1.) Rank Blake Griffin, Paul Millsap and Serge Ibaka as free agents (not necessarily players…sometimes these are different things). Who would you want and why?
Bryan Toporek: Serge Ibaka, Paul Millsap, Blake Griffin
Of these three forwards, Serge Ibaka has the least superstar upside, but that should also make him the cheapest of the three. The surest way to limit your team’s ceiling is handing a max contract to a player who will unnecessarily limit your flexibility moving forward. Millsap is a two-way stud and a top-20 player league-wide, but he’s already 32 years old and has shot just 31.5 percent from three-point range over the past two seasons combined. Griffin is a nightly 20-10-5 threat, but he isn’t a strong defender, rarely shoots triples and looked last year as though he may be losing a step athletically. Giving a full four-year max to either of those guys could come back to haunt a time. Ibaka, meanwhile, doesn’t turn 28 until October, is a career 36.9 percent shooter from deep and is two years removed from averaging 2.4 blocks per game.
According to Basketball Insiders’ Steve Kyler, “a new deal for Ibaka is basically done and it will start in the $20 million range,” so it appears as though he’ll be sticking in Toronto. If Kyle Lowry unexpectedly departs and the Raptors decide to eschew re-signing Ibaka, getting him for $20 million per season would be far preferable than Griffin at nearly $10 million more annually.
Brandon Jefferson: Paul Millsap, Blake Griffin, Serge Ibaka. Millsap tops the list because he is the best fit in the modern NBA. He has developed into an outstanding perimeter threat and does more than hold his own defensively. His ability to play at a high level on both ends of the floor definitely will make him highly sought after come July. While Griffin might be the most talented player in this threesome, he’s too prone to injury to unseat Millsap atop this list. Griffin is a playmaking four and is still one of the best athletes in the game. If he decides to move on from the Clippers this offseason we could see different phases of his game unleashed. He should no longer be considered the franchise changing talent we thought he could be when he first entered the league, but he’s definitely a player all 30 teams would love to have on their roster. Finally, there’s Ibaka. He was one of the first 3-and-D bigs in the NBA, yet as time has passed he’s brought less and less to the table as a defender. When he’s hitting from the outside he’s a valuable role player for a contender. If he isn’t producing on offense there really isn’t much that he brings to the floor nightly.
Vivek Jacob: As free agents, I’d have Paul Millsap at the winner’s podium, followed by Blake Griffin and Serge Ibaka. I understand that being a 32-year old versus a 28-year old makes a huge difference in free agency, but I think Millsap has the type of game that ages well. Griffin on the other hand, is the opposite. He’s not nearly as explosive as he once was and his assortment of injuries are a big red flag at this point. I do credit him, though, for improving his three-point shot and making one three-pointer per game since the All-Star break. Another concern I have about Griffin is him perhaps wanting to prove that he can be the guy on a team after escaping Chris Paul’s shadow. The battle for top dog in L.A. held them back, and if a new team has to put everything aside to please him, it could spell trouble.
Serge Ibaka is a center in the modern NBA. I like what he brought to the table in Toronto and, while he may not be quite the shot blocker he was in Oklahoma City, his defensive instincts are excellent and is still one of the rare NBA bigs that can step out to the perimeter and guard the quicker positions. If Lowry returns to Toronto, I’m fairly certain he’ll be back as well.
2.) Who has the toughest decision(s) to make this offseason? (Can be a team deciding on a Blake Griffin or Ibaka extension, a player choosing where he’s playing, etc.)
Bryan Toporek: Gordon Hayward. It’ll be tough for him to leave Utah, but the allure of Boston and Miami are difficult to ignore. In Boston, he can reunite with his college coach in Brad Stevens and play alongside two All-Stars in Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford. Miami touts shot-blocking dynamo Hassan Whiteside and resurgent point guard Goran Dragic, not to mention a cast of intriguing young talent (Tyler Johnson, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow and the newly drafted Bam Adebayo). Then again, Utah just traded Trey Lyles and the No. 24 pick for rangy combo guard Donovan Mitchell, who could help fill a void if injuries ravage Alec Burks and Rodney Hood in 2017-18. Provided George Hill and Joe Ingles were willing to stick around, Utah may have the best chance of the three to topple the Golden State Warriors, but with Boston fresh off an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals and Pat Riley able to throw around his championship rings and Florida’s lack of state tax, Hayward faces a fascinating conundrum.
