The NBA has locked out its players and it may be a long time before we see NBA basketball again. In order to maintain my sanity, I’m trying to remain optimistic and focusing on what will happen once play resumes, so I came up with a list of the top 20 free agents available once the lockout ends. This free agent class lacks the star power of the summer of LeBron and a 2012 class that will likely include Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Dwight Howard, though it has several solid contributors who can help put a good team over the top.
The list includes both restricted and unrestricted free agents, assuming there are still restricted free agents under the new collective bargaining agreement. Unrestricted free agents may sign with any team they choose. Teams retain the right to keep their restricted free agents by matching any offer made by another team. I’ve indicated (UR) for unrestricted or (R) for restricted next to the players’ names.
These are the top 20 NBA free agents of 2011.
20) Yao Ming (UR)
Yao’s career may be over, though there have been big men who have contemplated retirement after multiple lower leg injuries only to return for a few very good seasons, Bill Walton and Zydrunas Ilgauskas being two of them. Yao has made it clear that he only wants to play for the Rockets. It will be interesting to see how much money Houston is willing to gamble on his fragile legs.
19) Rodney Stuckey (R)
Pistons’ President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars viewed Stuckey as the point guard of the future when he traded Chauncey Billups to Denver a few years ago, but now it seems that the organization believes he’s more of a hybrid than a point guard. The team’s selection of Brandon Knight in the first round may be an indication that Stuckey’s run in Detroit has come to an end.
18) Carl Landry (UR)
Landry is one of the more underrated players in the NBA. He’s a solid low post scorer and hard nosed defender who’s probably best suited to come off the bench, but can step into the starting lineup if necessary. The power forward should see a significant bump in his salary from last season of $3 million.
17) Tayshaun Prince (UR)
The glory days of the Pistons seem like a l0ng time ago. Prince has been forgotten amid the chaos within the franchise, but his productivity has remained steady. He’s a very good defender who can stretch a defense and will bring a championship pedigree with him wherever he ends up.
16) Caron Butler (R)
Butler is highly respect among his peers as an intense competitor, though he’s 31-years-old and coming off of knee surgery. The Mavs would like to retain him, but Tyson Chandler is their number one priority and it’s doubtful that they’ll have the money to sign both.
15) Wilson Chandler (R)
Chandler was one of the key components of the Carmelo Anthony trade and was the odd man out on a deep Nuggets team come playoff time. His greatest asset is his ability to defend multiple positions. He’s expressed an interest in returning to the Knicks and they’d love to have him, but it’s unlikely they’ll be able to make the money work.
14) Aaron Brooks (R)
Brooks’ last two seasons have been a bit perplexing. In ’09-’10 he averaged 19.6 points per game and was voted the league’s most improved player. This past season his shooting was atrocious and his attitude questionable, so the Rockets shipped him to Phoenix. He’s a shoot-first point guard with an inconsistent shot, though his quickness provides a nice change of pace off the bench.
13) Jason Richardson (UR)
J-Rich has lost a step since his early days in Golden State and his failure to help the Magic advance past the first round of the playoffs doesn’t help his cause. He’s not going to make any where the $14.4 million he received last season, though he can still be a complimentary shooter on a playoff team.
12) Thaddeus Young (R)
Young is a remarkable athlete who thrives in a fast-paced offense, but right now he’s no more than a high energy player off the bench. Still, he’s only 23 and has time to develop into a more reliable shooter if he’s willing to reconstruct the awkward release on his shot.
11) Greg Oden (R)
Oden is the wild card in this free agent class. His injury history is well documented and it seems unlikely that he’ll be able to remain healthy, though he was the number one pick in the draft just four years ago. The Blazers demonstrated that they still have some faith in him when they extended him a qualifying offer of $8.8 million.
10) Jeff Green (R)
Green’s stock has plummeted over the past few years. Once viewed as a potential wing man for Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City, he played sparingly this past post-season after being traded to the Celtics. He can still score from the perimeter and in the post against smaller forwards and defends well on the perimeter.
9) Jamal Crawford (UR)
Crawford will be in high demand this off-season, even though his scoring average dropped from 18.0 to 14.2 this past season. The ideal sixth man can fill it up in a hurry and has proven that he can be a number one option at times on a very good team.
8) J.R. Smith (UR)
Crawford is more consistent than Smith, but J.R. is six years younger and has many productive years ahead of him, assuming he keeps his head on straight. The Nuggets guard provided George Karl with punch off the bench with his infinite range and tremendous athleticism.
7) Kris Humphries (UR)
Call it the Kardashian effect. After bouncing around the league during his first six seasons, Humphries found his niche in New Jersey last season, averaging 10.4 rebounds per game. He’s a solid rotation player on a playoff team, possibly even a starter at the power forward position.
6) Aaron Affalo (R)
Afflalo has improved significantly in each of his four seasons in the league and has become an efficient shooter and excellent defender. He’ll never be a star, but he’s a solid role player who would make a nice addition to a team like the Bulls that is seeking a shooting guard.
5) DeAndre Jordan (R)
Blake Griffin isn’t the only talented young big man on the Clippers. Jordan was moved into the starting lineup when Chris Kaman was injured and made the most of the opportunity, averaging 7.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game. It’s highly unlikely that L.A. will allow this budding big man to get away.
4) David West (UR)
West is the best player available through free agency, a versatile scorer who grabs eight boards a game, but he turns 31 this summer and is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. There are reports that the Nets are interested, though West has expressed his desire to return to the Hornets.
3) Nene (UR)
Legitimate centers are difficult to find and Nene is one of the best in the league, in the prime of his career. His numbers aren’t staggering, at 14 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, but he can score in the post and bang with any big man in the league.
2) Marc Gasol (R)
The Grizzlies and their fans are revved up after a deep playoff run this past year without one of their best players, Rudy Gay. Management wants to keep the core of the team intact and is almost certain to match any offer for Pau’s younger, assuming they’re able to remain under the new salary cap.
1) Tyson Chandler (UR)
NBA general managers saw how Chandler transformed the Mavs into a tougher, better defensive team this season. He’s been in the league for ten years, but is still just 28 years-old, and seems to be past the toe injury that hampered him earlier in his career. The Mavs have some difficult decisions to make this off-season, though keeping Chandler will be their top priority.
Other notable free agents: Glen “Big Baby” Davis (UR), Nick Young (R), Andre Kirilenko (UR), Reggie Evans (UR), J.J. Barea (UR), Michael Redd (UR), Grant Hill (UR), Shane Battier (UR), Kenyon Martin (UR), Tracy McGrady (UR), Mario Chalmers (R), DeShawn Stevenson (UR), Samuel Dalembert (UR), Nenad Krstic (UR), Brian Cardinal (UR, Chuck Hayes (UR), Marcus Thornton (R), Daequan Cook (R)