Welcome to the fourth edition of my free agent rankings. Throughout the month of June, I’ll be going position by position (using the six positions I laid out here), tiering/ranking the players based upon on-court value, and giving my thoughts on where I drew the lines and how the rankings should impact teams looking for players at these positions this offseason. This installment will cover the Forward position. You can find the Point position rankings here, the Combo position rankings here, and the Wing position rankings here.
A lot of players are listed with multiple positions. Those players will show up in both lists but might have more value at one position or the other, depending on their particular skill set and the depth of that position throughout the league. The reason for this is that this is a tiering/ranking of where each player belongs in the grand scheme of the league, not just within that position. Since free agency doesn’t just happen in vacuum, it’s important to consider where these players lie compared to the rest of the league, which informs their value.
There are seven tiers into which a player can fall:
Best Player – a player in this tier can be the best player on a championship team. There are only roughly ten of these players in the league at any given time.
Second Banana – a player in this tier can be the second-best player on a championship team. There are about 20 of these players in the league at any given time.
Starter – a player in this tier is an unquestioned starter on a contending team.
High Rotation – a player in this tier is an unquestioned rotation player on a contending team and would be in most teams’ playoff rotation.
Low Rotation – a player in this tier is a sometimes rotation player on a contending team and would likely find themselves on the outside of most teams’ playoff rotation.
Bench – a player in this tier rarely plays throughout the regular season but provides bench depth in case of injury and fills out the end of the roster.
Fringe – a player in this tier is on the fringes of the NBA and may or may not be in the league at any given time. These are the players who take up a team’s final roster spot or might be on a Two-Way contract.
Last thing: players are ranked in the first three tiers, but the last four have no rankings. Once you get into the High Rotation players, it’s more about player fit than absolute skill and on-court value.
With that out of the way, the Forward rankings:
Perhaps the two best basketball players on the planet will be free agents this offseason. Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant should have been going head-to-head in one of the best Finals matchups in history, but Durant’s devastating injury has both robbed us of that matchup and robbed Durant himself of what could be an entire season of his career, just as he’s about to be a free agent once again. The fallout from the injury remains to be seen, as any team signing him has to be aware that they’re going to be paying north of $38 million for him to rehab during the 2019-20 season, but if he’s able to come back fully healthy, or even 80 percent as healthy, it will be more than worth it for a team to eat $38 million and have Durant on their team for the next two or three years at a similar number. How his priorities change as a result of the injury are unknown at this point, as where he wants to rehab, which clubs have the best team doctors, and where he wants to play long-term all factor into his decision.
Should both players have been fully healthy for this NBA Finals, it would have been nearly impossible to differentiate between them in terms of these rankings. Leonard’s own injury history is a slight worry, but managing it as well as Toronto has done this season has allowed him to push his way up the league’s hierarchy. The fact remains that any team who can sign either of these players should and will do it immediately, but if a team like the Clippers or Nets have a chance to pick up one or the other, Leonard will come first due to his current health situation.
There’s just a single Second Banana in this forward class, as the free agent class as a whole is rather thin on top-tier players. Tobias Harris should get the full boat from any team in the league who has the cap space and is on a competitive trajectory, but he’s clearly not someone who can be the best player on a championship team. His defensive weaknesses make it such that he should be paired with a wing stopper and his offensive impact seems to come and go, though it has to be remembered that the Philadelphia team with which he finished the year was very weird, at least from a team-building perspective. They had essentially five usable players in their postseason rotation in Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, Harris, and Joel Embiid, with intermittent bench performances from James Ennis and Mike Scott. Four of their five best players operated at maximum capacity with the ball in their hands and three of them were mostly non-threats from beyond the three-point line, which relegated Harris to more of an off-ball role.
In a higher-usage role with the Clippers earlier in the season, Harris was able to show off his versatile offensive skillset, running pick-and-roll as both the ball handler and roll man, scoring in isolation, and running off-ball actions for on-the-move threes. That sort of offensive versatility makes him an ideal second banana for a team looking to contend for a championship, whether that’s in Philadelphia or elsewhere.
Mirroring what we’ve seen from other positions, there aren’t necessarily a ton of starter-level Forwards on the market this year. In order, I have them ranked: Harrison Barnes, Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, Marcus Morris, and Trevor Ariza.
Barnes’ individual scoring ensures that he tops this group, as he can step into a Second Banana role as a primary scorer when needed, but is also fully capable of playing within a system and spacing the floor for a player above him in the pecking order. His efficiency ticked up quite well during the last third of the season in Sacramento, when he took on a lower usage role next to De’Aaron Fox and saw his efficiency jump up – in 791 minutes together, Barnes shot 50 percent from two and 42 percent from three, despite using only 16 percent of the Kings’ possessions. In many of those lineups, he was even a tertiary offensive option, as Buddy Hield was quite prolific in those minutes as well. He’s understandably less efficient when he’s the primary scoring option, as he was in Dallas earlier in the season, but on a team with a primary playmaker in Fox and another quality scoring and shooting option in Hield, his offensive versatility can be maximized.
I covered Bogdanovic in more depth in the Wings rankings, though his usefulness at the Forward spot is a bit more dubious with his defensive limitations. Offensively, his scoring, shooting, and overall versatility make him a strong option against opposing power forwards. Teammate Thaddeus Young has a lot of the opposite qualities to Bogdanovic; he’s a fantastic defender but doesn’t have the offensive firepower on the other end of the floor.
Morris’s balanced game might make him preferable to both Bogdanovic and Young in the right situation, particularly if a team doesn’t need another ball handler at the Forward position but doesn’t want a black hole at that spot either. In a playoff setting, Morris’s skill set on both ends of the floor is increasingly useful.
Ariza’s a lite version of Morris, with a less consistent outside jumper and, at this point in his career, less consistent defensive production. Two years ago, Ariza would be clearly ahead of Morris, but a four-year age gap makes Morris a wiser investment looking for a 3-and-D option at Forward.
Like at Wing, there are a number of High Rotation and worse Forwards hitting free agency this year. A number of these players would be starters on a lot of teams, but for the true championship contenders, it’s best for these players to come off the bench. The High Rotation players will still play significant minutes, but they all have their own individual weaknesses, whether it be negative production on one end of the floor or overall inconsistencies that make things difficult for their team to rely on them.
JaMychal Green is a player to highlight among the High Rotation group. He played extremely well in the Clippers’ first-round loss at the hands of the Golden State Warriors and should earn himself a good paycheck this summer as a result. Able to essentially swing between three positions defensively, Green’s jumper is his swing skill and if it continues like it did against the Warriors, he’s a very good option for a team looking for help at the Forward spot.
There are a pair of Dallas Mavericks in the High Rotation tier who perhaps don’t quite deserve it based on their play thus far in their careers but still have room to grow on one end of the floor or the other. Dorian Finney-Smith is still a massive negative offensively, but brings enough defensively to see the floor for rotation minutes on a playoff team. His jumper hasn’t quite progressed like many hoped it would, but he found other ways to get involved offensively last season, cutting to the rim more often and getting in on the offensive boards when teams ignore him on the perimeter. Maxi Kleber is the opposite – nobody doubts his offensive value as a shooter, but his defensive shortcomings could be highlighted in a playoff series. While Finney-Smith can continue to improve as an offensive player by honing his outside shot and finding ways to contribute, Kleber’s athletic deficiencies will make it difficult for him to improve greatly defensively. Still, a player with his offensive profile should be worthy of rotation minutes on a playoff team.
A player further down the list has either solidified himself as a one-way player or hasn’t quite put it together well enough to bet on him in free agency this year. Jabari Parker, Mario Hezonja, Anthony Tolliver, and Darius Miller are all offensive-only players of varying capabilities and look very unlikely to grow past that. Likewise, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Thabo Sefolosha, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson can be defensive stalwarts, but take so much off the table offensively that it’s hard to see them as playoff-caliber players.
The full Forward rankings are below: