Top Landing Spots for NBA's Best Bargain-Bin Free Agents
In an effort to keep the 2021-22 calendar in line, the NBA is trying to begin its next campaign around the Christmas holiday, per Brian Windhorst and Zach Lowe of ESPN. That's a quick turnaround, considering the Finals finished less than three weeks ago, but it also means free agency will begin before we know it.
Between the league's hiatus from March through July and high interest in the off-court aspects of the NBA, the 2020 free-agency class has been talked to death. With this in mind, let's put the Fred VanVleets, Montrezl Harrells and Christian Woods of the world aside and focus on underappreciated targets.
Earlier this month, we determined who might be the NBA's best bargain-bin buys this offseason. Today, we're taking those eight players, assigning them to the best possible teams and expounding on their fits.
Trey Burke, G: Philadelphia 76ers
Well, this is awkward.
Less than a year after releasing him, the Philadelphia 76ers would kill for the kind of production Trey Burke provided to the Dallas Mavericks in the bubble. Despite only being on the roster as an injury replacement, Burke shined as a bench scorer, averaging 12.0 points per game while shooting 43.2 percent from three in the seeding games. He leveled up even further in the postseason, shooting 61.4 percent from the field and 57.1 percent from three over a four-game stretch against the vaunted Clippers defense.
Burke's statistical production wasn't much worse in Philly than it was in Dallas. It's arguable that his numbers were better for the Sixers, and the fact that Brett Brown and his coaching staff were unable to convert his performance into winning basketball further justifies their departures. But Doc Rivers is Philly's new coach, and between Eddie House, Jamal Crawford and Lou Williams, he's shown a great facility with score-first bench guards in his coaching career, which could bode well for a Burke-Philly reunion this offseason.
To be sure, signing the Michigan alum will not solve all the Sixers' issues. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons will remain a tenuous on-court fit as long as neither can shoot. Seeing as how they're the team's two best players, that's a problem.
But Philly has also needed playmaking and consistent scoring from its guard spots essentially since Allen Iverson's departure, and Burke would cover up that shortcoming to a degree.
Harry Giles III, C: San Antonio Spurs
While the Kings declined his fourth-year option and his career has been repeatedly stunted by injuries, rehab and general caution, Harry Giles III still has upside. He shined in limited minutes toward the end of the season and seems to be on coach Luke Walton's good side. But between those setbacks and Sacramento's investment in other big men, it's probably best for these sides to part ways.
However, when one door closes, another one opens. In the case of Giles, that new door comes in the form of the San Antonio Spurs.
LaMarcus Aldridge is 35, and Jakob Poeltl has warned of his potential exit, so the Spurs may be searching for a big man this offseason. Considering they're on the verge of a rebuild, a player like Giles who needs seasoning could make sense. The former Duke Blue Devil has passing instincts Gregg Popovich would love, has shown a developing offensive skill set and could realize his defensive potential with San Antonio's storied coaching staff.
There are no guarantees for players with injury histories this severe. For every Joel Embiid who transcends a rough start to stay largely healthy, promising prospects like Greg Oden and Dajuan Wagner have their NBA tenures forever altered by early injuries.
Giles has been treated as a low-stakes commodity throughout his career, making potential disappointment more palatable for the Spurs, but his upside is too great for them to ignore.
Jeff Green, F: Boston Celtics
Between Burke's return to the Sixers and Jeff Green's reunion with the Celtics, the Thanksgiving spirit is in full swing.
Boston fans might be gun-shy about welcoming Green back. He was supposed to be the franchise's next star after the Big Three era ended but didn't live up to that billing for a variety of reasons (including that he literally had open-heart surgery). However, the big man seems to have matured with age, finding success as a role player for title contenders in Cleveland and Houston in two of the last three years, and he could continue this late-career renaissance with the Celtics.
With Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and the occasionally stout defensive showing from Semi Ojeleye, the Celtics are fairly set at the forward positions. But coach Brad Stevens, long a proponent of positionless basketball, has been known to try unorthodox lineups. (Remember when he made Evan Turner the second-unit point guard and it worked?) As such, it wouldn't be shocking if he noticed Green's success as a small-ball center with the Rockets, looked at his own team's threadbare big-man rotation and badgered general manager Danny Ainge to address the Celtics' main roster weakness with the Georgetown alum.
Boston couldn't keep up in the playoffs when faced with a dominant big man like Bam Adebayo. Green won't be able to stop a player of that caliber on defense, but he'd be a versatile enough scorer to keep the Celtics competitive against those top-tier centers.
Maurice Harkless, F: Brooklyn Nets
The Nets have accomplished the hardest part of team building. With Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert, they're brimming with capable playmakers. Now, GM Sean Marks and his front office must turn their attention to filling out the roster with role players who can succeed without the ball.
Given Durant and Irving's star power, it wouldn't be surprising to see veterans line up to play in Brooklyn, but if Marks or one of his staffers is reading this, we're here to encourage them to pursue Maurice Harkless first.
The Nets' forward spot adjacent to Durant is their biggest question mark. Last year, it was filled mainly by Taurean Prince and Rodions Kurucs. While both were solid two years ago, each fell short of expectations in 2019-20 and should not be counted on now that championships are within reach.
