As organizations have slowly started coming around to the realization that the NBA entry draft is a bit of a crapshoot, especially in today’s “one-and-done” era, more and more have shifted their team-building strategy to focus on free agency. Free agents are battle-tested, tried and true products. Why endure years of tanking, or risk giving up valuable assets for a potential superstar when you can go out and buy a proven one?
The Boston Celtics may have unintentionally started this revolution nearly a decade ago when they formed their “Big Three” through the free agent signings of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. The Miami Heat would up the ante a few years later, and now suddenly “superteams” stacked with All-Stars using free cap space have become the rule rather than the exception. Add to this mix the rising salary cap, and teams now have a brief window of unprecedented spending ability before the market catches up and contracts balloon.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the 2017 free agency class will likely set the course of the league for the next 5+ years. There’s a lot of star power at the top, and many experiments both short and long term that could come to an end depending on how the season unfolds. Will the Clippers finally break through in the playoffs? Will their core get blown up in the offseason regardless? How will the Warriors pay all their stars? It’s obviously way too early to know the answers to any of these questions, but looking into our crystal ball, we can make some educated guesses about who might go where based on league trends and, of course, the endlessly churning NBA rumor mill. Here are the fifteen best players who are slated to come off the books after this season, and the places they might be heading.
15 George Hill - Boston Celtics
Solid if unspectacular, Hill is just the sort of overlooked piece that can help a team over the hump. He began his career as Tony Parker’s backup with the vaunted Spurs before making the leap to starting point guard for the Pacers. He made most of his impact with those two teams on the defensive end, and Utah decided to bet on that pedigree this offseason by trading for him. Though he’s missed a significant number of games this season due to injury, the early returns have been promising, with Hill averaging a career-high 18.5 points per game. At 30 years of age, he’s not likely to get much better, but he can still be a real difference maker as a starter or backup.
A proven winner with great character and veteran poise, Hill will be highly coveted this summer by playoff teams looking for a low-risk move to put themselves in championship contention. Look for the Boston Celtics to make the best offer as they try to catch up to the Cavs in the East.
14 Greg Monroe - Indiana Pacers
Assuming Monroe's option isn't picked up, he could hit the free agent market this summer. Monroe’s value seems to have taken a dive recently as teams have moved away from traditional post play, but he still has the talent that once made him a top-10 overall pick. Although he’s as talented a low post scorer as you’ll find, what makes him truly unique is his passing ability at the center position, making him an ideal fit for offenses that emphasize quick ball movement. His average-at-best defense and limited shooting range mean he’ll be most effective surrounded by good defenders and shooters who will mask his deficiencies and make his strengths stand out.
At just 26, it’s possible Monroe still has some room to grow as a player, and his blend of maturity and youthful potential could make him a good fit for an older team hoping to add some fresh legs, or a rebuilding team looking for some veteran depth. He'd be a solid piece for the Pacers.
13 Jeff Teague - Indiana Pacers
A former All-Star with Atlanta, Teague’s gotten off to a rough start on his new Pacers squad thanks to injuries, but as of late he’s started to regain his old form. His quickness, playmaking and knack for scoring give opponents headaches when trying to defend his drives. With point guards being all the rage these days, his package of skills will be highly sought after by teams in win-now mode, especially given that he’s right in the middle of his prime.
Indiana seems like a good fit on paper going forward, but they could look to blow up the roster if they endure another underachieving season. Playoff teams looking for an upgrade at the point of attack will be lying eagerly in wait to acquire his services.
12 Rudy Gay - New Orleans Pelicans
Gay’s strengths and weaknesses are by now well documented, as he’s put up almost identical numbers every season since his sophomore year. An 18+ point per game scorer for his career thanks to his spring-loaded legs and smooth midrange shooting stroke, he doesn’t really contribute in any other area of the game, being an average passer and apathetic defender at best. However, as he moves into the back end of his career, it’s possible Gay might be able to give up his starter’s status and become a huge weapon coming off the bench.
He’s rumored to want out of Sacramento after this season (who can blame him?) and his scoring prowess and crowd-pleasing aerial displays will likely get him looks from teams thin on depth and scoring. Playing second fiddle behind some younger stars in New Orleans seems to be the ideal situtation for Gay and could help put the Pelicans over the top.
11 Derrick Rose - New York Knicks
He may never be the same player he once was, but the former MVP can still tap into that vintage form for short bursts. Even if he’s only 80% of his former self he’s still one of the most explosive guards in the game, and only figures to improve as he regains confidence. He’s managed to stay relatively healthy in his maiden season as a Knick, looking better than he has in any of his previous post-knee injury seasons and providing the occasional highlight play to the delight of the Garden faithful.
New York will likely want to keep him around for his star power, particularly if he keeps playing at this level, but if Rose tires of the spotlight and constant scrutiny, he may decide to jump ship and move to a smaller market. If you had to make a definitive call though, we see Rose staying in New York.
10 Danilo Gallinari - Minnesota Timberwolves
When healthy, Gallinari is one of the most exciting and versatile offensive talents in the game, a dead-eye shooter and creative playmaker who plays with a healthy dose of Italian flamboyance. His size allows him to play as a stretch-four in smaller lineups, a highly coveted skill in today’s game, but he has the ball skills to play on the wing as well. The key of course has been his health, which has caused him to miss at least 20 games in all but two of his eight seasons in the league.
This season he’s managed to play all but three of Denver’s contests so far, leaving some optimism that his injury-riddled days are behind him. A team who can afford to swing for the fences might just strike gold if they manage to steal the man they call “The Rooster” from the Nuggets. Putting Gallinari with a young core in Minnesota would provide the Timverwolves with a veteran presence and would give the Gallinari a chance to be with a team set to break out.
9 Jrue Holiday - Brooklyn Nets
An All-Star in 2013, Holiday was one of the more talented young lead guards in the game before injuries began to pile up and stunt his development. At just 26 though, he still has time to bounce back and have a productive career. He remains a capable scorer and solid distributor who has the size and quickness to make a positive defensive impact. If he can find some chemistry with his transcendently talented but also injury-prone teammate Anthony Davis, the Pelicans will want to hold on to him.
They might not be able to though, as just about any above-average point guard will likely be at the center of a bidding war this offseason. If he can stay on the floor for the remainder of the year, he could get snapped up by a young team determined to make a run at the playoffs. The Brooklyn Nets have been notorious in overpaying for guys, so they'll likely make Holiday the best offer on the open market.
8 Dwyane Wade - Chicago Bulls
Wade shocked the NBA world this offseason when he left the franchise he had won three titles with to return to his hometown of Chicago. His best years are behind him, but the soon-to-be 35 year old can still show he’s one of the best shooting guards on any given night. His championship experience and leadership could make him a very good locker room addition, particularly for any team with talented young guards who could use a mentor.
Now that he’s in the twilight of his career, it seems most likely that the future Hall-of-Famer will want to remain a Bull for the remainder of his playing days, but money can do funny things to people’s decision-making process, particularly when millions of dollars are involved. Still though, it's hard to imagine Wade all of a sudden wanting out of Chicago.
7 Paul Millsap - Denver Nuggets
Underrated and overlooked for most of his basketball-playing life, Millsap seems to only get better with age. He’s one of the best defenders in the game and a versatile threat on offense as well, with his ability to stretch the floor and make plays from the power forward spot. Millsap hasn’t had any major injury concerns either, never missing more than nine games in any of his ten previous seasons and his below-the-rim style of play should remain effective even as he continues to age.
Rumors continue to swirl around Millsap’s future with the Hawks, which may very well end before free agency, but no matter where he ends up he’ll likely want to negotiate a new deal anyway. Teams serious about building a contender will be first in line for the Millsap sweepstakes. The Nuggets will have some cash to work with, particularly if Gallinari leaves, so they'd be in prime position to offer Millsap whatever he wants.
6 Gordon Hayward - Utah Jazz
Everyone’s favorite March Madness Cinderella almost-hero has proven his college glory days were no fluke, quietly developing into one of the better all-around wings in the league. This season he’s averaging career highs in points and rebounds, and with Utah finally finding some success, he could very well be headed to his first All-Star appearance come February. His combination of shooting and playmaking is exactly what many teams are after in a small forward, and he’s big enough to play some small-ball four as well.
His clean cut, All-American, white boy looks seem to make him a perfect face of the franchise for conservative Utah, but a player of his talents would be a welcome addition to just about any team in the league with the means to acquire him. It's hard to see Utah letting him hit the open market though.
5 Kyle Lowry - Toronto Raptors
It took him a while, but Lowry has finally established himself as one of the premier floor generals in the league. His tenacity and bulldog physique allow him to play much bigger than his listed 6’1” size, and he’s developed into a marksman from behind the arc to complement his natural playmaking abilities. His elevation in play has turned the Raptors from laughing stock to Eastern Conference elite, and this season he’s been better than ever. Lowry’s been on absolute fire, averaging career highs in points, rebounds, and field goal percentage. By all accounts he’s loved his time in Toronto, and his friendship with teammate DeMar DeRozan is well documented, so it would be a little surprising to see him leave just yet with all the success they’ve had together.
Nevertheless, any team hoping to build an instant title contender will certainly be in Lowry’s ear this summer, though at this point it would probably take either a massive amount of money or clear title shot to woo him.
4 Blake Griffin - Brooklyn Nets
The Clippers star has had some trouble staying on the court lately, missing significant time last year due to injuries and suspension, and now recovering from a knee injury sustained last month that is expected to keep him out until close to the All-Star break. Nevertheless, when healthy there have been few players in the history of the game as exciting to watch as Griffin, whose explosive power has turned what seems like half the league into a poster at one point or another. He’s not just all dunks either, being an excellent passer and ball handler for his size.
The Clippers should be considered the favorites to retain his services, but only if they don’t decide to blow up their core after this year. Griffin’s injury and behavioral problems lately have surely made his team question whether they can win big with him, so an offseason trade is not out of the question. With his big personality, it’s also possible he could bolt to a team where he’d be “the man” instead of sharing the spotlight (and money) with Chris Paul. He'd definitely be the man in Brooklyn, where they're desperate to return to relevance.
3 Chris Paul - L.A. Clippers
Speaking of Chris Paul, the pint-sized franchise player also has a player option to potentially exercise at the conclusion of this season, putting him in a similar boat to Griffin. Paul, however, is a true game-changer, the greatest point guard of his generation who makes everyone around him better and maximizes a roster’s potential. Surround him with even average talent and he can lead them to a top-four seeding in his sleep. However, Paul’s teams have mysteriously underachieved in the playoffs, and he’s never made it out of the second round.
Still, there’s going to be a team out there willing to bet a lot of money that his postseason woes thus far have been mostly due to bad luck, and that given the right situation he can take a team all the way. If the Clippers can only keep one of their All-Stars, they'll put all their eggs in CP3.
2 Stephen Curry - Golden State Warriors
The two-time reigning MVP is about to get a major raise, as he’s been unquestionably the most underpaid player in the league for the last few years. He’ll be looking to avenge last year’s Finals defeat to secure a second ring with the most outrageously stacked team of all time. That's a strong possibility although it’s unlikely he’ll win another MVP or 70+ games again this year. If the Warriors can win it all this season, it’s almost certain Curry will re-sign with them to hopefully build a dynasty.
If, however, by some miraculous set of circumstances the Warriors should again fail to bring home a championship, the offseason could get very, very interesting. Golden State will have to get very creative with their contracts if they hope to keep their core of stars intact, and another devastating defeat could ruin their chemistry and force the team to choose between Curry and the top player on this list… Still though, the smart money is on Curry staying in the Bay Area. If Curry is to leave, we can't rule out his hometown Charlotte Hornets either, as Curry said a couple months ago:
"It's on my radar," Curry told the Charlotte Observer. “But it's not really on my mind as much day-to-day. I'm just trying to enjoy what this season is going to bring."
1 Kevin Durant - Golden State Warriors
With all the success and accomplishments of the Warriors and Cavaliers over the past two seasons, Durant’s star seemed to dim a bit, or as much as it could for a former MVP and four time scoring champion. Well, he made sure we remember his name this summer when he shocked the sports world by taking his second-to-none talents to what was already one of the greatest basketball teams ever assembled, a team that had just come from behind to defeat him in the playoffs.
In all likelihood he’ll win his first ring this year and re-sign to win more. However, if the Warriors find themselves in a financial situation where they can keep just one of Durant and Curry, Durant could find himself the odd man out and on the move again.
Other possible destinations: Philadelphia, L.A. Lakers
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