Free Agency is always one of the most interesting times of year in the NBA offseason, and as of the last few years it has become an even bigger deal. As we all know, the Miami Heat won the LeBron Sweepstakes in 2010 which saw teams clearing cap space to bring him aboard for up to as long as two years before he was even a free agent. Last season the NBA world was put through the aptly named Dwightmare, and as an Orlando Magic fan I can tell you just how stressful that was, and it appears that we're about to go through it all over again. Though the 2013 NBA Free Agent class is not as good as the one in 2010, there are still some big name players and some players that could potentially put some teams over the hump in terms of title or playoff contention. Over the next week I will be writing about these players and where I think they'll end up, and where I think they fit in as well as addressing their strengths and weaknesses. Today we will discuss the premiere players of this years free agent crop.
The Big Names
1. Dwight Howard
- Defense - Although Dwight hasn't been quite as productive on the defensive end as he was during his stint in Orlando there are few players in the NBA who's presence in the paint alone can disrupt a shot by simply standing there. Dwight has averaged over 2 blocks a game for 6 years of his 9 year career, and has a career average of 2.2 blocks per game. Whether Dwight is blocking a shot, altering it, or simply making players think about the fact that he is roaming the paint, his interior defense is felt from every position.
- Rebounding - 5 of the last 6 years Dwight has led the league in rebounding, and the one year that he didn't he finished 2nd to Kevin Love who rebounded that year at a ridiculous 15.2 rebounds per game rate. Dwight has been a solid rebounder on both ends of the floor, averaging nearly 10 rebounds a game on the defensive end almost every year of his career, and averaging nearly 4 offensive rebounds a night on the offensive end. He's been even more sensational in the playoffs where he has averaged 15 or more a game in 4 of the 6 years he has played in the playoffs.
- Offense - Dwight has always been a solid offensive player, as someone who has watched Dwight for his entire career, and someone who followed it closely during his time in Orlando I can confidently say Dwight's offensive game has made tremendous strides over the years. Dwight has shot over 50% from the field for his career, and has averaged a solid 18.3 ppg in his 9 year career. Though he doesn't have the finesse or the post moves of some of the greats like Hakeem, Abdul-Jabbar, or Tim Duncan he still has a very respectable offensive game and is one of the better offensive big men in the league.
- Maturity/Leadership - This is the biggest question mark, and by far Dwight's biggest issue. The man has never, nor are there any signs that he will begin to show any willingness to take any criticism for anytime his team comes up short. He has thrown his former Orlando teammates under the bus multiple times since leaving and has burned nearly every bridge he built with those teammates. He has continually deflected all criticism, and has gained a reputation as a bit of a whiner. In the final game against the Spurs in the playoffs this year he appeared to quit on his Laker teammates and was eventually ejected for the game when he received his 2nd technical foul. Technical fouls have been concerning for Dwight since the 2007-2008 season. Dwight finished in the top 25 in technicals that year and has remained in the top 15, and even the top 5 multiple times since. Though the last couple season he has cut down on them a bit, these are still a red flag.
- Durability - The last couple years Dwight has had a couple major injuries, injuries that seem to be red flags for the future of his career, and red flags for any team that wants to sign him to a max contract. Last year Dwight had to miss the playoffs in order to have surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back, and this year he fought through a torn labrum for a solid portion of the season. As a center, and a big physical bruising one at that Dwight is going to continuously be pounded when he is in the post. With two major injuries in the last couple of years questions are beginning to arise with how effective Howard can be underneath the basket as he will be physically battling with the likes of DeAndre Jordan, Marc Gasol, DeMarcus Cousins, Nikola Pekeovic and other tough Western Conference Centers, as well as centers like Roy Hibbert and Joakim Noah in the Eastern Conference.
- Free Throw Shooting/Offense - First off I know that I listed Offense as a strength, however when it comes to Dwight it is also a weakness. Though he does have a good offensive game and does put points on the scoreboard he struggles against some of the more physically imposing centers in the league. Generally speaking Dwight is able to muscle through defenders and impose his will on several other centers in the league. However, Dwight does not have great footwork, and he has a limited amount of post moves. While these are not the most concerning of issues, it must be taken into consideration when discussing the longevity of his career. As Dwight ages it will be more and more difficult for him to simply bruise his way to baskets in the paint, and unless he makes significant strides in terms of post moves his offensive game may continue to dwindle in coming years. As far as free throws, the guy shot 49% the last two seasons that's all I need to say about that.
Potential Destinations: Dallas, LA Clippers, Houston, LA Lakers, Atlanta
Where I Think He'll End Up: Honestly, I have no idea. I think there's a good chance he ends up staying with the Lakers, but at the same time I don't know if he wants that amount of pressure. I also believe Houston is a viable option, and I know that Daryl Morey, Houston's GM is really looking to land another star to pair with James Harden and the other young talent that he has managed to assemble in Houston. I don't see him ending up in Dallas, but I think they have a far better chance landing him than his hometown Atlanta Hawks, who appear to be prepared to rebuild. As far as the Clippers go, both he and Chris Paul have shown willingness to play together, but the Clippers would have to be willing to potentially trade Blake Griffin and Eric Bledsoe to make that a possibility.
Final Analysis: As was the case with last year Dwight Howard will be at the top of several teams' list this year as a prize free agent grab. In an NBA that has transitioned away from the dominant big-men era of the 80s and 90s there are now only a few around, and finding a solid center has become more difficult. This is the reason why Hasheem Thabeet, who has been absolutely terrible in his short career went No. 2 in his draft class. This is the reason why Kwame Brown despite how underwhelming he has been after being a No. 1 draft pick has still been able to find work. This is the reason why Greg Oden was drafted ahead of Kevin Durant in 2007, and this is the reason why several teams will be looking to pay Dwight Howard a max deal next season. Despite the red flags here Dwight will get a max deal from someone, but I honestly couldn't say who.
2. Chris Paul
- Pure Point Guard Ability - Other than Rajon Rondo I don't think there is anyone who sees the floor better than Chris Paul. In terms of pure point guard ability, that is setting his teammates up for easy baskets or drawing the defense to him in order to open up the floor for big men I don't know that there is anyone better than Chris Paul. This season, Chris Paul averaged 9.7 assists per game, which was good for 2nd in the league this year behind Rondo, and just a tick under his career average of 9.8. The fact that Chris Paul is such a crafty passer and adept ball handler makes him a dream target for every single GM and coach in the league. There are a handful of teams in the league who could say they don't need a Point Guard like Chris Paul, and even those handful of teams would benefit greatly if they were somehow able to acquire him. Simply put, Paul makes every player around him better, he turned David West into a fringe all-star during their time together in New Orleans, and even made it look like Tyson Chandler had some semblance of an offensive game. I'd like to hammer that point home when I point out that for 3 years in New Orleans Paul averaged 10.7, 11, and 11.6 assists, those kinds of numbers speak for themselves.
- Defense - It's no secret that Chris Paul is hands down one of the best defensive point guards in the NBA. Paul has led the league in steals per game five times in his eight year career, steals in the regular season five times, and holds the NBA record for consecutive games with a steal at 108 straight games a record he set back in 2008. Paul is able to successfully shut down nearly every opposing point guard he faces, and he is extremely quick at jumping passing lanes. He moves his feet well and is great at keeping players in front of him. Paul has incredibly active hands and is great when it comes to disrupting opposing point guards as they try to run their offensive sets.
- Scoring Ability - There is little doubt that Chris Paul is one of the better scoring point guards in the NBA. While he doesn't put up gaudy scoring numbers like Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook I think this can be attributed to him having a more complete game than either of those players. Though Paul is more apt to dish to the open teammate or set his teammates up for easy buckets he has an offensive game that must be respected. Other than his first two years in the league Chris Paul has shot over 45% from the field every season and shot over 50% during the 2008-2009 season. Chris' offense is predicated by his quickness which allows him to get by most defenders with ease and he has one of the best runners/floaters in the NBA. Paul also handles the ball very effectively which allows him to free himself up for open mid-range jumpers from where he is extremely deadly. Though he has a knack for scoring in the paint with runners and floaters he is also very effective at getting to the rim which forces interior defenders to decide whether they are going to commit to him or their man which allows him to either score at the rim or dish to an open teammate for an easy assist. Paul also shoots the ball at a decent rate from the perimeter, coming in with a 35% clip for his career. While not a premier outside shooter, he can be deadly if left open.
- Leadership - Okay, so I know that most people are going to wonder how I can commend Paul for being a great floor general, and then call his leadership a weakness, but allow me to explain. While I think that Paul is great at directing his teammates on the floor and I believe that he genuinely wants them to succeed his leadership style comes off as a bit abrasive. While this may work for some players and some teams it is clearly not effective with his current Clippers team. Though they downplayed the rumors that there were no locker room issues between him, and teammates Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan I think there were some legitimate issues. While I don't think the issues are that serious, they could potentially become that way if Paul doesn't take an easier approach in his leadership. One of the keys of being a leader in any sport is understanding the type of people that you are leading, while some guys may take well to being barked at others will feel that their egos are being bruised and end up becoming less responsive to what the leader wants them to do. While I think this is a current weakness I do not expect it to continue as one, as now that Vinny Del Negro is no longer the coach in Los Angeles Chris will not be forced to shoulder so much of the teaching load when it comes to the younger players. This will be especially true if the Clippers manage to bring in former Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins. Hollins managed to get near superstar level play from Zach Randolph, a player who has dealt with his own ego issues over the years.
- Durability - Though Paul has never had any serious injury issues other than when he sat out nearly half the season in 2009-2010 he has never managed to play a full NBA season in his eight year career. Paul sat out 12 games this season, and has sat out at least 2 games in each season. Paul has been in the NBA for 656 regular season games over his career and has appeared in 555 of them which is good for 85% of his total games. This isn't a bad number by any means, but as he gets older injuries may get more severe in the fast paced, physical game of the current NBA. It's also worth mentioning that Paul is only 6' 175 lbs which isn't very big when you're being banged around. Pair this with the fact that he goes 100% on every single play and it can be somewhat concerning. However, he does manage to avoid too much contact and while I don't expect injury problems to be a major concern for any of the teams that desire him, I still think it's something that should be taken into consideration.
- Ball Domination - This isn't so much a weakness in that it affects Paul's game in anyway, but that it makes it more difficult for GMs to find players to play alongside him. Paul is at his most effective when he has the ball in his hands and he is able to create for himself and his teammates. This essentially means that it's tough to pair him with certain players who also need the ball for similar reasons. This isn't a very glaring weakness, and generally the great players can find ways to co-exist (see: LeBron James and Dwayne Wade) but I feel it's at least worth pointing out.
Potential Destinations: LA Clippers, Dallas, Houston
Where I Think He'll End Up: I would almost guarantee that CP3 will end up back in Los Angeles this year, especially if Clippers management can manage to bring in Kevin Garnett and Doc Rivers, or Dwight Howard, and Lionel Hollins. Clippers management is working extremely hard to bring in a staff and players that will make Paul happy and he seems to genuinely want to stay there, especially after the removal of Vinny Del Negro. I can't see him in Houston as it would be very difficult for him to play alongside James Harden as they are both players who need the ball in their hands, however most reports have said that Daryl Morey is courting both Howard and Paul simultaneously, and they have expressed interest in playing together so it is a possibility. Dallas is a viable option, but I just don't think it will happen as the Clippers appear to be continually on the rise for the next few seasons.
Final Analysis: Chris Paul is one of the most dominant point guards in the NBA and doesn't really have any significant weaknesses. He has proven that he can play with nearly any assortment of players and can be a go to scorer when needed. He is a 2nd coach when he is on the floor, and he simply makes plays happen. Though there is some risk when it comes to his durability the reward is far, far greater than the risk. Though I'm about 100% positive that he will end up back in a Clippers uniform whichever team manages to land Chris Paul will immediately become far better than previous.
3. Josh Smith
- Athleticism - Josh Smith is hands down one of the most athletic players in the NBA. He has the ability to jump out of the gym, and has the quickness to get around nearly any opposing player that guards him. For a power forward he has above average handles and can take defenders off the dribble just as well as he can post them up. He uses his athleticism effectively on the defensive end as well, as he is able to to move into the paint to contest driving guards and forwards, and recover quickly enough to defend his own man. Smith's rebounding ability is also a result of his incredible athleticism as he is able to sky over other players in order to grab rebounds. His athleticism also enables him to out muscle defenders, and to body up even the biggest of post players to limit their offensive game. The current NBA is based on more run and gun styles, and Josh Smith fits that style very well as he can run the floor quite effectively, unfortunately this ability hasn't been exploited fully during his time in Atlanta as both Mike Woodson and Larry Drew have shown that they prefer to run slower paced offenses, and I believe this hurts Smith's offensive game.
- Offense - As stated previously Smith's offensive game is catalyzed by his quickness and ability to beat defenders in a multitude of ways. Smith can take defenders off the dribble, he can shoot from the midrange, and he can back down opposing players. Though he has yet to play in the system, I believe that Josh Smith would benefit from a fast paced up-tempo offense that is becoming more and more prominent in the current NBA. Smith is quick enough to run the floor with the fastest of point guards and is able to move well without the ball. He is strong enough that he can battle underneath with most players, and is able to impose himself on drives to the basket. Because he has an effective midrange jumper this causes more post players to come out from under the basket which gives Smith the ability to beat them off the dribble as most cannot keep up with him. Though Smith's offensive game has seemed to plateau a bit in Atlanta I believe this is more of a product of the offenses that have been run during his time there, as opposed to Smith's actually ability.
- Defense/Rebounding - Although Smith has a bit of a tendency to get somewhat lazy on the defensive end he has still been an effective defender during his nine year career. He has averaged 2.1 blocks over his career, due in large part to his incredible athletic ability. As it is with his offensive game Smith is big and strong enough to match up with nearly any player underneath the basket. Along with his physical strength, Smith is quick enough to guard most forwards whether he is tasked with guarding the three or the four, and he has the ability to match up with most centers. Smith has also been a very effective rebounder throughout his entire career, and has the ability to sky over even the biggest big men in order to snatch rebounds out of the air. He has averaged 8 rebounds for his career, and while it'd be nice to see him improve those numbers 8 rebounds a game is still very respectable when you consider that he shares the front court with Al Horford who is also a very effective rebounder in his own right.
- Motivation - Though he generally has a high motor Smith appears to have the penchant to take some plays off, especially when his team is trailing by a large margin. Furthermore, there are some nights where he does not appear as though he really "wants it" when he is on the floor. Though Smith gives 100% on most occasions there are certainly times where he doesn't seem interested in the game that he is playing in. I think this is, at least to some degree, a product of the system that Smith has grown up in. Smith came straight from Oak Hill academy in 2004 and hasn't had coaches who have really helped him turn into a more mature player. Smith doesn't always seem like he's interested in winning games as he is in earning as much money possible, but this may be in part to him playing on Atlanta teams who's ceiling was generally never much higher than a first or second round exit anyway. Though it's a risk, I believe that if Smith is put in a better situation than the one he was in in Atlanta he will reward teams with a much higher level of play.
- Defense - Again, as with Dwight Howard one of Smith's strengths is also a weakness. There are times on the defensive end where Smith does not appear all that interested in playing tough defense every single time on that end of the floor. Though Smith can match up with nearly every forward on the floor Smith has a tendency to get beat by players that he shouldn't get beaten by. I hate to continually blame his situation in Atlanta for his shortcomings, but I think that is again the case here. Though Mike Woodson is often touted as a defensive coach I don't think he or Larry Drew ever really held Smith accountable for his sometimes lackadaisical effort on that end of the floor. These similar issues could be seen with Zach Randolph, a player who's play early in his career reminds me a lot of Smith's in that he seemed more concerned with his individual play than that of the team's. However, as Randolph's time in Memphis has shown us, under the right coach those kinds of attitudes can be adjusted, and those kinds of players can become much harder workers.
- Shot Selection - Though Smith has a very strong offensive game he does not excel from the perimeter. Smith continues to shoot 3 pointers at this point in his career, despite posting a career 28% clip from deep. Last season Smith shot the 3 ball at a horrendous 30% mark yet attempted 201 3s, which was good for 2.6 a game and was the highest amount of 3s he has attempted in his entire career. If Smith stays in Atlanta I would not be surprised to see new head coach Mike Budenholzer get Smith to limit his attempts from deep, and if he leaves I think most coaches will be able to stop Smith from shooting so many shots from deep. Smith's 3 point shooting could also be potentially due to his penchant to play somewhat lazy. I cannot understand why a guy who has the offensive gifts that he has, and the ability to attack the rim off the dribble or from the post would continue to launch 3s unless he was simply not that interested in playing hard on every play.
Potential Destinations: Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and other teams with the cap space to acquire him. (I know this is vague but I honestly don't know where he fits in that well and who would spend the money on him).
Where I Think He'll End Up: At this point, it's a crapshoot. As of right now Dwight Howard and Chris Paul are the priority for most GMs in the league, and Smith would be somewhat of a consolation price much like Amare Stoudemire was in 2010. I fully expect Smith to get a max deal from a team, but which team that is I'm not sure. I don't know that he'd end up in Houston, but Daryl Morey is bound and determined to get another marquee player to play with Harden and if he can't land Chris Paul or Dwight Howard I wouldn't be surprised to see him go after Josh Smith who, at 27 is just entering his prime. Dallas is a potential destination, but I don't know that Mark Cuban is all that interested in him, and I don't really see how he fits in alongside Dirk. Atlanta really seems like the most likely destination at this point especially if management can somehow land Dwight Howard who is a childhood friend of Smith's, and they are both originally from Atlanta which may intrigue them to play together. Atlanta certainly has the cap space to sign two premier free agents and it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.
All three of these players have the potential to be franchise changers if they end up in the right situation, and all three of them will have an immediate impact wherever they end up. Between the draft and free agency the NBA offseason can be one of the most interesting times of the year, so let the courtship begin.