Welcome to the 2016 NBA free agent market, in which every team in the league has money to burn. An unprecedented jump in the salary cap—resulting from the NBA’s lucrative new TV deal—has made cap space too pervasive to be a distinct advantage. No longer will the only teams vying for a player’s services be those with room to afford it. Nearly every team could find room for a maximum contract offer should it so choose, creating a buyer-heavy market unlike any the league has ever seen.
Naturally, this cataclysmic event happened to line up with a ho-hum free agent class—capped off by just one true, available superstar. Kevin Durant has already announced that he’ll only meet with (and thus consider) the Thunder, Warriors, Spurs, Celtics, Clippers, and Heat, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical. Even then, five of those teams will make their pitches and still be left wanting. Those other players available come far short of Durant’s stature; some are past their prime, others are fringe All-Stars, but none (save LeBron James, who seems rather comfortable in Cleveland) are franchise-altering talents in the way that Durant would be.
How teams will look to spend their available space makes for an enormous, weighty variable. The recent history of the league and free agency, in particular, suggests that teams will spend big whenever they’re given the opportunity. This summer, every franchise is so entitled to the point that many free agents are likely to experience astonishing surges in their market value. Forget overpays and underpays. The financial dynamics of the league are about to be reset, driven by the fact that there is more money available than can be responsibly spent.
Below is a ranking of the best free agents available, which is distinct from a ranking of the best players. Those aging into decline are demerited while those who still have their primes ahead of them are valued more highly. The value of a free agent signing, after all, can go well beyond a single year. A potential four to five years of Durant might be a better deal than a single year (with a player option) from the older James. Player availability, production, apparent trajectory, underutilized ability, flexibility of role, and ease (or difficulty) of personality were all weighed to varying degrees. When all else failed, a simple question: Would you, as the executive of a team, rather have Player X on his likely next contract or Player Y on his?
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1. Kevin Durant
Durant is dominant at a position of relative scarcity, stellar as the centerpiece of an offense, flexible enough to augment his teammates, better on the boards than most will ever know, perfect in a role as the leader of a franchise, savvy off the dribble, efficient from all over the floor, ruthless to opponents while agreeable to teammates, and perhaps the most lethal small-ball player in a league that increasingly leans toward speed. Durant holds in his hand the power to reshape the future of multiple franchises. The Oklahoma City Thunder, who have more to lose with his decision than any other team, will wait breathlessly while KD deliberates between max offers.
2. LeBron James (player option)
A word to teams around the league: Were LeBron actually available, you’d know. He hand-picked the Heat, let the Cavs know to clear room, and would surely call his own shot if there were any reason for him to leave Cleveland. There isn’t—so I wouldn’t wait up.
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3. Andre Drummond (restricted)
Restricted status should quell Drummond’s free agency from the start. Pistons owner Tom Gores is already on record as saying that Detroit will give Drummond the maximum allowed, leaving relatively little to negotiate. The Pistons will match any offer Drummond signs (should he opt for a shorter deal, for example) but otherwise seem likely to agree to whatever their upstart center wants. You don’t mess around with wildly productive, 22-year-old bigs—even those with a lot left to learn.
4. Al Horford
A player of considerable understatement. Watch the Hawks on occasion and you may gloss over Horford’s subtle defensive positioning, heady passing and gravity on the perimeter. Tune in on a more regular basis and his influence becomes glaring. Some players are simply best appreciated in volume, when the whole of their contributions form more complete trends. It’s no mistake that most teammates seem to fare better when Horford is around; his skill set slides neatly into whatever a coach aims to run and complements players of all kinds. That in itself is rare and attractive. Never discount the value of a player who opens up the playbook and a world of lineup constructions rather than limit them, especially as a hyper-flexible big.
5. Mike Conley
The best point guard on the market is also the only point guard of star-level consequence. Conley can satisfy a lot of needs—that for balance and composure, above all. Teams can play either fast or slow with Conley at the helm, while looking to attack from either inside or out. Unlike many ball handlers of his caliber, Conley actually adds to the operation of a team defense.The peril comes with scarcity. Angling for Conley’s services is a position of inherent risk given the alternatives. Once he makes his choice, a few teams will be left to parse middling backup plans or explore using their cap space more creatively. There’s a cost that comes with chasing any particular free agent, but the drop between Conley and his positional colleagues is the most precipitous of all.
