Welcome to ESPN Insider's early look at the 2013 NBA free-agent class.
While the free-agent class of 2013 is not rich with top-tier, franchise-centerpiece talent, there is still a good number of high-caliber players available. With the more draconian measures of the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) getting ready to take effect, it is imperative for teams to accurately and effectively assess the amount of financial resources they are willing to devote.
The following is my ranking of 2013's top 30 free agents, sorted by the average annual value (AAV) of the new contracts I believe each player deserves under the rules of the CBA. To make my contract value estimates, I used many of the same factors that I used as a member of the Phoenix Suns' front office: age, injury history, value of recent comparable player contracts, irreplaceability of skill set, contribution to winning, history of production, fit with style and culture, marketability and current cap situation, among other things.
Please note that the AAVs listed below represent my estimation of the approximate value of each player, not a prediction of what the player will receive on the market this summer. (Values denoted in the millions of dollars.)
UFA = Unrestricted free agent; RFA = Restricted free agent; ETO = Early Termination Option
Dwight Howard | C | UFA
2012-13 team: L.A. Lakers
'12-13 AAV: $19.5
'13-14 AAV: $23.6
Despite all of the setbacks experienced this season -- be it the slow recovery from back surgery, clashes with teammates (most notably Kobe Bryant) or massive underachieving team performance -- Howard remains one of the league's most impactful players. As I recently wrote, his explosiveness and agility seem to be returning to pre-injury levels; even so, he's still managed to rebound almost 30 percent of available defensive rebounds and shoot nearly 57 percent from the field. Further, he's proved to be one of the most effective rim protectors in the league, discouraging opponent field goal attempts (FGAs) in the paint, as illustrated in "The Dwight Effect."
It's a no-brainer that Howard will command the maximum allowable contract, which for him comes out to roughly $118 million over five years, or an AAV of $23.6 million per year. The only question is whether he'll accept another year in L.A. before the Lakers finally hit the reset button on the Kobe era and build the franchise around Howard -- or whether he'll seek a sign-and-trade deal to a new destination.
Chris Paul | PG | UFA
2012-13 team: L.A. Clippers
'12-13 AAV: $17.8
'13-14 AAV: $21.5
When I wrote about the Clippers' long-term outlook a few months ago, I stated that any conversation about their future began and ended with Paul's contract. Paul is an elite point guard on both ends of the court, assisting on nearly 50 percent of all made field goals when he's on the floor and leading the league in steals (when he's on the court, nearly 4 percent of all opponent possessions end up in a Paul steal). And historically, he's been one of the most clutch closers in the league. He also has practically single-handedly turned around not only the culture of the Clippers' organization, but also their image in Los Angeles and around the league. Paul remains the Clippers' biggest selling point for other free agents to sign with them.
Ironically, the biggest assist Paul could give his team would be to accept less money to allow it the flexibility to surround him with quality talent, but the Clippers have to be prepared to offer him nothing less than the maximum allowable contract of $107.5 million over five years (AAV: $21.5 million).
Josh Smith | SF/PF | UFA
2012-13 team: Atlanta Hawks
'12-13 AAV: $13.2
'13-14 AAV: $14.0
Smith represents a dilemma. On one hand, he offers a unique skill set in terms of being an elite defender (one of only six players in the league averaging at least 1.0 block, 1.0 steal and a defensive rebound percentage of 20 or higher) who also fits perfectly alongside Al Horford in Atlanta's frontcourt. On the other hand, he has a penchant for mood swings and aspirations that extend beyond his effective abilities. Smith is incredibly efficient around the rim, but takes a lot of low-efficiency shots from the perimeter; moreover, he also tends to be a ball-stopper, opting for isolation matchups on the perimeter.
Regardless, he can cause matchup problems. His agent will compare him to combo forwards like Nicolas Batum ($11.5 million a year) -- and point out Smith's versatile production -- but I'd argue that his production still doesn't warrant a maximum allowable contract, which would pay him close to $18.9 million per year. A four-year deal with an AAV of $14 million per year would be the most I'd commit to Smith, with a player option that would allow him to cash in one last time in free agency should he choose.