Roundtable: Five important NBA free agency questions
Our NBA crew — D.J. Foster, Fred Katz, Andrew Lynch, Michael Pina, Jordan White and John Wilmes — debates five of the biggest questions heading into free agency.
1. Which free agent can most likely be had at a bargain?
D.J. Foster: Amir Johnson. With all the talented frontcourt players in this free-agent class, a guy like Johnson could easily fly under the radar. He regularly finishes near the top of the league in plus-minus metrics, and it makes sense when you consider that he has no real weak points in his game. Johnson can protect the rim, spread the floor, rebound and do a bit of everything, even if he’s elite at nothing. Don’t be surprised if Johnson ends up signing a value deal similar to Paul Millsap’s two offseasons ago.
Fred Katz: Can I say Kawhi Leonard? I’m going to say Kawhi Leonard. But he’s getting a max deal? How could that possibly be a bargain if the Spurs are about to pay him as much as they are legally allowed? It’s all about the NBA’s changing economic landscape. Once the cap jumps from $67 million next year to a projected $89 million in 2016-17 and $108 million in 2017-18, Leonard’s max, which is a percentage of the cap in the year he signs it, is going to look miniature compared to other deals, even the normal ones. Not bad for a 24-year-old who could be one of the better players in the league for years to come.
Andrew Lynch: K.J. McDaniels. Remember McDaniels? He was one of the 173,694 players on the 76ers roster last season, and he finished the season with the Houston Rockets. Ring any bells? Because it seems like the league has forgotten all about the shooting guard. That’s bad news for McDaniels and his agent, but it could be great news for the team that makes him the right offer. McDaniels didn’t do much to dispel the notion that he’s an inconsistent shooter last season, but he’s also 6-foot-6 and a defensive force. He played just 1,352 minutes last season, so he’s still developing, and that will be the key going forward. A team that will actually invest in his growth as a player — he’s only 22 — can help him work on his shot and hone his on-court sense, all for a contract that will take up a sliver of cap space in coming years.
Michael Pina: Tim Duncan. Assuming the big guy returns for his 19th season, it will be on a cut-rate deal with the Spurs that drastically low-balls his true value. In a world where players are robots who lack sentimental attachment and feelings, Duncan could receive a one-year max offer from just about any contender with manageable cap space and a hole in its frontcourt.
Jordan White: Thaddeus Young. Young was pretty bad in Minnesota — understandably so, given the circumstances — but bounced back nicely in Brooklyn, where it looks like he’ll stay. At his best, he’s a slashing, shooting, defending 3/4 who doesn’t need plays called for him yet still manages to make an impact on all facets of the game. Alternate answer: Al-Farouq Aminu, who did good things under the radar in Dallas and is headed to Portland for a reported four-year, $30 million deal.
John Wilmes: Rodney Stuckey. The reserve guard had a terrific renaissance season with the Pacers, but no one was watching. There’s also the fact that the 29-year-old provider of instant offense has said he wants to play for a contender, and it’s not out of the question he’d take a discount to do so.
2. Which free agent is most likely to be overpaid?
Foster: It’s going to be hard to truly overpay someone this offseason, as the projected salary cap jump in the upcoming years will make most of these deals look like bargains soon enough. For now, though? Greg Monroe could very well land a max deal, despite the fact that we’ve seen players with similar skill sets and production levels — David Lee and Carlos Boozer — quickly become albatrosses for their teams. Monroe’s inability to protect the rim or space the floor shouldn’t make him worthy of a max contract, but he’ll likely get one anyway.
Katz: Rajon Rondo, meet the Sacramento Kings. Kings, meet Rajon Rondo. Many were surprised by Rondo’s struggles in Dallas, but that’s mostly because "many" didn’t bother watching post-knee-injury Rondo in Boston the last few years. He’s not the defender he once was, and his inability to shoot and habit of holding on to the ball hamstrings his team’s offense. But Sacramento seems bound to pony up big money for him.
