Under-the-Radar Offseason Additions Who Will Actually Make a Difference
The entire NBA offseason is dictated by the movement and decisions of a few key players, but the focus on top-tier talent shouldn't sweep the bulk of the league's signings and trades under the rug.
After all, not every team needs a star; the mid-level acquisitions, bargain-bin findings and consolation additions ultimately make a world of difference in the NBA landscape. They can also tip the scale by filling out the rotations of contenders and providing rare bright spots for perennial cellar dwellers.
With all of that in mind, here's a look at five relatively minor additions that stand to make a notable difference for their respective teams. Some address needs and some simply lengthen their team's rotation, but all stand to impress with new teams in the 2012-'13 NBA season.
C.J. Watson, Brooklyn Nets
Once the Brooklyn Nets traded for Joe Johnson and re-signed Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace, their next wave of challenges began. Filling out an entire bench while capped out is no small task, but the Nets were able to pick up some decent specialists to fill rotation minutes this season—one of whom is former Chicago Bull C.J. Watson.
Picking up a capable ball-handler to come off the pine was particularly important for the Nets. The team can now afford to rest Williams for spells without worrying about a crippling drop off or play Watson and Williams together on nights when other wing players are injured or ineffective. Much of that is due to Williams' versatility and size, but Watson is a reliable rotation type and a terrific defender on the perimeter.
The latter is particularly important for a Brooklyn team that figures to have some problems on the defensive end. Gerald Wallace does terrific defensive work and Joe Johnson can be a solid on-ball option, but the Nets are going to be relying on Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries—primarily—to clean up the back line. That's a worrisome proposition to say the least, as defense is neither player's strong suit. Widen the net to include Reggie Evans and Mirza Teletovic and there isn't exactly any further reason for optimism.
That makes the defensive work of players like Watson all the more important. He won't be able to truly transform the Nets' defense like a skilled defensive big would, but by letting fewer opponents drive past him and pressuring ball-handlers to prevent easy passes, Watson at least makes the opponent's execution a bit more difficult.
Robin Lopez, New Orleans Hornets
Robin Lopez is a developing big man with some interesting isolated skills, but what he really brings to the Hornets—by way of a sign-and-trade from the Phoenix Suns—is rotational flexibility. Between Lopez, Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson and Jason Smith, Hornets head coach Monty Williams has all kinds of options with which to construct the frontcourt of his lineups—both this season and beyond.
Smith is the oldest of the bunch at 26, and while there are still plenty of details to sort out in terms of how this group plays together, the balance of skill, size and range gets New Orleans off to a great start.
In more specific regard to Lopez, the Hornets have hopefully acquired an ideal defensive complement to Davis—a big who has the size and instincts to handle stronger post threats—thereby releasing Davis to roam, hedge and block shots. Lopez doesn't have the offensive potential or rebounding prowess to make this an ideal pairing, but New Orleans is likely betting that further development and Davis' incredible potential could make for a formidable back line.
The same concepts apply on the offensive end to Lopez's fit, alongside Anderson in particular, and to a lesser extent Davis and Smith. Lopez is the kind of rangeless big man who desperately needs a floor-spacing counterpart. That is an area in which Anderson is particularly adept. That floor-stretching capability affords Lopez the opportunity to stalk the baseline, set off-ball screens and work the offensive glass without clogging up valuable offensive space.
It's unlikely Lopez ever fully fleshes out his offensive game, but if he can find more ways to fully benefit from being tethered to the rim, he could wind up providing the Hornets with a truly useful rotation big.
Ronnie Brewer, New York Knicks
Ronnie Brewer's offensive potential in New York is a bit difficult to pin down; does a brilliant cutter aid an iso-heavy offense or does said iso-heavy offense ignore his talents entirely? But he nonetheless provides the Knicks with a tremendous defensive option on the perimeter—both in place of injured guard Iman Shumpert and eventually alongside him.
Considering that Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith and Steve Novak figure to fill many of the minutes on the wings, the addition of such a defender is a significant achievement. For a minimum salary, the Knicks have stumbled into a wonderful complementary part, and one who should prove quite useful in competing with teams like the Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics, among others.
Brewer doesn't solve the Knicks' offensive woes by any means, but so long as he's allowed to continue slashing through the defense and rewarded for his efforts, he could wind up being the starting 2 New York has been looking for all along.
Gustavo Ayon, Orlando Magic
Ideally, the little-known Gustavo Ayon would have wound up either an energetic reserve for a contending team or remained a valued member of the up-and-coming New Orleans Hornets. Instead we'll have to settle for one of the league's best kept secret role players plying his trade for a headache-inducing Orlando Magic team next season.
The commentary track will harp on the latest from Howard's camp and which teams are considered the front-runners for his services beyond this season, all while Ayon catches a difficult pass on a backdoor cut and effortlessly converts at the rim.
He won't be heralded and, unless you're watching the Magic frequently or are familiar with the value of Ayon's play, you may not even notice his contributions at all. But he'll quietly do good work for an Orlando team that's seemingly always in need of reserve bigs, and provide the Magic with another smart off-the-ball offensive player to fill the void left by Ryan Anderson while being a completely different type of player.
Lou Williams, Atlanta Hawks
In sending Joe Johnson—and every penny owed to him over the life of his still-ridiculous contract—to the Brooklyn Nets, the Atlanta Hawks willfully accepted a bit of offensive chaos. Jeff Teague will be relied on to create offense in entirely new ways next season now that Johnson's shot creation (and too frequent ball-stopping) is out of the picture. Al Horford and Josh Smith will continue to provide smart passing and versatile play to help round out Atlanta's offense.
But Lou Williams, who will undoubtedly come off the bench behind Teague to give the Hawks' insufficient reserves an offensive boost, actually makes for a surprisingly good Johnson analogue. Williams actually averaged more points, free throw attempts and assists per minute than Johnson in each of the last two seasons. At just 25 years old to Johnson's 30, he is headed in a much more productive direction. The complete package of skills and production that Johnson is able to provide is certainly valuable, but his ability to generate points alone—the very thing that made him a star player upon his arrival in Atlanta—doesn't separate him all that much from the likes of a scoring role player like Williams.
Swapping out Johnson for Williams isn't a perfect solution, and it doesn't make the Hawks a better team in the coming season than they were last year, but Danny Ferry has accomplished multiple goals. He's slashed his payroll, gotten rid of a horrible long-term commitment, added some interesting (and younger) talent and allowed Atlanta's best players a fuller opportunity to shine. Williams is a big part of all of that, and the fact that he can theoretically provide similar production to Johnson at a much, much lower cost helps the Hawks move forward without really dropping off.