2019 NBA Free Agency: Ranking the 5 Best Players at Every Position

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 4, 2019

2019 NBA Free Agency: Ranking the 5 Best Players at Every Position

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    Mark Blinch/Getty Images

    Attention all 2019 NBA free-agent shoppers: Your long-awaited circular is finally here.

    Everyone with an offseason itch to scratch can find something they like.

    Need a small forward? You'll find no shortage of star power there, provided you have the budget to do some high-end shopping. How about a center? You might be surprised to see how much outside shooting that position offers.

    Which five players make up the best free-agency investments for next season and beyond? That's what we're dissecting by using production, potential and more to show how clubs should prioritize each position for maximum impact.

No. 5 Point Guard: Goran Dragic, Miami Heat

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    Joel Auerbach/Associated Press

    Age: 32

    Type of Free Agency: Player Option

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 14.6 points, 3.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.2 blocks

    It's been a rough season for the Dragon, lowlighted by a multiple-month absence due to knee surgery. Between the injuries and his age, bypassing his $19.2 million player option seems unlikely.

    If he does hit the market, though, he'd attract teams for his relentless downhill scoring, above-average shooting (36.3 percent from deep during his career) and solid-not-spectacular shot-creation.

    He understands how to change paces and gain leverage on his defenders. His craftiness around the basket has yielded a career 65.7 percent conversion rate inside three feet—a stellar mark for a 6'3" guard who's never wowed with athleticism.

    He might be gradually declining. But as a late bloomer—he didn't become a full-time starter until 2012-13—his venture into his mid-30s could be smoother than most.

No. 4 Point Guard: Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Quinn Harris/Getty Images

    Age: 26

    Type of Free Agency: Restricted

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 15.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.2 blocks

    Surprised to see Brogdon slotted fourth at his position? That's fine. If you've followed his career, you'd know the University of Virginia product is big on surprises.

    He was the 36th pick in the 2016 draft then became 2016-17's Rookie of the Year, which made him the first player taken outside the opening round to win the award in the common draft era, per ESPN Stats & Info. His sophomore season featured leaps in scoring and shooting efficiency, but a partially torn tendon in his left quad robbed him of more than two months.

    While a foot injury cut short his 2018-19 regular season, he stayed healthy long enough to engineer yet another breakout. Beside hitting new highs in points, rebounds and player efficiency rating (17.9), he's compiled a brilliant 50.5/42.6/92.8 shooting slash.

    His volume contributions don't jump off the page, and his game doesn't have enough flash to make him a highlight-reel regular. But he's above-average to good in most areas, and his ability to blend his skills to whatever the game dictates is an invaluable trait for a high-level role player.

No. 3 Point Guard: D'Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Age: 23

    Type of Free Agency: Restricted

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 21.0 points, 3.8 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.2 blocks

    Did you fire off any regretful #HotTakes about Russell during his first two rocky seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers? Don't worry. You were far from the only one.

    "Everybody was wrong, obviously," Russell said, per Brian Lewis of the New York Post. "Everybody was wrong about me. So I don't have to say anything."

    Russell apparently prefers to have his stats serve crow to all his critics. Try this on for size: The first-time All-Star is en route to joining Allen Iverson as the only players to average at least 21 points, seven assists and two triples by the conclusion of an age-22 season. 

    Russell has the handles and vision to dominate the ball, as well as the jumper to thrive off it. He's smooth as silk finding shots for himself and his teammates, and his leadership abilities are at the heart of Brooklyn's rise from lottery-dweller to potential playoff participant.

No. 2 Point Guard: Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Age: 28

    Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 25.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.4 blocks

    You wouldn't know it from name recognition, endorsement deals or screen time, but Walker is right on Kyrie Irving's heels for the title of top free-agent point guard. In fact, some feel the former belongs atop the list.

    "Walker is one of the biggest offensive impact players in the NBA, he has a more reliable injury history and appears to be a more stable locker room presence," ESPN's Andre Snellings wrote. "Thus, I buy that Walker is actually a better free-agent target than Irving this offseason."

    So, why isn't he in our top spot? For a couple of reasons.

    For starters, Walker is about to turn 29, while Irving just celebrated his 27th birthday. You could argue Irving's injury history mitigates that advantage—or point out that the 2011 draft classmates have similar NBA mileage—but there's still no dialing back the clock.

