With the 2011-12 NBA season in the books, free agency is upon us. With Dwight Howard opting to remain in Orlando (for now), there aren’t any free agents that could alter the state of the league, but there are plenty of players that could help patch a hole on a contender or help a decent team go one round further in the playoffs. Unless the Mavericks are able to sign Deron Williams and somehow swing a trade for Howard, the contenders in 2012-13 will be the same as they were in 2011-12. But, as the last two NBA Finals have taught us, role players can swing a title. Last year, the Heat fell in the Finals in part because the Mavs’ role players –especially J.J. Barea—severely outplayed those of Miami. This year, Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller all had big games in the Finals, and the Heat were able to win their second title. So while most of the names that follow won’t make up for not having a LeBron James or a Kevin Durant, they could help a team that is already well-positioned for success to make that next step towards a championship. Without further ado, a position-by-position breakdown of the 2012 free agent class.
Note: Players are listed with their most recent teams. All players are unrestricted free agents unless otherwise noted.
Gerald Wallace (Nets), Nicolas Batum (Blazers, restricted), Jeff Green (Celtics), Chase Budinger (Timberwolves, team option), Grant Hill (Suns)
Not a lot to see here. Small forward is probably the weakest position on the market this summer, so I didn’t even bother to break the worthwhile guys down into groups. None of these players can create their own offense, but each of them has at least one skill that can help a team win. Wallace can hit the boards and play defense, Batum is a quality shooter, Budinger’s an athletic freak, Hill’s a savvy defender who can still score a bit (if he doesn’t retire—he’ll be 40 on opening night) and Green can do a bit of everything. All would be solid additions to a team’s rotation and since they’re all unselfish players on the court and don’t get into trouble off of it, they’re not going to screw up their new team’s chemistry.
The aging superstars: Kevin Garnett (Celtics), Tim Duncan (Spurs)
Now that it's become clear in the past 48 hours that KG will indeed re-sign with the Celtics, the only thing left to say about these two is that it’s simply a formality that Duncan will re-sign with the Spurs. Moving along...
PFs with an elite skill: Brandon Bass (Celtics), Kris Humphries (Nets), Ryan Anderson (Magic, restricted)
Bass’ ability to knock down midrange jumpers was a huge part of Boston’s playoff run, and when Garnett re-signs, that should be all the incentive he needs to re-up as well. Humphries is a big, strong presence on the boards and he could command a lot of money from Brooklyn. Pretty much the entire Nets 2011-12 roster is a free agent this summer, but after Deron Williams, Humphries will probably be their top priority (unless they’re completely sold on Brook Lopez, which I’m not). Anderson, the NBA’s Most Improved Player last season, can stroke the three, and re-signing him will be an important part of convincing Dwight Howard to stay in Orlando. Bass is the most likely to move, but expect all three to stay put.
The next tier: Carl Landry (Hornets), J.J. Hickson (Blazers, restricted), Ersan Ilyasova (Bucks)
All of these guys are fairly underrated, but not quite on the same level as the guys listed above them. Landry has the ability to score inside and the Hornets have plenty of cap space left to re-sign him if they so choose. Hickson flashed his potential after Portland picked him up at the end of last season, averaging 15 ppg and 8 rpg on 54% shooting in 19 games. A team desperate for inside scoring might end up overpaying him because of it. Ilyasova put together the best season of his career in 2011-12, averaging 13 points and 9 rebounds per game while shooting at a 49% clip, and he will look for a sizeable raise from the $2.5 million he made last season.
Proceed with caution: Michael Beasley (Timberwolves, restricted), Kenyon Martin (Clippers), Boris Diaw (Spurs)
Beasley’s an inefficient scorer with off-court problems. Sounds like a perfect fit for the Kings! Martin didn’t do much of anything for the Clippers after getting back from China. 5 ppg, 44% FG and 37% FT (yes, 37%) in 42 games last season mean that his list of suitors will be short. Once he got the Bobcats stink off him, Diaw had a few good stretches for the Spurs in the playoffs this spring, but he’s got motivation issues, so he’d probably have to sign with a winning team to be effective.
Young guys coming into their own: Roy Hibbert (Pacers, restricted), Spencer Hawes (76ers)
Both were key parts of their teams’ surprising success in 2011-12 and deserve to get paid for it. It will probably take a lot to get Hibbert re-signed, but his 19-point, 18-rebound effort in Indiana’s Game 3 victory over the Heat this spring proved that, with Hibbert at center, the Pacers can take on the big boys and win. Like everyone on the Sixers, Hawes is an unselfish guy, plus he can score around the rim. Philly has the cap space to re-sign him, so a deal should get done.
Pretty good starting centers: Chris Kaman (Hornets), Brook Lopez (Nets, restricted)
Kaman is valuable to the Hornets because he would bring much-needed size to their frontcourt. Without him, their big men would be Anthony Davis and Carl Landry, both of whom are small for their positions. Lopez missed most of last season with a foot injury but has been an effective scorer when healthy. It is troubling, though, that he only averaged 6 rpg in his last full season. As a solidly-built seven-footer, he should be able to grab at least 8 per game by doing nothing more than boxing out correctly.
Question marks: JaVale McGee (Nuggets, restricted), Marcus Camby (Rockets), Omer Asik (Bulls), Mehmet Okur (waived by Blazers)
McGee is extremely raw and has a low basketball IQ, something that’s okay as a rookie but disturbing for a guy entering his fifth season in the league. He’s an athletic freak, and with the right coach, he could become one of the league’s top centers (he’s already among the best shot blockers). Camby has enjoyed a productive career as a defensive-minded center and could latch on with a contender as he looks to win his first ring. The only worry is his age (38). Asik was a productive defender with the Bulls, but his value outside of Tom Thibodeau’s system is questionable. Okur has played 30 games over the past two seasons, but when healthy offers an effective midrange game and size (6-foot-11).