NBA free agency: Who are the 10 best players left?
In a little more than a week, many teams have emptied their coffers and the free-agent market has begun to dry up. And while the pickings are a bit slim, there are a handful of big names on the market. Most of the remaining talent comes with some baggage, to be fair. But there are still roster holes that need to be filled around the league, and so here we are for a quick mini-analysis of who’s left.
Yes, LeBron James is technically a free agent. No, we aren’t listing him here. Read between the lines.
Here are 10 of the best players available, in subjective order of relevance.
Since becoming a champion, Earl Junior has taken his shirt off, partied in Vegas, ran for president … pretty much everything except sign a contract. The Cavaliers are going to be in the luxury tax and need to find a way to re-sign him. Reports indicate he’ll be coming back. What price he’ll settle on with Cleveland is yet to be seen, but you figure there’s some connection between Smith and James, both Rich Paul clients waiting to sign deals. He’s technically on the market, but someone would likely have to throw a big raise to pry him away.
Teams who are into streaky, mercurial shooting guards don’t really need J.R. Smith anyway, because Waiters is dangling as a restricted free agent. The Durant-less Thunder will likely match offers, given the dearth of scoring on the market and that they’ve now got money to spend. While he may not really be worth whatever someone offers him long-term, losing him creates a hole in a rebuilt rotation in need wing scoring and floor spacing if OKC wants to overachieve. Waiters took a small step forward in the playoffs and is still just 24. He’s been tied to the Kings (who are dangling Rudy Gay, for what it’s worth) and to the Sixers.
The ragtag holy trinity of talented, head-scratching shooting guards is complete with Stephenson, who was renounced by the Grizzlies. He could definitely fill a hole on someone’s bench, and he could also definitely disappear into the NBA ether at any moment. You have to think he’ll catch on somewhere on a short-term deal, and if someone thinks they can get the best out of him, rolling the dice with little financial attachment makes sense. That said, his track record isn’t the most encouraging.
Portland has heavily shored up its roster, adding Evan Turner on the wing and paying to lock up Meyers Leonard, bring in Festus Ezeli and keep Allen Crabbe away from Brooklyn. Harkless, a restricted free agent, took a step forward with the Blazers last season and reportedly is considering taking the qualifying offer for another year. That said, with all the money the Blazers have now tied up, you have to think an aggressive offer sheet could get the job done. Harkless is a work in progress, but only 23 and improving as a defender. His situation is one to watch.
Plumlee might be the best restricted free agent big left on the market, bringing athleticism, defense and impressive facial hair in a rotational role. His playing time was reduced in Milwaukee last season, but he’s still an able body and has been productive on a per-minute basis. He’s reportedly drawing interest around the league, and for what it’s worth, the Bucks have been thus far unable to deal Greg Monroe.
Motiejunas is another restricted free agent and comes with injury concerns after the Rockets’ attempt to send him to the Pistons was voided last season because of his back problems. These concerns have likely calmed the market for him. He brings toughness and was a good rotational piece two seasons ago, but his health makes him a bit of a wild-card investment.
Now an unrestricted free agent after the Celtics renounced his qualifying offer, Sullinger is a talented yet limited big with a bit of injury baggage. He appeared in 81 games last season, but has battled weight issues and missed significant time in 2013–15 with back and foot problems. He’s a good rebounder, intelligent player and just 24 years old. Perhaps the biggest issue is how he’ll work given the NBA’s stylistic lineup shifts, given he’s not much of a shot blocker nor a strong three-point shooter.
His minutes were chopped in half in Boston last season, but Zeller is still only 26 and has a history of offensive productivity. He doesn’t give you a ton on the other side of the ball, but there are worse ways to fill out a rotation. Boston has tendered a qualifying offer, but there’s a logjam up front with Al Horford joining Kelly Olynyk, Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko.
There’s been some scuttle that Lee could return to the Warriors’ bench. He’s been injured a lot the past two years, and it’s fair to wonder what he has left in the tank, but he was productive when he played last season in Dallas. If you need a vet to fill out your bench, you can do much worse.
Guess Ty Lawson’s age … he’s 28. Wow, right? After some serious off-court issues with alcohol, last season was a mostly-failed comeback attempt for the talented guard. There aren’t a ton of great point guards left (he is the most notable ballhandler), and there’s maybe a sliver of optimism he can recapture some old form; he’s probably not as bad as he looked at times last year. If he’s seriously willing to adjust to life as a role player, which was an issue next to James Harden last season in Houston, maybe someone takes a chance.