NBA free agency 2018: Cousins, Jordan headline next year's bigs market

USA Basketball teammates DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan could be in the free agent picture in 2018. (AP)

The first week of NBA free agency in 2017 was insane. Mad. Dizzying. Crazy. Right?

It’s been OK. But it’s nothing compared to what we could have on our hands in 2018.

With the majority of notable 2017 free agents off the board, it’s time to peek ahead to the NBA free agent class of 2018, which could be full of stars and superstars alike. Some will be expected to return to their incumbent teams, or opt into the final years of their contracts. Some are restricted free agents. But many will hit the open market, which could make for the wildest summer of player movement in some time.

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Over the coming week, we’ll be taking a look at the prospective 2018 class. Monday was for the point guards; Tuesday was for the wings; Wednesday is for the bigs; and Thursday will be for the top 50 overall. Without further ado …

TOP 15 FREE AGENT BIGS IN 2018

1. DeMarcus Cousins
Current team: New Orleans Pelicans | Age on July 1, 2018: 27 | 2017-18 salary: $18.1 million

Once believed destined to waste away on a super-max contract in Sacramento until at least 2024, Cousins lost at least $30 million in future earning potential when the Kings dealt him to the Pelicans immediately after the All-Star Game. In some regard, though, he earned his freedom. As mercurial as he may be, Cousins is still a sublime talent who will turn 27 in August, and he will get a max contract offer next summer — whether it’s five years from New Orleans or four years elsewhere.

This season will be a feeling-out process for Cousins and New Orleans, as he tries to find his stride alongside fellow tower Anthony Davis. It’s a fascinating experiment that runs counteractive to the NBA’s small-ball trend, and it was tough to reach a conclusion about their chemistry in the limited sample size of 17 games together at the end of 2016-17. The West is deep, and the Pelicans are shallow, so Cousins and New Orleans will have one season to decide whether they can find their level together.

Cousins is considered extremely loyal, and he grew up two hours from New Orleans, but nobody can predict how that manifests itself in the freedom of his Kings afterlife. He is unpredictable, if nothing else, and that could give the Pelicans pause next summer, too, especially since they will have to decide then if tying the final three years of Davis’ deal to a core of Cousins and Jrue Holiday is the best way to build around a generational talent through 2021. Either way, opponents will line up to pry him away and prove they’re the ones who can finally tame his rare blend of size and skill. — Ben Rohrbach

2. DeAndre Jordan^
Current team: Los Angeles Clippers | Age on July 1, 2018: 29 | 2017-18 salary: $22.6 million

Amid the many moving parts of the Clippers’ summer of retooling, Jordan is the one piece that has been still, the rock at the back end of L.A.’s defense and a player around whom the front office has continued to build. As next summer approaches, though, the question will become: Was Jordan a centerpiece of the Clips’ offseason because they see him as their rim-protecting, paint-governing center for years to come? Or simply because he was the team’s top player under contract for at least one more season? The Clippers reportedly held “exploratory” Jordan trade talks with multiple teams before the draft (and before Blake Griffin re-signed), and it’s unclear how he factors into their plans moving forward.

Jordan is one of the best true centers in the NBA, and one of the best players, period, within a five-foot radius of the rim. He finished the 2016-17 season in the league’s top five in field goal percentage and rebounding percentage, and although he had his least impactful year as a shot blocker since 2009-10, he’s been a regular on blocks leaderboards for years. He was viewed as a top-25 player heading into this past season, and with good reason. But does that mean he’ll be paid like a top-25 player next summer?

Maybe, maybe not. Jordan can, and probably will, opt out of his contract, but the market for true centers in 2017 has been lifeless. Nerlens Noel, the quintessential athletic, rim-running, shot-blocking modern NBA big man, projected as a potential max contract receiver heading into July, but, as of July 12, has yet to sign an offer sheet. Heck, there’s been little to no talk of teams even wanting to present him with one. If Jordan opts out, and if the Clippers allow him to test the market, it will be fascinating to see how much his skill set is valued. — Henry Bushnell

3. Joel Embiid*
Current team: Philadelphia 76ers | Age on July 1, 2018: 24 | 2017-18 salary: $6.1 million

It’s hard to believe Embiid will already be a restricted free agent next summer, and it’s even harder to know what to make of him three years after he was drafted third overall. When healthy, he is a force of nature, but health is an awfully big modifier, considering he missed two entire seasons with foot problems and played just 31 games before suffering a season-ending knee injury as a rookie this past year. In those 31 games, he captivated the league, both on and off the court, flashing potential as a foundational game-changer capable of leading the Sixers through The Process to tangible results.

