Ranking the Best NBA Free Agents of the Upcoming 2017 Class
Meaningful NBA games only just started up again, and they should be taking up a lion's share of your interest. But you need to know that longing for free-agency talk is perfectly normal.
Because it's never too early for summertime primers.
If you think about it, we have no choice but to discuss the best 2017 free agents at every position. All the rookie-scale extensions that were recently agreed upon force a change in pecking order. We might as well hash it out now.
Players with team options, such as Dirk Nowitzki, are ineligible, since their fate is not their own. Those who hold player and early-termination options will only be considered if they're expected to decline them—Pau Gasol, Greg Monroe and Dwyane Wade are more likely to play out the last year of their deals, so they won't be making an appearance.
Placement is based entirely on where a player is expected to stand at his respective position entering 2017-18, not during 2016-17. And with this season in its infancy, we will rely on last year's production to be our ranking guide.
The Recently Ineligible
Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder announced Monday they signed Steven Adams to a multiyear extension, and sources told The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski that it was for four years, $100 million. He was never going to leave now that he's their lone defensive anchor, but it's good to see Oklahoma City isn't suffering from a severe case of pocket shyness.
Gorgui Dieng, Minnesota Timberwolves
Shams Charania of The Vertical says Gorgui Dieng will be getting a four-year, $64 million deal from the Minnesota Timberwolves. If you've watched Dieng play at all over the last two years, you'll know this is a friggin' steal for Minnesota.
Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Rudy Gobert has earned himself a four-year, $102 million extension from the Utah Jazz, according to Wojnarowski. He now gets to hold the $2 million difference between his and Adams' deals over the latter's head for the rest of their lives.
Victor Oladipo, Oklahoma City Thunder
Victor Oladipo is officially the proud owner of a four-year, $84 million extension, per Charania. Once his deal kicks in next season, on the heels of another salary-cap jump, he'll be on one of the league's most tradable contracts.
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Russell Westbrook agreed to a three-year, $85 million extension with the Thunder less than one month after Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors, so he won't be exploring free agency until 2018 at the earliest (player option).
On a somewhat related note, the extension-eligible Andre Roberson has to be feeling pretty left out right about now.
No. 3 Point Guard: Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors (Player Option)
Kyle Lowry is playing through the third season of a four-year, $48 million deal that ranks as one of the best in the league. Even with his 31st birthday in sight (March 25), it'll cost the Toronto Raptors a pretty penny to keep him.
While it's DeMar DeRozan who routinely clears 20 points per game and throws down earth-thundering slams, it's Lowry who is the heart and soul of last year's Eastern Conference finalist. Three players finished the three previous seasons averaging at least 19 points, 6.5 assists and 1.5 steals while drilling 37 percent or more of their triples: Lowry is one; Stephen Curry and Chris Paul are the others.
At 6'1", playing a position infrequently recognized for its defensive depth, Lowry has time and again established himself as a capable stopper. He switches onto shooting guards when Toronto slots him beside Cory Joseph, and opposing ball-handlers committed turnovers on 22.6 percent of the pick-and-roll plays he defended last season.
As one of the few floor generals who joins elite company on both sides of the ball, Lowry doesn't face a challenger for this spot. And with Westbrook off the 2017 free-agent market following his extension, he's bound to garner max-contract consideration from teams outside Toronto.
Next Three: Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans; George Hill, Utah Jazz; Jeff Teague, Indiana Pacers
No. 2 Point Guard: Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers (ETO)
You know next summer's point guard market is rich with star power when Chris Paul checks in as the second-best available name.
Paul will turn 32 in May, with his days as the Association's best quarterback firmly behind him. But there is still no close substitute for his playmaking and methodical scoring.
Any team he pilots automatically deploys a top-five offense. The Los Angeles Clippers have ranked worse than fifth in points scored per 100 possessions only once since he arrived, with their lone sixth-place finish coming last season, when Blake Griffin missed 47 games.
