NBA free agency is a tangled mess of 30 teams and dozens of players deciding and pricing out their many, complicated interests. With the annual whirlwind period set to tip off July 1, SI.com is ranking the top 15 free agents in each of three modernized positional categories: ballhandlers, wings, and bigs.
ETO: Early Termination Option | P: Player Option | R: Restricted Free Agent |T: Team Option
SI.com's rankings: Ballhandlers | Wings | Big men
A free agent in name only. Any team would be lucky to have James, but let's dispense with the formalities: He's only on the market so that he can structure a new deal and make sure that the rest of Cleveland's free agency itinerary goes according to plan.
2. Kawhi Leonard, Spurs (R)
We have every reason to believe that the Spurs would match any offer for Leonard, but his contract terms likely won't be up to San Antonio. Leonard could angle to hit free agency again in two or three seasons if he so chooses. He could just as easily re-up for five years at the highest salary figure possible. No matter the arrangement, Leonard is worth it. Already he's staked his claim as one of the NBA's best defensive players, a general vague title augmented in his specific ability to guard players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant. That his offensive game matures with every passing month only cements Leonard's stardom.
3. Jimmy Butler, Bulls (R)
Butler was long poised to be a free agent of note this summer, but his surprising turn as Chicago's best all-around player last season has made him an open-and-shut choice for the max. He can shoot, he can post, and he can work his way to the free throw line on a consistent basis. Propelled by that versatility, Butler produced career-best efficiency from his highest-usage effort yet. Already he was a nice player—set to be a perennial All-Defense candidate and revered role player. Instead, Butler broke out from his early career trends to register as one of the most productive all-around players in the league. Back a dumptruck full of money into his driveway and be done with it.
4. Khris Middleton, Bucks (R)
The support wing player that every team could use ranks among the free agents of least public renown. Middleton isn't yet a household name; he really only came on strong during his last two seasons in Milwaukee, where his two-way play helped to stabilize a young, inexperienced team. During that time, Middleton checked every box of the role player rubric. He shot 41% from three-point range over two seasons. His rangy defense proved suitable for limiting an opponent's primary scorer. He grew more comfortable in his handle, though not so comfortable that he would demand the ball. Middleton is an ideal player to balance out and fill the gaps of a winning team, a quality both rarer than it might seem and especially so in a 23-year-old.
5. Danny Green, Spurs
Much of Middleton's appeal lends itself also to Green, who while four years older comes with championship affirmation and the Gregg Popovich seal of approval. Green would be the primary defensive stopper on many teams, though for the Spurs he never had to be. That Leonard is even better in coverage shouldn't take away from the fact that Green is outstanding—suited to guard any of the three perimeter positions for extended minutes while giving his own team's offense plenty to work with. To classify Green as a three-point shooter is too simplistic. He's a three-point shooter who navigates the floor as to create his own openings, and when challenged has the balance in his game to put the ball on the floor and continue the offense's progression. Flexible offenses depend on players like that, and this summer Green stands likely for a hefty raise because of it.
We don’t yet know how a player like Harris, who has spent his entire NBA career on lottery teams, might fit in the context of a contender. What we do know is that he’s swelled to the limits of his role with the Magic over the last two and a half seasons. Harris was an interesting prospect at the time of his arrival in Orlando and now enters free agency as a flexible forward with star potential. Confidence in his ability to fulfill that potential varies depending on who you ask, though Harris has at the very least accomplished enough in his swiss-army-knife role to warrant serious consideration. Of particular note is his perimeter shooting of late: If Harris’ 36.4% accuracy from beyond the arc holds, then his size, strength, and rebounding ability become all the more valuable in the context of his complete skill set.
As of early March, Matthews was as compelling a free agent as Middleton and Green, if not more so. Then his basketball future changed dramatically with the tear of his Achilles' tendon. It's an injury that comes with both discouraging NBA precedent and the potential for offsetting complications in recovery—terrible news for a career role player about to hit his first big payday. Matthews had worked relentlessly to make himself a shooter, maintain his defensive effort, and refine his post game. While his injury doesn't negate that arc of improvement or doom his career, it does call into question what Matthews might be capable of upon his return.
