August 2, 2021, 2:30 am
If you’re an NBA GM most things revolve around whether you’re buying low and selling high. Within that general goal they do what they think is best for their franchise at a given point in time and the 30 competing agendas all play out in concert. Some of the decisions are deliberated for years and some decisions are knee-jerk reactions to a development in the marketplace. Some of the GMs are good and some are quite terrible and that’s before you get to the owners! It’s all great fun and opposite the NBA Draft, fortunes are changing in these next few days.
What this list attempts to do is give GMs (or fans at home) a cheat sheet for the big event. They can target players based on overall value and the efficiency of those dollars spent, or they can look who the best players are right now and deprioritize the efficiency of how they spend. This list has been the home of big-time plays such as Joe Ingles in 2017, Joe Harris and Fred VanVleet in 2018, Richaun Holmes was the big win we had seen coming for way too many years. Last year Jerami Grant was my top Cash-to-Value rank and predictably blew up. De’Anthony Melton was one of the league’s best players in terms of net rating and it wasn’t a fluke – he was awesome and a casualty of NBA politics in crowded Memphis.
We typically exclude elite players from the top slot in Cash-to-Value ranks even if they’re dominant like Kawhi Leonard, even if an argument can be made on their behalf. The purpose of this list is to give decision-makers around the league, fans and anybody in the basketball space an idea of how to extract the most value possible in each of their free agent decisions. Pile up enough of these winners and you can credibly go after top tier players in the league.
So who has the top spot this year? T.J. McConnell.He controlled ball games all season long as a two-way guy, creating havoc on defense while offensively he’s nowhere near the stereotype, beating defenders one-on-one all the time with a quickness/strength edge that’s about to peak this upcoming season. From there we’re all the way under the radar at the top of each positional rank. Nathan Knight, Jarred Vanderbilt, Max Strus, Doug McDermott, Bruce Brown and Cameron Payne are where smart teams want to get aggressive and lock these guys up for 3-4 years at a lower rate. And yes, Holmes tops our big man ranks because of course he does.
The concept is this — you’re looking to get the best players at the cheapest costs. If you do that effectively, you have more money to spend elsewhere.
These ranks lean into that pretty strongly. However, you can’t win in the NBA without getting above average and elite players. The key is spending up to get the right players and for the purpose of these rankings, players that move the needle in that way will skew north of a pure cash-to-value rank.
VETERANS VS. UPSIDE
These ranks will give older veterans that can still contribute a bit more value than a pure cash-to-value rank might represent. Teams aren’t lining up to sign them and deals may vary, but in terms of winning it all a quality old vet that’s willing to play at or close to the minimum represents a better play than some younger upside guys.
If you just want to know who the best players are you can sort by the overall rank column. This rank will include some elements of upside, which is unavoidable when assessing overall free agency value. However, short-term production and win-now scenarios are going to show up in the overall ranks. For example, Gordon Hayward is not going to do well in the Cash-to-Value ranks, but in terms of overall rank he’ll have higher marks.
POSITIONAL GROUPINGS AND APPROACH
I did something new this year and went with four different groupings. Ballhandlers and Small Guards, Wings, Interior Wings and Bigs. I’d like to think I’m the first to say something as stupid or smart as ‘Interior Wings,’ but that’s my way of noticing increased importance of rangy 6’8″ to 6’10” players being asked to defend 2-4 or 3-5 (well or not is another story). They’ve become much more important as teams employ five-out looks, and elite ballhandlers and offensive initiators have grown in size and versatility. As has been the case with the league at large, they’re firing away from deep.
In previous years I was a bit more granular in the groupings, and maybe it’s the way the NBA is trending but I felt like four groups was enough. Ballhandlers are legitimate point guards at any size and small guards typically have enough offensive skill to warrant overlooking their defensive liabilities to some degree. Wings are either asked to be outstanding shooters or they’re being asked to lock the perimeter down, or both. They’re valued in their ability to switch and otherwise facilitate offense. Bigs are the muscle you need to control the paint and shooting is a bonus.
