1. Gerald Wallace, Brooklyn Nets: There is a clear top two here, and we’ll give the slight edge to the always fierce Wallace, who brings a bit more grit, off-the-dribble creativity and positional versatility than the No. 2 guy, Nicolas Batum. Wallace isn’t the same player he was during his career season in 2009-2010, when he shot 37 percent from three-point range, grabbed defensive rebounds at a rate that would make most power forwards proud, got to the free-throw line nearly seven times per 36 minutes and defended like a beast.
Wallace is 30 now, and he doesn’t get to the line or crash the boards like he used to — trends we’d expect as age nips away at his fly-all-over-the-place athleticism. And he has never found that three-point stroke again. But at his core, Wallace is still the same player, a hard-nosed defender who can play effectively at power forward in small-ball lineups and work off the dribble when the ball swings his way. He’s unselfish and passes well. A fantastic third option on a very good team.
2. Nicolas Batum, Portland Trail Blazers (restricted): If you’re looking at the long haul, Batum is probably your guy. Still just 23, he’s 6-8 with long arms and quick feet that allow him to defend every position from point guard to power forward against a lot of teams. He doesn’t have the bulk, strength or rebounding skills necessary to swing to power forward nearly as often as Wallace; Portland has tried Batum there in short stretches and mostly struggled on defense. He’s more of a natural wing player, and that’s fine.
He’s got Wallace beat, by far, on long-range shooting; Batum hit 39 percent from three-point range last season and is getting better at catching and shooting off screens. The next big question is the same as it was a year ago: Can he reach another level as a scorer and passer off the dribble? He has improved in those areas, but the growth has been slow and fitful — and not as aggressive in the NBA as it is when he takes up a heavier burden on France’s national team. Batum doesn’t run pick-and-roll or work one-on-one much, but he can attack off catch-and-shoot and spot-up chances more now, and he’s so long that he should develop a killer floater game when he can’t get to the rim.
The Trail Blazers will keep him, and they should.
3. Andrei Kirilenko, CSKA Moscow: Kirilenko looked to be slipping just a bit when the 2010-11 NBA season ended. But then he joined Russia’s team for EuroBasket, signed with the Russian powerhouse CSKA Moscow and looked like the best player in the world outside the NBA. Kirilenko is 31 and isn’t quite the long-armed stopper he was two or three years ago, but there is clearly a ton left here. And his defense would probably look even better outside the context of the 2010-11 Jazz, where the limitations of his teammates left Kirilenko overhelping.
It’s fair to wonder whether his pass-and-cut offensive game can work as well in the NBA without Jerry Sloan, but perhaps the question underestimates Kirilenko’s adaptability. For the right price, this guy is a major contributor — provided he’s interested in returning to the NBA.
4. Grant Hill, Phoenix Suns: Note the drop-off. As we begin choosing between limited players, I lean toward any certainty I can find over risk and unknowns. Every team can go at these things differently depending on roster context, so jumble up these next few guys any way you’d like. But Hill’s defense is probably the closest thing to certainty here, even if he missed time at the end of last season with a meniscus tear, after starting the season coming off knee surgery.
Hill, 39, remains a super-smart defensive player who can guard multiple positions well. He’s not what he used to be, on either end of the floor or on the glass, but he’s a helpful player who moves the ball, finishes in transition and is almost always in the right place at the right time. It hurts that he never became a regular three-point threat; that would have come in handy as age robbed Hill of his off-the-dribble speed.
5. Brandon Rush, Golden State Warriors (restricted): Another certainty: Rush has shot 41 percent or better from three-point range in each of the last three seasons, and swingmen who can do that and defend decently are always valuable. The soon-to-be 27-year-old has played a lot of shooting guard in his career, especially during his time in Indiana, but he shifted mostly to small forward for a smaller Golden State team last season and generally handled it fine. He won’t do much for you one-on-one or out of the pick-and-roll, and he’s not Bruce Bowen or anything on defense. But Rush won’t hurt you defensively, he plays within his limits and has a proven track record of elite shooting.
6. Jeff Green, Boston Celtics: From risk-free certainty to a tweener forward with little record of helping NBA teams play better and a heart condition that has thankfully been addressed in time. We’ll list Green as a small forward rather than a power forward because Boston mostly played him at that position during his brief time as a Celtic — and because his teams have almost universally been destroyed when playing him at power forward.
