2014 Free Agent Primer: Wing players
With free agency beginning on July 1, SI.com will be ranking the best ball handlers, wing players and big men available. We've already run through the top 20 free agent ball handlers. Today, we tackle the wings.
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.
• Restricted free agents become unrestricted free agents if their teams don't extend them qualifying offers by June 30.
• Also missing from the list are players with nonguaranteed contracts who seem unlikely to be released.
The very best players in the league are flexible to most any roster and circumstance. Anthony is not quite one of them. He needs particular conditions in order to thrive, beginning with a rim protector who can cover for his errors and a ball handler who can pare down his ball-stopping tendencies. Without them, Anthony’s contributions can seem empty – as if his volume scoring were somehow less valuable or his strong positional rebounding somehow negated by his other deficits.
Neither is exactly true, though there is little question that accommodating circumstances are essential for Anthony to be his best basketball self. It’s very possible that we have yet to see it; Anthony has played for good teams, certainly, but this summer offers his first opportunity to join a potentially great one. Read more on his options here.
This was a messy, formative year for Hayward. The results were somewhat predictable: Hayward’s shooting efficiency tumbled to a career low amid a poorly spaced offense and his turnover rate rose accordingly. Those are not, in themselves, positive indicators for Hayward’s development. Yet they come from a place of radically different usage and an expansion of responsibility with inherent growing pains.
Prior to 2013-14, Hayward had been sheltered as only an occasional creator, utilized instead to space the floor and cut through complementary action. Though terrific in both of those regards, it was high time for Hayward to step outside himself. He became a much more frequent initiator of the offense for the Jazz this past season, logging more touches and time of possession than all Utah players not named Trey Burke. Over a quarter of his possessions (up from 15 percent the year prior) stemmed from his own pick-and-roll creation, according to Synergy Sports, while Hayward improved his scoring efficiency on those pick-and-roll sequences in the process. There’s room for growth here for a player who already does so well without the ball, defends adequately, distributes well (5.2 assists per game) and shoots from deep expertly.
Parsons and Hayward are incredibly similar players and interchangeable for the purposes of these rankings. The lingering question is: Which might be more attainable? One would think that Houston is prepared to match most reasonable offers after maneuvering to allow for Parsons’ restricted free agency (the Rockets could have picked up his paltry team option for next season to make him an unrestricted free agent in 2015), though that could well change if Parsons is bowled over by a huge offer early in free agency. Houston can’t afford to match an offer sheet to Parsons before carrying out its plans to land a third star, leaving the situation unsettled if all parties aren’t on the same page. It’s still far more likely that Parsons stays.
Deng is a perimeter defender first and foremost. Any team that signs him will be paying a premium for his relentlessness, his length and his cerebral approach. To the extent that he’ll be worth the investment will very much depend on the figure involved, which is where we come to a potential disconnect between Deng’s representatives and team interests.
There’s no problem at all with Deng chasing what he believes he’s due, particularly after his 10-year tenure with the Bulls ended in horrible medical mismanagement and a salary dump to the Cavaliers. If Deng isn’t looking out for himself, no one will. For a team to commit the $12-13 million in annual salary that Deng has sought previously, however, would infringe on their ability to surround him with adequate talent.
All hail Contract Year Trevor Ariza. After years of mindless over-dribbling, Ariza tightened up his game last year with the Wizards to hone his strengths. He played beautifully off Washington’s other core starters, and his on-court rapport with John Wall helped Ariza establish himself as one of the NBA’s most lethal and prolific corner shooters. That he’s no defensive slouch makes him a pretty attractive get. Ariza has spent time guarding all three perimeter positions as needed, drawing upon his reach and athleticism to keep a wide variety of opponents under wraps. He won’t soon earn defensive accolades with players like Deng, Andre Iguodala, Tony Allen, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George doing far superior work in a similar role, though he’s solid enough on that end to intrigue teams as a 3-and-D prototype.
Bradley’s free agency should be an interesting case study in specialization. The juxtaposition of his size and skill set makes him a niche player; although his height often classifies him as a point guard, Bradley isn’t comfortable running offense or making plays as per the traditional responsibilities of the position. Defensively, however, he’s a menace to opposing ball handlers. Bradley picks up early and applies pressure throughout full possessions, the combination of which lends him value in disrupting offenses at the point of attack.
Otherwise, though, Bradley doesn’t have a ton to offer. He’s a competent long-range shooter, though not so consistent as to make for a great spot-up option. He’s a smart cutter, too, though his height renders him a shaky finisher. Bradley could still be an impact player in the right setting, though signing him to a long-term deal is a tacit acceptance of the roster-building quirks that come as part of the package. To what point, then, will teams be willing to open their wallets for a player of a player of such specific utility?
UPDATE: Bradley has reportedly agreed to a new deal with the Celtics.
7. Paul Pierce, Nets (SF, 36)
’13-14 stats: 28.0 MPG, 13.5 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 2.4 APG, 45.1 FG%, 37.3 3FG%
So long as he’s brought into a situation where his minutes can be managed, Pierce is still equipped to be a difference-maker on both ends of the floor. His offensive game should need little introduction. At this point Pierce can’t create separation from his defender as consistently as he used to (and thus draws fewer fouls with his fakes and changes in pace), though he’s still clever and skilled enough to eke out a decent output. His versatility and experience – which manifest most obviously in clutch situations – will be coveted. Pierce’s ability to defend a few different positions, however, is the kind of perk that could help solidify the roster of a near-contender.
Carter has aged into a wonderful role player, effective in shot creation and supporting functions alike while defending his position capably. It’s rare to find a veteran with such wide value available at this price point; Carter’s last deal with Dallas netted him just $9.3 million over three years, and his next contract could be a similar bargain. That – for a player who ranked near the top of the league in pick-and-roll scoring efficiency, made over 40 percent of his spot-up three-pointers, rebounds competitively against opposing bigs, creates ably in a pinch, puts in effort on D and moves the ball – should make a prized addition to some playoff roster or another.
There are good three-point shooters, there are great three-point shooters and then there’s Allen: A mobile, looming threat that forces defensive breakdowns wherever he goes. Just by curling around a screen Allen forces concessions in coverage, and in spotting up on the weak side he draws a dedicated defender who is no longer of any use in help. So long as he continues to shoot at a high enough clip to warrant that kind of attention, teams will jump at the chance to sign Allen and worry about his irrelevant defense later. Few role players can be so transformative.
’13-14 stats: 31.7 MPG, 10.4 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 1.6 APG, 48.2 FG%, 35.8 3FG%
It’s both easy and lazy to write off Marion as a player in decline, particularly when he’s continued to do terrific defensive work through every season of his career. He’s lost a step (or more) over the years, but few in the league manage to contest shots as well without jumping or fouling. Marion is as disciplined as defenders come: He knows the angles, he keeps his feet on the ground and he makes life difficult for whichever player he’s tasked to guard. Just last season Marion defended star scorers from point guard to power forward, a flexibility that gave Dallas the freedom to experiment with all kinds of cross-matches and defensive strategies.
The trick is figuring out just what to do with Marion on offense. He’s not much of a threat from deep and isn’t a practical go-to option. Most of his points come in cleaning up messes or in attacking a scrambling defense – valuable contributions, though difficult ones for an offense to access on command. Marion generally accomplishes enough on the move to mitigate his offensive limitations, though his skill set makes him a poor fit for stagnant systems.
11. C.J. Miles, Cavaliers (SG/SF, 27)
’13-14 stats: 19.3 MPG, 9.9 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 1.0 APG, 43.5 FG%, 39.3 3FG%
The basketball world has a firm grasp on the idiosyncratic gunner – the one-dimensional J.R. Smith types known equally for their quirky personality and quick trigger. What’s a bit trickier to place are those more well-rounded scoring specialists who operate with quiet professionalism. Such is Miles, who over his past four seasons has averaged 18.1 points per 36 minutes without much notice. It doesn’t help Miles’ public standing that his teams in that stretch have topped out at mediocre, though there’s also something to be said about a failure to fully recognize a player who simply keeps his head down and does his job. Miles is a solid wing defender and a useful shot-maker. Perhaps this is finally the year that his reputation catches up.
12. Marvin Williams, Jazz (SF/PF, 28)
’13-14 stats: 25.4 MPG, 9.1 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.2 APG, 43.9 FG%, 35.9 3FG%
Williams continues to be an odd, fascinating player who is as useful as he is reluctant. Were he reprogrammed to make the most of his gifts and skills, Williams would vault up this list in a hurry. Instead he spends most of his time as a background player, teasing his dynamic potential without ever quite reaching it. That’s fine so long as teams understand what they’re getting in his acquisition, as Williams can still contribute to a winning cause with his quality rebounding work, steady defense and positional flexibility. Williams logged the majority of his minutes last season as a rangy power forward, converting his long-range attempts at a rate just below the league average for a team with little offensive flow. He could be even more valuable on a better offensive team while pulling double duty at both forward positions.
Young, for all of his faults, scored so much at such reasonable shooting efficiency that his shot-making profile last season resembled that of Anthony, Damian Lillard and Al Jefferson. That’s fine work from a punchline player, born of a bit more control than Young had shown previously and plenty of open space. Those teams that can afford Young and live with his defensive issues could do well to sign him, particularly if he’s honed to the three-point arc as he was under Mike D’Antoni.
