Welcome to the sixth and final 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 Anchor position. You can find the Point position rankings here, the Combo position rankings here, the Wing position rankings here, the Forward rankings here, and the Stretch 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 Anchor rankings:
As I wrote about in the Stretch rankings, it’s difficult for big men to be the best player on a championship-level team. It’s a bit easier for an Anchor to do so because of the defensive value he brings to the table or the obvious matchup issues he presents, which is why Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic would be in my top tier league-wide. Neither of these guys are free agents and there are no free agent Anchors who fit the bill as an elite player on a championship contender.
Now that Marc Gasol is off the board after picking up his player option to remain in Toronto, only one Second Banana Anchor will hit the market this year: Al Horford. Horford turns 33 today and seems to be on his way out from Boston and on the way to a four-year contract with another team that will likely take him through the end of his career. While that contract may be a negative value by the end, the positive value he provides on the front end will be well worth it for any team looking to bring in a player who can fit into nearly any system and do everything on the floor. He can space the floor, roll to the rim, and make plays at the elbow for his teammates; for a center, he’s just about as complete an offensive player as exists in the league, outside of the absolute superstars. Defensively, he has perhaps lost a step from his heyday with the Atlanta Hawks, but he remains near-elite on that end of the floor and will elevate any team’s defense when he’s on the floor. It’s neither a coincidence nor a surprise that his teams have defended better with him on the floor in 11 of his 12 years in the league.
Despite the relatively high replacement value at the center position, there are a number of guys who stand out from the pack as worth around the mid-level exception or higher to be a team’s starting center. My Starter Anchors, in order: Nikola Vucevic, Brook Lopez, DeMarcus Cousins, Dewayne Dedmon, Jonas Valanciunas, and DeAndre Jordan.
Vucevic is right on the cusp of the Second Banana tier and may get paid like one despite his playoff performance against the Toronto Raptors a few months ago. He’s like the center version of D’Angelo Russell, but without the upside that comes with being as young as Russell is; he’s a strong regular season player whose game just doesn’t quite translate to the playoffs. Still, that regular season value puts him at the top of this tier as a player who can create his own offense at a higher level than anybody else on the Starter tier.
Lopez’s two-way value in the playoffs elevates him nearly to the top of this tier and above someone like Cousins, who can create offense for himself and his teammates but takes so much off the table defensively that he becomes more difficult to have on the floor in playoff situations. Cousins’ injury issues also play into this significantly, as he could get back to his all-around level offensively and get right back to the top of this tier in the next year or so.
Dedmon’s play is something I’ve written about extensively, both here and on Peachtree Hoops. His place in league-wide free agent rankings may be a lot lower than I have him, but there are a lot of similarities between Dedmon and Lopez in the way they play the game and the value they bring to the table. They’re different players, as Lopez can bomb from deeper behind the three-point line but Dedmon can shoot better off movement, plus Lopez is much bigger at the rim but Dedmon has the defensive versatility to defend at all three levels in pick-and-roll. It wouldn’t surprise me if he fell through the cracks as a player who hasn’t played on a big stage for the last two years, but a team that signs him to the mid-level exception should be very happy with their investment.
Delineating between the bottom end of the Starter tier and the top end of the High Rotation tier is going to be about how those players fit with the rest of a team’s roster. A few names that pop out among the High Rotation tier and could get into the Starter tier over the next year are Kevon Looney and Thomas Bryant, as both players are relatively young compared to the rest of this tier. Looney has shown that he’s able to step up when it matters for the Golden State Warriors in the playoffs, while Bryant was the Washington Wizards’ best center option throughout last season. Signing either guy to something in the range of $5-7 million per season and having them as an option in the center rotation, whether they start or not, would be a good use of resources for any team, particularly on a multi-year contract.
There are a number of young guys further down the list who need more time to show what they can do at the NBA level. Jahlil Okafor is still somehow just 23 years old despite the numerous twists and turns his career has taken over the years, while guys like Ivica Zubac and Khem Birch represent interesting buy-low opportunities on the restricted market. Zubac is only 22 years old and has room to grow into his game and while Birch is significantly older, his lack of NBA experience could make him an interesting developmental candidate. Personally, I’m someone who doesn’t necessarily buy into the age curve as strongly as others and believe it’s more about experience and development time, though certainly the athletic decline is coming sooner for Birch than it is for Zubac or some of the other younger centers available this summer.
The final Anchor rankings: