2013 Free Agent Primer: Ball handlers
The offseason is already underway for 27 of 30 teams, making it all the more appropriate to glance ahead to what the summer might bring. The draft will be upon us before long, and beyond that a long-awaited free-agency period -- filled with high-end stars, apt supporting types and role players aplenty. We'll be cataloging the best of that free-agent field in short order here at The Point Forward, though in lieu of ranking by traditional positional designation, we'll classify players according to three broader subsets befitting a more positionally flexible league. The first of those posts covered the big men who will be on the market this summer, and today we'll examine ball handlers.
1. Chris Paul
The basis of basketball is control, and in that regard Paul has few equals. He lives to make the defense uncomfortable, immobilizing defenders with a quick move into the paint, probing the lane and challenging his opponents' judgment and reservations. He dribbles into zones that entice over-rotation, from which he can assist curiously wide-open teammates. He does all of this and more as a spatial experiment of sorts, as if to see how far the opposing team can bend without breaking. Once those limits are established, Paul's play adapts to the design, barraging points of weakness with extraordinary precision. Every pass and shot is a tactical strike.
But the fact that Paul's game is so lethal can only make him more frustrating on occasion, as a tendency to glide through quarters has put the Paul-dependent Clippers in a difficult position. It's tough not to become reliant on a playmaker so fantastic, and yet whether because of conditioning, deference or some other variable, Paul periodically takes a back seat in orchestrating the offense. His competitive fire could scorch the league to ash, and yet he's perhaps too willing to allow for a slow burn.
It says plenty about Paul's brilliance on both ends that this is the highest criticism one could muster against him. He remains one of the league's finest shot creators, a pesky perimeter defender and a form-fitting playmaker who works in most every style. The 28-year-old easily warrants a max contract and will sign such a deal with the Clippers or one of any number of smitten franchises.
2. Jeff Teague (Restricted)
Though his game isn't yet exceptional, Teague boasts the kind of all-around profile that makes him a fascinating breakout candidate. His years under Larry Drew seemed shackled. Even when given relative freedom to run the Hawks' offense, Teague was never fully unleashed as the drive-and-kick dynamo many hoped he could become someday. He's certainly quick enough to break down defenses off the dribble and a good enough shooter to complicate an opponent's coverage. All Teague needs is time in the right role within the right offense -- an opportunity that may soon arise after the Hawks hired San Antonio assistant Mike Budenholzer as their new coach. Atlanta is poised to turn a fresh start (only three players are under contract for next season) into a new challenge for Teague, and when Budenholzer assumes his responsibilities with the Hawks, he will be fresh off a Spurs run propelled by another speedy shot creator.
That combination in itself doesn't guarantee Teague future success, and his circumstances may soon change if he signs an offer sheet too rich for the Hawks' liking. But regardless of setting, Teague is building on a strong individual season in which he posted career highs in scoring (14.6 points) and assists (7.2) and had an effective field-goal percentage of 49.6. Further, Atlanta's offense hummed at what was essentially a top-10 level this season with Teague on the floor. He may be a relatively known, unspectacular entity at this point, but Teague's only 25 and prime to make the most of an expanded opportunity.
3. Brandon Jennings (Restricted)
If Jennings draw a huge offer in free agency, it will undoubtedly be predicated on some team's belief that it can better harness the 23-year-old's misguided game. There are certainly things to like about Jennings -- namely the notion of him as a confident, charismatic source of both scoring and playmaking. He's put up the raw numbers (17.5 points and 6.5 assists this season) to justify that expectation, but the way in which Jennings reached those marks provides plenty of reason for concern. At the moment, he's an undiscerning gunner, capable of accomplishing much with the ball in his hands but unable to read situations well enough to understand when he should shoot and when he should pass. To his credit, he did hit 37.5 percent of his 5.8 three-point attempts, making his jumper-happy game more palatable.
Defensively, Jennings has betrayed every bit of the promise he showed early in his career. He legitimately helped the Bucks guard at a top-five level in his first two seasons. Since then, his coverage has grown increasingly less focused. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Jennings rated miserably in defending both isolation sequences and spot-up opportunities, meaning he's become a liability both on and off the ball. Quickness alone just can't save a defender who takes such an open stance (thus surrendering easy blow-bys) in coverage and gets caught ball-watching on a frequent basis. Teams should be given pause by the fact that three years and change under Scott Skiles has done so little for Jennings' defensive fundamentals.
