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2014 Free Agent Primer: Big men

Photo: Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)

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 and wings. Today, we move on to the bigs.

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.

• San Antonio’s Tim Duncan (player option), Memphis' Zach Randolph (player option/extension) and New York’s Amar’e Stoudemire (early termination option) are not included after reportedly accepting options to return on their current deals.

• Also missing from the list are players with nonguaranteed contracts who seem unlikely to be released. That group includes Cleveland’s Anderson Varejao, Toronto’s Amir Johnson, Golden State’s Draymond Green, New York’s Samuel Dalembert and Memphis’ Kosta Koufos.


1. Chris Bosh, Miami Heat (PF/C, 30 years old)
’13-14 stats: 32.0 MPG, 16.2 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.0 BPG, 51.6 FG%
Status: Unrestricted (Early termination option)

Bosh's critics tend to conflate Miami’s quirks with individual failings. To the extent that Bosh’s scoring output has underwhelmed (a contention I would argue against), it's happened because of the Heat's offensive structure. Bosh hasn’t been a bulk rebounder in his four years with Miami, either, but he’s also played out of position in a defensive system that pulls him far from the rim to guard pick-and-rolls and an offensive alignment that parks him on the perimeter. Those who find his defense to be lacking generally fail to understand how much Bosh is asked to do and how important those tasks are. Coach Erik Spoelstra designed an entire scheme around Bosh’s ability to cover ground and control space, Miami ranked among the league's top defenses in three of the last four seasons. 

Bosh has shouldered that responsibility willingly while making every offensive adjustment his team has needed. He has given up the level of control he had in Toronto, where he spent his first seven seasons. He’s honed his shooting and extended his range to the three-point line. He’s given up the tidings of superstardom – the touches, the praise, the shot attempts – for the sake of winning. That’s the player who could soon become a free agent: a skilled and mobile two-way big man who willingly changes his identity to suit his team.


2. Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks (PF, 36)
’13-14 stats: 32.9 MPG, 21.7 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 2.7 APG, 51.6 FG%, 39.8 3FG%
Status: Unrestricted

Nowitzki’s free agency is a farce, as he does not want to leave Dallas and the Mavericks do not intend to let him go. That he will technically be a free agent lands him on this list, but don’t expect even the slightest flirtation with some other franchise. All that needs to be finalized is Nowitzki's contract terms, which will be massaged to afford the Mavs plenty of cap room for this summer.


3. Greg Monroe, Detroit Pistons (PF/C, 24)
’13-14 stats: 32.8 MPG, 15.2 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 2.1 APG, 0.6 BPG, 49.7 FG%
Status: Restricted

Monroe is skilled and useful, but what should we make of a big man who is neither all that efficient from the field nor a competent defender? Every team with cap space is now faced with that evaluative quandary, the Pistons first and foremost. The top item on Stan Van Gundy’s agenda as Detroit’s coach and team president is to determine what Monroe’s contributions are worth. That’s a difficult proposition in a vacuum made even more complicated by the presence of positional competitors in Andre Drummond and Josh Smith. Drummond is more promising than Monroe and Smith is more difficult to move, a combination that could lead to Monroe's eventual departure. Keep in mind that Monroe's exit wouldn't necessarily have to come in free agency. Detroit could very well treat Monroe like Denver handled Nene in 2011: a handsome new contract followed by quiet shopping on the trade market.

Regardless of where he ends up, Monroe is poised for a solid career as a post-up threat and offensive facilitator who reads the floor well. It’s unlikely that Monroe will develop into a star-level scorer (his output and efficiency have barely budged over his last three seasons), but teams will still pay a premium for a player who can average a sturdy double-double. Monroe put up 17 points and 10 rebounds per 36 minutes in each of his last three seasons, uncommon production that offers real value. How much value, precisely, is left for his suitors to decide.


