Where’s the Love for Bledsoe and Monroe?

Restricted free agents have traditionally lingered on the market while teams focused their energies on the unrestricted lot. They have sat and waited for some brave team to make an offer, only to have it matched by their original team. This allowed teams to focus on other needs while their own RFAs had their market set for them, lowering the risk of an overpay. The players had little say in the matter – they could either try to force their team’s hand by signing an offer sheet, threaten to take the one-year qualifying offer (an empty threat), or wait out the process and take what they could get.

This offseason was different. Both Gordon Hayward and Chandler Parsons signed lucrative offer sheets soon after the moratorium on new contracts was lifted and forced their teams to make tough decisions about their futures. Hayward’s offer sheet from the Hornets was ultimately matched by Utah, but he landed more money than he was expected to and will be the highest paid player on the Jazz for at least a couple of years.

Parsons didn’t even need to be a free agent this offseason, but Houston set its sights high, making him restricted while aiming for Carmelo Anthony and then Chris Bosh, hoping to wrap up its business with Parsons after landing one of the big fish. While they waited for those two situations to shake out, Dallas signed Parsons to a huge 3 year, $45 million deal to force the Rockets’ hand. After striking out on their top targets, Houston opted to seek out a less expensive small forward in Trevor Ariza to fill the void, allowing Parsons to leave for the Mavs.

While they may not have gotten full control over where they spend their next few years, these two moves opened the door for the possibility that RFAs may have more leverage than ever before. Perhaps the market conditions were finally favoring players coming off of their rookie deals, instead of leading them into a false and perfunctory free agency.

A little over a week removed from the early spectacle of this year’s free agency period that doesn’t seem to be the case. While Hayward and Parsons enjoyed some negotiating leverage, the other two big names in this situation, Eric Bledsoe and Greg Monroe, have seen little activity.

Bledsoe proved his value last season starting for a surprisingly frisky Suns team that nearly made the playoffs after being projected to finish near the bottom of the league. He missed a chunk of time to injury (a bit of a concern after similar issues in L.A.), but when he was on the floor he meshed well with Goran Dragic to form a fantastic dual-point guard backcourt. His energy and athleticism help him break down defenses and get to the rim, and on the other end he harnesses that athleticism to play tenacious on-ball defense.

An increasingly respectable 3-point shot has legitimized one of Bledsoe’s few weaknesses, and he has the ability to play either backcourt spot.Teams with cap space should be trying to lure him away with a tricky offer sheet that will make the Suns think twice before matching, especially now that Isaiah Thomas has signed on as another point guard in the Phoenix backcourt, but so far it hasn’t happened. As of now the only action on the Bledsoe front is a rumor about the Lakers trying to orchestrate a sign and trade.

Monroe is a bit of a different case. While Bledsoe played well for an over-achieving team, Monroe went about his work in the clogged paint in Detroit. The Pistons struggled all season, and at times were completely unwatchable because of their no-space offense featuring three non-shooting post players in the starting lineup. Monroe can score in the paint and rebounds well, but no one who needs the ball in the paint was going to look too good playing next to Andre Drummond and Josh Smith – there were simply too many bodies in the paint.

Monroe is a solid offensive building block, but his defense leaves a lot to be desired. His ability to get steals thanks to his quick hands doesn’t make up for his lack of quickness, which leads to a lot of blow-bys and bad positioning. In the right scheme this could be covered up, but Detroit (at least with last year’s squad) isn’t the place to make that happen.

The Pistons need to clear some space in the frontcourt, and Monroe has his flaws – a team could conceivably acquire him by working out a sign and trade or simply overpaying to force Detroit to decide how much it wants to keep him. It seems that Stan Van Gundy would prefer to trade Smith rather than Monroe, but a good offer could easily net the solid young big. Again though, no one seems willing to pull the trigger.

So what makes Parsons and Hayward different from Bledsoe and Monroe? Why do the former get the big contracts and leverage while the latter play the waiting game?

Positional scarcity plays a huge factor. Wings are harder to come by than either point guards or power forwards, so they are in much higher demand. When a good one comes available teams feel the need to pounce. Truly elite power forwards and point guards would receive the same kind of attention, but Monroe and Bledsoe are a tier or two below that level.

Another reason is timing: no team wants to occupy cap space with an offer to a RFA when other players may get signed away during the waiting period. If the original team matches the offer, you risk walking away with nothing. It only makes sense if you can take advantage of the other team’s timing, as Dallas did to Houston, or if you think the offer may not be matched. Phoenix may well have made it clear that they intend to match all offers to Bledsoe, turning the act of signing him to an offer sheet into a pointless waste of time and flexibility.

After the initial rush on restricted free agents had died down, the teams that started with major cap space had mostly spent it. There are still a few teams lurking, but both they and the teams holding these players’ rights are in no hurry now. They can calmly navigate the waters with most teams done making their major moves, and Bledsoe and Monroe will suffer for the lack of suitors. As much as things change, it appears they always stay the same, and this year’s notable restricted free agents will once have to deal with a dried up market and the knowledge that their teams have more control over their futures than they do.

Lakers Moving in the Right Direction

The Lakers entered the offseason with delusions of grandeur, setting their sights on the likes of Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James. They never, ever stood a chance with LeBron, but to the surprise of many Anthony was intrigued by their offer. We’ll never know exactly how impressed he was, or if the reported interest was more of a negotiating tactic than serious consideration, but the point remains that the L.A. front office forced its way into the picture. Going forward that’s a great sign for a team that risks becoming a real laughingstock for the first time in their history.

Once they decided they were out of the running for Melo’s services, they shifted their sights to filling out a roster that pretty much just consisted of Kobe Bryant, Kobe Bryant’s giant bags of money, “Steve Nash”, and Julius Randle. Since then they’ve made some head-scratching moves, but on the whole there seems to be a much greater emphasis on fielding an actual NBA roster this season after last year’s debacle.

First the questionable (or worse) moves: Re-signing Jordan Hill and Nick Young to big deals. I like Hill when he’s on the court, and he is a proven rotation big, but $18 million over two years is a lot for a bench player, especially one with Hill’s injury history. He’s a tough rebounder and has flashed a bit of a midrange shot, but that doesn’t mean he’s worth this kind of money.

An argument can be made that the Lakers had to spend it somewhere, and since it’s only two years (at most) the damage will be limited, but that misses the point. There were (and still are *cough* Eric Bledsoe *cough*) more talented players on the market that could have been targeted with that space. The deal does at least have a team option on the 2nd season, so at least the team hasn’t shot itself in the foot for next offseason too.

The same short contract/young-ish player logic obviously wasn’t applied to the re-signing of Nick Young. He may not seem like he’s been around that long, but Young is 29 and is an unrepentant gunner. Paying him until he’s 33 doesn’t make any sense. At all. This is the risk of falling in love with your own players in down years  - Young’s solid shooting and high scoring average are all positives, but he won’t be able to hog the ball with Bryant and others back in the fold. The Lakers even inexplicably included a player option on the final year of the deal.

The franchise can’t continue to operate as if there is an endless well of cash to pull from for those kinds of deals with the new realities of the luxury tax.. Fortunately, L.A. showed a willingness to play the market in ways that they’ve frankly never had to when the front office jumped on Houston’s desperation to clear cap space for a Chris Bosh signing that never materialized. By taking Jeremy Lin off the Rockets’ hands they also managed to snag future 1st and 2nd round picks. Lin’s not a bad pickup himself, and he will instantly slot in at the point guard spot that has been a major position of need due to Nash’s injuries.

Another move that never would have happened in the past (because they never would have been under the cap long enough to pull it off) was the acquisition of Carlos Boozer after the Bulls amnestied him earlier in the week. Boozer isn’t the player he once was, but for one year the Lakers get a pick and pop big who can help stabilize the offense in the post a bit while they search for brighter stars. It’s a low-risk deal on a flawed, but still useful, player.