    Beyond that, we know Irving is capable of delivering on the game's biggest stage.

    While the Hornets' roster mismanagement around Walker is the primary culprit behind his lack of playoff success, his entire postseason resume features just 11 games. We've seen him function as the best player on a decent team, but projecting anything more requires a leap of faith.

No. 1 Point Guard: Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    Age: 27

    Type of Free Agency: Player Option

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 24.0 points, 5.1 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.5 blocks

    It's been a strange season for the Celtics—a popular pick to win the LeBron James-less East who now find themselves fighting for the No. 4 seed. It's also been a peculiar one for Irving, who pledged his loyalty to Boston in October before backtracking a few months later.

    As the franchise focal point, he could take some heat if Boston falls severely short of expectations. He has admitted his leadership hasn't always been up to par. Some durability questions also persist, as this will be the third time in four seasons he doesn't reach the 70-game mark.

    But he's one of the NBA's toughest covers off the bounce, and he's flirting with a 50/40/90 shooting slash for the third consecutive campaign. Plus, he has proved annual All-Stars can learn new tricks, as his rebounds, assists, steals and blocks are all personal bests.

No. 5 Shooting Guard: Terrence Ross, Orlando Magic

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Age: 28

    Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 14.5 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.4 blocks

    Ross' free-agent profile feels familiar. The former lottery pick struggled with consistency and underwhelmed more often than not during his first six seasons, but he's hitting his stride in season No. 7—a contract year.

    Raised-eyebrow skepticism is reasonable, if not warranted.

    Then again, the same tools that made him the eighth overall pick in 2012 are still present. He has competed in the dunk contest and had a legitimate argument to join this year's three-point shootout. The league isn't exactly swimming in 6'7" wings with both explosive hops and a fiery three-ball.

    Teams shouldn't break the bank for Ross, who operates best in a quick-strike role off the bench. But his ability to ignite—16 games with 20-plus points—could make him a valuable reserve for a win-now club looking to bolster its second unit.

No. 4 Shooting Guard: Jeremy Lamb, Charlotte Hornets

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Age: 26

    Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 15.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.4 blocks

    You could almost copy and paste the writeup on Ross here. Lamb is another former lottery pick who appears to be figuring things out just when doing so is most beneficial to his bank account.

    It's up to executives to figure out whether the career-high points, boards and threes are contract-year mirages or signs of actual growth. First-year Hornets coach James Borrego leans toward the latter.

    "Hornets coach James Borrego said Lamb is a better driver and passer than he appreciated from afar when Borrego was an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs," Rick Bonnell wrote for the Charlotte Observer. "Just as importantly, Lamb hasn't been a liability as a defender."

    Lamb offers an interesting mix of length, athleticism and shot-making, and there's almost an effortless aspect to his game. While he doesn't impact as many areas as his physical tools say he should, he's proved a combustible scorer with more room to grow in that role.

No. 3 Shooting Guard: Danny Green, Toronto Raptors

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    Age: 31

    Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 10.3 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.6 blocks

    Kawhi Leonard isn't the only ex-San Antonio Spur perking up in his first season north of the border. Green, who joined Leonard in last summer's blockbuster exchange, looks rejuvenated in his first go-round with the Raptors.

    Truth be told, Green might be even better than before. His perimeter makes (2.5 per game) and three-point percentage (45.7) are both personal bests, and his 46.6 field-goal conversion rate is the second-highest he's had. This is his second-best season on the glass and third-best in the points column.

    "Danny just kind of does his thing and his thing is to play team basketball, hang out and take shots when they come to him and he'll make a big one late," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said, per Doug Smith of the Toronto Star.

    While Green plays a no-frills game, his impact is astronomic. He paces all shooting guards with a 4.47 real plus-minus, per ESPN, and leads the Raptors with a gargantuan plus-17.6 net differential.

    He's low-maintenance, playoff-experienced and versatile enough to move all across the defensive perimeter. Don't be surprised if his free-agency bidding blows past what you'd ever expect for a 10-year pro with a single-digit career scoring average.

No. 2 Shooting Guard: JJ Redick, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Age: 34

    Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 17.7 points, 2.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.2 blocks

    While Redick's 35th birthday looms in June, his three-point stroke is quickly becoming one of basketball's best anti-aging devices. If his current output holds, he will post a new career high in scoring for the eighth time in the last 10 seasons.

    As modern executives will be quick to note, he's also taking (7.9 per game) and making (3.1) more threes than ever before. While his efficiency has endured a slight hit, it's dropped him to "only" 39.1 percent. Since his career conversion rate is 41.2 percent, a bounce back over 40 feels likely, if not inevitable.

    He's more than a just a designated sniper, too. His off-ball activity puts constant strain on opposing defenses, which is part of the reason his 8.0 net differential trails only Joel Embiid in Philly. Redick's hoops IQ is easy to spot in his clever play during two-man actions, and he'll exploit overzealous closeouts with dribble drives into mid-range pull-ups and floaters.

    Those are just the bonus points, though. The main draw is Redick's quantity-plus-quality range shooting, and every team in the league could use more of that.

No. 1 Shooting Guard: Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Age: 29

    Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 22.0 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.6 blocks

    Thompson's 30th birthday isn't until next February, and he's already one of history's sharpest shooters.

    He ranks among the all-time top 20 in career three-point makes (1,789, 16th) and percentage (41.93, 13th). He has the third-most splashes since entering the Association in 2011-12 and has the fourth-highest accuracy rate among players with 500-plus triples over that stretch.

    As a cold-blooded marksman alone, he might be a top-five free agent.

    But how many snipers also happen to be 22-point scorers, shut-down defenders and increasingly potent off-the-dribble shot-creators? How many other players can engineer a 37-point quarter (none) or reach the 60-point threshold in 30 minutes and 33 field-goal attempts (also none)?

    As much as Thompson's range shooting might make you want to call him a specialist, you don't see specialists booking five consecutive All-Star trips (and counting). If he looks beyond Golden State—he'd prefer not to—he'd find himself on the wish list of nearly every offseason shopper. 

No. 5 Small Forward: Bojan Bogdanovic, Indiana Pacers

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Age: 29

    Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 18.2 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.9 steals

    Ever wonder how the Pacers have avoided a complete collapse despite losing Victor Oladipo to a season-ending knee injury? A huge part of it is Bogdanovic, who's proving the existence of the 29-year-old breakout.

    This entire campaign has been revelatory, as he's pushed his way into previously unseen levels of offensive quantity and quality. But his post-Oladipo-injury performance has been the most dramatic example of that growth. Bogdanovic, who averaged 12.1 points over his first four NBA seasons, has seamlessly shifted into the featured role and delivered 21.6 points on 51.2/42.4/79.4 shooting.

    "I always talk about 'giddy-up' and 'whoa,' and he's one of those guys I have to say 'whoa' to," Pacers head coach Nate McMillan said, per The Athletic's Bob Kravitz. "He just keeps showing growth in his game because we're using him differently now and we're depending on him more."

    Bogdanovic's shooting touch is as soft as warm butter, and he can snake past defenders off the bounce, punish smaller players in the post and exploit a sleepy stopper with perfectly timed off-ball cuts. He's also often asked to handle the opposition's top wing. That he could have this many two-way strengths and still sit fifth speaks to the strength of this small forward class.

No. 4 Small Forward: Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Age: 27

    Type of Free Agency: Player Option

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 18.1 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.1 blocks

    Remember when Middleton used to be the best player no one talked about? The analytics crowd caught on first when he earned a 10th-place finish in real plus-minus for the 2014-15 campaign. But the rest of the hoops world has since come around, and the swingman earned an overdue All-Star nod for the first time this season.

    He's kind of the ultimate glue guy—but even better than that sounds.

    While he can fill the adhesive role by molding his game to address any of Milwaukee's needs, you don't think of glue guys scoring 30-plus points (which he's done a dozen times since the start of last season) or drilling game-winners, as he's done time and time again.

    His offensive arsenal is loaded. He can shred nets as a spot-up splasher, his length allows him to shoot unbothered over the top of defenders and he can generate shots at any point of the possession. Defensively, he can shift through multiple assignments with the strength to check bigs and the lateral mobility to stay in front of attacking guards.

    He might not have the stats or signature skill of a star, but he fits this critical part of the definition: He elevates everyone around him.

No. 3 Small Forward: Jimmy Butler, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Age: 29

    Type of Free Agency: Player Option

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 19.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.6 blocks

    The buyer-beware cautions are more prevalent with Butler than you'd expect for a 20-something with four All-Star appearances under his belt. And no, that has nothing to do with his messy divorces from the Chicago Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves.