8. DeMarre Carroll, Hawks
This season's free agent market is rich with talented (if understated) role players. Carroll is no star. He shouldn't have the ball in his hands for more than the space of a quick cut, pass, or spot-up jumper. Some 83% of his field goals last season were created by a teammate's assist. Yet if put in the right positions, Carroll can be a welcome complement to all that successful teams do well. Atlanta committed its developmental attentions to making Carroll, who had previously made just 27 three-pointers in three seasons, into a long-range threat. That they succeeded could ultimately cost them. Carroll, now an above-average shooter from range, plays hard and smart in a way that will demand significant compensation.
There's no sexy pitch for the game of Luol Deng, though there's good reason why his coaches tend to rave about his understanding of the game. What separates Deng from other well-sized wings is his sense of where to be on the court and when. Improvisation in off-ball movement helps to disguise his iffy three-point shooting and keep the offense churning, even if the mid-range jumpers and runners his game is built around don't lend themselves to optimized efficiency. One could certainly do worse than to sign a cerebral complementary player with proven defensive chops—even if, at this stage in his career, Deng doesn't really pop with intrigue.
UPDATE: Deng picked up his $10.2 million player option and will forego free agency until 2016.
10. Paul Pierce, Wizards
Pierce will be 38 years old by the start of the next NBA season. Signing Pierce is a shot of pure confidence. It's also the addition of helpful, functional basketball player fit to man the wing or stretch the floor as a big. Strength and footwork anchor Pierce in either case; years of slow-footed success primed Pierce to age gracefully, and even in his career's twilight he finds ways to dupe defenders with jab steps and maintain good defensive position against far quicker opponents.
11. Arron Afllalo, Blazers
Afflalo could be better than he is, though with his career trajectory he's seemed to actively choose a style that plays to his detriment. The days of his two-way appeal are gone. Afflalo hasn't fully dedicated himself to defense in years, though the fact that he once built his career on it suggests that he could once again. His offensive game is generally productive, though hedged by a lack of discretion. Too often Afflalo will bite on the first relatively open shooting window he encounters when another, better look could be seconds away. One doesn't score as Afflalo does without considerable ability. The rub is that his ability isn't always expressed in productive ways.
12. Jared Dudley, Bucks (ETO)
When healthy, Dudley is a ball-moving, floor-spreading, effort-defending role player who expands his team's lineup options. That package of skills could be worth more—and over a longer term—than the $4.3 million salary Dudley can opt out of next season. Yet Dudley put his own odds at returning to Milwaukee around 80 or 90% in May, and nothing has happened since as to radically change that projection.
13. J.R. Smith, Cavaliers
Smith's half-season stint with the Cavs played out, in some sense, as a best-case scenario. Inconsistency is a function of the way that Smith plays. He's going to go through shooting ruts, though in Cleveland Smith at least put in the work defensively to offset those trends and played an active part in the offense without overstepping his bounds. Smith, in keeping his focus, allowed himself to be a player instead of a problem. Smith, the player, has a great handle, a strong jumper, and good size for his position as a defensive baseline. Smith, the problem, can be so distracting off the court and so self-destructive on it that he isn't worth the trouble. What ratio of those personalities a team expects will define the parameters of his next contract.
14. Al-Farouq Aminu, Mavericks
Aminu's veteran-minimum deal with the Mavericks looked to be a great value at the time of its signing and an outright joke by season's end. Impact defenders can't typically be had for that price. This year, Aminu won't be. He played his way into a bigger deal and some longer-term security with his defense across the frontcourt, even stretching well beyond his usual position to masquerade as a functional center. Defense and rebounding are a given. Where Aminu's prospects fluctuate is in his potential to contribute on offense, which at the moment is a bit hazy. Energy and offensive rebounding help, though Aminu's season of spot-up three-point shooting bore mixed, uninspiring results and his forays off the dribble trended a bit wild. That said, Aminu deserves a chance with a stable team to grow into two-way competence.
15. Iman Shumpert, Cavaliers (R)
Shumpert's wild streak on offense has never quite faded, though it bodes well that on a talented Cavaliers team he more discerningly picked his spots than in seasons past. Either way, Cleveland (should they match or make an offer to Shumpert, as expected) or some other team will benefit from Shumpert's meddlesome defense so long as he can knock down shots. He needn't be a first-rate perimeter shooter. What matters is that Shumpert is proficient enough from range to keep a defense honest with his jumper to give the Cavs' stars room to operate—balancing his specific defensive application with general offensive utility.
Best of the rest: Mirza Teletovic (restricted), Jae Crowder (restricted), Corey Brewer, Mike Dunleavy, Gary Neal, Gerald Green, K.J. McDaniels (restricted), Justin Holiday, Marco Belinelli, Omri Casspi.