It’s fair to point out Boozer’s defensive issues and how they will be magnified outside of the safety of the Chicago defense, all of which makes the other Laker signing of the day that much more intriguing. Ed Davis has failed to carve out a meaningful role in his stops in Toronto and Memphis, but he’s a solid defensive player who can protect the rim a little, pull down boards, and shoot a high percentage inside 10 feet. Davis will never be a star, but he’s exactly the kind of player the Lakers need – a young, low-volume, efficient big who will put in solid work on both ends.

The best part is that in a free agent market in which mediocre players are getting huge deals, he will be in L.A. next season for next to nothing. That’s the kind of move the team quietly needs to nail in the coming years to regain their status as one of the best in the league.

Hawes Is the (Low-Key) Signing of the Summer

Of course LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Carmelo Anthony’s free agency decisions will have the biggest effect on the shape of the league for the next few seasons, but in the background the biggest small move of this free agency period may have already happened. The Clippers’ agreement with Spencer Hawes instantly shores up a notable weakness for the team – frontcourt depth.

Hawes could start for a number of teams in the league, and he will slot in behind DeAndre Jordan as the backup center and best bench big the team has had in years. This all comes at a price though: the 4-year, $23 million deal will force L.A. to stay below the $81 million line for teams using this version of the mid-level exception, and may have implications down the line for SoCal’s second team.

There may need to be some cost-cutting maneuvers next offseason due to the Hawes addition when Jordan’s contract is up and he becomes an unrestricted free agent. With huge deals already in place for Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, it may prove difficult to hold onto Jordan. Those are all future problems, however, and with Paul on the roster this needs to be a win-now team.

Doc Rivers’ situation with the team with new ownership in place may also mean he’ll be looking to steel himself against any loss of power within the organization by making a strong run in the playoffs as soon as possible. Simply put, this roster is only being assembled with the 2014-15 season in mind. The Clippers will deal with any issues after that as they arise.

On the court Hawes will be a godsend for an already hugely talented roster. The biggest boost will come from increased floor spacing. Stretch centers are rare, but extremely useful in the right systems. Opposing defenses are forced to either have their biggest defender traipse out to the perimeter or switch onto a smaller player. Smart teams can create a million mismatches this way. Phoenix nearly pushed their way into the playoffs in the crowded Western Conference last season by creatively deploying Channing Frye’s combination of shooting and size.

Hawes may be becoming among the best in this role. While he’ll need to show he can sustain it, last season he hit 41.6% of his 3s on a volume of nearly 4 attempts per game. That’s elite for a shooting guard, much less a 7-foot center. It’s worth noting that the prior season saw him connect on only 35.6% while letting fly just over once per game. The data prior to last season is even more sparse since the Philadelphia offense de-emphasized 3s under Doug Collins, so it remains to be seen whether Hawes can keep up that elite status or if he is merely good for his position.

Expect to find out the answer to that question shortly after the season starts. The Clippers will surely have Hawes firing away off the bench, and they may even try spotting a few minutes to huge lineups featuring both Hawes and Jordan in the beginning of the season. Either way, Hawes will be leaned on heavily to provide spacing to an offense that finished 22nd in 3-point percentage last season.

The scary part is that even while struggling to hit their 3s and suffering some injuries to key offensive pieces, the Clips still led the league in offensive efficiency. Hawes’ shooting is only going to make that attack more difficult to stop. Imagine a Paul-J.J.Redick-Jamal Crawford-Griffin Hawes lineup. The spacing around Paul and Griffin, combined with the secondary playmaking from Crawford, would be almost impossible to stop. Other lineups offer similarly tantalizing matchup nightmares. If they catch a few breaks this could be one of the greatest offensive teams of all time, and they’re somehow flying under the radar.

On the other end, Hawes can provide a little rim protection for the 2nd unit and is decent at using his size in the paint. He shouldn’t be chasing the ball 25 feet from the basket, but Doc will keep him in a position to make the most impact without stretching him too far. There are plenty of ways to exploit big centers who aren’t extremely athletic, and Hawes definitely can’t be categorized as extremely athletic, but he will be an upgrade over the flotsam the Clips have dealt with over the last few years. His rebounding numbers have never been shabby either, though he’ll never be able to match Jordan or Griffin

Perhaps best of all, he is still only 26, so L.A. has just locked him up for the bulk of his prime. The market may not have quite caught up to the reality of just how potent a shooting center can be, but it appears Doc Rivers has. Given the team’s needs, the price point, and his age, picking up Hawes looks like the best value signing that’s available this summer short of stealing a superstar in his prime.

What Is Lance Stephenson Worth?

So far the free agency market has been fairly active, with teams not hesitating to spend money on mid-tier players while the heavy hitters wait on Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James to make their decisions. Numerous bit players have managed to secure multi-year deals with good money. You would expect those deals to all come with the caveat that one or more years are unguaranteed, but several lack even that bit of insurance for teams.

Shaun Livingston turned a year of successfully masquerading as a shooting guard and doing a bunch of wily veteran stuff (without ever having to shoot) into a 3 year, $16 million deal to back up Stephen Curry. Avery Bradley landed a hearty 4-year,  $32 million deal to hang around in Boston in spite of his injury history and dubious offensive role (when he hits 40% of his 3s for the next decade forget I mentioned this…). The Wizards paid dearly, and will be doing so for a long time, to hold onto Marcin Gortat. Finally, a tie for the most perplexing signing goes to the Pistons and Magic for signing Jodie Meeks and Ben Gordon, respectively, to multi-year, multi-million dollar deals. Somehow the shooting guard market is even more ridiculous than I predicted.

We are witnessing a true seller’s market for the first time under the current CBA.

A few of the more talented players are still on the market. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh have all yet to make their move, though it is assumed that they are leaving room room for Pat Riley to improve the roster before re-signing. Melo is still meeting with teams, and the 2nd tier of free agents – including Chandler Parsons, Luol Deng, and Trevor Ariza – haven’t signed their next contract. They will surely reap the benefits of early signings setting a high bar for their future contracts.

One player’s value remains difficult to determine, however. Lance Stephenson was expected to be one of the most sought-after players in this free agency class, but the Pacers’ poor play during the 2nd half of last season and Stephenson’s moping on the court have clearly affected his value. So far only Indiana has been known to have offered him a contract. It has been reported to be a 5-year, $44 million deal, but Stephenson is seeking offers from other teams to at the least gain leverage in his talks with the Pacers. He has not had much success so far in these efforts.

In a world in which Meeks is landing $7 million a year this seems a bit odd, but Stephenson has has perceived attitude problems that make teams wary to bring him on board. Every time he was visibly upset when Frank Vogel pulled him in the playoffs for routine rest is coming back to bite him now.

That doesn’t mean he isn’t talented. He is a force of nature in more ways than one. His raw athleticism makes him a strong defender on the wing when he is locked in, and he is strong enough to deal with the likes of LeBron for at least parts of a game. That athleticism and strength manifest themselves in transition offense as well, where he can get the ball and hurtle across the court and down the lane before anyone has a chance to do anything about it. Those same skills led to over 7 rebounds per game – fantastic for a guard.

Outside of transition opportunities his offensive value is tougher to determine. In Indiana Lance had to contend with two huge post players occupying the paint, and that makes it a lot harder to determine what his true value is on that end if he lands with a team with a more modern system. He is a decent ballhandler, and can be a good secondary option on the perimeter or operating bench units with score-first point guards. If he can get to the basket his finishing is very strong, topping out near 70% at the rim in the last two seasons.

His shooting value remains an enigma. Two years ago he started taking more 3s, and over the last two seasons he has been an average or slightly below average shooter from long range. Again, in an actual NBA offense built for 2014 he may be able to get more open looks and make more of a noticeable impact in the box score, but it’s hard to tell exactly how much effect that will have aside from a probable uptick in shots at the rim (which would admittedly be huge for a guy like Stephenson).

