With the 2014-15 season nearly in the books, it’s time to look forward to the free agency bonanza that is less than a month away. It seems crazy to think about next season while the NBA Finals rage on, but for 28 teams the season has been over for a while and the process of building a winner for June 2016 is well underway.
The recipe for building a contender has undergone dramatic changes in the 21st century. Banking on a post behemoth or an isolation ball handler to carry a team to glory is a thing of the past. The modern NBA revolves around the movement and spacing created by spread pick and roll attacks. Being a capable and willing passer and having a decent jumper are the skills necessary to get court time. Look no further than the benching of Andrew Bogut and the limited run that Timofey Mozgov had in Game Five to understand that the league is in the middle of a drastic strategic shift.
As small ball takes the league by storm, new defensive systems will emerge to combat it. I recently looked at how Tom Thibodeau’s ousting in Chicago could symbolize an end to the ICE ICE ICE Age and usher in switch-happy defenses that value position flexibility over everything. The hot commodity in the NBA is no longer a jitterbug point guard or a plodding rim protector. Instead, loading up rosters with players capable of moving from shooting guard to power forward in the blink of an eye is the blueprint for success.
This summer, a handful of versatile wings will enter the free agent market and will leave with very large checks in their hands. Guys who look pedestrian by box score standards will be cashing in bigger than ever before. So before the madness kicks off in July, lets take a peak at who is about to become very well compensated.
Draymond Green, despite struggling through the early part of the Finals, has been Golden State’s second most important player this season. The former second round pick has logged time all over the floor, locking down everyone from guards to centers. While Green averaged just 11.7 points and 8.2 rebounds this season, his impact on the court is almost indescribable. The always excellent Kelly Scaletta took a close look at the Draymond ripple effect, showing how important he was to so many different aspects of the Warriors play. Many people believe that Green, who is a restricted free agent, will receive a max-contract offer once the Finals conclude. Golden State will be able to match any offer Green gets on the open market, and will probably work to resign him before he’s able to sign an offer sheet.
DeMarre Carroll has in a lot of ways been Draymond-light this season. The former Mizzou Tiger and eternal Junkyard Dawg found himself in a system and with a team that allowed him to flourish on both sides of the ball. Carroll, the only Hawks starter who didn’t make the All-Star team this season, is another player who’s impact on the game can’t be summarized with a simple stat line.
Carroll has greatly improved his outside shooting in his two years in Atlanta. He went from being a player who rarely even attempted threes–averaging 28% on 1.1 3PA/game in 2013–to an above average shooter. Carroll drained 39% of his 4.3 attempts per game, both career highs by a wide margin. But his value to the team extends far beyond his outside range. Carroll was willing and able to defend the opposition’s top threat from the wing. His 6’8″ frame and 6’10” wingspan allowed him to bother anyone who challenged him.
Carroll, according to Basketball Reference, has made just $8.2 million in his six year career. An unrestricted free agent this summer, I expect Carroll to sign with the highest bidder. Atlanta will make a push to keep him, but with Paul Millsap also set to hit the free agent market, I expect the Hawks to make a much harder push to retain the power forward and assume they can find another player with a similar skill set as Carroll on the scrap heap. While Atlanta has a right to be confident in their ability to identify and develop talent, they will undoubtedly miss the services of the JYD in 2016.
Khris Middleton is another forward who had a breakout season in 2015. While his shooting numbers look similar to the numbers he averaged last year, the way that Middleton was used this season is what adds so much value. According to Basketball Reference, Middleton spent 70% of his minutes at small forward in 2014. Twenty-seven percent of his time was spent at shooting guard, and 3% at power forward. But in 2015, with Jason Kidd in charge and a thin front line, Middleton logged 68% of his time at power forward, with his remaining time split evenly between shooting guard and small forward.
That type of versatility on the defensive end paired with a sweet shooting stroke make Middleton a key cog in the long armed machine of doom that the Bucks are trying to build. The Bucks’ recent trade sending Ersan Ilyasova to Detroit for two non-guaranteed contracts all but guarantees that Milwaukee will match any offer sheet that Middleton signs this summer.
The last intriguing wing that I want to look at is Jae Crowder. Crowder, who was sent to Boston from Dallas for Rajon Rondo, is by far the least skilled player of this bunch, but I find him to be the most interesting. Crowder is an athletic 6’7″ forward who, like the players listed before him, was responsible for guarding the opposing team’s best wing scorer. A restricted free agent this summer, Crowder will have some suitors but not nearly as many as the guys already mentioned. Crowder’s three point game is not good outside of the corners, and his ability to develop into a true offensive threat is questionable.
But some general manager surely looks at Crowder as being a player capable of shouldering all of the dirty work for a team and willing to handle any defensive assignment. It’s more than likely that that general manager is Danny Ainge, but I’m fascinated to see if somebody makes a serious run at Crowder in the $7-9 million a year range. All it takes is one.