2014 Free Agent Primer: Ball handlers
With the free-agent negotiating period set to begin on July 1, we will be ranking the best ball handlers, wing players and big men available. First up: ball handlers.
A few notes before revealing our top 20:
• Several players listed below might never reach the market because they can decline early termination options or exercising player options to stay with their current teams.
• Nuggets guard Nate Robinson was excluded because he has said he intends to exercise his player option after missing the last three months of the season with a torn ACL.
• Also missing from the list are players with nonguaranteed contracts who seem unlikely to be released. That group includes San Antonio's Tony Parker, Washington's Andre Miller, Houston's Patrick Beverley, Orlando's Jameer Nelson and the Lakers' Kendall Marshall.
I suspect James will draw interest if he decides to become a free agent.
Bledsoe's rare physical gifts and full-throttle game proved to be a perfect fit for Phoenix's wide-open style. He increased his usage and efficiency while playing more minutes per game for the Suns than he did for the Clippers, who carefully managed his role in the previous three seasons. Rival teams will be interested in capturing some of that magic, but the Suns have insisted that they will match any offer. At 24, Bledsoe -- who missed 39 games with knee and shin injuries -- is already one of the league's finest perimeter defenders and a rapidly developing ball handler. Terrifyingly, Bledsoe's weaknesses are crumbling. He improved as a playmaker last season and upped his mid-range accuracy to 40.6 percent from 31.5 percent. His best days are ahead of him, yet already Bledsoe is threatening to burst through the tiers of the point guard hierarchy.
3. Dwyane Wade, Heat (SG, 32)
2013-14 stats: 32.9 MPG, 19.0 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 4.7 APG, 54.5 FG%, 28.1 3FG%
Status: Unrestricted (Early termination option)
Wade's minutes and knees demand to be managed -- he sat out 28 games last season, many for rest -- and even then there's a possibility of breakdown. But let's not lose sight of the player beneath the asterisk. Wade remains a top shot creator who can hit difficult looks and manufacturing easy ones. His performance enabled Miami to keep afloat without James on the floor, an achievement that seems all the more impossible after watching the Heat's supporting cast cave in the NBA Finals. There's room for him to have regressed and still be a force. The profile of Wade's game has changed plenty over the years, in part because the blunt, straight-line pick-and-rolls he used to run have been scrubbed almost entirely. He drives headfirst to the basket less and less, instead picking his spots on cuts and shorter pick-and-rolls. Still, he's impactful enough to rate as a star. It's when we move beyond the present -- into the third or fourth year of a potential deal, when Wade will be 35 with knees going on 60 -- that concern should start to creep in.
The simplest explanation for Toronto's unexpected surge to a franchise-record 48 victories: Lowry rode a contract-year showcase to an All-Star-worthy season. He's a legitimate two-way player at a position that has so few of them, with many of the best offensive point guards ranging from miserable to tolerable on defense. Whether that distinction is reflected in his next contract remains to be seen. Working against Lowry is a rather notorious reputation, as none of his former coaches seemed to enjoy working with him much. Lowry's stubbornness is apparent. The behind-the-scenes difficulties have been too consistent throughout his career for him to be wholly misrepresented. Much of that extracurricular trouble is tolerable, though, when Lowry is producing as effectively as he did last season. All of five players surpassed Lowry's averages in points (17.4) and assists (7.4) last season: Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, John Wall and Ty Lawson. Of those five, only Curry scored more efficiently from the field. The lesson therein: Sign Lowry now, pick up the Tylenol later.
5. Lance Stephenson, Pacers (SG, 23)
2013-14 stats: 35.3 MPG, 13.8 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 4.6 APG, 49.1 FG%, 35.2 3FG%
The basketball world is terrified of Stephenson -- and rightfully so. On the one hand, Stephenson's unrestricted free agency -- which comes after the former second-round pick made $1 million last season to complete a four-year deal -- offers a rare opportunity to bid openly on a 23-year-old quasi-star. On the other, Stephenson's defiant streak was overt enough within the Pacers' bubble and could threaten to consume him entirely if he's given too much freedom. Keep in mind that this, in theory, was Stephenson on his best behavior, auditioning for Larry Bird and executives everywhere. Some team will inevitably bite, with Indiana as the favorite given its lack of alternatives. A return to the Pacers could be for the best. If the idea behind signing Stephenson is to unleash his talent a la James Harden, that very act could enable him to shake loose of all reason and discipline. Keeping with the Pacers at least allows Stephenson to continue apace with a franchise that understands him, hopefully to the point of reeling in his more destructive tendencies.
