Impact Free-Agent Signings NBA Contenders Can Make This Offseason
Role players win championships. It’s an old adage, but a true one to this day.
Even in these playoffs, relatively unheralded acquisitions are proving integral to their teams. Whether it’s Jae Crowder for the Heat, Jeff Green for the Rockets, or Carmelo Anthony for the now-eliminated Blazers, these types of low-salary, high-upside-within-their-station players remain consequential complements to their teams’ stars.
So, who’s going to be next year’s version of these players? Thankfully for contenders, there are quite a lot of options. The 2020 free agent class is indeed short on star power, but seems very deep in this particular area.
Let’s look at ten imminent free agents who could be role players of significance on the right team. One logistical note: These are players who will likely not be getting nine- or high eight-figure deals, though you could definitely quibble with a selection or two here.
Aron Baynes, C
Last summer, it was reasonable to feel bad for Aron Baynes. In being traded from Boston to Phoenix, he was leaving one of the most respected organizations in the NBA and joining one of the league's laughingstocks (if for no other reason than that iconic goat story).
But what a difference a year makes.
Deandre Ayton was suspended after the first game of the 2019-20 season, so Baynes quickly became the Suns' starting center. Instead of collapsing without the 2019 top pick, Phoenix got off to its best start in years, beating the Clippers and Sixers en route to a 7-4 start. Baynes was a key contributor along the way, averaging 15.0 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game with 57.1/46.8/71.9 shooting splits over those first 11 games.
Ayton, Devin Booker, and Suns coach Monty Williams all publicly praised Baynes this season and he's become a fan favorite for a team on the rise, so it wouldn't be shocking to see the 33-year-old re-up in the Valley of the Sun. But he'd also be well-served to maximize the remainder of his prime years and try to chase a second career NBA title.
Very few big men can stroke threes and alter shots around the rim the way Baynes can, so he'll likely be sought after this offseason. Let's hope he picks a team like the Dallas Mavericks or Los Angeles Clippers with a shot at raising the Larry O'Brien Trophy in the near future.
Goran Dragic, G
In the intro, we ruled that these 10 players were likely to receive mid-eight figure contracts at most, but immediately followed that up by stating that a few of our selections might cause some debate. Dragic is the first of those discussion-worthy players.
Perhaps the Heat's second-most important player this postseason, it wouldn't be shocking to see Dragic get a fairly large deal. On the other hand, he's 34, a mere one-time All-Star (and only as an injury replacement), and the Heat's future free agency ambitions are well-known.
All this being said, however, Dragic could be immensely helpful to the right team on a short-term deal, and by “the right team,” we mean the Dallas Mavericks.
Though the Mavericks are chasing Giannis Antetokounmpo alongside the rest of the NBA, they're apparently not among the favorites to land the Greek Freak if he leaves Milwaukee. If they get word early on that Giannis will not be considering them in free agency, then they'll be freed up to pursue other players, and it's seemed inevitable for a few years now that Dragic would end up in Dallas.
Though he'll surely consider other teams, it seems silly to imagine Dragic landing anywhere but Dallas unless somebody comes in hot with a high eight-figure offer.
Marc Gasol, C
Speaking of pedigreed European ballers in their mid-30s, let's talk Marc Gasol.
There are numerous potential outcomes to Toronto's offseason, but few of them involve Gasol sticking around. The team wants to clear cap space for Giannis Antetokounmpo, its frontcourt is a bit overstuffed, and the big man has no more team goals to strive for up North, having won a title last year.
If any of that comes true and results in Gasol's exit from Toronto, then the Raptors' loss will surely be another contender's gain.
Despite being 35 years old, the Spaniard remained vital this year. He recorded his best effective field goal percentage in nearly a decade while proving absolutely dominant on the defensive end, recording a jaw-dropping 98.9 defensive rating that somehow got even better after he dropped 40 pounds during the league's hiatus.
Gasol is the perfect example of a big man whose game will age beautifully. Neither his passing vision nor dependable jumper are destined to atrophy over time, and he's clearly never relied on athleticism, winning a Defensive Player of the Year award and making three All-Star teams while being the NBA version of portly. Though even the most cerebral of big men eventually fade out of relevance, it definitely seems like Gasol has a few years left in him.
