These free agents show how tough the NBA free agency market has been in 2017.
NBA free agency typically burns hot and fast. Normally, most key free agents ink deals between the stroke of midnight on July 1 and the end of that month. Some players in trickier contract situations wait it out until early August. An occasional free agent — often one under restricted status — will wait until September.
This summer, there are four major restricted free agents and at least one young unrestricted free agent who remain unattached as we cruise by Labor Day and approach training camp.
Why are these guys still available? It’s a buyer’s market. Few, if any, teams have salary cap space to work with. Landing a substantial offer sheet is a pipe dream.
We’ve already seen a top restricted free agent — Nerlens Noel, who by my accounting was the top center free agent this summer — take a qualifying offer to set up unrestricted free agency next summer.
The others haven’t followed that path for various reasons. Some may fear the 2018 market may be just as tight. (They would be right.) Others may believe their incumbent teams, who don’t need to rely on cap space to re-sign them in most cases, will eventually crack.
Let’s discuss each case in more detail, starting with the most surprising impasse.
Green is the power forward who finally ended Zach Randolph’s reign in Memphis. In fact, Green’s huge role for the Grizzlies in 2016-17 signaled the impending death of Grit ’n’ Grind. Far from a banger and post scorer, Green is a stretchy, versatile defender who can get out in transition (something foreign to the Grizz) and help implement coach Dave Fizdale’s vision for a new Memphis.
How important was Green last season? He was third in minutes per game behind only Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. He was also important enough that the Grizzlies let Randolph walk without a fight this summer. But the two sides are clearly at an impasse. The qualifying offer can’t be attractive to Green at less than $3 million for 2017-18. Paying Green above market price can’t be attractive to Memphis.
It seemed obvious all along that Green’s best option was re-upping in Memphis and that Memphis’ best free agent option was re-upping Green. It’s pretty odd that the deal hasn’t been consummated yet.
There is a non-zero chance that Mirotic could be the Bulls’ leading scorer this season ... if the Bulls actually re-sign him. Chicago’s roster is in quite a weird spot after the Jimmy Butler trade after the Bulls moved the All-NBA wing for youth in Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn, and Zach LaVine.
Mirotic, who is 26, would seem to fit that timeline and help bridge the gap as an NBA-level scorer while LaVine heals up and Dunn, Markkanen, Bobby Portis, and others gain experience and confidence. One presumes that Dwyane Wade will be gone before he plays another minute for Chicago and that Robin Lopez is supreme trade bait. The luxury tax is not expected to be a major concern.
Still, Mirotic waits.
Niko has been a mild disappointment since his NBA debut three years ago. Reputed as an elite shooter, he’s been inconsistent from beyond the arc and he does little else. As such, you can understand Chicago’s skepticism on a long-term deal. That said, in this league, you don’t sneeze at 6’10 players who are comfortable firing up seven threes per 36 minutes and can hit them at a league-average rate. It’s surprising no other team in need of shooting chased him hard enough to make him bite.
You wonder if Europe, where Mirotic starred before jumping to the Bulls in 2014, is still an option. As it stands, he skipped EuroBasket 2017 to ensure he remained healthy as his status sits in limbo.
Marshall is an AmeriCup champion. Miles is in trouble over possession. And Mason, sweet Mason, a FIBA World Champion and a man who was traded for Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round draft pick just months ago, sits in purgatory, waiting for his life to begin.
There are two ways to look at Denver’s refusal to pay Mason Plumlee. The first is that the Nuggets are wary of falling into the sunk cost fallacy. Denver paid a lot to Portland to get Plumlee in February: Jusuf Nurkic has proven again to be a useful NBA player (at the very least) and the moved pick eventually became Harry Giles. (The Blazers packaged that pick and another to move up for Zach Collins.)
The Nuggets did the deal to shore up their playoff chase. Instead, they lost out on the No. 8 seed by a single game to ... Nurkic and the Blazers. You can understand Denver being shy about doubling down on the trade by paying Plumlee, something it knew it’d need to do when making the deal.
That said, Plumlee is pretty good. He’d be Denver’s third big behind Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap, fighting with Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler for minutes. The Nuggets could attempt to salvage the failed deal for Plumlee by reaching a smart contract and eventually flipping him for a new asset. Denver has plenty of space under the luxury tax threshold. The only real cost is flexibility in future years; one presumes if you reach a moderate deal with Plumlee, his contract will be movable.
That it hasn’t happened suggests the two sides are too far apart. That Mason Plumlee, the best of the three brothers, struggled to land any sort of contract as Miles works on a 4-year, $52 million deal signed a year ago tells you all about the difference between the 2016 and 2017 free agent markets.
Len isn’t as productive as the other restricted free agents mentioned here. He is completely uncritical to his team’s success or failure at this point. However, he is young and intriguing, two attributes that usually get 7-footers paid.
Consider Len a victim of a new NBA that de-emphasizes size for size’s sake and values versatility. Len is not versatile in any way: He can’t shoot, he doesn’t pass, and he seems poorly equipped to chase guards on switches.
So why is he on this list? We mentioned that he’s 24 and a 7-footer, right?
While these types of projects are no longer high priorities in the NBA, they are still worth a look. That no one is willing to take a chance on Len’s development is a little shocking, even in this cap environment. He produces roughly 14 and 12 per 36 minutes. With the right coaching and mentorship, he could be a good back-up center. Have we really abandoned the concept of back-up centers so thoroughly no one wants to give it a try?
Len should have accepted the qualifying offer a month ago. At this point, it’s the only resolution that makes sense.
Unlike the other four players on this list, Muhammad is an unrestricted free agent. The Wolves rescinded his qualifying offer amid the early July spending spree that landed Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson. That happened early enough in the summer that another team should have taken a multi-year flyer on the 24-year-old scorer.
Scoring is important in basketball, and Shabazz does it pretty well: He averages about 18 points per 36 minutes at roughly league-average scoring efficiency. He does literally nothing else on the court, which is bad, but hey ... scoring is important!
(Leave the Dion Waiters comparisons at home. Waiters is a good passer with decent assist numbers, despite the jokes.)
The Wolves need more bodies, but have literally no cap space. There are rumors that Muhammad may come back on a minimum deal. He should be able to do better. A veteran team looking for reserve help — the Clippers, Thunder, Spurs, or even Cavaliers — should kick the tires. A younger team with no interesting in tanking — hello, Nets — should think about making a play. Muhammad is a real NBA player. Keep him in the NBA!