2014 NBA Free Agents: Bargain Players with Potential to Be Steals on Open Market

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2014 NBA Free Agents: Bargain Players with Potential to Be Steals on Open Market
Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Without Boris Diaw, without Danny Green and without Patty Mills, there is no fifth San Antonio Spurs championship. The NBA is a star-driven league and will be henceforth, but no team has ever hoisted the Larry O'Brien Trophy without receiving major contributions from someone eighth or ninth down the media call sheet.

Oftentimes—in most cases, actually—these shining June moments are birthed months earlier via quiet press releases. Diaw, Green and Mills all came to San Antonio via free agency, each at a time when their NBA careers were on life support.

Diaw was an overweight malcontent when waived by Charlotte in 2012. Green couldn't make the post-Decision Cavaliers. Mills spent time playing in Australia and China before resurfacing as a Spur.

There are bargains every offseason—and sometimes midway through the season. Finding these players and being able to highlight their skill sets separates the likes of the Spurs and Miami Heat from, well, almost every other team in the NBA. There is a reason that bargains are scarce on the market—and that's largely because desperate teams will mark up mid-tier players in desperate attempts to compete.

The Spurs themselves may see Diaw and/or Mills depart this offseason because an opposing team pays the so-called championship premium.

Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News reported Diaw is looking for a two-year deal worth between $18 million to $20 million this summer. Marc Berman of the New York Post, per a source, has the Knicks interested in Mills. Given the fat checks being handed out by the truckload at the Garden already this offseason, Mills probably won't be cheap, either.

All of this begs the question: If the old cheap guys—in San Antonio and elsewhere—are no longer going to be cheap, where are the underrated players bound to replace them? Why, that's an excellent question. I will now answer it.

 

DeJuan Blair (PF/C, Dallas Mavericks)

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Had DeJuan Blair not lost his cool for a split second in Game 4 of Dallas' first-round series with San Antonio, the Spurs may never have won their title.

Blair's ground-bound superkick of Tiago Splitter sent him to the showers early in a game in which he'd scored 12 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in 16 minutes. That decision cost Dallas momentum in a series it could have led 3-1, cost Blair Game 5 (and possibly the Mavs as well) and altered the course of the entire series.

But I want to focus on those 12 points and 11 rebounds. Blair's career has been defined by underappreciation. His size (6'7") and physical limitations (he lacks an ACL in both knees) caused a nightly double-double machine to drop into the second round in 2009 and has greatly limited his NBA exposure.

Blair will forever go down on a very limited list of players Popovich couldn't quite crack. He'd be in the starting lineup an entire regular season and then disappear come playoff time. His limitations defensively were seemingly fine for the 82-game slog but not when the calendar struck May and June. The reality is that Blair is going to come in and out of rotations situationally for the rest of his career.

Glenn James/Getty Images

That may be frustrating for him. For these purposes, Blair is a perfect fit. Because of his knee issues, teams aren't going to award him a long-term deal; they'll even be hesitant to go much above the minimum. Blair made $884,293 in 2013-14—a bargain-basement price for a role player who averages 14.9 points and 11.0 rebounds per 36 minutes for his career.

The former Pitt product does two things well: rebound and finish near the rim. He's hit better than 60 percent of his shots inside the restricted area in four of his five NBA seasons, had a higher rebound rate  than Anthony Davis and LaMarcus Aldridge and does this all playing like a miniature center who can't jump over a stack of phone books. 

You'll have a tough time signing a more effective per-minute player than Blair at his price. 

 

Mario Chalmers (PG, Miami Heat)

Eric Gay/Associated Press

If the entire Heat fan kingdom weren't totally preoccupied ravaging the Internet for the latest LeBron updates, they'd be sending a barrage of verbal assaults in my direction. How can Mario Chalmers be a bargain at anything?

The prospect of Chalmers returning as Miami's point guard makes the average Heat fan's face scrunch up like they just walked into a portable toilet. Chalmers was so bad, so incredibly, incredibly bad in the Finals that an already near-toxic well of criticism is now overflowing.

Of course, this is largely a moot point. Chalmers will be back in Miami. The Heat have his Bird rights, and can go over the cap or into the luxury tax to re-sign him. There are too many needs at other positions for Miami to let him walk and open up a gaping hole at point guard—even if Norris Cole might be better served in the starting lineup at this point.

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

"I hope we stay together," Chalmers told Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports. "I think we have a good thing going."

For a second, though, let's imagine that 10 percent scenario in which Chalmers doesn't return. Say, Erik Spoelstra has gotten tired of his unreliability on a night-to-night basis or his penchant for terrible turnovers. Or maybe Chalmers is tired of being scapegoated and yelled at all the damn time.

What does he then become on the open market? Chalmers has started 346 of his 439 career games. Game 5 of the NBA Finals was the first time he did not start in a game in which he appeared since the 2010-11 season.

Looking at the NBA landscape, Miami is one of maybe two or three teams in which Chalmers would be a regular starter. Point guard is the league's deepest position; it's so deep the Sacramento Kings are actually hemming and hawing about whether to keep Isaiah Thomas this summer.

Chalmers has the skill profile and stats of a backup point guard—a very good one at that. He's a career 37.3 percent three-point shooter, actually tied his career high in assists this past season and is a very good team defender.

Though some of the three-point stroke is attributable to playing three superstars and playing against defenses that readily ignore him, he shot an above-average rate his rookie season and has made legitimate strides.

More interesting: The poisoning-of-the-well-effect criticism has had an impact on Chalmers' value around the league. A potentially elite backup point guard is being treated like his teammates have to wear hazmat suits when they step on the floor together. Chalmers will be lucky to sign for a deal equaling the $4 million per season he made under his previous contract.

Chalmers might not be an ideal NBA starter, but he's a potential steal at anything less than that price.

 

Marvin Williams (F, Utah Jazz)

Richard Rowe/Getty Images

Speaking of players who fit perfectly into the oft-maligned column. Williams will forever go down in Hawks history as "Dude Who Should Have Been Chris Paul," and as perhaps the least aggressive player with offensive talent in history. Shawn Bradley and Raef Lafrentz have higher career-usage rates than Williams. 

Still, as we've been saying for nearly a decade, there are discernible skills here that can help contending teams. Williams improved his three-point number to 35.9 percent in 2013-14, a number juuust good enough that opposing defenses have to respect his shot.

He also took 234 attempts from distance, a career high by nearly 70 attempts. Tyrone Corbin might have been the worst coach in the league last season, but pushing Williams into that stretch 4 role helped open his game a bit.

The Jazz scored seven points more per 100 possessions when Williams was on the floor. On/off splits are noisy by their nature because mitigating factors can sway the results. However, their assist ratio went up, their turnover rate went down and nearly every shooting split went in a positive direction with Williams on the floor. 

One area Williams should work on this summer is getting comfortable shooting corner threes.

He took only 55 from the corners this past season, instead relying on the less efficient above-the-break looks. Many of Williams' threes came off effective pick-and-pop shots—the famous Channing Frye looks. If he can expand his range to the corners, that will only make him more effective as a (still limited) offensive weapon.

Just 28, Williams can play either forward position and is a fine defender. Bigger power forwards are able to overpower him, but his length and lateral quickness allow him to cover pick-and-rolls well; he might fit in well with a team with an ultra-aggressive strategy on the perimeter. 

Williams made $7.5 million last season in the final year of his deal. He's probably worth a little more than half of that. Signing him to something like a two-year, $8 million deal and hoping he starts nailing that corner three is far from the worst idea I've heard lately. 

 

Others Of Note

Don Ryan/Associated Press

C.J. Miles (SG, Cleveland Cavaliers)

Here's the great thing about role players: They don't have to do everything. In fact, rare Diaw exceptions aside, it's almost better if they are a master of one trade rather than a jack-of-all.

Danny Green being an electric off-the-ball scorer and passer would be great—except then he wouldn't be Danny Green and would cost more than $4 million.

Such is the case with Miles, who scores, plays good enough defense and does almost nothing else. His two seasons in Cleveland have exposed a vastly improved three-point stroke, and he's good in limited pick-and-roll opportunities. Miles has never averaged more than 1.7 assists per game and has topped three nightly rebounds once. Luckily, he doesn't have to.

 

Kris Humphries (PF, Boston Celtics) 

If you're starting to get the vibe I like players other people hate, well, you're not exactly wrong. Humphries' dalliance into the national "hellscape" known as "Kardashianism" made him a national joke, but his game is the same as always.

Dude works hard on every possession, grabs a ton of rebounds and knows who he is offensively. If your mileage wears thin on 6'7" centers and you can tolerate former reality stars, then Humphries gives the same basic skills as Blair with a couple of extra inches and better health.

His per-36-minute averages (13.4 points, 11.0 rebounds) are eerily identical to Blair's. Plus, he's made a ridiculous $24 million the last two years. Humphries is going to get underpaid on backlash alone.

 

Matt York/Associated Press

P.J. Tucker (SF, Phoenix Suns)

How much do you buy Tucker's improvement shooting from three-point range? The answer is important because that improvement is what separates Tucker from being a legitimate rotation player and a guy hanging on the fringes of an NBA bench.

The former Texas star, who resurfaced in Phoenix after a full five-season absence in 2012-13, has made a name for himself as the Suns' resident tough guy.

He'll pick fights, play physical defense and do the type of grunt work that pushes good teams to greatness. Shooting 38.7 percent from three-point range, as he did last season, makes him a valuable piece. Dropping back into that low-30s percentage makes him a 11th or 12th man because of his other offensive limitations. 

 

Greivis Vasquez (PG, Toronto Raptors)

He's probably overqualified to be here and probably underqualified for the next NBA strata. Vasquez is a weird player—both on the court and from an evaluation sense.

He's a brilliant passer whose size advantage boosts already excellent court vision. Vasquez would be making most of these passes if he were 6'1".  After being traded to Toronto, the Venezuelan also showed consistency in his three-point shot for the first time in his career.

If he didn't have the 40 time and lateral quickness of an NFL offensive linemen, he'd be a no-brainer NBA starter. The quickness limitations make Vasquez enough of a defensive liability that he is much better off in an elite backup role. I'm interested to see what his next contract looks like. 

 

Stats via NBA.com.

 

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