The Most Interesting NBA Free Agents Nobody Is Talking About
Talking about the NBA's marquee free agents is both necessary and exhausting. Only so many takes can be crafted before they start to feel repetitive or superfluous, even during a nine-month trek through the regular season and playoffs.
We know who Kevin Durant is, and that he's probably leaning toward leaving the Golden State Warriors. We sort of accept that Kawhi Leonard, one of the most unreadable superstars ever, might have strong feelings about playing on the West Coast.
We get that Golden State better offer Klay Thompson the max or he may shop around, spurn the Los Angeles Lakers, flirt with the Atlanta Hawks and consider the Los Angeles Clippers before he most likely remains with the Warriors anyway.
Taking a break from the normal superstar discourse comes highly recommended. Spending time instead on the deeper cuts free agency has to offer is a nice way to reset before rejoining the "Will Kyrie Irving really think about fleeing the Boston Celtics?" fray.
These players are not former higher-profile names who have seen their stock take a dive. (Keep grinding, Tyreke Evans.) They are not among this summer's top consolation prizes for teams that get jilted by A-listers (Pour one out for Bojan Bogdanovic.) And they are not all members of the Indiana Pacers the most obvious underrated options. (Long live Thaddeus Young.)
They are underappreciated and undersold—impact talent that, for whatever reason, isn't getting enough pub. And their markets will be fascinating.
Thomas Bryant, Washington Wizards (restricted)
Do partial-season breakouts from bigs who don't shoot threes still have the power to generate a robust list of admirers? Thomas Bryant is about to help us find out.
Teams to watch: Washington, Atlanta, Brooklyn, Memphis, New Orleans
Danny Green, Toronto Raptors
Danny Green isn't a forgotten man—not anymore. People are well aware of how ridiculous it is that the Raptors acquired both him and Kawhi Leonard without giving up one of their three best prospects. But his price tag in free agency isn't getting nearly enough shine.
Blame Leonard. Everything hinges on his decision. Toronto will be less concerned with Green's potential cost if this year's contender remains intact. At the same time, other teams will drool over a three-point assassin who can take on the toughest assignment in the backcourt and perform well enough to generate All-Defensive consideration.
In other words: Going on 32, Green could be due for a raise from the $10 million he's making. Which, wow. And if he's not, he should at least be in line to command the full mid-level exception ($9.2 million).
Teams to watch: Toronto, Indiana, L.A. Lakers, Philadelphia, Utah
T.J. McConnell, Philadelphia 76ers
Remember when ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski said the Sixers could grab a first-round pick for T.J. McConnell? Well, fast-forward to now, and he's barely in their playoff rotation.
Perhaps other teams with fewer floor-balance concerns will see starter-level value in McConnell. Or, conversely, perhaps not. The latter would be a welcome development for squads on the luxury-tax fringes.
Teams to watch: Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Miami, Phoenix
Darius Miller, New Orleans Pelicans
Here's every player who has made at least as many threes as Darius Miller (280) while matching his success rate from behind the rainbow (38.8 percent) over the past two seasons: Bogdan Bogdanovic, Stephen Curry, Paul George, Green, Joe Harris, Tobias Harris, Buddy Hield, Joe Ingles, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Korver, JJ Redick and Klay Thompson.
Miller doesn't have Green's defensive profile, so he shouldn't be in play for the entire mid-level exception. But free-agency buyers tend to pay for shooting, and a 6'8" body can be moved around the 2, 3 and 4 slots. Miller might be someone who's picked up on the cheap or for much more than we'd expect.
Teams to watch: L.A. Lakers, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, Portland
Derrick Rose, Minnesota Timberwolves
Derrick Rose played like a fringe Sixth Man of the Year candidate for a good chunk of the season. He also missed 31 games and underwent right elbow surgery in March. He's on the too-popular end of the spectrum for this exercise, but it'll be interesting to see whether he's treated as more than a minimum-contract or one-year stopgap following a quasi-return to form.
Teams to watch: Minnesota, Chicago, Indiana, Miami, Orlando
Al-Farouq Aminu, Portland Trail Blazers
Big wings who can chase around high-volume scorers while hovering close to the league average from three-point range usually get a good amount of press. Al-Farouq Aminu tends to fly under the radar, most likely because he doesn't check all of the flashy boxes. He cannot anchor a top-shelf defense on his own and shouldn't be tasked with creating his own shot beyond straight-line drives and transition layups.
Still, Aminu is a difference-maker. The Portland Trail Blazers throw him on the other team's most dangerous front-line player, almost without exception. His 10-most frequent assignments during the regular season included LeBron James (175 possessions), Kevin Durant (171), Karl-Anthony Towns (134), Paul Millsap (124), Danilo Gallinari (121), Paul George (106) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (90)
Not surprisingly, Aminu has proved critical to the Blazers during their first-round matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder. They've toggled him between George and Jerami Grant, and he's made life difficult on both.
Oklahoma City is averaging 1.18 points per possessions whenever he guards George, which is, by every measure, terrible. But Aminu's capacity to hang on volume scorers for long periods without monopolizing Portland's help defense has functional value.
According to a matchup and versatility database put together by Nylon Calculus' Krishna Narsu, Aminu ranked 23rd leaguewide in average usage rate defended during the regular season. That might say something about how comfortable opposing scorers are when finishing possessions against him. Mostly, it speaks to the types of players he guards and the burden he ferries.
Few specialists can carry this workload. Even fewer can navigate it while missing just one game. That Aminu banged in 35.8 percent of his spot-up threes only inflates his appeal. He's not a spectacular marksman, but his outside clip has always held or improved into the postseason.
Teams will pay for that reliability. The Blazers should be among them. But they nabbed him on a bargain contract in 2015 (four years, $30 million). His services should be more in demand now that his shooting is no longer an unknown.
Carrying his $13.2 million cap hold would keep the Blazers above the luxury tax without having to dump any other salary. They've shown an openness to pay for their roster, and reinvesting in the core gets easier if they're working off a Western Conference Finals appearance. Odds are, though, Aminu's market won't make a prospective return easy on them.
Teams to watch: Portland, Atlanta, Chicago, L.A. Lakers, Sacramento
Danuel House, Houston Rockets (Restricted)
Betting on himself looks like it will pay off for Danuel House. He rejected multiyear offers from the Houston Rockets once he reached the maximum days of NBA service allotted for players on two-way contracts and will now enter restricted free agency after playing a sizable role on a contender.
This outcome doesn't bode especially well for the Rockets. They only have his non-Bird rights and will need to eat into their exceptions for any offer sheet he receives worth 20 percent more than his minimum salary.
For them, that likely means cutting into their mini mid-level exception ($5.7 million). They will begin the summer below the luxury tax but don't have the body count or wiggle room beneath the apron to realistically maintain access to the full mid-level exception.
How much this matters depends on House's market. Rockets Wire's Yossi Gozlan wrote:
"He probably won't garner the full NT-MLE or T-MLE, but he could get a little more than the minimum. Wing players are in high demand and because of Houston's limitations in re-signing him, a starting salary worth $3 to $4 million could be enough to pry him away without overspending on him. His restricted free agency could be a slow one but one worth keeping an eye on."
House posted an effective field-goal percentage of 63.9 on catch-and-shoot jumpers and shot 52.6 percent on drives through 39 regular-season appearances. His outside efficiency has dipped during the playoffs, but he maintains traces of a pump-and-drive game and more than makes up for his misfires at the other end.
Houston has leaned on House to perpetuate what remains from last year's switching scheme. He has seen time across four positions and settled in nicely as someone who can harass second-tier scorers and come up with stops and strips in space.
Overbids aren't a concern for the Rockets. House is not on that level. But he'll get more than the minimum. They'll have to decide whether he's worth what could be more than half of their best free-agency tool.
Teams to watch: Houston, Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Portland
Maxi Kleber, Dallas Mavericks (Restricted)
Maxi Kleber's play has flown under the radar since last season. Now, following the arrival of Kristaps Porzingis, he might be flying out of the Dallas Mavericks' plans.
Affording him isn't the problem. They have his "Early Bird" rights ahead of restricted agency. They also have Dwight Powell on the books for another season at $10.3 million (player option)—or on a three-year extension—and may shell out a five-year, $158 million contract to Porzingis.
Re-signing a reserve big won't top the Mavericks' to-do list. They need wings and another playmaker—their top target is expected to be Kemba Walker, according to the Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell—and bankrolling long-term paydays for two bigs in the same offseason runs counter to today's stylistic conventions.
Then again, Kleber's cap hold is small ($1.8 million), and he fits beside Porzingis. Most of his minutes have come at power forward, and he has more defensive range than most 6'11" bigs. He can stick with face-up scorers who attack the basket and break up plays from behind on quicker covers, and his rotations around the rim are on point.
Opponents shot 55.7 percent against him at the basket this year—one of the 30-stingiest marks among 111 players who challenged at least three point-blank looks per game. Kleber paired this rim protection with a 35.3 percent clip from downtown, and a 41.1 percent success rate on spot-up treys after the All-Star break suggests he can push the bill further in his third season.
Shot-blocking floor spacers remain hot commodities, particularly when they can move like Kleber on defense. Porzingis and Brook Lopez are the only players in NBA history to match his made threes and blocks per 36 minutes in as much playing time.
Suitors have to believe Kleber can survive protracted spells at center to really throw the bag at him. That aspect of his game is relatively untested. Dallas rolled him out at the 5 for 463 possessions this year, during which time its defensive rating fell off a cliff.
