The Most Undervalued 2015 NBA Free Agent at Every Position
Everyone knows the best teams in the NBA build their rosters around superstars, but signing underrated free agents to below-market deals is nearly as critical to constructing a winner.
That's because paying the top-end talent it takes to reach the league's upper echelon requires saving some scratch on the margins.
So as teams with spending money fight over the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge and Marc Gasol this summer, keep an eye out for clubs that make subtler signings. There are plenty of available players who can make rotation splashes on the cheap.
To qualify as an undervalued free agent, it helps to have collected a modest salary in 2014-15. Being stuck behind a star is also a factor.
Mainly, the undervalued players here are the ones who have produced without generating the notice they deserve.
NBA teams in search of quality production don't need to target household names this summer, and these guys prove it.
Point Guard: Cory Joseph, San Antonio Spurs
Free-Agency Type: Restricted
2014-15 Salary: $2.1 million
Notable 2014-15 Numbers: 6.8 points, 2.4 assists, 50.4 FG %, 36.4 3P%
Tony Parker has been and will continue to be the San Antonio Spurs' incumbent offensive catalyst and starter. Though aging and clearly hobbled, Parker held down his gig with the first unit whenever he was healthy enough to play last year.
And Patty Mills functioned as a perfect spark off the bench.
As a result, Cory Joseph saw just 18.3 minutes per game last year.
San Antonio has some other financial concerns this summer, namely the restricted free agency of superstar Kawhi Leonard. That means it may be less willing to spend the $3 million it'll cost to make a qualifying offer to Joseph. Though that's a bargain price for such an efficient, steady backup, you can understand—given the two players ahead of him—why the Spurs might hesitate.
If Joseph becomes available as an unrestricted free agent, any team in need of a backup point guard (or even a starter with room to grow; Joseph's only 23 years old) should swoop in. And if he signs a qualifying offer to remain restricted, he should see some offer sheets from around the league.
Joseph has improved every year of his career, posting consistent gains in scoring, true shooting percentage and player efficiency rating. That growth, combined with four seasons of study in the Spurs system, make him a far more valuable prospect than his short minutes and low scoring average suggest.
Honorable Mention: Aaron Brooks, Chicago Bulls, Unrestricted
Brooks made less than $1 million last season with the Bulls, which placed his 11.6 points, 3.2 assists and 38.7 percent shooting from deep among the better values in the league. There should be concerns that he's just the latest in the long line of undersized point guards to find success off the bench for Chicago (hi, Nate Robinson and D.J. Augustin!), but we know for certain that Brooks' shooting is real.
He's a career 37.1-percent marksman from long range.
This is a league-minimum guy who played 1,885 minutes last year. If his production dips a little and his salary goes up on his next contract, he'll still be a good value.
No Longer Undervalued: Reggie Jackson, Detroit Pistons, Restricted
The jig's up on Jackson: He's an athletic penetrator who can't shoot, which limits his value in all but the most perfectly spaced offenses. Stepping into a major role with the Pistons after last season's deadline trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder showed the league all of Jackson's pros and cons.
We know who he is now, and if anything, he's overrated.
Shooting Guard: Marco Belinelli, San Antonio Spurs
Free-Agency Type: Unrestricted
2014-15 Salary: $2.9 million
Notable 2014-15 Numbers: 9.2 points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 37.4 3P%
First off, a promise: These won't all be Spurs.
Second: Now's the time to get in on Marco Belinelli.
A groin injury cut 20 games out of the Italian's age-28 season last year, and his three-point shooting mark fell significantly from the 43 percent he posted in 2013-14. This is a buy-low opportunity.
Maybe he's not quite worth the mid-level exception, but for teams in need of a sixth man who can come off the bench gunning, or even help run the offense as a combo guard, it's hard to do better than this guy. Even if it might be a mistake to expect another season of 43 percent shooting from deep, Belinelli's career mark is 39.2 percent.
Best used as part of a motion-heavy offense where his clever passing is a weapon, Belinelli's reliable sniping means even the most stagnant attacks can feature him as a spot-up threat.
As Bleacher Report's Andy Bailey noted, Belinelli can win you a big game by himself: "Look no further than Belinelli's Game 6 against the Los Angeles Clippers, when he went 7-of-11 from downtown and nearly clinched the series for the Spurs on his own."
Honorable Mention: Wesley Matthews, Portland Trail Blazers, Unrestricted
You could make the case that Matthews belonged here before his devastating Achilles' injury at the end of the 2014-15 season. A deadly shooter who could lock up wings on defense, Matthews was an unsung star.
Though the track record of post-Achilles' production is ugly, Matthews' game might make him a better candidate to bounce back than most. He's never shot below 38 percent from three-point land in his career, and CBS Sports' Chris Towers noted that players returning from an Achilles' tear shot much more often from long range than they did pre-injury—perhaps because their decreased explosiveness made driving less effective.
Almost 60 percent of Matthews' shots last year came from deep, and with his accuracy, a few more triple attempts might not be a bad thing.
An injury like this makes him a risk, but writing him off as a productive player would be a huge mistake.
No Longer Undervalued: Danny Green, San Antonio Spurs, Unrestricted
Let's just put it this way: A career 42 percent three-point shooter who is also a flat-out elite wing defender is going to make a whole lot more than $4 million in free agency. That's what Green collected last year, and there should be about 25 NBA teams clamoring to sign him as their starting shooting guard.
Green isn't undervalued; he's properly valued—which is to say everyone knows he's a fantastic player.
Small Forward: Jae Crowder, Boston Celtics
Free-Agency Type: Restricted
2014-15 Salary: $915,243
Notable 2014-15 Numbers: 7.7 points, 3.6 rebounds, 0.9 steals
We're digging deeper at small forward, hoping the production uptick that followed Jae Crowder's trade to the Boston Celtics is indicative of his future performance.