A lot of the pieces are there for Lance on the court, but it’s not easy to paint a clear picture due to his role on the Pacers. Combined with the perceived attitude issues, this makes it tough to place a dollar value on him, and teams are being cautious.

There are middle-ground options available. A team with the cap space, but no desire to take on the long-term risk Stephenson represents, could sign him to a huge (max?) 2-year deal and hope that he doesn’t burn the place down during those two years. If he keeps relatively quiet and builds on what he has started in Indiana he could represent great value for a team that employs the big money/fewer years strategy. Of course, they also run the risk of losing a very valuable player at the end of those two years, or spending big money spinning their wheels.

Some team will likely make an offer in the 4-year, $40 million range, which is where the market is likely to end up. He may be difficult to peg, but a contract in that ballpark would represent decent value for the player he already is.

One interesting wrinkle to the proceedings has been Indiana’s signing of C.J. Miles. That move closed a significant amount of the space that had been kept available to re-sign Stephenson below the tax, and may signal a desire to move on from his antics. The Pacers’ front office could just as easily be waiting to reach an agreement before pulling off a cost-cutting move elsewhere, but if Indiana has decided to pull itself out of the bidding some team may end up getting a steep discount on a solid two-way player at the league’s weakest position.

Free Agency Will Be a Waiting Game

Free agency negotiations can begin at midnight Eastern time, but don’t expect much of substance to happen immediately. One major domino will need to fall before the real action begins, and that’s Carmelo Anthony. He will be pursued by any team with cap space, and until he makes up his mind (he has stated that he intends to take his time with the decision) no team that believes it has a shot at acquiring his services will want to tie up their available cap space.

It briefly looked like the waiting game could become even more intense when LeBron James opted out of his contract prior to his running mates in Miami, but now that Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have joined him it seems that they are more likely to stay together with the Heat and attempt to lure additional talent to join them. Anything is possible, but right now the smart money is on the big three remaining in Miami and angling for a fifth straight run to the Finals.

Meanwhile Kevin Love appears to be stuck in Minnesota for the time being, taking another big name off the table. Luol Deng and Lance Stephenson struggled down the stretch last season, lowering their potential market values. Some interesting restricted free agents are on the market, including Greg Monroe and Gordon Hayward, but if their teams want to hold onto them they will simply match any offer sheets those players sign. That only leaves Melo truly available.

Several teams have spent the last few days clearing cap space to try to take advantage of the market. Atlanta traded Lou Williams to Toronto for the right to waive John Salmons, Orlando cut loose Ed Davis, and a number of teams informed young players that they would not be tendered qualifying offers.

With every team that believes itself to be in contention for Anthony sitting on their cap space (and unwilling to spend three days with their money tied up in a bid for a restricted free agent) there is the chance that an opportunistic team will seek to grab up a useful player or two while everyone else is waiting for Melo’s answer. A smart team could snap up Chandler Parsons or one of the mid-tier unrestriced free agents before other front offices are willing to make a move.

Teams with a lot of cap space but limited free agent appeal would be wise to take this strategy before the losers in the Melo sweepstakes open their wallets. Michael Jordan and the newly re-branded Charlotte Hornets (who chose to overpay for Al Jefferson last year to compensate for their lack of market cache) could be on the short list to employ this strategy. Another way crafty teams can take advantage of the proceedings is to offer cap relief in exchange for future draft picks. Houston and Chicago, both strongly positioned to attract top free agents, could each use some cap flexibility to pull off major moves. A valuable asset or two (think 1st round picks and/or Nikola Mirotic) is usually the price of buying cap space this way.

Either way, the bulk of the action won’t take place at 12:01 tonight – it will take place after the other shoe drops on the top free agent in this class. The days of Jerry West waiting to talk to Shaq as the clock turns over to midnight are gone. Nowadays all there is to do is wait.