2018 NBA Free Agency: Predicting the Next Wave of Shameless Ring-Chasers
As NBA players age and the concept of career mortality gets real, priorities change.
For those who've secured their financial futures and moved past the desire to occupy starring roles (two pursuits that tend to dovetail), there's still something else worth pursuing.
Every offseason, a handful of veteran free agents prioritize their goals, putting a title at the top of the list and sacrificing money and status in the bargain. David West famously left a $12.2 million option on the table to ditch the Indiana Pacers for the San Antonio Spurs in 2015. He's since taken minimum deals with San Antonio and the Golden State Warriors in his quest for jewelry, finally winning a title with the 2016-17 Dubs.
The ideal ring-chaser doesn't have a championship yet, but that's not a prerequisite. He's also got to be willing to take less than his market value to sign with a winner. These guys are closer to the end of the line than the start and have slipped from their performance peaks, but they still have something to offer as a role player for the right contender.
Elephant in the Room: LeBron James
LeBron James is still at the height of his powers, which means he doesn't meet some of our key criteria. He can still command max money, which he insists on in every contract he signs, and there's no general manager in the world who'd add him to a roster as a mere role-filler.
But let's at least call James what he is: the NBA's ultimate ring-chaser.
Every decision (and Decision) he's made for the last decade or so has been about winning a title. James signs short-term deals precisely because he doesn't want to get stuck in a losing situation. It's especially smart for him to prize flexibility as he ages; there's no telling how much longer a 15-year vet can expect to keep playing. It could all be over in an instant.
James, of course, attracts the very types of players we're about to discuss because any team he plays for is instantly in the championship conversation. James Jones, now retired, comes to mind as one guy who chased his rings by going wherever James went.
The differences between James and everyone else we'll discuss are simple: He's not done earning heaps of cash, he's not in decline, and he's not ready to downsize his role.
But let's call him what he is: a Grade-A ring-chaser.
Age (as of Feb. 1, 2019): 33
Career Earnings: $25.9 million
2017-18 Stats: 8.9 points, 3.1 rebounds, 43.6 3PT%
As measured by VORP, win shares or virtually any other catch-all metric you like, Anthony Tolliver just had his best season at age 32. Primarily a wing during the middle portion of his career, Tolliver has played almost exclusively at the 4 over the past half-decade...and it's working for him.
He's a knockdown three-point shooter, though interested teams should price in some regression from last season's career-best conversion rate. Still, a power forward with a career three-point percentage of 37.6 percent has real value—especially one who still impacts the game defensively.
Tolliver ranked eighth in the NBA in charges drawn this year.
In 10 years, the journeyman has logged time with nine teams. Joining a new squad in pursuit of a title won't seem at all strange to a player with Tolliver's travel history.
Reliable outside shooting plays anywhere, and Tolliver makes the most of his limited looks. He hit 44.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes last season, a shot type that made up a whopping 76.4 percent of his total attempts. It's like if Channing Frye were a 4 who could actually defend his position.
Plus, there's the leadership angle, which former Detroit Pistons head coach and executive Stan Van Gundy outlined for reporters after Detroit signed Tolliver last summer:
"He's one of the highest-character guys in the NBA and what he will do in terms of leadership I think is important to our team, but it's important that he's a guy who can go out and play. It's tough to be a leader who's not playing and AT still plays at a high level. He models what a pro should be every single day in practice and games and then he'll speak up when appropriate."
Tolliver has just 13 playoff games to his name and has never advanced past the first round. It's time to rectify that.
Career Earnings: $117.6 million
2017-18 Stats: 10.3 points, 2.3 assists, 48.5 eFG%
By declining his 2018-19 option with the Minnesota Timberwolves and leaving $4.5 million on the table, Jamal Crawford should have his pick of several contending teams.
At his best (either 2009-10 or 2012-13), Crawford was a volume scorer with just enough efficiency to contribute to a solid offense. Most often, though, he's been a low-percentage chucker who functions best as a bailout option. Crawford is a high-floor, low-ceiling scorer—one who can get a shot up at any time.
