NBA free agency: Eric Bledsoe, Greg Monroe best available players
Most of the top free agents have found homes, but several notable players remain unsigned. Here are the best players available on the market, divided among ball handlers, wing players and big men:
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. 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. Phoenix can match any offer and wants to retain him, even after acquiring point guard Isaiah Thomas in a sign-and-trade deal with Sacramento.
Nelson went largely forgotten while caretaking for the rebuilding Magic (who waived him last month), but now he's in position to help a winning team at a reasonable price. He should draw interest: Nelson is only a quality backup option but he also plays an intelligent, reliable game that is inherently good for rotational stability. It helps, too, that Nelson is one of the few guards of his size (he's listed generously at 6 feet) who isn't a defensive liability. He has the strength to fight through screens and the smarts to challenge opponents in one-on-one situations.
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. Sessions also branched out as a combo guard with both the Hornets and Bucks last season, but his lack of shooting and off-ball skills prevent him from thriving alongside a lead guard.
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 a live dribble for 15 seconds at a time. He's as aggressive as he can be off the bounce 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 yet found a fitting role.
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.
There are good three-point shooters, there are great three-point shooters and then there’s Allen: a mobile, looming threat who 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. As 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 defensive shortcomings later. If Allen decides to play instead of retire (he turns 39 on Sunday), few role players can be so transformative.
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. He’s lost a step (or more), but he remains one of the best at contesting shots without 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. 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 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 from 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, but his skill set makes him a poor fit for stagnant systems.
In four seasons, Aminu hasn’t developed the offensive skills to justify a regular role. Still, he's served in that capacity out of New Orleans’ necessity – the Pelicans have needed perimeter defense and couldn’t find much elsewhere. Aminu is useful in that regard, as his length and instincts make him disruptive on and off the ball. Also in Aminu’s favor: He was the top rebounder among guards and wings last season, rating just shy of Blake Griffin and Serge Ibaka by rebounding percentage.
Crawford is a guard with some ball-handling skill, though to classify him as a "ball handler" for these purposes would suggest that an NBA team would actually want him handling the ball. That is assuredly not the case. If given too much freedom, Crawford will drive his team into ineffectiveness without much thought. The hope, then, would be that some team can moderate his touches and responsibilities while still drawing on Crawford's knack for generating offense. That's a long shot, but shot creation is valued enough and Crawford is green enough for another chance at reformation.
Jordan Hamilton, Xavier Henry or Francisco Garcia could easily be included over Salmons, but the statement would be the same: The remaining pool of free agent wings is mighty shallow.
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? Stan Van Gundy’s top current priority 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 (though the Pistons seem to be trying), 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.
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?
Boozer's game is in dramatic decline, though he still figures to draw interest based on his history as a scorer. At his finest, Boozer was a versatile offensive player who could power his way inside and pop out to the perimeter. These days that perimeter tilt has become more and more prevalent at the cost of his efficiency. His shooting percentage has dropped significantly in two straight seasons (from 53.2 to 47.7 to a career-low 45.6). That his production has wilted is a concern, as is the fact that Chicago's offense was far worse with Boozer on the floor last season (minus-4.5 points per 100 possessions). He'll need to do better at his next stop to justify his acquisition. After all, if Boozer isn't contributing as an effective scorer, what good is he?
A neck injury prevented Okafor from playing for Phoenix after being acquired in a trade for Marcin Gortat in October, and it's uncertain if he's prepared to pick up regular NBA run. If he proved to be ready, Okafor is a real asset as a strong, confident interior defender who understands the angles of walling off the rim. He doesn’t swat all that many 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 attempts 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. These are acceptable limitations if Okafor is defending and rebounding.
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 is able 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.