• It’s that time of the year again where we put on our general manager hats and do two things.

    1) We predict what the contracts are going to be – and
    2) We rank the contracts accordingly

    The idea is that if a general manager wanted to rank who they were targeting, excluding stuff like the salary cap and fit and the arc of the franchise, they could take the year off and just use this list.

    As contracts get agreed to we’ll come back to this article and provide a letter grade for each deal. Hopefully your team will pick from the top and not from the middle or bottom of this list.

    Ground rules

    × Big name guys that are staying put are not ranked (Steph, KD, etc)

    × All the amounts are expressed as averages over the course of the deal

    × You can’t win picking all the low cost guys because your team will never get anywhere good, so you do have to take a shot on high-end guys when the going is good.

    × I’m going to use a term called expected value in a few spots and that should be taken as the consensus or market value for a player when they sign their deal. If they are a positive expected value that means somebody like myself thinks they’re going to outperform their deal.

    × These deals aren’t going to have this many options but it’s my way of indicating which direction the deal might go

    Find all of the other positions here

    Point Guard: Click Here
    Shooting Guard: Click Here
    Small Forward: Click Here
    Power Forward: Click Here

    CENTERS

    Traditional big men are shunned by NBA folks to some degree but not in the marketplace, where the inflation for big men most certainly doesn’t reflect the way they’re talked about.  The only real hope for this group is if somebody like Willie Reed or Alan Williams is bought at a serious discount compared to the numbers below.  Otherwise, it’s hard to see any breakout value in this group.

    Not listed: None

    1)  Nerlens Noel (RFA)

    Projection: $20 million per year for four years (team option)

    So much about the center position is jacked up in these ranks. Namely, Nerlens Noel couldn’t stay on the floor toward the end of last season and comes stocked with knee concerns. If healthy, he has a rare combo of athleticism that allows him to both protect the rim and move laterally for steals, position defense, etc. In today’s NBA, his ability to switch certain actions and play next to Dirk Nowitzki in particular is worth a premium.

    Still, while we can give him credit for improving his offensive game, the fact is that this is a lot of guaranteed money going to somebody with all that risk. And with that risk being directly tied to what he does best, rather than a skill like shooting or playmaking, it makes the decision slippery for new teams.

    As for Dallas, he does represent something of a perfect fit so the hope for Mark Cuban is that the market dictates a non-premium rate, and in that event I could see this dip as low as $18 million per year.

    It’ll be interesting to see if I’ve nailed this price. If he goes for something closer to a max deal or there isn’t a team option, Noel would fall a few slots down in these ranks. But with soft competition here and $20 million representing something of a middle-of-the-road contract for ‘above average’ potential, it vaults him to the top of the list.

    2)  Mason Plumlee (RFA)

    Projection: $21 million per year for four years (team option)

    The Nuggets really painted themselves in a corner here trading for Mason Plumlee and giving up something of value in Jusuf Nurkic, which almost demands that they retain Plumlee here. That shouldn’t necessarily be the case but realistically speaking that’s the way things work most of the time. And the soft big man market will drive up the price for Plumlee, which means there will be some squawking about how overpriced he is when this deal gets done. This criticism will generally be appropriate.

    The reason he’s the No. 2 center on this list is that he checks a few different boxes with certainty, which helps offset the big number folks will be staring at. He can pass the ball and make plays from the five slot, which is a nice bonus to tack on to the rebounding and average to above-average defense.

    Still, he doesn’t profile to be a shooter anytime soon and the lateral quickness will fade in Years 2-4 of this deal. He’s a redundant player in Denver and their best hope would be a sign-and-trade to a team which needs a player like him, but that’s probably asking too much of the situation. He only ranks so high on this list because this position is brutal this year.

    3)  Kelly Olynyk

    Projection: $18 million per year for four years (team option)

    This is just how it’s going to go for big men that can shoot. Kelly Olynyk can do a little bit more than that. He has some ballhandling ability and can pass the ball, and he’s not dead in the water on defense yet. The lateral quickness will probably stay with him for the next two seasons and optimists would say that he wasn’t really given the minutes to make his case in Boston.

    Pessimists would say that the he couldn’t make his case against guys like Amir Johnson, Jared Sullinger and Tyler Zeller. There’s also a shoulder injury to watch out for.

    Mostly, the main question is whether he can step into some real consistency. And for being labeled a shooter, which he most definitely is, can he go from the 35 percent range from deep that he has hovered around for 3-of-4 years in the NBA — to the 2015-16 version in which he hit 40.5 percent.

    An elite skill would go a long way toward making this contract worthwhile, but in the balance are all of the questions about what type of dip he’s going to experience playing 25 or more mpg. And if he can’t get to that type of run, then this contract starts to get upside down pretty quick.

    At age 26 he’s entering his prime seasons and he’s not far behind Nerlens Noel or Mason Plumlee in these rankings, but he needs to take and make more threes for his bankable skill to justify this much coin.

    4)  Willie Reed

    Projection: $17 million per year for four years (team option)

    If for some reason the market sleeps on Willie Reed he’d vault to the top of this list. Reed at, say, $13-14M per year would do the trick but I think NBA decision-makers are wise to the numbers he put up in Miami when filling in for Hassan Whiteside.

    Reed isn’t going to wow you with any one thing, but he’s going to have double-double potential on any given night. His per-36 numbers brought back 13.1 points, 11.6 boards, 1.6 blocks and 0.6 steals per game, and of course those numbers would see some erosion playing heavy minutes every night.

    Still, he was right at the top of the Heat’s leaders in defensive rating (105), offensive rating (122) and net rating (equal to James Johnson and 0.2 behind Dion Waiters for the lead). There should be real questions about whether he can live up to this kind of a deal and it’s not going to be Miami that pays him. But if this somehow checks in at that $13-14M, you sign on the dotted line without blinking.

    5)  Jeff Withey

    Projected: $10 million per year for three years (team option)

    A lot of you might be saying, who? Jeff Withey started off as a dunking target during his rookie season in New Orleans, but since then has molded himself into a prototypical backup center. When pressed into action for whatever reason in Utah, he has more or less held down the fort and left observers with the feeling that he wasn’t out of his element.

    If you take his career of 2,000 minutes played and condense it into one season’s worth of low-end starter’s minutes (25 mpg), his per-36 numbers are 11.5 points with 9.0 boards, 2.7 blocks and 1.0 steals per game. His offense isn’t going to wow anybody and defensively he can tip over pretty easily, but he’s also 27 years old and won’t hit a heavy decline until this next contract is over.

    His shooting percentages are good and though all of these numbers will start to recede if he were to play around 25 mpg, they’re not something folks should summarily be dismissing. If your goal is to lock down your backup center position with a top 20-35 center this is the easiest decision you’ll make all year as a GM.

    And if you’re a team that simply wants to save money on your starting center, using the savings to improve elsewhere, this is a smart deal that would rank way higher if Withey had any real upside.

    6)  Pau Gasol

    Projected: $12 million per year on a 1-2 year deal

    Pau Gasol now has to play with a strict eye on fit. He cannot under any circumstances (in any important game) be played next to any player that is slow. So, yes, LaMarcus Aldridge would be a terrible fit. He has to play center and the tradeoff is that you hope his matador defense can be offset by what he can still do offensively.

    The minutes have to be in the 20-25 minute range and your squad should theoretically need a little offensive punch. If you can check all of those boxes this deal could be a great bargain, but with Gasol’s declining game and the chance the fit isn’t that perfect, he has fallen way down this list.

    7)  Alan Williams (RFA)

    Projected: $13 million per year for three years (team option)

    Alan Williams might go for less than this. He may go for way less than this.  We’ve seen it happen when small market players don’t get fully scouted by the league and the market gets soft (see Thomas, Isaiah). If he goes for less then he can vault up this list a few slots, but he doesn’t come without risk.

    Namely, he has to keep his weight down and his conditioning up. He has to continue to refine his post moves and be more than just a bruising rebounder and putback guy. Defensively, he’ll get exposed if he can’t keep the weight off.

    But he’s a classic Moneyball type player from a small school (Santa Barbara), that’s a late bloomer and his defect is that he’s shorter and heavier than most players. If you’re trying to solidify your team’s girth and looking for young, potentially improving talent he’s well worth a look.

    That said, with big man inflation being what it is and the potential being that the league did their homework here, this type of price keeps this deal firmly in the middle of a mediocre pack of free agents.

    8) Cristiano Felicio (RFA)

    Projected: $14 million per year for three years

    Cristiano Felicio’s size and interior play have been on the radar with scouts for a few years now. It wasn’t enough to get on the floor for Fred Hoiberg, as he played just 15.8 mpg as a non-shooter on a team with more than a few of them.

    Similar to Jeff Withey and Willie Reed you know what you’re getting with Felicio, and at the same time like Alan Williams you know that he needs to keep the weight down to be effective in today’s NBA.

    He’s going to get more money than these other guys because of the exposure he got in Chicago, and there will be front offices that know the fit wasn’t great there and they’ll be willing to ignore the lack of playing time.

    In the end, he has just as much potential as any of these guys, but unlike Reed who has actually flashed the upside – we haven’t seen anything sustainable out of Felicio. Comparing the rest of this group to him, he’s the most expensive one and the one with the best shot at more years, pushing him down the ranks.

    VERDICT: Felicio got four years and $32 million and this comes in under my projection but that’s not too surprising with the cold market and the fact that he hasn’t made any real money at the NBA level.  It’s a great deal for a player that doesn’t have much upside, but projects as a top-20 big man down the road.

    GRADE: B- 

    9)  Aron Baynes

    Projection: $15 million per year for four years (team option)

    Decision-makers have known for a full year or more that Aron Baynes would be on the market with the way the Pistons brought in Boban Marjanovic. It’s allowed Baynes to sort of garner up the type of exposure and momentum on the market that’s going to lead to this type of a contract.

    GMs have been able to break down his play and it’s a fairly easy game to absorb. He’s strong as an ox and he’s going to leave a mark. Everything else is a question mark but every team needs somebody with his skillset, and if you’re going to have a guy with that skillset he might as well be as bruising as possible.

    Why Baynes drops down this list is that you’re paying a premium rate for a player that’s going to have a hard time being ‘average’ in today’s NBA. Look for Baynes to fit next to a power forward that can shoot, recover and help out with the mismatches that he’s bound to find himself against in the pick-and-roll.

    10)  JaVale McGee

    Projection: $10 million per year for three years (team option)

    JaVale McGee showed he can stay in his lane and contribute to a championship squad. Of course, everything becomes infinitely easier when you play with the Warriors. Still, his 10-20 minute outings were generally positive and there is a place for that around the league.

    There is some inflation to this price because of the championship and there’s no guarantee that his knees hold up, but if you’re looking for a backup big or you’re looking to play one traditional big about 20 mpg as a strategy, the price is basically right.

    11.  Alex Len

    Projection: $14 million per year on a 2-3 year deal

    This is too much for what Alex Len has shown so far in the NBA. Whether the concerns are his play or the injuries that have followed him around, we simply haven’t seen any component of his game that is a bankable asset.

    There is some credibility to the fact that Phoenix has been misusing guys for years and that a new organization could unlock some of what he does, which is a little bit of everything.

    The Suns had him running offense from the perimeter and playing next to Tyson Chandler for stretches.  That, of course, was dumb. Getting Len to move closer to the hoop, then working in some of the outside stuff while re-establishing his rim protection are all just the beginning of what he needs to do.

    If he hadn’t been drafted high we wouldn’t be having this conversation and at this price it moves him to the back-end of these ranks.

    THE REST

    Marreese Speights, Dewayne Dedmon, Zaza Pachulia, Andrew Bogut, Joel Anthony, Roy Hibbert

    Speights can stand out at the 3-point line and shoot and that’s worth something for some teams’ second units. Dedmon is a nice piece for good squads to have around as a 12th man but that’s about it. Pachulia is probably late-career Anderson Varejao going forward. I’m still not convinced Bogut can make it back on the floor, and if he can, I’m not sure what he’ll be able to do. If Hibbert was out of the league it wouldn’t surprise me.

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