NBA free agents can't officially sign until the July moratorium ends on Wednesday, but the market has already been picked over by preliminary negotiation. Such is the influence of the league's handshake agreements, which have taken coveted stars and role players off the table and left those teams with cap space and exceptions to sort through the sparse remains of the free-agent pool. Below are the best of that remaining crop -- the top 20 available free agents across all positions, each of whom could contribute on a winning team.
1. Andrew Bynum
Some team is guaranteed to take a chance on the 25-year-old Bynum, even after he spent last year racking up knee surgeries and making questionable decisions at every turn. Such is the value of Bynum’s uncommon package of size and talent; there simply aren’t many players capable of producing like a healthy Bynum can, and thus his free agency holds the potential for a team to acquire a high-level player at what could be a sizable discount.
Still, given the length of Bynum’s absence from the court and his reluctance to work out for interested teams, he remains a precarious and presumptive leader on this list. We may ultimately find out that Bynum isn't the player he once was, but for now we'll work under the assumption that he'd be able to more or less pick up where he left off when healthy, making him both an incredible value and an incredible risk. So far, the Cavaliers, Hawks and Mavericks reportedly seem most willing to take that gamble. Cleveland has gone so far as to put a two-year, $24 million offer on the table, according to Yahoo! Sports. Bynum is set to meet with Atlanta officials on Tuesday, though reports differ on whether he is expected to then make his decision or go on to meet with Dallas.
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 former Atlanta coach 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 someday become. Still, last season he posted career highs in scoring (14.6 points) and assists (7.2), while Atlanta’s offense hummed at what was essentially a top-10 level with him on the floor.
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. Teague is only 25 and primed to make the most of an expanded opportunity.
3. 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, but Pekovic does good work in 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.
4. Brandon Jennings (restricted)
If Jennings is to 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 last 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 last season, making his jumper-happy game more palatable than it otherwise could be.
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 last season -- a basic indicator that 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.
It's a bit surprising that Kirilenko is a free agent at all, but the 32-year-old forward declined a $10.2 million player option in order to see what the market could offer. Power to him, and power to the number of teams that could benefit from his two-way contributions.
Kirilenko isn't the high-volume scorer that his pay grade might suggest, but he's so splendid in so many other phases of the game that it hardly matters. He's no longer an All-NBA defender, but he's not far off; Kirilenko remains one of the most versatile defensive assets in the league, as he can cover the top forwards at either position while also providing impeccable help D. He's a solid rebounder, too, particularly when slotted at small forward, and works so tirelessly that Minnesota coach Rick Adelman had to tell Kirilenko not to dive for so many loose balls when the Wolves were in the midst of an injury rush. He's the kind of high-caliber competitor every team should want.
On top of all that he provides defensively, Kirilenko is an expert cutter, having combined a natural feel for the game with years in Jerry Sloan's flex offense. Kirilenko understands which defensive actions can be exploited with a quick dash to the rim or a bit of misdirection, and he does a fantastic job of making himself open and available on those cuts. Kirilenko is no slouch when creating for himself, either, as his consistent movement allows him to catch the ball and quickly drive against a stilted defense. From there, Kirilenko is a solid finisher and clever passer, cementing his value as an all-around complement.
He's certainly better suited for some systems than others, and a shaky enough shooter to make for a poor fit in some spots. But on the right team, Kirilenko could prove to be an incredible asset, likely on a short-term deal as his career winds down.
6. Gerald Henderson (restricted)
Aside from his gravity-defying throwdown early in the season, Henderson had a quiet year in a starting role for one of the worst teams in basketball. That’s not a great way to build a résumé, but Henderson’s performance has been sturdy enough to wonder what he might be capable of in a different context.
The Bobcats were such a mess that it’s difficult to evaluate Henderson’s defensive value within the team concept. The effort was clearly there, but Charlotte’s defenders were so rarely on the same page that it’s hard to know if Henderson was really executing as intended. Nevertheless, the 25-year-old has shown nice defensive potential over the past few seasons, and according to Synergy Sports, Henderson allowed just 0.66 points per play (and 32.3 percent shooting) in isolation situations last season. He's clearly reliable enough to stay in front of most perimeter threats, and Henderson should do well if empowered by the fundamentals and principles of a more consistent defense.
Offensively, Henderson is skilled overall but doesn’t have any sort of specialty. He has dabbled in pick-and-roll play, does rather well in the post and has improved as a spot-up shooter. He still needs to become a more consistent threat from beyond the arc, but he’s progressively attempted more threes in every season and made a big step toward league-average marksmanship last season by shooting 33 percent. All in all, Henderson’s game seems safe and malleable enough to warrant considerable interest, provided that a team is willing to pay to sign him through restricted free agency.
7. Monta Ellis
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 last 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.
8. Elton Brand
Dallas had to play it safe with the 34-year-old Brand’s minutes (21.2 per game) last season, and as a result the savvy, ground-bound big man carved out another solid campaign in relative silence. His per-game numbers (7.2 points, six rebounds, 1.3 blocks) don’t jump off the stat sheet, but in limited run he proved to be a valuable contributor.
Brand couldn’t save a Dallas defense that allowed so many perimeter blow-bys or salvage the rebounding efforts of a team that struggled so profoundly on the glass. He could, however, prove to 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 in 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. He’s strong enough to battle for post and rebounding position on a consistent basis, and he has the discipline to make opponents work for their points.
He can't play starter's minutes because of his age and diminished offense. Still, Brand might make sense for teams looking to fill out their big-man rotation with the best defenders possible.
Most every player on this list is context-dependent, but perhaps none more so than the 35-year-old Andersen. On the right team, his ability to finish -- with dunks, reverse layups and even the occasional finger roll -- is an incredible asset. He played brilliantly off of LeBron James in Miami, but the tenets of their relationship could easily be exported to another team with an effective playmaker. Things may not be quite as easy without James and the Heat's impeccable spacing, but any player who can get to the rim consistently can still set up Andersen as he stalks around the baseline, or use his talents as the primary big man in pick-and-roll scenarios.
Without that kind of enabling passer, though, the most attractive qualities of Andersen’s game would be bottled up and rendered inaccessible. He would be reduced to a source of hustle defense and offensive rebounds, and while those contributions might be valuable in their own right, such a scenario would leave Andersen as significantly less valuable compared to what he can offer a team like Miami. It seems unlikely that Andersen would bail on Miami at this point, but if the money is good enough, he might be enticed.
UPDATE: Chris Andersen has reportedly agreed to terms on a new deal with the Heat.
10. Brandan Wright
Because of injury, recovery and what often amounted to a minor role with the Mavericks, the 25-year-old 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 quite raw by NBA standards, and theoretically interesting to any team in need of an energetic big man to round out its rotation.
Wright is an odd player in that he thrives on an array of runners and floaters, but Dallas 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 prove to be a starting-level contributor as he gets 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.
11. Nate Robinson
Robinson is a coach’s Faustian bargain. He will take the kind of quick, long two-point 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, the 29-year-old 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 and curl option. He ranked as one as the best spot-up shooters in the league last 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 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.
12. 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. For example: In their two seasons together in Cleveland, Williams worked well off of James and converted 45 percent from three-point range -- a nice leap from his career average of 38.6. A perfect fit would also include the potential to be hidden defensively on the perimeter through cross-matching; Williams, 30, isn’t so bad in coverage that he dooms his team's defense by walking on the court, but in many cases he’s in dire need of matchup help to minimize the damage he often surrenders.
13. Beno Udrih
Udrih, 31, 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 shot attempts last 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 them while splitting time with Milwaukee and Orlando), but Udrih’s pull-up style tends not to draw the defensive attention necessary to free up teammates 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.
14. Toney Douglas
His years in New York may not have been kind to him, but Douglas had a strong bounce-back season in Houston (and later, Sacramento) 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. If he can be reined in a bit, he could well be the small-guard equivalent of a 3-and-D wing player -- a stopper at a position where such players are rare, with the ability to contribute as a complementary offensive piece and part-time ball handler. That puts in Douglas in need of a fit that only a handful of teams can provide, but he should be able to offer much to those teams that can take the ball out of his hands and rely on him for what he does best.
15. Corey Brewer
On the right team, Brewer stands to be significantly more valuable than his ranking here would suggest. He’s an inexhaustible leak-out option for teams seeking to push the pace and a natural cutter who could play well off of teammates with a wide field of court vision.
