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The Next Tier of 2016 NBA Free Agents

Basketball Insiders continues our look at this summer’s top free agents, focusing on players 11-20 on our list.

Jabari Davis

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Yesterday, our Tommy Beer broke down the top 10 NBA free agents who are available this summer. Today, we continue our look at this free agency class with a breakdown of the next tier of notable players who are sure to garner interest. Let’s pick up where Tommy left off, with player No. 11.

11. Harrison Barnes, 24, Restricted Free Agent:

Is Barnes a player who simply benefited from playing alongside an extremely talented core of players in Golden State or is he someone who should be praised and ultimately rewarded handsomely for being willing to subjugate his game for the greater good of his team? That’s the multi-million dollar question that we are likely to have answered over the next week or two, but let’s just say Barnes certainly didn’t do himself any favors with his play during the Warriors’ Finals run.

Put simply, if you were on the proverbial fence about whether Barnes is a guy who can put all of those skills together enough to consistently lead a team as a “main guy” then you might have backed away from that notion. If you’re convinced he can be called upon to be one of the main focuses on a winning team, then you probably just saw that run of futility as a rough patch that all players endure. Either way, it will be very interesting to see if a team moves forward and at least makes Golden State’s decision more difficult with a max offer sheet (as the Philadelphia 76ers are reportedly considering). Will the Warriors hesitate to make Barnes their highest paid player at this stage?

12. Chandler Parsons, 27, Unrestricted Free Agent:

Parsons would probably have received a sizable offer from more than one team this summer if he hadn’t just missed 37 combined games over the past two seasons with the Dallas Mavericks due to multiple procedures on his right knee. As it stands, he’s actually coming off a very efficient year in which he averaged 13.7 points on 49.2 percent shooting from the floor and 41.4 percent from three-point range – even if his on-court time dipped to the second-lowest total of his career at just 29.5 minutes per contest.

It could make sense for Parsons to sign a two-to-three-year deal with slightly more money per season in order to enter free agency again prior to his 30th birthday and while still in his prime years; however, the security of the longest available deal could also be more appealing for a player with his recent injury history. Either way, it only takes one general manager who is willing to bank on his health in order to bring in a guy with his offensive skill set, and Parsons might even have several favorable options to choose from.

13. Dwight Howard, 30, Unrestricted Free Agent:

In perhaps the most mutual opt-out of a last year in the history of such contract options, Howard predictably walked away from the final $23 million on the deal he signed with Houston just a few summers ago. On the heels of leaving guaranteed money on the table to sign with the Rockets in the first place, needless to say, things still haven’t gone the way the former three-time Defensive Player of the Year (2009-11) expected the back end of his prime years to go. Now, with drama behind the scenes and Mike D’Antoni taking over as head coach, Howard’s time in Houston seems done.

The thing is, even at a stage when he is clearly past his physical prime, Howard turned in a solid 2015-16 season when you look at the traditional stats. He averaged 13.7 PPG, 11.8 RPG and 1.6 BPG in 71 games this year. When relatively healthy, Howard is still a strong enough defender and rim protector to help a good team under the right circumstances. The smart move would be to take a short-term (two-to-three years max) at a range close to $18-20 million with a contender, but Howard could also seek the largest payout available from one of the teams that strike out with the bigger names and still need to find an impact player.

14. Dirk Nowitzki, 38, Unrestricted Free Agent:

Nowitzki is coming off of his 18th season in the NBA, but the 2011 Finals MVP still managed to average 18.3 PPG and 6.5 RPG while shooting 36.8 percent from deep at a relatively efficient level in 75 games for the Mavericks last season. Time will tell how much truth there is to any rumor that has Nowitzki potentially moving on to a contender, but the fact that the future Hall of Famer is still the topic of such talk is impressive in itself. It would be a bit of a surprise to see Nowitzki wind up ending his career in anything other than a Mavericks uniform, but that doesn’t mean opposing GMs won’t at least try to pursue him over the next week or so.

