Ranking the Most Underrated Moves of the 2017 NBA Offseason
The NBA does the offseason better than any sports league, and each summer session is usually defined by some type of drama.
Last year, it was which teams would throw the most money at the least deserving players. This year, it's been the superstar carousel spinning uncontrollably and reshaping the basketball landscape.
Drama makes for great discussion and no shortage of fan interest. It also opens the door for less heralded dealings to slide under the radar, and they inevitably surface down the road when everyone realizes the importance of moves they never knew they were supposed to care about.
But you don't need a crystal ball to see these better-than-expected impacts coming. Discerning eyes can sleuth out undervalued acquisitions long before casual fans take notice, like when dollar amounts lag behind talent levels or critical supporting skills are slept on.
We have dived deeper than the headlines and found the most underrated moves of the 2017 offseason. Rookies are excluded, since there's no NBA evidence about what they'll become. Everyone else is fair game and has been evaluated by economic value, talent, potential and impact (both on his team and around the league).
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7. Tyreke Evans Returns to Memphis
Tyreke Evans—who once joined Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Oscar Robertson in the uber-exclusive 20-point, five-assist, five-rebound rookie club—settled on a one-year, $3.3 million pact with the Memphis Grizzlies this summer.
Age isn't the issue, as he'll celebrate his 28th birthday in September. Production isn't a major problem either, since he holds career averages of 16.1 points, 5.1 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game.
His cool reception on the open market can be traced to recurring knee issues, which have cost him 99 contests over the last two seasons. The fact he's neither a lockdown defender nor a lights-out sniper (career 29.5 percent) didn't help either.
But his talent level is head, shoulders and at least a torso above his new pay rate. And the University of Memphis product's skills are the kind that could spark an attack that finished last season 19th in efficiency (104.7 points per 100 possessions) and 28th in pace.
"Tyreke is one of the most aggressive and potent perimeter players in the league," Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace said Tuesday, per Ronald Tillery of the Commercial Appeal. "He can play both backcourt spots as well as small forward, and his shooting has improved significantly since he was starting with the Memphis Tigers in FedExForum."
The Grizzlies need more off-the-dribble verve. In 2016-17, they were 28th in drives per game (22.4), 28th in isolation scoring (0.79 points per possession) and 24th in paint points (40.5 per game). A healthy Chandler Parsons could have helped those numbers, but that could be a thing of the past.
Granted, Evans has his own health woes, the main reason he isn't ranked any higher. But at least they're reflected in his salary. When he's right, he's a lethal shot-creator. In 2014-15—his most recent healthy season—he averaged the second-most drives per game (11.8). And only 26.4 percent of his career two-point field goals have been off assists.
6. The Orlando Magic Sign a Needed Stopper
Restricted free agents with defensive versatility, loads of athleticism and offensive upside don't often come cheaply. But credit the Orlando Magic for luring Jonathon Simmons out of the Alamo City with only a three-year, $20 million deal (which—icing on the cake—is only guaranteed for $1 million in the final season).
And thank the San Antonio Spurs, who renounced his restricted rights but not until mid-July, when many shoppers had already invested free-agency funds elsewhere.
Suddenly, Orlando found an intriguing path to improve its 24th-ranked defense (108.0 points allowed per 100 possessions). Simmons can defend anywhere along the perimeter, and last season, he finished eighth among shooting guards in ESPN's defensive real plus-minus.
Offense is a wild card. He suffered precipitous drops in field-goal percent (50.4 to 42.0) and three-point shooting (38.3 to 29.4) last season, which could prove problematic to an offense already squeezed for spacing. But when his opportunities increased—which should happen more often with the Magic—his numbers usually did too. He averaged 14.0 points per game on 44.4 percent shooting over his final two playoff rounds.
"Jonathon's such a good defender, he's such an aggressive player that that kind of captures your attention," Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said in July, per Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel. "But Jonathon gets to the rim. He's a capable passer, and I think his shooting has shown improvement. ... If he can kind of continue to stair-step progress with his perimeter abilities, there's a whole other level in store for him."
Simmons could capitalize on his increased chances in Orlando and prove the Magic got him at tremendous bargain. If his offense stagnates, his defense could justify his cost. And if he somehow regresses on both ends, the Magic can make this contract disappear pretty easily.