Denver seemed to be a perfect stylistic fit for Brewer's off-to-the-races transition game. He was encouraged to attack in the open court with the Nuggets, thriving in that role with an unfaulting motor and a cast of teammates who looked for him on quick outlet passes. That won’t necessarily be the case if he signs with a team that takes a more deliberate approach (or even with a Nuggets team under Brian Shaw rather than the recently fired George Karl), in which case his spirited play wouldn’t achieve the same ends.
And while energy alone can help Brewer, 27, wreak havoc and create space, much of what he does on both ends is exploitable. He’s a long, active defender, but one so slight and so fidgety in coverage that he can be targeted with hard screens. Plus, as useful as Brewer is as a dive cutter, he’s so far below average as a shooter (29.6 percent from three-point range) that he makes for something of a dead-zone floor spacer. He made 91 three-pointers with Denver last season, but many of those came on wide-open looks against defenses that were playing the odds. Opponents don't even feign interest in guarding Brewer beyond the arc, making the improvement he's shown as a shooter in recent seasons a bit of an empty advancement.
16. DeJuan Blair
Blair, 24, will likely aim to find a bigger role on another team next season after falling out of San Antonio’s rotation. His per-minute productivity over the last four years (14.9 points and 11.1 rebounds per 36 minutes) suggests that he’s more than capable of succeeding in such a capacity. 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 despite those concerns. He didn't quite make sense for the Spurs because of his inability to mesh on the court with Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter, but he is plenty talented and instinctive enough to succeed elsewhere.
17. Gary Neal (restricted)
Gary Neal is a shooter, and there is no force on this planet -- not Gregg Popovich, not the Spurs' on-court leaders, not Neal's own better judgment -- that can stop him from firing away. Neal's shot selection can be so unruly (and his defense so spotty) at times that he can be unplayable, though he can also be so accurate from deep as to bury opponents with a one-man barrage.
Neal, 28, is coming off a down year in terms of perimeter shooting, but he still registered an above-average percentage (35.5) while hoisting 6.1 long-range attempts per 36 minutes. That's a particularly notable attribute in light of the dwindling ranks of available shooters, and it doesn't hurt matters that Neal can handle the ball as needed and is getting better about swinging it to open teammates on the perimeter. He's still vulnerable to lapses in judgment, but teams willing to accept that possession-to-possession risk should well benefit from Neal's shooting and occasional contributions off the bounce.
18. 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. Not only did Chris Paul tend to dominate the ball whenever the two shared the floor, but Billups also rarely assumed control of the offense when playing among reserves during his time in Los Angeles -- instead opting for spot work off the dribble.
His game, though, remains relatively true to form if also diminished in payoff. Billups’ pump fakes are as convincing as ever and serve as the primary force behind his still-solid 4.1 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes. His shot selection is still very much the same as well -- consistently irritating, particularly in that Mr. Big Shot takes every fast break as an invitation to jack up ill-advised three-pointers. Gone, however, is Billups' ability to keep track of more agile ball handlers, though his height and strength allow him to defend bigger guards decently enough. Billups, who turns 37 in September, is well past his peak, but enough of his old self remains to offer some appeal for any team that cherished the original model.
19. John Lucas III
There will always be a place in the league for slippery, off-the-dribble scorers, but the Raptors apparently felt they could go without Lucas' solo shot creation, declining his $1.6 million team option for the coming season. The 5-foot-11 Lucas isn't so good as to be above releasing, but one would think $1.6 million to be a fair price for a player of such coveted specialization.
Lucas, 30, is far too small and has far too limited a game to really contend to be a big-minute contributor, but his ability to manufacture points off the bounce (he averaged 14.5 points per 36 minutes last season) gives him particular value for those franchises with otherwise limited offenses. Lucas may not do much to set up his teammates (he averaged a mere 4.6 assists per 36 minutes last season), but a knack for squeezing into open areas and firing up jumpers before the defense can recover is valuable.
20. Tyler Hansbrough
The former Pacers reserve is a pure-hustle big man with a habit for fouling (four fouls per 36 minutes last season) 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 was often a fairly useful piece on a Pacers team lacking for viable reserves, though not at all so valuable as to be above replacement. Indiana rescinded its qualifying offer to Hansbrough, who is now an unrestricted free agent, and replaced him with former Knick Chris Copeland. Hansbrough's decent rebounding and ability to get to the line are enough to earn the 27-year-old a spot in most NBA rotations, though we have yet to hear of any interest in his services.UPDATE: