NBA Offseason: Under the Radar Free Agents
Not every free agent signing is obvious and clear cut. Most teams create cap space to attempt to sign a particular superstar (Kevin Durant last summer), but obviously that player can only sign with one team. The meteoric rise in the cap last summer made it difficult to find bargain deals, however there are always players to sign who command less attention. Here are some overlooked free agents heading into this summer (in no particular order).
Utah Jazz - Joe Ingles (Restricted) - Ingles is not as low profile as he once was after an impressive postseason for the Utah Jazz, but he still qualifies for this list. Ingles just completed his 3rd season in the NBA, all in Utah. Ingles, who will turn 30 years old in October, will have his first crack at free agency this summer. Ingles has yet to earn a big paycheck, and given his age, he is likely going to the highest bidder. Ingles played a huge role for the Jazz this season, but he is not going to be their first priority. The Jazz will go into the summer with about $25 Million in cap space, but fellow free agents Gordon Hayward and George Hill will be Utah’s primary focus. Ingles is a restricted free agent, so the Jazz can match another team’s offer sheet, however, another club can take advantage of the Jazz by giving Ingles a large offer sheet while the team is waiting on Hill and/or Hayward to make a decision. Ingles is old for a player heading into his first free agency, but his game should age well. He is an excellent passer from the wing, a plus defender that can guard multiple positions, and he finished third in 3pt percentage in 2016-17. Ingles will never be a star but he is an excellent role player that can fortify any playoff hopeful team’s rotation.
San Antonio Spurs - Jonathan Simmons (Restricted) - Similar to Ingles, Simmons is becoming less under the radar as he plays well in the San Antonio Spurs postseason run. Simmons’ rise to relevance is an incredible story that is worth researching. He managed to go from an undrafted player who had to pay to attend a NBA D-League tryout to a key contributor on a Western Conference finalist in the span of a few years. Simmons has averaged just about 18 MPG in the regular and postseason, but he has still managed to flash immense potential. Simmons is an incredible high flying athlete and a plus defender. His biggest weakness is his inconsistent shooting from distance, but he has been a much-improved long-range shooter in the playoffs. While this is a small sample size, it is still a promising sight for the Spurs or any potential Simmons suitor. Simmons is in a similar situation to Ingles. He too will be a restricted free agent, but the Spurs main focus should be finding a point guard if they lose Patty Mills , considering the injury suffered by Tony Parker. Depending on whether Pau Gasol picks up $16.2M player option, the Spurs could be limited in cap room to spend. Just like Ingles, Simmons will be looking to cash in during his first free agency while his value is at its peak. The 27-year old Simmons has shown enough promise to convince a team that he can excel in a larger role.
Denver Nuggets - Mason Plumlee (Restricted) - The third and final restricted free agent on this list is at a relative low point of his value compared to Ingles and Simmons. After an impressive 2015-16 campaign in which he was arguably the third best player on a surprising Portland Trail Blazer team, Plumlee was overshadowed in Denver. Portland traded Plumlee and a 2nd round pick to the Nuggets in exchange for Jusuf Nurkic and a 1st round pick. Nurkic went on to play the best basketball of his pro career and help propel Portland past his old team into the playoffs. Meanwhile Plumlee went to Denver, where he was no longer a full-time starter and saw his MPG decrease from 28.1 in Portland to 23.4 with the Nuggets. All of these factors could make Plumlee an ideal candidate to be stolen from Denver on a team friendly deal. Plumlee played well last season, but not as well as Nurkic. Therefore he was looked at unfavorably. Plumlee runs the floor extremely well for a center and is an excellent passer from the block. He is an adequate enough finisher and post defender that his playmaking and ability to move make him a valuable player. Plumlee only just turned 27, so he still has a lot of his prime years ahead of him. A team in need of a starting center should offer Plumlee a long-term deal in the range of $12M annually and see whether Denver is willing to match. The Nuggets will have enough cap room to match any offer sheet for Plumlee, but it is unclear how much they are willing to spend on him. In a limited sample size Plumlee and Nikola Jokic did not play well together. Jokic is the cornerstone of the franchise, so if Plumlee can’t excel alongside Jokic the Nuggets will likely not invest much capital into their star player’s backup. Given some of the outrageous deals signed by other centers (Joakim Noah, Bismack Biyombo, Ian Mahinmi, Timofey Mozgov) last summer, adding Plumlee to a deal in the $12M range could be an absolute steal.
