Part One: The Centers
Most coverage of the NBA's free-agent market gravitates toward the handful of elite players who change teams. Often, however, it's the smaller signings that end up having a major impact on the season. Last year, the Boston Celtics signed Eddie House and James Posey to relatively small one-year deals and saw both play key minutes in the NBA Finals. Basketball Prospectus goes deeper than anyone else to rank the top 20 free agents at each position. continuing today with the power forwards.
Let's start with the stats, all derived from my player rating system. As a refresher, the system seeks to place a player's performance in the context of a team with four average teammates. Using the estimated Offensive and Defensive Ratings for this lineup, we can come up with a winning percentage for this "team." Finally, playing time is added in to evaluate how many wins the player generates as compared to a replacement-level player.
Player Type Win% ORtg DRtg WARP
Elton Brand Un .547 105.8 104.3 0.7
Josh Smith Res .617 104.9 101.4 12.0
Emeka Okafor Res .562 104.9 103.1 8.3
Carl Landry Res .627 110.7 106.7 3.1
Craig Smith Res .488 106.6 106.9 2.3
Eduardo Najera Un .452 104.1 105.5 1.3
Nick Fazekas Res .634 107.5 103.4 1.2
Shavlik Randolph Un .660 108.0 103.0 0.1
Andre Brown Un .489 105.6 105.9 0.4
Austin Croshere Un .458 105.6 106.9 0.4
James Augustine Res .412 104.0 106.7 0.0
Robert Horry Un .431 102.3 104.4 0.2
Michael Ruffin Un .521 105.0 104.4 1.4
Louis Amundson Un .316 103.2 109.1 -0.1
Herbert Hill Un DID NOT PLAY
Othella Harrington Un .281 100.6 107.6 -0.5
Malik Allen Un .366 102.6 106.6 -1.1
Juwan Howard Un .267 100.4 107.9 -1.1
I've ranked the players above in a rough approximation of how I'd rate their value on the market. For discussion purposes, we'll put the players in groups.
I'd forgotten how good Elton Brand was. When I was writing last week's column on the Clippers signing Baron Davis, I looked at the value of Brand and Davis as a duo and was surprised by how valuable Brand was during the 2006-07 season. At 17.3 WARP, he rated sixth in the league. The previous year, he was third and a legitimate MVP candidate. Brand is 29, so while his future is not as bright as those of the top restricted free agents, his value is unlikely to slip considerably over the course of his next contract. Brand played well enough in the month of April to largely offset concerns about his recovery from his torn Achilles. In my book, Brand is the top free agent on the market.
THE YOUNG STARS
If Brand is the top free agent, Josh Smith leads the impressive group of restricted free agents. Smith's potential has been evident since he entered the league, and his athleticism has been enough to make him a valuable player. Last year, he added a headier all-around game and the result was that even though his individual statistics were very similar, Smith's adjusted plus-minus (via Stephen Ilardi for 2006-07 and BasketballValue.com for 2007-08) improved dramatically from -1.10 per 40 minutes to +5.14 per 100 possessions. I don't think that change was a fluke. Smith is still just 23, so he has time to add to his game. If he develops a consistent jumper, look out. Whether it's from Atlanta or someone else (Philadelphia, most likely), Smith is sure to get somewhere near the max.
When he was drafted, Emeka Okafor was the face of the Charlotte Bobcats. That he was not extended and could still be in play as a restricted free agent seems to be a reflection of the fact that neither Okafor nor the Bobcats have quite lived up to the optimistic hopes of 2004. Okafor projected to be a game-changer defensively and has yet to reach that level, blocking more than two shots a game only during the 2006-07 season. Okafor is a good player, not a great one, and the danger is that Charlotte will end up having to pay him superstar money. Fortunately, unless Golden State gets involved there don't figure to be a lot of suitors who can afford to outbid the Bobcats if they make a reasonable offer and Okafor isn't deluding himself on his value.
THE UNDERSIZED BUT EFFECTIVE RESERVES
Carl Landry was arguably the biggest surprise of 2007-08. The Rockets were derided for taking Landry with the first pick of the second round and got the satisfaction of watching him play a huge role in their 22-game winning streak. Was Landry's performance a fluke? He did benefit from a high shooting percentage (61.6 percent) and shooting percentages tend to be highly variable season to season, so expecting Landry to shoot 60-plus percent again next season is a bad idea. However, Landry's value went beyond his shooting percentage. Even if we adjust his line to 50 percent shooting, he remains a valuable player. Beyond that, Landry's Pelton Translation (a .501 winning percentage) portended his success. If I were running another team, I'd feel comfortable making a strong run at Landry to strengthen my bench. If I was running the Rockets, I'd match.
Like the rest of the Timberwolves' frontcourt, Craig Smith is an effective scorer in the paint, shooting 54.8 percent from the field in two NBA seasons and averaging 18.8 points per 40 minutes last season. At the other end of the floor, Smith is undersized and not much of a leaper, traits not made up for by his good wingspan. In 1,547 minutes last season, Smith blocked just 17 shots. In the right setting, Smith is a very valuable third post. Because his skillset is similar to many of his teammates, Minnesota doesn't look like that place, and a sign-and-trade deal might be in order.
THE ROLE PLAYERS
Eduardo Najera has carved out a solid career for himself as a hustle/energy player off the bench with decent skills. Last year, he added three-point range to the mix, making 53 of them at a 36.1 percent clip after hitting 14 in his first seven seasons combined (just one, remarkably, in 2006-07). Najera's net plus-minus (+9.4) and adjusted plus-minus (+9.25) ratings were both terrific last season.
Austin Croshere has carved out his own niche with a very different skill set predicated on his ability to shoot from distance (36.1 percent on threes last season, 34.0 percent career) and hold his own in the paint. Croshere is not quite good enough to be a rotation player, but I like him as a guy who can come in against certain matchups and will occasionally shoot his team to victory.
Last year, Michael Ruffin was the fifth most valuable free agent power forward. Don't bet on a repeat. Entering 2007-08, the tremendously unskilled Ruffin had never shot better than 44.4 percent from the field in a season. For the Bucks, he made 53.2 percent of his shots in limited but consistent action. Ruffin has stayed in the league despite his constant bricklaying because he's a good rebounder and sets a mean screen. I don't think anyone will be fooled by last year's shooting percentage.
Malik Allen is the anti-Ruffin. Allen provides some scoring punch but is a liability in other areas, notably on the glass. He grabbed a dismal 10.3 percent of available rebounds last season, worst amongst this group.
THE UNESTABLISHED YOUNG PLAYERS
Nick Fazekas leads the group of young guys. A total stud against relatively mediocre competition at Nevada, Fazekas saw little action in Dallas before being released to make room for the Jason Kidd trade. Signed by the Clippers, Fazekas contributed, averaging 15.9 points and 13.2 boards per 40 minutes. The Clippers might be forced to rescind their qualifying offer to Fazekas to make room for Brand and Davis; either way, he ought to draw some interest.
On the strength of strong numbers in very limited minutes in 2005-06, Shavlik Randolph was picked out by the Diamond Rating as a potential breakout candidate. Since then, a gruesome ankle injury cost him nearly all of the 2006-07 season and he played sparingly last season (though, again, he was effective on a per-minute basis). In this group, that's enough to make him interesting.
Andre Brown was a nice midseason find for the Sonics in 2006-07 before going to Memphis, where he was unable to crack the frontcourt rotation. The upside is limited, but Brown won't embarrass himself if he has to see playing time. James Augustine has seen 156 minutes of action in two years with Orlando, so who knows? The Magic did think enough of him to make a qualifying offer. Louis Amundson, a nice athlete without an NBA game, and Herbert Hill, a second-round pick who hurt his knee in training camp and missed the entire season, round out the 76ers' contingent of free-agent power forwards.
Recent reports have Robert Horry putting off retirement for another season, to play either with the Spurs or the Houston Rockets. The question is whether Horry has enough left to contribute much of anything during the long regular season. I'm not convinced that's the case. Bringing him back is OK for the Spurs; counting on him to be a regular is a bad idea.
Othella Harrington and Juwan Howard are done, done, done. That a team as good and as generally well-run as the Mavericks was using a roster spot on Howard last season and cut Fazekas, not Howard, at midseason is hard to fathom.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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