It is impossible to discuss Thomas without mentioning two relevant facts: 1) That he's listed at 5-9, tying Nate Robinson as the NBA's shortest player, and 2) He was the last pick in the 2011 draft. With Thomas' impending free agency, both of those facts become all the more pertinent. Though Sacramento's second-leading scorer is a former second-round pick like Stephenson, the Kings' decision to give Thomas a three-year deal as a rookie rather than a four-year contract allows them the right of first refusal on any offer sheet Thomas signs. His perpetual size disadvantage might scare some interested teams from making the kind of over-the-top offer necessary to lure a restricted free agent. Thomas has done a hell of a job in some respects compensating for his lack of height (he converted a ridiculous 68 percent of his layups, for example), but relying heavily on a player of his stature does come with limitations. He doesn't have access to the same passing angles as bigger guards. He's more vulnerable to certain brands of defensive pressure. He has a much smaller margin for error in coverage. All of this should only help the Kings keep a talented player, though the are real concerns in pricing out what Thomas is worth.
7. Greivis Vasquez, Raptors (PG, 27)
2013-14 stats: 22.5 MPG, 9.6 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 4.1 APG, 42.1 FG%, 37.7 3FG%
Based on court vision, Vasquez ranks as one of the best on this list. He casually taps into the kind of next-level passing that separates the very good point guards from the merely average -- the skip pass out of the pick-and-roll, the cross-court feed to the corner, etc. He's solid enough as a playmaker to do the bulk of the ball handling for a decent team, or -- as was the case in Toronto last season -- to fill a complementary role for a better one. Vasquez can be clever as a shooter, too, capable of finding room for a variety of runners and floaters against pressure. The trouble comes on defense, where he isn't suited to match up against either guard position. Size and effort help Vasquez put up a fight when he doesn't have the luxury of being hidden on a spot-up shooter, but attacking point guards and active shooting guards give him trouble.
Livingston had a career year not because he was given more minutes or shot attempts but because the Nets pushed him to the height of his positional flexibility. He came off the bench as a point guard, started alongside Deron Williams as a nominal shooting guard and defended small forwards. The very notion of position became an elastic concept for Livingston, who slid seamlessly from role to role. Livingston became a transformational element for the Nets, who made him a full-time starter in January after a season-ending injury to center Brook Lopez. It was his disruptive influence that forced opponents into the second-highest turnover rate in the league for the season. It was his ability to handle top-tier defensive assignments (from LeBron and Kevin Durant on down) that opened up all kinds of lineup possibilities for Brooklyn. It was his passing and cutting that helped unite the Nets like patchwork, no matter which player was playing what position. The specifics of Livingston's influence on the Nets might not be portable, but the broader implications of his ability to play and guard multiple positions surely are.
UPDATE: Livingston has reportedly agreed to a three-year, $16 million deal with the Warriors.
9. Mario Chalmers, Heat (PG, 28)
2013-14 stats: 29.8 MPG, 9.8 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 4.9 APG, 45.4 FG%, 38.5 3FG%
One regrettable series during which he was benched can't overwrite the fact that Chalmers is a quality player. Still, his free agency comes at a terribly inopportune time. Chalmers clanked jumper after jumper in the Finals, an image that will stick with general managers as they consider pursuing him. Those who do consider Chalmers will likely see what Erik Spoelstra and the Heat did over the past few years: a gutsy shot maker, a multiple-effort defender and a utility threat in the pick-and-roll. Chalmers will have stretches of alternating between good and bad plays and nights of exhibiting poor judgment. In the final balance, though, Chalmers does more good than bad -- even if it's the costly mistakes that we tend to dwell on.
