Arron Afflalo has become, improbably, a bit of a cause célèbre among NBA die-hards. In his four years in the league, Afflalo has averaged double figures in scoring just once (last season in Denver) and never put up a league-average Player Efficiency Rating. Even so, fans of every team with a need on the wing — and especially fans in Chicago — are clamoring for their club to make a run at Afflalo, who will be a restricted free agent once the league resumes business. A lot of Bulls fans preferred him when presented with a theoretical choice between signing him and trading for Golden State’s Monta Ellis, and I ranked Afflalo as the best wing free agent considering all factors — age, cost, potential and value.
Afflalo has already established himself as an elite three-and-D guy, and he showed signs last season that he might be ready to take on a bigger role as a secondary scorer and creator. He talked at length to SI.com about free agency, the Carmelo Anthony trade and his game.
SI.com: Are you aware how much die-hard NBA fans love your game? You didn’t play all that much in Detroit during your first two seasons, but after last season, a lot of fans want you to sign with their team.
Afflalo: [Laughing] Everyone has their path to success, man. Mine is just a little different. It’s just an expectation of mine to rise in the league, and to do it through hard work. I’m going to be a much better player — a complete player.
SI.com: The Nuggets have had a crazy offseason, with Nene about to be an unrestricted free agent and three different free agents (J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin and Wilson Chandler) all in China. Do you want to stay in Denver?
Afflalo: The way I moved forward at first was that I just planned on returning to Denver. That was just my feel, because my role had grown so much last season from a leadership standpoint. I felt it was almost my team. I felt a sense of responsibility. But obviously as the offseason goes on and changes are made, you have to weigh your options. My gut at the end of the season was that I’d be back in Denver, but you have to keep your options open. And for me, it’s all about winning.
SI.com: And the thing is, most of the teams set to have lots of cap room are not going to be contenders next season. The best teams are all going to be over the cap, meaning they might only be able to offer you the mid-level exception. Do you think you’re worth more than that? How do you weigh all the variables?
Afflalo: I’d hate to say what I think I’m worth and end up disrespecting someone who says I’m not worth that amount — or disrespecting myself by saying I’m only worth a certain amount. Do I feel I’m worth more than the mid-level? Of course. I know I’m going to continue to improve, and contracts don’t change once you sign them. So from that standpoint, of course you want to say you’re worth $8 million or $9 million, but as you said, when you look at where the contenders are sitting, you have to place a certain value on winning and the situation.
The bottom line is that if you’re a millionaire, you’re going to be fine.
SI.com: The Bulls could use some two-way punch at shooting guard. Have you thought about how you’d fit there?
Afflalo: Oh yeah, my agent [Sam Goldfeder] brought that up to me before the lockout. He definitely mentioned the Bulls as a dream that would be great for me based on fit.
SI.com: If there is a knock on your game at this point, it’s that you haven’t proved you can create your own shot consistently at the NBA level — whether it’s in isolation, on pick-and-rolls or whatever. If you look at the numbers, you haven’t used a very high percentage of your team’s possessions.
Afflalo: Yeah, my usage rate has been pretty low.
SI.com: Usage rate? You know the advanced stats, huh?
Afflalo: [Laughing] I’m a student of the game.
SI.com: Anyway — what about that criticism? It seemed to me last season, you showed a little more off the dribble, curling around screens, etc.
Afflalo: I was just kind of playing off of other guys for my entire career until they traded Carmelo and Chauncey [Billups], who tended to dominate the ball a little more. And that’s where I feel my growth is going to come — through opportunity. I haven’t quite gotten to show I can create, post up and be more of a playmaker for my teammates. It takes confidence in this league, but it also takes preparation and the chance to show that skill set. I have no doubts about my creative ability.
SI.com: Speaking of the Melo trade: It looked like you guys were having a ball after he left. You were so fun to watch.
Afflalo: It was really fun. We had so many weapons, and there was a good storyline behind it, with Melo leaving. We all just really wanted to win. If I am back in Denver, I hope we bring back as much of that group as possible. We just had a really team-oriented spirit.
SI.com: Some people will take that as saying it wasn’t as fun to play with Melo. Is that the case?
Afflalo: There’s two ways to look at it: Yes, he’s always going to be the focal point of the offense, and he’s a very aggressive player. But at the same time, he draws so much attention, and that opened up a lot of opportunities. I found myself open a lot. But when he left, I found more opportunities with the ball in my hands. And you also have to remember: Look at all the guys we got back for him, and that’s to his credit.
SI.com: You’ve talked about your creative abilities. What’s something in that area you think you’re already quite good at?
Afflalo: One of my strengths is my post-up ability. I work really well in the post, in terms of scoring myself or drawing a double team to create for others. But I definitely need to get better at running the pick-and-roll. I was a point guard in high school and I ran backup point guard in college, but as I got better at a scorer at UCLA, I got put off the ball more. And that’s where I ended up at first in the NBA. It’s not that I can’t create off the dribble or run the pick-and-roll; it’s just that I haven’t done it in years.
SI.com: There’s a fine line, though, right? You don’t necessarily want to take too big a role in your team’s offense, especially if you’re playing with someone like Derrick Rose.
Afflalo: The key is to be efficient. I’m just trying to figure out how much of my game I can put forth before it’s detrimental to my team. I’m still heading toward the direction of using more of myself, but I will never let it get to the point where I’m trying to be a star but my team is not winning.
And I felt last season that as I got better as an offensive player, there would at times be some slippage in the defensive intensity I’ve shown throughout my career. I didn’t like that. I want to get my conditioning and strength to where I can guard the other team’s best player the whole game and still score efficiently.
SI.com: You played small forward a lot in small lineups last season. Do you like that? Does it matter?
Afflalo: It’s irrelevant. George Karl says he just likes basketball players, and he’s just going to put five basketball players on the court. My ability to defend the “three” position really has helped my cause. I’m 6-foot-5, but I can guard guys who are 6-7 or 6-8 who do other things besides just posting up on the block.
SI.com: Would you have guarded Kevin Durant more in the playoffs had you been healthy?
Afflalo: Definitely. No question. Gallo [Danilo Gallinari] and Wilson Chandler did a great job, having more people to throw at a guy like that always helps. No matter where I go next, I’m going to keep getting better defensively.
SI.com: I bet you’re still upset about that uncalled basket interference on Kendrick Perkins late in Game 1 of that series.
Afflalo: You have to give credit to Oklahoma City, but outside of Game 2, we were right there in all of those games. Right there.
SI.com: You’re a UCLA guy, but I haven’t read your name much when people write about all the group workouts there. Do you have guys you work out with?
Afflalo: You’ll find I’m a little different. I basically work alone.