The 2016 NBA free agency class has dominated headlines this month, and understandably so. However, with most of the marquee players off the market, let’s shift gears and look forward a bit.
Today, we’re going to focus on some players who can hit free agency in 2017 and, as a result, may surface in trade rumors between now and February’s deadline. Some of these names have already popped up in the rumor mill, and it’s only a matter of time until the others do too.
Without further ado, here’s a look at some free agents-to-be worth watching:
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder, 2017 Unrestricted Free Agent: With Kevin Durant leaving the Thunder this month, all eyes are on Westbrook to see if he’ll ask for a trade or part ways with the organization when given the chance next summer. He can bolt as an unrestricted free agent in July of 2017, so don’t be surprised plenty of teams are calling Thunder general manager Sam Presti in hopes of prying Westbrook away from Oklahoma City.
Westbrook is a perennial All-Star and certainly a hot commodity as one of the best point guards on the planet. His athleticism, improved shooting and ability to make plays for others make him a truly remarkable floor general. He has a great competitive spirit and energy, which is evident when he’s on the floor. This fire and passion has made him something of a fan favorite and his attitude seems contagious among his teammates as well.
Sometimes, Westbrook makes mistakes and tries to do too much by himself, but that’s part of his personality on the court and he has tried to limit those reckless, one-on-one attacks.
Oklahoma City is going younger by acquiring Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis and Alex Abrines this summer and holding onto Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, Cameron Payne, Andre Roberson and Mitch McGary. All eight of those players are 24 years old or younger. Westbrook may not want to wait around if the team has to rebuild. Last season, the 27-year-old averaged 23.5 points, 10.4 assists, 7.8 rebounds and two steals, while finishing fourth in Most Valuable Player voting.
If he wants to contend for a championship now, which would make perfect sense, he could ask for a trade. If Westbrook is made available, plenty of potential suitors will emerge. However, keep in mind that like all of the soon-to-be unrestricted players on this list, Westbrook has some say in where he may land since he can tell teams that he won’t commit to a long-term deal with certain teams if they trade for him. This is essentially how Carmelo Anthony forced his way to New York a few years back, and Westbrook could do the same if he has a certain destination in mind – so long as he was comfortable with forcing his incoming team to surrender assets for him the way the Knicks did for Melo, something many point to as a limiting factor in the team’s success after the trade.
Or, he could stay in OKC. It remains to be seen what the future holds for the nightly triple-double threat, but he’s certainly a name to watch.
Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers, 2017 Early Termination Clause: The former slam dunk champion has been terrific throughout his career. Griffin is a high value commodity to the Clippers and the league as a whole, but because of his injury history and an off-court incident last season, it may be hard to persuade a team to shell out a couple of high draft picks and additional assets for him. Obviously, when Blake is healthy, he’s one of the most dominant power forwards in the league and is still relatively young in NBA years at just 27 years old. But the off-court incident in which a punch was thrown at a member of the organization, along with his health, are major concerns for other teams who come calling.
Since his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2011, Griffin has vastly improved his game. Once a player who had a lousy mid-range game, he now has a reliable jumper – proving to many that he’s more than just a “dunker.” His court vision, off-ball movement, ability to get up and down the floor and his post moves allow him to be a good fit in almost any system because of his versatility and size.
Playing only 35 games last season, he still managed to average 21.4 points, 8.4 rebounds and 4.9 assists while shooting over 49 percent from the field.
It’s very unlikely that a Griffin deal happens before the start of the season, but the Clippers will have to consider it if the team struggles or if the right offer presents itself. Oklahoma City is a team hoping to get Griffin since he’s from the area. And keep an eye on the Boston Celtics, who have been rumored to be in the mix and have a ton of assets.
The jury is out on whether Griffin will still be the same after his injuries last season, but if he’s close to what he was, expect the Clippers to try and increase his value. They could wait until the trade deadline, when a team that is underachieving feels they need to make a change.
Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz, Early Termination Option 2017: Hayward has an early opt-out as well and can become a free agent next year. An extremely undervalued player, Hayward has been effective with the Jazz by becoming a constant on a team that’s been on the brink of the playoffs for three to four seasons. His ability to hit three-point and mid-range shots, drive to the hoop and move off the ball is extremely valuable and versatile for any team in the league. Sometimes his movement laterally and positional instincts can be questioned, specifically on defense, but other than that Hayward is an incredibly gifted basketball player.
