Free Agent Stock Watch

Free Agent Stock Watch: Monta Ellis

Monta Ellis entered the league with great expectations for himself. As a senior in high school, Ellis had college coaches as well as NBA scouts regularly attending his games. In 2005, former Mississippi State assistant coach Phil Cunningham heavily recruited Ellis to play for the university. Cunningham laid out the facts for the guard. He told Ellis the expected salaries of each first-round pick and explained the difference between what Chris Paul, a projected top pick in the NBA draft, would make compared to someone drafted toward the end of the first round.

“If you come to Mississippi State for one year, you’re going to be the best player in the SEC. You’ll be MVP of the SEC.” Cunningham told Ellis, according to Jonathan Abrams of Grantland in a full-length article that’s worth a reread. “You’ll probably be first-team All-American. You think if you come here for one year, you can’t be as good as Chris Paul and be a top pick in the draft next year and make this type of money as opposed to going in right now and [then] you’re locked into this lower spot?”

Ellis then looked back at Cunningham, and firmly told the coach that he was already better than Paul.

Courtesy of USA Today

Courtesy of USA Today Sports Images

Since he was drafted 40th overall by the Warriors in the 2006 draft, the 6’3″ guard has played with that level of confidence. In 2010, he called himself the second best player in the league, deferring only to Kobe Bryant. Yet when his six year, $66MM contract expired after the 2012/13 season, Ellis’ stock was at a low point.

The Mavs signed Ellis to a three year, $25MM contract and during his initial season in Dallas, he was arguably the team’s most valuable player. The Mavs made the playoffs and pushed the Spurs to the brink before falling in the first round. At the time, it appeared that Dallas had found a bargain in its contract with Ellis, and it seemed like Ellis had found a long-term home.

A year later, his future isn’t as clear. Ellis has always been a liability on defense and the Mavs felt the need to upgrade the defense in their backcourt, which led to their ill-advised midseason trade for Rajon Rondo. Rondo’s presence on the team left Ellis to play off the ball more often, which is a role that he isn’t best suited for. Ellis had a dreadful second half of the season. He only made 16.9% of his three-point attempts after the All-Star break, but his numbers improved during the postseason when Rondo was putatively sidelined because of a back injury, one that was reportedly a ruse to cover a mutual parting of ways. Ellis isn’t the best spot-up shooter, but he shot a competent 36.8% on left corner threes and 35.0% from the right, according to NBA.com, better marks than players like Goran Dragic and Joe Johnson, to name a few. This advocates that Ellis can fit onto a team that doesn’t plan on making him a primary ball handler, something that could broaden his list of potential suitors.

Ellis only made 26.7% of his three-point shots from above the key. This, coupled with his playmaking ability, suggests that allowing him to be the primary ball handler is the best strategy for the team that employs him. Ellis chose not to exercise his player option worth $8.72MM with the Mavs in search of a more lucrative deal. Dallas reportedly has no intention of giving Ellis the raise he seeks and the team was apparently poised to try to trade the 29-year-old if he had opted in. It appears likely that he will be calling another city home during the 2015/16 season.

Ellis’ body of work probably warrants an eight-figure salary, as Chuck Myron of Hoops Rumors wrote in the Mavs’ offseason outlook. The shooting guard is reportedly eyeing the Hawks, while the Heat and Pacers are interested in the Mississippi native. The Hawks have slightly less than $39.3MM in commitments against a projected $67.1MM cap, but the team is expected to try to retain its free agents, which would most likely bring them over the cap. The Heat have roughly $43MM in commitments for next season. The team has a lucrative offer earmarked for Dragic and also has interest in retaining Luol Deng, who has a player option worth $10.152MM.  Miami also has to think about fitting in a potential raise for Dwyane Wade. The Heat presumably views signing Ellis as a backup plan if Wade decides to leave South Beach. Even if Wade departs, with the Heat’s current cap situation, the team would be hard-pressed to shoehorn in a potential $10MM annual salary for Ellis.

Indiana seems like a more logical destination for the shooting guard. The Pacers had slightly more than $36MM in guaranteed salary for 2015/16 as the offseason dawned, but player options for David West and Roy Hibbert loomed as potential complications. Hibbert apparently is opting into the last year of his deal, worth over $15.5MM. West is reportedly opting out of his contract and is reportedly favoring the Knicks as his next team. If the power forward departs, the team could have some $10MM in cap space to play with.

From a basketball standpoint, Indiana offers a good situation for the Relativity Sports client. The Pacers are one of more stable franchises in the NBA and they employ one of the better coaches in the league. George Hill would seemingly be a perfect fit next to Ellis in the backcourt. Hill is a plus defender and he has shown he can be effective without dominating the ball. Ellis could solidify the team’s guard rotation and give the franchise the additional playmaker it’s lacked since Lance Stephenson left town last offseason.