15. Ryan Anderson, 28, Unrestricted Free Agent:

After a difficult 2014-15 from a personal perspective, Anderson was able to rebound and at least get things back together on a professional level in 2015-16. Anderson raised his three-point percentage from 34 percent back to a respectable 36.6 percent this past year and was also more active on the boards for the Pelicans (averaging six rebounds per contest). Both the Los Angeles Lakers and his hometown Sacramento Kings have been among the teams with rumored interest, but his 17 points per game and ability to space the floor might make a bit more sense on a contending team looking for a piece to add that dynamic or put them over the top rather than joining another rebuilding effort. Either way, Anderson should be paid very well, with some reports indicating he could sign a near-max deal.

16. Evan Fournier, 23, Restricted Free Agent:

The Orlando Magic already stated an intention to match any offer sheet Fournier signs with another team, and that’s because they not only realize his current value as a young shooter in this league, but also because there is a belief that he hasn’t even reached his full potential as a player. Newly hired head coach Frank Vogel doesn’t have an awful lot of shooters on that roster to begin with, so he should be the first one knocking on general manager Rob Hennigan’s door if negotiations somehow go awry with the 6’7 shooting guard. His 15.4 PPG, 2.8 RPG and 2.7 APG were each career-highs this past season and his 40 percent shooting on 4.9 three-point attempts per night put him in the running as one of the deadliest shooters on the market this summer. Orlando would be foolish to let him leave town.

17. Marvin Williams, 30, Unrestricted Free Agent:

Not only is the 11-year veteran a positive locker room presence, he can still play a bit of both forward positions in certain lineups and he’s coming off of a year in which he shot 40.2 percent from beyond the arc. He also gave the Hornets 11.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and one block per game in just 28.9 minutes per night.

Teams specifically looking for a veteran power forward who can space the floor could certainly do a lot worse than Williams. The Hornets could prioritize fellow free agent swingman Nicolas Batum when negotiations open on Friday, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see several potential suitors come calling for Williams over the first few days of free agency if Charlotte keeps him waiting too long.

18. Bismack Biyombo, 23, Unrestricted Free Agent:

Besides being suspended for the 2016-17 NBA opener due to an accumulation of flagrant foul points in the most recent postseason, absolutely nothing is guaranteed for Biyombo as he heads into free agency. After his Eastern Conference Finals performance, many of us were left wondering whether the results were due to a favorable matchup or a willingness by a hungry Biyombo to seize the moment? The Toronto Raptors have several free agents to prioritize – including the DeMar DeRozan – who are likely to rank ahead of their back-up center once the floodgates open on July 1.

Biyombo is coming off a year when he played somewhat sparingly throughout the regular season (22 minutes per contest), but was particularly impressive in the postseason when filling in for an injured Jonas Valancuinas. Against the eventual NBA champions, Biyombo averaged 6.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks while playing very good defense against that Cavaliers’ front line. The question will be, are there any GMs who believe Biyombo can duplicate such success over the long haul and when asked to play at that high level consistently? If so, another team could “price” Biyombo outside of where the Raptors are comfortable spending this summer.

19. Pau Gasol, 35, Unrestricted Free Agent:

Gasol recently opted out of the final year (and $7.7 million) of his deal with the Chicago Bulls, and is reportedly expected to receive interest from several teams including the San Antonio Spurs and New York Knicks. While Gasol may have the understandable defensive concerns you’d expect a 35-year-old veteran big man to have – especially with the growing trend of teams specifically looking to exploit slower bigs in the pick-and-roll and along the perimeter – that doesn’t mean a smart and talented team couldn’t find a way to capitalize on what he still brings to the table.

Beyond being widely considered a phenomenal teammate and locker-room presence, Gasol simply knows the game of basketball. He’s an excellent post and mid-post option, remains one of the league’s better passing big men and will still block a shot or two at the rim or from the weakside. Expect him to be on a contender and potentially back in the Western Conference this upcoming season.

