NBA Free Agency Roundup: Meet the New Under-the-Radar Contenders

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJuly 15, 2018

NBA Free Agency Roundup: Meet the New Under-the-Radar Contenders

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    Don't sweat the NBA offseason's transition to relative inactivity. There's a silver lining to the free-agency frenzy winding down to a slow, lifeless laze: We get to step back, take a breath, survey the landscape and properly celebrate the birth of new and newish might-be contenders!

    Are you pumped? You should be pumped. You're pumped aren't you? How could you not be? The dust is gradually settling on the league's silly season and the flurry of transactions has yielded a host of talking points that journey beyond the Golden State Warriors sewing up the next eleventy titles.

    To be clear: This space is not dedicated to teams with an exceptional shot at dethroning the reigning champs. For one, that type of threat doesn't exist. Mostly, though, we're nodding to afterthoughts and footnotes who have a fathomable path to winning their conference and making it to the NBA Finals.

    Offseason additions are part of the allure for certain candidates, but not all of them. Some are here by default, due more to what has happened around them. Others have long been championship hopefuls in training. One franchise's case boils down to moves unmade (so far).

    All the usual suspects receive their due elsewhere. Get your Warriors, Boston Celtics, Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors fixes another time. This one's for the less ballyhooed—the non-favorites who aren't popular picks among us hoops head to make it out of their conference.

Notable Exclusions

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Denver Nuggets

    The Nuggets would be a more ironclad option if they hadn't jettisoned Wilson Chandler to lighten their tax bill. They'd even have a stronger case if Michael Porter Jr.'s health wasn't a major question mark.

    As currently constructed, the Nuggets will make the playoffs. Gary Harris, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray will all get better, and a healthy Paul Millsap goes a long way.

    Still, Denver needs another wing or two who specializes in getting stops before it receives the official bump to could-be contender. Major ups to the front office, though, for maxing out Jokic, re-signing Will Barton, stealing Isaiah Thomas and then managing to avoid the luxury tax with the Darrell Arthur and Kenneth Faried dumps.

          

    Los Angeles Lakers

    Necessary spoiler alert: The Los Angeles Lakers are not being slighted. They don't deserve an honorable mention beyond this note.

    I'd apologize, but I'm not sorry.

    The players they have put around LeBron James give them a suboptimal chance of making it past the second round, let alone into the NBA Finals. Circle back and ask for an addendum if they trade for Kawhi Leonard. (The answer will still be no.)

Indiana Pacers

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    Coming out of the Eastern Conference will be a whole lot easier without LeBron James lording over the rest of its peasants, and the Indiana Pacers have positioned themselves to be the conference's foremost dark horse.

    Only two other teams have added more wins above replacement over the offseason, according to an analysis run by Bleacher Report's Andy Bailey: the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers. And they've each reached the pinnacle of summertime improvement through one massive move.

    Golden State ruined the already ruined NBA (it isn't actually ruined) by lucking into DeMarcus Cousins. Los Angeles happened upon a greatest-of-all-time candidate whose life is no longer dictated by trying to win championships. Indiana's activity has been more subtle and comprehensive.

    Tyreke Evans gives the Pacers another primary ball-handler who has the spot-up chops to coexist with Victor Oladipo. He shot 40.8 percent on pull-up threes last season—third-best mark among 96 players to make at least 10 appearances and average more than one attempt per game. He also canned 38.9 percent of his catch-and-fire treys.

    Doug McDermott is a quality plug-and-play sniper. He drilled nearly 46 percent of his standstill threes while splitting time with the New York Knicks and Dallas Mavericks. Along with Evans, he buoys the spacing of an offense that led the league in long-two frequency, according to Cleaning The Glass.

    Kyle O'Quinn has a similar effect up front. He has three-point range the Knicks chose to ignore and is more nimble-footed, and thus playable, compared to the departed Al Jefferson. He offers a nice alternative if the Pacers are committed to dabbling in dual-big lineups. TJ Leaf is TJ Leaf, and the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis partnership was mostly a disaster.

    Indiana is not without its red flags. Head coach Nate McMillan is making sure of that. As he said when asked about what James' departure from the conference means, per 8 Points, 9 Seconds' Tony East: "I think you'll see less spread lineups and more grinding and more post players."

    Um, yeah. This can't happen. Having O'Quinn is nice, but McDermott and Thaddeus Young should be soaking up time at the 4. The Pacers have enough concerns on defense looking at their wing rotation without hamstringing an offense that finished 23rd in efficiency after the All-Star break.

    In a nutshell, though, Indiana's 48-win upstart is deeper and more talented. That'll give way to unique opportunities in the East's impending LeBron-less free-for-all.

Milwaukee Bucks

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    Count the Milwaukee Bucks as a default inclusion. Their offseason dealings alone do not guarantee they'll vacate the underachiever throne, but they have the best player in the East, Giannis Antetokounmpo, following James' latest exit. 

    They can't not be here.

    It helps that they've shown flashes of being an elite team. They deployed six lineups last season that logged at least 90 total minutes and outpaced opponents by six or more points per 100 possessions. No other squad had more than five of those arrangements (Toronto Raptors). 

    This concentrated punch is not unsustainable. Antetokounmpo is a top-five star, and he's flanked by two could-be top-35 talents, Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton. That depth of fringe-star power matters.

    Handing this top-heavy nucleus to head coach Mike Budenholzer put the Bucks in business before they made any additions to the roster. He is an upgrade over his predecessor, Jason Kidd, on both ends. The defense will adopt a more disciplined approach, and the offense will be more inventive with its spacing, ball movement, player motion and shot selection.

    Landing Ersan Ilyasova and Brook Lopez is essentially gravy. Both have the three-point range Milwaukee's center carousel has lacked outside of the enigmatic Thon Maker. The Bucks can now deploy four-out lineups around Antetokounmpo without stretching the definition of "four" or "out."

    Neither Ilyasova nor Lopez is a stonewalling rim protector. That could be an issue. Milwaukee surrendered shots around the hoop more often than any other defense, per Cleaning The Glass.

    But Budenholzer's teams have generally limited point-blank looks without a suffocating shot-swatter. The 2015-16 Atlanta Hawks were the only one of his squads to finish lower than 14th in opponent shot frequency at the rim, according to Cleaning The Glass.

    Jabari Parker's future is up in the air for the moment, but the outcome to his restricted free agency doesn't impact the Bucks' standing. Their roster is a cleaner fit without him given how much he's struggled beside Antetokounmpo. If he returns, Milwaukee has a top-shelf scoring prospect who might survive short stints at the 5 in Budenhozler's system.

Oklahoma City Thunder

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    The Oklahoma City Thunder have become the NBA's go-to luxury-tax punchline. That's fine. Let the James Harden trade jokes flow. Some of them are funny. All of them are fair game.

    But the Thunder's steep operating costs have nothing to do with their proximity to title contention. They're closer to the championship clique than people who've forgotten about Andre Roberson think. As ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote:

    "They have a chance to be really good. The Thunder hit a winter groove after a rocky start and might have continued apace had Andre Roberson not ruptured his left patellar tendon. The [Russell] Westbrook/[Paul] George/Roberson/Steven Adams foursome was among the nastiest and best four-man groups in the league, per NBA.com. They get more time to jell now. They are short on shooting, but that's not a new problem.

    "This core won't touch Golden State as long as all four incumbent Warriors stars stay healthy, but they can compete in the upper tier of the conference. Get there, and you are one big break away from something interesting."

    Cutting ties with Carmelo Anthony will amount to addition by subtraction. His divorce from the Thunder has been deemed an inevitability, according to ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski. Their pecking-order concerns go out the window once he skips town.

    George and Westbrook are more natural complements to one another and extra compatible when they don't have to account for Anthony. Oklahoma City posted a plus-9.7 net rating in the time George and Westbrook played without him compared to a plus-6.1 when all three took the court together, according to Cleaning The Glass.

    Replacing Anthony's minutes may still be hard. The Thunder enjoyed limited success when subbing him out for Jerami Grant or Patrick Patterson, per Cleaning The Glass. But that says more about the teensy-tiny sample sizes than anything else.