There’s a very real possibility Embiid could be No. 1 on this list by season’s end, if he puts up anything close to a full season of his per-36-minute production from 2016-17 (28.7 points, 11.1 rebounds, three assists and 4.7 combined blocks and steals), and it will take another serious injury to prevent teams from throwing max offers at the Cameroonian. And even then, Philly would probably still match. — BR

4. Brook Lopez
Current team: Los Angeles Lakers | Age on July 1, 2018: 30 | 2017-18 salary: $22.6 million

Lopez will be given plenty of opportunities to put up big numbers for the Lakers this season, just as he was asked to do for a Brooklyn Nets team more concerned with the future than the present. As in the case of the Nets, there’s no guarantee that a great season will keep him in town. In fact, it would be shocking to see a team with its eyes on Paul George and LeBron James bring back Lopez. He’s almost certainly heading elsewhere for 2018-19.

The question is who will want a big man who has always been an odd fit for this era. Lopez swats a reasonable number of shots, but he’s far from a defensive linchpin and doesn’t rate as a starting center for a contender because of it. His growing talent as an outside shooter makes him a quality stretch five, though, and it’s possible he takes a cheaper deal with a playoff team if he’s content with the nearly $120 million he’ll have made over the course of his career.

Or maybe Lopez is the kind of player who happily puts up big numbers on bad teams. If that’s the case, he’ll probably gladly take the money of a team with few options and sign his last big contract. Let the paycuts come when no better options exist. — Eric Freeman

5. Clint Capela*
Current team: Houston Rockets | Age on July 1, 2018: 24 | 2017-18 salary: $2.3 million

Capela remains one of the league’s most underrated bigs, despite starting two-thirds of the season for a team that won 55 games last season. An athletic 6-foot-10 center with a 7-foot-5 wingspan, he can protect the rim on one end and screen-and-roll to it on the other at an elite level. Capela is an ideal fit for Houston, where he’s surrounded by floor-spreading shooters and can clean up the mess left by porous perimeter defense, so the Rockets are sure to do their darnedest to keep him around.

That is, unless he becomes a key trade piece in GM Daryl Morey’s continued quest to land a third star in Houston, or his services become too expensive for a team that just committed $228 million to James Harden and might have to approach that to keep the newly acquired Chris Paul in town. Capela’s offer sheet in restricted free agency will be an interesting one to follow next summer, when the salary cap levels out and teams don’t have as much money to throw around the market. — BR

Can LaMarcus Aldridge silence his critics in 2017-18? (AP)

6. LaMarcus Aldridge^
Current team: San Antonio Spurs | Age on July 1, 2018: 32 | 2017-18 salary: $21.5 million

Aldridge found himself on the trade market amid rumors of his unhappiness after an underwhelming second season in San Antonio that culminated in an even more disappointing playoff performance. On one hand, Aldridge remains a skilled big who made five straight All-Star appearances before this past season; he was also the second-best player on a team that finished 61-21, owned the league’s top defense and reached the Western Conference finals in 2016-17. On the other, he turns 32 this month.

There will be a stigma attached to Aldridge should he fail to rediscover his best self under coach Gregg Popovich, and a salary-dumping trade could further diminish his value, so opting out of the $22.4 million he’s owed in 2018-19 may not be financially viable. If he’s truly unhappy, the money may not matter all that much. Or, if the Spurs run him through their fountain of youth, he could be looking to cash in on one last big contract. There’s a lot riding on this season for Aldridge. — BR

7. Jusuf Nurkic*
Current team: Portland Trail Blazers | Age on July 1, 2018: 23 | 2017-18 salary: $3 million

After losing his starting center job to Nikola Jokic in Denver, Nurkic was a revelation following his trade to Portland, transforming a middling Blazers team into an elite unit offensively and an above-average defensive squad. In the six weeks before he suffered what essentially amounted to a season-ending leg fibular fracture, only the Spurs and Golden State Warriors were better in the West.

Owed just $3 million this season, Nurkic could play himself into a near-max offer if he matches the 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 3.2 combined blocks/steals he averaged over 20 games in Portland in 2017. That presents a problem for a Blazers team that would almost surely be a repeat luxury taxpaying team in 2018-19 and may still not be a legitimate contender. Portland would be wise to present Nurkic with a contract extension offer before the October 31 deadline and even wiser to shed some of its more cumbersome contracts in anticipation of paying up in 2018. — BR

8. Julius Randle*
Current team: Los Angeles Lakers | Age on July 1, 2018: 23 | 2017-18 salary: $4.1 million

The Lakers are hoping to get players better than Randle next summer, which means he’s a candidate to be renounced and turned into an unrestricted free agent the second a superstar agrees to wear the purple and gold. Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka do not seem committed to Randle for the long term — he’s been mentioned in trade rumors and appears to be an odd fit as a face-up forward who doesn’t shoot 3’s.

If the Lakers don’t nab a big name, it’s easy to see Randle languishing on the market as teams lose cap space and decide not to extend him an offer sheet, just as many restricted free agents have this summer. The Lakers have the leverage in this situation, both in seeking out better options and waiting to see how the market dictates deals. At worst, they let Randle walk. At best, they force him into signing at a decent rate. Why force the issue? — EF

9. Aaron Gordon*
Current team: Orlando Magic | Age on July 1, 2018: 22 | 2017-18 salary: $5.5 million

This season will be a big one for Gordon, who saw his shooting percentage dip and per-minute rebounding numbers tank in what was supposed to be a breakout 2016-17. Gordon theoretically remains a big part of the Magic’s future, but the draft acquisition of fellow combo forward Jonathan Isaac means he’ll see new competition for minutes and excitement in the Orlando frontcourt. If he doesn’t progress, he could lose several million per year on his next contract.

At the same time, the Magic are one of the least exciting teams in the league and don’t have many players with any kind of national recognition. The fact that Gordon made his name via the dunk contest, and not sustained valuable play, does not make his celebrity useless. The Magic probably need him more than other teams, and that means he’s likely to stick around, even if Orlando has to pay him a little more than it would prefer. — EF

10. Dirk Nowitzki**
Current team: Dallas Mavericks | Age on July 1, 2018: 40 | 2017-18 salary: $5 million

Dirk has taken enough paycuts over the years to suggest he will not leave the Mavericks under any circumstances. He’s on this list only because his contract includes an option that gives him and the team financial flexibility. It would not be a shock if he retires before he becomes a free agent again. — EF

Is there room in Rudy Gobert’s shadow for Derrick Favors in Utah? (AP)

11. Derrick Favors
Current team: Utah Jazz | Age on July 1, 2018: 26 | 2017-18 salary: $11.8 million

Once seemingly bound for big things in Utah, Favors fell out of, well, favor a bit this season. Granted, knee problems cost him 32 games, but his minutes per game also dropped from 32 in 2015-16 to 24 this past season, as the Jazz moved more toward floor-stretching forwards. He may see an uptick in minutes again with Gordon Hayward gone, but his game is being phased out in the pace-and-space era, and while he can contribute at center, that’s tough with Rudy Gobert manning the middle, too.

Favors is entering the final year of a $47 million extension he signed in 2013, so don’t be surprised if he’s shopped between now and the trade deadline. He’s still 25 years old for a few more days and a year removed from averaging 16 and eight for two straight seasons. His market in a trade and/or free agency will demonstrate how much the league still values old-school power forwards. — BR

12. Greg Monroe
Current team: Milwaukee Bucks | Age on July 1, 2018: 28 | 2017-18 salary: $17.9 million

It’s a safe bet Monroe will never see a contract like the one he signed in 2015 ever again. His poor match with the lengthy Bucks indicates his bad fit with this era as a whole. Skilled bigs don’t offer much if they can’t stretch the floor or defend, and Monroe doesn’t do either of those things. The fact that he can average close to 12 points and seven boards in a down year only means that he’s useful as a score-first center off the bench.

That’s likely his future, and it’s not necessarily a bad one. Monroe should fit well on a mid-level salary with a playoff squad without a top-level sixth man on the perimeter. In other words, he’d be good for the Bucks, or a team like them, at a different salary. The only question is if he’s willing to accept such a demotion. — EF

13. Enes Kanter^
Current team: Oklahoma City Thunder | Age on July 1, 2018: 26 | 2017-18 salary: $17.9 million

In their efforts to keep a contender around Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in 2015, the Thunder had little choice but to match the four-year, $70 million offer sheet Kanter got from the Blazers, so the Turkish big man is working on a pretty sweet deal for a backup center, especially since coach Billy Donovan “can’t play” him much in the playoffs. So, even if he’s been a productive sixth man the past couple years, it’s hard to imagine Kanter opting out of his $18.6 million player option in 2018-19.