Ellis has connections to a few other franchises. Magic coach Scott Skiles coached Ellis in Milwaukee and Magic assistant coach Mario Elie coached him when he played in Golden State. Ellis played under Nuggets coach Michael Malone while he a Warrior and he has a great deal of respect for his former assistant coach. Both teams have the cap flexibility to accommodate a contract for Ellis. Still, Denver is rebuilding, so an Ellis signing wouldn’t fit in with its projected blueprint. The Magic have a young core and GM Rob Hennigan has hit the veteran market in the past to supplement the roster. However, Ellis’ outside shooting and defensive deficiencies would make him an awkward fit in Orlando.

Ellis hasn’t quite lived up to the superstar status that he projected for himself when he entered the league. Yet, he has the ability to be a major contributor on a real contender. It’s just a matter of finding the correct role and the right supporting cast that will allow him to flourish.

What do you think Ellis will make on his next deal, and where do you think he’ll end up? Let us know in the comments.

Free Agent Stock Watch: Khris Middleton

Although Milwaukee reportedly insisted on Khris Middleton‘s inclusion in the Brandon Jennings trade, many saw him as merely a throw-in. Two years later, he’s a top-three player on a playoff team. His outstanding 2014/15 season, wherein the 23-year-old showcased his all-around game, put him in line for a lucrative second contract this offseason as a restricted free agent.

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Courtesy of USA Today Sports Images

Middleton has expanded his shooting range since coming into the league. He isn’t a high volume shooter, but he is an efficient one. The Texas A&M product shot over 40% from behind the arc in each of the last two seasons. He doesn’t need the ball to impact the game offensively. His presence on the floor allows his teammates to have better opportunities, similar to how Kyle Korver helps the Hawks. Opposing defenders can’t pack the paint because they can’t veer away from Middleton for fear he will make them pay with his knock-down jumper.

His impact on defense may surpass his on offense. He was the best defender among shooting guards last season, according to ESPN’s Real Defensive Plus/Minus. That doesn’t tell the whole story because he played more minutes at the four spot than any other position, as Basketball-Reference shows. Still, Tim Duncan and Anthony Davis are the only power forwards with a higher Real Defensive Plus/Minus than Middleton’s 4.10. Middleton needs help defending some behemoth power forwards, such as Zach Randolph or Derrick Favors. With fewer teams taking the traditional approach of having two big men on the floor and instead transitioning to small-ball, the 23-year-old’s ability to defend any non-center position becomes more valuable.

The precise value of his next contract is difficult to predict, as Chuck Myron of Hoops Rumors explains in Milwaukee’s Offseason Outlook. A league executive told Sean Deveney of The Sporting News that Middleton would draw an offer of around $15MM annually. Such an offer would be very close to the max, which will be an estimated $15.8MM for a player with his experience level. An Eastern Conference executive who spoke with Gery Woelfel of the Journal Times expressed doubt about that figure and estimated the 23-year-old will only receive $9MM per year on his next deal. It only takes one team to float an offer and drive up a player’s value, just like the Jazz encountered with Gordon Hayward‘s contract situation last offseason. I’d speculate that some team gives Middleton a similarly bloated offer sheet because of his age and defensive ability.

The Bucks are likely to match any offer sheet that Middleton signs and Middleton expressed his desire to re-sign with the team. “I hope to be back here,” Middleton said. “I feel we have a great young team, going in the right direction.

On defense, Middleton fits perfectly with the Bucks’ philosophy. Coach Jason Kidd wants every player to switch assignments on every pick. For that to work, the team essentially needs five interchangeable parts on defense and with the midseason acquisition of Michael Carter-Williams, the Bucks are closing in on that goal. The team just needs someone with top defensive ability to man the center position. Milwaukee has the 17th pick in the upcoming draft, which is unlikely to be high enough to select Willie Cauley-Stein. The Kentucky center would be a perfect fit for the team because has the quickness and length to guard any position on floor, as Dana Gauruder of Hoops Rumors explains in his profile of the 7-footer.

Instead, the franchise will have to go the free agency route if it wants to improve the position. The team is reportedly going to take a run at a few veteran big men in free agency. The Bucks have only about $36MM in guaranteed salaries against a projected $67.1MM cap after their salary-clearing Ersan Ilyasova trade. Middleton’s cap hold is set at slightly more than $2.725MM. That alone makes it more likely that Milwaukee retains the former Aggie, as the team can use its cap space for other transactions and have the ability to sign Middleton afterward.

If an opposing team is going to steal Middleton away from the Bucks, offering a contract right as the July Moratorium ends would likely give it the best chance. If Middleton signs an offer sheet, Milwaukee will have three days to match. Unless the Bucks can use their cap space in that time, matching for Middleton would lift his cap hold to whatever the starting salary in his new deal is, making it more difficult for the team to chase Brook Lopez and other marquee targets. The forward is represented by Mike Lindeman of Excel Sports Management, which was founded by Jeff Schwartz, who represents Kidd. It’s not inconceivable that Middleton is aware of the team’s cap situation and chooses to wait to sign any deal. A source told Woelfel that a quick agreement is in the offing for Middleton and the Bucks, and if Middleton commits to the Bucks right away, the team can quietly hold off on making an official signing until a more convenient time and use cap space in the interim.

The 23-year-old will likely have no shortage of suitors if Milwaukee is not where he wants to reside for the next few years, though it will probably take a bloated offer to dissuade the Bucks from matching. The Sixers are a dark-horse possibility for Middleton based on his age, his favorable advanced stats and Philly’s cap situation, as I explained in the team’s Offseason Outlook, although that is merely my speculation. Another team that would be a good fit for Middleton would be the Magic, but again, it is only my speculation. Orlando has a tough choice to make with Tobias Harris‘ next contract, as Dana Gauruder of Hoops Rumors writes in the Magic‘s Offseason Outlook. Harris did improve this season, but he isn’t nearly the shooter that Middleton is. Replacing the Tennessee product with someone who can spread the floor will be crucial if the Magic intend on having the poor shooting trio of Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon lead the team in the future.

Middleton isn’t the type of player who will lead a team to victory; he isn’t the centerpiece of your meal. He’s similar to Draymond Green in that he can provide more to a team with other spectacular players already in place. Milwaukee has a few potential stars in Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak isn’t completely developed yet offensively and if he is going to share the floor with MCW, the opposite wing will need to be able to shoot the lights out. Middleton has that ability and if Milwaukee’s executives are truly connoisseurs of good basketball, they will do whatever it takes to keep the perfect complement to its rising stars on the roster.

What do you think Middleton will make on his next deal, and where do you think he’ll end up? Let us know in the comments.

Free Agent Stock Watch: Tobias Harris

Tobias Harris isn’t the most talented free agent available this summer, but he’s certainly one of the most intriguing. Statisticians gush over his advanced metrics — his 16.76 player efficiency rating ranked ninth amongst small forwards in the 2014/15 season. At 6’9” and 235 pounds, Harris is extremely versatile at his position. He’s also only 22. Still, there isn’t much buzz, at least not yet, for the player entering his fifth year in the league out of Tennessee.

Harris can become a restricted free agent this summer if the Magic, his current team, tender him a qualifying offer, which seems by far the most likely outcome. The Magic would have the chance to match any offer another team makes for his services. Harris averaged 17.1 points per game and 6.3 rebounds per game this past season in Orlando. Magic GM Rob Hennigan has said he intends to re-sign Harris no matter the cost, a signal that he would match any offer Harris might fetch from another team. Hennigan’s desire to retain Harris is also a potential sign that the Magic, a team that finished 25-57 and has tried to recently rebuild through the draft, is looking to contend for the playoffs soon. Before the season, Brian Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinel writes, Hennigan said he wouldn’t pay Harris near max money, but the executive’s stance has changed, according to Schmitz.

Photo courtesy USA Today Sports.

Courtesy of USA Today Sports images.

Ken Hornack of Fox Sports Florida suggests there’s a strong possibility that Harris will end up signing his qualifying offer, worth nearly $4.434MM, this summer to hit unrestricted free agency when the cap surges in the summer of 2016. Harris has said he and his representatives haven’t discussed the idea. After meeting with Hennigan following the end of the team’s dismal season, Harris labeled the exchange as “productive.”

Talk went good,” Harris said, according to Kyle Hightower of The Associated Press. “Only God knows what’s next. I can’t control the future. None of us can. I’ll leave it up to management to decide what the overall plan is and go from there. We didn’t really talk too much about [a contract], just about the season. … He just told me not to worry about it and he’s proud of the year I had.

That discussion took place before the Magic hired Scott Skiles as head coach. Skiles and Harris have a history together. Harris played the first season-and-a-half of his NBA career under Skiles when both were with the Bucks. Harris, who was the No. 19 overall pick in the 2011 draft, was basically buried on the bench and averaged only 11.4 minutes per game in his rookie season playing for Skiles. The coach, however, has said his relationship with Harris is strong and that the two have stayed in touch, according to Josh Robbins of The Orlando Sentinel (Twitter link).

In May, Harris told reporters, including Adam Zagoria of SNY.tv, that he was looking forward to the summer and the free agency experience. “Yeah, it’s going to be exciting,” Harris said. “Anytime you’re a free agent it’s exciting. There’s a lot of great players who are going to be out there and it’s going to be fun to see where guys end up. It will be good to see where my situation leads me.”

There are plenty of potential suitors for Harris because of his age, size, talent and ability. From an analytical standpoint, Harris is considered a new-age “versatile forward,” because of the skill-set he offers — Harris can defend bigger opponents and rebound, he is able to step out to the perimeter and shoot from three-point range, and he can attack off the dribble. Harris shot 36.4% from beyond the arc, and he was also efficient in the pick-and-roll.

Harris, who played high school basketball on Long Island, has been linked to the Knicks, who will be planning to try to attract the New York native, according to Marc Berman of the New York Post. Harris is a client of Henry Thomas, an agent with the Creative Artists Agency, the same group that represents Carmelo Anthony. Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders has linked Harris to the Sixers, Lakers and Hawks. The Lakers make sense as a suitor because of how poor the position of small forward has been for the team in recent years, and Harris’ all-around skills can help fill several of the team’s weak areas. Jackie MacMullan of ESPN recently suggested (video link) Harris as a potential target for the Celtics, who have slightly more than $40.4MM in guaranteed salary on the books for the 2015/16 season against a projected $67.1MM salary cap.

In the next couple of weeks or so, it would be surprising to many if interest and buzz didn’t pick up for Harris, who is viewed by some, including yours truly, as one of the league’s most underrated players. Harris has also been highly regarded around the league for his leadership and community service — he’s one of 10 finalists for the season-long NBA Cares Community Assist Award — which could only help his case on the market.

Free Agent Stock Watch: Wesley Matthews

The Blazers head into the offseason with several question marks, one being the status of Wesley Matthews. The shooting guard tore his left Achilles tendon on March 5th, 60 games into the season. Portland went 41-19 with the guard in the lineup and just 10-12 without him. The Marquette product averaged 15.9 points and 1.3 steals per game and sported a player efficiency rating of 16.1. He shot 38.9% from behind the arc and only MVP Stephen Curry and Warriors backcourt-mate Klay Thompson made more three-pointers per game.

Feb 22, 2015; Portland, OR, USA;  Portland Trail Blazers guard Wesley Matthews (2) dribbles the ball up court against the Memphis Grizzlies at Moda Center at the Rose Quarter. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images

Shooting wasn’t the only thing Matthews excelled at this season. His defense was just as impressive as his offense, as he ranked fifth among shooting guards in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus/Minus. He played a good chunk of his minutes next to point guard Damian Lillard, who has a negative Defensive Real Plus/Minus. Despite employing such a defensive liability at the point guard position, the team ranked third in the league in defensive efficiency leading up to his injury. In the 22 games without him, the team ranked 24th.

Jeff Austin, Matthews’ agent, is likely to cite all of the above in the guard’s contract negotiations this summer. Many of the teams in the league are transitioning to a pace-and-space style of play and because of his shooting range and ability to play efficiently without the ball in his hands, Matthews should have no shortage of suitors. Before the injury, Matthews was in line to see a hefty raise on his roughly $7.25MM salary and he could have seen a salary that approached the max, although that is just my speculation.

The injury complicates things, though while he may not even be ready for the beginning of the season, he’s said he expects to return to the court well in advance of opening night (video link). It’s unclear what kind of offer teams will be willing to give Matthews in July. Signing a one-year deal to prove his health, re-establish his stock and enter the free agent pool next offseason when the salary cap is expected to reach $89MM might be beneficial for the sixth-year veteran. Yet, he could also, with great trepidation, simply seek the highest guaranteed salary he can get this summer. The 28-year-old has made it known that he would like to re-sign with the Blazers.

“So much stuff can happen between now and when free agency starts,” Matthews said in response to a question about returning to Portland. “Ideally, perfect situation, yeah, who doesn’t want to go for the ideal, perfect situation?”

The status of free-agent-to-be LaMarcus Aldridge could be a factor in his decision. One of Aldridge’s teammates reportedly believes it is a 50-50 proposition whether the power forward leaves Portland. If the Blazers lose the former No. 2 overall pick to free agency and cannot add an All-Star caliber replacement, like Paul Millsap, it would be unlikely they contend for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.

If Portland doesn’t remain a contender, I’d imagine it would like to rebuild a younger team around Lillard. Playing on a young team without any real playoff aspirations wouldn’t be in Matthews’ best interest, especially if he decides to go with a one-year-prove-it deal. Whether he intends to sign that kind of deal or not, this scenario would give outside suitors an advantage in courting Matthews since he would probably be in his early 30s by the time Portland is ready to contend again.

New York was reportedly planning to target the 28-year-old in free agency and the team employs the NBA Trainers Association’s 2014 Physician of the Year. Yet, the Knicks haven’t exactly been a stable franchise known to rehabilitate players’ values and Matthews’ injury probably dilutes their interest anyway. The Celtics are reportedly “open to putting together some type of package deal” for Aldridge and Matthews. Boston has a stable front office but hasn’t been a real contender in a few years.

A franchise that’s stable, has won recently, and has a history of rehabilitating player values resides in Dallas. Brandan Wright and O.J. Mayo are among the players who have seen significant raises after playing for the team.  Monta Ellis and Al-Farouq Aminu should also see raises this offseason after playing for the Mavs this year. Matthews, a Texas native, would give Dallas a defensive stopper on the perimeter, which is something the team should focus on acquiring if it intends to stick with the Dirk NowitzkiChandler Parsons-defensive-liability pairing.

Dallas has slightly more than $28MM in commitments for the 2015/16 season against a projected $67.1MM salary cap. That figure doesn’t include Raymond Felton‘s player option, which, unsurprisingly, he intends to exercise. Even with the former No. 5 overall pick returning to Dallas, the team could still offer Aldridge or DeAndre Jordan a max contract and still have enough cap space for two mid-sized contracts. If the team can land Matthews, it can afford to offer Ellis another contract, despite his defensive inefficiencies, and trot Ellis out as its starting point guard on opening night. The Ellis-Matthews-Parsons-Nowitzki-Jordan starting lineup would recapture the offensive firepower that the Mavs had before the Rajon Rondo trade and give them the defensive improvement they hoped to achieve with that deal.

The Spurs are another team to watch out for. San Antonio has shied away from giving significant money to free agents. However, the team appears to be a legitimate suitor for Aldridge. Perhaps Matthews follows his current teammate to San Antonio, the guard’s birthplace, and signs a one-year in hopes of cashing in once the cap rises.

Matthews’ defense and ability to shoot from behind the arc makes him an attractive addition to any team, but the Achilles injury certainly complicates matters. The guard was in line for a huge payday prior to the injury and he most likely will not realize that earning potential now. Matthews has a key decision to make about whether to sign a one-year deal and re-enter the free agent pool next summer or sign a multiyear deal that gives him more long-term security. His risk appetite will likely determine his list of potential suitors. Any team hungry for a championship next season should inquire about his services.

Free Agent Stock Watch: Goran Dragic

The Heat lost their top free agent last summer, and even though the stakes are much lower this time around, the franchise is hoping to keep Goran Dragic in Miami. The Heat are still reeling from LeBron James‘ announcement last July that he was returning home to Cleveland. After four straight trips to the NBA Finals, Miami missed the playoffs with a 37-45 record this season. Now, instead of dominating the NBA, the Heat have started rebuilding.

Apr 11, 2015; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat guard Goran  Dragic (7) dribbles the ball against the Toronto Raptors during the second half at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Part of that process will be re-signing Dragic, who came to Miami from Phoenix in a three-team deal at February’s trade deadline. It cost the Heat four players and two first-round draft picks to acquire Dragic, who was a Third-Team All-NBA selection in 2013/14. To get the seventh-year guard from Croatia, Miami dealt Danny Granger to the Suns, along with a top-seven protected pick in 2017 and an unprotected selection in 2021. The Heat also sent Norris Cole, Shawne Williams, Justin Hamilton and cash considerations to New Orleans to complete the deal.

After shelling out so much to get Dragic, Miami wants to make sure he stays with the franchise for the long term. He has a $7.5MM player option for next season that he has already announced he will decline. Dragic has seemed to form a bond with Miami since the trade, calling it his favorite U.S. city. “I had a great time in Miami and I want to come back,” he told Jason Lieser of the Palm Beach Post last month, “but we’ll see what happens.”

What might happen is a large offer from the Lakers or Knicks, who were both reportedly on a list of favored destinations — along with Miami — that Dragic compiled before being traded from Phoenix. Both teams could use an experienced point guard and both have plenty of cap room to throw maximum offers at Dragic. And there are likely to be more suitors. Dragic, represented by agents Rade Filipovich and Bill Duffy of BDA Sports Management, has repeatedly made it clear that he will listen to every offer that comes his way.

One possible landing spot for Dragic is Houston, although the Rockets would have to clear some cap room to become serious bidders. Dragic spent part of the 2010/11 season and all of 2011/12 in Houston before leaving in the summer of 2012 to sign a four-year, $30MM free-agent deal with Phoenix. The Rockets were pursuing Dragic at this year’s trade deadline before he was dealt to Miami. It was reported in February that Dragic wasn’t willing to sign a long-term deal with Houston or any other team not on his list of preferred destinations. Dragic was apparently reluctant to sign long-term with the Rockets for fear that they would trade him later.

No matter who comes calling, Dragic noted that the Heat have a “huge” advantage because they own his Bird Rights and can offer a five-year deal, while other teams are limited to four. The total value of a maximum offer from Miami would be roughly $110MM, compared to about $81MM from anyone else. Miami also has the built-in financial advantage of being located in Florida, which has no state income tax.

“As long as I’m in a happy environment and a healthy organization, that’s the most important thing,” Dragic told Lieser in a separate story. “The next three, four, five years — I want to spend it on this kind of team, like the Miami Heat. They have great players, great coaching staff and great training staff.”

The attraction of Dragic, who turned 29 last week, is obvious. In 26 games after being traded to Miami, he averaged 16.6 points and 5.3 assists. He’s a 36% career shooter from three-point range and has a reputation for being durable, appearing in 77, 75 and 78 games the last three seasons.

The Heat have been open about their desire to retain Dragic. Shortly after their season ended, coach Erik Spoelstra said that he wants to bring back Dragic and Luol Deng, who also has a player option. “They’re absolute pros,” Spoelstra said, “the kind of guys you want to build your team around, the guys you want to go to work with, the guys you want to be in a foxhole with.”

Still, the Heat have some cap concerns. Chris Bosh signed a max deal last summer that will pay him more than $118MM through 2018/19; Dwyane Wade has a player option worth more than $16MM next season, and Hassan Whiteside will be seeking a sizable new deal next summer. But if Dragic stays in Miami, his new contract will be offset by an expected jump in the salary cap once the new television deal kicks in after next season. Dragic is certain to get plenty of offers this summer, but his fondness for the city and the Heat’s financial edges should be enough to make him one of the leaders of a post-LeBron resurgence in Miami.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Free Agent Stock Watch: Reggie Jackson

The long-term outlook for Reggie Jackson took a dramatic turn at the trade deadline when he was dealt from the Thunder to the Pistons, who immediately installed him as their starting point guard. By season’s end, Detroit had emerged as the clear frontrunner for Jackson’s services as the restricted free agent enters his prime. Jackson ranks third among point guards on Hoops Rumors’ 2015 Free Agent Power Rankings behind only Goran Dragic and Rajon Rondo, whose stock has dipped after his disastrous partial season with the Mavericks.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Boston CelticsThere was plenty of uncertainty surrounding Jackson as he entered the 2014/15 season with Oklahoma City, with the expectation that Jackson could command a yearly salary averaging $13MM or $14MM when he entered the free agent market. Given its salary commitments to superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook as well as Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City seemed highly unlikely to match an offer sheet for Jackson.

Jackson started just 36 games in his career prior to the season. Even so, the projections of his future value were reinforced by his play when given the opportunity to be a floor leader. With Westbrook sidelined by an injury, Jackson averaged 19.5 points, 7.5 assists and 5.3 rebounds during the month of November. Once Westbrook returned, Jackson found himself in a backup role again and his relationship with his teammates deteriorated. Jackson asked for a trade and got his wish when the Thunder shipped him to the Pistons, who had lost Brandon Jennings to a season-ending Achilles’ tendon injury.

Following a slow start that included a 10-game losing streak which knocked the Pistons from playoff contention, Jackson emerged as an offensive force in coach Stan Van Gundy’s pick-and-roll attack. He developed chemistry with franchise cornerstone Andre Drummond in the final 16 games while averaging 20.0 points, 11.0 assists and 4.8 rebounds and shooting 49% from the field. Van Gundy, who also doubles as the team’s president of basketball operations, made it clear that he views Jackson as his starting point guard going forward and plans to match any offer that may come Jackson’s way. The Pistons will not have any difficult retaining Jackson from a salary-cap standpoint, as they have approximately $27.9MM in guaranteed salary commitments next season.

That may not deter a potential suitor from trying to pry Jackson away from Van Gundy’s grasp. The Nets and Pacers reportedly were close to dealing for Jackson before he wound up in Detroit, and the Kings were also interested. The Knicks are believed to have a strong interest in Jackson as well, though they may be more focused on another Pistons free agent, Greg Monroe.

The Aaron Mintz client has his drawbacks, particularly at the defensive end. Jackson was ranked 41st among point guards on ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus/Minus rankings and has received a minus rating in all four of his seasons in Basketball-Reference’s Defensive Box Plus/Minus evaluations.

That won’t deter the Pistons from doing everything possible to keep Jackson, who hinted about his intentions of staying in Detroit right before the season ended. He told the team’s beat reporters he planned to stay in frequent contact with his teammates and organize summer workouts with them. He also feels Van Gundy’s coaching will make him a high-level point guard. It’s possible that Jackson could sign a deal with an opt-out clause to take advantage of the anticipated jump in the salary cap when the league’s new TV contract kicks in during the summer of 2016. In any case, it would be a surprise if Jackson isn’t wearing a Pistons uniform next season.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Free Agent Stock Watch Series

The playoffs have begun, and within two weeks, all but eight of the 30 NBA teams will be finished for 2014/15. That means players on expiring contracts are making their final statements before they hit free agency, if their teams haven’t already been eliminated. So, it’s time to start looking at soon-to-be free agents across the league and gauge their value.

Hoops Rumors will examine several players who are a part of the 2015 free agent class. Our Free Agent Stock Watch pieces will explore what a player brings to a club, what sort of earnings he can expect on his next contract, teams that could be in the market for the player, and where the player might want to end up, along with any other relevant factors.

We’ll be profiling many of the players set for free agency in the next couple of months, and we’ve already begun. We’ll be maintaining the list below as we continue this series, and you can find them in alphabetical order by last name. Potential restricted free agents will have an (R) by their names. A link to this list will stationed on the right sidebar under “Hoops Rumors Features.” You can also find these pieces under our Free Agent Stock Watch tag, and you can set up an RSS feed if you enter this URL into the reader of your choice: hoopsrumors.com/free-agent-stock-watch/feed

Free Agent Stock Watch: Brandon Knight

The Suns have plenty invested in Brandon Knight, having relinquished a potential lottery pick from the Lakers as well as Miles Plumlee and Tyler Ennis, both of whom have shown promise and are on rookie scale contracts. Knight is also on a rookie scale contract, but unlike Plumlee and Ennis, his deal expires this summer, when the Suns figure to have to shell out eight-figure salaries to keep him. Several GMs told Michael Scotto of SheridanHoops earlier this spring that they believe Knight is worth $12MM a year. Suns GM Ryan McDonough referred to Knight as the best player in the trade, though it’s unclear if he was merely referring to the Knight trade itself or the series of moves the Suns made on deadline day, when they shipped Goran Dragic to Miami in a separate trade. It’s nonetheless clear that McDonough thinks highly of Knight, a former eighth overall pick, having referred to him as a “23-year-old who is a borderline All-Star in the East.”

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Orlando MagicMcDonough and president of basketball operations Lon Babby will have to go chiefly by what Knight did while he was in the East with the Bucks as they wade through his restricted free agency, since a heel injury has ended the season for Knight after he played only 11 games as a Sun. The point guard took just 4.6 shots per game during that small sample size, a figure that would be a career low if extrapolated over a full season. He looked every bit the part of the budding All-Star that McDonough envisions in a 28-point performance against the Magic, but that was less than a week after a one-point, 0-for-6 clunker against the Spurs.

Knight has struggled over the course of his NBA career to become a true point guard, though he’s expressed a desire to embrace the role. The Suns don’t have to worry too much about that with Eric Bledsoe around. He and Bledsoe fit the mold of the small backcourt that’s marked McDonough’s Suns teams, and Bledsoe’s presence also takes pressure off Knight to improve defensively. Bledsoe is second among point guards in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus/Minus this season, while Knight languishes at No. 50, well into the minus side of the ledger. Knight has been a minus defender in all four of his NBA seasons, according to Basketball-Reference’s Defensive Box Plus/Minus.

There’s still potential for growth on that end of the floor, since he’s only 23, as McDonough notes. He certainly wouldn’t be the only one-way player making $12MM a year if that’s what he ends up with, and he helps in other areas. He averaged 5.2 rebounds per game this season, the 12th most among any player 6’3″ or shorter who saw at least 500 minutes, as Basketball-Reference shows. Bledsoe is third on that list. Knight also bumped his three-point shooting to a career-high 38.9% this season after last year’s regression to 32.5%, and he was at 40.9% in that category this year before his disjointed 11 games with the Suns. His PER was 18.5 with Milwaukee, and though that shrunk to 17.2 thanks to his brief time playing with Phoenix, it’s still a career high.

The Arn Tellem client has validated his draft position, and while he doesn’t seem the sort who’ll ever be one of the top two players on a contender, he could certainly be the third. Bledsoe’s ceiling is beginning to emerge as a No. 2 on that kind of team. So, the Suns have the groundwork for a contending core, but they lack the superstar piece that’s almost always the hardest to obtain.

A new deal for Knight would essentially put the Suns out of the running to acquire a superstar in free agency this summer, since Phoenix already has about $41MM on the books. It wouldn’t be much of a setback for the franchise if it comes up empty in its star search this summer, since the top five players in the Hoops Rumors Free Agent Power Rankings all seem likely to stay put. It’s the summer of 2016 when the Suns appear positioned to make their move, as they only have about $28MM committed, and even with an eight-figure salary for Knight, they should have no shortage of flexibility with the cap set to catapult to around $90MM. The Valley of the Sun looms as an attractive destination for top free agents as long as the roster infrastructure is there for a superstar to contend immediately upon joining the team, and Knight’s presence helps the Suns toward that roster prerequisite.

Phoenix also has its share of trade assets, with the Heat’s 2021 unprotected first-round pick perhaps the juiciest. The Suns took a step back at the deadline this season, as Babby has acknowledged, with the long term in mind, and that’s why keeping Knight is more or less imperative. There’s been chatter connecting the Lakers to Knight, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see some team with aspirations of contending in the West in the near future pitch an outsized offer sheet to Knight this summer, just to force the Suns to pay a premium. That would carry risk for a team like the Lakers, since it would be difficult for any team to end up paying a defensive minus a salary approaching the max in case Phoenix doesn’t match, but it’s a distinct possibility nonetheless, given the consequences for the Suns if they let Knight walk.

Knight might not be the best player involved in Phoenix’s deadline trades, but he’s the best the Suns have to show from a pivot point in their rebuilding. Phoenix, which still hasn’t made the playoffs since Steve Nash left town, can’t afford to take a step back in both the short and the long term, so expect Knight’s Suns tenure to last a lot longer than 11 games.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Free Agent Stock Watch: Greg Monroe

A strained right knee has kept Greg Monroe out since March 14th, but while he said he’ll definitely make it back before the regular season ends two weeks from Wednesday, it’s quite conceivable, if not probable, that he’s seen his last moments of meaningful basketball in a Pistons uniform. The Pistons are in 12th place and four and a half games out of the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, and Monroe’s unrestricted free agency looms in July. The end of the season will signal the end of a period of relative financial sacrifice for the former seventh overall pick, who turned down reported offers of eight-figure salaries to take a one-year qualifying offer of slightly less than $5.48MM and hit unrestricted free agency as soon as possible.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Golden State WarriorsThe move appeared to signal that Monroe wanted out of Detroit, as signing a lucrative, long-term offer sheet with any other team of his choosing last summer could have simply tethered him to the Pistons for that much longer if they had matched. Still, agent David Falk insists that his client will “absolutely” consider re-signing with the Pistons, echoing Monroe’s own comment on the matter from before the season. Falk also made it seem as though Monroe was a long way from thinking about where he wants to play next year, though the impending end of the season will no doubt bring him a step closer to that.

Monroe and Falk reportedly discouraged teams from presenting him with offer sheets. The big man said he was wary of committing for the long term to Detroit before he became comfortable with Stan Van Gundy, who was then just a few months into his job as coach president of basketball operations. A sign-and-trade was an alternative solution, since that would have allowed Monroe to sign a market-value deal for multiple years with another team without the threat of a match from Van Gundy and company. The Pistons reportedly talked to the BlazersHawks and Pelicans about sign-and-trades, but nothing materialized. The Magic and Cavs apparently had interest in Monroe, too, but Orlando felt “lukewarm at best” about him, as Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press put it, and Cleveland seemed to move away from him once LeBron James committed to go back there.

Nearly a year has passed since last year’s free agency, and Monroe has had just about a full season to get a feel for Van Gundy. Monroe dismissed rumors that he didn’t want to play alongside Josh Smith, but Van Gundy’s bold decision to waive Smith in December, less than halfway into a $54MM contract, had a marked effect on Monroe’s production. The former Georgetown Hoya was putting up 14.7 points and 8.8 rebounds in 29.0 minutes per game prior to Smith’s release, all figures that would have represented his lowest season numbers since he was a rookie. Since then, he’s put up 16.9 PPG and 11.5 RPG in 32.6 MPG, and those scoring and rebounding figures would be career highs if extrapolated over an entire season. The contrast could scarcely be more stark.

One executive estimated to Michael Scotto of SheridanHoops around the time of the Smith waiver that Monroe would merit a four-year, $48MM deal, but he’s probably lifted his value quite a bit since then. He denied that he received an offer from the Pistons that would have eclipsed the value of Smith’s deal, and he said that it wouldn’t have taken a maximum-salary offer for him to commit to Detroit. He downplayed the idea of accepting the highest bid and Falk reiterated that this season, insisting that money won’t be the primary determinant for where Monroe will play next year.

That’s an inauspicious sign in one respect for the Pistons, who can offer a fifth year and higher raises than any other team can. It’s a stance that could also ease a burden for a team that’s already planning a push to re-sign restricted free agent Reggie Jackson and faces rookie scale extension negotiations with Andre Drummond in the offseason ahead. Having Monroe back at any sort of discount would no doubt accelerate Van Gundy’s rebuilding plans.

That idea still seems a long shot, particularly with other teams already showing interest. The Hawks, who were one of the teams apparently in sign-and-trade talks with Detroit this past summer, and Knicks were reportedly planning pursuits as far back as December. The Lakers reportedly asked the Pistons about trading for Monroe before this year’s deadline. Surely others will be in the mix for the promising big man, who turns 25 in June, and even if he winds up with a max deal, it would likely cost his team a starting salary of no more than $16MM, since he’s in the 25% max bracket, a rarity for a high-level unrestricted free agent.

Monroe’s PER number is a flattering 21.1 this season, and while he’s not an elite defender, he holds his own, as his No. 20 ranking in ESPN’s Real Defensive Plus/Minus for power forwards shows. He’s No. 10 in Basketball-Reference’s Box Defensive Plus Minus among the 18 players who swing between forward and center and who’ve compiled at least 500 minutes this season. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t score a deal that at least comes quite close to the max. Pistons owner Tom Gores has made it seem as though he’s willing to open his checkbook to make it happen, but I suspect Monroe will settle for lower raises and one fewer year on his contract to head to another team. Still, that’s just my speculation, and the market can shift between now and July as others distinguish themselves even if Monroe isn’t playing, especially come draft time.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Free Agent Stock Watch: DeAndre Jordan

DeAndre Jordan told Sam Amick and Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today Sports last week that “the free agency process is definitely going to be a fun one.” The Clippers’ center, who will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, has good reason to be looking forward to the summer. He’s enjoying another season of gaudy raw numbers that could land him a maximum deal.

NBA: Preseason-Los Angeles Clippers at Golden State WarriorsJordan, who is making $11.44MM this season, is averaging 11.2 PPG and 2.2 blocks. His 14.8 rebounds per game and .709 field goal percentage are both tops in the league. He’s this season’s only player to post three 20-point, 20-rebound games. He ranks second in the NBA in defensive win shares.

“He’s clearly the defensive player of the year,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said, per Arash Markazi of ESPNLosAngeles.com. “If anybody else gets that award, we need to have an investigation.”

Winning the award could further solidify Jordan’s status, but it’s likely that he inks a maximum deal regardless. Another thing to keep in mind: Jordan will only turn 27 in July and has started every regular season game for the Clippers since the 2010/11 season. He brings size, length and athleticism. Outside of his offensive limitations, there isn’t much to dislike. With top big men being hard to find, there are several teams — including the Clippers — that could conceivably make pitches to Jordan, who said he has no interest in signing a one-year contract, as Markazi wrote.

“I’m not going to be greedy and sign a one-year deal,” Jordan said. “Nah. I’m just focused on getting it over with and focusing on playing again. I’m just trying to win here.”

It’s too early to tell which teams are seriously interested in reeling in Jordan, who, as Markazi pointed out in the aforementioned story, has been making the rounds on national sports talk radio shows recently while gaining more mainstream attention. The market could be dictated by the actions of other soon-to-be unrestricted free agent big men Marc Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge. Tim Duncan is in the final year of his contract and if he retires, that could make things even more interesting because the Spurs would be in play for a big man.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

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