This is the offseason of Kevin Durant as the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar is hitting free agency for the first time in his career. A lot of teams have cap space to go after him, though many believe it is likely that he will stay in Oklahoma City with Russell Westbrook and company (depending on how the postseason goes for the Thunder).
With the salary cap rising, nearly all of the contracts handed out this offseason will likely seem inflated, but that’s simply a result of the NBA’s changing financial landscape. From mediocre players, to solid rotation players and all the way up to the superstars, free agents are going to get paid serious money this offseason.
Here we are covering some underrated free agents in the class of 2016. These aren’t the top-tier free agents, but they are those that are improving and still have significant room to keep developing.
The projected salaries are just estimates since the hard numbers don’t come out until the NBA’s moratorium in early July.
Barnes is a talented forward who benefits from playing alongside the sharpshooting backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson as well as Draymond Green. This season, Barnes averaged the most minutes (30.9) and points (11.7) per game of his career. However, his overall rebounding numbers and three-point percentage have dipped.
He is a restricted free agent, meaning that the Warriors can match any offer sheet he potentially signs with another team in order to retain him. It’s possible that the Warriors may decline to match a max-offer sheet, but it is very likely that he will remain with Golden State. The question for any team that pursues him is how will he fare as one of the top offensive options while drawing a lot of defensive focus from opponents? Also, will he regress at all if he is no longer playing alongside players as good as Curry, Thompson and Green?
Barnes has four years of experience, so his max contract would be 25 percent of the salary cap, which is projected next year at $92 million, putting his contract at roughly $23 million per season.
The French swingman is finishing up his eighth year in the league and will likely be one of the second-tier players signed once Durant and others are off the market. Batum averaged a career-high in points per game (14.9) this season as the starting small forward for the Charlotte Hornets. His field goal percentages need to come up, but he is a good defender and a versatile all-around player that can fit on nearly any team. And at only 27, he is just entering his prime.
Batum has a nice role with the Hornets and fits well under head coach Steve Clifford, so it wouldn’t be surprising if he re-signs with the Hornets.
Batum is likely to receive a max-deal considering his age, versatility and the amount of money teams will have to spend. Since he has been in the league for eight years, his max contract would be 30 percent of the cap, so his max salary would be around $25.9 million, which will increase with annual raises. Other teams can only offer four years and smaller raises.
Clarkson’s role should increase next season if he returns to the Los Angeles Lakers with the retirement of NBA legend Kobe Bryant.
However, the athletic, former University of Missouri star may go elsewhere as he is a restricted free agent. His free agency is somewhat unique since he fits within the Arenas Rule, but the point is the Lakers can retain him if they choose to do so.
The likely scenario is the Lakers will re-sign Clarkson, who averaged 15.5 points per game this year and is a building block for Los Angeles. If he ends up on another team, he could likely fill in as an excellent sixth man potentially.
Clarkson is a promising young talent. He needs to work on improving his defense and being a more effective playmaker, but he has shown a lot of promise in his short NBA career.
Since the craziness of Linsanity in New York back during the 2011-12 season, Jeremy Lin has bounced around the league, but seems to have found a home in Charlotte. He has a player option to stay in Charlotte next season, though, he likely will test free agency since there is so much free agent money to go around and a lack of talent to spend it on.
Lin is only averaging 11.7 points per game as opposed to his 14.6 in New York or 13.4 in Houston, but is doing it in a reduced role, primarily coming off the bench for a more competitive team. The hype of Linsanity has worn off, but Lin has transformed himself into a legitimate NBA player, who at 27 would be a nice addition for many teams. His shooting percentages could be better, but he has shown enough development and impact this season that someone will give him a nice offer if he goes into free agency this offseason.
Fournier really took a leap forward in his second year with the Orlando Magic after being traded from the Denver Nuggets. This season, Fournier started 71 of the 79 games he played in for the Magic. His minutes per game went up (28.6 to 32.5) as did his points per game (12.0 to 15.4). What is probably most impressive and key to why he’ll be paid well this offseason is how he increased his shooting percentages. He brought his three-point percentage from 37.8 percent all the way up to 40 percent, which puts him among the better shooters in the league. His free throw percentage went up significantly as well — from 72.8 percent to 83.6 percent.
Fournier is a good shooter that could really help a lot of teams and he’s only 23 years old. He’s restricted though, so the Magic could decide to match whatever he is offered.
Bazemore has certainly come a long way from being the hilarious, arm-waving, end-of-the-bench cheerleader he once was for the Golden State Warriors. He also played well for their D-League team back in 2012-13. He then spent one season with the Los Angeles Lakers and subsequently signed a two-year contract with the Atlanta Hawks, where he has been a solid contributor.
This season he averaged 11.6 points in only 27.8 minutes per game and started 68 of the 75 games he played in, mostly at small forward but also at shooting guard.
Bazemore has really taken a step in his development and as an athletic wing. He was also very good in the Hawks’ first-round victory over the Boston Celtics. For more on Bazemore’s success and why he’ll do well this summer, check out Lang Greene’s recent article about his significant improvement.
Harkless is a restricted free agent for the Portland Trail Blazers. His numbers (6.4 points and 3.6 rebounds per game) may not jump off the page right away, but remember that he was only playing 18.7 minutes for the Blazers during the regular season. A closer look reveals why he could be very attractive to teams this summer.
Harkless is only 22 years old, has a great work ethic and has the potential to be a talented 3-and-D player (which many teams are searching for in today’s NBA). Per-36 minutes, he averaged 12.3 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.2 steals per game, while shooting 47.4 percent from the field and 27.9 percent from beyond the arc. Those are impressive increases from last year and it displays just how much his offseason work and a change of scenery has benefited Harkless this season.
Even better, Harkless has maintained and, for the most part, improved on those numbers this postseason. He was an important part of Portland’s first-round win over the L.A. Clippers, averaging 12.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, 0.7 assists and 0.7 steals while shooting 56.4 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from three-point range. Harkless’ versatility on both ends of the court and his ability to switch at the two forward positions with Al-Farouq Aminu helped the Blazers advance (though they did get some help with Los Angeles suffering several injuries to key players).
If he can keep up his development, he’ll be a great pick-up for any team in free agency. The market is unclear for him at this point, but he has played his way into a nice salary increase this upcoming offseason.
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