6. Hassan Whiteside
First, the irrefutable: Whichever team lands Whiteside will add one of the best shot-blockers, bulk rebounders, and alley-oop finishers in recent NBA history. Whiteside made himself into a max-contract player through a season and a half of considerable scrutiny and hard-earned production. One does not average 17.6 points, 14.7 rebounds, and 4.6 blocks per 36 minutes by accident.
Nevertheless, there’s a disconnect between what Whiteside gives in terms of his raw counting stats and what he actually offers a team. His defensive presence, intimidating though it may be, is subject to Whiteside actually staying down on pump fakes and positioning himself to do more than chase blocks. Only Andre Drummond grabbed a higher percentage of available rebounds last season and yet Whiteside was guilty of letting his man run free rather than actually box him out. A 7–footer with Whiteside’s reach and athleticism will do good for his team just by being active and engaged. There’s an asterisk, though, that qualifies much of what Whiteside does and draws into question his overall value.
7. Dwight Howard
Injury and age have made Howard just another quality center. Gone is the Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner who, by his very presence, all but guaranteed a top-five defense. Departed, too, is the finisher who separated himself from the rest of the league with his nimble rolls to the rim and vertical explosion. Gone forever is the functional post scorer who could support an offense from the block, if not carry it comfortably.
The Howard that remains has been muted by layering injuries and increasing age (30). It’s not always easy to appease him, but an involved and committed Howard is still worth the investment; the trick is finding the right offensive role as to make Howard feel essential without letting him hold the offense hostage for the sake of dead-end post-ups. Getting him touches elsewhere pays off with quality defense, rebounding and finishing off the roll.
8. Bradley Beal (restricted)
Beal, now four years into his NBA career, has yet to play a healthy season. On average he’s missed some 20 games a year, compromising the Wizards’ rotation for a quarter of their scheduled games. Still teams will line up to give Beal a huge contract because his game intrigues. The raw shooting ability, improving pick-and-roll work and competitive defense suggest max-contract credentials—even if Beal’s health has prevented him from assembling his complete game. Depending on your perspective, Beal’s age (22) either quells or fuels concern: Is his impending prime all the more reason to invest now or should teams be wary of Beal’s consistent pattern of injury? The truth is likely somewhere between, though the exaggerated figures of a cap-jumped NBA won’t leave room in Beal’s contract for such nuance.
9. Nicolas Batum
The Hornets dealt away a solid rotation wing (Gerald Henderson) and the No. 9 pick in the 2014 draft (Noah Vonleh) to acquire Batum last summer, confident that his versatile game could round out their playoff candidacy. Charlotte was so right it may now lose Batum to the open market. Signing the 27-year-old forward this summer will likely require the max or an offer close to it. Calibrate your market expectations accordingly. Batum brings smart secondary playmaking to go along with natural scoring, solid defense that builds off his impressive length, and a feel for offense that appeals to NBA coaches. That kind of multi-functional skill won’t be found in free agency this summer, save in the luxury tiers.
10. Dwyane Wade
Every contract Wade signs for the remainder of his career will be a race against the clock. For now, the Heat stalwart generates offense at a level worthy of his Hall of Fame career. That could change at some point during the life of his next deal, even if it lasts a single season. Implicit risk must be priced in. Otherwise, suitors should expect familiar riffs on the same basic themes that have made Wade so effective for so long—all stemming from the clever manipulation of defenders. Even after 13 years in the league and three titles, Wade still dupes defenders with pump fakes and creates space where there should be none. That allows him to produce as is needed to outweigh his noncommittal defense and sagging efforts in transition, though each passing year brings Wade closer to a career reckoning.
11. DeMar DeRozan
Every team’s mileage will vary with DeRozan given the particular boundaries of his game. Those desperate for scoring and lacking other means of offense would take his 23.5 points per game on 44.6% shooting from the field—much of it manufactured on his own—without much question. What DeRozan offers in that regard has clear value. It also, at a certain level of competition, is boxed in by limitation in a way that tends to create problems. To this point, DeRozan hasn’t shown all that much aptitude as a cutter or spot-up shooter (given his discomfort beyond the arc), which positions him to have the ball in his hands as a matter of necessity.