    Grant and Patterson are both superior defensive options at power forward. Grant only needs to shoot something like 33 percent from deep to be a primo asset, and Patterson will look better after an offseason that doesn't include left knee surgery. Oklahoma City could hit on some Alex Abrines and Terrance Ferguson lineup iterations as well.

    Bake in the Nerlens Noel addition, and a fully healthy Thunder squad has the defensive switchability to make life hell on the NBA's elite. If it turns out the Rockets really, really (really) miss Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, you could be looking at the West's No. 2 seed. Seriously.

San Antonio Spurs

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    Oh yes, I'm going here. The San Antonio Spurs have devolved into an afterthought amid the Kawhi Leonard saga. They're going to trade him and begin some sort of rebuild. Talking about their championship chances is a complete waste of time. Their window has clearly closed.

    Except, what if it's still open?

    Leonard remains with the Spurs, in case you haven't noticed. It doesn't appear that he and San Antonio have kissed and made up, but he hasn't purchased a one-way ticket to Los Angeles, Philadelphia or Boston either.

    A relatively inconsistent market is starting to favor the Spurs. The Raptors are now the betting favorite to land Leonard, according to OddsShark. The optics will change. All they've done is shift since the end of the season. And the longer this drags out, the more likely Leonard is to begin the season with San Antonio. 

    That doesn't mean the Spurs won't pull the trigger closer to the trade deadline. They could. But they've offered Leonard the five-year, $221.3 million designated veteran extension he's eligible to sign, per Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher. Turning down that money, assuming it's there, will be tough—especially if an outside admirer isn't pressured into acquiescing to San Antonio's asking price.

    Which team is going to do that? The Celtics, Lakers and Sixers can defend all-in offers, but none of them are in panic mode. Boston is set up to run the Eastern Conference. Los Angeles has LeBron James under lock and key. Philly won 52 games last season with a core that has yet to enter its prime. The urgency isn't there.

    Keeping Leonard feels like a distinct possibility for the Spurs—more than it did a month or so ago anyway. Work things out, and they're sitting pretty. They won 47 games without him, and the Rockets' offseason may have weakened their hold on the non-Warriors crowd. 

    Losing Kyle Anderson to the Memphis Grizzlies stings. He profiled as the Spurs' second-most valuable player last year, according to NBA Math's total points added. But they'll hardly notice his absence with Leonard in tow. And letting Tony Parker bolt for the Charlotte Hornets is an understated victory. It opens up more playing time for summer-league standouts Lonnie Walker IV and Derrick White.

    Feel free to dismiss the Spurs at my expense. This will look pretty bad if they unload Leonard. But the budding, if still slightly strained, prospect of his return permits their inclusion. They belong here precisely because they're not supposed to be.

Utah Jazz

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    Unless you count the sudden Grayson Allen hype, the Utah Jazz haven't done much this summer. They didn't need to.

    No team posted a higher point differential per 100 possessions after the All-Star break. The Jazz have been free to go about their general upkeep and spin that as a victory—as they should. They never needed a face-lift to increase demand for their stock. The natural transition from 2017-18 to 2018-19 will do that for them.

    Think about all the extra bumps Utah could get by doing virtually nothing:

    • A more experienced Donovan Mitchell.
    • A healthier Dante Exum, Rudy Gobert and Thabo Sefolosha, who missed a combined 138 games last year.
    • More exposure to Jae Crowder-at-the-4 lineups, which outscored opponents by 13.5 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning The Glass.
    • Better availability from Ricky Rubio during the playoffs.
    • Whatever Grayson Allen is. (Related: May Alec Burks' chances of consistently cracking the rotation forever rest in peace.) 

    Much like the Thunder, the Jazz could find themselves competing for a top-two playoff seed if the Rockets incur any measurable fallout from Ariza's and Mbah a Moute's departures. And they have the expiring contracts to cobble together some low-key awesome trade packages at the midseason mark.

    Begging the Jazz to push their status even further is tempting. They still have the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception, and extracting Kyle Korver from Cleveland would be a great fit for the offense. But they don't have the ready-made roster space to go on a last-second talent hunt. Nor do they need it.

    In fact, consider this the last time Utah makes an appearance among under-the-radar contenders. The secret's out. The Jazz are terrifyingly good. 

                   

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.