Whether it's the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Dallas Mavericks or another squad, it'll no doubt be exciting to see Gasol contribute to winning basketball yet again next season.
Justin Holiday, G/F
For some reason, the NBA made Justin Holiday wait last summer.
Most free agency business is conducted in the first week of July, but the lanky swingman didn't sign his deal with the Pacers until July 31. Holiday's seeming lack of a market makes even less sense considering that he is the exact kind of player that teams move heaven and earth to acquire nowadays, but Indiana smartly pounced when other teams wouldn't.
Maybe it's the fact that he was inefficient while taking on too large of roles for the Grizzlies and Bulls in recent years. Maybe the Pacers' player development staff deserves credit for rejuvenating Holiday. But either way, the 31-year old should be much more desired now, as he vastly outperformed his measly one-year, $4.8 million deal this season, shooting 40.5 percent from three and recording a career-best 4.2 win shares.
Hopefully, Holiday gets signed to a relatively long-term deal. Rumors are percolating that the Washington alum may leave Indiana because he's tired of short contracts and wants to make a home somewhere. It's a perfectly reasonable request, and one that should be heeded by a team chomping at the bit to win a championship.
Holiday's combination of length, three-point shooting, and willingness to do the little things on the court make him a perfect substitute for a contender, and everyone from the Golden State Warriors to the Brooklyn Nets to the Philadelphia 76ers could make for a perfect match.
Dwight Howard, C
Dwight Howard had an acrimonious first stint with the Lakers nearly a decade ago, but was given another shot after DeMarcus Cousins tore his ACL. Somehow, despite playing on a team with several other mercurial personalities and playing what is easily the smallest role of his career, Howard has kept it buttoned up and is amid a classic late-career renaissance.
It wouldn't be a stretch to say that Superman has been borderline-dominant at points this year. He posted his highest blocks per 36 mark in seven years, recorded nine double-doubles—only one of which came in a start—and shot a monster 72.9 percent from the field, which would have been second league-wide had he qualified for the leaderboard.
Perhaps Howard's resurgence is an aberration largely due to the influence of LeBron James. With the clock ticking on the King's career (only nominally, of course—he's still somehow in peak form), Howard probably received an implicit message early on that he could either fit in or get cut quickly. If that's the case, then it may not be the best idea for a team to sign the 34-year old this offseason if it doesn't have that particular combination of a superstar with gravitas and a Goldilocks-sized role for him to play.
But teams like the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Clippers or Toronto Raptors might welcome the jolt Howard could bring off their respective benches and each has the organizational culture to weather the big man's more curious tendencies.
Jordan McLaughlin, G
There's no excuse for players like Jordan McLaughlin going undrafted anymore.
From Fred VanVleet and T.J. McConnell to Matthew Dellavedova, Ryan Arcidiacono and more, we now have years of evidence that high-IQ point guards can succeed in the modern NBA even if they're older and lack height or athleticism. As evidenced by McLaughlin's first year, these kinds of players can also succeed no matter the situation. Despite playing for the 19-45 Timberwolves, the former USC Trojan ranked in the top ten league-wide in assist to turnover ratio and recording a sterling 58.7 true shooting percentage.
Of course, McLaughlin and his cohort aren't perfect players. Despite solid individual numbers as a rookie, his inexperience, slight build, and Minnesota's mostly terrible supporting cast all contributed to a subpar analytics profile.
However, on a team like the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Clippers or Portland Trail Blazers who have both the talent and culture to scheme around such shortcomings, you can easily picture him being one of Zach Lowe's Luke Walton All-Stars in a year or two and then becoming a solid journeyman who capably runs second units for a decade.
As a restricted free agent, McLaughlin's fate still technically resides with Minnesota. But the team doesn't own his Bird rights and may have much larger ambitions this offseason, so it wouldn't be surprising to see the rising second-year guard fall by the wayside.
If that comes to pass, contenders should be lining up around the metaphorical block for his services.
Gary Payton II, G
Don't you love seeing the progeny of NBA legends try to make their own mark on the league?
While not on the level of the Curry or Walton families, the Paytons are throwing their hat in the ring as a multi-generational NBA clan with Gary II. While he hasn't gotten the right opportunity yet, Junior's skill set makes him an ideal backup point guard for contending teams nowadays.
While at Oregon State, Payton was given the nickname "The Mitten" in reference to his father being known as “The Glove.” And while that might feel patronizing, it does make a bit of sense.
Gary Sr. earned his nickname because he was such a suffocating man-to-man defender, and while Payton II isn't at his father's level in that department (an insanely high bar, to be fair), he clearly takes pride in similar on-court behavior.
Payton II somehow managed to be a productive defender on the historically bad Wizards this year, averaging 2.7 steals per 36 minutes and 2.4 deflections per game while guarding some of the league's best scorers in the process. Washington fully guaranteed his contract in January and almost certainly did so because he was the team's best defender by leaps and bounds.
Payton II doesn't approach his pop as a scorer or lead ball-handler, so he'll be a backup for the time being. But as a defensive disruptor, he'd still be a perfect fit on clubs like the Los Angeles Clippers or Miami Heat.
Glenn Robinson III, G/F
After playing for four teams in his first five years, Robinson III signed with the Warriors last offseason, presumably to fill the giant shoes left by Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston as two of the team’s three-and-D wings. However, with both Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson injured for much of the campaign and this becoming a lost season in Golden State, Robinson was given the biggest role of his career.
Unexpectedly, he rose to the occasion, posting career highs in points and assists per 36 minutes while also increasing his efficiency accordingly. These trends continued when Robinson was traded to the Sixers at the trade deadline, as he posted a team-best 121.0 offensive rating over 14 games and shot 51.8 percent from the field.
In two wildly different team contexts this year, Robinson proved his worth as a role-playing wing, and has climbed back from the verge of NBA obsolescence to become a sought-after free agent.
It wouldn’t be crazy for either Golden State or Philadelphia to re-sign Robinson this offseason. Both teams—the Warriors in particular—need a player with his exact skills. But the market is constantly in need of players like the Michigan alum, so it would be worth his while to look around and see both where he’s needed most and who’s willing to sign the biggest or longest deal.
Jeff Teague, G
After being the NBA's equivalent of a game-manager quarterback through much of his career, Jeff Teague moved to the bench this year and found a second life in the process.
No, Teague's stats weren't notably better in this new role. But he played for the Timberwolves and Hawks this year, two of the select few teams who didn't make the bubble. On a more competitive club, the Wake Forest alum might stand out more.
Teague's always been a stellar passer, ranking 15th among active players in total assists, and is a career 35.6 percent three-point shooter, and those two skills are of the utmost importance for a second-unit floor general nowadays. Teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers struggle mightily when their lead ball-handlers sit for minutes at a time, so the 32-year old could help there or in another locale.
Let's put this in the simplest terms possible: As a starting point guard, Teague had an average skill set, and in this age of the point guard, being average makes you one of the worst starters at your position (Yes, he made an All-Star Game, but it was a strange accolade at the time and has aged terribly given how that Hawks era ended). However, in the context of the NBA's second-team lead ball handlers, Teague looks downright Stockton-esque.
After falling short in the playoffs with three teams, it would be nice to see him play a key role for a team in deep postseason contention.
Tristan Thompson, C
It wasn't very long ago that Tristan Thompson was a thorn in the side of the Golden State Warriors in four straight NBA Finals, jumping for every possible rebound and effectively guarding the team's superstar guards in space. There's a reason that LeBron James went out of his way to advocate for Thompson to get (over)paid on his most recent contract.
Well, Thompson's an upcoming free agent, he's still just 29 years old and the Cavaliers are well past their sell-by date as Eastern Conference threats. Unless the big man wants to spend the rest of his career merely climbing the franchise's all-time leaderboards, he should sign with a team that will put his skills to good use.
You could reasonably discard Thompson's last two years. But he tried to take advantage of Cleveland's talent vacuum, becoming a more willing and capable passer and shouldering a more prominent scoring load. The Texas alum even attempted 23 threes this year!
Now, it's doubtful that the coach of a team in Finals contention would let Thompson take threes in games of consequence. But the center's willingness to experiment and attempt to improve his skill set in a low-stakes situation such as Cleveland will translate well to a more competitive scenario.
Thompson's relentless energy will be a welcome re-addition to the playoff mix if he joins a team like the Boston Celtics or Golden State Warriors this offseason.