Here’s the sobering news: Green’s teams have been worse with him on the floor, usually by big margins, since the day he entered the league in 2007. That kind of on-court/off-court data is vulnerable to randomness, and bad numbers dogged Kevin Durant, Green’s longtime teammate in Oklahoma City, over the first couple years of his career. But the Durant trend flipped. The Green trend has stayed the same, from Seattle to Oklahoma City to Boston, all while Green has never recorded a league-average Player Efficiency Rating, shot better than 45.3 percent from the floor or put up decent rebounding or passing numbers for his position. He has cracked 33 percent from three-point range once in five seasons.
There are things to like here. Green, 25, is an athlete and a worker. He can play both forward spots if the matchups are right. He can post up smaller players. He has a mid-range game. But the track record is reason for concern.
7. Carlos Delfino, Milwaukee Bucks: The seven-year veteran is a consistently above-average three-point shooter, he moves both himself and the ball well, he can surprise you with a dribble attack and he works hard to be in the proper place on defense. Delfino is almost 30 with a lot of international minutes under his belt, and his defense slipped noticeably last season. Still, he’s a helpful bench player at the right price.
8. Mickael Pietrus, Boston Celtics: We’ll list Pietrus as a small forward instead of a shooting guard because he has played in the frontcourt more over the last few seasons in Phoenix, Orlando and Boston. The minutes split was closer in Boston because of the presence of small forward Paul Pierce and late-season injuries to both guards Ray Allen and Avery Bradley, but this is a thin crop. Pietrus is a steady defender with the strength to defend most small forwards and shooting guards. That defensive versatility is valuable during the slog of the regular season.
Pietrus is basically a spot-up shooter as he ages into his 30s, and if his three-point shooting continues to hover around 33 percent or 34 percent, his relative value is going to decline. Teams have begun to ignore him, tilting their defenses away from him to muck up spacing, and Pietrus hasn’t been able to make them pay nearly enough. He rarely dribbles these days, meaning he can’t punish defenders who drift away from him by blowing by them off the bounce when the ball swings his way. Perhaps a full training camp, offseason knee surgery and more time removed from the scary concussion he suffered in March will bring some oomph back to Pietrus’ game.
9. Alonzo Gee, Cleveland Cavaliers (restricted): Let’s go with upside as we reach the end of the list. Gee just turned 25, and he emerged last season as gritty defender and workable offensive player who could fit in the rotation for most teams. The total lack of wing talent in Cleveland last season had Gee overextending himself; his three-point percentage might jump a tick or two if an injection of talent allows him to take cleaner spot-up looks. (Gee shot 32.1 percent from three-point range and 41.2 percent overall while averaging 10.6 points in 29 minutes.) He showed more of a driving game than expected, earning a decent number of free throws and dishing a few assists here and there. Not a bad option on the cheap.
10. Gerald Green, Brooklyn Nets: That’s right: Gerald Green. The logical choice here is probably Atlanta’s Tracy McGrady, who can still spot you minutes posting up smaller guys and threading the needle with productive passes. Or maybe the Lakers’ Matt Barnes, cutting smartly for baskets at the rim and working his tail off defensively (but also missing wide-open three-pointers). Utah’s Josh Howard works hard on defense, but he shot 39.9 percent from the floor last season and drew zero attention from smart defenses. Terrence Williams showed flashes in Sacramento after Houston gave up on him, but he has barely been able to hold on to an NBA career.
So what the heck: We’ll round things out with Green, the 18th pick in the 2005 draft, who exploded back on the NBA scene for a delightful 31 games after nearly three years away. And he wasn’t some dunking novelty act, though he did throw down some ridiculous dunks. He hit mid-range shots out of the pick-and-pop, isolated on the wing, worked smaller guys on the block and shot 39 percent form three-point range. Green scored at least 20 points seven times.
He also showed some of the bad habits that cost him a spot in the league–ball-watching on defense, occasionally nutty shot selection, missed assignments, botched rotations. Those things, plus the small sample size, explain his place down here despite his gaudy scoring numbers. But the 26-year-old Green is worth a flier — and possibly more.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.