But many of those lineups included Luka Doncic or Justin Jackson at power forward, and a few had Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jalen Brunson populating the backcourt. A team with better defensive partners at any of those spots can justify an expensive dice roll on the 27-year-old combo big. And anything nearing or exceeding the mid-level exception is likely enough to put Kleber in new digs.
Teams to watch: Dallas, Atlanta, Milwaukee, L.A. Clippers, L.A. Lakers
Kevon Looney, Golden State Warriors
Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson will cannibalize the Warriors' offseason attention more than anyone else. Feel free to throw DeMarcus Cousins in here, too. His market could crater to the point of an unexpected return after he suffered a torn left quad at the start of the postseason.
Heck, even Shaun Livingston and his $2 million guarantee on a $7.7 million 2019-20 salary might commandeer more focus than Kevon Looney's free-agency process. Ditto for Jordan Bell's.
Or maybe not.
Looney is the Warriors' third-most important free agent after Durant and Thompson. And yes, given the team's sheer volume of expiring contracts, this is absolutely saying something.
No one other than Draymond Green is a better fit for Golden State's center minutes. Looney doesn't demand the offensive usage of Cousins and showcases far more discipline at the defensive end than Bell. And at 23, he's far younger than any of the cheap veteran place holders the taxed-out Warriors will browse through over the summer.
Golden State forfeits five-out pizzazz with Looney in the middle, but that's hardly a drawback. He has progressed as a cutter and worked the occasional floater and driving finish into his game. He is not a from-scratch playmaker but has grown into a reliable passer. He's a whiz at kicking out to shooters on offensive rebounds and is so much better at hitting Golden State's primaries with dump-offs on screens.
Green-at-the-5 arrangements remain the Warriors' defensive cheat code, but Looney comes close to replicating the benefits of those lineups. He's a stronger switcher than rim protector. He has the wingspan to corral guards in space and is a blanket on perimeter closeouts. Golden State is allowing under 102 points per 100 possessions in the postseason with him at the 5.
Take this with a grain of salt, knowing Looney is surrounded by superstars and doesn't do much heavy lifting on offense, but here's every player who matched his true-shooting, assist, steal and block percentages this year: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Montrezl Harrell. That's legitimate company regardless of role.
The Warriors have to be marginally concerned that Looney will field semi-lucrative offers. Rivals will pony up if it means busting up the Golden State dynasty in some form. That thinking won't change even if the team loses Durant.
It also helps that Looney is young enough to spin a reasonably expensive gamble. He's undersized at 6'9" and not a force on the glass, but he has the sample size at center to generate interest. On the flip side: With Bell and Cousins potentially on their way out, and with Green extension-eligible, the Warriors do not have the 5 spot locked down. They could be at the heart of driving up Looney's price tag if they're undeterred by the luxury-tax implications.
Teams to watch: Golden State, Atlanta, Brooklyn, L.A. Clippers, L.A. Lakers
Tomas Satoransky, Washington Wizards (Restricted)
This year's crop of free-agent point guards wants for in-betweeners.
It has the max-contract formalities in Kyrie Irving (player option) and Kemba Walker, along with the not-max-but-still-pricey candidates in Malcolm Brogdon (restricted), Terry Rozier (restricted) and D'Angelo Russell (restricted). After them, the field almost immediately transitions to dicier options.
Patrick Beverley and Ricky Rubio fit the middle-tier mold. So will Goran Dragic if he declines his player option. But the market is densely peppered with lower-enders (Tyus Jones, Delon Wright), specialists (Cory Joseph, T.J. McConnell) and high-risk fliers (Derrick Rose, Isaiah Thomas) beyond them.
Tomas Satoransky strikes a balance between impact and affordability. The Washington Wizards want him back and discussed an extension with him during the regular season, per NBC Sports' Chase Hughes. But their front office is awaiting a regime change, and with so many free agents on the docket, the math is bound to get hairy in certain instances.
Although he doesn't profile as top-tier floor general, Satoransky can direct an offense. The Wizards pumped in 112.3 points per 100 possessions when he played without John Wall this season and cobbled together some, albeit not a bunch of, interesting combinations when he ran the show without their star point man or Bradley Beal.
Satoransky's market stands to spike if certain teams trust him to fire off more looks. He shot 45.6 percent on drives and 39.5 percent from three this season while averaging as many points per spot-up possession as Joe Harris, but he's reluctant to finish plays.
That's not a humongous wart, but the absence of volume does neutralize his off-the-bounce vision on the night when he's not supplementing shots with trips to the foul line. And yet, he's still a low-key candidate to net eight figures annually.
Teams to watch: Washington, Chicago, Indiana, Phoenix, Utah