[Originally published on Hoopsworld, 23rd September 2013.]
The new Collective Bargaining Agreement is designed to save teams from themselves, and make reckless spending far harder to do. It works – most free agency contracts are now, frankly, well priced.
Here, in no particular order, are ten of the best ones from this past offseason:
Paul Millsap – Atlanta Hawks
Millsap signed with Atlanta for two years at $9.5 million per year, a significant chunk of cap space for a team who have worked so diligently to cut as much payroll as possible. Reversing the direction of the franchise is initially tough to reconcile, yet it is worth it because of how good of value his deal represents.
Millsap is signed to an amount comparable to his talent, for a short period of time. His deal only being two years long is of big help to the Hawks, both on their court and potentially on other teams. He provides Atlanta with the talent boost that will keep them out of the cellar – if you want bums on seats, you need that – while this contract makes him extremely tradeable. Millsap is a valued commodity around the league as a quality, versatile, two-way role player, and by getting him at the right price, Atlanta put themselves in a position to take advantage of that. And as long as they do, he’ll help them significantly as a player.
Matt Barnes & Darren Collison – Los Angeles Clippers
The two are listed together as they were both acquired via the non-taxpayer mid-level exception. On his first substantial multi-year contract, Barnes will earn $3.25 million next year with one further guaranteed year, while Collison gets the remaining $1.9 million.
Collison comes from Dallas where he was somewhat exposed as an average player. Given the opportunity to lead a team, especially down the stretch of games, he couldn’t. Collison added some dynamics to the position, as well as capable scoring, defence and drive-and-kick abilities, but he was asked to prove he could be a full time point guard, and all he proved is that he wasn’t. However, that doesn’t matter on the team that has Chris Paul. In L.A, all Collison needs to do is come in and be the perfectly average player that he is. He will be getting paid less to do this than players in comparable situations who have proven less (Eric Maynor, J.J. Barea, C.J. Watson), and could theoretically fill a Jarrett Jack-like role for a third of the price of Jarrett Jack.
Meanwhile, Barnes finally gets some overdue recognition, and will provide production on both ends in a way that the team’s other wings lack. His athleticism, disruptive defence, sufficient shooting and off-the-ball movement are surely perfect compliments to the Clippers roster, and they come at a very competitive price. Rather than using their MLE to sign one quality bench contributor, then, the Clippers used theirs to sign two. And that just doesn’t happen very often.
Andrei Kirilenko – Brooklyn Nets
The suspicions regarding the signing were inevitable, tedious and unnecessary. As Kirilenko himself expressed it, he didn’t opt out of $10 million to sign for $3 million – he opted out of $10 million to re-sign for about that much again, not to take a massive pay cut. Minnesota were offering him for three years and $30 million in sign-and-trade deals, to which he was complicit. The $3 million Kirilenko got from Brooklyn was roughly Plan P.
Nevertheless, whatever means got them here, Kirilenko is now here to upgrade on what the recently departed Gerald Wallace produced while earning less than a third of what he did. He’ll do so while also earning less money than the man he is making completely redundant: Mirza Teletovic.
Kirilenko’s deal is an outright steal – the very fact that at least one NBA owner asked the league to investigate how it was even possible is a glowing testament to that.
Andray Blatche – Brooklyn Nets
Blatche’s PER last year was 21.9. That is frankly enormous, enormous enough for 14th in the league. PER never tells the whole story about someone’s production or value, as evidenced by the fact that Amar’e Stoudemire was one spot ahead in 13th, yet it tells a big part of it. And so while the cringe-worthy moments on the court, and the distracting ones off it, continued to follow him around, it was all reconciled by just how productive (10.3 points and 5.1 rebounds in only 19 minutes per game) and cheap (one year unguaranteed minimum salary contract) Blatche was.
Both of these things should be true again. Blatche returns to the same team for the same role, but is now flanked with better teammates. He crucially remains almost as cheap – to preserve their taxpayer MLE for Andrei, the Nets re-signed Andray for the maximum amount that they could as a non-Bird right free agent, a mere 120 percent of the minimum salary. In re-signing Blatche to a one year contract (the player option in his second year does not count until it is exercised, which it surely won’t be), at the end of which he will have early Bird rights, Brooklyn have also given Blatche the right to veto any trade he is in, as he would lose this Bird right status if traded. Therefore, Brooklyn have essentially guaranteed themselves one year of fantastic quality bench production from someone who, when he’s this cheap and this good, is worth it all.
Chris Andersen – Miami HEAT
Andersen was eligible for, and expected to receive, a Blatche-like contract for 120 percent of the minimum salary. Yet he’s come even cheaper than that, signing purely for the minimum. He comes cheap for many well established reasons – the off-court sideshow (however unjust it is, being the victim of a fabricated accusation is still a black mark in the NBA owner’s book), the holes in the skill set, the two year suspension, and the degenerating knees that limit his time on the court. Advancing age is now a factor – he doesn’t jump like one, but it should be remembered that Andersen is now a 35 year old.
However, none of that matters as much as the simple belief that Miami would not have won the title last season without Andersen. He tipped the balance of their season, and cost only the minimum salary to do it. And now he’ll cost only the minimum salary again.
J.J. Hickson – Denver Nuggets
It is all too easy to dismiss the quality production of a player on a lottery team as being the direct product of it. It is also way too commonplace to do so. Hickson is the victim of this – his 12.7 points and 10.4 rebounds in only 29 minutes per game is invariably tempered by comments about Portland’s 33-49 record and Hickson’s own flaws (including, but certainly not limited to, his own inconsistent defensive rebounding abilities masked by that RPG figure).
Doing so, however, is a default position we seem to subliminally take when it comes to players who don’t acquiesce to our standards for the ‘fundamentals’. Averaging a double double in less than 30 minutes per game, on a 59 percent true shooting percentage, is incredibly good, however flawed it is. Hickson is an elite offensive rebounder and quality finisher, who has improved his shot selection and thus his efficiency, making him a highly effective weapon who can both win and finish possessions.
It is nonetheless true that holes in his game not readily measured by statistics – almost all of which come on the defensive end – do affect his overall impact on the game despite his laudable basic statistics. But if these holes didn’t exist, Hickson would be a $12 million player. As it is, he’s a $5 million one coming off a highly productive season in which he showed continued improvement to his game. That, then, is a good price to pay. And whilst concerns about the duplicity between him, Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee are legitimate, stockpiling talent at affordable prices is the way a good-but-not-great team should be headed.
Mike Dunleavy Jr. – Chicago Bulls
Dunleavy has been one of the best sixth men in the NBA over the past two seasons. It has been largely unheralded due to Milwaukee’s mediocrity and the play of other sixth men candidates, but it is nonetheless true. Now 33, Dunleavy is on the downside of his career with a significant knee injury in his history, but none of that diminishes how good he has been. He has developed into a quality shooter, who can get open without the ball and who can always get a shot away at 6’9, and who can still do more than just catch and shoot if needs be. His price of two years and just over $6 million is extremely fair for his services, and negates the loss for Chicago of Kyle Korver, whose new four year $24 million would have been too much for a reserve.
Nate Robinson – Denver Nuggets
Robinson, like Barnes, has always been one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He has long been dismissed by fans as a gimmick, overlooked by NBA front offices on account of his brazen personality, and derided by both as being useless defensively and too unreliable to be of use. Beneath all the exaggeration, there is some truth to these things. Especially the unreliability.
But the greater truth, the one Robinson proved emphatically last season, is that he is phenomenally talented. His height and occasional battles with martyrdom make it tough to put down this talent consistently, yet it is there, and Robinson’s scoring spurts can legitimately change NBA games in ways few others can. His shot making talent is rivalled only by the star guards, and, occasional brain fart notwithstanding, he is a better floor general and half court creator than legend suggests. And even on the days when he’s not producing well, he still gives forth all his energy. This counts for a lot, and the $2 million per annum Denver was able to get him for doesn’t speak to how good Robinson can be.
Mo Williams – Portland Trail Blazers
Long maligned for being little more than a shooter, William’s pull-up jump shot is nonetheless an elite transition weapon. He is not the half-court point guard he has been pressed into pretending to be in recent years, but in Portland, he will no longer have to pretend to be one. Instead, he will come in, score, and be suitably careful with the ball without being a halfcourt creator. He will do this like a prime Leandro Barbosa for only $2.67 million, an amount probably around half of what he could justify earning. And while his presence may somewhat block the available time for the similar C.J. McCollum, it need not stay that way. Being signed to this good of a price makes Williams a highly tradeable commodity, too.
Beno Udrih – New York Knicks
Udrih has long been a Collison-like caliber of player, a mediocre starter you need to upgrade or a quality backup salvaging your season, whose reputation would be a lot higher had he not spent the past six seasons outside of the playoffs. He is now the wrong side of 30, but now that he’s off the big contract, he represents a steal. Udrih signed for one season at the minimum salary a mere few months after averaging 10.2 points and 6.1 assists per game for Orlando. He serves as the thoroughly unspectacular yet ultimately polished player who silently and consistently makes his team better, commodities every team needs but not every team has. Udrih can run the pick-and-roll, shoot with range, and manipulate a defence to find open shooters – put simply, offences are better when he runs them. And he’s also not as bad defensively as his reputation suggests.