The Jazz are on the up-and-coming path and have been for a few seasons. With injuries riddling them last year, they hope to get back to the playoff pursuit with new signings like Joe Johnson, Boris Diaw and George Hill.
Playing 80 games this season, Hayward averaged 19.7 points, 3.7 assists, 1.2 steals and five rebounds per game on 49 percent effective field goal shooting. Keep in mind, this was without key players like Rudy Gobert, Dante Exum and Derrick Favors, who suffered from staggered injuries throughout the year (a combined 92 games missed between Gobert, Favors, and Burks, plus Exum out for the season).
A natural pairing for Hayward is Boston and coach Brad Stevens, Hayward’s former mentor at Butler University. Will that play any part in a potential trade to, say the Celtics? Although an interesting thought and idea, it’s questionable whether the Celtics would part ways with enough pieces for the Jazz to pull the trigger. On the other side of the coin, the Celtics really don’t have a need for another small forward unless they send Jae Crowder in a potential deal.
Rumors have already flown about Hayward and have been categorically shot down by both his camp and multiple local beat writers, and all signs point to him remaining with this Jazz team based on his personality and how he fits in Utah. He’s been one of the most consistent and proven commodities in the league for the past five seasons, and with Utah’s injury battles, he’s also been the most reliable as far as health is concerned.
Rudy Gay, Sacramento Kings, Player Option 2017:
Gay has stated multiple times that he wants out of the Kings organization, but it’s finding a likely trade partner to make a deal happen that becomes the problem.
The 29-year-old is still a good player and had a productive season with a below-average Kings team, averaging 17.2 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game. Those would be his lowest totals since the 2012-13 season and before then since his rookie year. Staying relatively healthy the past couple seasons, only missing 26 games over two years, Gay has proven he can be a good defender and efficient scorer. His three-point shooting has been sub-par at around 34 percent his entire career, which is certainly a downside for a team in need of a “3-and-D” player, but he makes up for his inefficient three-point shooting with his size and ability to rebound.
Gay has been shopped a lot in his career, from team to team and city to city. The situation in Sacramento has long been tumultuous at best, and while it may be getting better, it’s hard to blame Gay for wanting out. He’s gone through three seasons in Sacramento (two separate stints) in which the team has gone a combined 91-155, which won’t get you near the playoffs when you’re in the Western Conference.
When players begin to reach their late 20s and early 30s, like Gay, it seems as though they want realize what they want – and it certainly feels as though Rudy wants to be on a playoff team. Teams like Miami, Cleveland, Boston, L.A. Clippers, Dallas, and Toronto seem like reasonable destinations, but it’ll be interesting to see what teams will have to give up to get him. Because Gay has spoken out about wanting to be traded, Sacramento is in a difficult spot because teams know he doesn’t want to be with the Kings. Essentially, teams know the Kings will have to trade him, or else they’ll lose him for nothing after this season.
Greg Monroe, Milwaukee Bucks, Player Option 2017:
Another player with a ton of question marks surrounding him,it seems like Monroe has been involved in many trade rumors with teams looking for a big man over the last six months. Toronto, Portland, New York and several other teams have been subject to rumors, but no one seems to be giving Milwaukee what they’re looking for. After re-signing Miles Plumlee, getting Mirza Teletovic in free agency, drafting promising big man Thon Maker and returning a healthy Jabari Parker, the frontcourt in Milwaukee seems to be filling up without Monroe in the fold.
After averaging his lowest minute total since his rookie season (29.3 minutes per game), Monroe fell out of place within Jason Kidd’s Bucks rotation late last season on multiple occasions. The former Pistons player has always been questioned because of his lack of mobility and inability to stretch the floor, which may be the reason for his minutes decrease over his first season in Milwaukee.
The NBA is moving toward a faster, quicker pace, meaning Monroe can only fit in so many schemes. With the additions they’ve made, Monroe is now just checking a box that isn’t there for him, and the Bucks have to find a way to get some assets for him before he bolts in free agency.
Monroe’s salary is significant, and getting a team to take that deal may be more difficult than originally thought. At over $17 million per season, he’s making more than most on the Bucks’ roster and playing a smaller role than many. It has yet to be seen whether Monroe is happy in Milwaukee, but the writing must be on the wall based on the acquisitions and moves they’ve made this offseason.
Averaging 15.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists, Monroe terrorizes the low post but has had some difficulty with his one-on-one defense and lateral mobility. A double-double machine, Monroe can offer a lot to a team looking for someone to dominate the paint, but do they want him to slow their offense down and create a new scheme around him? It all depends on where he ends up.
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