As we near the trade deadline and head toward the uncertain offseason, officials around the league will scour rosters thinking about moves big and small. One of the trickiest parts of that process is valuing potential restricted free agents at the end of their rookie deals. If you trade for them, it’s presumably because you want them — they’re young and talented, right? But they also might be due for a raise. And if you pursue one in free agency, you do so with the knowledge that his incumbent team has only to tender a relatively cheap qualifying offer to retain the right to match any rival proposal. (If no qualifying offer is made, the player becomes an unrestricted free agent.)
So it’s useful to step back and see which of these players have helped their stock, which have hurt themselves and which have done little to clarify their value.
Starting in the Eastern Conference:
STOCK HAS RISEN
Wilson Chandler, New York Knicks (Qualifying offer: $3,099,851): Chandler may not be playing quite as well as the hype suggests, but he has improved, and some team is going to throw a big contract at him. The only big change Chandler has made is his transformation into a league-average three-point shooter — a huge positive, particularly given New York’s philosophy on offense. He’s a great finisher at the rim — in transition and otherwise — and he has a diverse game that would transfer anywhere.
He’s not an elite defender, but he can credibly guard three positions, he works hard and he has no glaring bad habits. If Carmelo Anthony gets to the free-agent market, the Knicks (if they want him) will almost certainly have to renounce their rights to Chandler to free up enough cap space — and even shedding Chandler might not open Carmelo-level room. (Nothing is certain until we see the new collective bargaining agreement, of course.) But teams will approach Chandler differently if they know they don’t have to bargain against the Knicks. This will be fascinating to watch.
Thaddeus Young, Philadelphia 76ers ($3,992,108): Young has one indisputable NBA skill: He can score. That may be the only thing he can do at an above-average level, but he has done it more efficiently this season than ever before. Young is shooting 54 percent, in part because he has abandoned the three-point shot in favor of attacking the rim.
He has not shown much in the way of defense or passing, though his lack of assists this season may be in part the result of his role as one of Philadelphia’s designated go-to-the-hole bench scorers. His mid-range shot is so-so, and he has functioned at a much higher level in each of the last two seasons as a small-ball power forward rather than as a more “traditional” small forward.
Fit might be more important for Young than some of these other guys.
Nick Young, Washington Wizards ($3,695,857): The first of three Wizards on this list, and the only one who has clearly helped his case. Young’s scoring rate and shooting percentages are both up, and that’s nothing to scoff at, because he’s had to take on a much larger role in Washington’s offense given Gilbert Arenas’ absence, John Wall’s health issues and the lack of reliable play from anyone on the front line. He’s also managed one more trip to the line per 36 minutes this season, which is something.
But there is danger in being seduced by the 17 points per game and the career-high (but still just a tad better than league-average) Player Efficiency Rating. Nick Young is still Nick Young: a high-volume chucker who doesn’t create for others, rarely passes and may be having a career year because of a fluky increase in his accuracy on deep two-point shots. Young has made 49 percent of those long twos, and that just screams fluke.
Young has other pluses. He can be a sticky one-on-one defender, and he rarely turns the ball over, though that may only be because he shoots it all the time and rarely does anything off the bounce.
Scorers get paid, and Young has easily earned his qualifying offer. It will be interesting to see if the Wizards go much further than that, having already committed loads of cash to one mercurial young player (Andray Blatche) who hasn’t exactly repaid their faith. If the Wizards renounce all three of their restricted free agents, they could have more than $10 million in cap room — and a cleaner long-term payroll situation.
If the Wizards pass, there are a bunch of teams with a lack of scoring at shooting guard (including Chicago, Utah, Indiana and New Orleans) that might look at Young as an obtainable consolation prize.
STOCK HAS DROPPED
Spencer Hawes, Philadelphia 76ers ($4,051,024): Hawes is only 22, but he looks much like the player who started with the Kings at 19 — a big man with an intriguing passing/shooting skill set who doesn’t score enough inside and rebounds inconsistently. He’s improved his defensive rebounding this season, but his minutes have dropped way down as small lineups with Elton Brand at center have outperformed groups with Hawes in the pivot.
Brand has two years left on his contract, and the Sixers already have about $53 million in guaranteed salary on the books next season — before factoring in any money for Young or Hawes. Don’t be surprised if they let Hawes walk, and if they do, it won’t be a shock if he can’t nail down a deal worth his qualifying offer on the open market. Still, personnel guys love big men who can shoot, right?
Julian Wright, Toronto Raptors ($3,952,653): Wright is going to stick somewhere because he’s a 23-year-old athlete who cares about defense and generally helps on that end. But in four seasons on two teams, he has not shown much of an offensive game beyond finishing in transition; he took a 20-footer jumper against the Pacers last week that hit the top of the backboard and had Indiana’s bench bracing for laughter while the shot was in midair. A short, cheap deal is likely here.
Yi Jianlian, Washington Wizards ($5,403,366): No team has more decisions to make on restricted free agents than the Wizards, but Yi has likely made this one easy for them. Because this might be all there is here — a 7-footer who loves long jump shots he makes at a so-so rate, flails around inside and struggles to grasp NBA-level defense. His minutes have plummeted, and if he can’t play consistently for this Wizards team, it’s hard to believe a rebuilding team on its way to cap room is going to offer Yi something close to the league’s average salary.
If the Wizards let him walk, he’ll have to take a pay cut from his lottery-pick salary. He’ll probably find his way to the end of someone’s bench, because that’s what big guys do.
Al Thornton, Washington Wizards ($3,914,547): I don’t mean this in a bad way, but Thornton might be the most nondescript player in the league. He’s a 6-8 small forward (the prototypical “average” player) whose PER has never been higher than 12.7 or lower than 11.9 (his current mark), and there isn’t one thing he does either very well or horribly. He even plays almost exactly half of each game. He has cleaned up his shot selection a bit since he was driving Clippers fans crazy with contested mid-range jumpers, but he’s just a so-so player across the board, on both ends. He hasn’t developed a reliable three-point shot, his free-throw attempts per minute have dropped in each of his four seasons and he sits in that huge gray area between a sieve and a stopper on defense.
He’s already 27, so he’s probably a finished product at this point. Any team that pays him based on potential would be chasing ghosts. The Wizards may end of up choosing between Thornton and Young (who can play small forward), and if that’s the scenario here, Young will probably win out. If that happens, Thornton will hit the open market under a new set of rules. This may not turn out well.
THE HUGE UNKNOWN
Rodney Stuckey, Detroit Pistons ($3,868,443): What a strange season for Stuckey, who started by scoring more often and more efficiently, and generally making it look like a no-brainer that the Pistons would retain him despite all the money they’re already paying to worse players. But then Tracy McGrady took the reins of the offense (an offense that still ranks just 21st in points per possession) and started hitting Chris Wilcox on smooth-looking pick-and-rolls, and everyone started wondering again if Stuckey is really a point guard. Now Stuckey’s minutes, scoring and shooting percentages have all come down, and Detroit might have a much tougher decision here than most anticipated.
Even so, this would be an easy choice if the Pistons didn’t owe nearly $85 million combined in future salary to Charlie Villanueva, Richard Hamilton and Ben Gordon. But they do owe all that cash — at least for now — and “losing” Stuckey would be one quick way to grab a nice chunk of cap room this offseason. It’s, perhaps, worth noting that Detroit’s offense has played much better with Stuckey on the floor, though how much that means is unclear.
Questions aside, Stuckey is obviously worth his qualifying offer, and the Pistons must know a team looking for backcourt help will go hard after a 25-year-old with a PER only a tick below Rajon Rondo’s.