In a tight free agent market, this is who did the best with the least.
The 2018 free agency market was a far cry from what it was in 2016 when the league had more than a billion dollars in cap space to spend. This year, only a handful of teams had a meaningful amount of money to sign players, and many of them used to either sign big free agents like LeBron James and DeAndre Jordan or take on bad money in exchange for future draft picks.
With so many players available and so few teams with the money to offer market value contracts, there were a plethora of free agents left out in the cold. For teams with limited resources, the strategy was obvious: time to go bargain hunting. This is who made out the best with the least.
1. Golden State Warriors — DeMarcus Cousins for 1 yr./$5.3 million
I am not going to spend too much time on this because it is obviously the best bargain deal of the summer. The Warriors added an all-star center who was last seen averaging 25 points per game on 58.2 true shooting for only $5 million dollars.
Most NBA analysts have pointed out that Cousins will give the Warriors the bruising post-presence that they have never had, but I actually think his fit will work mostly because of his elite passing. Cousins’ 5.4 assists per game ranked second among centers, behind only Nikola Jokic.
One piece of hope that fans of other teams can hold onto is that Cousins does not rank as highly in advanced passing metrics because he turns the ball over five times per game. Cousins happens to be joining a Warriors team that already has a proclivity for throwing the ball away (they ranked 23rd in team turnovers last season), so he could add to those issues.
The last bit of pessimism I will add is that using the mid-level exception on Cousins means that the Warriors failed to add any wing depth behind an aging Andre Iguodala. If Iggy goes down in a key moment again like he did last year in the Western Conference Finals, the Warriors could regret not having a solid backup option. Unfortunately, that will probably be trivial because if Cousins is healthy, this is almost inarguably the most talent ever assembled on one team in the modern NBA.
2. Minnesota Timberwolves — Anthony Tolliver for 1 yr./$5.75 million
Tolliver is just the perfect fit for the Timberwolves. In a league where shooting has become so valuable, Tolliver is one of the very best in the league at the forward position. Last year, Tolliver shot a career-best 43.6% from beyond the arc on a healthy 4.6 attempts per game.
More importantly, Tolliver is a catch-and-shoot specialist. According to NBA.com, almost 50% of Tolliver’s offensive usage last year came on spot-ups, and he was extremely efficient on those attempts. Tolliver’s 1.31 points per possession on spot-ups was sixth best in the league.
On a team that is already cluttered with too many shot creators and not enough shot makers, Tolliver will fill a key role. He does not need to operate with the ball and can provide perimeter spacing to a team in desperate need of it. Even if Tolliver does not shoot quite as well as he did last season, his style of play should lead to an even more efficient Timberwolves offense that was already fourth in offensive rating last season.
In general, I was surprised that shooters like Tolliver, Wayne Ellington, and Joe Harris weren’t valued more by teams given the rarity of players with that skill set, so I think the Timberwolves did well here.
3. New Orleans Pelicans — Julius Randle for 2 yr./$18 million (second year is a player option)
I absolutely love this move for the Pelicans not only because of Randle but also because of what it means for Anthony Davis and the direction of the team.
At first, the fit between Davis and Randle seems strange, but Randle gives the Pelicans a whole new offensive dimension with his versatility. He made massive improvements last season because he got in the best shape of his career.
First, Randle became a very difficult matchup. Put a center on him, and he used his improved quickness and ball-handling skills to drive to the rim. Try a power forward, and Randle bullied him in the post using his powerful 250 lbs. frame. Watch it here. In the first video he just powers to the hoop, and in the second, he uses a nice spin move.
Unfortunately for teams playing the Pelicans this season, Anthony Davis is going to command the attention of the best interior defender. That means whoever teams have left will be the one assigned to Randle. Expect the former Kentucky product to improve upon his already efficient 60.8 TS% from 2017-18.
Randle also got better as a grab-and-go player. Randle was always been a good decision-maker and passer for his size, but now he can grab defensive rebounds and start a transition break. That will work well with the Pelicans who ran in transition on 17.4% of possessions, fifth-most in the league.
The Pelicans got all of this potential versatility for only $9 million per year, well below the threshold for a starting-caliber player. It is a solid low-risk, high-reward signing.
4. Milwaukee Bucks — Brook Lopez for 1 yr./$3.4 million
Brook Lopez is a great example of why most teams should not spend on centers. Lopez does a lot in the areas where centers usually contribute to winning basketball.
Offensively, he has transformed himself into a modern day stretch five. After only attempting 31 threes in the first eight years of his career, Lopez has attempted 712 threes over the past two seasons and has converted them at a 34.6% clip.
With Giannis Antetokounmpo on the floor, having a center with three-point range should clear driving lanes and allow the rangy forward to improve his playmaking. Prior to this signing, the Bucks really had no such option on the roster. Thon Maker was the only Bucks center who attempted threes with any regularity last season and he shot just 29.8% on 111 attempts.
Lopez also adds an interior presence that will make it difficult for teams to switch freely against the Bucks’ offense. Of players who averaged at least two post up possessions per game, Lopez was the fifth most efficient at 50.5% from the field. The Bucks had virtually no post presence last year as Thon Maker and John Henson combined for 0.7 post possessions per game while Lopez averaged 3.3 by himself.
Despite Lopez’s often criticized 13.4% defensive rebound rate, his teams have also been able to rebound reasonably well with him on the floor.
Lopez’s teams still manage to rebound well because he is very good at boxing out and creating opportunities for his teammates to get the ball. Look at the image below. Lopez’s good fundamental instincts tell him to find a body when the shot goes up, and by doing so, he creates a wide open space for one of his teammates to get the rebound.
Courtesy of HoopChalk.com
Lopez is never going to be able to play a switch-heavy defensive style with his slow feet, but the Bucks have Maker to fill that role. And it is not like Lopez’s contract is going to dictate that he should play over anyone else on the team.
5. Portland Trail Blazers — Seth Curry for 2 yr./$5.76 million (second year is a player option)
This is all contingent on Seth Curry returning to his 2016-17 form after he missed last year with a stress fracture in his lower left leg. But if Curry does come back 100% healthy, this is one of my favorite signings of the offseason.
After not really getting an opportunity with his first couple teams, the younger Curry brother emerged as a solid backup point guard option with the Kings and Mavericks. In his last full season, Curry averaged 12.8 points, 2.7 assists, and shot 42.5 percent from three-point range in 29 minutes per game.
Curry should get similar playing time as he projects to take over Shabazz Napier’s role as the point guard on the second unit with an opportunity to play in three-guard lineups next to Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
Although I liked Napier’s play last year, I see Curry as a superior replacement because his skills should help improve the Blazers’ weakest areas as a team. The Blazers finished with the third fewest bench points in the league largely because of its total lack of shooting off the bench. The team ranked 26th in bench three pointers with a paltry average of just 2.7. Curry’s 2.0 threes per game in 2016-17 almost matches that on its own.
Curry also has the ability to score in transition, something the Blazers are desperate for from someone other than Lillard and McCollum. In his stint with the Mavs, Curry produced 1.82 points per possession in transition, which puts him in the 82nd percentile in the league. Napier was below league average in the same category, and the Blazers’ overall average of 1.02 points per possession was the second worst in the NBA.
Finally, I think Curry has a chance to succeed in three-guard lineups with Lillard and McCollum. During this past season, the combination of Napier, Lillard, and McCollum played 230 minutes together and had a +22 net rating. Curry’s off-ball shooting should make him an even better fit than Napier in those combinations with the Blazers.
I did not understand a lot of Portland’s offseason, but I love this signing.
Unfortunately for these teams, all of the contracts were one-year deals or two-year deals with a player option. In such a tight market, it appears that players who felt undervalued refused to sign long-term contracts for below market value. I think teams will look back on this offseason as a missed opportunity to get team-friendly contracts on the books.
Edited by Emily Berman.
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