With half of the league seemingly placing its free-agent focus primarily on LeBron James and/or Carmelo Anthony, now is as good a time as any to remember that there are other fish in the sea as well.
Though those in the second tier on this year's free-agent market do not have the ability to transform an entire franchise like LeBron can, there are plenty of guys out there who could make a worthwhile difference for their new team at an affordable price.
Here, we'll take a look at what a few key players who are not in the limelight this offseason can bring to the table.
Kyle Lowry, PG
Lowry is 28 years old—just past his physical prime but still a few years away from a steep decline, according to various studies (h/t Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus)—and coming off the best season of his career.
He set career-best marks this year in the following area: points; rebounds; assists; field-goal attempts; three-point attempts; free-throw attempts per game; three-point percentage; Player Efficiency Rating; true shooting percentage; effective field-goal percentage; assist percentage; turnover percentage; usage rate; Win Shares; and Win Shares Per 48 Minutes.
As an offensive player, Lowry does most of his damage out of the pick-and-roll. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Lowry finished 38.5 percent of his plays (defined as those ending with a FGA, FTA or TO) as a pick-and-roll ball-handler this past season, making it his most-used play type by a wide margin.
When attacking in the pick-and-roll, Lowry shows a very good balance between looking for his own offense and creating for others. He looks for his own shot 53.8 percent of the time in the pick-and-roll while passing 46.2 percent of the time, per Synergy.
Though he prefers to take an off-the-dribble jumper after coming off a screen, Lowry is at his best when he uses his strength, knowledge of angles and sheer determination to get to the rim.
Lowry is only 6'0", but he has a broad upper body and is tough as nails.
His favorite pick-and-roll partner in Toronto was Amir Johnson, with whom he has excellent chemistry. Johnson told me in April, "Just knowing what Kyle likes to do, I probably hold the screen a little bit more. He crosses over in front of me, so that way when he goes in front of me, I can roll to the other side."
As you can see, Lowry is not afraid to pull the ball back out and use another screen if the shot or the pass isn't there on the first go-round. He knows how to manipulate the defense in order to find an opening.
But he's not just a pick-and-roll player; he's also turned himself into an excellent off-ball weapon, as exemplified by his career high in three-point percentage last season.
Lowry was one of the league's best high-volume spot-up shooters this season. Of the 158 players who attempted at least 2.5 spot-up shots per game, Lowry had the 23rd-best field-goal percentage (43.7 percent).
He also made around 37 percent of his three-point shots that came either off screens or via hand-offs, per Synergy, which is an above-average mark.
The thing that might make Lowry the most attractive to potential suitors, though, is his defense. Overcoming his diminutive stature, Lowry is able to hold his own defensively through sheer effort, strength and solid positioning.
There aren't many good defensive point guards left in the league these days, but Lowry is one of them. Having a solid defender at the point helps a defense tremendously, and Lowry was one of the keys to the Raptors featuring a top-10 defense last season. A team looking to shore up its play on both sides of the ball would do well to target Lowry in free agency.
For his part, Lowry says he's looking for a championship. He told Alex Kennedy of Basketball Insiders, “I think the right situation is somewhere I’m winning and being happy, and honestly I want to play for a championship. I’m happy with making the playoffs and doing that, but the end game for all players should be a championship and that’s what I want to play for. I want to play for a championship."
Potential Fits: Raptors, Heat, Lakers, Mavericks
Channing Frye, PF
Frye was one of the league's best comeback stories last season, as he returned from a serious heart condition to turn in what might have been his best overall season as a pro. He played and started in all 82 games for the Suns, helping turn them into the biggest surprise team in the league—one that just missed making the playoffs in the loaded Western Conference.
While Lowry is an excellent two-way player, Frye generates nearly all of his value on one side of the floor.
Plain and simple, Frye has become one of the NBA's best jump-shooting big men over the last few years, and his prowess as a shooter does wonders for an offense. Power forwards or centers with Frye's shooting ability don't come around every day.
Frye gets a lot of his action out of the pick-and-pop, where he's become incredibly dangerous. He pops out after setting a screen 81 percent of the time, per Synergy, and he shoots an electric 45.6 percent when taking a no-dribble jumper after receiving the pass on the pop.
When left to his own devices around the arc, Frye will nearly always take advantage. And when he draws stay-attached coverage, his teammates Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and even Gerald Green can get theirs. It's not a coincidence that all three players had their best seasons in 2013-14, with Frye working as their primary screener in pick-and-roll situations.
Dragic and Bledsoe, in particular, love to attack (Dragic for a pull-up jumper; Bledsoe to get all the way to the rim) when coming around screens, and Frye's ability to hold the big-man defender near him so he can't double the ball-handler or cut off his path to the rim generates copious opportunities for his teammates.
Just the threat of Frye is often enough to create wider driving lanes, which Phoenix's guards exploited to great extent under Jeff Hornacek. There's a reason the Suns scored nearly 8.0 more points per 100 possessions with Frye on the floor.
He was one of only eight forwards to attempt at least five three-point shots per game while shooting at least 37 percent from three last season. Of those eight, only Frye, Kevin Love and Ryan Anderson could be considered full-time power forwards or centers.
When you stretch the time span over the last four seasons (of which Frye played in three), the list gets even shorter: it's just Frye, Anderson and Kevin Durant. That's it. Again, this type of shooting from a player of his size is an extraordinarily rare commodity.
Potential Fits: Suns, Warriors, Hornets, Lakers, Cavaliers
Luol Deng, SF, Cleveland Cavaliers
Though he wasn't quite the same player in his half-season in Cleveland as he was for 10 years in Chicago—the stench of the Cavaliers' awfulness infected everyone this season—Deng remains one of the top-flight wing defenders in the NBA.
Per 82games.com, Deng held opposing small forwards to an 11.2 PER this season. It marked the fourth straight year that he held opposing small forwards to a PER of 11.3 or worse, and in the six seasons 82games' data covers, he has never allowed a PER above the league average of 15:
NBA.com's on-court/off-court data goes back to the 2007-08 season, Deng's fourth year in the league. Since that point, his teams have been 1.3 points better per 100 possessions defensively with him on the court, and that's even come during his 3.5 years playing under Tom Thibodeau with one of the best defensive bench units in the history of the NBA:
According to Synergy, Deng has held opponents to 37.6 percent shooting in isolation and post-up situations over the last four seasons, an absurdly low number.
His long arms—Deng has a wingspan of over seven feet, per DraftExpress—help him both deter drives to the rim and challenge shots.
In addition to being more than capable of holding down his own man, Deng excels in help and recover situations—darting into the lane to prevent a pass to the big man in a pick-and-roll and then shooting back out to his own man to prevent a spot-up opportunity and force a more difficult shot.
The risk with Deng is the extraordinary workload he's had to carry over the last few years. Only five players have played more than Deng's 13,104 regular-season minutes since the start of the 2009-10 season, and Deng has increasingly been playing hurt over that time span as well.
His next contract will cover the early part of his 30s, the start of his decline years. While he's still a high-level player, there's an inherent risk with someone who comes with so much mileage, and that is not to mention all of the injury issues he's experienced as well.
That said, pretty much any team could use a versatile defender, in both on- and off-ball situations, who can also work as a secondary option on offense. Deng isn't just some Tony Allen-esque wing stopper; he's fully capable of filling it up on the other end as well.
His outside shooting has declined over the last few years, as the Bulls and Cavaliers presented few alternative options around him, but if you put him on the same team as a gravitational offensive force, those looks would open up again and he could get back to doing what he does best offensively: working as a secondary ball-handler, making smart cuts and taking open spot-up jumpers.
Potential Fits: Cavaliers, Mavericks, Lakers, Hawks
Lowry, Frye and Deng are not franchise-altering talents, but they represent the top of the second tier of this summer's free-agent class, as they are players who can take a team from fringe contender to true contender status. Lowry's two-way brilliance, Frye's shooting and Deng's defense are some of the most valuable non-max-player skills available this summer, and plenty of teams will vie for their services.
Where they end up could go a long way toward determining which teams take a step up in terms of title contention next season.
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