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.
The stud: Deron Williams (Nets)
On Wednesday, Williams confirmed what everyone already knew—he’s opting out of his contract for next season, making him a free agent. Though the debate between Williams and Chris Paul for best point guard alive has been settled for a couple seasons, at least there was a debate—that’s more than any other point guard can say. Williams is equally adept scoring and passing, and while it’s a bit disconcerting that his FG% has declined four consecutive years—to a career-low 41% last season—he’s more than qualified to be the second-best player on an elite team.
Only two clubs have a shot at signing him: his hometown team, the Mavericks, and his current club, the Nets. Neither is an ideal situation—Dallas had a rough season last year, and with the new CBA promising harsher luxury-tax penalties in the near future, it’s unclear whether Mark Cuban will be able to spend his way to success as he has in the past. Still, the Mavs have a good coach and a second star in Dirk Nowitzki. If they can re-sign Jason Terry, a Williams/Nowitzki-led team could contend in the short term. After all, they’re only one year removed from a title (albeit without Tyson Chandler). Though the Nets will be moving to Brooklyn next season, a move that, ostensibly, will make it a more appealing destination to free agents, the Nets don’t have a good roster right now, and, barring a trade for Dwight Howard, will need to endure a few more losing seasons before becoming competitive.
Old vets that could help a contender: Steve Nash (Suns), Jason Kidd (Mavericks), Andre Miller (Nuggets), Jason Terry (Mavericks), Derek Fisher (Thunder), Chauncey Billups (Clippers)
These guys are all at pretty much the same point in their career—they’ve accomplished a lot in the league, but each still has enough left in the tank to play significant minutes for a title contender next season. Apart from Nash and Miller, all of these guys have won titles in the past, and you can bet that those two will be hungry to win their first ring after having played their entire careers on teams that either didn’t quite get there (Nash) or were never really close (Miller).
Nash is the most intriguing of all these players. While he’d certainly like to join a team that has a chance to win, Nash has proven throughout his career that there are more important things to him than just chasing a championship. Still, Nash’s best option seems obvious to me: the Heat, and not just because they won the title (though that helps). Joining Miami would be beneficial for both player and team. Nash gets the chance to win a ring, and he would allow Miami to rest LeBron James more often (especially in the regular season) since Nash has the ability to orchestrate an offense. In fact, Nash would afford everyone in the Heat’s rotation to rest more often, instead of forcing five players to play big minutes every night (as the Heat did in the Finals). Mario Chalmers improved last season, but adding the unselfish Nash would be a definite upgrade at the point and help turn an area of relative weakness into a strength.
Young guys who still have a chance to improve: Aaron Brooks (Suns, restricted), D.J. Augustin (Bobcats, restricted), George Hill (Pacers, restricted), Goran Dragic (Rockets), Jeremy Lin (Knicks)
Chances are most of these guys will re-sign with their old clubs, but the Suns’ selection of Kendall Marshall in Thursday’s draft could make Brooks expendable. Dragic impressed with extended minutes in Houston, but with Kyle Lowry in place and Dragic looking for a pay raise, they may choose to let him walk. Lin is a fascinating case because he may be worth more to a team off the court than on it.
Known quantities: Raymond Felton (Blazers), Kirk Hinrich (Hawks), Jameer Nelson (Magic), Ramon Sessions (Lakers)
You know what you’re getting with these guys—solid contributors who can handle a talented team as long as you accept their flaws. None of them are great shooters, but all are capable, if unspectacular, point guards. The problem is, most of the league’s elite teams employ an elite point guard, so if you’re counting on one of these guys in a playoff series, you may be in trouble.
Risky former stars: Gilbert Arenas (Grizzlies), Baron Davis (Knicks, expected to miss most of 2012-13 season with torn ACL, MCL and partially torn patellar tendon in right knee)
Both Arenas and Davis were once great players capable of leading a team in scoring on a nightly basis. Arenas is a shell of himself, never the same after injuries and an unfortunate gun incident in December 2009 derailed his career. Davis, when motivated, can be a difference-making point guard, but, at 33 and injured for most of next season, he’s not really a good fit for anyone at this point.
The old man: Ray Allen (Celtics)
Everyone knows Allen’s shtick at this point—he comes off screens, hits a ton of threes and knocks down his free throws like nobody’s business. Though he’ll be 37 at the start of next season, he’s certainly capable of doing that for two or three more years. Throw in his underrated defense and he’s an appealing pickup for a team like the Bulls, Heat or his old squad, the Celtics. The one worry is that Allen’s body may be betraying him. He struggled mightily in the 2012 playoffs, averaging just 11 points on 40% shooting (30% from three). He even looked mortal at the free throw line, shooting 71% compared to his career 89% average. If Allen’s ankle fully heals, there’s no reason that he shouldn’t be able to return to his form of the last few seasons. But, given his age, teams should still proceed with caution.
The young semi-star: Eric Gordon (Hornets, restricted)
Expect Gordon to command big bucks this summer. The Hornets desperately need to re-sign him, since they have a ton of cap space and Gordon, along with Anthony Davis, is a critical part of the team’s core. Another team may try to get Gordon to sign a huge offer sheet knowing that New Orleans will match any deal, but the guess here is that New Orleans will be willing to make Gordon a fair offer anyway to lock him up long term.
Scoring punch, not a lot else: O.J. Mayo (Grizzlies), Nick Young (Clippers), Jamal Crawford (Blazers)
Mayo has had some off-court problems, and he hasn’t been a crucial part of the Grizzlies’ on-court success, so he’s become expendable in Memphis. Young and Crawford offer pretty much the same thing: bench scoring, very little defense, and the knowledge that they have the potential to shoot you out of a game. Not exactly winning basketball, but a team desperate for scoring help could overspend for them.
Role players: Landry Fields (Knicks, restricted), Carlos Delfino (Bucks), Louis Williams (76ers), J.R. Smith (Knicks), Rudy Fernandez (Nuggets, restricted), DeShawn Stevenson (Nets), Danny Green (Spurs)
For most of these guys, it makes sense to re-sign with their current team. Fields, Delfino, Williams, Fernandez and Green have all had moderate success within their team’s system and it wouldn’t take a huge amount for them to re-up with their old club. Stevenson and Smith are defensive stoppers, and if anyone is going to switch teams in this group, it should be them. Their talent is less dependent on a system and we’ve seen over the past two years that lockdown defenders are a valuable commodity in the playoffs (Stevenson in 2011, Thabo Sefolosha in 2012).
The comeback kid: Brandon Roy (amnestied by Blazers)
You feel for Roy, a talented guard who could take (and make) the big shot in crunch time, but anytime a player decides to retire at age 27 due to a knee injury, it’s not a good sign for their future health. If Roy is willing to accept a short, low-cost deal, several teams will want to take a look at him. But if he’s looking for an offer in line with his pre-retirement value, he’s going to be waiting a long time.