14. Jodie Meeks, Lakers (SG, 26)
’13-14 stats: 33.2 MPG, 15.7 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 1.8 APG, 46.3 FG%, 40.1 3FG%
Meeks is an off-ball natural, a rarity among scoring specialists. He understands where to be on the floor and when, rarely stretching outside his comfort zone. If the ball swings his way at an inopportune time, he’ll redirect the possession to a more capable creator and go on his way. In all, Meeks is a notable, effective scorer without the qualities (poor shot selection, ball dominance, etc.) that make similarly skilled players so irritating. That’s essential given just how narrow his game can be. On 29 occasions last season, Meeks notched two or fewer rebounds and two or fewer assists. Scoring isn’t just what Meeks does best, it’s essentially all he does.
UPDATE: Meeks has reportedly agreed to a three-year, $19 million deal with the Pistons.
15. Mike Miller, Grizzlies (SG/SF, 34)
’13-14 stats: 20.8 MPG, 7.1 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 1.6 APG, 48.1 FG%, 45.9 3FG%
Not only is Miller one of the very best shooters of this lot, but he has the foundational skills that allow him to adapt to most any situation. He’s not at all timid when it comes to putting the ball on the floor; Miller’s handle is confident enough that he can attack the defense to make basic plays when the situation calls for it. That might seem like a minor skill, though in Miller’s case it offers an elite shooter a fall-back option in the case that the defense manages to close the gap in time to prevent a shot.
16. P.J. Tucker, Suns (SF, 29)
’13-14 stats: 30.7 MPG, 9.4 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 1.7 APG, 43.1 FG%, 38.7 3FG%
Tucker was a perfect fit for a resilient Suns team last season, which had a need for a player of his particular defensive grit. Beyond physical strength and pure effort in coverage, however, Tucker is of relatively limited use. His one scoring skill (accuracy on corner threes) is but a year old and followed two seasons of irrelevance from beyond the arc. He’s a quality rebounder for his position (particularly on the offensive glass). He outworks the crowd to get in the mix for every loose ball. Yet in the final balance, Tucker’s work as a hustle junkie justifies little more than a spot in a playing rotation. Even his defense – the hallmark of his game – is good but not great, a fact often lost in his admirable work for Phoenix.
17. Danny Granger, Clippers (SF/PF, 31)
’13-14 stats: 20.7 MPG, 8.2 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 1.0 APG, 37.8 FG%, 33.6 3FG%
Status: Unrestricted (Player option)
The uptick in Granger’s performance was noticeable upon his arrival in Los Angeles, where he joined a functional offense already in progress. That kind of role is where he now sits best: Filling a void for teams that need a bit of this or that, and primarily those that can benefit from his combination of three-point shooting and defensive activity.
18. Al-Farouq Aminu, Pelicans (SF, 23)
’13-14 stats: 18.8 MPG, 8.4 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 0.8 APG, 45.8 FG%, 45.1 3FG%
Aminu is more of a wild card than most on this list, given that to this point in his career he hasn’t developed the offensive skills necessary to justify a role as an NBA regular. He’s served in that capacity all the same out of New Orleans’ necessity – the Hornets-turned-Pelicans have needed perimeter defense couldn’t find much elsewhere. Aminu is useful in that regard, as his length and instincts make him genuinely disruptive both on the ball and off. Also in Aminu’s favor: He was the single best rebounder among guards and wings last season, rating just shy of Blake Griffin and Serge Ibaka by total rebounding percentage.
19. Anthony Morrow, Pelicans (SG, 28)
’13-14 stats: 20.8 MPG, 7.1 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 1.6 APG, 48.1 FG%, 45.9 3FG%
Status: Unrestricted (Player option)
Morrow is a poor ball handler, an invisible rebounder, an unremarkable passer and an uncompetitive defender. He also might be the best three-point shooter on the planet, as he’s now shot better than 45 percent from deep in three of his six NBA seasons. His limitations will naturally matter more on some rosters than others, though it is somewhat telling that no team in position to contend has yet taken a chance on him. Specialization can come at a price, and in Morrow’s case not all quality teams are in a position to pay it.
20. Thabo Sefolosha, Thunder (SG/SF, 30)
’13-14 stats: 26.0 MPG, 6.3 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1.5 APG, 41.5 FG%, 31.6 3FG%
Sefolosha is on the brink of basketball peril, as his one credible offensive skill threatens to leave him. Prior to last year, Sefolosha had connected on 44 percent and 42 percent of his long-range shots in his previous two seasons. Then came the fall. Sefolosha, whose primary offensive function was to help space the floor for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, bricked his way to 32-percent shooting from deep for the 2013-14 season and 26 percent for the playoffs. Sefolosha drew DNP-CDs in two of the Thunder’s three playoff series as a result.
If Sefolosha’s shot returns (as it might after an offseason spent nursing lingering injury), he’s in position to get under the skin of opposing scorers and make a real impact. If not, he could quickly become unplayable.