Brandon Jefferson: Gordon Hayward is in the most difficult position in my eyes. On one hand he can remain with the Utah Jazz and help the team continue on its path to becoming a legitimate title contender. Dennis Lindsey and Quin Snyder have done a hell of a job reshaping this roster along with the franchise. Surrounding Hayward with players like Rodney Hood, Rudy Gobert, Joe Ingles (pending FA), George Hill (pending FA), Joe Johnson, Boris Diaw, etc. has the future looking up for the team as long as they can keep the team together this offseason. However, both the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics offer intriguing opportunities. First, moving to the Eastern Conference makes life much easier on Hayward. The Celtics were the top seed a season ago and adding a player like Hayward gives them a more realistic opportunity to unseat LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Meanwhile, Miami’s stability and culture are among the best in all of sports. Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra together seemingly can make any collection of players into playoff contenders. Whatever choice Hayward makes he’ll put himself in position to be on a perennial playoff team for the foreseeable future.
Vivek Jacob: Blake Griffin.
With Chris Paul in Houston, the options for Griffin aren’t appealing. Even with Jerry West entering the foray, it’s hard to imagine the Clippers being competitive over the next couple of years. Doc Rivers has hurt his reputation a little in L.A., I think, and a fresh opportunity to compete for a title or at least a Conference Finals should be a priority.
His meeting with the Phoenix Suns may be a play to optimize his leverage, since they’re just looking to get back in playoff contention. He might need to hope that Boston’s plans for Gordon Hayward fall through and that he can be a prized backup plan. It would give him a chance to enhance his reputation in Celtics green and, perhaps, help dethrone King James. Miami will also meet with Gordon Hayward before anything else happens, so once again, Griffin has his hands tied. Maybe Minnesota will swoop in? Griffin can only hope.
It’s a pretty poor situation for a prized free agent: middling options with the two teams he’s meeting with and powerless in waiting for other things to go his way.
3.) Which free agent would you be most wary of this summer?
Bryan Toporek: Factoring in likely cost, it’s Kyle Lowry. The Villanova product is fresh off three straight All-Star appearances and put up career-best numbers in 2016-17, but he’s already 31 years old and has battled through various bumps and bruises in recent years. If the Raptors were to offer him a full five-year, $200-plus million supermax contract, they’ll be paying him north of $45.7 million in his age-35 campaign.
Spoiler alert: That isn’t likely to end well.
If Lowry were amenable to signing at a discount, he’d be a great value. If he doesn’t settle for a penny less than the max, whichever team signs him could easily grow to regret it.
Brandon Jefferson: I’d be a bit reserved in my dealings with Kyle Lowry. Lowry took awhile before he found his footing in the league, but once he did he turned around the fortunes of the Toronto Raptors along with his buddy DeMar DeRozan. Yet, the magic of that duo lessens in the postseason. Lowry is yet to have the type of breakout performance in the playoffs that he has regularly put forth in the regular season. Lowry is now 31 years old and will turn 32 before the end of the next regular season. Any contract he signs will take him through 36 at the least. Most players do not stay at the same level past 35. Would two max years of suboptimal play from Lowry be worth it? Or worse what if the drop off in play from Lowry begins sooner? These aren’t fair questions to ask of Lowry because he (nor anyone else) cannot predict the future. Lowry has played at an All-Star level and deserves the payday coming to him. If I were a GM in the NBA I’d have second and third thoughts about offering him a max contract.
Vivek Jacob: I’ve talked about Griffin’s injury concerns here, as well as Lowry in a previous offseason roundtable, so I’ll go with Rudy Gay here. If I were a GM, there is not an eight-figure amount (per season) that I’d be comfortable with paying him. He’ll be 31 in a couple of months, he’s coming off a major Achilles injury, and has never quite struck me as a winning player. This is the guy that called the Sacramento Kings franchise hell but re-signed because of the money, right?
When LeBron James and Draymond Green talked about players currently in the league not really knowing how to play basketball on ESPN’s The Shop, Rudy Gay is the type of guy I think of. His size, ability to defend, and three-point shooting is far too enticing for the entire league to pass up on, but I do expect buyer’s remorse with whoever renders his services.