    Rather, it's the injuries and mileage that have piled up on his body. He's twice been a prized pupil of Tom Thibodeau, meaning Butler has logged a preposterous amount of playing time. He paced the entire league with 38.7 minutes per game in 2014-15—one of five seasons in which he finished with top-five average floor time. He's also missed double-digit games in six of his eight campaigns.

    So yeah, risk exists here. He's also one of the top two-way talents in the business.

    He's a four-time All-Defensive selection with the physical assets, mental makeup and nonstop motor to continue piling up the accolades at that end. The other way, he functions as both a three-level scorer and secondary playmaker who can perk up in either role when the stakes are highest.

    If he cashes out in a major way, his contract may not age gracefully. But he'll be so productive up front that his club could still come out far ahead.

No. 2 Small Forward: Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Age: 27

    Type of Free Agency: Player Option

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 26.8 points, 7.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.4 blocks

    Don't let the positional ranking fool you. Leonard is our second-ranked free agent overall, and he could present a compelling case for the top spot if not for some lingering health concerns.

    After he lost all but nine games to injury last season, he has treated the ascension to NBA stardom like he's getting back on a bicycle. The points and boards are both career highs for the three-time All-Star, and he's the only 25-points-per-game scorer shooting at least 49 percent from the field and 37 percent from distance.

    The Raptors, who bet big on their ability to re-sign him, have handled him with kid gloves by baking rest into his workload early and often. That could raise some eyebrows this summer about his ability to sustain such a high level over a full 82-game slate.

    But when he makes it inside the lines, he's a dominant presence on both ends. In other words, 70 games of Leonard—plus whatever he logs in the postseason—is more valuable than what most players could provide over 82.

No. 1 Small Forward: Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Age: 30

    Type of Free Agency: Player Option

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 26.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.1 blocks

    Need justification for this ranking? We'll let Durant's new teammate, Andrew Bogut, handle it.

    "That he's arguably the best player in the world," Bogut said, per NBC Sports Bay Area's Monte Poole, when asked about his first impressions.

    Durant has everything you'd want in a franchise centerpiece and then some. He has the length of a center, the explosiveness of a bouncy wing and the handles and shot-making skill of an elite scoring guard. His point production will always be his most noticeable contribution (he's fifth in career scoring average), but he continues to grow as a glass-cleaner, distributor and long-limbed disruptor every year.

    He's threatening Stephen Curry's throne as king of the on/off splits, with the Warriors faring 15.4 points better per 100 possessions with him than without. Durant probably won't factor into the MVP race as long as he's on such a stacked roster in Golden State, but, like Bogut said, he could win the best-player-on-the-planet argument.

No. 5 Power Forward: Thaddeus Young, Indiana Pacers

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Age: 30

    Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 12.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.5 blocks

    There's nothing glamorous about Young's game, but that's the point. The Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year Award nominee has made a career out of doing the little things that put his club in the best position to win.

    He might top out as a fifth starter on a really good team, but he'll earn his spot with the opening group. His offensive toolbox is loaded with complementary skills, whether he's a ball-mover, rebounder, post-scorer or occasional three-point shooter.

    But he usually leaves his greatest imprint on the defensive end.

    Armed with a lengthy wingspan and a motor that consistently runs high without overheating, he's almost always in the right place at the right time. You need to see him to truly appreciate his effort, but it's still captured by top-20 rankings in steals (1.5, 20th), deflections (3.3, sixth) and charges drawn (0.28, 11th).

No. 4 Power Forward: Paul Millsap, Denver Nuggets

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    Age: 34

    Type of Free Agency: Team Option

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 12.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.8 blocks

    Millsap shines brighter for his floor than his ceiling, which gets tricky when his age and growing injury issues enter the equation. Considering the lack of high-level reward and the fact he's missed double-digit contests for three consecutive years, he carries a decent amount of risk.

    But he's still a strong support piece when deployed correctly.

    He may never log 30 minutes per night again, but he's the same grunt-work superstar in controlled doses. He not only leads the Nuggets in net differential (plus-8.7), but his is 4.0 points per 100 possessions higher than that of the next rotation regular (Gary Harris at plus-4.7).

    Millsap is a bit more skilled than the average glue guy, even if that's the best descriptor of his game. With him, it's not about a great strength in any area but rather the lack of a glaring weakness across the board. His per-minute contributions are in line with his career rates, and player efficiency rating still regards him well above average (18.2).

