2016 NBA Free Agents: Predictions for Top Available Players This Summer
The 2016 NBA free-agent market won't officially open for another few months, but does it ever really close? Every day is an opportunity to gather intel on potential targets, improve attractiveness by cleaning up the on-court product and monitor what both suitors and possible signees covet.
Today's data always includes hints of what the future may hold. Even though there are occasional stunners, there are enough clues to project what could be coming next.
The upcoming slides provide that forecast. With a superstar class headlined by the likes of LeBron James and Kevin Durant, this could well be an offseason that reshapes the basketball landscape.
Besides predicting where these stars will align, each free agent is also ranked by desirability. The same factors that will be used by their eventual suitors are utilized here: current production, future potential, injury history, etc.
Most will inevitably start next season where they finish this one, and these predictions reflect that. But my crystal ball shows a few scenery changes that could rock the hoops world.
Mike Conley (FA Type: Unrestricted)
Mike Conley is a good-not-great point guard, which is enough to move him atop the position's ranks in this class. At 28 years old, he's right in the prime of his career, and his influence extends to several different areas: scoring, distributing, floor spacing and defending. The Memphis Grizzlies can't afford to let him walk, even if that means inking a five-year, nine-figure pact to hold off his other suitors.
Dwight Howard (FA Type: Player Option)
Battling both Father Time and a scary health history, Dwight Howard is no longer the dominant force he once was. But he's still among the league leaders in field-goal percentage (61.6, second) and rebounds (11.8 per game, fourth). He can be an impact presence in the right situation. For Howard, that could well be a reunion with his old club, the Orlando Magic, a possibility league sources told Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher that Howard would consider.
Dwyane Wade (FA Type: Unrestricted)
Every time Dwyane Wade supplies a "Vintage Wade" highlight, it serves as a reminder that the current version remains awfully good. The 34-year-old is one of only 17 players averaging at least 19 points, four assists and four rebounds. As the ruler of Wade County, he's not abandoning the Miami Heat. But his contract value could hinge on their other moves, perhaps decreasing if the talent around him rises significantly.
Hassan Whiteside (FA Type: Unrestricted)
At one point this season, Hassan Whiteside looked like a producer of empty stats. His lines were always filled to the brink, but they didn't always help the Heat. Then, he shifted over into an instant-energy reserve role, and his value erupted. The Heat have taken notice and, according to the Miami Herald's Barry Jackson, "clearly would like to re-sign him." Expect Whiteside to stay in South Beach on a near-max deal.
7. Nicolas Batum: Striking It Rich in Charlotte
FA Type: Unrestricted
Timing means as much to NBA free agents as location does to those in the real estate world. For Nicolas Batum, the summer of 2016 is his oceanfront palatial pad.
His 2014-15 campaign was a mess. He struggled all season to shake a nagging wrist injury, and the ailment took a major toll on his production. His 13.1 player efficiency rating was the lowest he'd posted since his rookie year.
But last offseason delivered both time to heal and a new home address. A trade to the Charlotte Hornets moved Batum up the offensive pecking order, and he's since shared lead scoring and setup duties with Kemba Walker. Batum is excelling across the board—one of seven players averaging 15 points, five assists and five rebounds—and the 6'8" swingman's two-way versatility fits today's small-ball NBA perfectly.
"He's always been the kind of player that lights up scouting reports due to his combination of size, length and skill," wrote CBS Sports' Matt Moore. "He can handle, he can shoot, he can drive and finish, he can pass and defend. Batum may not be the top-tier star of a team, but he is certainly a guy you want playing on the wing for your team."
Batum won't have a shortage of suitors. It's tough to think of many clubs he couldn't help. But he's particularly important to the Hornets, who not only gave up a nice asset to get him (former top-10 pick Noah Vonleh) but also desperately need Batum's three-point shooting and playmaking. He has max ability in this market, and Charlotte should pony up that cash to keep him around as long as possible.
6. Al Horford: Betting on Boston's Potential
FA Type: Unrestricted
For all the years Al Horford has been cast among the NBA's most underrated players, it should have happened by now. The public should have turned that status into an overrated view of the four-time All-Star.
