We’ve examined the teams that figure to have salary cap space and the class of big men that will enter free agency, whenever free agency begins. Now it’s time to dig into the wing players, a group of mid-level types, many of whom are either getting old or bring one-dimensional games. There isn’t a single easy ranking here, not even at the very top, and how each suitor ranks this group will obviously depend on the needs and stature of that particular team. A franchise in win-now mode and without cap space might well prioritize using a slice of the mid-level exception (should it exist) on Grant Hill or Shane Battier rather than throwing more cash at a younger guy, such as Wilson Chandler or J.R. Smith.
*Note: Smith and Chandler have since signed deals in the Chinese Basketball Association with no opt-out clauses. Unless the players are waived, they will not be eligible to return to the NBA until after the Chinese season ends in March. The NBA’s free-agent signing period is tentatively scheduled to begin on Dec. 9.
Here’s our best shot at finding the 20 best wing players:
1. Arron Afflalo (restricted)
It’s fine if you think this is crazy. Other guys have bigger names and flashier games, filled with isolation highlights and pick-and-roll mastery. But Afflalo is a two-way player, something several guys on this list can’t say, and he looks to be entering his prime, both in terms of age (he’ll be 26 in October) and playing style. He has gradually evolved on offense from a one-dimensional spot-up shooter into someone who can hurt you in a variety of ways — in transition, coming off screens, working off the dribble and even posting up smaller defenders.
He’ll have to continue that evolution to justify this ranking, and placing him here amounts to a bet that he will. We’ve always known he can defend, but he showed last season that he can defend both shooting guards and small forwards, even if the bigger guys among the latter group hurt him in the post.
He’s a restricted free agent, and the Nuggets, otherwise lacking experienced shooting guards, will likely pay whatever it takes to keep him. But if there’s a restricted free agent among the wings worth a Wesley Matthews-style surprise offer sheet, this is the one.
2. Tayshaun Prince
At 31, Prince isn’t what he once was, and he was part of a poisonous atmosphere in Detroit last season. But he’s another guy who helps on both ends, and he’s ideal as a third or fourth option on a good team. He can post up, hit spot-up three-pointers and isolate in a pinch as the shot clock winds down.
3. Jason Richardson
The 31-year-old’s game dropped off in Orlando, but even there, Richardson shot 38 percent from three-point range, and shooting is a skill that tends to age well. He’s not much of a threat off the dribble and he won’t earn many free throws, but his shooting and ability to run around screens should be helpful for any team. He’s a so-so defender, at best, but he’s good enough to work fine in the right system.
4. Caron Butler
Butler, 31, may end up undervalued because of the knee injury that cut his season short in Dallas. In that abbreviated campaign, Butler moved away a bit from working as a ball-stopping isolation threat and into a role as a more well-rounded player, with solid fundamentals on defense and more range on his jumper. That’s exactly the shift he needs to make as he ages, and if last season’s work proves lasting, Butler will help … a lot.
5. Grant Hill
Put the next four guys in any order you like, depending on what you might value. Hill is a defense-first wing in the Shane Battier mold, but he offers a bit more versatility on offense, where he thrives in transition and can hurt opponents more than Battier as a slasher (off the bounce or off the catch). He doesn’t quite have Battier’s range (he barely attempted one three-pointer per game last season), and at 38, he’s at risk of falling apart at any time. But on a short-term deal, Hill can offer a lot.
6. Jamal Crawford
Crawford plays no defense and he may never equal the shooting numbers he put up two seasons ago for the Hawks. But we know this: A team can give the ball to Crawford at the top of the arc for a pick-and-roll and be confident he’s going to create an opportunity without coughing the ball up. He may not make the right decision — he adores long, contested two-pointers — but he’s a capable passer, he can make tough shots and he can score in isolation when needed. He does not quite terrify his own fans, which sets him apart from …
7. J.R. Smith*
Perhaps the most tantalizing guy on this list, and not only because he can change a game with a quick barrage of threes. Smith has always been a bit underrated as a driver and passer, especially on pick-and-rolls, though perhaps those gifts are underrated because he too often eschews them in favor of bad jumpers. Still, if any contender can harness his total skill set, Smith is a game-changer on offense. He’s usually a train wreck on the other end, though.
8. Wilson Chandler (restricted)*
This is an upside pick, a bet that there is something more in this 24-year-old, 6-8 package of skills. Chandler has put up numbers, but he has never quite clicked. He has a diverse offensive game that doesn’t include one consistent top-level skill, which is one reason he fell down the Nuggets’ totem pole as the first-round series against the Thunder progressed. Chandler’s game has never included enough passing or free throws, and his defense has been similarly hit-or-miss. A team on the verge of title contention might stay away, but those one tier lower should take a look.
9. Shane Battier
You know exactly what you’re getting: A knockout defender who can take bigger shooting guards and small forwards, and a spot-up three-point threat who keeps a dash of post-up skills in reserve for use against smaller defenders. He also moves well off the ball. Battier, 32, finally showed some minor signs of age last season, but he’s a proven commodity who should remain valuable for at least a couple of more seasons.
10. Andrei Kirilenko
Kirilenko can swing between both forward positions, but we’ll lump him in here because he’s played much more small forward over the last few seasons in Utah. If Kirilenko does switch teams, it will be fascinating to watch how he changes with age (he’s 30, and plays a very athletic style) and in an offense other than Utah’s movement- and cut-heavy flex. He can help on both ends in the right home, but if he becomes even more addicted to long jumpers that he hits at a below-average rate, he could be a disappointment.
11. Marcus Thornton (restricted)
This could be laughably low, considering Thornton averaged 21 points per game for the Kings and showed potential as a secondary pick-and-roll distributor. We know the caveats: His defense is shaky, especially away from the ball, and he’s always going to present some fit issues because he’s only 6-4 and lacks a solid point guard background.
Thornton is a restricted free agent after the Kings tendered him a $1.06 million qualifying offer. Sacramento wants to keep Thornton and has loads of cap space, but it figures to face some competition.
12. Nick Young (restricted)
Young shot 45 percent on long two-point jumpers last season, one of the best marks in the league among high-volume shooters. Young has hit at least 40 percent of such shots in each of his four seasons, so while that 45 percent number screams “FLUKE!” at first glance, the 26-year-old has proved by now that he can hit from the outside at a good rate.
He’s also proved that he can’t pass, rebound, get to the line much or play consistent defense. How much of that bad stuff — especially the amazingly low assist rates — had to with the dysfunctional Wizards, and how much had to do with Young? How much would you pay to find out?
13. Mike Dunleavy
How much do you believe in plus/minus? The Pacers were better with Dunleavy on the floor in all three seasons in which he was healthy (and logged at least 60 games). The improvement was significant in two of those seasons — including in 2010-11, when most of the Pacers’ best core lineups featured Dunleavy.
It’s not hard to imagine why this might be. Dunleavy can play both wing positions, and he can shoot, cut, work off screens and handle the ball. He’s not a great defender, but he works and he has those long arms. He’s fresh off being badly overpaid, but in this round of free agency, he might outperform his salary.
14. Shannon Brown
It looked in early December as if Brown had developed an elite three-point shot, a terrifying thing for enemy teams who saw Brown’s athletic talent and fretted about how valuable he could become as Kobe Bryant’s backup. But Brown’s shot fell apart in 2011, and he hasn’t shown yet that he can help much on offense if he’s not hitting open jumpers. That could change, and Brown has done some very good work as a defender. He could be a low-priced steal.
15. Vince Carter
Carter would move up this list if folks had confidence that he could shift out of “I’m the man!” mode and into a backup role as a spot-up shooter capable of moving the ball and playing at least average defense. Carter’s liabilities and alleged effort issues have made him a laughingstock among the cognoscenti, but he could really help a team that needs depth and scoring at the wing.
(Note: His presence here reflects the general assumption that Phoenix will buy out the final year of Carter’s monster deal for the required $4 million, thus making him a free agent.)
16. Delonte West
You’re taking a chance here, but you’d be doing so with any free agent outside the top tier of wing players. When he’s healthy and committed, West is a feisty defender, decent spot-up shooter and the kind of ball-handler who won’t do anything spectacular off the bounce — but will produce a decent shot for someone.
17. DeShawn Stevenson
Three-and-D. If you do those two things, you can help, and Stevenson does both at his best. He can be a valuable bench player in the right situation.
18. Tracy McGrady
McGrady’s season in Detroit has to be considered a success, as he proved he can work as an effective point forward type even though his old athleticism is mostly gone. In what may be a one-year fluke, his one-on-one defensive numbers were outstanding (per Synergy Sports), and the Pistons played much better defense with him on the floor. Painting McGrady as a plus defender at this stage doesn’t quite pass the eye test, and the Pistons were pretty bad on that end regardless of personnel. But McGrady showed he can be a productive bench guy just about anywhere.
19. Reggie Williams (restricted)
There remain questions about his defense and what position he should play, though the answers to both of those would be clearer had he played anywhere else. Williams will probably be back in Golden State, which has tendered him a qualifying offer, but he could be a potential target for teams coveting some low-cost scoring off the bench. And Williams can absolutely score.
20. Anthony Parker
He’s 36, but he should probably be able to squeeze in one more season of above-average, three-point shooting and solid wing defense, though his defense slipped last season in Cleveland.