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Free Agency Preview: Top 21 unrestricted free agents

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These are the guys everybody is talking about.

The players on the top of this list can reshape a franchise and move them into contender status. Even farther down they are players who can play critical roles for teams next season, pushing them up the ladder in the NBA.

These are the players who are true, unrestricted free agents and can go to any team that can afford to pay them. Or, they can choose to stay right where they are and make a little more money.

Here is our list of the top 21 unrestricted free agents this summer, and it starts with an obvious choice:

1. LeBron James (Cleveland Cavaliers). The biggest domino on the board, until he makes a move a lot of other decisions by teams and players will be held up. There is a lot of buzz around the league that LeBron wants to come to Los Angeles, but he doesn’t want to come alone — can the Lakers convince the Spurs to make a trade with them for Kawhi Leonard? Will Paul George come to LA with LeBron? LeBron wants assurances before he pulls the trigger, but that puts the Lakers on a tight timeline, they have to figure it out before LeBron feels compelled to turn to other options (including possibly staying in Cleveland). Until we know what happens with LeBron, a lot of other dominos will not fall.

2. Kevin Durant (Golden State Warriors). He is technically a free agent so we have to list him here, but Durant is not going anywhere, he is all in on the Warriors. Him becoming a free agent only means is he’s not taking a big discount for the team again.

3. Paul George (Oklahoma City). In Oklahoma City, they are convinced he is staying. In Los Angeles, they are convinced he is coming. George says he hopes his decision will make the most people happy, but his call may hinge what LeBron does. There is a lot of buzz he could take a one-plus-one deal with the Thunder, keeping his future options open, but Los Angeles is still on the table (with Philadelphia trying to get a foot in the door).

4. Chris Paul (Houston Rockets). CP3 is expected to stay with the Rockets, it’s all but a lock. Does Houston want to give a 33-year-old a five-year contract? Not ideally, they’d like to trim a year off that, but they will pay the price to keep him in Houston to keep a contender together.

5. DeMarcus Cousins (New Orleans). The Pelicans would like to keep him, a few teams including Dallas would like to steal him away. His decision comes down to this: how many guaranteed years will a team give Cousins coming off a torn Achilles? Will teams give him a second guaranteed year? A third if he meets minutes requirements in year two? Whoever offers the most security will land him. That’s probably the Pelicans, but after their playoff run without him they are more willing to move on if another team comes in over the top.

6. DeAndre Jordan (Los Angeles Clippers). It is possible he will not be a free agent, instead opting-in to the last year of his contract with the Clippers ($24.1 million) and then trying to force a trade. Either way, he’s likely on the move, the Clippers trading for Marcin Gortat is a sign they expect Jordan to be in a different uniform next season. However he becomes available, Jordan may be the best defensive paint protector/rim running center in the league. He needs to be paired with a strong point guard/ball handler to be the most effective, but he could help a lot of teams.

7. J.J. Redick (Philadelphia 76ers). He’s not going to get the $23 million he got last season from the Sixers, but he’s going to draw interest because he’s the kind of shooter teams could use (42 percent from three last season), he’s a tireless worker on the offensive end, a solid team defender, and the kind of professional, veteran presence teams want in the locker room. Philly wants to keep him, but the Sixers are big game hunting and may not have the money to retain him.

8. Trevor Ariza (Houston Rockets). He was a key part of Houston’s run to the Western Conference Finals, but he plans to capitalize on that and meet with multiple teams. He can shoot the three, is a versatile and switchable defender, and plays a high IQ game. There are going to be several teams interested, but his camp has denied he’s looking for $50+ million that was reported.

9. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (Los Angeles Lakers). While everyone was focused on the Lakers’ young stars, KCP was having a solid season — 13.4 points and 5.2 rebounds a game, shooting 38.7 percent from three, and playing strong defense. He took a one-year, $17.8 million contract with the Lakers hoping to show his value and get paid more (like a max) on the back end. He may not find everything he wants in this tight free agent market, but he will get paid.

10. Will Barton (Denver Nuggets). One of the better sixth men in the NBA last season (he finished fourth in the voting), he averaged 13.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4 assists per game. He’s not providing much of anything on defense, but the rest of his game provides real value. He reportedly turned down four-years, $42 million before last season from the Nuggets, he will want more than that after a strong season.