There's value in his skill set. Just look at the way playoff basketball so often devolves into an isolation game when more sophisticated sets fail to yield opportunities.
Crawford will be a target on defense wherever he goes, but that'd be true of any 38-year-old veteran.
A team with championship aspirations could sign Crawford to a minimum deal and use him as a second-unit creator during the regular season, thereby saving the starters for the games that matter most. His durability is a major asset, having missed five games over the last three years. And if Crawford were to get hot in the playoffs, he could net his team a decisive quarter or two.
If nothing else, he'll humble young teammates in practice. Crawford can still cross anyone up.
Career Earnings: $167.1 million
2017-18 Stats: 5.4 points, 2.6 rebounds, 34.5 3PT%
Come on, Toronto Raptors. Do the right thing.
We won't suggest destinations for everyone here because it's far too soon to know what rosters will look like next season, but Vince Carter returning to his original team for a farewell tour just feels fated.
The oldest player in the NBA isn't opposed to the idea.
"It'll happen, I'm sure. ... It's supposed to happen, I think," Carter told reporters of a reunion when asked during the regular season.
Despite the fact his numbers took a significant dip in his 20th(!) season, Carter can still hit an open shot, make the right pass and defend ably in a sensible scheme. Though he's still capable of far greater feats of athleticism than anyone his age ought to be, counting on Carter to score in double figures or shut down an opposing wing is a mistake.
He'll play smart ball on both ends, offer counsel to anyone his junior (which is everyone) and produce respectable two-way stints—as long as they're only a few minutes at a time.
If you're the Raptors, and you'd like to add a wing on the cheap, Carter should be a serious consideration. Not just because of what he brings as a player but also because of the way his homecoming would detract from the immense pressure facing a would-be Eastern Conference power defined by perpetual postseason disappointment.
Want to inject some feel-good vibes into what should be a very tense season in Toronto? Go grab Vince Carter.
Career Earnings: $71.8 million
2017-18 Stats: 8.4 points, 2.1 assists, 34.8 3PT%
Devin Harris is still doing something right.
With the Dallas Mavericks last year, he was a key piece of a five-man unit that mopped up the league. Alongside J.J. Barea, Yogi Ferrell, Dwight Powell and Dirk Nowitzki, Harris helped produce a plus-19.4 net rating in 231 minutes. Only two lineups—the starters for the Philadelphia 76ers and a Minnesota Timberwolves quintet that included Tyus Jones, Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, Taj Gibson and Karl-Anthony Towns—posted higher net ratings in samples that large.
Things didn't go quite so well with the Denver Nuggets after a midseason trade, but Harris remains a trustworthy vet off the bench.
As he's aged, Harris has moved off the point guard spot, transitioning gradually to the 2. He can still facilitate when called upon, and one of his greatest strengths is ball security. His 2.5 turnovers per 100 possessions were the fewest of any rotation Nuggets guard this year.
Harris has been an All-Star and a 20-point scorer, but a title still eludes him. Though he spent two stints with the Dallas Mavericks, their championship run happened while he was in Utah for two seasons. With few years left, now's the time for Harris to add a ring.
Career Earnings: $66.2 million
2017-18 Stats: 5.0 points, 2.5 rebounds, 33.9 3PT%
Channing Frye already has a ring, which might mean his desire to chase another isn't as strong as the rest of these guys. But he's also the player on this list whose game should be the easiest sell for potential employers.
Just look at his last two postseason efforts.
In 2016, he shot 56.5 percent from long range. The next year, he hit 51.3 percent of his treys. A center who can do that without completely falling apart defensively is hard to find.
Granted, Frye didn't look much like that player this past season. That's partially why the Cleveland Cavaliers cut his minutes and eventually dealt him to the Los Angeles Lakers. But what you're paying for with Frye isn't an 82-game stretch of uninterrupted production. You're hoping to get a couple of hot games in a playoff series on the way to a title.
Frye is a perfect mid-series tweak, a guy who can slot into a lineup and immediately make conventional bigs uncomfortable with his range.
The package even comes with a sense of humor.