The 2013-14 NBA season is winding down and soon fans of the 14 lottery-bound franchises will have nothing to look forward to but the offseason. Fortunately, this summer could have a major impact on a number of clubs around the league.
Because of the loaded draft class and vast number of free agents set to hit the open market, teams will be able to change their fortunes by making the right picks and signing critical talent.
Let’s take a look at the latter and highlight a handful of under-the-radar players that could be difference-makers for whichever organization they wind up with for the 2014-15 campaign.
Shaun Livingston, PG, Unrestricted Free Agent
Livingston has long been a tantalizing talent in this league, but he has finally developed into a real asset as an integral player for the Brooklyn Nets at the age of 28.
The lengthy, 6’7”, 175-pound point guard isn’t putting up eye-popping numbers (averaging 8.3 points, 3.2 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game in 26.0 minutes), but his impact on the team cannot be understated.
Not only has Livingston served as a great passer and tough matchup on the offensive end, but he has also emerged as a borderline-elite perimeter defender and helped keep the Nets afloat through a handful of backcourt troubles—most notably an injury that kept Deron Williams out of the lineup for a decent stretch.
Livingston took over the reins as a starter for the struggling squad right after the New Year and Brooklyn has since gone 32-12, emerging as a fringe contender in the Eastern Conference.
Regardless of how far the Nets advance this spring, it should be a priority for the club to retain Livingston’s services. The journeyman is currently with the eighth team of his nine-year career and stability would likely be the best option for both the player and organization.
Rod Boone of Newsday reported that Nets general manager Billy King has his sights set on locking up Livingston to a new deal:
However, it remains to be seen if Brooklyn can afford to keep Livingston—despite the exceedingly deep pockets of owner Mikhail Prokhorov. According to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News, the Peoria Central High School product may be looking to cash in after this tremendous season:
(My enjoyment with Brooklyn and how I fit) definitely plays a factor. You have to weigh your situations, your options. The reason I’m in a situation where I can demand a contract is because I’m playing for this team, this coach, this system. I realize that and I’m not over my head. But at the same time, it’s a business. You have to look at it like (the next contract) could always be your last. Especially me.
Livingston is referencing the gruesome left knee injury he suffered as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers back in 2007, when he landed extremely wrong after a layup.
It took him six years to make it back to form and he still doesn’t possess the same elite level of athleticism he had prior to completing destroying his knee.
Regardless, the former No. 4 overall draft pick has remained healthy for the longest stretch of his career, playing in a career-high 76 games thus far with a chance to see action in 81.
That alone should give owners hoping to land Livingston this offseason faith that his injury woes are in the past. Don’t be surprised if the talented guard ponders over a big paycheck—bigger than the three-year, $10 million mid-level exception the cap-stretched Nets can only afford to give—during the summer.
Gordon Hayward, SF, Restricted Free Agent
The Utah Jazz may regret not locking up burgeoning star Gordon Hayward to an extension this past fall. He continued his development during the 2013-14 campaign and now looks to be a hot commodity in the upcoming free-agent market.
Hayward, 24, had his finest campaign to date for the abysmal Jazz. He is currently averaging 16.0 points, 5.2 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 36.3 minutes per game in his first season as a full-time starter.
While his shooting percentages suffered a bit, dropping down to 41.3 percent field-goal shooting and 31.3 percent three-point shooting (from 43.5 percent and 41.5 percent, respectively, last season), Hayward is quietly becoming one of the league’s most underrated players.
The 6’8”, 220-pound swingman is immensely versatile and excels at many different aspects of the game, including defense. He is a tenacious defender out on the perimeter and that alone will make him a valuable commodity when teams are doling out contracts in a few months.
In addition to his shutdown skills, Hayward can creatively pass the rock, create his own look off the bounce, handle the ball and line up at any number of frontcourt and backcourt spots.
While he may never blossom into a franchise-caliber star in the mold of LeBron James or Kobe Bryant, Hayward has all the tools required to be the second-best player on a championship team and GMs around the Association have taken notice.
Hayward gave his thoughts on potentially leaving Utah after three seasons, as per Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck:
It's weird to think about. Just because it's been four years and you kind of see yourself as staying with whatever team you get drafted by. But we'll see where it goes. I can't worry about it now. I'm just excited about where it can go.
Don’t be surprised if Utah is forced to shell out a big-money contract to match the offers that Hayward will be receiving this summer. He should be a top priority to retain, but it’s possible that the young man receives a max deal and the Jazz decides it is too rich for their blood.