11. Tyreke Evans (Memphis Grizzlies). Memphis screwed up not trading him at the deadline, now they will lose him for nothing in free agency. One of the bounce-back players of the year (and possibly a Sixth Man candidate if he had stayed healthy, he played in just 52 games), Evans averaged 19.4 points per game and had a PER of 21.1 last season. He’s going to make a lot more than the $3.3 million the Grizzlies got him for last summer when his stock was down, the question is how many years will teams offer?

12. Thaddeus Young (Indiana Pacers). He has yet to decide if he will be a free agent, opting-out of the $13.7 million he is owed next season, although he is expected to. Defensively the Pacers leaned on Young, who is long and switchable doing a good job on the perimeter. He does the little things on the court. Offensively he can finish inside and works well in transition, but his shot is inconsistent. At age 30, another guy that may struggle to get a longer-term deal from teams, but one of them will step up to try to grab him.

13. Derrick Favors (Utah Jazz). One of the more interesting free agents in that he’s not a modern NBA big — he can’t really space the floor and he isn’t a high-flying rim protector — but he has value as a big man who can do a lot of things fairly well. He can shoot from the midrange, he plays within himself, and on defense he is well positioned and can use his length and size to bother shots in the paint. Will any team value him as much as the Jazz?

14. Avery Bradley (Los Angeles Clippers). He had a down season last campaign: He didn’t fit in the Detroit offense and struggled with turnovers, then his chance to redeem himself after being traded to the Clippers was cut short by injury. He was scoring points last season, but he wasn’t efficient. Some GM is going to look past this most recent campaign and remember that a year ago Bradley was considered one of the better two-way guards in the NBA. The Clippers want him back but other teams (including the Memphis) will make a run at him.

15. Isaiah Thomas (Los Angeles Lakers). Nobody in the NBA has seen their stock fall — and lost more money — in the past year than Thomas. The Brinks truck is not backing up to his house. The combination of the hip injury/surgery that sidelined him for the first half of last season, and perceived attitude problems in Cleveland that helped lead to a trade, will have teams hesitant. That said, a year ago he was an All-NBA player, one team will take a chance he can find something close to that again. Would he accept a sixth man role?

16. Luc Mbah a Moute (Houston Rockets). He was a key part of the Rockets’ regular season defensive success — the team was 4.2 points per 100 possessions better on defense when he was on the court last season. He’s a switchable wing defender, plus he shot 36.4 percent from three. At age 31 he’s not getting a long deal, but the Rockets want to bring him back and other teams will try to steal him. Mbah a Moute will have options.

17. Rajon Rondo (New Orleans Pelicans). His play was okay during the regular season, but he picks it up in big games and the playoffs, and was an important part of the Pelicans’ late-season run. He can play with Jrue Holiday in a backcourt as needed. He still has flaws (his shot is at the top of that list) but he fits well with a playoff team looking for veteran backcourt help. He brings competitiveness and a high IQ game.

18. Dwight Howard (Charlotte Hornets/Brooklyn Nets). He’s not a free agent yet — he will get traded to Brooklyn on July 6, and the sides are already talking buyout. Most around the league expect Howard will be on the market this summer — but who is buying? He was solid for the Hornets last season averaging 16.6 points and 12.5 rebounds a night, but he’s old school wanting touches in the post, his defense isn’t what it used to be, and he hasn’t been popular with teammates in a long time. In a limited role, he could help a team, if he accepts it.

19. Wayne Ellington (Miami Heat). Every team could use more shooting, and Ellington shot 39.2 percent from three last season — he’s going to have suitors. He’s one of the best knock-down shooters in the game. The challenge is he doesn’t bring much defense, rebounding, or anything else, but if a team is looking for a sniper Ellington can be their guy.

20. Brook Lopez (Los Angeles Lakers). While we don’t think of him as a modern NBA center, he has learned to shoot the three (34.5 percent) and took 41 percent of his shots from deep last season. Plus, he’s an efficient scorer around the basket, hits the boards hard, and uses his size and length to defend the paint. He’s got value, even if his role is somewhat limited, and there will be multiple teams with interest.

21. Rudy Gay (San Antonio Spurs). He’s not the same athlete he was before his torn Achilles, but he averaged 11.5 points a game last season for the Spurs, picked his spots and shots better on offense, and played some defense. He turned down an $8.8 million player option, not sure he gets more than that next season, but a team might commit to him for more than just one season. That team may be the Spurs, who would like him back.

Report: 76ers hire former WNBA No. 1 pick Lindsey Harding as scout

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The 76ers were reportedly looking for a female scout.

They’ve found her.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

The Philadelphia 76ers have hired former Duke and WNBA star Lindsey Harding as a full-time scout for next season.

Harding – the No. 1 pick in the 2007 WNBA draft – played nine years in that league. She was an assistant coach for the Raptors’ summer-league team and completed the NBA’s Basketball Operations Associates Program. By all appearances, she’s well-qualified for her new position.

NBA teams haven’t hired enough women in basketball operations. Relative to men, there are far more women with an aptitude for these positions than are on NBA payrolls. Teams should hire the best person for the job, but fair consideration will lead to more women hired than currently.

At some point, an NBA team hiring a woman as a scout wouldn’t be so notable. But the league isn’t there yet.

Greg Monroe says he’s working on shot to help Raptors space floor

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Last season, Greg Monroe took zero three pointers. Not one in Phoenix, nor Milwaukee, and zero in Boston. He’s not a guy known for his shooting range, last season 90 percent of his shots came within 10 feet of the basket.

That’s not what is going to get Monroe more run in Nick Nurse’s unleashed offense in Toronto. Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry can drive into the paint, but they need shooters around them to space the floor and finish the shots they create. Monroe gets it.

 

We’re not going to nickname Monroe “Curry Jr.” but if he can do anything to space the floor it will help. It also would help Monroe’s longevity in the league.

That said, we’ll fully buy in when we see it. This is not some flip-the-switch change to make.

Stephen Curry, want to finish your career a Warrior? “For sure I do. This is home.”

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There’s been an assumption in some quarters of the league that after his current contract — which runs out in 2022, when he is 34 and the Warriors are likely winding down — he might go finish his career, for a couple of seasons, in his hometown of Charlotte. That Stephen will play where his father Dell is a legend.

The younger Curry isn’t thinking that way at all he said on The Bill Simmons Podcast (hat tip Yahoo Sports.)

“I love the Bay Area, man. The only reason I go home now is if my sister’s getting married or to go play the Hornets for that one game, so I haven’t really been back much. I haven’t put my mind there.”

Does Curry want to be a Warrior for his entire career?

“For sure I do. This is home. This is where I want to be, for obvious reasons.”

Will Curry feel that way four years from now? Who knows. That’s several NBA lifetimes away. Curry has said in the past he has thought about playing in his hometown, but obviously he’s not thinking about leaving these Warriors now.

In the same way I liked Kobe Bryant playing his entire career for one team, I would like that for Curry (who was drafted by the Warriors in 2009). He likes that idea, too — going down as the greatest Warrior player of all time. But the lure of home could change all of that in a few years.

Kemba Walker on his future: ‘I just can’t see myself in a Knicks jersey’

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When Mitch Kupchak came in as GM in Charlotte it led to a lot of speculation — and a lot of other GMs calling in to check — were the Hornets going to blow it up, trade Kemba Walker, and start to rebuild?

No. Walker is still there, Tony Parker is now backing him up, and new coach James Borrego is talking about upping the pace, getting the Hornets on the run. Walker, heading into the last year of his contract, has consistently said he does not want to leave Charlotte.

That has never stopped fans from his native New York from begging him to come home and lead the Knicks. Walker, talking to Don Amore of the Hartford Courant, reiterated he does not want to leave Charlotte.

“I’ve been hearing it for years,” Walker said Thursday, after working with youngsters at the National Basketball Players Association summer camp. “Every time I come home, ‘When are you going to come home and play for the Knicks?’ I know it’s a special place, I was a Knicks fan growing up, always rooted for the home team. But I just can’t see myself in a Knicks jersey, only because I’ve only been in one jersey.”

“I just want to do something special in Charlotte,” Walker said. “I’ve been there eight years now, and we haven’t really been consistent as far as winning. I just want to try to establish that culture at some point. That’s what I want to do, I just want to make it a winning organization.”

This season, the Hornets are going to try to win, be a playoff team and a threat once there. In a smaller market (one that took owner Michael Jordan a long time to rebuild after what the previous owner had done there), rebuilding can be hard on the bottom line, and the competitive MJ does not want to go there. He wants to keep Walker and build a steady playoff team, and Kupchak has said the same thing.

However, if that doesn’t happen this year, the calculations for the organization and Walker could be different next summer. Could.

For now, Walker just does not see himself if blue and orange.