He isn't young (28 in September), so his offensive question marks are more concerning than a typical third-year player's would be. Orlando also is far from guaranteed a playoff spot, meaning there's too much uncertainty for Simmons to rank higher.
5. Utah's Elite Defense Gets Stingier
Last season, the Utah Jazz boasted a ridiculous defense. They were third in efficiency (102.7 points allowed per 100 possessions), second in field-goal percentage allowed and maybe first in intimidation with Rudy Gobert manning the middle and suffocating length around him.
Looking through that lens, Thabo Sefolosha's two-year, $10.5 million commitment to Salt Lake City is almost unfair. The 6'7" swingman—who boasts an oppressive 7'2" wingspan—ranked ninth among all perimeter players with a 2.27 defensive real plus-minus last season on ESPN.com.
"... Defensively, he was as versatile as they come as far as who he could guard," Atlanta Hawks assistant coach Charles Lee said following Sefolosha's departure in free agency, per Jody Genessy of the Deseret News. "He can guard a point guard. He can guard a power forward."
Sefolosha's malleability will be his key to earning playing time in a wing rotation that's somehow crowded even without Gordon Hayward. He probably won't fill more than a supporting role, but he'll put opposing scorers in straightjackets when he steps inside the lines and help Utah maintain its tenacious identity.
And there are ways the 33-year-old could make this contract become a theft. Like, if he rebounds from a few down shooting years and strokes the way he did from 2011-12 to 2012-13 (1.1 threes per game at a 42.2 percent clip). Or if his cuts increase the potency of Utah's passing and his comfort on the ball gives the Jazz another complementary playmaker.
Utah's depth works against him here. Between the 3 and 4 spots, he'll be fighting for playing time with at least four others (Joe Ingles, Joe Johnson, Derrick Favors, Jonas Jerebko). If Sefolosha is hurting for minutes with his team on the fringes of the playoff race, he'd have a difficult time justifying a higher ranking than this.
4. Dubs Steal a Sniper
If you want to argue that the Golden State Warriors get so much media coverage it's impossible to construe any transaction as underrated, that might be fair.
But if any signing qualifies as overlooked, it's their minimum investment in Omri Casspi. Especially since it happened during the same summer when Stephen Curry inked the then-largest deal ever, Kevin Durant sacrificed millions, Nick Young arrived, Andre Iguodala won his negotiation, rookie Jordan Bell showed out in Las Vegas Summer League and even JaVale McGee found his way back to Golden State.
To be fair, Casspi is off the radar for a reason. He played for three different teams last season, totaling only 36 appearances. He has averaged more than 24 minutes per game twice in his eight-year career—on teams that went 58-106.
Still, Casspi at the veteran's minimum of $2.1 million is "criminal," as ESPN's Zach Lowe put it. Travel back just one season to 2015-16, and Casspi was averaging a career-best 15.6 points per 36 minutes on 48.1 percent shooting (40.9 outside) while displaying a slew of coveted contemporary strengths.
"His sharpshooting habits made him a valuable offensive force, and he held his own defensively by constantly maintaining the right positions and rarely making mental mistakes," Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal wrote. "In many ways, he'd become one of the league's most underrated commodities."
Casspi's three-and-D skills should be enhanced in the Bay. Between the ball movement of the Warriors offense and the gravitational All-Stars around him, he'll gorge on open shots. And his ability to switch defensive assignments plays right in line with Golden State's style.
He might get the fewest minutes of these seven players, but he'll take the floor for the best team. His individual impact isn't great enough to climb into the top three, but the Dubs' relevance moved him up to the middle.
3. Indiana Pacers Find Proven Point Guard with Upside
Cory Joseph was more than a footnote in the Indiana Pacers' offseason. With 364 regular-season outings and another 71 postseason tussles under his belt, he's a proven commodity for a franchise that doesn't have nearly as many of those as it did in recent years.
But his trade from the Toronto Raptors wasn't exactly a headline-grabber, even in the Circle City. Not in an offseason when the Pacers traded Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Indiana University product Victor Oladipo returned to the Hoosier State and Indy pumped $41 million into Darren Collison and Bojan Bogdanovic.
Joseph, though, could be the most important non-Oladipo acquisition. The feisty floor general has long been a pest to opposing point guards, and last season, he set personal bests in points (9.3), assists (3.3) and rebounds (2.9) per game. He's been a playoff participant each of the last five seasons, averaging more than 22 minutes per contest during his past two trips with the Toronto Raptors.
His floor is solid as a relentless defender and transition attacker. And his ceiling might have more room to rise than people think. At 26 years old, he's less than a year older than Oladipo, and Joseph's three-ball—while still not where he'd like it—is trending the right way.
"Joseph in many ways fits within [Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin] Pritchard's desire to build a team of young, talented players who can develop, build chemistry and win together for sustained success in the future," Nate Taylor of the Indianapolis Star wrote. "The Pacers were intrigued by Joseph because they believe he has yet to reach his full potential."
The Pacers could be the worst team represented on our rankings, which highlights how many other boxes Joseph checks in order to claim the No. 3 spot. He doesn't have Evans' injury woes, Simmons' uncertainties, Sefolosha's age/decline or Casspi's compact role.
2. OKC Stretches Out Its Frontcourt
Don't be fooled by last season's historic production from reigning NBA MVP Russell Westbrook. The Oklahoma City Thunder offense struggled to function because of one of the Association's worst cases of congestion.
The team as a whole couldn't shoot. It had the NBA's lowest conversion rate from three (32.7 percent) and made the fifth-fewest triples per game (8.4). And the Thunder were particularly putrid up front, plagued by bigs who either didn't launch threes (Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, Taj Gibson) or shouldn't have (Domantas Sabonis).
OKC is breathing much easier now, and that's not entirely due to the Paul George addition. Patrick Patterson, who came in on an economic three-year, $16.4 million deal in July, stands to modernize this group's frontcourt and flesh out what was the league's best one-man show, as Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated explained:
"Patterson is a rangy forward/small-ball center who can guard multiple positions, and he should slot nicely into the Thunder's frontcourt. Patterson will provide what the Thunder so desperately lacked last season: spacing. He can sit in the corner while Russell Westbrook and Paul George work offensively, launching threes when the defense is sucked in."
Patterson battled left knee pain last season and underwent arthroscopic surgery in early August, though OKC expects him back in time for training camp.
The 28-year-old might be a specialist—65.9 percent of his shots were threes in 2016-17—but his specialty addresses a glaring need (shot 37.2 percent from beyond the arc).
If he can stay healthy, he'll provide a boost to one of the Western Conference's most intriguing teams. He just won't make as much of a difference as our No. 1 choice, who also suits up for a superior squad.
1. Houston Rockets Modernize Defense
The Houston Rockets won 55 games last season without a winning formula.
Trust me, it's possible. The James Harden-led offense orchestrated by head coach Mike D'Antoni was as explosive as expected, but the defense was disastrous—at least as it pertained to the team's hopes of becoming elite. Houston's 109.0 defensive rating tied for the fourth-highest ever recorded by a 55-plus-game winner (a 173-team sample size) and the worst by such a club in more than 20 years.
The Rockets had to address their shortcomings this summer and did so in spectacular—yet understated—fashion. P.J. Tucker "headlined" the subtle, savvy pickups while arriving via a four-year, $31.9 million deal. Veteran's minimum money was all Houston needed to land another piece of defensive silly putty in Luc Mbah a Moute.
And just like that, the Rockets possessed a modern—maybe dominant at times—defense, as Bleacher Report's Dan Favale wrote:
"Adding Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker helps unlock lineups oozing matchup nightmares. Either one of them can defend power forwards, and Trevor Ariza lets them switch every wing combination while stashing James Harden on more palatable assignments.
... Mbah a Moute is a sneaky post defender, and Tucker has the vinegary vim to tussle with certain bigs. Between the two of them, the Rockets can have the 4 and 5 on relative lock within baby Death Squad combinations."
Is it fair that the most underrated move is a combination of moves? Probably not, but we make the rules. Besides, the fact the Rockets made these signings in tandem was what made them special. One player alone wasn't going to cover Houston's defensive holes.
With Tucker, Mbah a Moute, Ariza and Chris Paul working together, the Rockets can ratchet up their defensive intensity to ludicrous levels. And with Harden, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson still around, Houston can lean just as much on the offensive end. Start intertwining these two groups, and the Western Conference's second seed becomes Space City's to lose.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.