Sometimes we’ll split these guys out into their own category but this year there are only two — with Elites being loosely defined as players you don’t have any questions about on the contract side. This year that’s Kawhi Leonard and if you want to recognize what he did in the playoffs as special, John Collins definitely generates a lot of excitement. There are some big names that I don’t have in that designation, like Kyle Lowry and Chris Paul. Mike Conley probably doesn’t get an injury-risk pass for the rest of his career, but he’s an exciting grab for the Jazz. Holmes is impactful enough to be mentioned in these higher tiers, at least if winning basketball games is your thing.
A QUICK WORD ON THIS FREE AGENT CLASS
As usual, there are no shortage of targets for smart teams. Give it up for the dumb teams y’all! But the most notable thing about this class is how guard heavy it is, especially in terms of name value. A smart team take what the market gives them at guard, grab another value play at the top of these lists and THEN take a shot at somebody more expensive feeling pretty good about the trio and what they spent.
BALLHANDLERS AND SMALL GUARD
I mentioned it above but T.J. McConnell is for real and his development has always been substantial each season, something we’ve benefited from in fantasy leagues for years until he blew up last season and was first page of the scouting report good. In terms of reality hoops he started getting to spots where he couldn’t be stopped in 2019-20 and then last year he was a legitimate offensive weapon. When you factor in his tenacious and smart defense this is going to be the year everybody notices.
Mike Conley sounds like’s going 3 x $20M for Utah and that’s enough to put him behind McConnell in the C-to-V ranks at this position and he’s the top overall free agent in this positional class. His command of the pick and roll, shooting and defense are comparable with all but the elite guards in our game.
Cameron Payne’s ranking will seem knee-jerk and subject to small sample size theater, but when a player gets granted rights to take shots that they know they can get and they have no problem making them? That and the mountain-sized chip on his shoulder are reasons Payne is going to be either a starter or a high-end sixth man, but I won’t be pigeon-holing him into that in ways that other analysts might downgrade a player because they’re not sure he can be the man. He can be the man in a year or two. It’s just a question of where he plays in terms of discussing his deployment.
Lonzo Ball is good enough to deserve big money and he’s near the top here. Reggie Jackson is getting a big rank here because he was basically Steph Curry-like in the playoffs and there will be some coming back to Earth, but he’s also the owner of all those great skillsets that made those plays possible. He’s going to get paid by somebody. Kyle Lowry might be fun in Miami but good look trying to figure out who will pass up the more maddening open looks, and both he and Chris Paul probably don’t have what it takes to be top options for a champion contender. Third or fourth options? Sure. But they’re not going to be paid like that unless they give back significant money for location.
Let’s not bury the lede anymore let’s talk about Max Strus! The Heat all know how good he is and they’re hoping folks like me don’t write about this. Strus’ route started in Division-II hoops, went through a knee injury in the G-League, a stop with the Bulls who are not good at this stuff, and then on to Miami where they are good at this stuff. Erik Spoelstra trusted Strus in all sorts of important situations last year and for good reason, he was playing good defense, attacking the rim and providing the shooting that got him to the league. Just like we said with Joe Ingles, if you need a small forward and you don’t put everybody involved on an offer that cannot be denied, you’re not doing this right. The good news is that it should take significantly less than Ingles took to stay in Utah way back when.
If Strus is just too nuts for you, a smart team might also look at Doug McDermott, who is known as a shooter but has transformed into a versatile, strong player that’s piling up +ev pretty much everywhere. As long as he stays upright that’s a lock to be a great deal. Bruce Brown is another player an aggressive team might try to pry away from Brooklyn. He makes winning plays and is an ideal No. 7 or 8 player on a winning basketball team. There is a bunched up tier of players that are expensive (Norman Powell, Duncan Robinson and DeMar DeRozan) that are hard to justify jumping in on when Nic Batum and Moe Harkless are hanging out for cheap, presuming you didn’t already go after the aforementioned top plays.
John Collins made Atlanta look silly for dilly dallying around and it didn’t seem like they were going to make it for a bit. He’s worth the high-end money. After that is where things get real interesting because — also in Atlanta — as the Hawks try to deal with their logjams they have a guy in Nathan Knight that regularly made plays last season. He’s a bit undersized so even when he’s doing amazingly athletic things one might not immediately notice him on the floor, but whether it’s in the vertical game or from beyond the arc, he has the ability to do a little bit of everything. Though he’s undersized his overall athleticism and skills package is an instant-win for any team wanting to beef up their 4/5 slots. Teams can’t get away with playing Knight at center very much, at least right now, but his versatility allows a team to use more paint-bound big men knowing they’re getting more athleticism at the four spot.
Another player that’s under the radar, albeit less so, is Jarred Vanderbilt. Built in the mold of Jerami Grant he struggled to stay on the floor late in the season but in terms of pure lateral quickness and ability to cover super freaks he warrants this kind of attention. The Wolves probably aren’t dying to match a go-away offer and sure there’s some risk that he can’t put it all together, but even if he can’t the likelihood that he develops into a top-tier defender is pretty good.
P.J. Tucker showed you can put him on ice for a lot of the regular season and he can crank it up in the playoffs. He probably wants to get paid but if he chases another chip then his deal deserves the rank I gave him. There are some cheaper options I like in Solomon Hill and Jeff Green over somebody like Bobby Portis, who was in a best case situation and might hurt a team who chases that. This positional group is a mess and I’m not sure I have some great wisdom to impart about that other than to say it will be interesting to see how teams deal with the need for versatile players that can play from 3-point line to the paint.
Who knows, maybe the Kings did a good job of hiding Richaun Holmes in order to keep his free agency price down. They didn’t promo him as an All Star at all when he was often the team’s best player, and in general they’ve downplayed his value for most of this current deal. Only after it had been obvious for multiple seasons that he was this good and also under their roof did they start to treat him like a core guy. In terms of defending the cat-and-mouse pick-and-roll there aren’t that many big men who can do it better. His offensive game is a metronome as we’ve discussed since he was a wee lil’ lad getting screwed over by Jerry Colangelo. Even if he gets up toward $20M AAV it’s worth it. I’ll hedge and say it might not be worth it in Year 3 and/or 4, though, as elite athleticism for bigs starts to fade for the best of them at 27 years old. It’s unlikely Holmes suddenly drops to being average on defense or loses his efficiency on offense, but if he can be exposed in the pick and roll then he’s probably more like a $15-18M AAV guy (present money). Still, there is absolutely no losing on this deal and the Kings are lucky the rest of the league probably doesn’t know how good he really is.
Right underneath Holmes the excitement is limited outside of Jarrett Allen, who doesn’t have the skills that Holmes has on offense or the defensive instincts and toughness, but he’s not too far behind. While he won’t be able to bang like Holmes anytime soon, he’s about to fill out and he has potential for some special size-speed combo stuff we haven’t seen much of after early career Rudy Gobert. He’ll improve in areas other than screening and rolling as he goes, but his value as a roller is such that he can be fine just making a living off that for a few years. Everything else will be a bonus and the question becomes whether a team is willing to put the Cavs in a bad spot here. For my money, I’m not sure how the Cavs don’t match anything that’s not truly ludicrous.
Zach Collins is another interesting UFA as the Blazers did not extend a qualifying offer, which is either cap math happening in advance or they think the injury issues are going to linger or hurt his effectiveness. I kind of doubt it’s the third thing, though a decrease in athleticism would certainly take the zing off this proposition. Collins is a rangy, versatile big at a time where there are very few that can be enough of that to hang in the playoffs when pick-and-roll matchups and spacing are king. As an RFA this was a way spicier meatball because teams would have to tie up money but now this is just a straight-up what-u-think deal.