New Orleans Pelicans - Donatas Motiejunas - At this point of his career, Motiejunas has become the definition of a risk-reward signing. Motiejunas was the 20th pick in the 2011 draft and won’t turn 27 until September. The real problem for Motiejunas has been staying on the floor. In five NBA seasons, Motiejunas has played in just 248 of a possible 410 games. In his first two seasons, he was a considerably ineffective young player learning the NBA game, and in his 4th and 5th seasons he was limited by injury. Nonetheless there should still be some team out there willing to take a gamble on Donatas based off his impressive 2014-15 season. That season Motiejunas averaged 29 MPG in 71 games (62 starts) and put up 12 PPG and 6 RPG. The 7-footer even shot 37% from deep. Given his injury track record, no team should sign Motiejunas on a multiyear deal (unless there is a team option) or count on him to play a pivotal role. Think of Motiejunas as this summer’s James Johnson. Johnson is another former first round big man who for various reasons couldn’t find a steady spot in the league. Miami took a flier on Johnson last summer with a 1-year $4M contract, and he rewarded them with a career year that could put him in the running for the 2016-17 Most Improved Player. If Motiejunas can stay healthy (which is a big if) he could be a valuable contributor to whatever team is willing to gamble on him.
New York Knicks - Justin Holiday - Justin Holiday, the older brother of Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday and UCLA guard Aaron Holiday, is ready for an expanded role. In four seasons Holiday has just 13 starts and has only averaged 15.8 MPG. Holiday was impressive in his first season with the Knicks, but he had trouble finding a consistent spot in the rotation behind Courtney Lee, Carmelo Anthony, Mindaugas Kuzminskas and Lance Thomas. Holiday isn’t exactly elite at any particular skill, but he doesn’t have any true weaknesses. At 6-6 he can guard any wing player and even some point guards or small ball power forwards. He runs the floor well, is a capable long-range shooter and a solid ball handler from the perimeter. Holiday has the looks of a 25-30 MPG player stuck in the role of a 15-20 MPG player. If the Knicks or some other team can sign Holiday to a deal that pays him like the latter player while he produces like the former, he will be one of the best value signings of the summer.
Toronto Raptors - Patrick Patterson - Patterson’s free agency will fly under the radar in Toronto with fellow Raptors Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, and PJ Tucker also hitting the open market. If Toronto gives Ibaka a long-term deal, which they likely will considering they just gave up Terrence Ross and a 1st round pick for him, Patterson almost certainly will not be retained. Toronto has been a consistent playoff team in Patterson’s 3.5 seasons with the organization. During this run Patterson has been a common theme in all of Toronto’s top lineups. Patterson is an incredible weapon off the bench who fits perfectly as a power forward in today’s game. He is one of a select few big men who is capable of hitting three pointers and holding his own both in the post and on the perimeter defensively. The 28-year-old Patterson has a considerably clean bill of health, which should comfort teams that give him a long-term offer. Whether he serves as a low-end starter or a high-end reserve, Patterson should be able to flourish at a high level wherever he winds up signing.
Utah Jazz - Shelvin Mack- Point guard is easily the top position in this summer’s free agency with the likes of Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, Jrue Holiday, George Hill, Jeff Teague, Derrick Rose, Deron Williams, Darren Collison, and Patty Mills headlining the group. Shelvin Mack should not be confused with a starting point guard, but he has proven throughout his career that he can fill in as a temporary starter if injuries force him into that role. Mack is one of the better backup point guards in the league and should be available. The Jazz have two first round picks in this years draft and already have Dante Exum and Raul Neto on the roster. In addition, their financial resources will be first used on retaining Hayward, Hill, and Ingles. Point guard is currently the best and deepest position around the league, and these playoffs have only further proved the importance of having a high quality backup. Teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder and Washington Wizards have struggled mightily when their starters are replaced by the likes of Semaj Christon and Brandon Jennings while other top teams still in the championship hunt have top backup point guards in Patty Mills, Shaun Livingston, Deron Williams, and Marcus Smart to hold down the fort. Mack is more than capable of serving as a 20-MPG backup point guard on a title contender.
Honorable Mentions: Kelly Olynyk (restricted), Nene Hilario, CJ Miles, Michael Beasley