Metrics 101: Best Bargain Buys in 2017 NBA Free Agency
Even though billionaires own many of the NBA's teams, they can't sink inexhaustible resources into their franchises. Money matters, if for no other reason than the salary cap and punitive luxury-tax threshold.
And as a result, finding bargains is essential.
We're not talking about players such as Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, who will inevitably ink max contracts and then play well enough that they would've justified larger earnings on a true open market. Nor are we referring to underrated commodities like Joe Ingles and James Johnson, whose skills are recognized by the Association's decision-makers more than by typical fans. They'll be paid plenty.
Instead, we're digging deeper.
These seven players will sign deals that won't pay them what they're worth. Some are taking pay cuts to chase titles. Others can't quite get market value because their weaknesses shine brighter than their elite niche skills.
Vince Carter, SG/SF, Unrestricted
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 8.0 points, 3.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks
Vince Carter might surge to the front of the ring-chasing rankings this offseason. He may not ultimately elect to sign with a true contender, but he could absolutely justify joining the Cleveland Cavaliers, San Antonio Spurs or Golden State Warriors in pursuit of a championship.
In fact, he's already mentioned he'd be amenable to traveling down that route while responding to a question on ESPN's The Jump. He still believes he can play at a high level (he can) and doesn't just want to sit on the bench (he won't), but he'd be open to taking a pay cut and hopping aboard an established contender.
Regardless of where Carter signs, the 40-year-old will continue serving as a bargain. He's adapted fully to his role as a key bench contributor, and that's allowed him to become a positive presence on both ends of the floor.
During the 2016-17 campaign, 50 players finished with above-average scores in both the offensive and defensive components of NBA Math's total points added (TPA) metric. Thirty-nine did so while playing at least 1,500 minutes, and Carter was in that group.
Now, here's the amazing part: Carter was four years older than anyone else joining the club. He's already proved Father Time has little impact on his game, and that shouldn't change anytime soon.
Omri Casspi, SF, Unrestricted
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 5.2 points, 3.1 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.1 blocks
Little Omri Casspi did during the 2016-17 campaign deserves much recognition. He struggled his way through 22 games with the Sacramento Kings after he was inexplicably buried on the bench, suffered a thumb injury during his first game with the New Orleans Pelicans (after inclusion in the DeMarcus Cousins trade) and then failed to find his outside shot after landing with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
But let's rewind a year.
Last offseason, Casspi was coming off a season for the Kings in which he'd averaged 11.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.4 assists while shooting 48.1 percent from the field and 40.9 percent from downtown. His sharp-shooting habits made him a valuable offensive force, and he held his own defensively by constantly maintaining the right positions and rarely making mental mistakes. In many ways, he'd become one of the league's most underrated commodities.
It's not too late for him to turn back the clocks.
Casspi just celebrated his 29th birthday, and his game isn't even predicated on athleticism. So long as he finds himself in a favorable situation that allows him to build up a shooting rhythm, he can regain the level he reached before a lack of continuity and that pesky injury knocked him down the Association's totem pole throughout 2016-17.
Darren Collison, PG, Unrestricted
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 13.2 points, 2.3 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.1 blocks
If you're signing Darren Collison, it's not because you're looking for defense. The speedy floor general is a sieve on the less glamorous end, which means he almost has to be paired with a studly stopper in the backcourt or used off the bench as an offensive spark.
So long as he can focus on producing points, he'll be a steal. Point guard is so important in today's game, but Collison doesn't have the youthful upside or accolade-heavy resume necessary to get the attention allocated to so many other free agents at his position.
Three things grant the 29-year-old immense value on offense: his knack for finding open teammates (24.5 assist percentage), his perimeter shooting (41.7 percent on 2.6 three-point attempts per game) and his ability to minimize turnovers (12.6 turnover percentage). Plenty of players possess one or two of those skills, but the total package is tougher to come by.
In fact, the 2016-17 season saw only four qualified players top a 24 assist percentage, shoot better than 40 percent from downtown and cough up the ball on fewer than 13 percent of their possessions: Collison, Mike Conley, Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving.
Does Collison's offense fall into the same category as those three stars? Of course not.
But he's still pretty darn good at generating points in efficient fashion.
Cristiano Felicio, PF/C, Restricted
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 4.8 points, 4.7 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.2 blocks
Over the last two years, Cristiano Felicio is one of only 25 players to post a defensive box plus/minus (DBPM) of at least 0.5 and a total rebounding percentage north of 16.0 during both go-rounds. That list contains many big-name contributors, and the more unheralded ones are few and far between.
Felicio may not develop into a star, and that's perfectly fine. He won't be paid to fill such a role, even if some team attempts to lure him away from the Chicago Bulls by having him ink a larger-than-expected offer sheet. The big man was a solid rotational player who specialized on defense during his mini-breakout season, and he should just keep doing more of the same while gradually improving his touch on offense.
"His ability to run the floor helps with offensive spacing. His ability to switch onto smaller players defensively allows him to guard most all screen-and-roll situations," K.C. Johnson wrote for the Chicago Tribune. "He must improve his hands and develop an offensive move beyond an alley-oop option."
It's the second point that makes Felicio a bargain.
More and more every year, the NBA is becoming a league that prioritizes defensive versatility. Having a great rebounder with a 6'10" frame who's capable of switching on screens is of paramount importance against the league's most dynamic offenses, and the Brazilian big man can do exactly that in spurts.
Nikola Mirotic, PF, Restricted
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 10.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.8 blocks
Nikola Mirotic just required an opportunity.
Some players need to build up a rhythm before they can truly be effective, and this power forward falls into that category. It was only when head coach Fred Hoiberg granted him more playing time and a green light that he began connecting from the perimeter and reminding the world of his stretch-4 status.
During his last 16 appearances in 2016-17, Mirotic averaged 15.8 points and 6.8 rebounds while shooting 47.1 percent from the field, 43.5 percent from downtown and 80.6 percent on his free-throw attempts. That was enough to push him into the green for both ESPN.com's RPM and NBA Math's TPA.
His surprisingly adept defense didn't hurt, either. The Athletic's Will Gottlieb has more:
Defensively, Mirotic has a reputation as an incapable defender, but that could not be further from the truth. According to Synergy, Mirotic ranks in the 95th percentile in half court defense, allowing only 0.769 points per possession. This matches my eye test. Mirotic has great awareness and knows how to position himself on defense to support the backside, help on drives and contest kick-outs. He is also a phenomenal pick-and-roll container, ranking in the 85th percentile. While he is made to look silly against the speediest point guards, he does the subtle things right.
When a player's production runs counter to his reputation (in a positive way, of course), that's a great time to strike and land a full-fledged bargain.
Thabo Sefolosha, SF, Unrestricted
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 7.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.5 blocks
Don't be fooled by Thabo Sefolosha falling out of the Atlanta Hawks rotation and playing just nine minutes over the course of four postseason appearances while his team was eliminated by the Washington Wizards. He may not have been fully healthy (despite injury reports claiming otherwise), and there's a chance he just hadn't regained his stride after working his way back onto the court.
Perhaps head coach Mike Budenholzer fully understood how valuable he'd been to Atlanta's defense, knew he didn't have a chance to win a title in 2017 and attempted to depress his value before he hit unrestricted free agency, thereby clearing a path to re-sign the 33-year-old on a cheaper deal. That would be some next-level thinking, even if we're fully aware that hypothetical is ridiculous.
Either way, Sefolosha's numbers—especially the defensive ones—indicate he deserved more run.
He finished No. 35 in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus (DRPM), regardless of position. Pare that down to include only small forwards, and he trails just Robert Covington, Al-Farouq Aminu, Kyle Anderson, Wesley Johnson, Taurean Prince and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. But include playing time, and he should subjectively spring past a number of those low-minute candidates.
Sefolosha remains undeniably intense on the preventing end, and he's capable of switching onto both shooting guards and power forwards. Stick him on an opposing 1, and he can use his lateral quickness to remain between his man and the basket.
Between his age and the minimal role he played during Atlanta's brief postseason run, his stock may be declining. But that should just allow a contender to strike and add an ace defender on the cheap.
Alan Williams, PF/C, Restricted
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 7.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.7 blocks
When you're trying to break into a featured role, filling one niche in elite fashion can pay rather large dividends.
For Alan Williams, that's rebounding.
The 24-year-old big man averaged 20.1 boards per 36 minutes over the course of 10 games during his rookie season, then he followed that up by posting 14.8 per 36 minutes as a sophomore in 2016-17. This time, he did so while playing 15.1 minutes per game and making 47 appearances for the Phoenix Suns.
And the numbers just keep getting more impressive.
Among the 321 players who logged over 700 minutes last year, Williams ranked No. 8 in offensive rebounding percentage, trailing only Joakim Noah, JaVale McGee, Kenneth Faried, Andre Drummond, Dwight Howard, Enes Kanter and Tristan Thompson. He also sat at No. 7 in defensive rebounding percentage, trailing just Drummond, Hassan Whiteside, DeAndre Jordan, Tyson Chandler, Howard and Nikola Vucevic.
When you're joining Drummond and Howard as one of only three players to rank in the top eight on both ends, that's usually a good sign for your board-crashing prowess. The rest of Williams' game is limited to finishes on the interior and solid defense around the hoop, but the glass-eating ways alone make him plenty valuable.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.