It's mid July, only 15 days into free agency, yet the money is drying up. Without a ton of money available, there are only a few certain fits for each of the top ten free agents on the market. As of today, here are three options that make the most sense for each free agent on the market, with a brief explanation for why.
1. Nerlens Noel, RFA
Top Three fits: Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns, Brooklyn Nets
Noel should stay in Dallas. Emphasize the should. And the Mavericks likely will match any offer sheet that Nerlens signs. Emphasize the likely.
Dallas got a bargain when they acquired Noel last winter, knowing he'd be their prized free agent signing this summer and the restricted status on his free agency was a massive chip for them to gain. Still, Noel hasn't logged major minutes as a starter on any team to deserve the massive contract that his camp is asking for. They look at per-minute achievement and his defensive value; the Mavericks see a player struggling to stay on the floor for incredibly long stretches. It's a stressful and tense negotiation.
Noel is hurt by the long process this has taken and the few teams left to make the financial offers that would cause Dallas to walk away. Phoenix and Brooklyn are those only such teams, and both would be incredible landing spots for Nerlens. A versatile defender that can switch and thrives in spacing, both teams have the motivation to drive the price up for the Mavericks and try to sweep him away. Why it hasn't happened yet is beyond me.
2. Mason Plumlee, RFA
Top Three fits: Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks, Chicago Bulls
You'll notice a trend here with the top four players available -- all are centers at their best positions, and three of the four are restricted free agents vying for starting spots long-term. Someone may be the odd man out, but one domino that falls will open or close doors for the rest of them. Noel is the prize, so we'll assume he's the first domino to fall.
Waiting patiently behind him is one of the best passing big men in the league in Mason Plumlee. Acquired by the Nuggets at the mid-season mark, Denver may not have the money to retain him long-term knowing that extensions for Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris are looming. That doesn't mean Plumlee won't have his offer sheet matched if it is a reasonable deal. Denver could use him this year as a backup center and then trade his contract elsewhere. I'd expect anything above $10 million annually would drive the Nuggets out of the discussion.
If Noel for some reason isn't in Dallas, Plumlee would be a solid fit there. He's rugged, a solid PNR defender and can open up an entire segment of the Rick Carlisle playbook. But the dark horse here is the Chicago Bulls, a team with enough cap room this summer to make a play at one of the players left on this list. Will it be Plumlee, a guy who supplants Robin Lopez in the long-term?
3. Pau Gasol, UFA
Top Three fits: San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks, Boston Celtics
Finally an unrestricted free agent, but not one that's incredibly exciting or filled with intrigue. I see Gasol going to the Spurs yet again, serving as their starting center. They may be waiting to get over the cap again before negotiating a deal, but it will likely be far less than the one he made last season. Staying in San Antonio seems to have been his plan all along, opting out to help the team with long-term flexibility. I'm simply throwing two other teams on the list that need a center and have an above-average shot at the playoffs. Gasol in another uniform next season would surprise me.
4. Alex Len, RFA
Top Three fits: Phoenix Suns, Brooklyn Nets, Dallas Mavericks
Same old story here. The team that can match for a restricted free agent is the most likely destination for Len, and the Suns have enough cap space to match most any offer he could receive. The longer this process takes for Len to get an offer sheet elsewhere, the lower his pricetag becomes. I'd expect Phoenix to get to bring him back on a modest two-year deal worth around $24 million, perhaps with a third-year team option.
Brooklyn's cap space and need for a long-term center looms, and they could outbid Phoenix for his services if Plumlee and Noel fall off the board. Len might be a guy the Mavericks take a flier on if they lose out on Noel, too -- essentially swapping centers between the two franchises. The Suns don't appear to be super high on Len, but at this point in time the market is dictating the game, so a reunion between the two might be best for both parties.
5. Derrick Rose, UFA
Top Three fits: Milwaukee Bucks, Orlando Magic, San Antonio Spurs
It's still such a sad saga that Rose remains unsigned and has fallen this far from his MVP-caliber days. Still, the league values shooting and there are few teams remaining that can take on an injury-prone point guard likely asking for more than he's worth. Milwaukee tops the list because of the link between the two, not because of a situation that makes sense for the team. Rose may have to take a one-year, very small contract with a team like San Antonio or Orlando, where he can get some minutes this year. The Spurs need help while Tony Parker recovers from injury, and the Magic have very little cap space remaining. It may take a move or two before we know exactly who is around in the D-Rose sweepstakes.
6. JaMychal Green, RFA
Top Three fits: Memphis Grizzlies, Chicago Bulls, Milwaukee Bucks
Memphis sits atop the list for perhaps the most underrated free agent out there right now. Another victim of the RFA mega-slide, I'd bet money that Green ends up back in Grizzlies blue for another season because they ultimately need his services and have little hope but to match any offer that comes his way. The only ways I see him leaving are a monster offer sheet that would cripple Memphis financially to match (only Chicago and Phoenix can offer that) or a sign & trade with another team Green has received offer sheets from.
In order to make that deal, I'd suspect Memphis wants a starting 4-man back in return, or at least the ability to find a temporary stop gap. That's why Milwaukee tops the list... they could shop Greg Monroe here. Milwaukee gets smaller and a little more outside-oriented with shooting, while the Grizzlies receive one year's worth of a starter in a twin towers frontcourt in Monroe. There's also the possibility that a team like Brooklyn or Phoenix outbids Memphis for him, too.
7. Nikola Mirotic, RFA
Top Three fits: Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets, Phoenix Suns
I know you're sick of seeing the same team names on this list, but what can I do about it? Two teams have cap space to sign these top remaining players, and they are the only ones to snatch them away. Chicago has always been lukewarm on Mirotic, and with Bobby Portis emerging it may be that they have a line drawn in the sand.
Of all the RFA's on this list, Mirotic is the most likely in my book to be in a new uniform next summer. Seeing him in Brooklyn, a team desperate for spacing/ shooting and that could use a starting power forward, only makes sense. Sean Marks, their GM, is a smart negotiator and has the flexibility to structure an offer sheet that could discourage the Bulls from matching for financial reasons (though Chicago's cap is pretty clean).
8. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, UFA
Top Three fits: LA Clippers, Toronto Raptors, Phoenix Suns
The money is the hold-up right now between the two sides, but as LRMAM finds out on the market, he's not getting it elsewhere. Look for the Clippers to get him back on a one or two year deal at around $5 million a year. Great value for someone who was as important to their team's defense as almost any Western Conference wing last season.
Should Mbah a Moute bolt, I could certainly see a team like Toronto offering him a small deal but a chance to start and win. If he chooses the money, Phoenix is an intriguing fit based on their speed of play and multi-positional defensive requirements.
9. Ian Clark, RFA
Top Three fits: Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks, Golden State Warriors
The Warriors are a dark horse to keep Clark if he is unable to find good money on the market. With so much cap space dried up, that possibility comes closer every day. But money and playing time are most accessible in the East, and the Bucks and Hawks are two teams that could come calling for Clark's combo guard services. Milwaukee needs shooting in the backcourt, and Clark could find some minutes on the bench for them. Atlanta, on a one year deal with a second year player option, makes the most sense. Clark has a clear role as their first guard off the bench there, and knowing their new GM Travis Schenck would help as well. We're going to see a few restricted guys follow the lead of KCP and take one-year deals with teams that have some money and playing time. Clark may be next in line.
10. Arron Afflalo, UFA
Top Three fits: Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards, San Antonio Spurs
Afflalo has been consistently one of the best post-up oriented guards in the league over the past five seasons, making him an ideal wing for a team that needs a veteran backup and can space the floor with their second unit. At 31 years old, Arron is starting to slow and doesn't have the same defensive presence he used to. Unbelievably, Afflalo hasn't made it out of the first round of the playoffs since his rookie season in Detroit over a decade ago -- he might be a prime candidate to take less money on free agency and chase a ring. Still, this could be the last big or long-term contract he looks for on the market.
The Spurs would offer the title bet the best for Afflalo, and he'd fit into their style of playing a bit smaller and faster next year. Finding room on the Spurs roster might be difficult, as is the money that he might desire. Washington offers the same lack of financial flexibility, but a clear path to minutes as the bench unit's top scorer and the ability to fill a Bogdanovic-type role on next year's postseason group. The best fit would be Toronto though, where he could compete for a starting spot and play an important role on a team that is built to compete right now. Money simply isn't out there for his position or fit, so it may be time to go to the best winning situation on a one or two year deal.
As a bonus, here are the predicted landing spots I have for some of the other best free agents on the market still:
Brandon Jennings: Washington Wizards
Ty Lawson: Sacramento Kings
Deron Williams: Cleveland Cavaliers
Leandro Barbosa: Houston Rockets
Randy Foye: New Orleans Pelicans
Tony Allen: Minnesota Timberwolves
Monta Ellis: New York Knicks
Brandon Rush: Detroit Pistons
Gerald Henderson: Memphis Grizzlies
Manu Ginobili: San Antonio Spurs
Shabazz Muhammad: Minnesota Timberwolves
Michael Beasley: Orlando Magic
Derrick Williams: Miami Heat
Dante Cunningham: New Orleans Pelicans
Boris Diaw: Denver Nuggets
Brandon Bass: Chicago Bulls
David Lee: San Antonio Spurs
Marreese Speights: Los Angeles Clippers
JaVale McGee: Golden State Warriors
Willie Reed: Brooklyn Nets
We have a tendency to think of the NBA as being a "ball screen" league, and that all of basketball has trended towards pick-and-roll centric play. Degrees of truth may exist within that sentiment, but basketball as a whole is one of the few sports that is able to rapidly evolve stylistically and continues to innovate.
In comes the dribble handoff, an action as a whole that accomplishes the same effect as a ball screen. The objective of a ball screen is simple: put two offensive and two defensive players in one tight space, and try to take advantage of the various ways a defense may try to stop the ball that create scoring openings. And like the pick-and-roll, dribble handoffs are not a new part of the game. We've seen dribble handoffs for decades, yet we see them in a different way now.
Here are a few ways the dribble handoff has become more prevalent over the last couple of seasons, and why its utility may cause it to supplement ball screens as the staple of an offense.
By and large, this is my favorite thing about dribble handoffs as opposed to screens. Ball screens allow for a defense to take the advantage back and throw an unexpected coverage at an offense. While the offensive group thinks they have the advantage and are going to get what they want, there is really no certainty that a defense will do what they expect every time. Dribble handoffs offer defenses fewer tools to combat... trapping, downing, denying handoffs are all undeveloped styles of play and have clear holes to implementation. Using a dribble handoff is a safe and predictable alternative to an often turnover-prone ball screen action.
The biggest complaint I have with ball screens is the pace at which they often occur. Picks are set in the half-court very deliberately (some can be sped into but when one player holds the ball and another sprints towards them, there isn't much secrecy about what comes next). Dribble handoffs occur faster and can be disguised for a second or two longer.
To be fair, some dribble handoffs are slow and deliberate as well. Big men away from the basket in space take their sweet time and survey the defense for which side to take two bounces towards and pitch the ball to a teammate. But when both types of plays are put side-by-side at their fastest, the lack of need for one offensive guy to completely stop his momentum for a screen to be legal keeps things faster for the DHO.
Speed is vital because it doesn't allow defenders, even at the highest level of play, the appropriate amount of time to communicate and get on the same page for how to thwart the action. While ball screens may seek to create a mismatch and miscommunication, handoffs done quickly aim to prevent defenders from even getting to a stage of communication. Just check out the way the Hawks get into this dribble handoff:
Keepers and Fakes:
Keepers would be the equivalent of a ball handler refusing a screen, a.k.a. breaking away from the designed action and keeping the ball to attack the rim whenever he suspects the defenders are anticipating the action. I define a "keeper" as a dribble handoff where Player A dribbles towards Player B, but instead of giving him the ball he maintains his dribble and keeps it to attack the rim. These scenarios frequently occur closer to the sidelines, where Player A can quickly attack the rim without veering east-west on the court. Much like the section above, dribble handoff keepers can occur at a higher speed and are dangerous in that regard.
In addition, they work no matter what the defensive scheme planned to combat handoffs is. Ball screen defense, depending on the coverage, will funnel the ball handler towards the screen. Trapping or blitzing a screen sees the man on the ball force his man to use the screen since that is where the help is; refusing the screen isn't an option as a result. Same goes for teams that ice or down ball screens, keeping the action on one side of the floor and not allowing the player to use the screen (meaning he has a lack of options for how to divert from what the defense wants him to do).
Keepers in a dribble handoff might work best against teams that do not try to switch the action, but an offensive player with a head of steam and the understanding he's going to keep the ball instead of hand it off can still turn the corner and get to where he wants to on the floor.
Fake handoffs are a version of keepers. When I say the phrase "keeper", I refer to Player A dribbling towards Player B to engage in the handoff, and then not giving him the ball while keeping his dribble alive. The distinction between that and a fake handoff is that Player A is not dribbling but is stationary. The effect can be the same... a defender jumps to anticipate the handoff and there's room for Player A to start his move.
The Guard-to-Guard DHO
Ball screens are starting to be popularized and more common between two players of similar position... mismatches are no longer defined solely by size. As the game has evolved to be more face-up and perimeter oriented, the ball gets fewer touches for true post players, and multiple-guard lineups with several ball handlers are en vogue.
Guard-to-Guard dribble handoffs grow from there, and are dangerous tools. As mentioned earlier, these actions are best run near the sidelines, where a keeper is possible. Defenses now have to respect two potential ball handlers getting the ball with speed and momentum that takes them into a scoring zone, and guard-to-guard actions are difficult to stop.
We've seen a growth in "switching likes" as a result -- the practice of two similar defenders just swapping their matchup because neutralizing the current action is more important than keeping their regular assignment. Teams that cannot engage in this type of coverage struggle with handoffs.
Transition Pitches and Misdirection
What an offense does before their opponent can get set steals easy baskets game after game. Stats back up the notion that a team scores more frequently and gets higher-percentage shots when a defense cannot establish itself and forces their opponent to walk the ball up the court. But what about after a made basket, when there's less urgency to spring back but there is still movement and unpredictability?
We coaches call these "semi-transition" or "early offense" opportunities, where the ball can make its way down the court and look for a quick strike while the two teams are still switching ends of the court. I've long maintained that the most dangerous man in these situations is the man who inbounds the ball, often known as the trailer, because he trails the play while his defender gets sucked into the vortex of wanting to protect the lane from penetration and thinking there's time to help his teammates before his man gets involved.
Often times coaches will run what's called a "pitch series", which puts the ball into the hands of the trailer right away and allows them to get a touch early to combat the habits of the trailer's defender. It's a great opportunity for misdirections as well. Check out Fred Hoiberg's package below, one of my favorite pitch series I've seen.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).