2018 Free Agency Recap and 5 Under the Radar Moves I Liked.
Yesterday my mom yelled at me for being on my phone too much. I responded how could I not be? The NBA landscape has shifted, and NBA Twitter has broken. First, LeBron James took his talents to L.A and then out of nowhere DeMarcus Cousins signed with the defending champion Golden State Warriors for only $5.3 million. Let’s start with LeBron. This was kind of predictable but a seismic win for Magic Johnson and the Lakers. They get the best player in the world and instantly jump from a 35 win team to a 50-55 win team.
The following moves the Lakers made are a little head scratching. Re-signing Kentavious Caldwell Pope was a good move, even if it was a slight overpay. He is the kind of player who fits well next to LeBron. Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo, and Javale McGee are not the perfect fits. Stephenson is a ball dominant guard, who can’t shoot, and is an overrated defender. His best role is as a backup point guard, and it looks like Rondo will take that role.
The Rondo signing is okay, he is still an elite passer and has at least become a respectable shooter, but the fit is not perfect. McGee is whatever, but I would have instead retained Brook Lopez. Of course, there is the potential of a Kawhi Leonard trade lurking, but until that happens, the Lakers moves beside LeBron have been a little questionable. I am high on all three of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma, but they need to surround LeBron with some more shooting.
Now for the Warriors and Boogie. Boogie apparently reached out to the Warriors as no teams including the Pelicans were interested in him. A lot of teams were scared of having him in their locker room or concerned about his Achilles injury. Boogie needed to go somewhere to get his value back up and a place where he could get healthy. People may hate it, but I applaud Boogie for making this move. I know everyone is freaking out, but the Warriors were likely to win anyway, and Cousins probably won’t even play until January or February.
Yes, it is a little unfair, but remember he is expected only to stay there for one year. Golden State won’t be able to sign him to the deal he wants next offseason and doesn’t have his Bird Rights. As for the fit, once he is healthy, he should be able to spot up behind the arc, or punish smaller players in the post on switches. The Golden State locker room should control his antics and demand he gets back on defense. It is not perfect as Cousins will add to their turnover problem, but he also gives them another dimension. For the price, this signing is ridiculous.
It is easy to look at these two moves and forget there are 28 other teams. In a summer where teams are starved for money, players are taking one-year deals and teams are taking low-risk high reward flyers for low prices on players who didn’t work out for whatever reason in their previous situations. As fans and writers we may all have flipped out about Cousins going to Golden State, but it is not like the other teams are giving up. The West, in particular, will be brutal and teams are taking risks to add talent even if it means paying more than they would have liked. Look at OKC. It is easy to focus on the big moves, but there have been several under the radar moves that need to be acknowledged. These moves help both the players and the teams. Here are five under the radar moves I like.
Seth Curry: Portland Trailblazers
Seth Curry was one of the under the radar free agents I liked the most this year. He missed all of last year with an injury, so people forgot how good he was the year before in Dallas. In that year Curry averaged 12.8 points per game on 48% shooting from the field, 85% from the line and 42% from three. That adds up to a 60% true shooting percentage an excellent mark for a guard. Curry like his brother can shoot, but he is not just a shooter he is a scorer. He can put the ball on the floor, has got a handle and can run pick and roll.
Portland had almost no money to spend and got this guy on a two year $2.75 million deal with a player option. That is a steal, especially with Shabazz Napier likely leaving. In the playoffs the New Orleans Pelicans eviscerated Portland, and it was clear Portland needed another shooter. The Pelicans didn’t even guard Moe Harkless and Al Farouq-Aminu and loaded up on Damian Lillard and C.J McCollum. Curry will help as he can play with either of those guards or run back-up point behind Lillard.
Remember the three-guard lineups with Lillard, McCollum, and Napier did really well last year, and I expect the same with Curry. According to Synergy Sports Curry ranked in the 89th percentile running pick and roll and 82nd percentile spotting up. He is an excellent and versatile offensive player.
Yes, I realize all the guards are small, and there are defensive issues. The fit is not perfect, and this does not move the needle that much for Portland. However, they are a better team with Curry than without. Curry is still only 27 and improving. Portland was right to take a cheap flyer on him. It is unclear what further moves Portland makes this offseason. They will likely be able to re-sign Nurkic, but they will have little room to add anyone else. The big question is do they do a big move and trade C.J McCollum and try to get a versatile big like Kevin Love. Either way, the West will be brutal and Portland is not a lock to even make the playoffs, but signing Curry to that cheap of a deal is a good move and makes them a better team.
Julius Randle: New Orleans Pelicans
Well, this was surprising. It didn't surprise me that the Lakers renounced the rights to Randle, he didn’t appear to be in their LeBron plans, but I did not see him going to the Big Easy. However, it was clear the Pelicans didn’t want to bring back Cousins, and getting Randle is a phenomenal pickup. Getting Randle for only $18 million on a two-year deal with a player option in the second year is a tremendous value. For people who don’t know Randle is a monster. Down the stretch last year he was a beast. Last year Randle averaged 16 points, eight rebounds and 2.6 assists per game on 55% shooting from the field. Randle is strong as hell and a versatile offensive player.
He can score in the post, has got a face-up game, can finish out of the pick and roll and in transition. On the offensive glass, he is a monster. Plus when he wants to, he is a very capable passer. His one weakness is shooting. He barely takes threes and when he does they rarely go in. Randle is also just an alright free throw shooter shooting 71% from the line.
Even with the lack of shooting, I like the fit in New Orleans. Next to Anthony Davis he should put up numbers. Davis is a good enough shooter that he can space the floor for Randle post-ups or rim runs and on defense Davis’ rim protection can cover Randle’s biggest weakness. Randle is not a good rim protector, but when engaged is a good defender. He is strong and tough to move, and when his motor is moving, he can cover a lot of ground. Also, don’t be surprised to see Randle run some pick and rolls with Davis. He is a good enough passer.
The other fit is next to Nikola Mirotic. Mirotic will provide tons of spacing for Randle to bully his way to the rim. This duo will be tough to stop on offense, but the fit on defense is not as good. Neither are good rim protectors or great in space, so expect to see them only in stretches with favorable matchups.
Randle can play both frontcourt spots and back up either Davis or Mirotic. I would not be surprised if Gentry tries a jumbo line-up and plays all three together at times. Getting a back up big who can average 16 points and eight rebounds for only $9 million a year is a tremendous value. The Pelicans may be my go to team on League Pass next season.
Mario Hezonja: New York Knicks
It is no secret the New York Knicks are focusing on 2019 more than 2018. In 2019 they will have cap space and go big game hunting. This year they will likely stink especially with Kristaps Porzingis out for most of the season if not all of it. That is why it was a good idea to take a flyer on a young player with talent and upside like Mario Hezonja.
New York signed Hezonja to a one year $6.5 million deal. This is the definition of a low-risk high reward deal. Hezonja had a rough first few years in Orlando. The team was terrible; he dealt with injuries, didn’t have a defined position, didn’t always work hard and was in and out of the rotation. Last year he finally got a real opportunity and showed signs of life. He averaged a career-high 9.6 points on 37% shooting from three and showed he could be a good stretch four. Hezonja also rounded out his game, his turnover ratio dropped, his rebound ratio improved and he had a career-high 54% true shooting percentage.
He is a better athlete than you think, a decent passer and a good shooter. His best role is as a spot up player where he ranked in the 67th percentile according to Synergy Sports. The good news is in New York with a good coach like David Fizdale he will get plenty of minutes to improve and expand his game. My guess is he comes off the bench for offense and plays the stretch four mostly.
His defense is not great, he can be lazy, and a little slow footed, but Fizdale should push him on that end. There are also tools to work with he ranked in the 50th percentile overall in individual defense so he is not a total turnstile. Believe it or not, he ranked in the 85th percentile defending pick and roll ball handlers. Fizdale should get the most out of him on both ends.
When Porzingis gets back, I am interested to see the Hezonja-Porzingis frontcourt. Porzingis should be able to provide Hezonja with rim protection on defense, and on offense, they will provide a ton of spacing. Remember Hezonja is only 23 and the best is yet to come. The Knicks are right to take flyers on guys like Hezonja and Emmanuel Mudiay. They have the time to develop them, and at least one of them should pan out. Great signing by the Knicks.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Nerlens Noel
I am incredibly impressed with OKC this offseason. I thought they were dead in the water and might consider trading Russell Westbrook. Instead, Sam Presti trusted he could sell Paul George on the organization over the course of a year, and he did. Presti deserves a ton of credit. Not only did they retain George to a four-year deal with a player option after the third year. They also kept Jerami Grant who is sneaky vital for them. Then they went out and signed Nerlens Noel to a two-year deal worth only $3.5 million. Now their tax bill is high, and they need to find a way to get rid of Carmelo Anthony, plus add some shooting, but this was a hell of an offseason for the Thunder.
Now about Noel! He was a disaster in Dallas; there is no denying that. However, this guy was a lottery pick for a reason, and there are plenty of tools to work with. In OKC he will get an opportunity to back up Steve Adams and get his value back up. For a backup, Noel is an excellent get. OKC struggled last season when Adams was on the bench; now they have a reliable back up.
On defense, Noel can help the Thunder on the defensive glass and he has the ability to switch and guard smaller players. He also has high block and steal rates. On offense, he can finish lobs from George and Russell Westbrook, plus he is an excellent cutter. Don’t be surprised if Billy Donovan tries to play Noel with Adams at times in jumbo lineups. The spacing would be tight, but defensively, it is an interesting lineup.
It will be up to Donovan and the Thunder locker room to get the best out of Noel. After such a poor year in Dallas, I am sure Noel will be motivated to leave it all out on the floor. At his best, Noel is a good finisher and athlete, who can rebound and defend multiple positions. At $3.5 million for a backup role that is excellent value. Once again the Thunder deserve a ton of credit for their offseason, and I can’t wait to see Noel on their team next season.
Detroit Pistons: Glenn Robinson
The Detroit Pistons got a new coach this offseason in Dwane Casey to try to get the best out of a team that has some talent but is stuck. They are capped out, didn’t have a first-round pick this season and have missed the playoffs the past two seasons. With very little ways to get better, the Pistons had to find value at positions of need for low costs. They accomplished that by signing Glenn Robinson from the Indiana Pacers to a two year, $8.3 million deal.
Detroit has their core three with Andre Drummond, Blake Griffin and Reggie Jackson; now they need to build around them. What they needed, in particular, was wing defenders and Robinson fits the bill. Robinson is 6’7, strong and athletic. Remember, he was in a dunk contest. He can guard multiple positions, and on offense, he is an excellent three-point shooter. Last year he shot 41% from deep and the year before 39% from deep. Robinson should be a perfect 3 and D player for the Pistons.
Robinson’s best role is as a spot up player, where last year he ranked in the 98th percentile. He is efficient, rarely turns the ball over and last year improved his passing posting a career-high 15.2 assist ratio. On defense, he is also best defending spot up players and has the strength to chase players through screens.
For the Pistons, Robinson will likely come off the bench, but he can fill many roles. He can even play some small ball four for them as well as the two and the three. I like James Ennis, but I think Robinson is a slight upgrade. It was mysterious the Pacers didn’t give Robinson more minutes last season.
This season in a weak Eastern Conference, the Pistons can make the playoffs and Robinson should be a significant factor in doing that. Kudos to Detroit to finding value in Robinson and getting him at a low price.
*Photos Courtesy of USA Today