Ah, the pitfalls of NBA free agency. If you target an established player, the odds are that you're paying for production they put up in the past, as a member of another team, not the performance you can expect from them going forward. Then again, take a flier on a young, untested player, and you never know what you might end up with.
The best-case scenario, though, would be to snag a player right as he's on the verge of a breakout season. You'd be paying for a résumé that still can't command big money, and the player's best years would be in the future. Of course, that's obviously a lot easier said than done -- every GM in the game would prefer to sign players before they break out.
Fortunately, we can use history as a guide to narrow down the list of free agents and identify potential 2012-13 breakout players.
First, what exactly is a "breakout season"? Everyone's mileage varies a bit, but for this study, my working definition was the first season of a player's career in which he posted either a 3.5 Value Over Replacement Player (according to Daniel Myers' plus/minus-based VORP system), 8.4 Estimated Wins Added (John Hollinger's wins created metric), or 7.0 Win Shares (Basketball-Reference's individual wins metric). (I picked those thresholds because they roughly correspond to the numbers it takes to rank among the league's top 50 players.)
Looking at the stats for players who began their careers after 1977, about 60 percent of breakout seasons take place at ages 22-25. Of those, more than half happen when a player is either 23 or 24. Also, 77 percent of breakout years happen in the first four years of a player's career, with 50 percent coming in either his second or third year. And in terms of production that portends a breakout, over 70 percent of breakout seasons were preceded by years with either 2 VORP, 4 EWA, or 4 WS (prorated to an 82-game schedule).
According to these benchmarks, here are the free agents most likely to break out in 2013: