Way-Too-Early Ranking of Top Potential 2018 Free Agents

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 2, 2018

Way-Too-Early Ranking of Top Potential 2018 Free Agents

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    The NBA is in a state of constant acceleration.

    Sure, the game itself is getting faster, smarter and more streamlined. But the pace of the news cycle is picking up speed at an even more extreme rate. It is relentless—a 12-month sprint that has replaced now with next.

    So, of course, we're using the first days of the new year to look seven months into the future at 2018 free agency.

    We don't know what these players will command in terms of years or dollars, and in some cases, we're not even 100 percent certain they'll be on the market. But in cutting through the variables (and speculating about who'll accept or decline options), we can simplify these rankings by keeping the criteria simple.

    If you had your pick, which player would you want your team to sign?

    Implicit in answering that question are considerations like age, career trajectory, durability and fit. But ultimately, it comes down to whose contract you'd want on your books for the foreseeable future.

Honorable Mentions

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    Avery Bradley, Detroit Pistons

    A renowned on-ball menace, Bradley will be in demand as long as there are dangerous scorers to contain. So...forever.

    Reliable from deep (career 37 percent) and a consistent mid-teens scorer, Bradley offers value on both ends. He's not a big wing, so a decline in quickness could make him vulnerable against larger wings, and he's got to shelve the overconfident long-twos off the dribble. But Bradley is a starting-caliber guard with an elite skill on D.

                 

    Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks

    There's no questioning Parker's scoring chops, but health and defense are the concerns here. Will the breathtaking open-court speed and ball-handling survive Parker's second torn ACL? Can he change direction on a dime and explode to the rim like he used to? And if the answers are "no," could his defensive ineptitude render him little more than a bench scorer going forward? Parker's upside remains high, but it'd be foolish to ignore the possible low-end outcomes in his forecast.

                

    Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics

    A guy who can win you games by flopping is at least resourceful enough to warrant a mention here. Smart is still an abysmal shooter, albeit one undaunted by his consistent clanging. He still gets 'em up.

    In a strange way, his willingness to continue chucking might be valuable; at least a willing bad shooter doesn't grind the offense to a halt by refusing to take open looks. Smart's true value is on D, where he can handle three positions with grit, persistence and, yes, effective acting. It feels like he's destined to make big plays down the stretch of playoff games for the next 10 years.

                   

    J.J. Redick, Philadelphia 76ers

    There'll be calls for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Rodney Hood here, but if I'm investing in a shooting guard, I want the one who'll definitely stripe it from three and tie defenses in frantic knots by always sprinting around the floor. Redick's reputation has a literal impact; opponents know they cannot lose contact. He's a role player, sure, but he's great at it. And I don't think KCP or Hood offer enough extra to earn a mention over Redick.

                  

    Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers

    The version of Nurkic that showed up in Portland for 20 games last year would probably be a top-10 free agent, but I think we all suspected that surge was a bit of an outlier.

    Nurkic has been productive and of particular use on defense, where the Blazers remain surprisingly competent after several years near the bottom of the league. But he's still a conventional center in an era that doesn't value the position, and he's not as effective in that role as a handful of guys who'll rank ahead of him here.

10. Isaiah Thomas, PG, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    FA Type: Unrestricted

    2017-18 Salary: $6.3 Million

    Age on July 1, 2018: 29

    If only we were posting this list a couple of weeks later...

    The uncertainty surrounding Isaiah Thomas' hip injury is the only reason he doesn't rank higher. If we could be certain Thomas' quickness and scoring burst were still entirely intact, it'd be easy to slot him closer to the top five. We just haven't seen confirmation yet.

    Remember, this is a guy who led the 2016-17 Boston Celtics with a shockingly efficient 28.9 points per game. He dominated fourth quarters with unstoppable long-range shooting, filthy hesitation dribbles and uncanny interior finishing.

    But small guards age poorly, and Thomas is exceptionally small.

    If he loses a fraction of a step because of his hip (or simply because he's nearing age 30), the slivers of daylight he needs to get shots off in the lane might disappear. The inches of separation he once created might shrink to centimeters.

    There's real risk here—not of Thomas becoming a player without value, but of him being something less than the top option he was with the Celtics.

    An undersized defensive liability who might no longer be the dynamic bucket-getter he once was, Thomas will have to prove he's worth a big investment. Don't bet against him; just understand he'll have some work to do before teams get out their wallets to pay the max money he's long contended he's worth.

9. Aaron Gordon, F, Orlando Magic

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    FA Type: Restricted

    2017-18 Salary: $5.5 Million

    Age on July 1, 2018: 22

    Gordon's improved three-point shot and all-around game are encouraging, even if all he's proved so far is that he can be the best player on a bad team. He took a significant step forward during his fourth NBA season in Orlando.

    Youth is what gets him into the top 10 ahead of players who may currently be more valuable. Everyone else in the top 10 (save, perhaps Nikola Jokic) is in his prime or entering the decline phase of his career. Gordon is still on the way up—which makes his current production that much more impressive.

    There are only three guys averaging at least 18 points and eight rebounds per game while shooting at least 41 percent on threes this year: Gordon, Kevin Love and Karl-Anthony Towns.

    Not only is Gordon the second youngest player in that group; if he sustains those averages, he'll be the second youngest to ever post those numbers over a full season (while attempting at least 50 treys). Maybe the notion of him as a four-position defender is still mostly theoretical, and maybe Gordon needs to develop as a playmaker. But his mixture of productivity, skill development and youth makes him a viable max-contract candidate.

8. Clint Capela, C, Houston Rockets

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    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    FA Type: Restricted

    2017-18 Salary: $2.3 Million

    Age on July 1, 2018: 24

    It's difficult to divorce Clint Capela's productivity from his situation. No other team boasts better spacing, more accomplished pick-and-roll operators or a friendlier overall setup for a lob-catching big man than the Houston Rockets.

    But Capela, averaging a double-double and flashing significant growth as a defender (particularly when switched onto smaller opponents), wouldn't fall apart upon exiting Houston's tailor-made system as a free agent.

    Because everybody needs a rim-roller who defends the paint, finishes deftly and handles himself in a switch-heavy scheme.

    According to the Ringer's Kevin O'Connor, those skills, still evolving, should translate anywhere:

    "If you listen closely to games, you might hear Capela yelling for his guards to 'ice' pick-and-rolls, or to switch late in the clock. The vocal factor, in addition to his drastically improved body and understanding of angles, has taken his defense to a new level. Capela rarely commits careless fouls, or misses rotations — the latter of which was common when he was a teenager playing in France, and early on with the Rockets after Dwight Howard left."

    It was tempting to slot Capela higher. His youth and upward trajectory were real plusses, and unlike the case with Gordon behind him, we already know exactly how Capela fits on a very good team. But if availability is the best ability, the fact that Houston's center lacks the stamina of the next guy on the list has to be a consideration.

7. DeAndre Jordan, C, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    FA Type: Unrestricted (Player Option)

    2017-18 Salary: $22.6 Million

    Age on July 1, 2018: 29

    DeAndre Jordan is always healthy.

    With just six missed games since the start of the 2011-12 season, the veteran center offers a level of reliability no one else on this list can match.

    So while it's fair to price in age-related decline, the dwindling value of conventional centers and Jordan's diminished scoring efficiency during the post-Chris Paul phase of his career, you really can't overstate the importance of his consistent availability. A team that signs Jordan knows it'll have a lane-clogging, board-hoarding, oop-finishing presence on the floor every night.

    There's nothing worse than signing a big-money piece and watching it languish on the bench, unused, because of injury. Ask the Memphis Grizzlies how they feel about the Chandler Parsons deal they consummated two summers ago...

    DJ is not a game-changer. He doesn't elevate a team from playoff-contender to title threat.

    But he's substantially above average at his position, contributes on both ends and owns the best health track record of any big man you'll find.

6. DeMarcus Cousins, C, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    FA Type: Unrestricted

    2017-18 Salary: $18.1 Million

    Age on July 1, 2018: 27

    From Jordan's steadfast, borderline-boring dependability, we move to DeMarcus Cousins, ultimate wild card.

    The free-agent pursuit of Boogie is really a two-part process. The first involves marveling at his undeniable talent—watching in awe as he breaks down opposing centers off the dribble, buries high-volume threes at a 35 percent clip and flat-out bulldozes his way through interior resistance.

    Cousins is force personified, yet somehow a delicate, skillful operator. He's a boulder rolling down a hill—if that boulder could Eurostep.

    Part two of the process involves weighing all that against everything else.

    The pouting. The failure to get back on defense after perceived slights from officials. The turnovers. The dour facial expressions. The histrionics. And above all, the concern that this inextricable part of the Cousins package isn't just of equal weight with the first, but in a meaningful way, actually heavier. Does it infect teammates? Does it render coaches powerless? Does it genuinely poison the environment, making team success impossible?

    Cousins is a wildly talented player who comes with more risk than anyone on this list.

    How do you balance all that? By sticking him at No. 6, apparently.

5. Chris Paul, PG, Houston Rockets

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    FA Type: Unrestricted

    2017-18 Salary: $24.6 Million

    Age on July 1, 2018: 33

    Chris Paul is going to miss games, and if you want a point guard who knows what life is like beyond the second round of the playoffs, maybe he's not your guy.

    But CP3, when healthy, is still the league's preeminent floor general—one who'll get to any spot he wants while manipulating nine other bodies with a masterful understanding of space, angles and speed. He's as good in the pick-and-roll as anyone's ever been, he's deadly from mid-range, and he's now an elite three-point shooter, hitting at least 39 percent from deep in three of his last four seasons.

    Note, too, that Paul has been the NBA's best defensive point guard for roughly a decade. Check the resume: nine All-Defense selections and the top Defensive Real Plus-Minus figure among points guards in each of his last two seasons.

    Despite the spotty postseason record, Paul is the first guy on this list who passes a key test: If he's your best player, you're definitely not missing the playoffs. And if you've got halfway decent talent around him, you're at least a fringe title contender.

    Paul's per-36 scoring and assist numbers are right in line with his career averages, but you probably can't use him for 36 minutes a night, and he's missed 65 games over the last four-plus seasons.

    Understand the limitations but appreciate the continued Hall of Fame production when Paul is healthy. He's one of the best to ever do it, and that's good enough for a top-five spot, caveats and all.

4. Nikola Jokic, C, Denver Nuggets

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    David Sherman/Getty Images

    FA Type: Restricted

    2017-18 Salary: $1.5 Million

    Age on July 1, 2018: 23

    Nikola Jokic could hardly be more different than Paul in almost every way that matters. He is a decade younger and plays a different position. His passing is playful, impish. Paul's is similarly designed to flummox (even embarrass) opponents, but it's somehow meaner in spirit.

    If Jokic is the jester, Paul is the court executioner.

    But, as is the case when you've got Paul on your team, Jokic's presence as the primary decision-maker means you're guaranteed an excellent offense.

    We learned that last year when Jokic took over starting duties in mid-December, after which the Denver Nuggets scored more efficiently than anyone in the league. And we've seen it play out again this season, as the Nugs own a top-10 offense overall, but one that is a couple of points per 100 possessions better than that whenever Jokic is on the floor.

    Jokic isn't a good defender, but he can improve. He's young enough and savvy enough to become a plus on that end. And there just aren't many centers who can get you 16.2 points, 10.1 rebounds and 4.5 assists while shooting 37 percent from long range.

    Actually, other than Jokic, there aren't any centers who can get you those numbers. Not now. Not ever before.

    Some housekeeping: The Nuggets technically have a team option on Jokic for 2018-19, but they're likely to decline it and send the big man into restricted free agency. Were they to pick up the option, Jokic would hit unrestricted free agency in 2019, costing Denver massive negotiating leverage. They'll keep him at almost any price regardless, but it's worth understanding the mechanics at work.

3. Paul George, SF, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    FA Type: Unrestricted

    2017-18 Salary: $19.5 Million

    Age on July 1, 2018: 28

    In each of George's last four full seasons, he's been an All-Star. In three of the four, he's been on an All-NBA team and an All-Defense team.

    He's been the best player on two conference finalists, held his own in head-to-head postseason battles with LeBron James and indisputably become one of the best two-way wings in the game. Now, faced with the challenge of fitting alongside ball-dominant Russell Westbrook, George is showing he can rely on defense (league-leading 2.5 steals per game) and spot-up shooting (career-best 42.6 percent from deep) to fill in gaps as an ego-free second option.

    There aren't many top-tier talents willing to fill in gaps for the good of the team, but that's what we're seeing from George this season.

    Outside of the league's absolute elite (we're talking perennial MVP candidates), you can't do much better than George—a guy who can reliably shuttle between four positions, excel on or off the ball and shut down the opponent's most dangerous wing.

    At 27 (he'll turn 28 in May), George is smack in his prime and will make a terrific cornerstone for any team lucky enough to max him out the Lakers.

2. Kevin Durant

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    Noah Graham/Getty Images

    FA Type: Unrestricted (Player Option)

    2017-18 Salary: $25 Million

    Age on July 1, 2018: 29

    Kevin Durant is currently the NBA leader in blocked shots, which is remarkable considering he's also led the league in total points five times.

    Wilt Chamberlain was the points leader in several seasons, and he probably topped it in blocks more than once. But we don't have his swat totals because the NBA wasn't recording them back then, so we're only speculatively including him. Otherwise, the only players to officially lead the league in both total points and blocks (though never in the same season) were David Robinson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

    Point being: Durant is a rare talent.

    This mid-career defensive development is a game-changer. It takes perhaps the single most unstoppable scorer in the sport and adds a fascinating wrinkle. Now, Durant doesn't have to put up 35 points to control a game. And since he's always going to score, what we're really seeing is a guy who dominates both ends.

    Length doesn't age, so KD figures to be shooting over the top of defenders and blocking shots as long as he's standing upright. A player whose offensive game could easily age into that of Dirk Nowitzki while maintaining far more defensive mobility is a a zero-risk investment.

    Durant will be contending for MVP awards (and now earning All-Defense consideration) for at least another half-decade.

    The guy ahead of KD must really be something...

1. LeBron James, F, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

    FA Type: Unrestricted (Player Option)

    2017-18 Salary: $33.3 Million

    Age on July 1, 2018: 33

    The only way to talk yourself into putting Durant ahead of James is to scrap all the other factors and focus on age.

    Four years is significant—particularly when James' mileage (he's logged over 15,000 more minutes than Durant, plus nearly 5,000 more postseason minutes) is so incomprehensibly high at this stage of his career. But when you look at how James is actually operating at a higher level than ever right now, it's more difficult to put stock in the age discrepancy.

    LeBron is posting career highs in effective field-goal percentage and assist rate. He's leading the league in PER while matching his personal best in block rate. His rebound rate is just a hair off his career high. The signs of decline just aren't there.

    So if you're leaning on age as a reason to expect a drop-off, there's just no connective tissue to that argument. Most players slip as they get older, but James, clearly, is not most players.

    Unless you're convinced James' mileage means he's more susceptible to catastrophic injury than Durant (which also feels illogical because KD's health record is far more concerning), age is effectively irrelevant.

    James is the best player in the world at age 33. Barring something unexpected, he'll be something close to that for the foreseeable future.

    All 30 teams would move heaven and earth to pay James whatever he wants for as long as he wants it.

             

    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or NBA.com unless otherwise specified. Salary info via Basketball Insiders.

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