That said, DeRozan isn’t all that fluent in reading the floor and tends to take difficult, low-value shots when he isn’t getting to the free throw line. His game is inherently scoutable; a longer defender instructed to stay down on his pump fakes can disarm DeRozan enough to cause problems—as evidenced by the 39.4% shooting on 20 shots a night that DeRozan averaged in the playoffs. As a person, DeRozan is exactly the kind of individual a team would want to associate with: a worker, a leader, a model citizen, and a positive spirit. As a player, he’s talented enough to convince some team to offer him the max and complicated enough to make them regret it.
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12. Tim Duncan (player option)
A potential free agent only in technicality. Duncan won’t be leaving San Antonio unless he leaves the league altogether.
13. Dirk Nowitzki
Athough Nowitzki has indicated that he has every intention to stay in Dallas, the fluidity of the Maverick roster leaves the matter open to reconsideration. Other teams will make their case. Nowitzki still delivers as both a shot creator and floor spacer, a dual capacity for offense that could aid many of the league’s contenders. It would be hard to blame Dirk if, in the midst of another reshuffle, he considers another offer and what could be. Still, it would take a special opportunity to budge Dirk from the city and franchise where he’s spent his entire career.
14. Chandler Parsons
We still haven’t seen Parsons pushed to the full extent of his creative ability. This is a 6'9" forward who can run pick-and-roll more often than he’s been allowed, enable the athletic bigs on his team with lobs, and stutter-step his way into viable off-the-dribble offense. His knees are a legitimate hang-up; Parsons’s last two seasons with the Mavericks were each cut short by knee injuries and surgeries, first a hybrid microfracture procedure and then an arthroscopic procedure to repair his torn meniscus. The latter is decidedly less severe, though not without some cause for concern in Parsons’ broader injury history.
After all, Parsons was never the most explosive wing to begin with and already had some trouble keeping up laterally while guarding opposing forwards. Any further nag on his mobility could become a problem. His future may be as a playmaking four for that reason; Parsons has added strength to the point where he can at least play the position part-time, while his perimeter shooting (41.4% from three last season) has improved to the point that it can provide helpful stretch.
15. Pau Gasol
Gasol has earned the right to be particular. He wants to be involved in the basic operations of an offense and has the game, as a scorer and passer, to support the notion. Few can do what Gasol can, and virtually none in the history of the game have produced in the same way at his age (35). To this point, Gasol has expressed no interest in coming off the bench, even when it might serve his team’s best interests. Market matters to him because cultural life beyond the floor matters to him.
Any team that pursues Gasol must understand these preferences, just as they must understand the way his slow feet and poor team rebounding (the individual totals are nice, but the disinterest in boxing out is not) must be planned around. The number of teams that can give Gasol the freedom he wants, cover for the weaknesses in his game, and metropolitan setting to pursue his non-basketball interests are quite few. Something may have to give.
16. Bismack Biyombo
A productive scoring night for Biyombo might feature three or four field goals, all created by others, with minimal turnovers. There isn’t much to be gained by his play on that end, or even his planned involvement. Where Biyombo aids a team’s cause is in the physicality of the game elsewhere. Few bigs will chase rebounds so relentlessly, guard the rim so tenaciously, and set screens so forcefully. His energy alone extended Toronto’s postseason life, demonstrating in the process that even playoff teams might not have much answer for all he provides. Matchups that pull Biyombo away from the rim on defense can mitigate his value (exacerbating the fact that he’s already a one-way player), though none can subdue it completely. No viable player in this free agent class is so obviously limited and yet obviously effective.
17. Ian Mahinmi
The arc of Ian Mahinmi is a nine-year journey from D-League-assigned project to starting-caliber center. Last season he provided the backbone of the third-best defense in the league while posting a double-double (13.1 points, 10.1 rebounds) per 36 minutes. The consistent foul trouble that once artificially curbed Mahinmi’s playing time has also been made manageable as he’s learned subtler ways of challenging shots and influencing opponents with a live dribble. All of that, coupled with a fascinating new poise in making decisions on the move, makes Mahinmi a prospective addition of impressive value. A team could do much worse than relying on Mahinmi to steady its defense and keep opponents honest in rotation for 30 minutes a night.