And they still scored like the second-best offense when Paul was on the floor.
This trend won't stall as CP3 sniffs his twilight—at least not during his next contract. His passing is more predicated on vision and IQ than speed, and unlike Russell Westbrook, he's not the least bit reliant on raw explosion or getting to the rim.
Most of Paul's looks actually come away from the basket these days. More than 55 percent of his field-goal attempts last season came between 16 feet and beyond the three-point line, and he's converted fewer than 35 percent of his treys only twice.
Multiple max-contract offers will, without question, await him in free agency. And though the Clippers can offer more money and years than any other suitor, another early playoff exit would be enough to turn his summer into an open competition.
(Translation: Chris Paul San Antonio Spurs jerseys might become a thing.)
No. 1 Point Guard: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Kevin Durant's arrival will prevent Stephen Curry from winning a scoring title. It will cost him MVP votes. His assist rate will decline. The frequency of his 20-point quarters will plummet, too.
But not one of the concessions he makes, seismic or subtle, will jeopardize his standing as next summer's free-agent alpha.
Case in point: Last year's MVP is averaging more than 25 points per game through the early stages of the Durant era with a usage rate that's nearly 10 points lower than last year's mark. He makes the most of his time on the court in whatever capacity he's used.
Ball-handler, facilitator, spot-up shooter, pull-up-three-from-half-court-in-transition gunner—it doesn't matter. Curry's adaptive know-how will ensure he remains a top-three superstar no matter how many All-NBA players the Warriors trot out.
All that's left to do is wait and see which of his dozen-plus suitors wins him over in free-agent meetings.
LOL, just kidding.
"I want to be back here," Curry said in September of sticking with Golden State, per ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss. "I like playing here, and that's it."
No. 3 Shooting Guard: Jonathon Simmons, San Antonio Spurs (restricted)
Take your bigger sample sizes and toss them aside. Giving the nod to a small-sample phenom from the Spurs will always be the responsible choice.
Also: Jonathon Simmons is really good.
The pessimistic realist should be hesitant to buy Simmons' 2016-17 performance as a precursor to years-long success. But his per-36-minute numbers this year stand up to the splits he posted last season through 55 appearances:
|Simmons Per 36||PTS||FG%||3P%||REB||AST||STL||TOV|
Simmons is doing everything he did during the 2015-16 crusade, just in a more expansive role. He's at home in San Antonio's defensive system, is making quicker decisions upon catching the ball and continues to provide above-the-rim flair the team previously only received from Kawhi Leonard.
Having just turned 27 in September, Simmons is not your typical sophomore. But he is averaging more minutes per game than Kyle Anderson in the wake of Danny Green's absence. The Spurs clearly believe in his flashes, and much like it did for Boban Marjanovic, that's going to matter when Simmons enters restricted free agency.
Next Three: Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs; Tyreke Evans, New Orleans Pelicans; Hollis Thompson, Philadelphia 76ers
No. 2 Shooting Guard: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Detroit Pistons (Restricted)
In what world will a fourth-year 2-guard who can barely shoot three-pointers and scores like a No. 5 option demand a $20 million salary?
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is still looking for more than $20 million annually in his next deal, according to the Detroit Free Press' Vince Ellis. The Detroit Pistons, who own the right to match any offer he receives this coming summer, will probably be the ones to pay him, but his monstrous asking price eradicated any hope of an early extension.
Pretty much all of Caldwell-Pope's value lies on the defensive end. He tackles the toughest assignments whenever Stanley Johnson isn't on the floor and saved more points last season than any Pistons player not named Andre Drummond, per NBA Math.
Still, the additions of Tobias Harris, Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris over the last two years have taken the ball out of Caldwell-Pope's hands, and he has yet to adequately adjust. He ranked in the 50th percentile or worse last season for spot-up, screen and handoff situations, and his decision-making on drives did little to warrant additional touches.
If he doesn't become more of an offensive weapon in 2016-17, a booming cap climate won't make his restricted free agency a non-issue. The Pistons won't be locks to match a $20 million-per-year offer, because Caldwell-Pope won't be a lock to get one.
No. 1 Shooting Guard: J.J. Redick, Los Angeles Clippers
J.J. Redick turns 33 in June, and that works against him. At the same time, entering your mid-30s isn't much of a red flag for efficient shooters. (This shall henceforth be called the "Law of Kyle Korver.")
And man, oh man: Just three players cleared 16 points per game while shooting better than 40 percent from three-point range through the previous three seasons: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Redick. And of the 275-plus players to see at least 50 spot-up touches in 2015-16, not one averaged more points per possession than the Clippers' shooting guard.
Redick is made even more appealing by his defensive effort. He isn't especially big at 6'4", but he is deceptively strong and works his butt off on almost every single set.
Opponents shot under 30 percent from deep when being guarded by him last season, and Los Angeles' overall defensive rating improved by more with him on the court than any other starter—including DeAndre Jordan.
We could look at Redick's slow start to 2016-17 as a harbinger of imminent regression. He has made only two of his first eight three-point attempts, and the Clippers are getting clobbered defensively with him in the game.
Then again, we know better.
These last three seasons have done nothing if not earned Redick the reputation of a dependable contributor and, thus, the benefit of the doubt.
No. 3 Small Forward: Danilo Gallinari, Denver Nuggets (Player Option)
Danilo Gallinari's $16.1 million player option for 2017-18 is substantial enough that he could pick it up and delay free agency another year. But that would mean avoiding a market similar to the one that paid Allen Crabbe $74.8 million. So yeah...
Although Gallinari, 28, has certain offensive freedoms with the Denver Nuggets that he wouldn't enjoy on bona fide playoff squads, it's easy to envision him as the No. 2 or No. 3 scorer on a contender. He can play off ball-dominant guards and is enough of a passing threat to make defenses pay for double-teams and collapsing on drives.
It's those drives, along with some haphazard pump-faking, that render Gallinari nearly unguardable. He has become an expert at drawing contact and getting defenders to leave their feet—which, when mixed with a turnover rate worthy of Kawhi Leonard, make up for his middling field-goal percentage.
Of the 20 players to stage between 250 and 300 drives last season, not one came close to matching Gallinari's free-throw frequency. His 269 attacks yielded 149 total charity-stripe looks; Archie Goodwin's 100 attempts were his closest rival, and it took the then-Phoenix Suns guard 293 downhill assaults to get them.
On an even larger scale, Gallinari posted the best free-throw-to-field-goal ratio of any non-center to log at least 1,000 minutes.
Ask anything substantial of Gallinari on defense, and that's where you'll be disappointed. But he is not a demonstrative minus. He will shimmy between the 3 and 4 without scuttling his team's defensive schemes, and that should be enough to earn him a raise—assuming, of course, his ice-cold shooting to start 2016-17 doesn't last.
Next Three: Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors; Rudy Gay, Sacramento Kings (player option); Otto Porter, Washington Wizards (restricted)
No. 2 Small Forward: Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz (Player Option)
Gordon Hayward's broken finger could force him to miss the first quarter of the season, but it won't impact his free-agency appeal. And it most certainly won't diminish the Utah Jazz's interest.
As general manager Dennis Lindsey told SiriusXM NBA Radio (via Jorge Sierra of HoopsHype):
For us I think, as much as anything, we need to be ourselves with Gordon, need to be authentic and real and then he's going to have a decision to make. But fundamentally, if we do the right things here... Let's just be honest, we have an advantage by having his Bird rights. There's a lot of money associated with the fifth year and higher raises.
Numerous sources within the Jazz organization intimated to the Deseret News' Jody Genessy back in June that Hayward hasn't shown any symptoms of wandering eyes. Why would he? Utah projects as a 50-win squad at full strength.
But unrestricted free agency is complicated for fringe All-Stars.
Since 2013-14, Hayward is posting 18.3 points per game and an assist rate of 21.3 to go along with his 34.1 percent three-point clip. Kevin Durant and LeBron James are the only other non-guards to reach those benchmarks during this time.
Combine this offensive flexibility with a proven ability to function inside a top-flight defense, and Hayward won't want for max-contract offers. That's where things get complicated.
Will the Jazz want to invest max money in someone who doesn't profile as a No. 1 on a championship team? They also have to worry about paying Dante Exum (extension-eligible this summer), Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert, George Hill and Rodney Hood (also extension-eligible this summer) over the next two years.
Might Hayward be tempted to join forces with his college coach, Brad Stevens, in Boston? Will the allure of a better positioned contender pull to him in general? Every possible outcome is in play right now. The only issue beyond question is Hayward's market value.
No. 1 Small Forward: Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
One of two things must happen for Kevin Durant to not rank as this summer's best available small forward: He needs to take a year off to journey abroad, playoff-podium backpack in tow, with the sole aim of finding himself, or he'll have to opt into the final season of his two-year deal.
Neither scenario is particularly likely. Durant can throw the Warriors a bone by opting in and making it less taxing to re-sign Andre Iguodala and/or Shaun Livingston, yet it's a stretch to believe he'll exude that much loyalty to a franchise with which he'll have spent one year.
Granted, championships have a way of forging goodwill between a player and team. But the souped-up Warriors haven't looked like a title favorite to start the season. (Insert your favorite spin on "This is why we play the games" here.)
Golden State followed up a season-opening 29-point loss at home to the Spurs with a pair of victories over the lottery-bound New Orleans Pelicans and Suns—neither of which came by more than eight points.
"We were frustrated in the first half. You guys can all see it. This is not coming easily," head coach Steve Kerr said after a six-point win against Phoenix, per ESPN.com's Chris Haynes. "We have a new team and a lot of different faces, but even for the returning guys, it's a different mix."
Even as the Warriors have struggled to blend their embarrassment of basketball riches, Durant remains terrifying. He is averaging more than 30 points on fewer than 18 looks per game—which would be a first for the NBA—and shooting better than 56 percent from the floor. His three-point efficiency is down (30 percent), but he isn't (yet) jacking a ton of triples.
It's only a matter of time before he resumes his yearly dalliance with a 50/40/90 shooting slash and the Warriors get their act together—invariably making Durant's free-agent stay a short and uneventful one.
No. 3 Power Forward: Serge Ibaka, Orlando Magic
Serge Ibaka looked like a future max-contract holder less than two seasons ago. His four-year, $48 million rookie-scale extension was a steal by even yesterday's salary-cap standards. Last season's dip in efficiency and usage didn't negate this projection.
Getting traded to the Orlando Magic shouldn't imperil Ibaka's price tag, either. There will be plenty of money floating around amid another salary-cap spike, and at 27, comfortably in his prime, Ibaka's shot-blocking and floor-spacing potential has not fallen by the wayside.
But the Magic will mitigate most of what makes him unique.
Ibaka is now tightly tethered to power forward—something he's admittedly used to—with Bismack Biyombo and Nikola Vucevic on the roster, and his outside touch is of minimal use to an Orlando team that will struggle all season to cull space from clunky lineups.
That's assuming the Magic even let Ibaka launch threes with noticeable volume. His usage rate is up a tick in the early part of 2016-17, but he's living between 16 feet and just inside the arc, much to the detriment of his shooting percentage (sub-43). And if his turnstile rim protection is a sign of what's ahead, this will be the most disappointing season of his career.
None of which suggests Ibaka will drop a rung or two on this ladder. Next summer's power forward market isn't steeped in star power, and Orlando cannot afford to be outbid for someone who cost them two lottery prospects (Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis).
