Finding bargains out of the first week-plus of NBA free agency is an incredibly difficult task.
The whole process is a never-ending spending spree of cash, with cap space making general managers act like a family who just won their way out of poverty through a lottery drawing. The contracts are big, they're usually longer than expected and a ton of them are easier to slam than praise.
According to a study by renowned economist Dave Berri, the game's most underpaid players are also usually among its highest paid, and the maximum contract salary structure limits the amount of money that the LeBron Jameses of the world can make.
In theory, that would allow teams to spend smarter. In actuality, it allows them to simply divvy up that money in different ways—usually by paying role players starter money, starters second banana money and second bananas superstar money.
It's how the world works, and there's no changing that. But it also makes assessing "bargains" a little more difficult.
The best deals signed this offseason were likely the ones taken by Dwight Howard and Chris Paul. Both are superstars making the maximum-possible salary, but they're also guys who should help push the Clippers and Rockets deep into the postseason, creating playoff revenue and all that other good stuff for their respective franchise.
Whatever, though; that's boring. You don't need me to tell you that Paul and Howard are good players. Your great-grandmother who calls it "baskethoops" could do that.
Secondary signings—like Ray Allen taking less money to join the Miami Heat last summer—are the ones that often swing the title race. Having the infrastructure in place to convince a player to take less than he's worth speaks volumes to the general manager, players on the roster and the overall market.
But what happens after those below-market deals are signed? These guys have to, you know, play basketball together. With that in mind, here is a look at how a few of this offseason's biggest bargains will fit with their next team.
Paul Millsap (PF, Atlanta Hawks)
I'm not quite sure what the Hawks are doing this offseason, but I'm pretty sure I don't like it.
They started off the draft process by landing two international talents, Brazilian center Lucas Nogueira and German point guard Dennis Schroeder, who have no chance of helping the team next season. The moves were done partially as long-term investments and equally to keep some extra money for free agency this offseason.
Then, once the Paul-Howard pairing went down in flames when the Clippers hired Doc Rivers, the big man's visit with Atlanta was merely a courtesy. Howard had no plans on coming back to his hometown, and the Hawks all but knew it. They had their nice meet-and-greet, halfheartedly tried selling Dwight on a homecoming and then went about their business.
Superficially, it seemed like the perfect time to tank. Outside of Al Horford and the rights to Jeff Teague, there were exactly zero NBA players on this team you could rely on. With the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes coming next season, employing teams that won't compete for an NBA championship this year has become the in-vogue option.
Of course, as just about every smart person who does this stuff pointed out, tanking is relative and very dependent on the situation. General managers may run the day-to-day operations, but they also answer to ownership, who may still want to push for a competitive team.
Enter Atlanta's offseason. The Hawks were a buyer on the robust shooter's market, as they re-signed Kyle Korver to a four-year, $24 million deal. They've also been linked to plenty of other moves on the secondary market, most notably to shooting guard Monta Ellis, according to ESPN's Mark Stein.
There was one move the team made this offseason, though, that likely cemented Atlanta into a playoff seed between Nos. 6 and 8 in the dreadfully weak Eastern Conference: the signing of Paul Millsap to a two-year, $19 million contract.
Let's start with the contract, which is obviously fantastic.Signing a player of Millsap's caliber—a useful starting 4 who will likely consign Horford to forever playing out of position at the 5—to a two-year deal is a godsend.
The first year of all free-agent deals are essentially freebies. Barring injury, you'll get the production you paid for. Teams get in trouble when they give longer deals to mid-tier free agents, but Millsap becomes an expiring contract immediately after next season ends.
Compared to the deal Charlotte gave Millsap's former Utah teammate Al Jefferson (three years, $40.5 million) this offseason, as well as the one Detroit gave to former Hawk Josh Smith (four years, $56 million), Atlanta walked away like a bandit.
Millsap won't be able to replicate what Smith brought to the table as a ball-handler or defender, though. Smith, for all the flak he takes as a launcher of bad jumpers, is actually vastly underrated with the ball in his hands and actually possesses a great ability to create for others.
He and Horford had a nifty pick-and-roll that Atlanta would deploy every so often, usually with excellent results. Smith is also one of the league's 10 best defenders when he wakes up and decides to care.
Millsap is a relative minus in both of the aforementioned categories, especially defensively.
Millsap gives requisite effort, but he's too slow and too small to really make much of a defensive impact. Either way, he's not borderline criminal on the defensive end—like Jefferson—and should fit in fine next to Horford.
Still, it's obvious to anyone that Millsap will make his $9.5 million per season on the offensive end.
Remember those dreadful long-range and mid-range jumpers that everyone always talks about with Smith? They're not there with Millsap, mainly because he can knock those shots down.
The 28-year-old knocked down 41.4 percent of his jumpers between 15 feet and 19 feet, which is an above-average rate for someone his size. Millsap really excels at the Udonis Haslem shot, hanging at the baseline and receiving a pass from a slashing point guard.
Millsap is also strong in the post, where he rarely draws double-teams but does a ton of nice one-on-one work. He's developed some good moves down low to make up for his lack of athleticism, and Synergy Sports notes that he shot a good-but-not-great 43 percent in post-ups last season.
If it seems like I'm net-neutral on Millsap, that's mostly because I am. In sum, I think he's a very underrated offensive 4, a below-average defender and mediocre rebounder.
In this market, $9.5 million is mostly a fair market-value deal for Millsap, but it's a steal when Atlanta will only be paying him for two years and could easily unload him for draft picks at the snap of a finger.
Mike Dunleavy (SF, Chicago Bulls)
I wrestled back and forth about whether to give the annual "Cheap Shooter Attaboy" to the Spurs or the Bulls.
San Antonio's signing of Marco Belinelli to a two-year, $5.6 million deal was your typical Spursian contract, adding a shooter at a premium cost who will undoubtedly score 23 points in a playoff game next season.
Chicago's signing of Mike Dunleavy to a two-year, $6 million deal is equally impressive, as the veteran forward continues to make a career out of being vastly underrated.
Both teams deserve credit, though, especially with the dolla dolla bills being thrown at shooters this offseason. J.J. Redick (four-year, $27 million deal with the Clippers), Kevin Martin (four years, $28 million with the Timberwolves), Chase Budinger (three years, $16 million with the Timberwolves), O.J. Mayo (three years, $24 million with the Bucks) and Kyle Korver (four years, $24 million with the Hawks) all got paaaid this summer.
Dunleavy gets the nod here, though, because he's a better basketball player and because Chicago addressed a major need in his signing. The Spurs already have shooting. If there's anything they have besides old people, it's shooting. Adding Belinelli to that bench is like adding a turbo button to a Lamborghini.
Adding Dunleavy to the Bulls is like giving a quarter tank of fuel to a stranded man who forgot his wallet and is just trying to get back to his family on Christmas.
The Bulls have been a dreadful three-point shooting team for the entirety of the Tom Thibodeau era, but they hit rock bottom this past season. The Memphis Grizzlies were the only team in the NBA to take fewer three-pointers than Chicago, which was the biggest non-Derrick Rose factor for why the Bulls finished 24th in offensive efficiency.
Only the New Orleans Pelicans' broken offense took fewer corner threes, and only four teams hit a worse percentage from that spot than Chicago.
Corner threes are largely considered to be the most efficient shot in basketball outside the restricted area. Not having one or more—preferably two—players on the floor who can knock down that shot at all times is stifling to a team's spacing.
Dunleavy, so long as he stays healthy, will be a major help in that regard. The 32-year-old veteran knocked down 42.8 percent of his threes last season and did so proficiently from almost everywhere on the floor.
He mostly stuck above the break at the two wings, but he was also excellent in both corners, especially on the right side. His sheer presence alone will give Rose a weapon that Chicago has never had throughout the star point guard's career.
Dunleavy can also knock down threes in myriad of situations. He knocked down a shade under 45 percent in spot-up and off-screen three-pointers last season in Milwaukee, and he was a rainmaker in transition at 47.8 percent, per Synergy Sports.
If that's not enough, Dunleavy is also a heady ball-handler and passer, showing an understanding of spacing and where he should go with the ball at all times.
Perhaps more importantly, especially from a Thibodeauian perspective, Dunleavy won't kill Chicago defensively.
He'll pick up on the complex pick-and-roll scheme pretty quickly and has always given the requisite effort on that end. Dunleavy doesn't have the foot speed or athleticism to necessarily be a stopper, but he's not a hider either. In Thibodeau's system, that will mean more than anyone realizes.
Pablo Prigioni (PG, New York Knicks)
My affinity for the all-powerful Prigioni started while watching way too many Knicks games on League Pass last season.
Their new three-ball-heavy start to the season was intriguing, and the team's evolution was noteworthy, but the awkward, elderly rookie who was afraid to shoot the ball for the first few months of the season became something of a mental in-joke. And when I noticed that the Knicks fans were in on it and liked Prigioni as well, it made the experience all the more fun.
The affinity for Prigioni the basketball player is something you don't pick up at first. He was pretty slow to acclimate to the NBA game, so it was hard to tell where the nervousness stopped and where the purposeful diction of ball-movement began.
But when his game finally clicked, it was something a basketball purist would lose their head over.
By the time the playoffs rolled around and Prigioni was getting regular minutes, all anyone could ask for was more of the Argentinian guard. Luckily, we'll seemingly get more him, as the Knicks signed the 36-year-old to a three-year, $6 million deal, with the final season being only partially guaranteed.
For literally 29 other NBA teams, that contract would be met with an internal "meh."
It's about fair market, and this particular deal might be a little above the mark for a guy who played 16 minutes per game this past season and essentially averaged three points and three assists. However, the per-36 minutes averages for Prigioni were 7.8 points and 6.7 assists, and at 36 years old, that's more than fair. For the Knicks, Prigioni may be the biggest bargain on the planet.
New York's affinity for black-hole isolation plays has been talked about ad nauseam. The team ran isolation plays on 16.1 percent of its regular-season plays, per Synergy Sports, and that mark went through the roof against the Boston Celtics in the playoffs. Though they forcefully re-emphasized pick-and-rolls versus Indiana in Round 2, New York rarely found its regular-season rhythm on offense.
Yet on the rare occasions that the Knicks resembled a whirling dervish of ball movement, the one constant was Prigioni.
The Knicks averaged 109.4 points per 100 possessions while Prigioni was on the floor during the postseason, a top-five rate. When he was on the bench, New York's offensive efficiency plummeted by over 17 points per 100 possessions, to a rate that would make the Sacramento Kings blush.
Prigioni's insistence on moving the ball even when it's unnecessary—plenty of New York sets with Prigs began with him moving the ball up the floor, immediately passing and then taking a Tony Parker cut down the baseline—got things moving and defensive eyeballs darting around the floor.
It seems so simple—and it is. The Knicks also employ J.R. Smith, Carmelo Anthony and Raymond Felton. These players tend to forget nine other guys are on the floor at times—sometimes to New York's benefit and other times to its detriment. Those iso sets are never going to disappear from this team, nor should they. Prigioni's presence just makes sure they start in a more advantageous place.
I'd love to see him get more minutes next season, somewhere ranging around 25 a night. Either way, the Knicks are far better off than if they would be had they chosen Chris Copeland over Prigioni in restricted free-agent roulette this offseason.
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