Yet the 29-year-old Atlanta Hawks anchor still exists on the other end of the spectrum. His wide-reaching skill set—which, with this season's addition of the long ball, may lack any discernible holes—still seems underappreciated. Few have ever produced like he does. In fact, he's one of just 14 players who own career averages of 14 points, eight rebounds, 2.5 assists and one block per game.
"What can't Al Horford do?" wrote Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal. "… If he needs to take a step back as a scorer and focus more on the defensive end, that works. If he needs to take over a game with his mid-range jumper, the same applies."
Horford not only fills multiple roles, but he can also be a focal point in any. The Hawks, who've surrounded him with a similarly skilled frontcourt partner (Paul Millsap), a pair of pick-and-choose penetrators (Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder) and a horde of shooters, could give Horford a full-max deal to stick around.
But if the big guy thinks Atlanta has peaked, he could bypass that fifth year on his next deal to join an up-and-comer. The Boston Celtics would make a ton of sense. They have a crazy-creative coach (Brad Stevens), a potent scoring point guard (Isaiah Thomas), pesky defenders around the perimeter and three-point sniping bigs. It would be a seamless fit for Horford and perhaps a path to more substantial playoff success.
5. Bradley Beal: Cashing Out in D.C.
FA Type: Restricted
Bradley Beal's next pact will carry an undeniable amount of risk. He's had chronic problems with stress reactions in his right leg and has admitted his minutes could need monitoring for the rest of his career.
But the quality of play the 22-year-old has already displayed highlights the incredible reward also attached to that contract. He's an electric scorer inside the arc and an ignitable shooter beyond it. This is his third straight season with at least 100 triples on 38-plus percent shooting, a feat only matched by six other players in that time frame.
And he's clearly getting better. Since last season, he's raised both his assist percentage (15.6 from 15.0) and PER (15.6 from 14.0) and lowered his turnover percentage (11.3 from 11.7). He's opted for more threes and fewer long twos, and he's averaging a career-high 3.7 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes.
His production plus potential almost surely equals an impending max offer. The Washington Wizards can match whatever Beal receives, and CSN Mid-Atlantic's J. Michael said, "The sense is that the Wizards will match any offers," via SiriusXM NBA Radio.
If there is any suspense with Beal's next deal, it's more about the timing than the actual amount. By delaying the signing, Washington could increase what it's able to throw at other targets.
4. DeMar DeRozan: Security, Stability North of the Border
FA Type: Player Option
DeMar DeRozan is, much like Batum, positioned to strike while the iron is scorching hot. After fighting through an injury-limited 2014-15 season, DeRozan has since made his All-Star return while pouring in a personal-best 23.6 points per game.
He's displaying vast growth in both quality and quantity. His 44.6 field-goal percentage is his highest since 2010-11. He's setting a slew of career highs, including PER (21.6), assist percentage (20.7), free-throw attempts (8.5 per game), free-throw percentage (84.9) and three-point percentage (34.1).
At 26 years old, he's still trending in the right direction. So, too, are the Toronto Raptors. He could always look for a new home—the Southern California native would be a tremendous get for the post-Kobe Bryant Los Angeles Lakers—but why would he? He already has an All-Star running mate beside him (Kyle Lowry), a diversely talented frontcourt behind and an affinity for the only NBA threads he's ever worn.
"This has always been home to me," DeRozan said, per ESPN.com's Marc Stein. "I took pride in putting on this Toronto Raptors jersey since I've been drafted here. And my whole goal was to get this team to the point where it is now."
DeRozan's fingerprints are littered across the Raptors' success. He's already second on the franchise's all-time scoring list. He should—and sounds like he does—see this as a legacy worth continuing, especially given the likelihood that Toronto will put a max contract on the table.
3. Andre Drummond: Max Money in Motown
FA Type: Restricted
Andre Drummond is only in his fourth NBA season, and yet it's already getting hard to remember he entered the league as a boom-or-bust project in the eyes of many.
