To simplify things, we broke down the list of potential free agents into tiers. These tiers are meant to give an idea of potential numbers that each player could be looking at when they hit the market.
The Gordon Hayward-Tier
Aaron Gordon — Orlando Magic
Clint Capela — Houston Rockets
Few thought twice about the massive contract Hayward signed with the Celtics this past summer. However, it was much more noteworthy when he inked a “max” contract back in 2014 with the Jazz. At the time, the Butler product was a good — though not game-changing — player. Hayward was just coming off a career year, averaging 19.3 points per game on 36-percent three-point shooting. These aren’t exactly All-Star numbers, but he had shown consistent signs of improvement.
Had Hayward hit the open market, the details of his contract may have been different. However, the Hornets quickly forced Utah’s hand by signing Hayward to a 4-year/$63 million tender that the Jazz ultimately matched. It wasn’t a tough decision, but it wasn’t ideal by any stretch. The Jazz could ill-afford to lose a talented 25-year-old — though the price tag seemed (at the time) to be steep for a slight-of-frame wing that wasn’t playing much defense.
The Magic and Rockets face similar questions moving forward. Both Gordon and Capela will be younger than Hayward when he signed his initial deal — though neither have been hallmarks of consistency during their respective NBA careers.
Capela has come on strong over the past two seasons. An efficient rim-runner that gobbles up defensive rebounds and protects the paint, Capela is a model center for today’s league. Houston will match anything thrown at them. However, given the league’s need for athletic big men, at least a handful of teams will present a lucrative offer to the Swiss center.
Gordon is a bit trickier. He possesses a higher ceiling than Capela (and Hayward), but plays for an absolute travesty of a team. If Orlando is only concerned with selling jerseys and tickets, re-signing Gordon to a mega-deal is a no-brainer. With that said, a team likely bound for the lottery for the sixth year in-a-row might think twice about tying up oodles money with no end-goal in sight. Gordon is making paper this offseason, but the Magic might not be the team signing the check.
The Jazz ended up hurting themselves by not offering Hayward the “full-max” of 5-years/$80 million. Many believe the decision to not offer him that deal ultimately led to his departure. With the arms race stronger than ever in today’s NBA, the Magic and Rockets can’t afford to lose either of these young, promising talents.
The Harrison Barnes-Tier
Jabari Parker — Milwaukee Bucks
Julius Randle — Los Angeles Lakers
During Harrison Barnes’ four-year stint in Golden State, he helped the team win an NBA Championship, made the All-Rookie First Team, played excellent defense, and never complained about his minimal offensive role. Despite all of that, the Warriors signed Kevin Durant in the Summer of 2016 — and thus sent Barnes on his way out of town.
It wasn’t that the Warriors were completely unhappy with Barnes’ play. Rather, they had other (painfully better) options at their disposal. Barnes would go on to sign a lucrative 4-year/$94 million deal with Dallas. As a result, both he and the Warriors are better off due to the entire ordeal.
That’s where Parker and Randle both currently stand. They’re solid players — but not guys you’d build around. Their respective teams may end up going in a different direction for one reason or another, and both players could end up as causalities as a result.
Parker was averaging 20 points-per-game before his 2017 season was cut short due to an ACL tear. He was efficient from the field, had improved on his ability to knock down threes, and did just enough on defense to not be the biggest liability in the league. On paper, the pairing with Giannis Antetokounmpo is perfect. Parker’s the rare type of scorer that can play both on or off the ball. When Antetokounmpo is running the team, Parker is a crafty cutter with the ability to finish all the junk near the rim. When it’s crunch time, Parker is a certified bucket-getter with the means to fill it up from every spot on the floor.
However, he still lacks a true position, and remains one of the worst defenders in the league. With Antetokounmpo’s break-out party occurring during Parker’s absence, the Bucks might opt to surround The Greek Freak with more consistent 3-and-D players.