It's not like Harkless is the most consistent shooter either—the St. John's alum has made 41.5, 27.5 and 34.7 percent of his three-pointers over the past three seasons. However, the 27-year-old has been a versatile defender in recent years and would benefit from the oceans of space generated by Durant and Irving.
Most rumors surrounding the Nets' offseason plans concern their interest in pursuing a third star, but the superstar trade market is in flux. Pouncing on Harkless as free agency begins and worrying about that splashy acquisition in the ensuing weeks seems like a safer strategy.
Shaquille Harrison, G: Toronto Raptors
Kyle Lowry is 34 and entering the final season of his contract, while Fred VanVleet is a free agent who could be enticed by juicy offers elsewhere. There might soon be a gaping hole at the point guard position up north.
Shaquille Harrison is not as talented an overall player as either Lowry or VanVleet, but he nevertheless fits the Raptors' team-building M.O. The Tulsa alum is long and strong, an incredibly versatile defender for a point guard and does enough on offense to maintain a rotation spot.
While Harrison isn't considered a starting-caliber guard at present, neither Lowry nor VanVleet was nearly as esteemed as they are now before entering Toronto's player development system. Lowry was a journeyman quasi-starter for middling teams, while VanVleet was an undrafted free agent thought to be too small and unathletic for the league.
Their respective glow-ups with the Raptors could bode well for Harrison, given that he's become a borderline-elite defender on a bad Bulls team that's dealt with significant roster turnover and turmoil of late.
This whole setup might prove moot, as Lowry could extend his prime a la Chris Paul, and it's more likely than not that VanVleet re-signs. But you can never have too many versatile defenders in the modern NBA, and adding Harrison to this already dominant group would further entrench Toronto as an Eastern Conference contender.
Jordan McLaughlin, G: Los Angeles Clippers
Despite having arguably the deepest roster in the NBA this past season, the Los Angeles Clippers had a straightforward fatal flaw in the playoffs: a lack of capable playmakers. While Kawhi Leonard was largely excellent until the final few games, Paul George was wildly inconsistent, Lou Williams basically didn't show up against the Nuggets and ostensible point guard Patrick Beverley has never been a top-flight distributor.
Though Los Angeles doesn't have the cap space to sign Fred VanVleet or Goran Dragic, the team can still take steps to address this problem in free agency.
Take Jordan McLaughlin, for instance. Despite playing on a Timberwolves team that dealt with near-constant injuries and transactions (in addition to being relatively talent-barren), the Southern California native and USC alum made an impression as a rookie. He ranked eighth in the league in assist/turnover ratio and earned serious praise from coach Ryan Saunders.
McLaughlin's high basketball IQ and ability to run an offense would serve the Clippers well, but don't lose sight of Saunders' comment either. While you could interpret such a quote as standard motivational-speak from a coach, it doesn't feel out of step with the 24-year-old's history as a pass-first point guard who spent four years in college.
Nerlens Noel, C: Houston Rockets
According to Tim MacMahon of ESPN (h/t Rockets Wire), erstwhile Houston GM Daryl Morey tried to acquire Nerlens Noel at the 2020 trade deadline, a move that would have coincided with his trade of Clint Capela and an otherwise complete commitment to small ball. Though he was publicly all-in on the micro-ball experiment, there was clearly some part of Morey that recognized the need for a big man.
However, now that Morey and coach Mike D'Antoni—perhaps the two biggest small-ball advocates in the NBA —are both officially excised from the Rockets organization, you can bet whoever replaces those two will prioritize finding some sort of center. When that pursuit commences, there's no better player to start with than Noel.
As a rim-running center, the Kentucky alum is a perfect fit for the alley-oop tosses of James Harden and Russell Westbrook. He's also an incredibly versatile defender, becoming the only qualified player in the league to average 2.5 blocks and 1.5 steals per 36 minutes this year.
Houston has tried numerous adjustments in pursuit of a title throughout the Harden era, yet it is still without a Finals appearance since 1995. With Harden and Westbrook set to make over 60 percent of the team's total salary next year (the exact figures remain unclear due to COVID-19-related financial losses), the franchise can only make marginal roster moves. Adding a high-floor, marginally high-ceiling player like Noel could unlock the team's Finals potential.
Gary Payton II, G: Miami Heat
Thanks to Miami's recent Finals run, the concept of Heat Culture has been analyzed from every angle. It's undeniable that Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra and company are excellent at identifying players who fit their rigorous system and get the most out of their teams year in and year out.
The Heat could continue this player development hot streak by signing Gary Payton II. As 34-year-old Goran Dragic is a free agent with plenty of suitors, Miami may be in need of a nominal point guard. While Payton isn't a starting-quality lead playmaker yet, he could eat up minutes.
However, to bring this full circle, the reason these two are a great fit for each other is not just because of positional need. It's because of Payton's mindset.
Just like his pops, Payton has made it known that he wants to earn his living on defense. Despite playing for the Wizards—a team that made the Washington Generals look like the Bad Boy Pistons on defense—last year, he averaged 2.7 steals per 36 minutes and 2.4 deflections per game while guarding some of the league's best scorers.
Now, imagine what Payton could do with Miami, an organization that prides itself on fighting opponents tooth and nail for every single basket. Jimmy Butler would embrace him immediately, and he'd be loved by the fanbase.
This is a no-brainer team-up for both sides.