Mills, an icon of towel-waving solidarity, is a far better player than his intricate sideline routines might have you believe. The key is to lean into his scoring tilt. Mills can function as a more benevolent Nate Robinson -- a potent streak shooter who understands how to create scoring opportunities with and without the ball. Playing for San Antonio comes with that benefit, as Mills has been trusted to execute a wide variety of actions from all around the floor. That said, how much are other teams willing to invest to bring Mills out of the Spurs' incubator? San Antonio's roster and system maximize the talents of role players in a way that is difficult to replicate elsewhere. Mills, then, could run his efficient game aground if dropped into a more conventional role, or he could see his scoring-centric game become a problem without the benefit of the Spurs' collective ball movement. Those risks will be up to team executives to parse, though implicit within them is the converse perspective: San Antonio demonstrated that Mills can be used effectively in a winning system.
Though Harris didn't have a great individual season (he shot below 40 percent for the first time in his 10 seasons), it wasn't a coincidence that Dallas was better with him in the lineup. Coach Rick Carlisle deserves some credit. Harris isn't the type of player who can be thrown thoughtlessly into the rotation. With the right balance of teammates, however, he can provide a needed dose of dribble-driving and perimeter defense. Quick feet and a tight crossover helped Harris take nearly half of his shots in the paint -- a favorable breakdown for a player who has never been much of a long-range marksman. Harris also did a better-than-advertised job of setting up his teammates, averaging 7.8 assists per 36 minutes. It is worth noting, though, that the 31-year-old Harris isn't quite the defender he once was. He's still active and plenty instinctive, but the years have left him a touch slower when trying to maneuver laterally in front of ball handlers.
Long live Sessions, the go-to budget solution for teams with point guard problems everywhere. Sessions is just good enough to register interest for a wide range of teams but limited enough to make only a muted impact upon arrival. As a result, Sessions has spent his career as a placeholder. He may yet find work again in that capacity this summer. (If you listen closely, you may be able to hear the Knicks calling.) Sessions also branched out as a combo guard with both the Bobcats and Bucks last season, but his lack of shooting and off-ball skills prevent him from thriving alongside a lead guard.
13. Darren Collison, Clippers (PG, 26)
2013-14 stats: 25.9 MPG, 11.4 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 3.7 APG, 46.7 FG%, 37.6 3FG%
Status: Player option
For better or worse, the 6-foot Collison is jackrabbit quick. With the ball in his hands the verdict leans toward the former; Collison finds room to score by skittering around screens, though he's never figured out how to leverage his speed to make a substantive leap as a creator. On defense, however, Collison's jumpy style lulls him out of position with alarming frequency. That's trouble for a player who already surrenders size in most every matchup. As a result, Collison's mileage will vary depending on the talents of his teammates. If there are intuitive shot blockers lurking behind Collison in coverage, his blow-bys become less of a concern. If there is a better point guard on the roster to nudge Collison into a more comfortable reserve role, then his offensive limitations are of less consequence. There's a solid pick-and-roll player in here for those teams that can make do with the rest.
14. Evan Turner, Pacers (SG, 25)
2013-14 stats: 30.3 MPG, 14.0 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 3.2 APG, 42.5 FG%, 32.1 3FG%
Turner isn't just a cautionary tale of the importance of fit, but a talent who seems to elude the very concept. None of Turner's three coaches -- Doug Collins and Brett Brown in Philadelphia and Frank Vogel in Indiana -- ever quite figured out how to use him. Teams that give Turner the reins of the offense are not better for it. He is ball-dominant without great vision, a combination that leaves him pounding the dribble for 15 seconds at a time. He's as aggressive as he can be off the dribble without elite quickness or handle. He shoots plenty, though his most effective spots -- elbow-area jumpers and post-ups against smaller guards -- are relatively inefficient and somewhat tricky to access without giving Turner too much control. If the former No. 2 pick were a better off-ball player or defender, some of these complications might be more tolerable. Instead, Turner is one of the league's great mysteries -- a player with evident skill who hasn't found a fitting role yet.
