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.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.
Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.
The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.
But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.
Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old
Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.
But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.
Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.
Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old
Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.
And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.
While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.
If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.
Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old
Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).
Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.
Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.
Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old
Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.
Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.
But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.
Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.
Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old
Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old
Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old
With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.
NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups
With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.
The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.
Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.
Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…
We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.
The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.
Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.
Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.
Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.
While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.
Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.
This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.
Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.
Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…
Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.
It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.
Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.
With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.
Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.
But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.
Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.
The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.