Randle is enjoying the best season of his career in 2018. The Kentucky product is built like a truck. He regularly bullies even the largest of defenders, and finishes in traffic with ease. Randle is shooting a blistering 73-percent at the basket this year, and is getting to the free throw line nearly seven times per 36 minutes.
The Lakers’ plan has always been to sign multiple max-contract free agents. Their list of high-profile targets include LeBron James, Paul George, and Boogie Cousins — all three of which are obviously more important pieces than Randle. Given his recent play, Randle could be in search for a deal that rivals the one Barnes received. At this time, the Lakers simply won’t have the funds to facilitate that.
Both the Bucks and Lakers would love nothing more than to hold on to these guys. Given each team’s needs (outside shooting for the Bucks, star power for the Lakers), and the likely high price tags, we could see both Parker and Randle donning new uniforms in 2019.
The Evan Fournier-Tier
Marcus Smart — Boston Celtics
Zach LaVine — Chicago Bulls
Smart and LaVine could not be more different basketball players. Smart is a defensive juggernaut playing with incredible energy on every play. LaVine is an offensive savant with a propensity to float through games. Smart has only played for winning teams. LaVine has only played for losing teams. The player Smart is now will greatly resemble the player he will be five years from now. LaVine’s current status could pale in comparison to the player he may develop into five years from now.
But when it’s all said and done, both guys will sign for figures within the same ballpark.
I grouped them both under the Fournier category for a couple of reasons. Smart has nearly identical Win Shares to Fournier at this point in their respective careers. LaVine possesses the same explosive offensive potential that prompted Orlando to sign Fournier to a 5-year/$85 million extension in 2016. All three guys are starting caliber NBA shooting guards, and could develop into fringe All-Stars given the right opportunity.
The Jonas Valanciunas-Tier
Kyle Anderson — San Antonio Spurs
Jusuf Nurkić — Portland Trail Blazers
The Valanciunas-tier is home to steadily developing players that savvy teams hold onto longer than poorly-run squads would have. The Toronto big man spent a season overseas after being drafted in 2011, making his official debut in 2012. He made a strong impression, but fell out of favor for his lack of mobility and range. When Valanciunas was benched in the 2016 playoffs, many questioned Toronto’s decision to ink him to a 4-year/$60 million deal the summer prior. In hindsight, the Raptors made the right move. He’s now just the fourth-highest paid player on the team, and is an integral piece to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Anderson and Nurkić have similarly rewarded their respective teams’ patience.
The Spurs have brought along Anderson slowly (no pun intended). Popovich is notorious for playing rookies sparingly. Anderson appeared in only 33 games in his first season, averaging just over 10 minutes per game. Three years later, and he’s finally proving to be a major contributor. In what feels like a lost season for San Antonio, Anderson has been the team’s second most consistent player behind All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge.
He’s completely retro — opting for an in-between game over the long ball. The 6’9″ forward is shooting 55-percent on two-pointers, and is highly effective around the rim. He’s a versatile, heady defender that can switch on multiple positions. Anderson is also a solid and willing playmaker. He’d gain more notoriety if he was a more impressive three-point shooter, but he does just about everything else on the court well.
Nurkić was the odd man out in Denver when Nikola Jokic became an overnight sensation. He’s brash and unapologetic, possessing a modern big man skill-set with a soft touch. The Bosnian was sent to Portland, where he’s fit in comfortably as a third option. He’s developed as both a rebounder and a shot blocker, and has shown the ability to score when the team doesn’t explicitly design plays for him.
Both guys stand to make a ton of money with a strong postseason showing. Given their current roles, both the Spurs and Trailblazers will happily ink them to long-term, reasonable deals.
The Kentavious Caldwell-Pope-Tier
Elfrid Payton — Phoenix Suns
Shabazz Napier — Portland Trail Blazers
Rodney Hood — Cleveland Cavaliers
Caldwell-Pope’s time in Detroit abruptly came to a close after the team acquired Avery Bradley. The offers didn’t come rushing in once KCP hit the market, and he “settled” on a 1-year/$18 million deal with a Lakers team that was willing to spend. It probably came as a bit of a shock for the confident Caldwell-Pope, but he was given plenty of playing time on a young Laker squad. 2018 was essentially a try-out for a larger contract this offseason.