No. 3 Power Forward: Julius Randle, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

    Age: 24

    Type of Free Agency: Player Option

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 21.1 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.6 blocks

    Randle may not have the deepest bag of offensive tricks, but he's good at what he does and never stops trying to do it.

    The entire arena might know the southpaw is trying to go left, but his relentless drive and rapid first step consistently get him to his preferred side. And once he has a head of steam, there's little hope in stopping the 6'9", 250-pounder who has turned 498 drives into 143 field goals and 79 free throws.

    "He's one of the best rim attackers in the game right now," Stanley Johnson said, per Pelicans.com's Jim Eichenhofer. "He's up there with guys like Giannis [Antetokounmpo], LeBron [James]. The way he plays the game and puts pressure on defenses, it reminds of Giannis or Joel Embiid. You see him put 45 on people's heads. It's like you know what's coming, but you can't really stop it."

    Johnson's quote has some bias and hyperbole in it, but his basic point holds true. There's no easy way to handle someone with Randle's size, strength and quickness, which is why the big man is slotted 20th in post-All-Star scoring at 23.8 points per game.

No. 2 Power Forward: Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Age: 23

    Type of Free Agency: Restricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 22.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.8 steals, 2.4 blocks

    Porzingis has been accused of raping a woman while a member of the New York Knicks last year, which makes discussion of his free agency silly at best. But we'll nevertheless try to keep the focus on the court, where he intrigues but carries risk, as well.

    His upside is towering—maybe the highest of any player in this free-agent class. He's a 7'3" rim protector and a comfortable, capable perimeter player who splashed 39.5 percent of his triples in his last (partially) healthy season. During that campaign, he produced an unprecedented combination of points, rejections and triples.

    But he hasn't suited up in more than a year due to an ACL tear and had battled the injury bug before that. At the time of that blow, he'd played 186 of a possible 219 games since entering the league, losing time to various injuries from his right shoulder to his right ankle and foot. He also shot just 41.0 percent from the field over his final 24 games that season, which suggests that a heavily featured role might've taken its toll on him.

    As a player, he's still a max-contract candidate given his superstar potential. But it's no longer the slam-dunk decision his pedigree and production suggest it should be.

No. 1 Power Forward: Tobias Harris, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    Age: 26

    Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 20.4 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.5 blocks

    For the sixth time in seven seasons, Harris is about to average more points than the previous campaign. Player development is rarely linear, but his entire career is essentially an arrow pointing directly up.

    This year has seen Harris at his best, and not just in the scoring department.

    He's also rebounding and distributing at career-high rates, plus he's piecing together an impeccable 49.4/40.6/86.7 slash line. Since 2000, only five other qualified players have averaged 20-plus points on 49/40/86 shooting; their names are Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Dirk Nowitzki and Kyrie Irving.

    Harris' improvement as a perimeter shooter is arguably the most important step he's taken to date. He's never been the most reliable defender or creative passer, so his value was largely tied to inside-the-arc scoring for much of his first six seasons. But now that he's averaging two threes at a 40 percent clip for the second straight year, it's easy as ever to buy him as a legitimate No. 2 option.

No. 5 Center: Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Age: 31

    Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 12.6 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.6 steals, 2.2 blocks

    If you want rebounds and rim-rockers from your center, you probably think this spot should be reserved for DeAndre Jordan. But it's 2019, folks. Give us a stretch big over a space-clogger any day.

    Lopez, a post-scoring specialist in a past life, has become one of the stretchiest 5s in the business under Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer. He already has the most threes ever buried by a 7-footer (185 and counting), and his long balls are longer than most. He's hit 137 shots from beyond 25 feet; the No. 2 center is Karl-Anthony Towns with 92.

    Having a 5 who can pull his defender away from the rim is invaluable. The Bucks' top scorer, Giannis Antetokounmpo, rarely launches threes. Their point guard, Eric Bledsoe, only converts 32.5 percent of his. And yet, Milwaukee sits third in offensive efficiency thanks in no small part to Lopez's ability to keep driving lanes uncluttered and passing windows as wide as possible.

    His paint protection is just as sharp. He's fifth in blocks and third among high-volume interior defenders in opponents' field-goal percentage at the rim (53.0). His lack of mobility can hurt him in the wrong scheme, but he anchors Budenholzer's defense just fine.

