NBA Free Agency Preview: Shot Creators

With the NBA's free agency period beginning on July 1, the star-hungry Sixers are expected to chase LeBron James and Paul George. If James and George sign elsewhere though, the Sixers, who will start with around $26 million in cap space, will likely only be in the market for one-year deals, similar to last year, in order to preserve cap space for next summer (see story). With that said, they don't project to be players in the restricted free agency market.

Whether the Sixers sign a star or not they'll still have other needs on the roster, so what other unrestricted free agents could they target? After looking at potential upgrades from Amir Johnson at backup center and power forward options off the bench beyond Ersan Ilyasova, we continue our free agency preview by looking at potential shot creators.

Shot creators

Under contract: Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, T.J. McConnell

Pending free agents: None

Position overview 
During the regular season, the Sixers played with the third-fastest pace and compiled the second-highest assist percentage. But what that fast, high-movement and unselfish style of basketball hid was their lack of individual, perimeter shot creators in a halfcourt offense.

The Celtics brought that into the spotlight in the playoffs.

Boston slowed the game down, played their strong guard and wing defenders up on the Sixers' perimeter players (besides Ben Simmons) and dared them to put the ball on the floor and make a play. And the only one that could take advantage of it was T.J. McConnell. Suffice it to say, the Sixers need to improve in this category.

Now, if Simmons works in a jumper to make defenses honest, he'll become a more effective player in the halfcourt. If Markelle Fultz regains a reliable shot, he'll turn into the secondary ball handler alongside Simmons that the Sixers dreamed of when they traded up to the No. 1 pick to draft him. And if the Sixers land one of the three big stars on the market this summer in James, George or Kawhi Leonard, they'll have an elite scorer. If those three things happen, they'd obviously be set.

But if they miss out on a star, adding someone that can break down a defender off the dribble and create a shot, either for themselves or others, should be high on the to-do list.

Potential free agent targets

Tyreke Evans 
The Tyreke Evans from a few years ago wouldn't have been a fit on the Sixers. The Chester, Pennsylvania, native was a downhill point forward without an efficient outside shot. But Evans is now an off-ball threat as he hasn't shot lower than 35.6 percent from deep over the past three seasons and hit a career-best mark in 2017-18 at 39.9 percent on 286 attempts. 

Not only was it Evans' best three-point shooting season of his career, but his best overall season as well. He averaged 19.4 points, 5.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists, while shooting 45.2 percent from the field in 52 games with Memphis. He managed to shoot this efficiently despite 77.4 percent of his two-point makes and 51.8 percent of his three-point makes being of the unassisted variety.  At 6-6, Evans can pose matchup problems on offense and while defense isn't his strong suit he's passable on that end. Leading up to the trade deadline, the Sixers reportedly had interest in Evans but the Grizzlies decided not to deal him at all. The Sixers could've used him in the playoffs and could still use him moving forward.

Will Barton
Barton reportedly turned down a four-year, $42 million deal from Denver before last season and went on to have a career year. He averaged 15.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists in 33.1 minutes per game. The explosive, bucket-getting guard shot 45.2 percent from the field and 37 percent from beyond on 422 attempts. While the 6-6 Barton received a vote for second-team All-Defense, he's average at best as a defender.

There's a chance Barton, 27, doesn't get that kind same of a contract offer from the Nuggets, or anyone else, this offseason. With Nikola Jokic's max contract reportedly agreed upon, Denver will be into the luxury tax unless it can shed some salary. With only a few playoff teams having significant cap space and most of the league with their eyes toward the summer of 2019, Barton could be a victim of a depressed market. If that's the case, the Sixers could be an option on an expensive one-year deal so Barton can try again for that lucrative, long-term contract next summer.

Rudy Gay
It was surprising when the Spurs signed Gay, 31, last offseason. He was coming off a season-ending Achilles injury and didn't seem like he'd be a fit in San Antonio's system. But, when he was healthy, he enjoyed a nice season in the most limited role of his career since he was a rookie. In 57 games, Gay averaged 11.5 points and 5.1 rebounds in 21.6 minutes per game off the bench and shot an efficient 47.1 percent from the field. As a career below-average shooter from deep (34.3 percent), he connected on just 31.4 percent of his triples but thrived from the midrange in. On the other end, the 6-8 Gay can check either forward spot.

Before last season, he had a 10-year stretch where his scoring average ranged from 17-21 points per game. He can't act as a primary ball handler like Barton and Evans and isn't a great outside shooter, but Gay has a proven track record as a scorer and could be an option as a backup power forward.

Isaiah Thomas
At the end of the 2016-17 season, Thomas looked like a lock to receive a max contract this offseason. Not anymore. Following his magical performance with the Celtics two seasons ago when he averaged 28.9 points per game, the 5-9 guard was traded to the Cavs for Kyrie Irving, wasn't able to make his debut until January while rehabbing from a hip injury, played 15 games for Cleveland before being dealt to the Lakers, and played 17 games off the Los Angeles' bench before having arthroscopic surgery on his hip. His final 2017-18 stat line: 15.6 points on 37.3 percent shooting from the field and 29.3 percent from deep in 32 games. Yikes.

Thomas' value is so hard to gauge. He didn't look himself last season and there's always a chance he returns to All-Star form if he can get that hip right. But hip issues for an undersized player that relies on his quickness and is set to turn 30 next season is a pretty big red flag. It's hard to predict what his offers will look like because it will all come down to the medical report.

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