The Biggest Difference-Making Signings of 2014 NBA Free Agency
Every offseason, we watch NBA players switch jerseys, and while not all moves wind up being monumental difference-makers, a select few should prove to benefit those involved at an extremely high level as it pertains to 2014 free agents.
This offseason, we all know where the most important signing can be found. LeBron James chose to take his talents home, and since then we've watched the Cleveland Cavaliers become legitimate contenders after failing to miss the playoffs the past four seasons.
Will all teams experience that kind of turnaround? Not a chance. But with a a select few making solid acquisitions (as well as a few crucial re-signings), we have a good idea as to which free-agent moves will pay dividends in 2014-15 and beyond.
2013-14 Stats: 13.8 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 4.6 APG, 49.1 FG%, 14.72 PER
At 23 years old, Lance Stephenson is quickly becoming one of the league's elite defenders. We've seen that with the Indiana Pacers the past few seasons, and we're about to see it again with the Charlotte Hornets.
In 2013-14, Stephenson held his opponents to a PER (per 48 minutes) of 11.0, according to 82games.com. Think about that and then imagine him on a Hornets team that allowed the fourth-fewest points per game and had the sixth-most efficient defense this past season, per ESPN.com.
The big question here is: What about those "antics" we saw during this past season? Stephenson put those questions to rest (at least hypothetically) when he stated, "I bring more to the table than blowing in someone's ear," courtesy of The Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell.
If Stephenson can prove that he's maturing, his production will likely follow. He's yet to reach his ceiling on offense, and as good as he is defensively, you have to believe the same holds true on that end of the floor as well.
2013-14 Stats: 17.4 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 1.5 BPG, 48.0 FG%, 19.34 PER
The Chicago Bulls are adding one player to their rotation who will undoubtedly make them championship contenders.
Following a tumultuous stretch with the Los Angeles Lakers the past two seasons, Gasol joins a group that's ready to fight for a title. Although his numbers and abilities on the block will be valued in Chicago, it will be his leadership that makes the biggest difference for the Bulls.
For those who believe Nikola Mirotic is a star in the making, he might earn the nod here over Gasol with long-term success in mind. But with a championship within reach, it's Gasol who adds experience as a two-time champion, and that's something no one else on this roster can claim.
2013-14 Stats: 13.2 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 41.6 3PT%, 15.77 PER
Spencer Hawes signing with the Los Angeles Clippers might not sound like a difference-making acquisition considering L.A. is already a championship contender. That said, if the team had any hole in its rotation, it was backup center, and that's a hole Hawes will fill nicely—not to mention at a nice price.
Although Hawes could have taken more money, and possibly more minutes by signing elsewhere, he accepted a deal worth $23 million over four years to play for a team with legitimate title hopes. He's not going to be the dominant defender who comes in and spells DeAndre Jordan, but he'll be a reliable scorer who can spread the floor and take pressure off the guards to make each and every play.
With Hawes on board, the Clippers can continue to make their case as one of the deepest rosters in the NBA. The team would have been contenders without the big man, but with him, it's one step closer to a Larry O'Brien Trophy.
2013-14 Stats: 27.4 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 3.1 APG, 40.2 3PT%, 24.50 PER
When the Miami Heat lost LeBron James to the Cleveland Cavaliers, they were able to bring in Luol Deng as a replacement. That's, of course, not to say that Deng will come anywhere near replicating the best player on the planet, but at least Pat Riley and crew had the financial means to attract talent after LeBron's decision.
If Carmelo Anthony had left the New York Knicks, it would have been a completely different story.
New York entered the offseason with virtually no money to spend, and considering the payroll it was dealing with, that would have remained the case even if Anthony had departed. Deng wouldn't have come to the rescue, and the team would have been worse off with no real direction to go toward immediate improvement.
Instead, Melo re-signed with the team for a whole bunch of cash, but according to his own words, via ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman, "I want to win. I don't care about the money." Whether it's true or not, that's the mentality this team needs to see out of its franchise player, especially considering how important it was that he re-signed in free agency.
2013-14 Stats: 21.7 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 0.6 BPG, 39.8 3PT%, 23.68 PER
Dirk Nowitzki re-signing with the Dallas Mavericks is a big deal. We all know what he can do on the floor to enhance this team's chances of winning, but as good as he is, it's not his production that is the difference-maker in this situation.
It's his contract.
Nowitzki opted to stay with the Mavs at the astronomically discounted price of $25 million over three years. For perspective, Forbes.com's Jim Pagels explains what the 36-year-old turned down in the process:
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.
Did you catch that? That's $72 million Nowitzki turned down to stay in Dallas, and not only did he stay, he did it at a price that will help this organization remain competitive.
That is huge for this franchise, and it shows that being an elite player and a company man don't have to be mutually exclusive.
2013-14 Stats: 11.9 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 2.6 APG, 39.4 3PT%, 15.97 PER
The Memphis Grizzlies have been competitive every season the past handful of years, yet they always seem to be a mere couple of pieces away from true contention.
Enter Vince Carter.
Carter signed with the Grizzlies this summer, and he should fill one major hole this team has been missing: three-point shooting. As Bleacher Reports's Adam Fromal explains, the veteran has done a sensational job adjusting his game as age has kicked in, especially as his athleticism has taken a hit.
Over the last few years, Carter has completed the transformation from superstar to super role player. He's thrived coming off the bench and providing offensive sparks while locking down on defense, which has made him a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year.
While there's certainly a chance Carter acts as a super sub behind Tayshaun Prince, there will surely be a chance for him to prove he's worthy of a starting spot. Regardless of where he is in the rotation, he's going to provide shooting and a scorer's mentality—two things this group could have used during the 2013-14 campaign.
2013-14 Stats: 27.1 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 6.4 APG, 56.7 FG%, 37.9 3PT%, 29.40 PER
When it comes to LeBron James rejoining the Cleveland Cavaliers, we can talk about statistics all we want. Look at the numbers above, and you'll see just what kind of impact he'll have on a franchise that hasn't made the postseason since he left in 2010.
This signing, however, is about more than just basketball. James said so much in his essay, as told to Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins, when he stated, "My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now."
Do the Cavaliers deserve James and instantaneous satisfaction of becoming contenders? The city sure does, but with the way management and ownership has gone about picking up the pieces since James' departure, that's another topic altogether—one for another day.
For now, we recognize the fact that Cleveland has gone from a team fighting for a spot in the playoffs to a group that will compete for a championship. That's about as big a turnaround as it comes, and fans and players alike are ready to accept that challenge.
*PER stats courtesy of ESPN.com.