Top understated signings of free agency
The NBA’s free-agent period is a torrent, with its fury and volume overwhelming all but the most prominent signings. But those minor moves lost in the flood are important in addressing needs, completing rotations and playing a part in the subtler aspects of team construction. With that in mind, let’s look at some of the best understated signings of the offseason — each short on glitz, but clever and cost-efficient. (Click here for a list of the best available free agents.)
Matt Barnes, Los Angeles Clippers (three years, $10.2 million)
Barnes is a loud player with a relatively quiet game — so muted that his re-signing has likely gone unnoticed amid a busy Clippers offseason. And while it’s fair that he would be overshadowed by the likes of Chris Paul, Doc Rivers and J.J. Redick, Barnes’ return is a big get for L.A., given the team’s available resources. After using their most tradeable asset (Eric Bledsoe) to acquire Redick and Jared Dudley, the Clippers had only the mid-level exception (worth $5.2 million) to spare with several gaps left to fill. That they were able to split the mid-level between Barnes (on a contract with a partially guaranteed third year, no less) and backup point guard Darren Collison was a coup under the circumstances, particularly considering what the Clippers stood to lose with Barnes’ potential departure.
A steady spark and pesky defense made the 33-year-old Barnes one of the better bench players in the league last season and the Clippers’ best wing defender. Barnes even shifted over to guard big men at times with mixed results, though he battled doggedly and made up for his height and weight disadvantage with persistence and length. He’ll have to do more of the same next season with the Clippers’ roster light on serviceable big men.
Barnes should also add seamless offensive value from as many as three different positions. He may not be a consistent shooter, but Barnes is such an intuitive cutter that he doesn’t create any concern for spacing; opponents who leave him unguarded will pay by his darts down the baseline, which tend to generate easy buckets (courtesy of Paul’s assists) and timely offensive rebounds. Barnes’ contributions were subtle enough to make him attainable at this price, and L.A.’s rotation should be all the better for it.
Will Bynum, Detroit Pistons (two years, $5.7 million)
Though Bynum, 30, isn’t a three-point shooter and stands on the wrong side of his physical prime, this is still a cut-rate deal because of his remarkable success as a pick-and-roll practitioner in a pick-and-roll league. Bynum, who averaged 18.8 points and 6.8 assists per 36 minutes last season, made life easy for Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe by slipping past the first line of defense and into the lane. He figures to do the same for Josh Smith next season as the Pistons build out their offense and look to space the floor more effectively. That’s great news for Bynum, who did some fine work off the dribble despite most often sharing the court with only two league-average shooters:
Nate Robinson, Denver Nuggets (two years, $4.1 million)
This is a ridiculous price for a prolific shot creator, a value buy that obliterates any concern over Robinson’s baggage. To embrace Robinson’s volume scoring is to embrace the possibility of his self-destruction, but Denver simply doesn’t stand to lose much by selectively making use of all that the 29-year-old can offer. While the Bulls had to rely on the 5-foot-9 guard for better or worse in Derrick Rose’s absence, the Nuggets can turn to him when in need of his services and lean on the steadier hands of Ty Lawson and Andre Miller when Robinson goes cold. Robinson’s high-wire act, then, becomes very manageable, particularly at the pocket-change price of the biannual exception.
To get a basic idea of the bargain Denver struck here, take a look at Robinson’s shot chart compared to that of Monta Ellis, who received a three-year, $24 million deal from Dallas (via r/NBA).
Mike Dunleavy, Chicago Bulls (two years, $6.5 million)
Dunleavy’s pliable all-around game is a tailored fit for the Bulls, who have long needed shooters who can also contribute as offensive facilitators. Dunleavy converted 42.8 percent from three-point range last season for a Bucks team that was a bit of a mess offensively. Playing off of Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings isn’t as easy as it ought to be, but Dunleavy did well under the circumstances and helped make some order out of chaos. His shooting will help space the floor more for a healthy Derrick Rose, and while Dunleavy isn’t a strict point forward type, his ability to put the ball on the floor without risk of disaster and make smart passes will be a nice alternate offensive route when Rose is trapped or off the floor.
Dunleavy, 32, has yet to play for a winning team in 11 seasons. He was unable to fulfill expectations in four and a half years with the struggling Warriors, was shipped to the Pacers just in time to miss out on Golden State’s “We Believe” run and jumped to the Bucks before Indiana’s ascent. (He made the playoffs with the 37-45 Pacers in 2010-11 and the 38-44 Bucks last season.) Playing for a surefire contender should be a delightful change of pace.
Dorell Wright, Portland Trail Blazers (two years, $6.1 million)
Portland has been aggressive in seeking to upgrade one of the worst benches in the league. The Blazers drafted guard CJ McCollum, nabbed forward Thomas Robinson when the Rockets were intent to give him away, sneaked into the Tyreke Evans sign-and-trade to land center Robin Lopez and struck a fantastic deal with a free-agent wing in Wright. Spot-up shooters are valuable in a league that hinges on floor spacing, but the greater prizes are those who possess other skills, too. Wright fits that mold, as he’s positionally flexible, accurate from beyond the arc, a solid positional rebounder and better than expected when driving to attack a rotating defense.
Elton Brand, Atlanta Hawks (one year, $4 million)
Atlanta got an outstanding deal on power forward Paul Millsap (two years, $19 million), brought back the sweet-shooting swingman Kyle Korver at a reasonable rate (four years, $24 million) and wound up matching Milwaukee’s surprisingly affordable offer sheet for point guard Jeff Teague (four years, $32 million). But along with those signings came the low-key addition of a really solid defensive big man in Brand, who should compensate for some of the defensive loss from Smith’s departure in substance, if not style. Brand, 34, won’t fly around the court in the same way that Smith did for the Hawks, but he’s able to wall off the rim and contest shots with long arms and smart positioning. Watch here as he contains and contests a Spurs pick-and-roll:
Sound fundamentals allow Brand to make up for his lack of leaping ability. He’ll be able to complement Al Horford’s defensive work when the two play together or take up the mantle as Atlanta’s primary interior defender when Horford rests. Altogether, Brand’s signing is just one of several moves that make the Hawks a reasonable contender for the East’s sixth seed, all made without compromising the team’s financial flexibility.
Toney Douglas, Golden State Warriors (one year, $1.6 million)
Douglas is a meddlesome defender and a terrific spot-up three-point shooter (he converted 42.4 percent of such attempts last season, according to Synergy Sports Technology). He can get himself into trouble off the bounce if given too much freedom, but that likely won’t be a problem in Golden State, where Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala figure to do a bulk of the ball handling. As a result, this deal positions a useful role player to make use of his strengths while protecting him from his own weaknesses.
He’s not Jarrett Jack, but for this particular team that might not be such a bad thing. Replacing Jack with a less ball-dominant guard bodes well for the Warriors’ strategic evolution, which very much hinges on maximizing Curry’s touches and surrounding him with the kind of shooters, finishers and defenders who can create optimal balance on both ends of the floor. Adding Douglas — who will either line up at point guard or cross-match to defend points — is a great means to that end, attained at little cost.
Jon Leuer, Memphis Grizzlies (three years, $2.9 million)
Memphis, which needed one more stretchy big man after trading Darrell Arthur in June, secured a perfectly suitable option on the cheap by re-signing the little-used Leuer. Playing time in the frontcourt could still be hard to come by after the arrival of Kosta Koufos and the presumed inclusion of Ed Davis (who went woefully underused after being acquired in the Rudy Gay deal in midseason), but the 24-year-old Leuer is a great player to have around in case of injury or foul trouble.
Leuer, the 40th pick in the 2011 draft, is nowhere near as capable as Arthur on the defensive end. But Memphis is in a better position than most teams to manage Leuer’s limitations in that regard while reaping the benefits of his shooting. Leuer’s mid-range accuracy makes him effective both as a pick-and-pop threat and a spot-up option on the weak side, a perfect complement to the various elements of Memphis’ offense.
Chris Copeland, Indiana Pacers (two years, $6.1 million)
Rather than invest in a backup ball handler with the full mid-level exception, Indiana opted to pair Copeland — a floor-stretching big man who shot 42.1 percent from three-point range last season — with point guard C.J. Watson (two years, $4.1 million) to address the need for second-unit offense by composite. Copeland brings a knack for burst offense to that arrangement (he averaged 20.3 points per 36 minutes as a 29-year-old rookie for the Knicks), largely through makeshift offense earned without much structural help:
That ability to salvage possessions should help Indiana, and Copeland’s ability to space the floor will complement the interior work of Roy Hibbert and David West rather nicely. What completes the payoff of this signing, though, is that Indiana can afford to play Copeland in a way that New York often couldn’t. Because the Pacers draw on a stout defensive system and a more talented group of individual defenders, Copeland’s slow lateral movement won’t be as much of a concern as it was for the Knicks. The fit is simply more viable here. Copeland can add value on offense and benefit from the security of Indiana’s team defense.
Francisco Garcia, Omri Casspi and Reggie Williams, Houston Rockets (each for two years on the veteran minimum)
Reloading the roster with three-point shooters was a must once Houston signed Dwight Howard, but the Rockets — who used their available cap space to land Howard — didn’t have all that many avenues to add talent. Still, general manager Daryl Morey, who also lost Douglas and Carlos Delfino in free agency, made the best of the situation by wisely gambling in bulk with three minimum-salary players, each on a two-year deal with either a partially or completely nonguaranteed second season. (Houston will also have three other players with three-point capability, second-round pick Isaiah Canaan and undrafted rookies Robert Covington, and B.J. Young, in the mix at training camp.)
Garcia, 31, is the safest bet of the bunch. He’s the most consistent shooter (36.1 percent from three-point range for his career) and a scrappy, serviceable defender. The 25-year-old Casspi’s appeal hinges on the concept of reverting him to rookie form, when he spaced the floor and cut well for the Kings in 2009-10. Williams, 26, shot 42.3 percent from beyond the arc with Golden State in 2010-11, but he hit under only 31 percent in each of the last seasons with Charlotte. He should be able to contribute opposite a dominant interior player such as Howard.
Salary data courtesy of Sham Sports.