There's no bigger risk vs. reward decision than Josh Smith in free agency. (Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
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 categories: big men.
Note: The following list only features those players guaranteed or likely to become free agents. Players who -- according to reports or current circumstances -- are unlikely to decline their player options (PO) or exercise their early termination options (ETO) are not listed. That excluded group includes Emeka Okafor (ETO), Boris Diaw (PO) and Charlie Villanueva (PO).
A big, max-level prize who needs no introduction. Howard, 27, may bring plenty of baggage from a personality standpoint, but when healthy he's as good of a two-way big man as you'll find in the NBA. This season was rough, but with another summer to heal and prepare, expect big things from Howard in 2013-14 -- wherever he might land.
2. Josh Smith
Smith is a living, breathing exercise in risk vs. reward. Few candidates can match the 27-year-old's combination of impact defense, offensive versatility and applicable athleticism, yet his decision making is so regrettable at times as to make all potential suitors reconsider before making a lucrative offer. Smith's production and the flexibility are as such that he could realistically chase a max (or near-max) contract, but any deal of that size would be a gamble on the notion that his most unfortunate habits could be curbed and his more productive instincts refined.
Teams should roll the dice if they dare. When empowered by proper focus, Smith is a monster on both ends capable of far more than most fans realize. He simply gets in his own way far too often for any team to sign him without some concern, and for that reason may see some suitors turn squeamish if negotiations turn too pricey.
3. David West
In terms of approach and personality, West is the anti-Smith, and perhaps even the anti-Howard. He hasn't the slightest interest in creating any fuss and goes about his business with a plain professionalism. West, 32, doesn't attempt shots he can't make or make claims he can't back up, and in that provides a safe, productive (17.1 points on 49.8 percent shooting, 7.7 rebounds, and 2.9 assists per game) addition for any team lucky enough to sign him.
Indiana has provided a wonderful fit in terms of team personality, but in truth, West could get along well in just about any context. Muscle, shooting range and smart defense tend to travel well, to say nothing of the culture-setting leadership that a player like West exudes. Roy Hibbert has been quick to credit West's influence for the Pacers' collective focus, and that intangible appeal should only increase the value of a player who already offers so much on the court.
4. Paul Millsap
While he may not fare well when thrust into a role as a primary offensive threat, Millsap's complementary game could help round out the roster of any number of teams. Instincts and effort are the primary basis for his NBA success; good things tend to happen to players who work hard and work smart, and in Millsap's case those qualities result in solid rebounding and sound complementary scoring. Playing alongside Al Jefferson in Utah often allowed Millsap to operate against the lesser of the opponent's interior defenders, an advantage he was able to leverage into some nice low-post success. Otherwise, he's a flexible roll man and an adept cutter -- qualities that should only be accentuated on teams that space the floor more effectively than the Jazz.
Millsap, 28, may not be as accurate from mid-range as he seems to think he is (he made just 37.3 percent outside the paint and inside the three-point line this season), but he can handle the ball well enough to attack the basket and does a fine job of getting to the foul line. On a per-minute basis, Millsap earned roughly as many free throws as Tony Parker and Blake Griffin, largely by staying active and making decisive moves with the ball.
Nikola Pekovic averaged 16.3 points and 8.8 rebounds this season. (Allen Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
5. Nikola Pekovic (Restricted)
Pekovic's hulking frame and power game give him a throwback appeal, but a surprising mobility makes him fit to operate in modern offensive and defensive systems. He's the inside counterpoint that so many perimeter-oriented rosters are missing, or in the case of the incumbent Timberwolves, a cooperative foil for All-Star big man Kevin Love. When even remotely healthy, Minnesota was an effective defensive team with Pekovic taking up space in the paint and sliding into favorable position. He won't resemble a standout NBA athlete even on his spriest day, and yet Pekovic is good at repelling pick-and-roll action and pushing opponents out of the post.
On offense, Pekovic understands what he does best and rarely strays from the basics. Even without much above-the-rim potential, his strength and footwork allow him the angles and room necessary to finish in traffic, both as a post-up threat and a surprising roll option. He isn't likely to make any leaps in production at this point (coming off his first NBA contract, Pekovic is already 27), but most every team could find use for a big man with real defensive chops and a bruising interior game.
6. Al Jefferson
I do not envy the coach and general manager tasked with building around so strange a player as Jefferson. He's one of the better high-usage post scorers around, but inefficient enough in that capacity to hold his team back if given too many touches. He's also a blinding, neon advertisement for defensive liability; opponents know all too well at this point that Jefferson's slow feet and poor reads make him exploitable in pick-and-rolls, and often look to target him specifically until his presence on the floor becomes destructive.
Jefferson, 28, put up some strong raw numbers as the first option in a top-10 offense, but his massive defensive weaknesses and curious offensive game make him difficult to complement. Ideally, Jefferson would need a frontcourt partner capable of playing elite defense and stretching the floor on offense -- a dream combination that's almost impossible to find. Jefferson's offensive game also doesn't mesh all that well with the high pick-and-roll style that forms the basis of most offenses, and needs the aid of perimeter shooting in order to fully breathe.
These desired factors aren't unique to Jefferson by any means, but he's a particularly complicated match in that building around him warrants so much additional consideration. He's not a player who can be dropped into just any system or just any lineup. He requires thought and planning in order to employ, and yet the salary he's likely to command makes it difficult for teams to account for the necessary support.
7. Tiago Splitter (Restricted)
It seems unlikely that San Antonio would let Splitter go in the aftermath of such a successful postseason, but his restricted free-agent status at the very least opens up the possibility for his departure. While he's nothing more than a spot offensive option, Splitter's ability to track play actions and defend them accordingly puts him well ahead of the curve in terms of basketball comprehension. He is a successful team defender and generally does a terrific job of guarding his individual matchup around the rim as well. Those are attributes worth paying for, and in the case of the Spurs, worth paying to keep around.
Still, the 28-year-old Splitter doesn't seem to be a transformational defender on his own, and he has the benefit of playing alongside Tim Duncan, a strait-jacket perimeter defender in Kawhi Leonard and the consistently underrated Danny Green. He's put in a position to succeed by way of great personnel and a proven scheme, making it a bit tricky to separate Splitter's specific impact from his workings within the greater whole. There's no question that he moves well and makes smart decisions within the Spurs' defense, but extrapolating his value into a different setting proves complicated. That's inevitable, to some extent, but also presents the biggest challenge in valuing a player of Splitter's talents.
8. Carl Landry (Player option)
Landry is a specialist of sorts, but his specialty happens to make him a rarity among the players on this list. Few free-agent big men can create offense when afforded the opportunity, but Landry, 29, ranked as one of the better post options in the league this season. He averaged 0.88 points per post-up possession, according to Synergy Sports, and while that isn't the kind of efficiency that can sustain an offense, it offers teams help in building or maintaining leads.
Landry's skill set is as such that he can complement ball-dominant stars by scrapping, cutting and spotting up, but he also helps prop up weaker reserve lineups by playing a more commanding role in the offense as necessary. He's a noticeably imperfect defender, but those post contributions -- in conjunction with a smooth face-up jumper, solid pick-and-roll work and consistent offensive rebounding -- make him a starting-caliber offensive player with a bench-friendly game.
9. Elton Brand
Dallas had to play it safe with the 34-year-old Brand's minutes (21.2 per game), and as a result the savvy, ground-bound big man carved out another solid season in relative silence. His per-game numbers (7.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.3 blocks) don't jump off the stat sheet, but in limited run he proved to be a valuable contributor.
At this stage in his career, Brand couldn't save a Dallas defense that allowed for so many perimeter blow-bys or salvage the rebounding efforts for a team that struggled so profoundly on the glass. But could be an outstanding addition to a roster with better support. He's a perfect fit for teams looking for another big man to help close the gap in execution between starters and reserves, particularly with their defensive rotations. What Brand lacks in lateral speed he makes up for with spatial awareness and economy of movement, making him a viable help defender when part of a sound system.
10. Chris Andersen
Most every player on this list is context-dependent, but perhaps none more so than Andersen (who turns 35 in July). On the right team, his ability to finish -- with dunks, reverse layups and even the occasional finger roll -- is an incredible asset. He's played brilliantly off LeBron James in Miami, but the tenets of their relationship could easily be exported to a new bond with any effective playmaker.
Without that kind of enabling passer, though, one of the most attractive qualities of Andersen's game would be bottled up and rendered inaccessible. He would be reduced to hustle defense and offensive rebounds, and while those contributions might be valuable in their own right, it would diminish Andersen's overall worth relative to what he currently offers a team like Miami. He'll likely have a chance to chase either a bigger paycheck or an optimal basketball fit, but there may be a precious few suitors who could offer both to one of the most surprising successes of the postseason.
J.J. Hickson (right) was solid on the glass for the Blazers in 2012-13. (Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)
11. J.J. Hickson
This was a banner season for Hickson, who transformed one of his most notable shortcomings into an incredible strength. After grabbing just 15.2 percent of all possible rebounds for the Kings and Blazers last season, Hickson snagged 20.7 percent this year -- a top-five mark and notably superior to that of Tim Duncan, Howard, Zach Randolph and many more.
Still, Hickson was far from ideal in the role that Portland asked him to play this season, and the 24-year-old enters free agency as both a questionable defender and an offensive dependent. He isn't a player teams can trust to do anything other than finish possessions at this point, and in that regard is best suited for a slighter, supporting role. It's worrisome that Portland -- a team without a single league-average-or-better bench player based on Player Efficiency Rating -- played better overall this season with an underwhelming sub in Hickson's place. Nonetheless, there is value in a player who can score and collect rebounds as consistently as Hickson did this year.
