November 17, 2020, 6:39 pm
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. They can also spring for a HoopBall FantasyPass if they want a leg up on the competition. This list has been the home of big-time plays such as Joe Ingles in 2017, Joe Harris and Fred VanVleet in 2018, and last year Richaun Holmes was the big win we had seen coming for way too many years. This year Jerami Grant is my top Cash-to-Value rank followed by De’Anthony Melton and if you’re looking for some sleeper grabs that would be Wenyen Gabriel and Brad Wanamaker. It’s a thin year so Joe Harris himself is pretty high up in the Cash-to-Value ranks yet again! Alright, now we’re talking about the ranks so let’s actually get to the ranks.
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 Anthony Davis and Brandon Ingram. Davis is well known so there’s no need to spill ink here but Ingram’s jump last season was rare and special. The shooting percentages exemplified a player that had the light bulb go on as everything started to click and he still has more upside beyond what we saw. Where it goes from here for him isn’t set in stone, but there isn’t any question that you match any offer for the restricted free agent. The only question is whether you bother to put in an offer if you’re an opposing team.
A QUICK WORD ON THIS FREE AGENT CLASS
There aren’t a lot of players who you’d place in a tier beneath the Elites — players who are going to get massive deals but there’s still a ceiling on what one should pay. Beneath those tiers there are a number of big overpay opportunities since money has to be spent, and then there are a substantial amount of value plays to target. There is not a lot of separation in broad swaths of these ranks. So yes, it is definitely a year to pinch pennies and go for value plays. With the pandemic looming, it’s entirely possible we see a bear market too.
BALLHANDLERS AND SMALL GUARDS
Fred VanVleet headlines this group and in a lot of years he is probably more of a value play. Though some of the shine came off in the playoffs, he actually did more to prove his floor than anything else as he still had a bunch of incredible moments. Any way one slices it he’s a legit starting point guard in the NBA that has proven himself deep in the playoffs. So for that he gets the top rank even though the cash-to-value isn’t in the universe of highly ranked players from past lists. Jordan Clarkson has slid under the radar after being borderline dominant at times in the playoffs, but still his tier doesn’t have a lot of separation and it gets thin real fast.
I have Brad Wanamaker high because of his play not just in the playoffs but throughout the year, but when he’s my No. 6-7 ranked player in such a large group that’s saying something about the class. Now that Kris Dunn didn’t get a qualifying offer he becomes a lot more tempting since teams don’t have to overshoot any marks, and the stink of Chicago rejection might cheapen up the price.
Bogdan Bogdanovic was in the news on Monday night for being sent to Milwaukee in a sign-and-trade deal, and he will be the biggest overpay in this group, but it’s not going to kneecap the Bucks or anything like that. Shouts to the Sacramento Kings for getting out of their own way there and getting Donte DiVincenzo in the process — who is incrementally better than Bogdanovic at a fraction of the price and has way more upside. We’ll see what the final contract numbers are there for Milwaukee, who needs to keep their star player happy and has made moves in the last 24 hours to do so.
De’Anthony Melton is not a secret anymore but he’s still not a known commodity. This is a player who has potential to be a top-tier defender in the backcourt and can do a little bit of everything on offense. He’s my top Cash-to-Value rank in this group and he’s precisely the type of player smart GMs put the highest bid on, whatever they think that may be.
Joe Harris is back after topping these ranks a few years back but the separation between he and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Malik Beasley isn’t a lot. And Sterling Brown is wedged in there as an extreme value play, and as you go down the rankings there are several low-end options for a variety of needs that can work out. Gordon Hayward is the only real risk of a massive overpay and I have a hard time thinking there’s a team that can pull him off his $34 million option, but recent reports on Tuesday morning suggest there are a number of teams interested in doing just that.
There is a lot going on with this group. At the top, we’ve been winning on the Jerami Grant predictions since he was in Philly. His athleticism has truly been special but what he has done to refine his game is why he tops this group and is the best non-Elite pickup of this free agency. We saw that in the playoffs as he played a central role in the Nuggets staving off defeat. He functioned as a primary offensive weapon at times for stretches, too, which was a sight to see as Jamal Murray went nuclear and Nikola Jokic was running the show. He went head up with star players defensively and did as well as one could expect to do.
Overall, there was a rhythm to his game that showed wisdom and maturity, so basically we’re talking about a very versatile player with high-end athleticism that contributes on both sides of the floor. But because he was an afterthought for the first half of his career he’s going to come at an extreme discount. If your GM isn’t getting ready to plunder you better have some All Stars at his position because otherwise it’s malpractice.
We’re just getting warmed up here … Next up .. Wenyen Gabriel! I cover the Kings so this will kill a bunch of readers but he’s a very nice prospect that now has enough NBA film under his belt to project with some certainty. At worst he’s somebody you can bring in to match up with some of the elite ballhandling bigs in the association. He played against Anthony Davis and held up, relatively speaking, and on offense his game is both versatile and unrefined. Physically he is a bit of an enigma, with borderline elite athleticism that gets downgraded because he’s thin and hasn’t quite figured out how to get the most out of his body yet. At 23 years old he has a real chance at adding weight and enjoying 2-4 years of being in that elite athletic class. All of this conversation should be completely overshadowed by the fact that he’s going to come dirt cheap so he’s your No. 2 from this group in the Cash-to-Value ranks.
Christian Wood may actually be the biggest name from this group because of the numbers he predictably put up throughout last season. He has major issues defensively and hasn’t been the ‘winning plays’ guy to date, which based on some of the contract numbers you hear positions him as a big overpay risk. Then comes a ton of players bunched together with some big names like Danilo Gallinari and Paul Millsap, who are overpay guys and Millsap is probably washed, with a number of low-cost options that teams should target instead.
This group is rough because the high-end isn’t great — Davis Bertans (who I like) tops the list and that’s not moving the needle for a lot of teams. Dwight Howard makes the list because he was actually a live wire during the playoffs and there’s no reason he can’t do it again next season. Andre Drummond is banging around there if a team thinks he’s the answer at center and that’s got overpay written all over it. Montrezl Harrell might have been a victim of weird bubble circumstances but he looked like a liability in the playoffs — and he’s also a big overpay candidate after winning his 6MOY award. Behind them are a number of serviceable low-end options.