Best remaining free agents
Most of the top free agents have either officially signed or come to terms on new contracts. But several quality players remain on the market. Here are the best 20 still available, many of whom could be had on cost-effective deals.
1. Nikola Pekovic, C (restricted)
Pekovic’s hulking frame and power game give him a throwback appeal, but a surprising mobility makes him fit to operate in modern offensive and defensive systems. He’s the inside counterpoint that so many perimeter-oriented rosters are missing, or in the case of the incumbent Timberwolves, a cooperative foil for All-Star big man Kevin Love.
When even remotely healthy, Minnesota was an effective defensive team with Pekovic taking up space in the paint and sliding into favorable position. He won’t resemble a standout NBA athlete even on his spriest day, but Pekovic does good work in repelling pick-and-roll action and pushing opponents out of the post.
On offense, Pekovic understands what he does best and rarely strays from the basics. Even without much above-the-rim potential, his strength and footwork allow him the angles and room necessary to finish in traffic, both as a post-up threat and a surprising roll option. He isn’t likely to make any leaps in production at this point (coming off his first NBA contract, Pekovic is already 27), but most every team could find use for a big man with real defensive chops and a bruising interior game.
The Timberwolves are expecting to re-sign Pekovic. They have offered him a four-year deal worth up to $50 million, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
2. Brandon Jennings, G (restricted)
There are certainly things to like about the 23-year-old Jennings — namely the notion of him as a confident, charismatic source of both scoring and playmaking. He’s put up the raw numbers (17.5 points and 6.5 assists last season) to justify that expectation, but the way in which Jennings reached those marks provides plenty of reason for concern. At the moment, he’s an undiscerning gunner, capable of accomplishing much with the ball in his hands but unable to read situations well enough to understand when he should shoot and when he should pass. To his credit, he did hit 37.5 percent of his 5.8 three-point attempts last season, making his jumper-happy game more palatable than it otherwise could be.
Defensively, Jennings has betrayed every bit of the promise he showed early in his career. He legitimately helped the Bucks guard at a top-five level in his first two seasons. Since then, his coverage has grown increasingly less focused. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Jennings rated miserably in defending both isolation sequences and spot-up opportunities last season — a basic indicator that he’s become a liability both on and off the ball. Quickness alone just can’t save a defender who takes such an open stance (thus surrendering easy blow-bys) in coverage and gets caught ball-watching on a frequent basis. Teams should be given pause by the fact that three years and change under Scott Skiles has done so little for Jennings’ defensive fundamentals.
With Atlanta now out of the mix as a potential suitor after matching Milwaukee’s offer for point guard Jeff Teague, Jennings might be best served signing his one-year qualifying offer (worth $4.5 million) and aiming for unrestricted free agency a year from now. Otherwise, he could wind up signing a long-term deal with the team he’s seemed intent to leave behind, all in the name of immediate financial security.
3. Gerald Henderson, G (restricted)
Aside from his gravity-defying throwdown early in the season, Henderson had a quiet year in a starting role for one of the worst teams in basketball. That’s not a great way to build a résumé, but Henderson’s performance has been sturdy enough to wonder what he might be capable of in a different context.
The Bobcats were such a mess that it’s difficult to evaluate Henderson’s defensive value within the team concept. The effort was clearly there, but Charlotte’s defenders were so rarely on the same page that it’s hard to know if Henderson was really executing as intended. Nevertheless, the 25-year-old has shown nice defensive potential over the past few seasons, and according to Synergy Sports, Henderson allowed just 0.66 points per play (and 32.3 percent shooting) in isolation situations last season. He’s clearly reliable enough to stay in front of most perimeter threats, and Henderson should do well if empowered by the fundamentals and principles of a more consistent defense.
Offensively, Henderson is skilled overall but doesn’t have a specialty. He has dabbled in pick-and-roll play, does rather well in the post and has improved as a spot-up shooter. He still needs to become a more consistent threat from beyond the arc, but he’s progressively attempted more threes in every season and made a big step toward league-average marksmanship last season by shooting 33 percent.
Henderson, the 12th pick in the 2009 draft, and the Bobcats have yet to agree on a new deal. If the two parties reach an impasse, Henderson could play out a one-year qualifying offer for nearly $4.3 million or the Bobcats could pursue a sign-and-trade.
4. Brandan Wright, F/C
Because of injury, recovery and what often amounted to a minor role with the Mavericks, the 25-year-old six-year veteran has played roughly the same number of NBA minutes as two-year veterans Kenneth Faried and Nikola Vucevic, with the prime of his career still to come. He was drafted in 2007, but all of the above factors make him quite raw by NBA standards, and theoretically interesting to any team in need of an energetic big man to round out its rotation.