18. Festus Ezeli (restricted)
Ezeli’s time with the Warriors had run its course, as evidence by Steve Kerr’s uncommonly low tolerance for any of the center’s mistakes. To be fair, there are many; Ezeli can be an effective defender if not always the most technically sound, tends to see any touch within 15 feet as an invitation to attempt a hook shot, and can space out on his responsibilities on both ends at times. Even still he has the size and mobility to make a difference, particularly now that he’s able to actually catch the ball and make an occasional move in traffic. Ezeli might not always do what his coaches want him to, but he’s one of the few bigs available who can scurry out to the perimeter to contain a pick-and-roll, swat away shots at the rim, and hold his own against physical centers on the glass. At issue is whether Ezeli can sustain high levels of performance in all of those areas on a game to game basis.
19. Ryan Anderson
Shooters like Anderson demand respect, which in itself allows his teams to operate from a position of some advantage. Dedicating a defender to guard him closely can compromise an opponent’s rotations. Looking to contain him through a more straightforward system of help and recover will inevitably ask some frantic defender to run out to the three-point line to contest his high release.
Anderson has proven he can hit those shots, though the rest of his game requires a team built to mask his flaws. Opponents have found success switching smaller defenders on to Anderson and lived with his forays into the post. Others have taken advantage of his lacking defense or used his matchup to attack the glass. All of these things can be remedied within a team concept, but doing so takes work and resources that aren’t available to all. His help on the floor is heavily contingent on the structure in place around him.
20. Marvin Williams
Over the course of two seasons, Williams remade himself into the player the Hornets needed: a flexible, stretchy forward who could punish opponents from the perimeter (40.2%), put the ball on the floor to attack a closeout, guard opponents at the three or the four, and offer reliable help in rotation. This is the profile of a high-impact player, even if Williams might not be known to many basketball fans outside of the unceremoniously quiet start to his career. Williams is a different player now, and one who stands to be rewarded handsomely for the utility he’s created for himself.
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21. Al Jefferson
One of the best post scorers in the NBA will likely face a bearish market. Jefferson doesn’t much align with the vision of a modern NBA center. His offense requires possession of the ball but doesn’t generate much for others. The very nature of operating through the post makes an offense predictable and dependent on optimal spacing to reach even moderate efficiency. Defensively, Jefferson can survive when playing back and clogging up the lane but has no chance containing quicker players on the perimeter. Even as a rebounder Jefferson is merely solid—not at all a problem, but a few degrees removed from the statistical elite.
The want for such a player will be filtered first by the ability to make an attractive offer, then by playing style (only a halfcourt team will do), then by specific needs, and finally by competitive circumstance. Jefferson is 31 years old and will get no faster or more flexible. The right team can still find use for a player who creates post mismatches so easily, though the market has dwindled to the point that Jefferson is a tricky sell.
22. Harrison Barnes (restricted)
Dispense with the notion that Barnes is a star in waiting. His role with the Warriors is that for which he’s best equipped: walking the line between forward positions by stretching bigs out to the perimeter, posting up smaller wings, and guarding both effectively. There is no explosive potential lurking beneath the surface of a 24-year-old who struggles off the dribble. Barnes is who he is, and that player just so happened to key the 2015 title run and a near repeat in 2016.
The last we saw of Barnes—when he was clunking away and forcing the issue in the later stages of the NBA Finals—was no more a fair representation of his value than the daydreams of his latent stardom. Barnes made 169 of his 429 three-pointers (39.4%) over the past two seasons under Steve Kerr. He held his own against bruising power forwards and empowered the Warriors to play their best lineups. It’s because of positionally flexible wings like Barnes that teams can make the most of their speed and shooting. Golden State might well bring him back for that very reason and will have the power to match any offer sheet Barnes signs. There comes a point at which Barnes’s contract will exceed his on-court value. Maintaining a championship-worthy core, however, can be powerful motivation.
23. Kent Bazemore
Atlanta cultivated Bazemore’s live-wire energy into a real, starting-caliber product. Many NBA teams could plug Bazemore into a complementary role and thrive with his bounce. Players who cut in bursts like he does and explode out into transition tend to catch a defense off-guard. Quickness and length allow him to cover ground more quickly than most opponents are accustomed to, even if Bazemore himself can sometimes space on his defensive fundamentals. Everything he does comes from an intersection of pep and discipline. Mike Budenholzer and his staff did all they could to rein in Bazemore without taking away the zip that makes him effective. They succeeded to the point that Bazemore became one of the most improved players in the league—not just more productive than he had ever been previously, but able to contribute to a winning team with newfound control.