No. 4 Center: Marc Gasol, Toronto Raptors

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    Age: 34

    Type of Free Agency: Player Option

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 13.9 points, 7.9 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.1 blocks

    For a couple of years in Memphis, Gasol was both an All-Star and a popular pick in any best-center discussions. He's neither of those things anymore, but his midseason move to Toronto shows how effective he can be in a limited role.

    Everything about the Raptors is better when Gasol is involved. Their fifth-ranked offense jumps by 10.8 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor. Their fifth-ranked defense grows 4.7 points stingier per 100 possessions when he's working the back line.

    Even if he's a diminished version of himself, he started from such a high point that he still has plenty left to give.

    He's been a good-to-great outside shooter the past three years, a brilliant passer for the bulk of his career and always an expert communicator on defense. You can still run offense through him for prolonged stretches, and he's a reliable insurance policy on the defensive interior.

No. 3 Center: Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic

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    Doug McSchooler/Associated Press

    Age: 28

    Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 20.6 points, 12.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.1 blocks

    Vucevic is the summer's biggest contract-year riddle, both in terms of literal size and likely earnings.

    In some ways, he's always been building toward a season like this. His average shot distance has consistently trended up, so it's not overly surprising to see him getting comfortable from range. His per-minute scoring, rebounding and passing rates are all at career levels, but none has jumped up an unfathomable degree.

    Defensively, though, he's almost unrecognizable (in a good way).

    Just two seasons back, he wasn't even a top-20 center in defensive real plus-minus. Now, the metric regards him as the sixth-best stopper overall. His 4.5 defensive win shares almost double last season's mark of 2.3.

    If that's evidence of growth, then kudos to him and congratulations to whoever signs him this summer. But only once in eight seasons has he resembled a star. That doesn't mean avoid him—few 7-footers can match his offensive skill—but handing him a blank check may not be the best idea.

No. 2 Center: Al Horford, Boston Celtics

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    Associated Press

    Age: 32

    Type of Free Agency: Player Option

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 13.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.3 blocks

    Horford is somehow both a five-time All-Star and still perpetually unappreciated.

    For instance, you might be looking at his stats right now and thinking there's no way he's the second-best free-agent-to-be at the 5. But in an era increasingly defined by versatility, he offers almost as much as any center. He's about to join his 2016-17 version and seven other players as the only ones to average 13 points, six boards, four dimes, a block and a three.

    "If Horford isn't the [Celtics'] best player ... then he's their most important one," SB Nation's Paul Flannery wrote. "The big man is the team's anchor both offensively and defensively and emotional rock."

    Horford can do it all, but he never loses sight of the greater good and will sacrifice stats if necessary. He might be losing a half-step as age and injuries catch up to him—the biggest reason he's not ranked No. 1—but he's a plug-and-play winner with loads of experience and nary a noticeable weakness.

No. 1 Center: DeMarcus Cousins, Golden State Warriors

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Age: 28

    Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 16.1 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.6 blocks

    Maybe it's wishful thinking to bet on a 28-year-old with limited contributions to winning teams, or on a 6'11", 270-pounder still working his way back to 100 percent from a torn Achilles. But if we're talking talent, Cousins is in a different weight class than all these centers and most of the other free agents listed above.

    The last time he was in a semi-featured role—sharing touches with Anthony Davis on the 2017-18 New Orleans Pelicans—he averaged 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 2.2 triples, 1.6 blocks and 1.6 steals. The Association had never seen across-the-board dominance like that.

    Cousins can't earn anything resembling a starring role on the overloaded Warriors, but he usually produces like an All-Star when involved at that level. His last time out, he blitzed the 51-win Denver Nuggets and their top-10 defense for 28 points, 13 boards, five dimes, two threes, two blocks and two thefts.

    "That's what he expects to do," Stephen Curry told reporters afterward. "[Cousins is] still building a foundation coming off the injury. ... He wants to let people know he's still DeMarcus Cousins, and he can dominate a game."

    Cousins probably has as much at stake financially as any playoff participant.

    Tons of questions remain unanswered. Can he sustain strong play, support a heavy workload and perform on the postseason stage for the first time? But if he can resemble what he was before the injury—a nearly unguardable big man with an impossible blend of size, power, skill and fluidity—Boogie could convince someone to break the bank for his services this summer.


    Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com and current heading into games on April 3. Salary information via Basketball Insiders.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.