That will be the same case for Payton, Napier and Hood. Each player is no longer on the team that drafted them, and each possess a wart which will keep them from signing major deals this summer.
For Payton, his success will always hinge on his shaky jump-shot. The cagey guard has posted some impressive stat lines (10 career triple-doubles), but has failed to record a single season shooting over 33-percent from beyond the arc. Unless he develops into a rebounding/assisting giant in the ilk of 2011 Rajon Rondo, Payton’s jump shot will relegate him to a reserve role.
Napier has bounced around quite a bit in his short career. He was brought in by Miami (per LeBron’s “request“), sent to Orlando, and eventually traded to Portland for cash. Playing behind the star backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, minutes weren’t easy to come by for Napier. He rarely got off the pine in 2017, but has emerged this season as a super-sub for the third-seeded Western Conference Blazers. He’s shot the ball well (38-percent from three), but doesn’t have the resume or raw athletic ability to warrant a big contract.
Hood is an effective scorer at every level. He’s equipped with a smooth lefty-stroke, and has deep three-point range (39-percent on 6.7 attempts in Utah). Cleveland brought him in for all of those reasons, with the understanding that he has worrisome shot selection and major limiatations on the defensive end. Given the volatility of the Cleveland situation, there’s no telling where any of the current players may end up. Hood possesses the most upside in this group. However, we’ve seen plenty of offensive-minded wings flame out as quickly as they came.
It would behoove this trio and the teams that they currently play for next year to sign on for a low-risk, high-reward deal. Betting on themselves could be worth it.
The Reggie Bullock-Tier
Dante Exum — Utah Jazz
Nik Stauskas — Brooklyn Nets
Bruno Caboclo — Sacramento Kings
I really wanted to label this the Dion Waiters-tier. The former No. 4 pick out of Syracuse had infamously inconsistent stints in Cleveland and Oklahoma City to begin his career. Often spotted pouting in the corner after not receiving a pass, Waiters was a putrid teammate and volatile producer during the first four years of his career.
After finishing the 2016 season in Oklahoma City, Waiters signed a two-year deal (with a player option) with the Miami Heat for a whopping $5.9 million. The Thunder, devoid of any young wing talent around Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, opted to not match the contract. He bet on himself and won big. A year later, Waiters was inking a 4-year deal worth over $52 million.
However, the three names that make up this tier can’t even say they’ve had a single season as good as any of Waiters’ mediocre years with the Cavs or Thunder. By the time Waiters signed his first deal in Miami, he already had 53 20-plus point performances under his belt. The Exum-Stauskas-Caboclo trio has nine such games combined during their time in the league.
The troika share more similar traits to current Pistons starting wing Reggie Bullock. After being selected 25th overall in 2013 out of North Carolina, Bullock bounced from the Clippers to the Suns — failing to record over 10 minutes a game with either squad. Following two so-so years in Detroit, he re-signed on a modest 2-year/$5 million deal. Several factors have led to him being a major contributor for the fluttering Pistons. Bullock has flourished under Stan Van Gundy, and is shooting an impressive 44-percent on threes on 4.5 attempts per game.
For one reason or another, this group hasn’t received a fair shake during their NBA tenure (injuries for Exum, scheme fit for Stauskas, tough to crack roster for Caboclo). None of them have received consistent minutes to grow. Under the right situation — with little-to-no pressure — they can be rotational contributors.
Sources: Twitter/KingJames, Russ Isabella/USA TODAY Sports, Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports, Brad Rempel/USA TODAY Sports, Soobum Im/USA TODAY Sports, David Richard/USA TODAY Sports, Jeff Swinger/USA TODAY Sports