Cheap Seats: Best Second Tier Free Agent

LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony are poised to be the top free agents on the market, but who is the best of the second tier?

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Who is the best second tier free agent behind proven franchise players like Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James? Basketball Insiders’ interns Jesse Blancarte, John Zitzler and Cody Taylor discuss:

Lance Stephenson

With the possibility of a loaded free agent class this summer, teams that are just a couple of pieces away from a serious run will be taking full advantage of the chance to sign certain players. While the class is headlined by possible free agents LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, not every team will be able to attract players of that caliber. Players like Nate Robinson, Eric Bledsoe, Mo Williams, Evan Turner and Luol Deng will be among those that will be in the budget for a lot of teams, and are players that can step into the right situation and contribute immediately.

One name that has been much talked about regarding his upcoming free agency is Lance Stephenson. While the Pacers’ second-half of the season collapse was well-documented, Stephenson was still a critical part to their success. Hitting the summer as an unrestricted free agent, Stephenson is going to get no shortage of offers and money. Perhaps the biggest question is just how much the Pacers value Stephenson and what they will offer him.

The team brought in Turner from the Philadelphia 76ers at the trade deadline in hopes of some offensive production off of the bench. The thought was if they lose Stephenson in free agency, Turner would be able to match his production and they wouldn’t really lose anything in the process. Fast forward to June and the Pacers were again eliminated by the Miami HEAT and Turner was nowhere near what he was in Philadelphia leaving a huge question mark at the wing position for the Pacers moving forward. Turner averaged a career-high 17.4 points per game in 54 games this season with the 76ers, but managed just 7.1 points per game in 27 games for the Pacers and just 3.3 points per game in the postseason. Turner didn’t exactly prove he belonged on a talented Pacers team and the pressure is on in Indiana to resign Stephenson.

The odds of a team overpaying for Stephenson’s services are likely high, and a team may overpay for him just to pry him away from the Pacers. With the possibility of so many top-tier names available on the market, the balance of power may soon be shifting in the Eastern Conference from the Pacers and HEAT. Stephenson is just 23 years old, and still has his best basketball ahead of him. Teams like the Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons, Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks have been rumored to be interested.

Stephenson’s flaws flared up on the national stage during the playoffs with many incidents that even left his teammates questioning his antics. There was an incident with Turner after their blow-out Game 1 loss to the Hawks in which the two had to be separated. Then there was the infamous on-court incident with LeBron James, which is now the subject to many internet-driven memes. Those two incidents are just a few of the many that have executives around the league questioning whether or not they need Stephenson on their team. It certainly has eliminated a few of the teams with cap room that are able to make an offer for Stephenson. The teams that are considered serious contenders for Stephenson all have coaches and locker rooms that can withstand his antics, and perhaps even do the unthinkable and change Stephenson’s attitude into becoming more of a teammate and a less selfish basketball player. The Hornets are led by Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker and have a no non-sense head coach in Steve Clifford and an owner that won’t tolerate such behavior. The Pistons have a coach that dealt with a diva in Dwight Howard and the Bulls have Tom Thibodeau. If Stephenson leaves Indiana, the team that lands him will be prepared for his behavior and will have a plan in place for dealing with him.

– Cody Taylor

Marcin Gortat

Marcin Gortat was drafted by the Phoenix Suns with the 58th pick of the 2005 draft, certainly a long shot to ever become a productive NBA starter. However, despite being one of the last players selected in that draft Gortat has become exactly that. Now, at 30 years old, he has positioned himself to receive what will likely be the most lucrative contract of his career and almost surely his last his last big payday.

He was acquired from Phoenix prior to the start of the season as Washington looked to bolster their frontcourt. Gortat was preceded in Washington by the fairly injury prone and inconsistent Emeka Okafor who was sent to Phoenix as part of the deal. The Wizards wanted to bring in a guy who they could count on night in a night to bring toughness, scoring and rebounding and Gortat fit that bill perfectly. Gortat played in a career best 81 games this season, starting in 80 and giving the Wizards the consistent presence down low they were looking for. When paired alongside Nene, which wasn’t as often as the team would have hoped during the regular season, the Wizards possessed one of the more menacing frontcourts in the East.

This past season Gortat excelled with the Wizards, having one of the best years of his career. He averaged 13.2 points to go along with just under 10 rebounds per game. He finished with the fifth best win share among centers, which placed him ahead of some of the more recognizable names down low like Dwight Howard, DeMarcus Cousins and Al Jefferson. He proved to be one of the more valuable pieces for the Wizards and was a major contributor in their success. During the playoffs his value became even more magnified. When the pace slowed down to a half court grind Gortat gave the Wizards and guy they could dump the ball into and let him work. He faced some best interior defenders in the game during the team’s two playoff series in Joakim Noah and Roy Hibbert and Gortat didn’t look overmatched in the slightest. During the playoffs, when matched up against Hibbert, Gortat averaged 14.8 points and 10.2 rebounds while shooting 57.8 percent from field. He bested Hibbert in nearly every statistical category outside of blocks. Similarly he performed admirably matched matchup up against Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah, Gortat averaged 10.8 points and 9.6 rebounds though he was held to just 38.9 percent shooting. Gortat showed that even when matched up against some of the league’s best bigs he could hold his own and certainly won’t be intimidated.

The biggest concern surrounding Gortat as he enters free agency may be his age. At 30 years old teams may be hesitant to commit to Gortat long term out fear the he may began to break down. However, Gortat keeps himself in spectacular physical condition which should help quell some of those doubts.

The Wizards are in a tough spot as both Gortat and small forward Trevor Ariza are entering free agency, keeping both might prove to be a very difficult task. Reports speculate that if the team had to decide between the two Gortat is the one they would favor. ESPN’s Marc Stein reported the following:

“The early word is the Wizards will try to retain both of their top free agents as opposed to letting them go to make some sort of fantasy run at the likes of Baltimore’s own Carmelo Anthony or seemingly gettable restricted free agent Greg Monroe.”

“Yet there are legit fears that signing both might prove too expensive for the Wizards, who have to keep in mind the sort of money Beal will command when it’s his turn for an extension.”

Gortat sounds optimistic about returning to Washington as well telling CSN Washington’s Ben Standig

“I didn’t think about that,” Gortat said to CSN Washington’s Ben Standig “Matter of fact I have a meeting right now with my agent. I don’t know. I would love to be here. I would love to be back here on this team.”

It appears both sides hope to come to an agreement which would keep Gortat with the young and improving Wizards.

Whichever franchise is able to land Gortat, will land one of the better centers in this league. Teams in free agency who aren’t able to secure one the top names will certainly have an eye on him after the way he played this season and especially during this postseason. He has the ability to a difference maker and could go a long way in helping a contender beef up down low. He is one player, outside of top tier of free agents, who absolutely shouldn’t be undervalued on the free agent market.

– John Zitzler

Eric Bledsoe

Carmelo Anthony will reportedly opt out of the final year of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent this offseason. ‘Melo is one of the elite players in the game, and his free agency situation has, and will continue to get a lot of attention from the media and NBA fans. However, there are several other talented players that will be free agents this offseason as well. The best of that group is Phoenix Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe.

Bledsoe was traded to the Phoenix Suns last offseason after three seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers. This season he contributed 17.7 points, 5.5 assists, 4.7 rebounds, shot 47.7 percent from the field, 35.7 percent from beyond-the-arc, and got to the free throw line 5.5 times a games, converting 77.2 percent, along with 1.6 steals and 3.3 turnovers per game. Phoenix Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek played Bledsoe alongside Goran Dragic in an untraditional two point guard backcourt.

The Suns were able to play two point guards together because of some of Bledsoe’s unique abilities. To start, Bledsoe is freakishly athletic. In 2012, Jamal Crawford joined the Los Angeles Clippers and soon thereafter nicknamed Bledsoe “Mini-LeBron.” While the nickname has faded over time, it’s not hard to understand why it came up in the first place. Bledsoe is one of the fastest players in the league, and can jump through the roof. Throughout his short career he has made plays that remind us of LeBron, like his extraordinary ability to block shots in transition, despite being a 6’1 point guard.

While it’s fun to watch highlights of Bledsoe blocking shots, it is his on-ball defense that makes him truly special. In a league that is saturated with talented point guards, teams need perimeter defenders who can try and slow them down. There may not be a better defensive point guard in the league than Bledsoe. If the Suns are facing a team with a point guard as quick and clever as Tony Parker or Chris Paul, Bledsoe can give them trouble. If the Suns are facing a team with a point guard as strong and physically explosive as Russell Westbrook or John Wall, Bledsoe can match them athletically. And if the Suns are facing a team with sharpshooting points guards like Stephen Curry or Damian Lillard, Bledsoe is strong enough to fight through screens and fast enough to chase them off the three-point line. No one in the league can shut down all of these point guards every night, including other great perimeter defenders like Avery Bradley or Tony Allen. But the ability to slow doing opposing point guards and force them into bad shooting nights is quite valuable.

Bledsoe’s defensive ability goes beyond slowing down points guards. He is strong enough, and athletic enough to guard many shooting guards as well. At just 6’1, Bledsoe appears too small to guard someone as big as Joe Johnson, or James Harden, however, he has long arms and knows how to use his speed and strength to stay in front of bigger guards and prevent them from getting to their favorite spots on the court. This is especially important for the Phoenix Suns, who prefer to play Dragic alongside Bledsoe. Dragic is quick, but lacks the strength to guard shooting guards. This task is generally left to Bledsoe, which allows the dual point guards to take turns running the offense, pushing the ball in transition and creating mismatches against opposing teams.

While Bledsoe’s defense is what makes him unique, he is no slouch on offense either. Entering the league, Bledsoe’s jump shot was inconsistent at best. However, his shooting has improved substantially over his short career. This is especially true about his three-point shooting, which has gone from 27.6 percent in his rookie season, to a very respectable 35.7 percent this season. His shooting mechanics are not perfect (he barely gets off the floor on jump-shots), but he has made small tweaks that have worked for him.

In addition to an inconsistent jump-shot, Bledsoe’s ability to run an offense was questioned entering the league. Fortunately for Bledsoe, he was mentored by Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups for a few seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers, and now shows an increased understanding of how to play the point guard position. He is now more patient with the ball, and knows how to effectively use a screen to create space for a pull-up jumper, drive to the rim, or a crisp pass to a rolling big man. He also knows how to play off the ball when Dragic runs the offense, a natural place for him after playing alongside John Wall at Kentucky and with Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups in Los Angeles. Bledsoe sometimes still struggles to stay within himself, often attempting to make a spectacular play as opposed to the simple one, which is reflected in his 3.3 turnovers per game average. Bledsoe will need to address this, but in an up-tempo offense, it is understandable and in part, unavoidable.

In a league littered with talented point guards, Bledsoe’s name often falls under the radar. However, when compared to Chris Paul, the best in the Association, Bledsoe statistically compares quite well. He almost scores as much, gets more rebounds, and shoots roughly the same percentage from the field overall and from beyond-the-arc. He does not get as many assists as Paul, but no one else really does either and Bledsoe plays next to another point guard. Bledsoe also steals the ball less and turns it over more. Though he may never be the game manager that Paul is, he is a natural fit to lead the up-tempo offenses that are now prevalent throughout the league.

Bledsoe is just 24 years old but has already proven himself to be an elite perimeter defender, and a developing floor general. He is one of, if not the most athletic point guards in the league, and has plenty of room to get better. While his free agency situation may fly under the radar this offseason, make no mistake, he is the best free agent available outside of ‘Melo.

At 24 year old who is an elite perimeter defender, has a developing ability to run a team and has ridiculous athleticism, Bledsoe is a top point guard in the NBA and the best free agent available outside of ‘Melo.

– Jesse Blancarte

Let us know who you think is the best of the second tier of free agents by leaving us a comment below!

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