Sure, his post game still needs more seasoning. His free-throw shooting has never risen above abysmal (38.0 percent for his career, 35.6 this season). And yes, it is a bit puzzling that his hyper-athletic 6'11", 279-pound frame hasn't lent itself to more defensive dominance (career 1.6 blocks per game, 11th among centers in ESPN.com's defensive real plus-minus).
But how many centers would NBA teams rather have? The list is painfully short, to be sure. For all the polish Drummond could add, he's already producing like few bigs have in this era. He's currently corralling a league-best 14.8 rebounds to go along with his 16.3 points a night. Only two other players have averaged 16 points and 14 boards in the last 24 years: Dwight Howard (three times) and Kevin Love (once).
"He is taking his game to a whole new stratosphere," Kobe Bryant said earlier this season, per ESPN.com's Arash Markazi.
The next step for Drummond is obvious—inking a max deal with the Detroit Pistons. But he could wait a bit to sign it, allowing the organization to maximize its spending power.
2. LeBron James: Another One-Plus-One Pact with Cavs
FA Type: Player Option
With billionaire aspirations, LeBron James understands the business side of basketball as well as anyone. That's why he's set to enter the free-agent market for a third consecutive summer, with an opt-out clause that allows him to tap further into the league's growing salary pool.
Based on cap projections, Yahoo Sports' Dan Devine estimated James' potential earnings—and the numbers are astronomical. An $89 million cap would net James an estimated $29.3 million next season. If he repeats the process next summer with a possible $108 million cap, he could rake in a massive $35.5 million for the 2017-18 campaign.
It makes economic sense to keep these "one-plus-one" deals going. Never mind the pressure it keeps on the Cleveland Cavaliers to satisfy him with a competent supporting cast.
As hard as it is to imagine James' leaving Cleveland again, there's been just enough smoke to completely rule out the possibility. His occasionally cryptic social-media posts always get the conspiracy theorists going, and James did recently divulge a desire to team up with close friends Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Wade at some point, per Bleacher Report's Howard Beck.
But there is every reason to believe James' next free-agency venture will only be a business decision. He seemingly has an annual pass to the NBA Finals, and the Cavs have spent big in an attempt to put championship-caliber talent around him. He'll be back in wine and gold with another short-term, major-money deal to his name.
1. Kevin Durant: Sign a Short Deal with the West's Best
FA Type: Unrestricted
There aren't a lot of rankings lists that feature LeBron outside the No. 1 slot, but this is one of the exceptions. When weighing both production levels and NBA mileage, Kevin Durant grades out as a slightly more desirable free-agent target (though, if you're signing either one, you'll feel as if you won the offseason).
Despite enduring an injury-riddled 2014-15 season, the four-time scoring champ is back without missing a beat. He isn't far removed from being the points leader (28.1 per game, third overall) or another 50/40/90 season (hitting 50.4 percent from the field, 38.4 outside and 89.6 at the stripe). His 12.5 rebound percentage is his best ever, his 24.1 assist percentage is his second-highest and his 28.0 PER ranks No. 2 overall.
If the campaign closed today, he'd join Hall of Famer Larry Bird as the only players to ever average at least 28 points, eight rebounds, five assists, one steal and one block per game. Seeing a stat like that, it's no wonder this will be billed as the Summer of Durant.
So, what will happen in said summer? That may hinge on the championship race. Durant reportedly wants to be courted, per The Vertical's Chris Mannix, and with cap space available to almost everyone, he could have his pick of the NBA's elite. A return to Oklahoma City seems most likely, but the situation may not be so clear-cut.
"He's got a few teams that he will be looking at," former teammate Kendrick Perkins said, per ESPN.com's Chris Forsberg. "... [The Thunder] win it all, he can't leave, in my opinion. But if they don't, it might be time for a change."
I'll agree with Perkins on this. If Durant makes a title run with Russell Westbrook, he'll continue running alongside the All-Star point guard. But if OKC fails to escape the West, Durant could start his jewelry collection by joining the team that does. Wherever he signs, expect the deal to include an opt-out option so Durant can collect the most money possible over his career.