Lynch: Rondo. You have to really be wary about giving Rondo major minutes, let alone major money. But it feels like someone out there is going to do it. Maybe it’s the Sacramento Kings, because owner Vivek Ranadive is looking more Wile E. Coyote than mad scientist-visionary. Someone is going to give Rondo a deal for eight figures a year, and it’s going to be way too much money for someone who can’t shoot, might not get along with his teammates and can’t run a modern NBA offense.
Pina: Tristan Thompson. He was a dump truck on the offensive glass throughout Cleveland’s miraculous run to the NBA Finals, and he’s a quality defender for his size who can play small-ball center with LeBron James running things at power forward. But in a vacuum, Thompson is far from being worth a max contract, even with the cap set to spike in 2016, and that’s likely what the Cavaliers will offer the restricted free agent. Thompson has offensive limitations that don’t figure to get much better. He can’t space the floor or score consistently if a teammate doesn’t set him up. Offensive rebounds are super, but what good are they if the guy grabbing them can’t go back up and put the ball in the hoop?
White: Thompson. He’s LeBron James’ guy, so he’s going to get a hefty contract. Though Thompson was very good in the playoffs in the absence of Kevin Love, he’s probably not worth a near-max contract, which is what he’ll likely get.
Wilmes: Reggie Jackson. The Pistons’ midseason trade for Jackson came with the stipulation that it would only be a worthwhile swap if they were prepared to deal with his restricted free agency afterward. Now, they’re eating that cost on the back end. Jackson is worth more to Detroit than he is to most other teams because coach Stan Van Gundy can maximize his considerable talents. Jackson will surely capitalize and make Motor City sign him a check of undue proportions.
3. Name the free agent most likely to leave his current team and why.
Foster: Rajon Rondo and Greg Monroe are obviously gone, but those are too obvious. Let’s go with Monta Ellis instead. Despite leading the Mavericks in scoring, and despite the hole his departure will create at shooting guard, it seems like Dallas has very little interest in giving Ellis more money than he was slated to make on the player option that he declined. With Dallas (again) chasing plenty of big fish, it seems pretty likely Ellis has played his last game with the Mavs.
Katz: David West. He declined a $12.6 million player option after a down season. It’s hard to imagine a man who will be 35 in August and who wasn’t particularly great in 2014-15 would command that annual salary on the open market. Maybe he just wants more years and job security, but you can probably read between the lines to determine West didn’t want to be in Indiana any longer.
Lynch: West. Despite Roy Hibbert opting in for next season, the Pacers are on their way to a rebuilding stretch in which they’ll build around Paul George and play faster. The philosophical shift alone would be enough to make West think twice about a return, as his style really doesn’t dovetail with an up-tempo approach. Throw in the coming rebuild, and West is surely out the door. The Knicks have been linked to West, which would be an odd choice if he really wants to play for a contender. But one thing is for sure: West’s days are done in Indiana.
Pina: Greg Monroe. The (ex) Detroit Pistons big man never quite fit beside Andre Drummond, and even Josh Smith’s departure couldn’t rectify the situation. Instead of allowing the Pistons to match any offer sheets last summer, Monroe played under the cheap-o qualifying offer so he could eventually choose his own destination. The risk paid off, and Monroe is set to cash out; several teams with max room also have a desperate need for his talent, upside and name recognition.
White: LaMarcus Aldridge. When Gregg Popovich, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan come knocking at your door, it’s pretty hard to say no. Oh, and the Lakers, Rockets, Mavs and everyone else with cap space is in line, too. Most important, Aldridge doesn’t seem to want to stay in Portland.
Wilmes: Monroe. The Pistons big man signaled his uneasiness with his franchise last summer, when he ended a long holdout by declining a big extension and signing for a minimum-dollar, one-year qualifying offer. He was willing to sacrifice many guaranteed millions to ensure he could leave Detroit in unrestricted free agency in 2015, so now it should come as no surprise when he follows through on that mission.
4. Who is the most important free agent not named LeBron James?
Foster: Kevin Love. No one other than LeBron could realistically impact the title picture more than Love. If he stays in Cleveland, the Cavs are once again heavy favorites to go to The Finals. But if he leaves? Cleveland becomes a little less intimidating, and Love’s addition to a potential playoff team where he’s actually incorporated into the offense could elevate that team into the title picture. His stock is down, but he’s still one of the league’s best players.