4. Marcin Gortat, Washington Wizards (C, 30)
’13-14 stats: 32.8 MPG, 13.2 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 1.5 BPG, 54.2 FG%
Status: Unrestricted

Gortat still has enough productive years left to warrant a long-term deal, but the price point could escalate to a concerning range. He is a terrific pick-and-roll finisher who draws almost equally on strength and finesse to convert 71.1 percent around the rim. That he’s also a good rebounder and a factor defensively make him attractive. He’s proved he can contribute to a good team on both ends (as he did with the Wizards last season), and he's flexible enough to defend both traditional big men and some rangier threats. Gortat is the rare near 7-footer who is nimble on his feet with a soft touch, and when such players become available teams have generally handed out blank checks.

UPDATE: Gortat has agreed to a five-year, $60 million deal with the Wizards.


5. Pau Gasol, Los Angeles Lakers (PF/C, 33)
’13-14 stats: 31.4 MPG, 17.4 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 3.4 APG, 1.5 BPG, 48.0 FG%
Status: Unrestricted

Gasol’s dips in performance in the last two seasons have been attributed to injury, poor systemic fit, age-related regression and general discontent. Some of those factors hold more promise for his future than others, though we won’t truly know where Gasol stands until we see him removed from what has been a bizarre situation in Los Angeles. Gasol played his part in that: While his ability to create shots from the high and low post gave the Lakers something of an offensive fulcrum in Kobe Bryant’s absence, the Spaniard's waning defensive interest did L.A.’s 28th-ranked defense no favors.

At this stage in his career, Gasol doesn’t need to be a back-line anchor so much as a reliable defensive presence. He’s big. His awareness is sharp. All he has to do is find a way to make his rotations dependable – a development that would allow his offensive game to shine fully. Prime Gasol is gone, but in his place remains a bright, multitalented player who can make an offense hum.


6. Emeka Okafor, Phoenix Suns (PF/C, 31)
’13-14 stats: Did not play – Herniated disk in neck
Status: Unrestricted

A neck injury prevented Okafor from playing for Phoenix after being acquired in a trade for Gortat in October. If he cleared to return without surgery, Okafor is a real asset as a strong, confident interior defender who understands the angles of walling off the rim. He doesn’t swat a lot of shots anymore (Okafor’s 1.4 blocks per 36 minutes in 2012-13 were roughly half of his peak), but he still makes a sizable impact contesting shots and space.

Plus, Okafor was one of the NBA's top-10 rebounders when he last played -- more prolific by rebounding percentage than Joakim Noah and DeAndre Jordan. He boxes out squarely, he sets good screens and he provides so many of the quiet contributions that correlate with winning basketball. What he doesn’t do is score much, as Okafor topped 13 points per 36 minutes only once in his last four seasons. His low-post game is slow and mechanical, he doesn't maximize pick-and-roll possessions or space the floor and he's merely adequate at finishing around the basket.


7. Channing Frye, Phoenix Suns (PF, 31)
’13-14 stats: 28.2 MPG, 11.1 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 43.2 FG%, 37.0 3FG%
Status: Unrestricted (Player option)

Frye’s value isn’t just in his three-point range but also in his ability to launch quickly and without hesitation, before defenses can rotate to him. He’s a great pick-and-pop player for just that reason. Playing out of that sequence with guards Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe last season, Frye sank 46.1 percent of his three-point pops, according to Synergy Sports. Provided that a team has the playmakers to set up Frye and the rebounding and collective defense to account for his weaknesses in those areas, his shooting alone makes him worth the investment.


8. Spencer Hawes, Cleveland Cavaliers (C, 26)
’13-14 stats: 30.9 MPG, 13.2 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.0 BPG, 46.8 FG%
Status: Unrestricted

Hawes is a face-up center with an increasingly rangy game. Last season he attempted about as many three-pointers (308) as he had in the previous six years combined (359), hitting a career-high 41.6 percent. That skill gives Hawes more value than he had as a free agent in 2012, when he signed a two-year, $13.1 million deal with Philadelphia (which traded him to Cleveland in February). Hawes’ form is a little unorthodox – it’s almost a push forward, which makes sense given his high release point – but it worked in spot-up and pick-and-roll situations with the Sixers and Cavaliers.

