Free agency kicks off soon, really soon. And many of the league’s best talents are preparing for a huge payday thanks to the inflating salary cap. Not only are the NBA’s stars looking to build on their bank accounts, their decision on where they go this summer will help shape their legacy.
Below is a list that contains the ten best free agents of 2016.
1. LeBron James, SF/PF, UFA
Don’t sweat Cavs fans; James isn’t going anywhere. The Finals MVP opted out of his contract because of formalities, and will probably get around $3 million more for the 2016-17 season. James told Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon before the championship parade that he has no intentions of leaving because the Cavaliers have constructed a winning team, and will probably be back to the Finals next season.
He’s the best, and he wants to get paid like it. Can you fault him? According to Spotrac, he’s leaving behind a player option of $24 million with the hopes of getting roughly $27.5 — other teams can offer him a max of $30.8 because of Bird Rights. And he’s deserving of whatever he gets. The Cavaliers brought the first title to Cleveland in over 50 years in large part to James’ performance in the Finals. He brought his team back from a 3-1 deficit, averaged 36.3 points, 11.7 rebounds, 9.7 assists, and three steals and three blocks over the final three games of the series, and reclaimed the title of the NBA’s best player.
2. Kevin Durant, SF, UFA
Durant is the most coveted free agent this summer and has countless teams salivating over him. He met with Oklahoma City today (Thursday), and has meetings set up with Golden State, Boston, Miami, San Antonio, and the Los Angeles Clippers this weekend. The four-time scoring champ hasn’t tipped his hat about where he wants to go, so his decision this summer will undoubtedly be one of the biggest headlines for the calendar year.
He’s spent his entire career with the Thunder, and he and Russell Westbrook have emerged as a top-3 duo in the NBA. The two were right on the cusp of a championship appearance, which would’ve been the second of their careers, but they surrendered a 3-1 series lead to the Golden State Warriors. Their struggles this season primarily came down to the team not having a consistent third option. Serge Ibaka, who was turned into a spot-up shooter, was the go-to guy after Durant and Westbrook, but he was traded on draft night for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and Domantas Sabonis.
3. Andre Drummond, C, RFA
It’s a running joke around the NBA that Andre Drummond can’t shoot free throws. The joke has its truths, but Drummond will be getting a well-deserved payday this summer after transforming into one of the NBA’s all-around best big men. The 6-11 UConn product has an old school game that benefits him very well, and he uses his massive frame to protect the paint, pound the boards, and overpower opponents in the low-post. Despite having a minimal offensive game, Drummond averaged a career-high 16.2 points to accompany his league-leading 14.8 rebounds.
His only downside is his downright dreadful (35.5 percent) free throw shooting. Other than that, he’s one of the best pick-and-roll centers and is slowly becoming a feared shot blocker. If I’m Detroit, I’m doing everything in my power to keep Drummond there. Guys like Drummond don’t turn up that often, and looking past the free throws; he’s worth a max contract.
4. DeMar DeRozan, SG, UFA
The city of Toronto has fallen in love with their all-star shooting guard. DeRozan was a huge contributor for the Raptors in what was a franchise-best season for them. Much like Drummond, DeRozan has an old school game, and he compliments Kyle Lowry so well. He’s fresh off his second career all-star appearance, and his slashing play style has made him the face of the franchise. Although the league is shifting towards outside shooting, DeRozan led the NBA with 1,238 two-point field goal attempts and shot a respectable 44.6 percent overall.
Rumors were spreading about a potential move to the Lakers because he was born and raised in Compton, but he’s made it clear that he wants to go back to the Raptors, who went to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in history before losing in six games to the eventual NBA Champions. Moreover, he’s coming off his best season since coming into the league and, at 26, is just about to enter his prime.
5. Hassan Whiteside, C, UFA
In his career, 28 teams have passed on Whiteside. Now he’s looking for a max contract. The 26-year-old seven-footer is now a premier player in the league, and one of the most intimidating defensive forces in recent memory. He gave everyone a taste of his potential when he averaged 11.8 points, ten rebounds, and 2.6 blocks in 48 games for Miami in 2014. This year, Whiteside evolved into the best defensive big man in the NBA and led the league with a whopping 3.7 blocks per game.
Every rose has its thorn, though, and Whiteside is very similar to Andre Drummond from a couple of years ago: big, athletic frame, imposing on defense and the boards, but relatively no offense game. Regardless, I’m not bringing Whiteside onto my team to be an offensive weapon; I’m bringing him on strictly for defensive purposes.
6. Al Horford, PF/C, UFA
He’s not as dominant as Drummond or Whiteside, but his polish and versatility make him worthy of a max deal. Over his nine years with the Atlanta Hawks, Al Horford as done almost everything for that team. His numbers have declined over the past few years, but his role has also declined since Paul Millsap came over in 2013. Scoring and rebounding are where he’s at his best, but what I like the most about him is how he’s slowly expanding his game while maintaining his consistency.
Up until this year, Horford was mainly a threat in the post. He’s still very efficient from in there, but the former Florida Gator expanded his range and shot 34 percent from deep this year, while maintaining an overall field goal percentage of 50.5. His rim protection was at its best, too, and he tied his career-high with an average of 1.5 blocks per game.
7. Mike Conley, PG, UFA
Not too long ago there were talks of Mike Conley being an all-star at the league’s deepest position. Since then, he’s been overshadowed by the dominance of guys like Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, and Kyrie Irving. Although Conley gets lost behind many of the league’s best, there are few guards who play both ends of the floor as well and hard as he does for the Grizzlies.
This year was cut short by injury, but the former all-defensive player remained consistent when he was healthy. Conley is one of the few true point guards in the game, and he may not be the flashiest player, but he’s a threat to get 17 points and seven assists while being a knockdown three-point shooter. He also does whatever it takes to win, and is a remarkably pesky on-ball defender.
8. Dwyane Wade, SG, UFA
It’s rare to see Wade drop down on any list, but injuries have led to a steady decline in Wade’s production. Gone are the super-athletic days where Wade was the best two-way guard in basketball, but teams don’t expect that from him anymore. Even with the regression in his game, Wade managed to play in 74 games and averaged 19 points on 45.6 percent shooting and 4.6 assists. He’s just as crafty in the low-post as he ever was, and he can still take opponents off the bounce and to the rack.
No matter where he goes, the coaching staff is going to need to utilize him correctly so they get a majority of his production late in the game. The struggle with Miami this year was that their offense was awful at times, and the main reason for this was Chris Bosh missing a good chunk of their season. Their defense, however, was one of the best in the NBA, illustrating how Wade can still be effective in a solid defensive system.
9. Nicolas Batum, SF, UFA
Make no mistake about it. Nic Batum is one of the best all-around players in the NBA. His numbers don’t jump at you right away like LeBron’s do, but Batum very quietly had one of his best seasons in the league. Notably, according to Basketball-Reference, he was one of two players to be 6-8 or taller and average more than 5.5 assists per game — the other? LeBron.
He’s got the height and length to guard multiple positions, and he rebounds, and defenders must respect his ability to score from inside and out. The only question surrounding his game is if he can score more efficiently (42.6 percent this year) and if he does, whoever signs him will be much more feared on offense. Despite all the good he brings to the table, I don’t believe Batum is a max-level player, but who’s to say he doesn’t get $17-$18 million this offseason.
10. Bradley Beal, SG, RFA
If Beal didn’t have to deal with all these injuries over the past two seasons, there’s no doubt in my mind he’d be getting a max contract. It’s sad, but these last two years have severely hampered his development, and his pockets will suffer because of it. He averaged 16 points for his career, including a career-high 17.4 last year, but he hasn’t shown much outside of his scoring ability. When it comes to scoring, though, Beal is right on the cusp of being one of the league’s best. His field goal percentage has gone up every year, and he’s reliable from all three scoring levels.
He’s been fortunate to have John Wall, who handles a majority of the offense, but Beal is not where he should be on the defensive end of the court. However, he’s a great athlete with the perfect frame to guard the opposing guard positions, so teams shouldn’t worry too much about it.