20. Jordan Clarkson, 24, Restricted Free Agent:

Clarkson is at that crossroad that many young and improving players from bad teams tend to face, and that’s determining whether his production is solely – or, at least, mainly – a result of someone having to put up numbers on a bad team or if he is truly a burgeoning talent who still has room to grow as a player. Those who watched his games (beyond box score hunting) can tell you that while Clarkson is far from a complete player, he showed real signs of progress in year two for the Lakers.

Beyond the 15.5 points, four rebounds and 2.5 assists, Clarkson looked far more comfortable from deep (up to 34.7 percent from just 31.4 as a rookie) and started getting to the rim with regularity as the season wore on. Taking the next step as a defender is the next big challenge, but all Clarkson has to do is convince GMs that he has the ability and willingness to do so in order to receive a significant raise this summer.

Honorable Mention
Jeremy Lin, Festus Ezeli, Al Jefferson, Rajon Rondo, Kent Bazemore, Jamal Crawford, Joakim Noah, Evan Turner, Luol Deng, J.R. Smith, Jared Sullinger. For a complete list of this summer’s free agents, click here.

 

 

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NBA Daily: Jarrett Culver Ready For Point Guard Duties

Many instinctively see Jarrett Culver as a forward, maybe a shooting guard, but the Minnesota Timberwolves hope he can be their point guard for years to come.

Douglas Farmer

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When the Minnesota Timberwolves traded for the sixth pick on draft night, the immediate assumption was that they were targeting Vanderbilt point guard Darius Garland. Minnesota rostered one point guard at the time, and Jeff Teague is on an expiring deal. When the Cleveland Cavaliers stayed put at No. 5 and took Garland, many wondered if the Timberwolves had missed their mark in gauging the market.

As the offseason progressed, though, it seemed as if Minnesota may have found its point guard in the draft after all in Jarrett Culver, even though he played primarily at small or power forward when it mattered most for Texas Tech last year.

In the Raiders’ last five games, the crux of their run to the NCAA title game, Culver spent 48 percent of the team’s minutes at power forward and 23 percent at small forward, per kenpom.com. He served as the point guard only 12 percent of the time.

Yet, for the season Culver led Texas Tech in assist rate at 26.1 percent. Even if his draft profile listed Culver as a small forward, distributing and handling the ball was a key part of his skill set.

“I’ve played point guard, shooting guard, going back-and-forth between both all my life,” Culver said two weeks ago at the Timberwolves’ Media Day. “Just being comfortable, having confidence playing those positions, I feel like I’ll do well.”

And Minnesota will need him to. Though Teague may feel revitalized, both in health and through an organizational shift, he cannot carry the ball-handling duties alone. The only other true point guard on the roster is Shabazz Napier and, setting aside the ironic circumstances of his arrival — a pursuit itself arguably set in motion by the Cavaliers grabbing Garland and a transaction necessitated by the Timberwolves’ miss of free agent D’Angelo Russell — Napier is not the point guard of the future that Minnesota needs.

That coming vacuum could be Culver’s to fill, and it may also be his quickest route to consistent playing time. Working anywhere from shooting guard to power forward, he will have to compete for minutes with Andrew Wiggins, Robert Covington and the like. At point guard, though, there may be no one established standing in Culver’s way beyond this season.

“They for sure want me to handle the ball some and be able to play that position,” Culver said. “I’ll have to take that position and learn from Jeff Teague and some of the other guys in the league and grow into that position, and do what I have to do to be the best point guard and shooting guard I can be.”

Albeit in exhibition games, Culver has already shown glimpses of those point guard abilities. While scoring 17 points against the Golden State Warriors, he added three assists. On Sunday, he notched four assists in a 131-101 victory against Maccabi Haifa, his first action in front of fans in Minneapolis.

Culver growing into a distributor’s role would allow Timberwolves head coach Ryan Saunders to lean into his preferred switching defensive scheme. At 6-foot-5, Culver might be big for a point guard, but he could unlock a prospective small-ball lineup, with his 6-foot-9 wingspan adding needed length. More traditional point guards might not inherently take away from that thought, although Napier is only 6-foot-1, but Culver’s positional versatility should outright enhance Saunders’ defensive plans.

Those schemes are a piece of a broader approach by the franchise to change nearly everything they do. In doing so, the idea is to get on the same page across the board. Make no mistake about it: The rookie got the memo.

“I feel like the culture is changing a little bit,” Culver said. “I feel like everybody here wants to win, from [president Gersson Rosas] to coach [Saunders] to everybody to all the players putting in the work. I’m ready to get started, I’m very competitive, so I’m excited to get out there and try to win games.”

When Minnesota opens its season in nine days, the hype around Culver will likely view him as a forward, but his future in pushing their culture toward wins may come at point guard, creating not only for others but himself as well.

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NBA Daily: The Knicks’ Point-Forward-In-Waiting

As the regular season inches closer, Drew Mays makes the case for the New York Knicks to play Julius Randle at point guard.

Drew Mays

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Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The New York Knicks struck out in free agency.

New York’s hopes were high again this summer – and again they were let down. Kevin Durant twisted the knife in the wound last week:

“I didn’t really do any deep, full analysis on the Knicks.” Then, even worse, continued and delivered the knockout blow: “It’s like the cool thing right now is not the Knicks.”

Some of the media’s opining that New York could land Durant or Irving or another star wound up as empty speculation — thus, the fanbase and their clamoring for stars will continue.

What made the Knicks’ offseason all the more puzzling wasn’t that they didn’t land a star, it was who they acquired in the aftermath.  It’s a strong collection of veterans that don’t inspire any future promises — but they do, in a weird way, give New York a slight chance of relevancy now.

While the NBA zigs to small ball, the Knicks zagged, albeit not in a way that raises hope, like the moves in Philadelphia.

But for the first time in a handful of years, New York has something here, that’s for sure. And the way to best maximize whatever this new-look squad has is to play Julius Randle at point guard.

Seriously.

The point guard battle in New York is currently comprised of three players: Elfrid Payton, the non-frontcourt addition to the New York roster, Dennis Smith Jr., the still-intriguing 21-year-old, and Frank Ntilikina, the much-criticized 21-year-old.

Payton is a middling player who has been more placeholder than foundation over the last few seasons. His inability to shoot — a career 30 percent three-point shooter on 1.7 attempts per 36 minutes — is a large part of that; however, he’s maintained a steady 8.0 assists per 36 minutes over his career. That’s impressive, especially considering the teams of which he’s been part.

Smith and Ntilikina are uber-talented, but equally as inconsistent. The former was sent to the Knicks after overstaying his welcome in Dallas, while the latter may be overstaying his welcome in New York, an encouraging FIBA performance notwithstanding.

Playing Randle at point mitigates many of these issues. Payton’s lack of jumper inhibits his game; Randle, a 250-pound bowling ball, doesn’t need a jump shot to be a capable scorer. Defenses can’t sag off of him as they can Payton – standing off only gives him a running start. Randle going downhill can spin into layups and bully into half-hooks and scoop shots. He’s even flashed Draymond Green’s four-on-three playmaking ability in spurts. Better, his floater is too good for defenders to wait for his arrival.

More importantly, Randle as a playmaker lowers pressure on both Smith and Ntilikina. Point guard is the most competitive and toughest position to learn in the NBA — that in itself is a reason for Smith and Ntilikina’s struggles. With Randle shouldering more ballhandling responsibility, the two have less to worry about. Before the Porzingis trade, the fit of Smith next to Doncic in Dallas was intriguing because it allowed Smith to use his athleticism and aggressiveness off the ball. Randle as a ballhandler reaches the same goals.

Ntilikina now ideally owns an improved jumper – his looks will be easier and the up-and-comer can be more prepared for them when he isn’t worried about actually playing point guard.

Both of these positives also hold true for The Great New York Hope, R.J. Barrett. Barrett is a skilled offensive player, a scorer who played point guard out of necessity at times for Duke last year. Extremely talented, he struggled with turnovers, forcing plays that weren’t there and shooting when he should’ve passed.

What helps all of those things? That’s right: Offloading playmaking responsibility onto Randle. Barrett can then develop his passing ability as he maintains his one-track scoring mentality without torpedoing the offense. As the Knicks’ most significant perimeter threat, he’s likely to have a huge role with the ball anyway — so why not make it easier on him?

Perhaps the two most commanding reasons for inserting Randle at the point are that he’s New York’s best player and they have nothing to lose.

Ideally, if you’re striving for wins and not ping-pong balls, your best player should spend the most time with the ball. Randle is the Knicks’ best player and the only surefire guy that would log minutes on a competitive team. Every bit of usage that head coach David Fizdale gets out of Randle over Ignas Brazdeikis is a good thing.

It would also cause matchup problems for opposing defenses, without having to alter expected rotations – all three of the guards in the point guard battle will get minutes, so Randle doesn’t even have to play the position full-time. Randle and Payton in the backcourt would force opposing teams to contemplate matching size; Randle with Ntilikina would give the Knicks a chance defensively, whereas Randle and Smith could be surrounded with whatever the best shooting lineup ends up being to mask inequities.

Really, the 2019-20 version of the Knicks may be best served by playing a throwback style. Marcus Morris was suspended after one preseason game for hitting Washington’s Justin Anderson in the head with the basketball. The bully-ball approach Morris advocates would muck up the game and give the less-talented Knicks more chances to win. Of course, these methods are also more apt to succeed with bigger lineups — obviously, bigger lineups will naturally surface if Randle is playing the point.

Over 311 career games, Randle has averaged 3.4 assists per 36 minutes. But per Cleaning the Glass, his assist percentage has been in the 85th percentile or better over three of his four seasons. Those assist numbers were affected by playing with the Kobe farewell tour, D’Angelo Russell, Lou Williams, Lonzo Ball in Los Angeles and Jrue Holiday in New Orleans.

He’s never had the chance to make plays on a consistent, full-time basis. The opportunity is there now.

On a randomly-constructed and weirdly-passable Knicks team, why not see what he can do?

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NBA

The Curious Case Of Andrew Wiggins

The path to becoming a superstar took a wrong turn two years ago for top pick Andrew Wiggins. With stability and a new regime in Minnesota, it will be up to him to get the train back on the tracks this season. Chad Smith writes.

Chad Smith

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Being a number one overall draft pick in the NBA instantly puts a target on your back. Expectations come with that as well, fair or not. Andrew Wiggins has had a roller coaster ride since being taken with the top pick in the 2014 draft. After three years of promise, he has tapered off in each of the last two seasons. The make or break cliché is used too often, but this will definitely be a defining season for the Canadian.

Wiggins has played exactly 400 games in his NBA career. He has played all of them with the Timberwolves, who traded the face of their franchise to acquire the promising young talent. Wiggins has managed to stay healthy throughout his career. Through his first four seasons, he only missed one game. Last year he played 73 for Minnesota, who failed to reach the playoffs after a disastrous season that included trading Jimmy Butler.

Butler left a lot of money on the table to leave Minnesota – largely due to the lack of improvement from Wiggins.

For all of his physical tools and salivating upside, Wiggins has failed to significantly improve as a player. His scoring averages did improve in his first three seasons, going from 16.9 to 20.7 to 23.6 points per game. The following year it dipped to 17.7 and 18.1 per contest. His per-game averages in rebounds, assists, steals and blocks have all plateaued.

From the foul line, Wiggins shot 76 percent in each of his first three seasons, but dropped to 64.3 and 69.9 percent in the last two years. His shooting efficiency numbers across the board have been declining as well. The progression clearly has not been there, and you don’t even need the actual numbers to see it.