Crowder shot a respectable 34.2 percent from three in 57 games with Boston, a career best. In his two prior seasons, Crowder's lack of an offensive game made it hard to justify giving him significant minutes on the strength of his gritty, versatile defense alone.
Thanks to the Celtics' ball movement and the green light from head coach Brad Stevens, Crowder flashed a scoring dimension (albeit a modest one) he'd never shown before.
No wonder he wants to keep wearing green.
"I just think what I bring to the game and what they need … it’s a good fit," Crowder said, per A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com. "Hopefully we can get something done that’ll keep me here for a long time."
It's an easy parallel to draw (mostly because of the hair), but Crowder's best NBA comparison might be Atlanta Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll. Both are physical defenders who can handle most wings and a few power forwards, and both work hard on that end.
But while Carroll attempted just 25 total threes in the first three years of his career, Crowder has already shot 551 in his.
If you can get in early on the next Carroll for a good price, you do it.
Honorable Mention: Mike Dunleavy, Chicago Bulls, Unrestricted
It's not often players with 13-year track records wind up being overlooked by the market, but Mike Dunleavy remains an underappreciated commodity.
He made just $3 million last year, which is a bargain for a quietly solid defender who started 63 games and shot 40.7 percent from deep. You know what you're getting with Dunleavy: smart play, the occasional dirty trick and steady shooting.
That's a steal for $3 million.
No Longer Undervalued: DeMarre Carroll, Atlanta Hawks, Unrestricted
Undervalued no more, Carroll only added to his price by gutting out a painful knee injury and guarding LeBron James for four straight games in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Toughness, shooting and versatility on the big stage showed the league what Carroll was truly worth: a lot.
Power Forward: Amir Johnson, Toronto Raptors
Free-Agency Type: Unrestricted
2014-15 Salary: $7 million
Notable 2014-15 Numbers: 9.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 0.8 blocks, 57.4 FG%
Repeated ankle injuries have robbed Amir Johnson of a lot of his mobility, but he's still a useful two-way power forward who contributes to wins in understated ways.
Last year, Grantland's Zach Lowe praised his intelligent work in the pick-and-roll as one such example:
Calling Johnson a "dirty work" guy undersells him. Johnson’s skills are more subtle, including his screen-setting. He mixes things up so that defenses can’t quite predict what he’s going to do. He’ll occasionally slip a pick, darting to the hoop before really setting it—a move that can suck in all kinds of emergency help defense.
With offenses increasing their reliance on three-point shots, a good screener who draws defenders into the middle will only become more valuable. And quietly, Johnson has improved his own perimeter game, hitting a career-best 41.3 percent of his 46 long-distance attempts last year.
That's a tiny sample, but Johnson's career rate from deep is 34 percent. Perhaps the next phase of his career will involve some floor stretching.
Teams unwilling to splurge on the likes of Aldridge, Paul Millsap, David West or even Tristan Thompson will find Johnson a welcome fallback bargain.
Honorable Mention: Brandan Wright, Phoenix Suns, Unrestricted
Wright could probably fit as a center, but because the rest of the power forward class is mostly a high-cost, mildly overrated bunch, he works here as well.
With length that makes him an excellent finisher (he shot 64.2 percent from the field last year) and a quality shot-blocker, Wright profiles as a legitimate rotation player on a good team.
No Longer Undervalued: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors, Restricted
Players who'll command and deserve max contracts are by definition not undervalued.
Center: Robin Lopez, Portland Trail Blazers
Free-Agency Type: Unrestricted
2014-15 Salary: $5.3 million
Notable 2014-15 Numbers: 9.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 53.5 FG%
If you combined twins Brook and Robin Lopez, you'd get a reasonably priced center who could contribute on both ends. If my math is correct, that combined player would also be 14 feet tall and weigh roughly 600 pounds.
So, great rim protection, but probably some mobility issues.
Robin lacks his brother's offensive game, which helped keep his salary modest on his last contract. He's a steady, unselfish team defender who rebounds well, which cannot be said about the much more expensive Brook.
The Blazers won't trust their defensive interior to burgeoning stretch 5 Meyers Leonard, which means they may be willing to give Lopez a modest raise. But even with a significant salary increase, he'll be worth it.
Honorable Mention: Kosta Koufos, Memphis Grizzlies, Unrestricted
Koufos is a starting-caliber center who had to assume backup duties behind Marc Gasol over the last two years. So if a team can get him for anything close to his $3 million annual salary, it'll be a steal.
Always a good offensive rebounder, Koufos proved he could defend the rim effectively in Memphis. As long as he limits his fouls, he'll be fine in returning to the starting role he enjoyed with the Denver Nuggets in 2012-13 before joining the Grizz.
Given the minutes, Koufos could produce 10 points and eight rebounds per game while offering a strong defensive presence inside.
No Longer Undervalued: Enes Kanter, Oklahoma City Thunder, Restricted
There's no kind way to say it: Kanter is this summer's free-agency fool's gold.
Though he averaged 18.7 points and 11 rebounds after joining OKC at the deadline last year, Kanter's team performed far better with him off the floor—particularly on defense. Per NBA.com, the Thunder surrendered an extra 7.1 points per 100 possessions with Kanter on the court.
The rest of the league should be glad Thunder general manager Sam Presti is committed to seeing Kanter in a Thunder uniform going forward, per Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman.
Smart teams will happily stand by as Oklahoma City blows eight figures a year on a net-negative player.
All salary information courtesy of BasketballInsiders.com unless otherwise indicated.
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.
Grant Hughes covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @gt_hughes.