If you’re an NBA GM most things revolve around whether you’re buying low and selling high. 30 competing agendas all play out in concert. Some of the decisions are deliberated for years and some decisions are knee-jerk reactions to a development in the marketplace. Some of the GMs are good and some are quite terrible and that’s before you get to the owners! It’s all great fun and opposite the NBA Draft, fortunes are changing in these next few days.
What this list attempts to do is give GMs (or fans at home) a cheat sheet for the big event. They can target players based on overall value or the efficiency of those dollars spent, and if they are doing it right they are going to find the players that I lay out at the top of both of those lists. This list has been the home of big-time plays such as Joe Ingles in 2017, Joe Harris and Fred VanVleet in 2018, Richaun Holmes was the big win we had seen coming for way too many years. Two years ago Jerami Grant was my top Cash-to-Value rank and predictably blew up. In that season De’Anthony Melton was one of the league’s best players in terms of net rating and it wasn’t a fluke – he was awesome and a casualty of NBA politics in crowded Memphis. Last year it was our second ranked cash-to-value wing Max Strus knocking in big shots in the ECF and all season long for literal pennies, or our third ranked interior wing Jarred Vanderbilt getting loose, or Isaiah Hartenstein as the 10th ranked cash-to-value big when he didn’t even get picked up in free agency (now he’s closing in on top 10 big man status in the NBA as a whole).
We typically exclude elite players from the top slot in Cash-to-Value ranks even if they’re dominant like, say, Bradley Beal or Deandre Ayton, even if an argument can be made on their behalf (they’re still ranked that way in the overall ranks). The purpose of this list is to give decision-makers around the league, fans and anybody in the basketball space an idea of how to extract the most value possible in each of their free agent decisions. Pile up enough of these winners and you can have the cash and credibility to go after top tier players in the league.
So who has the top spot this year? I typically pick one player but this year I’m going to take two and they are none other than Gary Payton II and Isaiah Hartenstein.
Casual fans didn’t even get to see what Payton is capable of when he returned in the Finals and he was still great. Let’s cut to the chase I think he’s the best defender in the NBA and I haven’t seen defense like that in a long time.
He’s the first defender I’ve seen since championship Jrue Holiday that takes up as much space from offensive players as he does … if they don’t aggressively (and typically recklessly) keep him from taking that space. His speed and strength combo causes offensive players to stop everything they’re accustomed to doing and simply focus on whether or not they can dribble without having the ball taken. Jayson Tatum was able to shoot over him a bit but even then he had to earn it, a rare victory that required one of the league’s best offensive players.
You better believe Golden State knows that they don’t win that series without him, as we predicted and eventually was the case as once they let Payton loose the series turned on its head. I got a bit deeper in the writeup below but when you’re the best player at 50% of the game and you’re likely to go for less than the MLE, you deserve the top slot in the Cash-to-Value ranks.
So why is it even close between he and Hartenstein? Mostly because big man defense is exceedingly rare and high-end performers make such a huge difference in today’s game. Hartenstein will also be available for a song as he was inexplicably left on the bench as the Clippers bowed out this past season. He dominated advanced statistics leaderboards and it always matched the eye test. As with Payton I can go a bit deeper on the evaluation within his grouping below, but generally speaking Hartenstein can compete defensively out on the perimeter and yet still bang down low as one of the stronger fives in the league. He has unique offensive skills as well that keep him from being a defense only guy, though there is still a lot of room to grow there.
Payton is 29 years old and that’s getting up there for an elite perimeter defender but he probably has a solid 2 to 3 years with possibly no reduction in explosion. Conversely, life as an elite defensive big can turn fast as once you’re beatable the entire integrity of a defense is lost and the results manifest everywhere else. Say bye bye net rating. Quarter steps and half steps for big men matter a ton, whereas elite perimeter players can continue to stay elite or very good for years with much more degradation. In that respect, Hartenstein is 24 years old and has a great shot at two more years with his current speed and strength package, maybe more, but to carry that much strength and keep the agility requires incredible training and good luck with injuries.
So I am going to take the easy way out and call them both the best Cash-to-Value free agents this season. Other names to note include Jaylen Nowell, Malik Monk, Cody and Caleb Martin, Chris Boucher, Jalen Smith and Damian Jones. Nowell gets the top rank for ballhandlers and guards and he barely squeaked into that slot, almost on a technicality because as you’ll see below in the explanations I typically like to have the top ranked Cash-to-Value player in each grouping not be the top overall player in the group as to keep the spirit of the Cash-to-Value ranks in the forefront here. Still, the 3-level scorer may be eminently available for nothing and I don’t see why he wouldn’t profile as somebody that could earn at least 25 possibly very good mpg in a lot of different spots. Monk has really dialed himself in as one of the league’s up and coming offensive players and he is surrounded by very bad, expensive assets. The Martin twins are going to be great for a while, Boucher will be awesome for the price, as will Smith.
There are many more great Cash-to-Value plays and the overall ranks aren’t bad, either. Enough talking about what we were going to be talking about so let’s get into it!
The concept is this — you’re looking to get the best players at the cheapest costs. If you do that effectively, you have more money to spend elsewhere.
These ranks lean into that pretty strongly. However, you can’t win in the NBA without getting above average and elite players. The key is spending up to get the right players and for the purpose of these rankings, above average players get plenty of love in their cash-to-value rank, depending on how much they cost of course. As mentioned above the cash value ranks are going to significantly reward players who are both cheap and high-end, most likely giving them the top cash-to-value ranks.
VETERANS VS. UPSIDE
These ranks will give older veterans that can still contribute a bit more value than a pure cash-to-value rank might represent. Teams aren’t lining up to sign them and deals may vary, but in terms of winning it all a quality old vet that’s willing to play at or close to the minimum represents a better play than some younger upside guys.