If he does enter free agency, he might be doing Sam Presti a favor, as the OKC GM straddles the luxury tax in trying to retain both Westbrook and George, both of whom can also opt out next summer. — BR

14. Trevor Booker
Current team: Brooklyn Nets | Age on July 1, 2018: 30 | 2017-18 salary: $9.1 million

Gritty reserve forwards don’t command big salaries, but Booker has established himself as one of the most dependable players in that role. He’s a terrific rebounder, a solid defender, and an occasional 3-point threat. He won’t wow anyone, but he’ll get the job done.

When he hits 30, it’s possible Booker will look to add to his total of nine career playoff games and accept a low exception-level deal with a contender. Booker will enter free agency having made a little more than $34 million over his career, and might be inclined to take the biggest deal possible. But the difference between offers might not be large enough to matter. At some point, role players want to win. — EF

15. Montrezl Harrell*
Current team: Los Angeles Clippers | Age on July 1, 2018: 24 | 2017-18 salary: $1.5 million

Harrell could earn an increased role as a backup to Jordan after going from the Rockets to the Clippers as part of the Paul trade. It’s a role he performed well for stretches in Houston, even averaging 12 points, five rebounds and two assists in 14 starts when Capela went down with an injury.

Harrell’s playing time will depend on how much coach Doc Rivers plays Griffin as a small-ball center, with Danilo Gallinari and Sam Dekker serving as stretch fours. Should Harrell improve along the same trajectory he’s followed since entering the league as a second-round pick in 2015, he could see enough interest to create a bidding war between teams looking to fill a similar role in 2018. — BR

Other 2018 free agent bigs:

Mike Muscala^, Atlanta Hawks
Amir Johnson, Philadelphia 76ers
Zaza Pachulia, Golden State Warriors
Ed Davis, Portland Trail Blazers
Noah Vonleh*, Portland Trail Blazers
Aron Baynes, Boston Celtics
Josh McRoberts, Dallas Mavericks
Jason Smith^, Washington Wizards
Darrell Arthur^, Denver Nuggets
Brandan Wright, Memphis Grizzlies
Namanja Bjelica*, Minnesota Timberwolves
Kyle O’Quinn^, New York Knicks
Kosta Koufos^, Sacramento Kings
Davis Bertans*, San Antonio Spurs
Lucas Nogueira*, Toronto Raptors
Channing Frye, Cleveland Cavaliers
Spencer Hawes, Milwaukee Bucks
David West, Golden State Warriors
Kevin Seraphin, Indiana Pacers
Boris Diaw, Utah Jazz
Salah Mejri*, Dallas Mavericks
Justin Hamilton, Toronto Raptors
Anthony Tolliver, Detroit Pistons
Kyle Wiltjer*, Los Angeles Clippers
Diamond Stone*, Atlanta Hawks
Johnny O’Bryant III, Charlotte Hornets
Jarrod Uthoff*, Houston Rockets
Okaro White*, Miami Heat
Johnathan Motley*, Dallas Mavericks

Still unsigned 2017 free agent bigs:

Nerlens Noel*
JaMychal Green*
Pau Gasol
Nikola Mirotic*
JaVale McGee
Alex Len*
Mason Plumlee*
Willie Reed
David Lee
Jonas Jerebko
Donatas Montejunas
Tiago Splitter
LaVoy Allen
Kris Humphries
Ersan Ilyasova
James McAdoo
Udonis Haslem
Dante Cunningham
Ryan Kelly
Derrick Williams
Nick Collison
Brandon Bass
Rakeem Christmas
Adreian Payne
Tyler Zeller
Festus Ezeli
Tarik Black
Thomas Robinson
Marshall Plumlee
Christian Wood
Maurice N’dour
Roy Hibbert
Jordan Hill
Marreese Speights
Stephen Zimmerman
Jeff Withey
Joel Anthony

More BDL 2018 free agency previews: Point Guards | Wings | Bigs | Overall