24. Evan Fournier (restricted)
The league-wide need for quality wings could benefit players like Fournier most of all. Fournier can play. Putting the ball in his hands can spell an offense for minutes at a time, whether asked to create off the bounce himself or play off of his teammates. There’s a gutsiness to the way Fournier creates under pressure that bodes well for his performance in more competitive environments. That alone will make him an attractive free agent—as will a consistent three-point stroke that allows him to slide into a starting lineup alongside other high-quality players.
This, from a 23-year-old, is enough to virtually guarantee a big payday. Orlando will have the option to match any offer formal offer and may have tipped its hand already in trading away shooting guard Victor Oladipo. There’s an opening for Fournier to handle some of Oladipo’s responsibilities while sliding into more comfortable minutes at shooting guard, provided the Magic can talk themselves into paying big for a wing with a largely one-way game.
25. J.R. Smith
Make that ’NBA Champion J.R. Smith.’ Cleveland has the inside track on signing Smith after making better, more controlled use of his talents than any team had previously. Any other contender that can make a similar pitch should do so; the headaches that arise from employing Smith can be justified by his hot streaks. A single 8–0 scoring from Smith in Game 7 of the NBA Finals may well have determined the NBA champion. His 20 points in Game 3 were a bellwether. It’s a great help to have an All-NBA caliber shooter around who can launch smooth jumpers no matter if his footing is perfect or the pass lands in his shooting pocket. Smith can be streaky, but there’s no replacement for those who can return points—especially three-pointers—from a suboptimal setup.
26. Courtney Lee
There may be no more important quality for an NBA role player than understanding where to be on the floor. Lee, 31, grasps the concept beautifully. Only a handful of players better time their cuts, and few among them will also glide around the arc to present as a shooting threat. Lee might come to the ball if his teammate is in a pinch or dart backdoor if the defense grows too eager. His defense is assertive—particularly against opposing ball handlers—but rarely puts his teammates in a bad spot.
Everything is contextual, as it should be when a player doesn’t really have a game suited to dictate offense. Lee might run a pick-and-roll in a pinch or counter drive against a hard-closing defender, though his best work on offense is wholly complementary. Teams tend to pay out for shot creation. It’s players like Lee, though, who can change the fortunes of winning teams by enhancing what they already do best.
27. Jordan Clarkson (restricted)
The question of how Clarkson’s talents might be best utilized really comes secondary to acknowledgement of his impressive all-around scoring game. Clarkson’s skills are rather polished for a rising NBA junior—perhaps in part due to his being 24 years old—regardless of whether he’s running the point or working alongside another playmaker. Any smart team would have him do both; Clarkson aims to score by default, but there’s enough awareness to his game to create when the situation allows.
Of greater pertinence is whether Clarkson can ever defend either guard position reliably. The signs to this point haven’t been at all encouraging, though two years under Byron Scott on a team rife with bad habits may have exaggerated his poor play on that end. Clarkson deserves a shot to prove himself in a more normal NBA ecosystem, whether under Luke Walton in Los Angeles or elsewhere via his restricted free agency.
Worth noting: Non-Laker teams are limited in what they can offer Clarkson due to the Gilbert Arenas provision. The first year of any offer sheet Clarkson signs with another team can only be worth the value of the non-taxpayer mid-level exception ($5.6 million) and the second year worth a slightly more ($5.9 million). A potential third or fourth season wouldn't face the same limitations, though the overall value of a Clarkson deal would still likely be depressed if it comes via third-party offer sheet rather than a direct deal with the Lakers.
28. Luol Deng
While no longer one of the NBA’s top perimeter defenders, Deng still dedicates himself to his matchup and is discerning enough to take the best angles to help his cause. Length, too, goes a long way; a 6'9" forward with a wingspan like Deng’s makes switching a more viable defensive strategy and small ball less of a size concession. Coaches appreciate that, regardless of his role, Deng knows what he’s doing; it’s not just experience that matters, but the kind of baseline knowledge that allows players to understand the goals of a particular approach and act accordingly. Many can operate to the letter of a coach’s instruction. Veterans like Deng better understand when the principles of a system should apply and how—allowing for intuitive adjustment in the thick of a possession.
29. Evan Turner
Versatility doesn’t only come into play when filling out a roster or constructing lineups. It’s a factor on every possession that goes awry, and it’s in those scenarios that Turner seems to thrive. Need a random post-up against a mismatched guard? Turner’s your guy. Need to trigger a quick pick-and-roll but the point guard is on the far side of the floor? Turner is perfect for the job. Need a wing to drive off a kick-out to keep the defense compromised before setting up an open teammate? Turner can handle the task, easy. The same goes for spot rebounding, scrambling defense, and so much more. It’s hard to define on a possession-to-possession basis what Turner might end up contributing, though on balance his wide-ranging game yielded 13.5 points, 5.7 assists, and 6.3 rebounds off the bench for Boston last season. His game isn’t for every team, but those that turn stale when their possessions stall should take a look his way.
30. Jeremy Lin
The best option on the board for teams looking to invest in a downhill driver on a reasonable budget. Lin spent the earlier days of his career pushing wildly into traffic with no discernible plan and few skill-based contingencies. The most important development of his career was his learning of what plays might be a lost cause. Fewer of Lin’s drives than ever are dead ends, leading to a career-low turnover rate. Still he looks to attack the basket out of the pick-and-roll and when kicked the ball on the weak side. Those possessions are simply less fretful now that Lin has a better understanding of when to take a mulligan and regroup the offense.
That judgment coupled with Lin’s success alongside Kemba Walker makes him an altogether more viable free agent. Quicker point guards can give him trouble defensively, as did post-up shooting guards when he shared the backcourt with Walker. Yet their synergy as a drive-and-kick tandem bodes well for Lin in finding minutes next season. Whether he returns to Charlotte or not, Lin demonstrated that he can find ways to contribute to an offense without controlling the action and has it in him to create without bluntly running into trouble.
31. Dion Waiters (restricted)
The Thunder asked that Waiters trim the fatty, flawed shots from his game, look to spot up around two superstars, and work hard within a variety of defensive assignments. He did all of that to positive effect—enough so that teams around the league can now honestly consider whether this once-wayward lottery pick might be a fair addition to their starting lineups. There are more natural fourth- and fifth-option players out there, to be sure.
Yet Waiters boasts a completeness that most other role players lack, as well as the technical ability to step outside his role when the situation demands it. Many designated shooters can be exploited defensively or made uncomfortable if run off the line. Waiters is a stout defender and a qualified driver when his head is screwed on right, making him better suited to fill the void of a chaotic possession than many other players of his role. Competence is a quiet goal but, in Waiters’s case, an admirable one.
32. Allen Crabbe (restricted)
Crabbe came into his own for the Blazers last season as a route-running shooter. It takes a certain balance for a young player to slither around screens and fire up a shot quickly, sometimes without ever getting a clean look at the rim before the point of release. Crabbe, now 24, seems to have settled into that rhythm to expand his game beyond the spot-up realm. He’ll be there for Portland (should they come to an agreement or match another offer to Crabbe) at the three-point line if the ball kicks out. Though simply having another scorer capable of manufacturing points in his own way helps an offense to diversify. Hone that craft enough and defenses, in their weariness of an emerging scorer, will begin to bend with Crabbe’s movement.
33. Gerald Henderson
Teams looking for positionally versatile forwards, defensive specialists, three-point shooters, and ball handlers are likely to gloss over Henderson without realizing how much good his balanced, all-around play can do. Henderson made sense for a Blazers team that ran its role players through cuts and curls without relying on those actions to produce points on every occasion. If he was open, Henderson could pull up for a jumper or settle in for a post-up. If he wasn’t, the ball would move elsewhere and the sequence would continue. To have a player who would invest in that process—as well as work capably and intelligently on defense—is no small thing. Henderson is unassuming in that way, and his game pays off in moderate doses just when his team needs them.
34. Mirza Teletovic
Almost every team in the league could use a player like Teletovic—good for surges in offense and great for building change-of-pace lineups. It’s uncommon for a spot-up specialist to average 20.6 points per 36 minutes, but Teletovic understands how to work the perimeter to make himself available. Any power forward guarding him is made to work by running around screens and minding exchanges on the weak side. Even those that stay close sometimes can’t recover quickly enough to much influence Teletovic’s release, and those that do only activate Teletovic’s functional in-between game. Whatever team signs Teletovic, though, will need to be mindful of his shaky defense and how to best protect him. Bringing Teletovic off the bench offers a relatlvely simple solution—one safe from the most dangerous scorers in the league and one that allows him to fill in at either forward position as needed.