Plus, Ibaka's peak is still visible from here. He has collected at least 140 blocks and 20 made three-pointers through each of the last four years, tying him with the ever-underrated Andrei Kirilenko for the most such seasons in NBA history.
Next Three: Nikola Mirotic, Chicago Bulls (restricted); Taj Gibson, Chicago Bulls; Amir Johnson, Boston Celtics
No. 2 Power Forward: Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks (Player Option)
Paul Millsap's free-agency projection is simple: He is very good at basketball, and there will be more than a handful of suitors slobbering over his services next July.
Let's start with the "very good at basketball" part:
Millsap has morphed into one of the league's most well-rounded players since joining the Atlanta Hawks. No one in the NBA comes close to simultaneously matching his point (3,931), assist (720) and block (286) totals over the last three years. He is equal parts three-point assassin, low-post threat and off-the-bounce playmaker, and it should come as no surprise that he finished in the top five of last season's Defensive Player of the Year voting.
Now, onto the "many, many suitors" part.
Pushing 32, Millsap should encounter some low-ball offers. But he won't; his versatility is too overwhelmingly evident. If one part of his exceptionally mixed game trails off with age, he can help pad the win column in another area or five.
The Hawks, to that end, hope they can keep Millsap long term, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Chris Vivlamore. We'll see if that stance lasts all season, as trade rumors undoubtedly bandy about, and whether it then survives the max-salary offers he'll have at his disposal elsewhere.
No. 1 Power Forward: Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers (ETO)
It has become much too easy to forget about Blake Griffin in recent years—since 2013-14, to be exact, when he finished third in MVP voting.
Injuries are at the forefront, even though Griffin has appeared in nearly 75 percent of all possible regular-season contests since entering the NBA (and that's after accounting for the 82 tilts he missed in 2009-10—his first year in the league).
But it feels like he's been absent from so much more.
Griffin missed 15 games during 2014-15 while dealing with a staph infection in his right elbow. He sat out more than half of the 2015-16 crusade with a left quadriceps injury and fractured right hand, the latter of which he suffered by punching a Clippers equipment staffer. And then he aggravated that quadriceps injury less than four games into the postseason.
Griffin's name ambled into the rumor mill ahead of the 2016 trade deadline and made another brief cameo over the summer. Conjecture will now reach fever pitch with his first entry into unrestricted free agency on the horizon, as SI.com's Ben Golliver deftly demonstrated:
"Sure," the speculation will go, "Blake loves life in L.A. ... but he and Chris would be better off as No. 1 guys on different teams … but the Clippers’ Big 3 is too expensive to build out a championship-quality rotation ... but Doc should sell high and get multiple assets in return rather than risk watching him leave for nothing … but he should move to the East to get away from the Warriors during his prime … but South Beach is pretty awesome and the Heat need a Chris Bosh replacement … but he needs to find another superstar under 30 to team with if he ever wants to get a title. … but he would be a bigger star and have a brighter future if he was The Man for the up-and-coming Lakers."
All the storylines in the world, though, shouldn't distract from Griffin's talent. Only two other players have racked up averages of 21 points and four assists on at least 50 percent shooting through the first six seasons of their career: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan.
Given that Griffin won't turn 28 until March, boasts one of the two or three deepest offensive skill sets at his position and would be a perennial MVP contender if he didn't play beside another one, he should be the most sought-after free agent among those considered real flight risks.
No. 3 Center: Mason Plumlee, Portland Trail Blazers (Restricted)
Gauging Mason Plumlee's value to the Portland Trail Blazers is hard. He doesn't do much on the offensive end, and his defensive contributions are sporadic.