If you do need the numbers, they are not flattering. His 0.6 win shares last season ranked him 350th among 530 eligible players. Per 48 numbers were even worse as his 0.005 win shares were the third-worst in the league (minimum 2,000 minutes played). The Wolves finished 11th in the conference last season. Improving upon that will prove to be difficult given the stiff competition in the Western Conference.

The five-year, $147 million maximum extension that Wiggins signed two years ago was questionable at the time and appears even more detrimental now. Gersson Rosas is the new president of basketball operations in Minnesota, and it is not clear what his intentions with Wiggins are. Trading the former Rookie of the Year is one option, but it will not be an easy one. If he can show some true progression in his game, Wiggins could fit nicely alongside superstar Karl-Anthony Towns.

Under former coach Tom Thibodeau, the Wolves appeared to underutilize the services of Towns. He also tended to play his starters heavy minutes. Wiggins averaged nearly 37 minutes per game under his system. Those numbers came down dramatically towards the tail end of last season under new head coach Ryan Saunders. His career average still sits at 36 minutes per contest. The only other active players with a higher minute per game average are LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard.

During Media Day, Andrew said that he felt as though he was on the rise three years into his career, before “some changes were made” that seemed to derail his trajectory. Wiggins went on to talk about Thib’s coaching style, and how the yelling didn’t change anything for him. He stated that he prefers a player’s coach that is “real” with him, like Saunders, the youngest coach in the league.

With Saunders cemented in place, the Wolves could find new and better ways to get the most out of Towns and Wiggins. Using more screening action, it could allow smaller defenders to switch onto Karl, or get a bigger defender on Andrew, allowing him to drive to the basket. That could open up opportunities on the wing for their solid group of role players.

A healthy Robert Covington and Josh Okogie will provide Minnesota with hope from the outside, an area where they have struggled heavily. New additions such as Jake Layman, Jordan Bell and Noah Vonleh should fit right in as well. All eyes will be on rookie Jarrett Culver, whom the Wolves gave up assets (Dario Saric and the 11th pick) to acquire with the sixth pick in the draft.

Saunders will likely want to push the pace and score in transition this season. Minnesota was 14th in pace last season and had the 13th-ranked scoring offense. They have the players needed for that style of play and will now be able to play both small-ball and match up against bigger lineups.

Versatility will be a strength for them this season, but they must improve on their biggest weakness – defense.

The Wolves ranked 23rd in scoring defense last year, and 24th in overall defensive rating. Having Covington back will help in that area, but it needs to start with Towns and Wiggins. As leaders, both must show improvement on that end of the floor in order for the other guys to buy-in.

With a year of continuity and a more stable environment, Minnesota should still be an improved team from last season. Whether or not they are able to challenge for a playoff spot will likely be determined by the play of Wiggins. Andrew has the skillset to become a very good player, even if his ceiling is not as high as Karl’s. That being said, Andrew will turn 25 in February. The time is now for him to show improvement.

Aside from Jeff Teague’s 10 years of experience, only Covington and Gorgui Dieng have more experience than Wiggins. They each have just one more year than he does. So where exactly does he need to improve his game?

Shot selection and defense should be at the top of the list. Despite the decent scoring average, the more minutes he plays, the more shots he misses. In theory that makes sense, but there are a number of players (even his own teammates) that played more minutes and missed fewer shots. In all five seasons, Wiggins has ranked inside the top 20 in the league in missed field goals.

The defense is fairly straight forward. He has the ability to defend on the perimeter and even inside, but his desire and effort are not always there. Playing passing lanes more aggressively and being able to anticipate what comes next on a given play are two key areas to focus on.

Rebounding is another area that would really benefit the team if he is able to improve. His size and athleticism afford him great opportunities to crash the boards, especially when Towns is not on the floor. Obviously, everyone can improve their shooting, and while his three-point shot isn’t horrid, there is no excuse for him to shoot below 70 percent from the foul line. These are things that should have progressed much better entering your sixth year in the league.

Rosas has stated publicly that continuity and playing style under Saunders should make Wiggins one of the biggest beneficiaries this season.

For their sake and his own, here is to hoping he is right.

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