Wright is an odd player in that he thrives on an array of runners and floaters, but Dallas had some success focusing his athletic gifts in the pick-and-roll. In the right context (read: with the right playmaker), Wright could be even more effective and potentially prove to be a starting-level contributor as he gets more experience. For now, he’s an effective finisher, a source of instant energy and a bouncy, quick-footed asset on defense. Nothing in his game suggests star potential, but Wright is already the kind of role player who creates value (via rolling to the rim, spacing the floor a bit, etc.) beyond his individual production.
UPDATE: The Mavs have agreed to a two-year, $5 million deal with Wright, according to NBA.com.
5. Mo Williams, G
Williams can create and initiate offense at a relatively consistent level, but he has looked most viable when playing alongside another dominant ball handler. For example: In their two seasons together in Cleveland, Williams worked well off of LeBron James and converted 45 percent from three-point range — a nice leap from his career average of 38.6. A perfect fit would also include the potential to be hidden defensively on the perimeter through cross-matching; Williams, 30, isn’t so bad in coverage that he dooms his team’s defense by walking on the court, but in many cases he’s in dire need of matchup help to minimize the damage he often surrenders.
6. Beno Udrih, G
Udrih, 31, has often been disregarded as yet another blank, boring point guard, but he’s a decent NBA player with a good shooting touch. The pull-up jumper, in particular, is his darling — for better or worse, in sickness and in health, for as long as he and his jumper shall live. As a result of that commitment, 63 percent of Udrih’s shot attempts last season came either from mid-range or just inside the paint (but outside the restricted area). That’s fine as long as he continues to convert those shots at such a sound rate (he made 44.6 percent of them while splitting time with Milwaukee and Orlando), but Udrih’s pull-up style tends not to draw the defensive attention necessary to free up teammates or earn free-throw attempts. Essentially, he’s a quality scoring option off the dribble without any of the tangential benefits of driving — a reality that makes him fairly valuable but pretty clearly limited.
7. Mike Miller, G/F
There’s no way around Miller’s back issues at this point, but the 33-year-old can nonetheless help a team on a semi-consistent basis with great perimeter shooting, smart passing and all-around effort. The ranks of free-agent marksmen have largely been picked over by this point, making Miller’s injury potential (he’s played roughly 60 percent of his team’s regular-season games over the past four seasons) an easier pill to swallow for the sake of acquiring such an exceptional outside shooter.
His game is also far too broad for him to be deemed a specialist. He’s impeccably prepared, as evidenced by his hot shooting for Miami at a moment’s notice in the last two postseasons. He’s a quick-fire shooter without a get-mine mentality and actively contributes to the ball and player movement so essential to good offense. Miller also happens to be a fantastic out-of-position rebounder who will track loose balls from across the court, and a competent ball handler who can initiate basic offense in a pinch. After Miami waived him in a cost-cutting move, Miller will be a great addition for the Thunder, Grizzlies or any number of playoff teams.
8. DeJuan Blair, F/C
Blair, 24, fell out of San Antonio’s rotation last season, in part because of his inability to mesh on the court with Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter. But his per-minute productivity over the last four years (14.9 points and 11.1 rebounds per 36 minutes) suggests that he’s more than capable of succeeding in a bigger role. He should do well as a rotation regular on another team, despite his defensive lapses, short stature and concern over his ACL-absent knees.
9. Gary Neal, G (restricted)
Gary Neal is a shooter, and there is no force on this planet — not Gregg Popovich, not the Spurs’ on-court leaders, not Neal’s own better judgment — that can stop him from firing away. Neal’s shot selection can be so unruly (and his defense so spotty) at times that he can be unplayable, though he can also be so accurate from deep as to bury opponents with a one-man barrage.
Neal, 28, is coming off a down year in terms of perimeter shooting, but he still registered an above-average percentage (35.5) while hoisting 6.1 long-range attempts per 36 minutes. It doesn’t hurt that Neal can handle the ball as needed and is getting better about swinging it to open teammates on the perimeter. He’s still vulnerable to lapses in judgment, but teams willing to accept that possession-to-possession risk should benefit from Neal’s shooting and occasional contributions off the bounce.
Even after signing Marco Belinelli to a multiyear deal, San Antonio could still bring Neal back to help fortify its point guard rotation. Backups Cory Joseph and Nando De Colo are still shaky enough to need insurance, which makes Neal a nice piece to have around.
10. Drew Gooden, F
Gooden’s eccentricity, (amnestied) mid-level contract and tendency to put up solid stats on bad teams has rendered him as something of a punchline, but when divorced from that reputation, he’s still a perfectly useful NBA big man. His struggles within a team defensive concept (slow help, poor positioning, etc.) are severe enough to make him best suited for a limited role, but the 31-year-old Gooden actually does a surprisingly solid job of guarding opponents one-on-one and can hold his own on the block.
It’s tough to say exactly where Gooden is as a player after a season in which he played only 151 minutes for Milwaukee, but in theory he could offer solid two-way rebounding and low-maintenance scoring for a minimal price. His isn’t the kind of addition that could really move the needle for a top team, but Gooden is still viable enough to sop up playing time and mitigate the drop-off when a team’s best big men catch a breather.