Free agent classes are defined by their mega-stars, and as such, this summer will likely be coined "The Summer of Dwight" or "The Summer of CP3." But in truth, it's often the less-heralded free agents who come to define the subsequent seasons come June.
Don't believe me? Take a closer look at this year's conference finalists; take heed of their construction:
Beyond its expensive Big Three, the Heat are a mishmash of savvy veterans on bargain contracts. Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Chris Anderson—all signed as free agents—are playing 41.5 quality minutes per game this postseason, and making a scant average of $2.2 million to show for it. Danny Green toiled through the D-League and Slovenia's Premier League A before the Spurs gave him a post-lockout flyer, and eventual three-year deal. For God's sake, Memphis signed Tony Allen to a three-year, $9.45 million contract after he helped Boston win a Larry O'Brien trophy.
Eric Gordon, meanwhile, signed for $58 million last summer, and missed half the season.
So yes: There's a reason Dwight Howard and Chris Paul will receive more attention than other free agents this summer. And it's not just because they play in Los Angeles; it's because they're the two best players. But only a fool would define this free agent class on their courtship alone.
Here are three under-the-radar free agents that could make a big splash in 2013-14.
PF/C Jermaine O'Neal, Phoenix Suns
The NBA's own Beric Dondarrion, Jermaine O'Neal revived himself from the dead this season—not to the level of his peak years, but to a suitable, and certainly respectable facsimile of that production.
Check out the near-perfect parabola his PER has formed the past four years:
It went nearly unnoticed—how many Suns games did you watch this season?—but the veteran big man revived his career in Phoenix, and put to rest, at least for the time being, all jokes about his ambulatory corpse.
It will take more than his current sub-$1 million contract to acquire him, but not by much. Especially if O'Neal, who has never won a ring, is willing to take a pay cut and join a contender in his golden years.
Leaving the Phoenix training staff—who may or may not be using some sort of Harry Potter-style charm to keep aging players healthy—is a tad worrisome, but not enough to dissuade most teams from going after him.
O'Neal should be a rotation player on a playoff team next season.
PG Nate Robinson, Chicago Bulls
Nate Rob stepped into an unenviable position this season—helping a myriad of guards assuage the loss of Derrick Rose—and exceeded all possible expectations.
His 17.43 PER was impressive enough, but he also provided Chicago something that doesn't translate directly to paper: a bona fide, confident scorer at the end of important games. On a team devoid of players who can create their own shot, the importance of his late-game heroics cannot be overstated.
Still, with Derrick Rose set to return, almost 18 months after his ACL tear, and Kirk Hinrich in tow to back him up, Chicago shouldn't be able to retain Robinson this summer. Not after the postseason he just had...not after the paycheck he just secured.
There are plenty of offensively challenged contenders out there, all of whom could use a spark off the bench at point guard. Imagine what Robinson could do in a Pacers' or Grizzlies' jersey—especially after the year he just spent learning defense from Tom Thibodeau.
SG Alan Anderson, Toronto Raptors
Much like Jermaine O'Neal—and in stark contrast to Nate Robinson—it was easy to miss Anderson's breakout season in 2012-13. Again: Despite the pre-recorded lust of Kenny Smith on The Basketball Jones, how much Raptor news did you ever really receive?
But after numerous years spent bouncing around Italy and Russia and Israel, Alan Anderson didn't need fanfare to feel redemption; all he needed was another NBA chance.
The former MSU Spartan averaged 10.7 points in 65 games this season, posting an impressive 12.61 PER (at least relative to expectation) along the way. More importantly, he also harassed opposing guards with his above-average defense, a chore that was easier said than done when surrounded by the likes of Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargnani.
Moving to a contender would afford Anderson a chance to come off the bench, and more importantly to become an afterthought for opposing defenses. In Toronto, the player across from him knew he was looking to score, ready to shoot. But in a more mature system, plugged in next to players with well-established roles, he could see much more room to maneuver on offense.
That assistance might even help Anderson fix his pesky turnover problem.
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