With the salary cap set to spike to approximately $94 million this summer, there will be many marginal players getting overpaid. However, considering the constrictions on maximum allowable salaries allowed by the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, it could easily be argued that the very best players in the NBA are relatively underpaid.
Today, let’s take a look at the cream of this summer’s free agent crop:
1. LeBron James, 31, Player Option:
There were some claiming that Steph Curry had snatched the crown from King James as the “NBA’s Best Player.” LeBron quickly squashed that noise this postseason. Not only did the Cavaliers claim the 2016 title in historic, remarkable fashion, the numbers James posted during Cleveland’s epic run were otherworldly. In the 2016 NBA Finals, LeBron scored more points, grabbed more rebounds, dished out more assists, had more steals and blocked more shots than Curry and Klay Thompson COMBINED (as I noted here).
Over the last two years, LeBron has played 41 playoff games and averaged 28.1 points, 10.4 rebounds, eight assists, two steals and 1.2 blocks per game. Seriously.
LeBron James has absolutely dominated the playoffs this decade. Dating back 2010-11, James leads all NBA players in the following statistical postseason categories:
• Points (1,021 more points scored than Kevin Durant, who has the second most)
• Assists (238 more than Russell Westbrook)
• Rebounds (415 more than Tim Duncan)
• Steals (19 more than Dwyane Wade)
2. Kevin Durant, 27, Unrestricted Free Agent:
It’s very rare that one of the game’s greatest scorers is up for grabs right in the prime of his career. Durant lead the NBA in total points scored every season from 2009-10 through 2013-14. The foot injuries that popped up two years ago were obviously concerning, but Durant proved he was healthy last season and returned to peak form. In 2015-16, he became just the seventh player in NBA history to average at least 28 points, eight rebounds and five assists per game. The other six member of that elite club are Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, John Havlicek, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. Durant will meet most of the NBA’s elite teams – the Warriors, Spurs, Clippers and others have all been reportedly secured a sit down. Durant’s decision could very well tilt the balance of power in the NBA for the rest of the decade.
3. Al Horford, 30, Unrestricted Free Agent:
A major drop-off here after the first two true superstars on this list. Horford isn’t nearly as appealing or enticing as either James or Durant, but then again, who is? Horford is an incredibly reliable and productive player who contributes on both ends of the floor. His value lies primarily in his versatility. Last season, he became the first player since 2007-08 to block at least 120 shots, knock down at least 80 three-pointers and grab 60 steals. The downside is that Horford is already 30 years old and has dealt with a number of injuries in recent seasons. Still, considering how much marginal players will be overpaid this summer, securing the services of a stalwart like Horford is a smart investment.
4. Andre Drummond, 22, Restricted Free Agent:
The positives are his incredible rebound numbers (he averaged a mind-boggling 14.8 rebounds per game last season) and defensive contributions. The downside is his limitations offensively, particularly at the free-throw line, where he shot an abysmal 35.5 percent last season. If Drummond had hit even just 59 percent of FTs last season, he’d have seen his scoring average jump from 16.2 points per game all the way up to 18 points per game. The horrid free-throw shooting makes him a liability at times (via the Hack-A-Drummond) and often forces him to the bench late in close games. However, he is still just 22 years old and the Pistons still have plenty of faith he will continue to work hard and improve, which is why it’s a virtual certainty they will re-sign him at max-money next month.
5. Mike Conley, 28, Unrestricted Free Agent:
It’s hard to believe that he’s never made an All-Star team, but that speaks to the fact that Conley has been underrated since he entered the NBA. In addition, he seems to improve each and every season. He is coming off an Achilles injury, but prior to that he had played in at least 85 percent of the Grizzlies’ games in each of the last six seasons. It is also important to note that Conley has been a winner. He’s captained a Memphis team that has won at least 50 games in three straight seasons from 2012-13 through 2014-15 in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. As the only legit, top-tier point guard on the market, he will receive max offers from multiple teams.
6. DeMar DeRozan, 26, Player Option:
DeRozan is the extremely rare NBA shooting guard who doesn’t shoot three-pointers. Last season, he became the first guard in five years to attempts at least 1,300 field goals, yet attempt fewer than 140 three-pointers. In today’s NBA, where so much value and importance is placed upon the ability to knock down shots from behind-the-arc, DeRozan’s value is somewhat capped. That’s not to say he isn’t an effective scorer. DeRozan still finds a way to score relatively efficiently (he’s a career 44 percent shooter) and he gets to the free-throw line with regularity (8.4 free throw attempts per game last season). In addition, he posted an impressive (career-high) 21.5 PER last season. Still, he struggled in the postseason, as opponents knew he wasn’t going to shoot threes and they crowded his favorite spots. In addition, he struggled defensively last season. The Raps gave up 107.2 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor, and just 101.6 points per 100 possessions when he was on the bench during the regular season. The On/Off splits in the postseason were even worse. Still, Toronto loses him for nothing if they don’t max him out, so expect the Raps to pony up.
7. Nicolas Batum, 27, Unrestricted free agent:
A terrifically talented and versatile player, Batum would immediately improve any team he joins. Last season, he was one of just four players to average at least 15 points, five rebounds, five assists and two three-pointers per game. The other three players were Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and James Harden. Batum is also a plus-defender who can guard both bigger and smaller payers. In a “normal” market, he’d be a player that teams would probably target as a potential value contract. But with so many teams needing to spend inordinate amounts of money to reach the $84 million salary floor, he’ll likely receive max offers.
8. Bradley Beal, 23, Restricted Free Agent:
The talent has never been a question, as Beal is already one of the league’s better young marksman. The issue is the scary injury history. Beal has missed at least 19 games in three of his first four NBA seasons. When he’s played, he’s been effective, especially in big games. Over 10 games in the 2015 postseason, at just 22 years of age, he averaged 23.4 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists. Can he overcome leg injuries that have plagued him? The Wiz are about to bet max money that he will.
9. Dwyane Wade, 34, Unrestricted Free Agent
Reports of D-Wade’s demise were greatly exaggerated. Flash played in 74 games last season, his highest total since 2010-11, and he showed surprising burst and athleticism for a 34-year-old. Does Wade hold out for one last big-money, long-term contract? Or will he continue to take it year-by-year in Miami?
10. Hassan Whiteside, 26, Unrestricted Free Agent:
No free agent generates the amount of disagreement as Hassan Whiteside. His story is remarkable. A kid who bounced around the D-League and overseas for years emerged out of nowhere to become a force for the HEAT. Whiteside has never made more than $1 million any season the NBA. He’ll sign a deal starting at north of $20 million next month. Will that be a smart investment? After inking a deal for life-changing money, will Whiteside be able to maintain his impressive statistical production? Stay tuned…
Which marquee free agent do you want your favorite team to pursue? Leave a comment below.
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