Katz: LaMarcus Aldridge, just because so many teams think they have a shot at him. Portland will hold out hope he returns. The Lakers are gunning for him. The Spurs are trying to find a way to make it work. He’s meeting with other teams, too. He’s the first domino. If you’re going after him, he’s your No. 1 priority. Once he signs, all the other pieces will begin to find their places.
Lynch: DeAndre Jordan. I mean, Love, too, of course, but there’s a growing sense he will be back in Cleveland. With Jordan, there’s a real feeling that he could leave the Clippers. That would force Los Angeles to take several steps back and come up with a new plan to get over the hump and into The Finals.
Pina: Aldridge. The answer here would be Kawhi Leonard if he weren’t re-signing with the Spurs. Aldridge is a borderline MVP candidate with a reliable offensive repertoire that’s aging beautifully. At this point, it’d be a shock if he stayed with the Blazers, which means he has the potential to completely alter the 2016 championship landscape. If he signs with San Antonio, 29 general managers will shudder.
White: Aldridge. The Blazers are built around Aldridge. Without him, a major source of offense — not just scoring, but passing as well — goes right out the window without anyone capable of filling the void.
Wilmes: Aldridge. Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Draymond Green, Love and Marc Gasol are all major chips, but none of them are really on the market. Aldridge’s landing spot is still pretty mysterious at this point, and it’s quite rare for a player of his caliber to hit July unsigned and without a very clear leaning. Whoever wins the Aldridge sweepstakes will be the envy of the league.
5. Make one bold prediction about free agency.
Foster: At least 10 players will receive max money this offseason. That may sound like a lot, but teams will be more willing to suck up a big contract for a year or two and receive value on the back end once the cap jumps. It also seems likely that players will look to sign either shorter deals or contracts with player options in order to cash in again sooner. You may not think of players like Draymond Green, DeAndre Jordan or Jimmy Butler as traditional "max" guys, but they will be.
Katz: Kostas Papanikolaou will be the next Luke Ridnour and get flipped around like a pancake shortly after the prime part of the free agency period ends. His insanely weird contract, which isn’t guaranteed until October and which pays him just enough money that he could be traded straight up for a mid-level exception player, is good for garnering useful trade exceptions, and Rockets GM Daryl Morey is one clever son of a gun.
Lynch: Someone is going to pull a Mark Cuban and get creative with a contract offer. There are too many talented restricted free agents, and there’s too much uncertainty about where the cap is going in the near future. The smart teams that have a firm grasp on their own cap situation and the broader league-wide landscape will find a way to maximize their competitive advantage in the chaos. That’s not to say it will result in luring a player away like Cuban and the Mavericks did with Chandler Parsons; restricted free agency favors the incumbent team, and Parsons was a second-round pick, for which the contract rules are different. But a team could set the table for free agency in a couple of years by forcing a player’s current team into some sort of short-term deal. I don’t know the intricacies; I’m not a cap wizard. But somewhere in some front office, there’s someone feverishly working on a contract offer that will make your favorite salary guru’s head spin.
Pina: The 76ers will be very aggressive. It doesn’t get any bolder than this, but the Sixers have so much cap space (at least $29.5 million!) that it’s silly for them not to take advantage of a simmering marketplace before it explodes. Seriously, the Eastern Conference is so bad right now. Why not fill some cap space this summer, knowing any deal signed today will have real value in the future? Even if it makes the Sixers better and lowers their odds of getting the first pick in next year’s lottery, so what? Philly is still set to dominate the 2016 draft anyway. In addition to their own pick, they have a top-three protected pick from the Lakers, a top-10 protected pick from the Heat and a top-15 protected pick from the Thunder. Nobody expects GM Sam Hinkie to pounce this summer, which is exactly why it’s the perfect time to do so.
Wilmes: Aldridge will sign with the Raptors. South of the northern border we’ve had a hard time accepting it, but playing for Toronto is an increasingly cool option. Aldridge could lead the Raptors through a campaign that crushes most of the Eastern Conference, be the undisputed man of his squad while doing it, and get Drake verse after Drake verse spat in tribute to him for his work. How’s that for bold?