Head-to-Head: Best Restricted Free Agent

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Restricted free agency is often an undesirable process for a player. The team that issued the qualifying offer, which is necessary to restrict a player’s free agency, has all of the leverage – as we saw this past summer with Eric Bledsoe and Greg Monroe. They can scare teams away from tying up their money for up to three days while they make their decision, only to match the offer anyway. Then, once the market is depleted, the player lacks the negotiating power and either has to accept what he’s being offered or wait a on the one-year tender before becoming an unrestricted free agent. This summer, though, there is going to be a quality crop of restricted free agents who will draw the interest of teams despite the difficulty behind signing them. We asked Nate Duncan, Joel Brigham and Alex Kennedy to debate over who they think is the best of the lot:

How many times do we have to sing Jimmy Butler’s praises before we come to the conclusion that he is, in fact, a burgeoning star who is bound to be the toast of next summer’s restricted free agency period?

At least one more time, apparently.

While there are plenty of talented young players slated to be restricted free agents in about seven months, Butler is the only one on pace to have an All-Star selection under his belt. The way Jimmy Buckets has played this year, averaging 21.6 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 3.4 APG, 1.5 SPG on .483/.830/.342 shooting, it sure does look as though he’ll be named to his first All-Star game, and there’s an even better chance that he’ll be named the league’s Most Improved Player at the end of the season, as well.

It sounds ridiculous to say that he could even be named to an All-NBA team until we remind ourselves that he was the Eastern Conference Player of the Month in both October and November. This kid is really, really good, so talking about him the way we talked about Paul George two years ago is not a stretch. They’re actually very similar players, and if George were 100 percent healthy and on the free agency market, every team in the league would be frothing at the mouth.

Even as a restricted free agent, which tends to make teams hesitate, Butler looks like he’ll generate plenty of interest. Before this season, he looked as though he’d get paid well anyway because of his ability to play show-stopping defense and knock down the occasional three-pointer. This year, though, he’s boosted his scoring efficiency by an ungodly amount, which has turned him into the kind of two-way threat that all NBA teams would love to have.

Best of all for Butler is that nobody really has any idea whether Chicago will match a max offer. If other organizations know a team will match anything, there’s no way they’re tying up their money for a few days while other top free agents fly off the market. With Butler, though, there’s a strong chance he could be stolen away if max money is in the mix. That makes him even more desirable than someone like Kawhi Leonard.

Whatever the money looks like, though, he’ll be in demand, and teams will do whatever they can to get their mitts on him. Butler is a star about to make star money, and it’s money that he deserves.

– Joel Brigham

While other restricted free agents have had breakout years, it is difficult to argue that the prize of the class is anyone other than the reigning Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard. As Joel detailed, Jimmy Butler has been awesome this year. He has outperformed Leonard in the box score, as Leonard has struggled with an eye infection and a hand injury. The Spurs wing has taken a step back with his efficiency as he has been asked to carry more of an offensive load. But Gregg Popovich believes in Leonard’s potential as an offensive centerpiece, running a lot of after-timeout plays for Leonard to create.

The two are similarly effective defensively, with Butler perhaps a better lockdown artist but Leonard a more effective team defender with his length and help instincts. And while Butler has been more effective creating offense this year than Leonard has ever been, the spacing provided by his superior three-point shooting gives more room to his teammates. Leonard has also shown more versatility than Butler so far, playing at times as a small-ball four. Butler might have that in him, but we don’t know as he has not had the chance to exhibit that.

Right now, one could argue that Butler and Leonard are similar quality players. But Leonard is 23, while Butler (who spent four years in school at Marquette) is already 25. That two-year difference in age makes up the difference in their performances this year, especially considering that Butler has been well above his established level of performance this year and could regress a bit.

Thanks to Popovich’s philosophy (in which no player averaged more than 30 minutes last year) Leonard also has a lot less miles on him than Butler, who by the end of this year will have been playing basically entire games for the past year and a half. While it is close, I would rather give a max five-year contract to Leonard this summer due to his age, shooting ability and lower mileage.

– Nate Duncan

While it’s clear that Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard are the most talented restricted free agents available, I think Tobias Harris deserves some love as well. He’s not on the same level as Butler or Leonard, but he could be a more realistic target for a number of teams since he likely won’t be getting a max offer sheet like Butler or Leonard and because those two seem like locks to have any offer sheet matched by their respective teams. Harris may not be the best player of the bunch, but he could be the top restricted free agent who is actually somewhat obtainable.

Harris is reportedly looking for a contract in the $12-14 million per year range, and based on his play this season, he should be able to find a team willing to offer something close to that. Harris wants to remain in Orlando, according to league sources, and was hoping to sign an extension prior to the Oct. 31 deadline, but the two sides couldn’t reach a deal. In fact, the two sides didn’t even have advanced talks. According to sources close to the situation, Harris’ camp talked with Magic brass in September about the upcoming negotiations and agreed to talk numbers at a later date, but that conversation never happened. It seems that Orlando didn’t want to extend Harris, choosing instead to let the market set Harris’ price instead. The Magic extended center Nikola Vucevic, signing him to a four-year deal worth $48 million (plus incentives), but took a wait-and-see approach with Harris.

The problem with that strategy is that a team could offer Harris a strategically structured offer sheet that makes Orlando hesitant to match, just as the Dallas Mavericks did with Chandler Parsons to steal him away from the Houston Rockets. The deal Harris inks could be a short-term pact with player options, a trade kicker and other things that aren’t very team friendly. The team extending the offer sheet has every incentive to structure the deal like that, so that they have a shot at prying him away from Orlando. Magic general manager Rob Hennigan has said that he can’t envision a scenario where Harris isn’t on the team long-term, so it sounds like he’s planning to match any offer the forward receives. However, restricted free agency is an unpredictable process; nobody thought that Parsons would leave the Rockets or that Jeremy Lin would leave the New York Knicks when he was restricted either. Nobody knows what will happen in July.

Harris will have a long list of potential suitors, as he is only 22 years old and has emerged as a potential star since being traded from the Milwaukee Bucks to the Magic in his second season. Now, he’s having a career-year, averaging 18.5 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists and one steal in 35.5 minutes. He has been Orlando’s leading scorer and go-to option as well as their best clutch player, hitting a number of game-winning shots.

The New York Knicks have been mentioned as possible suitor for Harris, as he is from Long Island and is good friends with Carmelo Anthony (they even work out together in the summer). The Los Angeles Lakers could be an option as well, since he would fit in with their young core and be the leading scorer that they need for life after Kobe Bryant. If teams like the Knicks and Lakers strike out on some of the big-name free agents, Harris could get a serious look.

Butler and Leonard are clearly stars, but that just means it’s extremely unlikely that they’ll be joining a new team this summer. It’s the players like Harris, Reggie Jackson, Brandon Knight, Tristan Thompson, Iman Shumpert, etc. who may be on the move after signing an offer sheet.

– Alex Kennedy