4. Monta Ellis (Player option)
I've already written at length about the problems with building around the 27-year-old Ellis, but it basically boils down to this: He's too limited a long-range shooter (28.7 percent on threes this season), too worrisome a defender and too poor a decision-maker to be a first-option ball handler. His package of strengths and weaknesses make him almost impossible to build around effectively, barring some development that pushes Ellis into an ideal role as a high-value super-sub.
5. Manu Ginobili
Ginobili, who turns 36 next month, is not suited for a role as a high-usage starter at this stage in his career. The injury risks are simply too great and Ginobili's game too brash. While he's a terrific playmaking asset in 25 minutes a game or so, he's prone to the kinds of costly turnovers and poorly selected shots that would prove brutal in higher doses.
In those controlled bursts, he's often brilliant. Ginobili continues to flummox opponents by splitting pick-and-rolls whenever possible, and most every one of his mistakes comes from a well-intended bravura. He sees tight passing angles or vaguely open three-pointers and simply can't stop himself from taking -- and largely making -- them. That much is crucial; for as much as anyone can harp on Ginobili's mistakes, he still averaged a modest 3.3 turnovers per 36 minutes in the regular season (and 3.4 turnovers per 36 in the playoffs), a mark equivalent to the per-minute turnover stats of James Harden and Kyrie Irving. Ginobili, for the record, averaged more assists per minute than both.
An offensive caretaker who faultlessly gets the ball where it needs to go brings tremendous value, particularly when that player is an outstanding perimeter shooter like Calderon (46.1 percent from long range this season, 39.9 percent for his career). His playmaking style might be too conservative to drive some offenses, but Calderon creates a stabilizing influence by doing two simple things extraordinarily well: reading basic angles and preempting both teammates and defenders. He's more of a swing or entry passer than a hot-shot playmaker, but he can be trusted to find the right players in the right spots. He may not draw as much defensive attention as his team would like, but Calderon's heady passing and ball security give him a unique appeal.
Of course, I'm obligated to note that the 31-year-old Calderon might have trouble staying in front of a Roomba on D. He just doesn't have the lateral quickness to keep pace with quicker opponents, though he at least has the good sense to funnel his man toward a teammate when the option presents itself. He won't soon help his team on that end of the court, but for that reason some team will likely land an accomplished offensive player at a relative bargain.
7. Jarrett Jack
Jack is due a raise (he made $5.4 million this season), but he's also a more problematic player than most casual (or playoff-centric) fans are likely aware. He scores well, but does so in a way that often prevents greater potential for offense. His deep drives and pull-up jumpers largely come without contingency, with Jack bound by his inability to read the entire floor. That he can so often beat his man off the bounce turns out to be a blessing and a curse -- often on consecutive possessions -- for that very reason. The way he plays isn't exactly selfish, but functionally it's not so different; Jack might set up a wide-open teammate in the center of his field of view, but otherwise the blinders he bears tend to deny his team high-value opportunities (corner three-pointers, open cutters, etc.).
None of this should preclude a team from employing him, as Jack, 29, is so good at working into the paint and scoring on difficult, contested attempts that he largely makes up for his playmaking deficiency. But it's something that potential suitors need be cognizant of in making their offers, particularly at the price that Jack is likely to command after a strong postseason for Golden State.
Robinson is a coach's Faustian bargain. He will take the kinds of quick, one-step-in jumpers that frustrate teammates and circumvent the offense. He'll gamble and be exploited defensively, where his height already puts him at a disadvantage. He'll over-dribble and violate most every fundamental that a basketball lifer would hold dear.
But for all that fuss, Robinson brings a dose of situational scoring and an offensive explosion that few role players are capable of matching. The key to it all is his still-underrated shooting ability. While Robinson is more renowned for his dunks, he's so amazingly nimble and has such impossible body control that he can create shots against taller defenders on a whim. Plus, unlike so many other shoot-first guards, Robinson is a wonderful cut or curl option. He ranked as one as the best spot-up shooters in the league this season, according to Synergy Sports, shooting an outstanding 44.3 percent on spot-up three-pointers for the Bulls' overmatched offense. If given an opportunity to fill a similar role for a team in better offensive standing, he could provide an even more potent counterpunch.
It all comes at a cost, though, as to sign Robinson (who turned 29 on Friday) is to concede that he might at some point shoot his team out of a few games. But there is no better source of no-assembly-required offense in this year's free-agent pool, and no more dynamic scorer at Robinson's likely price.