Where Hawes and Frye differ is in their defensive literacy. Frye might not be a force in coverage, but he's consistently in the right places and can at least impede opponents’ sets. That’s more than can be said for Hawes, who often wanders off the path and fails to recover in time to influence a play.


9. Patrick Patterson, Toronto Raptors (PF, 25)
’13-14 stats: 23.6 MPG, 8.5 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 46.0 FG%
Status: Restricted

Patterson's appeal isn't rooted in any one skill, but rather comprehensive competence. He can post, he can roll and he can spot up to shoot jumpers. He’s strong enough to battle for rebounds, agile enough to guard a variety of players and sharp enough to be an effective team defender. Patterson isn’t a player who needs to be hidden or schemed around. Some team -- perhaps the incumbent Raptors -- will pay to fill a rotation spot with such a capable, low-maintenance player.


10. Boris Diaw, San Antonio Spurs (PF, 32)
’13-14 stats: 25.0 MPG, 9.1 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 2.8 APG, 52.1 FG%, 40.2 3FG%
Status: Unrestricted

Diaw’s offensive creativity makes him an invaluable release – a middleman for when Tony Parker is trapped or Manu Ginobili is caught off balance. San Antonio's ball movement and spacing maximize his skills as a three-point shooter and post-up option. All of these talents would be accessible elsewhere, but the Spurs' system is perfect for the Frenchman. His return seems likely because of the comfort level, but it’s not out of the question for a team impressed with Diaw’s showing in the NBA Finals to swoop in with a richer offer.


11. Jordan Hill, Los Angeles Lakers (PF/C, 26)
’13-14 stats: 20.8 MPG, 9.7 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 54.9 FG%
Status: Unrestricted

Hill isn’t a high-volume option for post touches, but thanks to improved footwork he has decent moves on the block and a very quick first step that allows him to get to his righty hook without giving his opponent a chance to react. Developing that ability has helped round out his offensive game, which had been pick-and-roll dependent. Hill might not have many other ball skills, but between high-energy rolling, low-post competency and elite-level offensive rebounding, he is well worthy of regular, significant minutes.


12. Ed Davis, Memphis Grizzlies (PF, 25)
’13-14 stats: 15.2 MPG, 5.7 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 53.4 FG%
Status: Restricted

Davis isn’t much of a scorer and barely registers the opponent’s attention when he steps outside of the paint. Still, he's a pretty impressive defender given his wiry frame and lack of experience. Davis has averaged only 15.2 minutes since arriving in Memphis in January 2013, in part because of the justified prominence of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. That naturally leads one to wonder if Davis might be better off elsewhere, but the Grizzlies won’t relinquish a player of his defensive instincts easily. Re-signing Davis, however, will hamper Memphis' flexibility to spend for other roster improvements. This is a situation worth watching, even in a free-agent pool with much bigger names and far glitzier prospects. Davis is a player, and if he can be plucked off the Grizzlies' bench, he could help some other team as a third big man.


13. Andray Blatche, Brooklyn Nets (PF/C, 27)
’13-14 stats: 22.2 MPG, 11.2 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.5 APG, 47.6 FG%
Status: Unrestricted (Player option)

After a few seasons of sticking it to the Wizards by refusing to hedge against his amnestied contract with a more lucrative one, Blatche finally appears ready to cash in for more than the veteran minimum. He’s created a nice market for himself with two years of good behavior. Blatche was never perfect for the Nets, but he brought some dynamism to a role and position typically filled by cookie-cutter veterans. Few reserve bigs can match Blatche’s ease of movement, control off the dribble or scoring touch. Fewer still come close in all three categories, putting Blatche in a fascinating space as a free agent. Now that he’s toned down the boneheaded plays and extracurricular trouble, how much might teams be willing to pay for his services?


14. Chris Andersen, Miami Heat (PF/C, 35)
’13-14 stats: 19.4 MPG, 6.6 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.3 BPG, 64.4 FG%
Status: Unrestricted (Player option)

Andersen isn’t quick enough anymore to be a bailout defender in Miami’s system, but he still should be plenty capable of filling a more conventional role with another team. In some ways, he’s a perfect low-usage rotation big: His rebounding percentage (in limited minutes, mind you) is in the ballpark of Zach Randolph's and Kenneth Faried's; he still has the pep and lift to be an impactful shot-blocker; and he maximizes limited touches by seeking out space and finishing through contact. The decline could be sharp once age gets the better of Andersen, but for the moment he’s an energizing force in a smaller role.


15. Darrell Arthur, Denver Nuggets (PF, 26)
’13-14 stats: 17.1 MPG, 5.9 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 0.7 BPG, 39.5 FG%
Status: Unrestricted (Player option)

At his most useful, Arthur was a valuable defender perfectly suited to hedge and recover in the pick-and-roll. Since tearing his right Achilles tendon in 2011, however, Arthur hasn’t quite been the same, even if he regained some quickness in Denver last season. Still, Arthur is a solid team defender worthy of rotation burn. His limited offensive game hit a new low with worrisome shooting efficiency last season, but it’s not as if Arthur will be expected to offer much beyond the occasional spot-up jumper   


16. Josh McRoberts, Charlotte Bobcats (PF, 27)
’13-14 stats: 30.3 MPG, 8.5 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 4.3 APG, 43.6 FG%, 36.1 3FG%
Status: Unrestricted (Player option)

McRoberts stands out for just how little he resembles a traditional power forward. Nearly half of his offensive usage last season came via spot-up jumpers, per Synergy Sports. His rebounding was uncommonly poor for his size – nearly the worst in the league among nominal bigs. He spent much of his time dwelling outside the paint while spacing the floor for Al Jefferson, and his most noteworthy skill is his passing. That odd combination makes McRoberts a clumsy fit for many teams, but he worked effectively in Charlotte.


17. Kris Humphries, Boston Celtics (PF/C, 29)
’13-14 stats: 19.9 MPG, 8.4 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 0.9 BPG, 50.1 FG%
Status: Unrestricted

No matter where Humphries goes or how much he plays, he produces. Some have taken that to mean that his numbers are somehow empty, but I find his game to be so simple as to be somewhat universal. Teams across the league can use a player who cleans the glass and sticks close-range scoring opportunities, no matter his broader faults. Humphries isn’t a fix or much of a long-term piece, but he’ll sop up minutes and put up the same numbers (13 points and 11 rebounds per 36 minutes) he's accustomed to producing.


18. Jermaine O’Neal, Golden State Warriors (C, 35)
’13-14 stats: 20.1 MPG, 7.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 0.9 BPG, 50.4 FG%
Status: Unrestricted

Golden State’s Andrew Bogut surrogate will now be available to the masses. Age and injury concerns render O’Neal strictly a veteran-minimum buy; he makes far more sense as an emergency rotation player than an every-game contributor, as he showed last season in his carefully managed stint with the Warriors. O’Neal is still a defensive luxury in such a role. He manages to block shots without much lift, slide into position with fading lateral quickness and register a fairly broad defensive impact overall. He may have another quality season in him before retiring. 


??. Andrew Bynum, Outer Space (C, 26)
’13-14 stats: 19.8 MPG, 8.7 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 1.1 BPG, 41.8 FG%
Status: Unrestricted

For reasons having to do with both attitude and injury, Bynum is unlikely to net even the kind of highly conditional contract (which could have totaled $24 million over two seasons) he scored in free agency last year. Still, some team will be interested. His talent still justifies some marginal risk, and the NBA isn’t quick to give up on players in Bynum’s position. He’s frustrating, his body has failed him and he’s more than likely going to wind up on some roster by next fall. ‘Tis the way of the world.


???. Greg Oden, Miami Heat (C, 26)
’13-14 stats: 9.2 MPG, 2.9 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 0.0 APG, 0.6 BPG 55.1 FG%
Status: Unrestricted

See above, save the screwball attitude

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