12. Brandan Wright
Due to injury, recovery, and what often amounted to a minor role with the Mavs, Wright has played roughly the same number of NBA minutes as Kenneth Faried, Larry Sanders, and Nikola Vucevic, with the prime of his career still to come. He was drafted in 2007, but all of the above factors make him functionally young, and theoretically interesting to any team in need of an energetic big to round out their rotation.
Wright is an odd player in that he thrives on an array of runners and floaters, but Dallas has had some success focusing his athletic gifts in the pick and roll. In the right context (read: with the right playmaker), Wright could be even more effective, and potentially pan out as a starting-level contributor with a bit more experience. For now, he's an effective finisher, a source of instant energy, and a bouncy, quick-footed asset on defense. Nothing in his game suggests star potential, but Wright is already the kind of role player who creates value (via rolling to the rim, spacing the floor a bit, etc.) beyond his individual production.
13. Andray Blatche
That Blatche was able to somehow salvage his punchline career was one of the most remarkable feats of the season. While playing in Washington, Blatche led the league in facepalm-inducing plays and served up a host of other concerns about his character and focus. He has long been an interesting talent, but Blatche was so worrisome that the Wizards amnestied him only a year after signing him to a three-year extension.
But Blatche, 26, played nice with the Nets this season, and played nicely to boot. He was an essential contributor for a team that otherwise struggled to find the right frontcourt mix. Blatche's play may well have priced him out of re-signing in Brooklyn (he was on a minimum contract during this face-saving season), but the number of interested suitors will be far greater now that he's shown he can contribute in a variety of ways to a winning team.
14. Chris Kaman
This was a rough year for Kaman, who went from being Dallas' presumptive first-option center to a consistent source of frustration for coach Rick Carlisle. While still solid as a low-post and mid-range scorer, Kaman just wasn't a good fit for the Mavs; his rebounding can be a bit inconsistent, and his defensive timing is often a full beat too slow for effective rotation. That made Kaman a problematic pairing with Dirk Nowitzki and provided a template for the kind of situation that he should avoid next season. Still, Kaman is big and established, and for those reasons alone the 31-year-old may get more money on a short-term deal than he's reasonably worth. Hopefully his next stop will make for a better match.
15. DeJuan Blair
Blair, 24, may aim to find a bigger role on another team next season after falling out of San Antonio's rotation, and his per-minute productivity over the last four years (14.9 points and 11.1 rebounds per 36 minutes on average) suggests that he's more than capable. Defensive lapses, short stature and concern over ACL-absent knees will likely push Blair into a modest contract, but he should do well as a rotation regular in spite of those concerns.
16. Marreese Speights (Player option)
Speights has put up some impressive numbers at each of his three NBA stops, but unfortunately he doesn't supply much beyond those box-score offerings. He's a natural scorer but struggles to work within an offense; it rarely takes Speights long to hoist up a shot after the ball swings his way, making him a better fit for some roles than others. He's also a quality rebounder but a lacking defender, though his stint in Memphis showed that the right system can help disguise his shortcomings.
The 25-year-old is a quality player, provided he isn't expected to offer more than the sum of his stats. His mid-range proficiency should make him a great fit for teams in need of spacing help.
Kenyon Martin (left) remains valuable because of his interior defense. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
17. Kenyon Martin
Martin is valued for his ability to defend the interior. Mediocre rebounding and a thin offensive skill set won't soon earn Martin another NBA contract, but most every playoff team needs another player capable of rotating reliably and guarding the post -- two attributes that happen to be Martin's strong suits. The 35-year-old is a known quantity, for better or worse, as his end-of-season run with the Knicks simultaneously showcased what he can offer to a competitive team under the right circumstances and how his lack of offense might hold some teams back.
18. Tyler Hansbrough (Restricted)
The Pacers' reserve is a pure-hustle big man with a habit for fouling (4.0 fouls per 36 minutes) and being fouled (6.8 fouls drawn per 36 minutes). Hansbrough's energy is a tangible asset, but it also makes him appear to be a better defender than he actually is; activity should not be confused for acuity, and often Hansbrough can be caught out of position as a result of his frenetic scrambling.
Still, Hansbrough is a fairly useful piece on a Pacers team lacking for viable reserves, though perhaps not so valuable as to be above replacement. In that, Hansbrough is one of the more plausibly obtainable restricted free agents this summer. His decent rebounding and ability to earn free throws are enough to earn the 27-year-old a spot in most NBA rotations.
19. Chris Copeland (Restricted)
Copeland, a 29-year-old rookie this season, is a rotation-level scorer without a true position, largely because he can't much be counted on to defend any positional type reliably. That makes Copeland a decidedly better fit for some teams than others. If a suitor could conceivably hide Copeland on D by covering for his lack of strength and defensive technique, it would stand to benefit greatly from his perimeter shooting (42.1 percent on three-pointers for the Knicks in 2012-13) and floor-stretching potential. Big men who can create a pull on defenses are well worth a roster spot in today's NBA.