9. Jerryd Bayless (Player option)
Bayless might be a bit overvalued after providing decent offense to a Grizzlies team starved for perimeter scoring, but he's a solid option for any team looking for an assertive ball handler. He doesn't probe or analyze in the way of some of the league's headier playmakers, but the 24-year-old uses every dribble as a chance to challenge his immediate defender and seizes upon whatever scoring opportunities come available. He tends to be a better reserve than primary ball handler for this very reason, but Bayless' style is a nice change of pace when compared to some of the more tentative shooting specialists who largely fill out NBA lineups.
Bayless can convert his long-range looks when playing off the ball, but along with that ability comes the means of attacking the defense from the weak side of the floor. He's not shy about counter-driving on the catch, and though he's a scorer first and foremost, Bayless can set up teammates relatively well through basic play action or impromptu dribble-drives.
10. Darren Collison
The Mavericks seemed to make an offseason steal in trading Ian Mahinmi to Indiana for Collison, but the 25-year-old point guard suffered from a season-long bout of indecision. Collison is a speedster hopelessly unaware of his most commanding advantage. He'll dart into open space only to settle for a jumper rather than attack the rim, making him one of the more confounding pick-and-roll players in the league.
Dallas is the third stop in which Collison has ultimately failed to take the next step in his development. He's still good enough and productive enough to be a rotation-level player, but the hope for some breakthrough wanes with every passing season and every squandered opportunity. Collison has had top-notch pick-and-roll partners in David West and Dirk Nowitzki, but he still turns tentative when he should be assertive and clams up as a playmaker when his team most needs offense. That combination should diminish the market for a player once thought to be a far more intriguing prospect.
UPDATE: Dallas did not give Collison a qualifying offer, making him an unrestricted free agent.
11. Mo Williams
Williams' success next season will largely stem from his willingness to compromise. If he looks to assert the full extent of his market value, he'll likely wind up as a relatively well-compensated player on a lesser team, fit to fill out the starting lineup for some franchise in need of point-guard help. But if he'd consent to a smaller role and possibly a smaller paycheck, he could land with any number of contenders.
And make no mistake: The better the team, the better off Williams will be. He can create and initiate offense at a relatively consistent level, but has looked most viable when playing alongside another dominant ball handler. In their two seasons together in Cleveland, Williams worked off LeBron James, converting 45 percent from three-point range -- a nice leap from his career average of 38.6. He could find a perfect fit with any team capable of cross-matching on the perimeter to hide him defensively. Williams, 30, isn't so bad in coverage that he dooms his team by walking on the court, but in many cases he's in dire need of matchup help to minimize the damage from the lanes and scores he surrenders.
12. Devin Harris
In terms of offensive utility, the 30-year-old Harris is about as bland as point guards come. He rarely attacks directly enough to get to the free-throw line with any consistency these days. He hasn't shown much capacity for making the reads demanded of first-option playmakers, and he isn't a consistent shooter.
Defensively, though, he's one of the better available options in a somewhat lacking field. At least seven of the players ranked above him could be considered a defensive weakness, whereas Harris tends to hold his own at either guard spot -- an increasingly valuable attribute. His footwork on that end may seem a bit scattered at times, but all that fluttering footwork amounts to a constant string of minute adjustments. Because of that micro-management, Harris does a great job of sliding in front of opponents without using his hands, which makes him capable of preventing and directing penetrators without fouling. His still-slight frame does make him vulnerable to post-up guards and stronger finishers, but those are largely situational threats.
13. Will Bynum
This season made one thing abundantly clear: If a team can spread the floor in order to run high pick-and-rolls, Bynum can take care of the rest. He isn't all that effective otherwise, but Bynum supercharged Detroit's second unit by playing brilliantly off rookie center Andre Drummond, to the point that he quietly registered as one of the 30 best pick-and-roll ball handlers in scoring efficiency, according to Synergy Sports. Bynum, 30, has enough explosiveness on his drives to make his changes in direction and pace that much more difficult to counter, meaning he's a perfect pick-and-roll practitioner for teams that struggle to create off the bench. Tighter quarters in lineups with fewer shooters would hinder Bynum's value significantly, but he's ultimately a pick-and-roll player in a pick-and-roll league, equipped to maximize those skills.