Evans Clinchy discussed this further for Blazer's Edge just after the team signed Festus Ezeli:
Mason Plumlee is not a bad defensive player. I repeat: Mason Plumlee is not a bad defensive player. In fact, if you believe the aforementioned real plus-minus statistic, his defensive rating is a 2.11, meaning he saves the Blazers about a basket per game more than the average NBA player, all other factors being equal. Plumlee has a lot of good qualities defensively - he's big, long, somewhat mobile and tries hard to position himself well and limit opponents from getting easy baskets.
Except he does sometimes screw up. It's not because of apathy, and it's not a Davis-type thing where he hangs back too far and surrenders open shots. Instead, he's sometimes overly aggressive and jumpy, over-extending himself with swipes and close-outs and other gambles.
Plumlee's jittery jump-outs are an asset when teammates get picked off. His rim protection is shaky; he allowed a 52.5 success rate at the iron in 2015-16. But he led last season's Blazers in defensive box plus-minus and has improved his defensive rebounding percentages through each of his first three go-rounds.
Slot him inside a lineup where most of the players can switch assignments on a whim, and he'll thrive as a roaming helper. And he shoots just well enough as a roll man (53.7 percent last season) to be more than a non-threat on offense.
In a suddenly shallow center market, Plumlee's serial hustle is tough to match. The offer sheets he receives in July will reflect as much.
Next Three: Kelly Olynyk, Boston Celtics (restricted); Aron Baynes, Detroit Pistons (player option); Dewayne Dedmon, San Antonio Spurs (player option)
No. 2 Center: Andrew Bogut, Dallas Mavericks
Andrew Bogut isn't going to give his team 25 minutes per game anymore. Planning on him to be available at all after April, for a deep playoff push, is ambitious as well.
But he remains a viable defensive anchor.
Bogut finished second on the Warriors in defensive points saved last season—by a 100-point margin, mind you—despite placing seventh in total minutes, according to NBA Math. In 2014-15, when Golden State owned the NBA's best defensive rating, it was the same story.
Limited sample size in mind, the Dallas Mavericks are already seeing the effects of a Bogut-led defense. They are allowing 98.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, compared to 113 when he sits. Last season, that would have been the difference between ranking second and dead last in defensive efficiency.
Age and injuries will not erode Bogut's brainy approach to paint protection. He helps from all sides of the court and uses flawless positioning to mask declining mobility. And he is forever an aggressive rebounder and above-average passer.
Besides, Bogut will be 32 when he signs a new deal, which isn't that old. If kept on a strict minutes limit, potentially as a second-unit headliner in the long run, maybe his body holds up.
Whatever team he's playing for will have a top-seven defense in a bottle if it does.
No. 1 Center: Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia 76ers (Restricted)
Chances are Nerlens Noel won't be with the Philadelphia 76ers next season. They have too many bigs, and the emergence of a healthy Joel Embiid leaves one Jahlil Okafor or Noel expendable.
Okafor is the player you'd move in a vacuum. Noel projects as the better pro—even though he doesn't space the floor—because of his rim protection and knack for suffocating ball-handlers. But there isn't a huge trade market for bigs, such as Okafor, who don't shoot or play defense, and Philly cannot in good conscience sell low on a top-three pick in his sophomore season.
Okafor is also on a cost-controlled deal. The Sixers don't have to worry about his next contract until 2020, when he's slated for restricted free agency. After establishing himself as a high-end defensive asset on a cruddy Philly team, Noel is due for a huge raise—especially now that Steven Adams, Gorgui Dieng and Rudy Gobert are off the table.
More than 300 players have eclipsed 4,000 minutes through their rookie and sophomore seasons. Only two recorded a defensive box plus-minus of four or better: Hall of Famer David Robinson and Noel.
Surround Noel with shooters and an NBA-caliber point guard, and he should partner that defensive staying power with some dependable rim-running. The mere thought of him in that role will be enough to land him near-max offer sheets—hence the importance of the Sixers finding him a new home before the trade deadline.
Letting Noel walk for nothing over the offseason is a bad move, but so, too, is funneling additional tens of millions of dollars into a frontcourt pileup.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale.