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Slim Pickings: The Top Seven NBA Unrestricted Free Agents in Summer of 2011

By Brian Spencer

For fans of those teams with ample cap space to throw at big-name free agents this summer, I’ve got three words for you: ugh, blech, and meh.

Like the free agency class 2 years ago, when Detroit Pistons GM Joe Dumars was thought to have landed two of the most-coveted guys available–Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, both busts–this year’s class is short on headliners. There are no true franchise changers: the top-tier players on the market will rather serve as quality, complimentary pieces of a bigger puzzle. In other words, teams looking to make a real splash this summer are better off doing so via trade.

That’s all good for these seven veterans, however, who right now stand to benefit the most from what’s an otherwise weak class: you can bet they’re going to collect rather handsome contracts. Note: this list does not include restricted free agents.

J.R. Smith

In alphabetical order:

Tyson Chandler, C, Dallas Mavericks: Seems like a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away when Chandler (2nd overall) and Eddy Curry (4th) were both drafted straight out of college to be the twin faces of the Chicago Bulls franchise. Those best-laid plans never quite panned out, obviously, but while Curry has eaten his way out of the league, Chandler has developed into a solid, reliable center who can counted on for 10 and 10, along with a blocked shot or two.

The keyword there is “solid”: what you see is what you’re going to get at this point, which is pretty much the case with all seven of these players, save for (maybe) J.R. Smith. With Caron Butler’s bloated $10.5 million dollar contract coming off the books, as well as DeShawn Stevenson’s $4.1 million, the Mavericks should have the funds to resign him if they so choose, but they already have a whopping $34.6 million over the next 4 years tied up in Brendan Haywood. I’d be surprised if he returns to Dallas. Through 57 games, Chandler is averaging 10.4 points, 9.4 boards, and 1.1 blocks.

Tim Duncan, C, San Antonio Spurs: You never know, but I can’t see Duncan actually leaving San Antonio. Can you imagine him wearing any other team’s jersey? I can’t. The more likely scenario is that Duncan exercises his ETO (Early-Termination Option) and resigns for another 2 or 3 seasons. He turns 35 in April, and though his minutes have been reduced to under 30 per for the first time ever to keep him fresh for the playoffs, this has statistically been the worst season of his career. I can’t see him walking away from the game just yet, but if the Spurs were to win it all this year, I think it’d be a perfect time to do so.

Nene Hilario, C, Denver Nuggets: He’s now stayed mostly healthy for three straight seasons, a span in which he’s averaged about 14.5 points (60% FG), 7.5 rebounds, 2 assists, 1.2 steals, and 1 block per. Not too shabby, and at 6-11 and 250 Nene can bang in the post with just about anybody. He also has an ETO and is expected to exercise it as the Nuggets re-evaluate and begin the post-Carmelo era in earnest. No telling where he’ll end up, but like Zach Randolph, below, the Detroit Pistons are one team with the available funds who will likely show interest.

Andrei Kirilenko, F, Utah Jazz: It’s going to be real interesting to see what happens with AK-47. With Jerry Sloan out of the picture, he might be amendable to staying in Utah–and the team might be more open to keeping him–but he’ll at least test the market and see what kind of offers are out there. He brings a little bit of everything to the table–scoring, rebounding, passing, shot-blocking, defense–but he’s always been a bit fragile and an off-and-on head case. A change of scenery could be as much of a good thing as much as a bad thing for Kirilenko; if he ends up leaving Utah it’s imperative he lands in a system that compliments his talents and is led by a strong coaching staff. There are definitely risks here.

Zach Randolph
Zach Randolph, FC, Memphis Grizzlies: If I were a NBA betting man, my money would be on Randolph heading back to Michigan, where he played his college ball at Michigan State, to join the frontcourt-depleted Pistons. On paper, it’s a good match–the team desperately needs a legit big to pair with possible franchise cornerstone Greg Monroe–just like on paper Randolph is an All-Star caliber power forward.

He’s been money in the bank for the past three seasons to average around 21 points on 48% FG, 12 boards, 2 assists, and 1 steal. The problem, however, is that Randolph is a liability on defense–he’s never averaged more than 0.5 blocks per in his 10-year career–and he’s been labeled a cancer more than a few times while playing for, well, all four teams he’s played for so far. This team has money to spend, a hole in the frontcourt starting lineup, and Dumars has long been rumored to have interest in Randolph.

It makes too much sense, but I’d be wary: he’ll be heading into his age 30 season, and given his history and the fact that this is probably his last big contract, you wonder how much he’s really going to add to a rebuilding franchise like Detroit’s during the life of what’ll probably be a 4- or 5-year deal.

J.R. Smith, G, Denver Nuggets: It’s time for both parties to shake hands and go their separate ways. Smith has had an… interesting run with the Nuggets over the past five seasons, finding his way into and out of and back into George Karl’s doghouse due to myriad problems, most of them tied to inconsistent effort and attitude. When he’s tuned in, Smith has the ability to put points up in bunches and elevate his game to a near-elite level; when he’s zoned out or otherwise uninterested, he’s a serious detriment to his team on both ends of the floor.

Still, he’s only going to be 25 years old when next season begins, and you wonder if maybe, just maybe, he’ll soon grow up, learn to reign himself in, and show more regular signs of maturity. The talent is there, though he’s always been a free-wheeling chucker (42% career FG). Can he ever be relied on to be a 30+ minute starter? No idea, and like Kirilenko it’s going to be real interesting to see where he ends up.

David West, F, New Orleans Hornets: Perenially underrated throughout his 8-year career, all of which has been spent with the Hornets franchise, West has an ETO and there’s no reason to believe he won’t exercise it and look for greener pastures. Chris Paul already has one foot out the door, and after that, it’s full-on rebuilding time: at age 31, that’s not an endeavor West wants any part of. Look for West to latch on with a veteran team looking to push themselves over the top or stay amongst the league’s elite. With the departure of Jeff Green, Oklahoma City seems like a great fit.

J.R. Smith and Zach Randolph Photos Credit: Icon SMI

Slim Pickings: The Top Seven NBA Unrestricted Free Agents in Summer of 2011

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