14. Beno Udrih
Udrih, who turns 31 in July, has often been disregarded as yet another blank, boring point guard, but he's a decent NBA player with a good shooting touch. The pull-up jumper, in particular, is his darling -- for better or worse, in sickness and in health, for as long as he and his jumper shall live. As a result of that commitment, 63 percent of Udrih's field-goal attempts this season came either from mid-range or just inside the paint (but outside the restricted area). That's fine as long as he continues to convert those shots at such a sound rate (he made 44.6 percent of those attempts overall while splitting time with Milwaukee and Orlando), but Udrih's pull-up style tends not to draw the defensive attention necessary to enable quick feeds or earn free-throw attempts. Essentially, he's a quality scoring option off the dribble without any of the tangential benefits of driving -- a reality that makes him fairly valuable but pretty clearly limited.
15. Toney Douglas
His years in New York may not have been kind to him, but Douglas had a strong bounce-back year in Houston in which he rediscovered his shooting touch and mounted a compelling case as a useful role player on a winning team. Optimally, Douglas would be put in a position where he wouldn't be forced to handle the ball every trip down the floor, as his decision-making tends to get shakier with continued usage. If he could find such a fit, Douglas' ability to play off the ball as both a shooter and cutter would only be that much more valuable.
Douglas, 27, is a pretty tenacious defender, albeit one still in need of further refinement. All of Douglas' well-intended ball pressure can either make him an effective irritant or a victim of quick blow-bys, as a single step in the wrong direction can allow for easy penetration.
UPDATE: Sacramento did not issue Douglas a qualifying offer, making him an unrestricted free agent.
16. Chauncey Billups
It's tricky to project how Billups might fare in a return to ball-handling duties because he's two seasons removed from his last stint as a functional point guard. Billups rarely assumed those duties when playing among reserves during his time in Los Angeles, instead doing spot work off the dribble with all of the usual Billups staples.
At this point, his game is true to form, if also diminished in production. Billups' pump-fake game is as strong as ever and the primary force behind his still-solid 4.1 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes. His shot selection is still consistently irritating, with Mr. Big Shot taking every transition opportunity as an invitation to jack up ill-advised three-pointers. He can also defend bigger guards relatively well but has lost some of his ability to keep track of more agile ball handlers. Billups, who will be 37 at the start of next season, is well past his peak, but enough of his old self remains to offer some value for any team that cherished the original model.
17. C.J. Watson (Player option)
Watson, 29, is a perfectly decent backup option, especially if he can be had for the kind of bargain deal that brought him to Brooklyn last summer. He's a better passer than his numbers with the Nets (3.8 assists per 36 minutes) showed, in part because the plodding offense made it difficult for any ball handler to find his bearings. Brooklyn had neither the space nor the pace to enable a player such as Watson, who doesn't have the type of standout athleticism to create in spite of those other factors. Still, he shot a career-best 41.1 percent from three-point range and played typically stout perimeter defense, a combination that should endear him to any number of contenders looking to stabilize their bench. Watson would be ideal next to a backcourt mate who could help initiate offense.
18. Eric Maynor
A midseason trade from Oklahoma City to Portland helped Maynor reverse course on what had been a disastrous season, but even at his best I fear he's too sterile a scorer to be all that effective a shot creator. It's certainly possible for ball handlers to be effective without projecting as much of a scoring threat (see Rondo, Rajon), but to operate in such a manner typically limits what that player can accomplish. Maynor seems to be a remotely efficient scorer only when working off the ball, but teams will understandably want to make use of his passing ability as a source of offense. That puts the soon-to-be 25-year-old in a strange position, in which he's likely not threatening enough to really elevate the impact of his drives, but not versatile enough without the ball to justify a positional switch.
UPDATE: Portland did not give Maynor a qualifying offer, making him an unrestricted free agent.
19. Rodrigue Beaubois
Beaubois can officially be labeled as a reclamation project. Repeated injury and chronic inconsistency have played a sizable part in the 25-year-old's decline, but even more damning is Beaubois' dwindling command of the elements of the game that previously came so easy to him. As an unknown rookie in 2009-10, Beaubois showed an excellent capacity for haphazard offense and provided Dallas with an alternative source of scoring when the usual channels broke down. But 2012-13 marked the third consecutive season in which Beaubois' per-minute scoring dropped. Over the course of his rookie deal, he's gone from averaging 20.3 points per 36 minutes to a Tony Allen-like 11.9 -- so steep a drop that he could offer little to a Mavericks team that suffered mightily for perimeter shot creation and steady ball handling.
A season-ending hand injury that Beaubois sustained in March should be healed by the time training camp rolls around. But even when healthy, he's proved to be too spotty a scorer and too limited a facilitator to warrant any significant investment.
UPDATE: Dallas did not give Beaubois a qualifying offer, thus making Beaubois an unrestricted free agent.