting attempts, and he rarely takes looks that aren't right at the basket. In fact, just 2.2 percent of his tries have come from beyond 10 feet, and he's made only four buckets from outside the paint. Couple that with his rebounding chops, knack for protecting the inside of the Houston Rockets' defensive endeavors and the rolling efficiency that places him in the 88.2nd percentile as a pick-and-roll roll man, and it isn't hard to see from where the Jordan comparisons stem. 

    Perception might not have caught up with Capela's production, but that won't stop the Rockets from making him a rather wealthy center. Stat-minded general manager Daryl Morey surely knows the team's net rating dips 2.5 points per 100 possessions when the big man isn't playing, and that his starting 5 boasts a top-10 score among fellow centers in ESPN.com's RPM.

    "It's a huge talent," teammate Chris Paul said about that aforementioned rolling acumen, per the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen. "You've got to be in shape, too. You've got to be willing. You've got to be selfless and keep setting those screens and sometimes don't get the ball...Whether people talk about him or not, we know his value and we need him."

No. 2 Center: DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    Age: 27

    Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.6 blocks

    No one should be questioning DeMarcus Cousins' basketball abilities. 

    He's still the premier example of a center who can blend together physicality and finesse, and he's proved capable of getting buckets from all over the half-court set. Whether he's hitting face-up jumpers, spotting up on the perimeter or powering through foes on the blocks, he's going to score plenty of points in efficient fashion. It also doesn't hurt that he's a devastating passer out of the frontcourt, an improving defender and a rebounding stalwart. 

    But two major concerns still surround Boogie, both of which could prevent him from getting a max contract—whether with the New Orleans Pelicans or the third organization of his professional career. Only one of them is legitimate, and we'll let you decide which falls into that category. 

    First: Cousins still isn't helping teams win—an issue that was compounded by the Pelicans going on a 10-game streak behind Anthony Davis' Herculean efforts shortly after Boogie went down for the year. 

    Second: Cousins is now coming off a ruptured Achilles as he prepares for a contract that will take him beyond his athletic prime, and that notoriously troublesome injury doesn't always allow for a full return to form.

    Just kidding. We won't let you decide.

    That second concern isn't going away, but the first is massively overblown. The Pelicans have returned to earth after their Icarian stretch, to the extent that they've now posted a 0.8 net rating in the 22 games since Boogie went down. In his final 22 appearances, they boasted a 3.0 net rating. And on the season as a whole, they're still 1.2 points per 100 possessions better with the big man playing. 

No. 1 Center: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

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    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    Age: 23

    Type of Free Agency: Team option (restricted free agency if turned down)

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.8 blocks

    Were DeMarcus Cousins coming off a fully healthy campaign, this would be a neck-and-neck competition. But Nikola Jokic is now the runaway favorite for the No. 1 spot at his position, even if his defensive deficiencies at the rim and the point of attack have prevented him from becoming a complete player. 

    At this point, relitigating Jokic's effectiveness is pointless. The whole world should have come around on his skills by now, especially while he's averaging per-game marks that no center has replicated in decades. Wilt Chamberlain was the last pivot to average at least 17 points, 10 rebounds and six assists during a qualified season. 

    Far more interesting is what the Denver Nuggets will do with their franchise centerpiece this summer—a situation complicated by the second-round pick's unexpected blossoming on his rookie deal. 

    Denver could pick up his 2018-19 team option and pay him only $1.6 million, but doing so would make him an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2019. It could also turn down the option and allow him to enter restricted free agency this summer, during which time the two sides could come to terms immediately or wait for the big man to sign an offer sheet the Nuggets inevitably would match. 

    The organization has to weigh long-term certainty with the financial implications of pushing closer to the luxury-tax threshold. It should ultimately opt to make him a free agent sooner and lock him up, but that isn't a guaranteed course of action. 

    Either way, we are virtually assured of Jokic becoming the best center on the 2018 free-agent market.

           

    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Basketball Reference, NBA.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com and are current heading into games on March 20.