10 Best Steals of 2014 NBA Free Agency So Far

Dave LeonardisContributor IIIAugust 1, 2014

10 Best Steals of 2014 NBA Free Agency So Far

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    NBA free agency is less about the players you sign and more about how much you sign them for. 

    Sure, bringing LeBron James back to Cleveland or getting Carmelo Anthony to stay in New York will garner some nice headlines, but how much you spend to get those players to sign is what matters most. The mark of a good offseason is being able to find value. 

    This summer, we've seen teams overpay for niche players, particularly shooters such as Jodie Meeks (three years, $19 million with the Detroit Pistons). Those are the moves that come back to haunt franchises down the road. 

    However, while some teams were a bit frivolous with their cap space, others made a killing by shopping in the bargain bin. Today, we celebrate the best free-agent steals so far this summer.

    Now, there's something to keep in mind. These aren't rankings. While some names are bigger than others, all of these bargains were equally important. It's also unfair to pit an aging veteran taking the minimum to sign with a contender against a superstar agreeing to take less to help his team build around him.  

     

Al-Farouq Aminu, F, Dallas Mavericks

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    I loved everything about the Dallas Mavericks' offseason—from luring Chandler Parsons away from the Houston Rockets with a three-year, $46 million deal to adding cheap free agents like Al-Farouq Aminu and Richard Jefferson. Even the Rashard Lewis signing, which was later voided when it was discovered Lewis needed knee surgery, was an excellent move at the time.

    There are a couple reasons I liked the Aminu signing the most out of all the minor deals Dallas did this summer. First, at just 23 years old, Aminu is still young with the potential to get better. While he isn't much of a scorer (7.2 PPG last season), he's a solid rebounder (6.2 RPG) and defender who puts his energy and athleticism to good use.

    Second, Aminu can replace many of the things Dallas lost with the departure of Shawn Marion that they won't get back with Parsons. Plus, he'll be doing it for much cheaper. A two-year deal for the veteran minimum gives Aminu the chance to prove himself as well as build up his value for when he hits free agency when he's 25.

    Lastly, there will be less pressure for Aminu to produce as reserve than there was when he started for New Orleans the last two years. He'll also get to finally play on a contender with experienced veterans and a good coach in Rick Carlisle. 

    If he does well, the Mavericks get a quality role player for cheap and Aminu gets to hit free agency at the age of 25 with a chance to make better money. If he flops, the experiment won't cost Dallas very much.

    Dallas made a slew of nice moves, but this one might give the team the most bang for its buck.  

Vince Carter, G, Memphis Grizzlies

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    At 37 years old and entering his 17th season in the league, Vince Carter wasn't going to receive many lucrative offers on the open market. Still, Carter proved last year that he still has something left in the tank, when he averaged 11.9 points per game and shot 39.4 percent from three with the Dallas Mavericks

    That was enough to convince the Memphis Grizzlies to give Vinsanity a three-year deal worth $12.2 million. He may not be the same guy who did this to Frederic Weis years ago, but he can still be a quality scorer for a Grizzlies team that needs an offensive boost.

    Last year, the Grizzlies finished 27th in the league in scoring during the regular season, averaging 96.1 points per game. They were also tied for 19th in three-point percentage, converting 35.3 percent of their attempts. Carter helps them out in both categories.   

    With Tayshaun Prince and Tony Allen better defensively than offensively, Carter could spell either player to give Memphis a spark. He may not be Sixth Man of the Year material, but it wouldn't be a shock if he ends up as one of the best reserves in basketball next year. 

    For what Memphis is paying, it'll probably be fine with that. 

Jason Smith, C, New York Knicks

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    The New York Knicks made a nice gamble in signing former New Orleans Pelicans big man Jason Smith, who is coming off a season cut short by shoulder and knee injuries. When healthy, Smith is an athletic seven-footer who can be a factor on the glass as well as get his hands on a few shots. 

    Offensively, Smith is capable of putting up points either with his back to the basket or by stepping outside the paint and knocking down a mid-range jumper (as evidenced by this shot chart from last season, courtesy of vorped.com). 

    The Knicks' frontcourt situation is in a state of flux. Samuel Dalembert, acquired in the Tyson Chandler trade, will likely start the season at center. Oft-injured, high-priced forward Amar'e Stoudemire and former No. 1 overall pick Andrea Bargnani (also coming off an injury-shortened season) will battle for minutes at the 4. 

    If his injury woes are behind him, it's not impossible to think the 28-year-old Smith could play his way into serious minutes with just those guys in front of him. Even if he can't wrangle away some starts, he can provide quality depth at the very least. 

    Either way, he should be worth every penny of the one-year, $3.3 million deal the Knicks gave him. 

Ed Davis, F, Los Angeles Lakers

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    In truth, I liked the Los Angeles Lakers' signing of Ed Davis more when it happened than I do right now. At the time, it looked like Davis would finally get a chance to show what he can do while keeping the seat warm for promising rookie Julius Randle. 

    Then, the Lakers won the bid for Carlos Boozer's services and, suddenly, Los Angeles' power forward situation became a bit more congested. Still, you can't scoff at being able to land a 25-year-old former lottery pick with a two-year deal worth roughly $1 million a season. 

    The former North Carolina Tarheel's four-year career has been hindered somewhat by circumstance. He was coming along in his third season with the Toronto Raptors, averaging 9.7 points and 6.8 rebounds, before being dealt to Memphis midseason. From there, opportunities were scarce playing behind Zach Randolph

    Now, he's in situation that's a bit crowded but not impossible to emerge from. At this point in his career, Boozer is more of a name than a viable starter. He doesn't offer much defensively and his offensive game has its limitations. Randle, for all his talent, is still a rookie trying to get acclimated to the pro game. 

    Davis has the talent to be one of this season's breakout stars. If he can make the most of his time in L.A., it will pay huge dividends for both parties. 

Anthony Morrow, SG, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Anthony Morrow parlayed a bounce-back season with the New Orleans Pelicans into a chance to win a championship with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder turned a need for bench help into one of the best signings of the summer. 

    For the low price of $10 million over three years, Oklahoma City got a 28-year-old shooter coming off a season where he finished fourth in three-point percentage (45.1 percent). With Thabo Sefolosha now in Atlanta and Jeremy Lamb struggling to find consistency, Morrow could really carve his niche with the Thunder. 

    In an offseason where teams broke the bank to acquire shooters, the Thunder got one of the best for relatively cheap. The key will be Morrow playing more like the guy who averaged 8.4 points per game last season and less like the one who disappeared in 2012-13. 

    Much like in New Orleans, the opportunity is there for Morrow to show what he can do in OKC. The Thunder's bench took a couple hits with Caron Butler and Derek Fisher leaving, so it is up to Morrow to replace that scoring on the second unit. 

Patty Mills, PG, San Antonio Spurs

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    At this point, the San Antonio Spurs' ability to find bargains and put together a championship team shouldn't surprise us. For years, the Spurs have turned relative unknowns into household names. 

    The latest masterstroke was re-signing playoff hero Patty Mills to a three-year, $12 million deal. After his strong performance in the NBA Finals, Mills could have chased starter money elsewhere. However, that opportunity was hindered when it was revealed that Mills suffered a shoulder injury that will keep him out for seven months, as reported by CBS Sports' Matt Moore

    With Mills on the shelf, the Spurs saw a chance to strike. With point guard Tony Parker still putting together All-Star seasons, San Antonio can afford to wait on Mills' recovery from rotator cuff surgery. Once he's back, he can either be used to provide depth or held as a valuable trade chip down the road (especially with Cory Joesph waiting in the wings). 

    The Spurs did this once before by turning George Hill into future face of the franchise Kawhi Leonard in a draft-day trade with the Indiana Pacers. Given the Spurs' ability to both find value and develop role players, it's not impossible that they can pull off another deal with Mills. 

    At 25 years old (26 in August), Mills is still young, and he's now on a contract that's easy to move. Whether he stays in San Antonio to chase championships or finally gets a chance to start elsewhere, this is a position that is sure to work out for both Mills and the Spurs. 

Isaiah Thomas, PG, Phoenix Suns

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    In signing point guard Isaiah Thomas to a four-year, $28 million deal, the Phoenix Suns added a quality player coming off his best season as a pro as well as some leverage in negotiations with restricted free agent Eric Bledsoe. 

    The 5'9" Thomas averaged 20.3 points and 6.3 assists for the Sacramento Kings last season. Despite the breakout year, the Kings let him walk to the desert and opted to overpay Darren Collison (three years, $16 million) to replace him. As a result, Thomas is looking forward to facing his former team. 

    "I felt very disrespected. Every year it was somebody new. I felt I did a good enough job to show them I was a starting point guard or a guy who could play a big role with their team. But they thought differently," Thomas said, according to Bob Young of The Arizona Republic. "I'm a Phoenix Sun, and when we play them, it will be bad for them."

    The Kings tried to save face by agreeing to a sign-and-trade, but nothing they'll get back will make up for scorning a talented little man that has made a career out of playing with a chip on his shoulder. The deal looks even worse for Sacramento when you consider it didn't save much by swapping Thomas for a less talented player in Collison.

    Regardless, Thomas is in Phoenix now, and things are about to get interesting. The Suns are still trying to secure a long-term contract for Bledsoe, but the two sides are believed to be "very far apart," according to CSNNW.com's Chris Haynes

    Haynes even went on to quote a source who says the relationship between Bledsoe and the team is "on the express lane to being ruined." With the team fighting over whether Bledsoe is worth max money, the relatively inexpensive deal for Thomas looks even better. 

    Thomas will make $7.2 million in his first year in Phoenix. From there, his salary declines each season for the next three years. The worst-case scenario is the Suns have to part with Bledsoe, and Thomas steps in as a starter. 

    The best-case scenario is the team extends its prized restricted free agent, which will give it a three-headed monster of Bledsoe, Thomas and reigning NBA Most Improved Player Goran Dragic. 

    However the rest of this story plays out, the Thomas chapter is shaping up to be a good one for the Suns and a nightmare for the Kings. 

Spencer Hawes, C, Los Angeles Clippers

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    There are a number of teams that could have used Spencer Hawes as their starting center. After all, he's a versatile seven-footer (7'1", to be exact) who can play the 4 or 5, can score in the paint or outside of it, rebounds and blocks shots. 

    Instead, Hawes signed a four-year, $23 million contract with the Los Angeles Clippers, taking less than market value to be a reserve on a title contender. For the Clips, this deal works out beautifully. They needed a solid backup behind DeAndre Jordan after trying to get by with the likes of Glen Davis and B.J. Mullens last season. 

    For Hawes, he gets to play for a team with an actual chance at winning something. During his seven years in the NBA, Hawes has sniffed the playoffs twice (with the Philadelphia 76ers during the Doug Collins days). Neither of those Sixers teams were as talented as this Clippers squad. 

    Hawes also spent time with the Sacramento Kings and played last season on a dysfunctional Cleveland Cavaliers team. Can you see why he opted to play for a winner over making a few extra bucks (take notes, 'Melo)? 

    Hawes gives the Clippers some depth and versatility. He's a career 36 percent shooter from behind the arc. He's also averaged at least 11 points and seven rebounds a game during the last two seasons. 

    In the end, the Clippers needed help up front, and Hawes needed to play for a winner. The result was one of the best bargains of the offseason. 

Lance Stephenson, SG, Charlotte Hornets

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    Lance Stephenson could have had a max contract this summer. Certainly, worse players than Stephenson have managed to do so (looking at you, Eric Gordon). At the very least, a deal paying him eight figures annually wasn't out of the realm of possibility. 

    Let's look at Born Ready's credentials, shall we? 

    At 23 years old, he still has plenty of good basketball left in him. He's coming off a season where he led the league in triple-doubles and finished second in voting for the NBA's Most Improved Player award. According to 82games.com, he held opponents to 46.1 percent shooting. 

    He averaged 13.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game while emerging as the second-best player on an Indiana Pacers team that earned the top seed in the Eastern Conference. 

    A two-way guard with the rest of his career ahead of him? Teams must have been backing up the Brinks trucks at Stephenson's house, right? Not quite. For all of Stephenson's talents, there are concerns over his character.

    He butted heads with teammates, most notably Hill and Evan Turner. His on-court antics, such as blowing in James' ear during the conference finals, can be a bit of a distraction. Those kind of red flags can scare teams away.

    As a result, Stephenson ended up with a three-year, $27 million deal from the Charlotte Hornets. If Stephenson keeps his head on straight, that's a huge steal.

    After all, the Hornets already have a solid one-two punch in Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson. They have a good coach in Steve Clifford and some young talent in Cody Zeller, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and rookie Noah Vonleh.  

    With Stephenson on board, Charlotte could be a dark-horse contender in the wide-open Eastern Conference. Of course, if he doesn't mature, this could turn out to be a disaster for the rebranded Hornets. 

    So, in essence, this signing was a bargain wrapped in a gamble controlled by an enigma. 

Dirk Nowitzki, PF, Dallas Mavericks

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    It's not unusual for aging superstars to help out their franchise by taking less money when the time comes to re-up. San Antonio Spurs legend Tim Duncan did it in 2012, and Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki did it this summer. 

    Still, it's hard not to get the Bugs Bunny eyes when you look at the deal Nowitzki agreed to. 

    Three years, $25 million. That's roughly $8 million a year for someone who, even at 36 years old, is still one of the best power forwards in the game. According to ESPN's Marc Stein, Nowitzki turned down max offers from the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers to stay in Dallas. 

    According to Forbes.com's Jim Pagels, Nowitzki's decision to stay home for cheap resulted in the most money passed up in NBA history: 

    Nowitzki had max contract offers from the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers of $97 million over four years but was reportedly never interested in any offers outside Dallas. Instead, the 12-time All-Star voluntarily took a 65 percent pay cut, leaving over $72 million on the table. Let that sink in for a moment. The money Nowitzki let slide is larger than all but the league's biggest contracts.

    Nowitzki's pay cut allowed the Mavericks to add more talent around him. They were able to bring back Chandler in a trade with the New York Knicks. They signed quality role players like Jameer Nelson, Aminu and Richard Jefferson. 

    Most importantly, Dallas was able to offer a three-year, $46 million deal to restricted free agent Chandler Parsons, which the Rockets refused to match. 

    While other teams were throwing desperate haymakers and hoping to land a knockout blow, the Mavs jabbed their way to a win on points (though the Parsons deal was more like a hard uppercut).

    All of this was made possible by the unselfishness of Nowitzki, who still averaged 21.7 points and 6.2 rebounds a game while shooting nearly 50 percent from the field (including just under 40 percent from three). 

    Nowitzki has made the Mavericks a contender for years with his play on the court, but it's his decisions off the court that will benefit the team the most.