June 29, 2017, 8:48 pm
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.
× 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
This list has no middle. There are three higher-end pickups and then a swath of lower-end guys (or overprice lower-end guys). With only one player that I’d be excited to spend a bunch of money on, the only thing the power forwards have going for them is that they’re not the centers.
Not listed: None
1. James Johnson
Projection: $18 million per year for four years (player option)
And yes, I could classify Johnson as being a small forward but really in today’s NBA, he has more weight than a lot of fours and he can definitely bang with guys like Draymond Green so I’m putting him here. It’s also the position where he might be most deadly in the future.
Johnson’s high ranking is contingent upon him showing prospective teams that he is in Miami shape and that he intends to stay in that shape. If so, what teams are getting is a heavy discount on the player who should have been Sixth Man of the Year and a player that was so dynamic that he became the Heat’s best player for long stretches of the year.
Defensively, he was elite last year and he will have that potential for at least the next two years. Offensively, he was capable and at times above average. In other words, he was the peak James Johnson folks have been wondering about for years.
The downsides with Johnson are that he can get out of his lane a bit on offense and that there is some potential for slippage, but at this price he’s a steal because one can legitimately ask if he’s as good as Paul Millsap or Blake Griffin right now. The answer might not be yes, but that we’re asking the question at half the price of those two — it seals his status as the top power forward on the market.
VERDICT: Johnson and the Heat were attached at the hip during free agency, with Johnson helping to recruit Gordon Hayward and never really truly pushing his leverage with other teams. By all appearances, he really wanted to be back with Miami and Miami really wanted him back, which speaks to the way this franchise operates. Pat Riley gushed about how Johnson epitomized the Heat’s credo and they gave him a solid payoff for his first big-money contract — four years for $60 million at $15 million a pop.
Johnson could have gotten more on the open market but yet he stays in a best-case scenario and recent photos show he’s in shape. It looks like he has bought in and with that this contract is a no-brainer win for the Heat. He was a difference-maker last season and showed no signs of slowing down. This was among the easiest of calls to make during this free agency.
2. Blake Griffin
Projected: Max deal with the Clippers for just over $170 million over five years, or four years at just over $125 million over four years (average of $34.5M and $32.7M, respectively).
At 28 years old the extra year will be very enticing for Blake Griffin, who might not be back until December due to his toe injury and has a history of knee issues that, for me, call into question the back-end of this contract. The fact that his athleticism has steadily decreased throughout the years only adds to those question marks.
And though I disagree with his decision to move away from the hoop rather than finding a way to use his brute strength against smaller players, he has morphed into a more skilled Karl Malone with his perimeter play. He can dribble, pass and shoot the long two while every once in a while cranking it up for some above the rim play.
Defensively he’s going to be a liability throughout most of this deal. But what you’re getting in Griffin is somebody that can be a legitimate No. 2 offensive player and for stretches he can function as a No. 1 guy, at least until defenses roll his way and the playmaking can’t justify all the usage in the face of double teams.
He’s still good enough at things like rebounding and defense to keep him firmly in the ‘above average’ range of NBA player, so though he may not be elite anymore purchasing him is still a sensible allocation of salary cap funds. And when you can get an above average player with a somewhat sensible contract, you do it, because you need those guys to win and they’re hard to get.
Still, if you can save nearly $15 million per year on James Johnson you’d be bat shit crazy not to make him your top priority.
VERDICT: Chris Paul left and Blake stayed so the deal itself was sort of bound by the realities of that. Steve Ballmer wasn’t going to start from scratch and Blake probably didn’t want to leave. So he gets a five-year, $173 million max deal and it’s steep and it’s risky but you simply have to do this if you’re the Clippers.
3. Serge Ibaka
Projection: $29 million per year over five years with Toronto (team option) or $29 million over four years, possibly with a player option
The power forward position has all the lemon potential this year as Blake Griffin, Serge Ibaka and Paul Millsap all profile as risks to varying degrees. Big men are always expensive and each of these guys is on the wrong side of their career, but still close enough to their prime years to make things pricey.your
Ibaka proved that he can be a No. 2 offensive player for stretches and had a hard time settling for being a No. 3 when he was in Orlando. That made for some awkward offense at times, but to his credit he developed just enough of a handle to do more than just shoot outside jumpers. Defensively he didn’t fall off as much as many, including myself, thought he was capable of.
In the playoffs he showed a nice level of moxie in relation to many of his Raptors teammates, who once again played a bewildered brand of basketball. Staring adversity in the face, he showed prospective teams that he can be a factor when the games count.
Still, this contract would rank way lower if there were any depth at this position in the free agent marketplace. Yes, he’s only 27 years old, but the decreased athleticism we’ve seen over the years and potential knee issues down the road – not to mention the softening of his game over the years – it all points to this being a massive overpay.
Even if he can continue to hang on defense he’s not going to become a dribble drive threat or playmaker anytime soon. He’s going to be a less accurate but more athletic Ryan Anderson type forward and that’s not keeping him in ‘above average’ territory, let alone the ‘near elite’ territory this contract number needs to break even.
VERDICT: Like Kyle Lowry, the three-year plan was extended to Ibaka for a total of $65 million ($21.7M AAV). Ibaka was among the group of risky old guys that projected like max guys in past years but decision-makers didn’t feel compelled to chase. So the chilled market brought his number down and put his deal in a reasonable range, but it’s still a lot for a guy that could lose his luster pretty quickly.
The deal makes sense from a win-now standpoint, however, and the way the Raptors have defined their playoff bet helps give this deal better footing. They intend to pick up where Cleveland falls but not beyond a three-year window.
4. JaMychal Green (RFA)
Projection: $18 million per year for four years (player option)
JaMychal Green is maybe the most intriguing player from a contract standpoint in this group. He hasn’t done much of anything at the NBA level to prove he’s a big money player. But he’s long and he can stretch the floor and there’s just enough athleticism to make you wonder if he can round it out into the full package. Factor in the big man inflation and this number is going to make the Grizzlies flinch.
If they don’t match the deal their cap situation does get a lot better, but then they’ve taken a step back on their youth movement and would need to find a viable replacement. It’s possible they did some of that in the draft but banking on second rounders is not typically how this works. Zach Randolph may or may not stick around but he can be signed into an exception if cap room becomes an issue, so balking on Green doesn’t really help with regard to Z-Bo.
I don’t see Green becoming an above average player in this league and at best I see him living up to the terms of this deal, but no more. It highlights how soft the power forward market is and whichever team ends up with the asset the grade is likely to be a ‘C’ at best.
5. Paul Millsap
Projection: $36 million per year for four years (team option, partial guarantee)
Paul Millsap could easily be ranked lower for this kind of a deal. He has played through so many different ailments, missed time at the end of the year with knee issues, and I’ve been betting against his durability for a few years now.
Last year was the year that caught up with him, and though the Hawks’ lack of talent was a big reason, Millsap’s efficiency went in the tank last year. He hit a career-low 44.2 percent of his shots and generally speaking his numbers were down across the board.
In the middle of last season before the trade deadline, it seemed he and his agent’s goal in trade discussions was to find a team that would trade for him and then agree to sign him to a max deal. That didn’t happen and he remained a Hawk.
At age 32 and two seasons until he tops 1,000 games, a five-year deal seems inconceivable and I’m expecting some pushback on the four-year deal. His agent has floated stories to the media about teams being interested in signing him to a max deal, and if there is a team out there that’s that crazy I tip my hat to them. Even if he plays as obscenely well as he was playing late two seasons ago, he’s still not worth this deal.
There are stupid teams with money to spend. They’ll rationalize the big number and milk whatever good years Millsap has left on the front-end of the deal. If they can keep it to these confines and use it to take a shot in the dark at the Warriors (here’s looking at you Houston and Cleveland … but mostly Houston) — then and only then does it make sense.
And even then it probably doesn’t make sense. I can go much lower on this rank if things get any more expensive than this.
VERDICT: Millsap was one of a group of high dollar veterans that freaked out decision-makers, and if I’m grasping at theories the big money deals any one of them would typically be worth looked very bad side-by-side one another. Factor in Cleveland ditching their GM, and no other teams really being ready to compete with the Warriors, and a whole lot of other factors — and Millsap didn’t get anything close to the max deal folks have talked about for about a year now.
I was never on board with that from the get-go, but even I wondered if decision-makers might undervalue Millsap as the market started to tank. Luckily for him, Denver is in a unique position and they want to get into the mix so they made a big play at him. Three years for $90 million and a team option, which probably has zero chance of being exercised. This was one of the few spots that made sense for him, other than the Rockets somehow getting rid of Ryan Anderson and clearing space to acquire him.
He’ll mix very well with Nikola Jokic and give the Nuggets the perfect blend of current ability and years of wisdom to impart upon the team. The only question mark is if he’s grown accustomed to holding the ball on offense — that’s Jokic’s job and not his. But as the shot clock breaks down and in general, he’s going to enjoy being a secondary option playing off of Jokic. It’s a lot of money but teams like Denver have to take their shot. In this case I’m behind the move, especially in a short-term capacity.
6. Zach Randolph
Projection: $14 million per year for three years (team option)
This projection could be worthless if Zach Randolph decides to chase a ring or rework his deal to help whatever team signs him. But in a position full of overpriced contracts and question marks, teams will know what they’re getting with Randolph and he has been a guy that has shown he can stay in his lane.
Factor in his veteran experience and what he brings to the locker room, this is a very solid, low-risk investment for any team to make. The only reason I can’t rank him higher is that we do know what his ceiling is and at any point in time this investment could start to erode due to age (35) or injury.
VERDICT: Randolph takes two years and $24 million to go play for the Kings along with teammate Vince Carter and fellow veteran George Hill. I’m not going to blow smoke about veteran leadership, which is important, but this is a great signing for both parties because Z-Bo can still give a solid 20-25 mpg and the Kings will know what they’re getting.
Is he going to complicate Dave Joerger’s issues with playing rookies? Yes. So it’s hard to give Joerger the benefit of the doubt that this won’t create lost opportunities for the youth. There are both pros and cons to this deal but for the most part it’s a fine signing.
7. Taj Gibson
Projection: $15 million per year for three years (team option)
Taj Gibson didn’t finish up strong in Oklahoma City and that might cost him on this deal, and if that’s the case I probably still don’t move his ranking. He’s tough as nails and when healthy he can give you a little bit of what today’s NBA demands, whether that’s providing some semblance of spacing or defending today’s stretch fours.
Still, all those Thibs minutes and playing through every conceivable injury over the years may have taken its toll. At Age 32 those issues get extremely exasperated. But still, if you’re gambling that he can live up to this deal for just two years the ROI on that is pretty good. A healthy Gibson can be an above average backup in high stakes playoff series for 20 mpg spurts.
That said, when you factor in having to get to that point, his generally low upside and somewhat premium price tag – it’s yet another reminder of how weak this position is.
VERDICT: Gibson was reunited with Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota and of course he was one of the rare contracts that didn’t get squeezed. Two years for $28 million is under what I projected, but in the context of this market it makes the deal considerably worse. It also begs the question of what the Wolves intend to do with Gorgui Dieng, who got benched periodically at times and has always appeared to be on the outside looking in for Minny.
The deal isn’t breaking the bank or anything and there are certainly pros to having Gibson around, but it’s spendy in the context of this market and isn’t anything to write home about.
8. Nikola Mirotic (RFA)
Projection: $17 million per year for four years (player option)
Nikola Mirotic is one of the slippery plays of this free agency as he has both shown us flashes of potential and also showed us enough film to know he has to worry about being ‘average’ before we can even discuss ‘above average.’
One main issue for him is his habit of disappearing when he doesn’t get his touches. Already a subpar defender, everything else seems to vanish when he’s not hitting his shot. That’s why you see all of the double-doubles mixed in with stuff you’d expect from a guy getting 10 mpg.
Yes, he can space the floor and when his head is on straight he can rebound. But when you factor in his desire to be a No. 1 or 2 guy on offense with the reality that he’s more of a No. 4 or 5, and then ask how much of his Chicago disaster has been on him — it makes one wonder what situations he’ll actually be able to thrive in.
The types of teams that would give him the easy looks he truly needs, that have the veteran core and leadership to put him in his place, they’re not going to pay him this type of money. It’s going to be the bottom and middle tier teams that look at this kind of a deal. Because he can shoot the rock and there will always be an organization that believes they can fix a player, there will be enough suitors to drive this price up.
It’s going to take a very unique situation, one that I’m not sure exists, for him to check all of those boxes to make this contract a success. At the same time it has the potential to be a sizable drag for whatever team takes it.
9. Ersan Ilyasova
Projection: $13 million per year for three years (player option)
Ersan Ilyasova was heading toward an NBA abyss in Oklahoma City and then a trade to the Sixers really opened things up for him. He was suddenly given the green light and playing very well in his limited, but important scoring role for the Sixers. He would eventually be traded to Atlanta and the results weren’t quite as good but he still showed he can be a capable backup stretch four.
He’s not going to win any defensive awards but he still takes charges and he won’t be as bad as many of the options teams look to in that backup role. The price is a tiny bit steep and there is zero upside behind this type of pickup, but the risk-reward of this pick is a known commodity. The only real question is will he take less to play for a contender.
10. Patrick Patterson
Projection: $13 million per year over three years (option based on health)
Patrick Patterson’s left knee injury was a pretty big red flag for me as he played in just 65 games, and one has to wonder how much he aggravated it down the stretch. His minutes dipped to the 15-20 mpg range throughout the tail end of the season, and the injury made the acquisition of Serge Ibaka a mandatory thing, not just a wish list item they were hoping to get.
Assuming Patterson has a clean bill of health, he can still hit the three and he’s athletic enough to not get targeted too much on defense. In today’s NBA where decision-makers are addicted to spacing like sugar, Patterson is going to get this number. It’s too much to be paying for a guy that doesn’t have any real bankable skill, especially considering the aforementioned risk.
VERDICT: Patterson was another victim of the down market and his three-year, $16.4 million deal (including player option) has me worried about knee issues that might have carried over to this offseason. NBA decision-makers don’t do these deals without getting the intel on injuries and this is just far too low when one looks at deals not just last year but in past years, too.
Because it’s scary low it’s too easy to give this deal a high grade, but the price is certainly right to take a risk on what could be an average player. Extra points are given because they needed a power forward badly and didn’t have to spend big to plug a massive hole.
11. Mike Muscala
Projection: $12 million per year over three years (team option)
Mike Muscala keeps with the trend of stretch-players and can play either the four or five in that capacity. We’ve seen him jump on the scene for some 10-15 game stretches and then fade back into more of a ‘seen but not heard’ role for the Hawks.
At age 25 there is a pretty good chance he can settle into a strong 20 mpg contribution where he hits threes, distributes the ball and gets in the way effectively on defense.
While guys like Taj Gibson (if healthy), Ersan Ilyasova and Patrick Patterson (if healthy) are safer bets to give you a good 20 mpg, the younger and healthier player is right on their tails. If you’re not a top-half of the playoffs squad then going younger could easily be the better play.
VERDICT: Muscala got a two-year, $10 million deal with a player option and it’s another example of how the market cooled. He gets to take another crack at it next year though and that’s how the Hawks were able to whittle this number down so low. Muscala is a steal at this rate and he could see decent minutes for the Hawks, so it’s a win-win for all parties.
12-THE REST: Joffrey Lauvergne (RFA), Christian Wood, James McAdoo, Anthony Tolliver, Brandon Bass, Nene, Jonas Jerebko, Donatas Motiejunas, Amir Johnson, David West, Kris Humphries, David Lee, Thomas Robinson, Chris Singleton, Lavoy Allen, Derrick Williams, Tiago Splitter
Lauvergne, Wood and McAdoo are your upside plays in this tier, with Wood being the only truly interesting pickup since he can do a lot of different things. Tolliver, Bass, Nene and Jerebko form your 15-20 mpg ‘somewhat serviceable’ tier, and then from Motie to Lee you have players who have severe question marks about whether they can contribute to an NBA roster.
We know what Robinson is but it’s possible that he’s survived just long enough to turn a corner to some extent. Singleton has been overseas but he has met with at least two teams and he has a nice defensive profile with some versatility to boot. If he worked some kinks out he could climb higher in this list.