If you just want to know who the best players are you can sort by the overall rank column. This rank will include some elements of upside, which is unavoidable when assessing overall free agency value. However, short-term production and win-now scenarios are going to show up in the overall ranks. For example, Zach LaVine is not going to do well in the Cash-to-Value ranks, but in terms of overall rank he’ll have higher marks.
POSITIONAL GROUPINGS AND APPROACH
I did something new last year and went with four different groupings. Ballhandlers and Small Guards, Wings, Interior Wings and Bigs. I’d like to think I’m the first to say something as stupid or smart as ‘Interior Wings,’ but that’s my way of noticing increased importance of rangy 6’8″ to 6’10” players being asked to defend 2-4 or 3-5 (well or not is another story). They’ve become much more important as teams employ five-out looks, and elite ballhandlers and offensive initiators have grown in size and versatility. As has been the case with the league at large, they’re firing away from deep.
In previous years I was a bit more granular in the groupings, and maybe it’s the way the NBA is trending but I felt like four groups was enough. Ballhandlers are legitimate point guards at any size and small guards typically have enough offensive skill to warrant overlooking their defensive liabilities to some degree. Wings are either asked to be outstanding shooters or they’re being asked to lock the perimeter down, or both. They’re valued in their ability to switch and otherwise facilitate offense. Bigs are the muscle you need to control the paint and shooting is a bonus.
Sometimes we’ll split these guys out into their own category but this year there are only two — with Elites being loosely defined as players you don’t have any questions about on the contract side. This year that’s Bradley Beal and Deandre Ayton. There are some big names that I don’t have in that designation, like Kyrie Irving and James Harden because they are disasters, and then as alluded to Zach LaVine is probably doomed by that knee issue and has zero shot of living up to earned big-time expectations. Miles Bridges is the other name that can be treated as elite in terms of a free agent target, with only the slightest of concerns that he won’t meet the value of a max deal. Not a lock, but as close as it gets.
SYMBOLS AND ANNOTATIONS
A QUICK WORD ON THIS FREE AGENT CLASS
As usual, there are no shortage of targets for smart teams. Give it up for the dumb teams y’all! But once again there are a ton of solid guard targets. There are some great wings to target at the top of our ranks but it starts falling off pretty precipitously after that. That dynamic gets even rougher for interior wings and then there are nearly 10 solid big man targets. Teams with needs should surgically strike in those wing categories and then try to let players from the guards and big men groups fall to them so to speak.
All the previous years’ ranks for your perusal.
BALLHANDLERS AND SMALL GUARD
Jaylen Nowell both intrigues me as a possible huge win for the Cash-to-Value ranks and at the same time I kind of want to tap the brakes here a bit and recognize how many good players there are in the league and what a challenge it will be for him to become a top 30 player in this group, including all players and not just free agents. Watching him throughout last year I just knew that he was gonna force my hand with these ranks because of his overall offensive execution. All of the elements of a great target are here. He was stuck behind big name signees, inefficient early on in his career, plays in a small market and now that team has new owners … just to name a few of the big things driving the opportunity here. Minnesota has a tricky contract situation to navigate, and while they should consider re-ranking their guys D’Angelo Russell is a big piece to move and who knows if that will happen. Anthony Edwards certainly isn’t going anywhere. If Minnesota hangs on here it could be another year in hiding for Nowell, but smart teams need to be quiet as to not attract attention and then be ready to pounce.
Bradley Beal is obviously the top overall free agent in this group (slightly behind Deandre Ayton overall) and surely sentiment regarding Jalen Brunson changed after the playoffs … but I’m generally a believer there. Malik Monk, as mentioned in the open, is about to have a Jordan Clarkson-esque rise. The Collin Sexton situation is extremely intriguing in that you’d think a defensive guard with offensive chops would command more attention and yet with the injury derailing his season and the rise of Darius Garland he is just sort of hanging out there as young, high end talent. As long as any intel comes back good I see no reason why it shouldn’t be competitive to get him. Anfernee Simons’ situation is basically that he is going to stay and get paid in Portland, but ranking him highly is fun nonetheless. We have some big time losers in any Kyrie Irving or James Harden deal, and I am down on Zach LaVine because of his knee situation.
Oh, and that whole Russell Westbrook thing is addressed in the ranks, too.
We covered Gary Payton in detail in the open and there are more notes below … and for as good as he is and is highly ranked as he is … The Martin twins are right there with him. They don’t have the elite gear on defense that Payton has (and may never will) but eventually they will start getting consideration for all-defensive teams as their profiles rise. Look for both of them to continue improving their shooting, playmaking and start commanding more attention on offense, rounding out into peak Nicolas Batum territory.
There is a pretty steep fall off in this category after the top 10 ranks, Cash-to-Value and overall, and the upside starts to go away after the top six, so teams would be wise to take advantage of some really solid options. Kyle Anderson doesn’t have the elite defense that Payton has so he can’t change a series but he can certainly be a part of the reason you won one. And he is right behind the Martin twins, who I like just a bit more for their overall upside package, and even when you get down to Lu Dort and Lonnie Walker … these are players that bring pop to the equation. Anderson does everything right on both sides of the floor and despite being called criminally underrated by just about everybody he’s still underrated. Dort contributes offensively and can climb pretty high in defensive ranking conversations. Walker has a silky smooth game that’s begging to be cut loose with a San Antonio pedigree to boot.
Bruce Brown shouldn’t be a mystery to people but he probably will be, Yuta Watanabe is very much a mystery to many outside of Toronto and Stanley Johnson is the least of people’s worries in LA these days. Along with Oshae Brissett they represent super affordable, good options that will allow smart teams to spend elsewhere. In the case of Brown he has shown he can be good when it matters most, too.