Stuckey is a puzzle of a player coming out of a strange situation. Whatever interest Stuckey once had in playing defense seemed to dissipate last season, but there was plenty of blame to go around for Detroit's disastrous performance on that end. With so many Pistons operating at different wavelengths, it's difficult to distinguish where Stuckey's faults end and the situational deficiencies begin. A fresh start on a more coherent team (even the new Pistons, as structured and clarified by Stan Van Gundy) could make a profound difference for Stuckey. His offensive game drifted slightly out of balance in '13-14, marked by Stuckey's highest shooting frequency in four years. Playing mostly at shooting guard may have spurred that development. A new opportunity, though, might return Stuckey's game to equilibrium. When in his element, Stuckey is a fascinating interior creator who can overpower guards and sneak by shot blockers.
Inconsistency is part of the package with Bayless, whose offensive performance fluctuates based on his jumper. A few years ago, Bayless would drive even to a fault, slicing toward the rim and often missing opportunities to make plays. He wasn't a perfect player, but his scoring game was noticeably more effective. Now, Bayless -- who has the quickness to push deeper into the paint -- has grown too fond of his pull-up jumper. Sometimes that jumper treats Bayless well. On balance, however, the house wins. The bet with Bayless isn't just that he'll hit enough shots to make a difference, but that the player who once averaged 6.7 free throw attempts per 36 minutes (more than three times last season's output) is still somehow buried inside.
Augustin seemed to be playing his way out of the league with a depressing 2012-13 season in Indiana and a tragic follow-up in Toronto at the start of '13-14. The Raptors waived Augustin five weeks into the season after watching him shoot 29.2 percent in 10 games while turning the ball over on more than a quarter of his possessions. It was a master class of NBA incompetence. Then, as happens so often to discarded NBA players, Augustin exploited a perfect opportunity to turn around his career. Chicago had a void to fill with Derrick Rose out for the season again and picked up Augustin out of necessity. Tom Thibodeau's handoff-fueled offense, in turn, suited Augustin well; he was used off the ball plenty and set up to score, a combination that alleviated some of the strains on the 6-foot guard's efficiency. Augustin's flaws are still very much present in his game, and if used as a conventional point guard he won't be of much help. Teams that can afford to use Augustin as a periodic creator while leaning on his floor-stretching abilities, however, stand to benefit.
18. Jordan Farmar, Lakers (PG, 27)
2013-14 stats: 22.2 MPG, 10.1 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 4.9 APG, 41.5 FG%, 43.8 3FG%
Though Farmer lacks the steadiness for full-time duty, he's plenty capable of filling 20 minutes a night with his shooting and playmaking ability. The variety in Farmar's game has made him flexible enough to fare relatively well in multiple systems, from the triangle to Mike D'Antoni's fluid offense to a more conventional look during his time with the Nets. Things can go off the rails if Farmar is entrusted to do too much, but he's a suitable support type for teams looking to split the difference between a shooting specialist and a legitimate creator
Williams has more cachet than many other guards of his type, but his status as a former (and improbable) All-Star can't disguise his reliance on others for shot creation. The extent to which that matters will vary with his circumstances. Teams with established superstars might see Williams for his supporting charms. Those intending to lean on Williams to initiate offense, on the other hand, will find him lacking. He's quick, but not so quick that he can wiggle free of good one-on-one coverage. He's a talented shooter but far less so on the move. His passing is merely functional. Most of what holds him back are the classic divides between a starting-caliber point guard and one worthy of a reserve role, though in some ways Williams -- who shot 45.8 percent on spot-up three-point attempts last season, according to Synergy Sports -- is best served playing of his most capable teammates.
Blake can be trusted to initiate an offense dependably without forcing his hand. He can sink open three-pointers whether off the dribble or at a standstill. He is committed to getting others involved to the point that he's averaged just 7.8 shot attempts per 36 minutes over the last four seasons -- a frequency somehow lower than that of the shot-allergic Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Blake even defends like a professional, committed to his responsibilities and attentive to detail. He's a useful backup point guard as long as he isn't expected to step outside his tidy game.