35. Meyers Leonard (restricted)
Whichever team signs Leonard will be making a bet on his improved awareness. The idea of a mobile, 7'1" center shooting 37.7% from three was often more tantalizing than Leonard’s reality. The basic skills are there and useful. What holds Leonard back is his understanding of defensive rhythms and the inability to do anything more when opponents switch or take away his shot.
Leonard is in an awkward place. The elements of his game could someday coalesce into a pretty tremendous skill set. Doing so would require Leonard to take the next step in so many regards, however, that already don’t seem natural to him. Stepping out to three-point range was a development in itself. Transforming into a big who can then attack off the dribble and understand how to anchor a team defense might be asking too much.
36. Timofey Mozgov
That Mozgov ultimately wasn’t the right center for the Cavs doesn’t mean he can’t be the right center somewhere else. His most important quality endures: Mozgov is so big— allowing him to finish and rebound over smaller bigs—that he can influence a game by shaping an opponent’s lineups. Even teams otherwise comfortable running small at center can be made to rethink their strategy by a few minutes of Mozgov working the offensive glass or finishing from deep post position. It takes a particular opponent to really make a problem of his lack of mobility. Otherwise, Mozgov understands how to protect the rim and live around it in a way that provides a specific (if sometimes restrictive) value.
37. Cole Aldrich
Winner of the reserve-center-due-for-a-bigger role sweepstakes. Aldrich played just 13.3 minutes per game for the Clippers last season, which is essentially all that DeAndre Jordan’s All-NBA campaign allowed. Aldrich can only play center. Yet he does it fairly well, through defense and rebounding (13.0 per 36 minutes) most of all. At worst he’s deserving of a timeshare position behind something less than an iron man starter. Jordan has missed five games last season—his only missed games in the past six years. When afforded the chance, Aldrich stepped in alongside the starters to deliver winning performances. There isn’t too much development ahead for a 27-year-old career backup, but Aldrich can offer some of the same quality production in more minutes and with greater stakes.
38. Deron Williams
Not to kill Williams with faint praise, but the declining former All-NBA guard is ultimately quite serviceable. Keeping healthy is an issue, now more than ever as Williams ages into his 30s. He has not played 70 games in a season since 2013. Physical reliability is not his strong suit. Yet Williams played through injury for the Mavs whenever he was able, and turned in a fairly decent season as the franchise’s placeholder point guard.
Experienced point guards who understand how to run a balanced offense have value beyond their assist totals. Williams did fairly well for the Mavs in orchestrating a nuanced offense without overstepping his role. He’s been a better NBA citizen, too, since extricating himself from the black cloud that loomed over the Brooklyn Nets—a better teammate, a mentor. There’s no use in pretending that Williams is what he once was, though there’s room in his current state for positive contribution.
39. Joakim Noah
Big men who can’t make layups and won’t be guarded outside the paint are the silent killers of NBA offense. Teams around the league are too smart—and too cognizant—now to let a player like Noah get away with being a non-threat on the floor. Because of that, Noah can gum up the works of an offense that doesn’t make it an active priority to keep things moving and the defense on its toes. The fire Noah plays with is rare and real. His defense, even as his game has declined over the past few seasons, remains furious and effective when his body allows. That caveat is brutal. Noah is 31 years old coming off a season in which he played just 29 games. Any long-term deal would price in the risk of both Noah’s persistent unavailability and unfortunate, diminishing returns.
40. Donotas Motiejunas (restricted)
Motiejunas can post up, shoot a bit from the perimeter, pass capably, and move his feet well enough to contribute to a team defense. Asking for much more from a big man veers into max contract territory, though it’s reasonable to wonder all the same if Motiejunas has any future as a high-level starter. While not a bad player in any respect, Motiejunas has the kind of game (and positional flexibility) that may create the most leverage against second units. Detroit, in nixing its trade for Motiejunas at the trade deadline due to concerns over his physical, has also planted a red flag.
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41. Jared Dudley
Playing small and spreading the floor puts a premium on basketball intelligence. The more quickly a player can read a situation and make a productive play, the better the chance that the offense can keep ahead of the defense in its chain reaction. This is where Dudley, contrary to his ordinary foot speed, contributes to a team’s overall tempo. Many bigs in the league can shoot well enough to stretch the floor. Dudley uses that basic skill to create openings and builds on them by playing relatively mistake-free basketball—smart, decisive, and well-intentioned. The same basic qualities apply to his defense, which blends seamlessly into all but the most aggressive systems.
42. Eric Gordon
What more is Gordon at this stage than a shooter? His lot is to move and wait on the perimeter for the ball to come to him, after which he can reliably connect on three-point shots or swing the ball to an open man. Most other dimensions of his game have faded with time. Gordon’s pick-and-roll spark has long been extinguished, snuffed out when he could no longer create much separation. Once-solid on-ball defense has faded with persistent injury, compromised by the fact that Gordon is now too slow to guard many perimeter players and too short too guard many others. Among those to log at least 500 minutes last season, only four grabbed a smaller percentage of available rebounds.
Shooting is important enough in the modern NBA for teams to find value in Gordon’s play all the same. Of greater concern is his prodigious injury history: over the last five years, Gordon has played in just 56% of his team’s regular season games.
43. Boban Marjanovic (restricted)
Any analysis of Marjanovic’s game is shrouded by the haze of garbage time. So many of his minutes last season came when opponents weren’t playing their best players nor their best basketball. In more meaningful minutes, his size (7–3) and touch would at the very least demand that he be reckoned with. Certain opponents are marginalized completely by his presence; undersized bigs with interior games won’t have much luck in budging him from the block, nor will they be able to rebound over him. This gives him power as a specialist, and especially as a reserve. The real question is whether Marjanovic could ever run up and down the court for 20 minutes of high-energy basketball and whether he has any role to play whatsoever against teams that stretch the floor at every position and make him defend in space.
44. Tyler Johnson (restricted)
Miami picked up a shockingly competent two-way guard from relative obscurity in 2015—the kind that every team could use but didn’t seem to know was available. Johnson fits the role player starter kit as a shooter (37.8% from three over 68 career games) who can defend. A combo guard skill set makes him more comfortable with the ball than other players to fit the same bill, though Johnson is at his best playing off of other creators and filling in the gaps.
45. E'Twaun Moore
Moore’s teammates in Chicago actively campaigned to get him more playing time last season to flex his swiss-army-knife game. A conservative role—that calls on him to slash, cut, spot-up, and defend without the burden of actually running an offense or handling top assignments in coverage—could suit him most anywhere.
46. Matthew Dellavedova (restricted)
Dellavedova is one of the better backup point guard options available—a statement indicative of the makeup of this free agent class. Forget, for a moment, the borderline dirty play and the lob passes to no one in particular. Dellavedova is a guard who digs in defensively and commits to a game plan, shot 41% from three-point range last season, and helped to run a stable second-string offense. Starting Dellavedova on a full-time basis would be a sure sign of trouble. Finding room for him as a reserve, however, could help a number of the league’s flimsier guard rotations.
47. Solomon Hill
Seven playoff games against the Raptors served as Hill’s functional breakout, though even then he remained squarely in his lane as an effort defender and offensive complement. The distinction from his usual performance came from outside: Hill made 11 of his 19 postseason three-point attempts. If there’s a functional medium to be found between Hill’s underwhelming career average (32.5%) and his hot shooting in that series, he could prove useful for his ability to fill in, rebound, and defend at either forward spot.
48. Darrell Arthur
A defensive specialist with mid-range touch, Arthur is a steadying influence who operates best as a reserve—often alongside players whose effort level and attention to detail on defense tend to waver. The 28-year-old veteran can mind the drop-off. His communication and positioning bolster a lineup’s defense even without notable size or athleticism. Arthur simply stays in his lane, helping when it’s called for and managing his matchup to prevent breakdowns. The reliability in that is more valuable than the fleeting production some other free agents might provide.
49. Trevor Booker
A competitive rebounder, sensible defender, and even a better passer than his assist numbers (just 1.9 per 36 minutes) indicate. Booker is a nice bit of rotational ballast; some matchups might not suit him, though overall he fills reserve minutes with capability. It’s hard to find hard-working bigs who won’t really hurt a team on either end of the floor. Booker qualifies while chipping in a double-double (10.2 points, 10.0 rebounds) per 36 minutes.
50. Matt Barnes
Barnes has an uncanny ability to contribute to winning basketball and an uncanny ability to create problems for his team. Some organizations will pass altogether, even at a tremendous price point, given his record of on- and off-court indiscretions. It’s hard to blame them, even if Barnes has the flexibility and skill to help most teams on the floor.