NBA Free Agents Who Can Put Contenders Over the Top

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJuly 12, 2021

NBA Free Agents Who Can Put Contenders Over the Top

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Making a dent in free agency can be difficult for the NBA's mightiest contenders.

    Title hopefuls are atop the Association's food chain because they're already really good, and being really good costs a bunch of money most of the time. Championship heavyweights are seldom working with actual cap space. They're left to mine gems and impactful fits using their mid-level exception and minimum deals or, theoretically, exploring sign-and-trade scenarios.

    Our assembly of difference-making, contender-friendly free agents will be pieced together with these constraints in mind. Stars and fringe stars are eligible for inclusion—and will get the nod—but only if they're feasible sign-and-trade candidates or there are enough championship-potential suitors with cap space to create a market of really good teams for them.

    Every free agent also needs to be considered, at minimum, a medium-high flight risk. Waxing about John Collins (restricted), Kawhi Leonard (player option) and Chris Paul (player option) doesn't make much sense when their incumbent squads remain favorites to keep them.

    Accessibility and scalability are our guiding forces over everything else. We want to identity free agents who can have the largest impact across a variety of destinations, and who should fall within the typical contender's price range or be up for grabs via sign-and-trades.

    Note: Since the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns are currently in the Finals, they won't be listed as potential destinations.

Nicolas Batum

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Imagine telling yourself Nicolas Batum would be looped into this exercise a year ago, or two years ago, or hell, even three years ago. His renaissance with the Los Angeles Clippers this season was revelatory, and it laid a blueprint for how he can thrive in a modest-yet-significant role elsewhere.

    Batum actually led the Clippers in total regular-season minutes. That speaks to the breadth of injuries with which they dealt. It is also just flat-out bonkers.

    Though he doesn't fill the traditional-stopper quota, his defensive malleability can be a boon for any contender that needs switchable options. He spent at least 20 percent of his possessions guarding each of the 1, 2, 3 and 4 spots, and among everyone who cleared at least 1,800 minutes, he posted the sixth-highest versatility score, according to BBall Index.

    Matchup fungibility doesn't always infer effectiveness. In this case, it does. He doesn't wield heyday quickness, but he's simultaneously stout and lanky. The Clippers experimented with him facing centers, but he isn't so much a potential small-ball 5 as a bigger wing who empowers small-ball combinations with center alternatives beside him. Any team hoping to downsize for spurts—or at least create the bandwidth to—can use him.

    Applying his offensive fit outside L.A. should be a cinch. Batum just splashed in more than 40 percent of his triples while subsisting on a heavy diet of catch-and-shoot looks, and he table-sets for teammates with lightning-fast touch passes and pump-and-drives.

    Affording him might not be an issue for anyone. He's still owed quite a bit of money from the Hornets and could be willing to sacrifice salary for the right role and fit or shot at a championship.

    Even with only non-Bird rights, the Clippers have the inside track on keeping him. So long as they can offer enough playing time, though, other suitors consigned to the mini mid-level (or less) should at least give him a call.

    Best Fits Among Projected Title Contenders: Brooklyn, L.A. Clippers, Utah

Spencer Dinwiddie

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Spencer Dinwiddie presents all sorts of risks for suitors willing to throw him the bag. He's working his way back from a partially torn right ACL and, at 28, no doubt looking to cash in on a lucrative long-term deal.

    Lesser players wouldn't hold all that much leverage in this situation. Many might've picked up their $12.3 million option or be open to signing a shorter-term pact or contract with baked-in non-guarantees after Year 1 or 2. Dinwiddie, in theory, could fall under the same umbrella. He's now injured both his ACLs, and his iffy outside shooting makes for a problematic fit in select ecosystems. Maybe his market is tepid.

    Relevant: It won't be.

    Fringe stars will be in higher demand as standouts from a lackluster free-agent market. Dinwiddie made just three appearances this season, but he still checks that box after averaging 20.6 points and 6.8 assists as a lead playmaker for the Brooklyn Nets during the 2019-20 campaign.

    What he lacks in plug-and-play shooting, he makes up for with from-scratch offense. He has the vision to spearhead half-court attacks and puts constant pressure on defenses with his ability to maneuver inside the paint. About 38 percent of his looks came at the rim in 2019-20, which placed him inside the 74th percentile at his position. And though he's not the most bankable finisher, he will generate gimme points with trips to the foul line.

    Admirers needn't worry about Dinwiddie suffering a stark drop-off in the aftermath of his injury, either. His rim pressure is more predicated on methodical, varying cadence than pure explosion. He remains an ideal addition for contenders lusting after secondary creators to start, close games and headline bench-heavy units.

    He also poses a unique opportunity for prospective suitors. His skill set is superfluous on a Brooklyn squad that employs Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. The Nets should be more than willing to facilitate sign-and-trades, a mutually beneficial scenario that can ensure he gets paid, that they capitalize on his inevitable exit, and that the door for his services is open to contenders without cap space.

    Best Fits Among Projected Title Contenders: Dallas, L.A. Lakers, L.A. Clippers

Reggie Bullock

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    Elsa/Associated Press

    Three-and-D wings are all the rage, and Reggie Bullock quietly cobbled together the most impressive season of his career.

    His capacity to pester top perimeter assignments was mission-critical to the New York Knicks' fourth-ranked defense. Elfrid Payton was the only player on the team to log more reps versus No. 1 options, according to Bball Index, and that's by virtue of starting at point guard. Nobody saw more time covering second options.

    Bullock's offensive armory should be comparably attractive to contenders. It is limited but eminently scalable. More than 74 percent of his field-goal attempts came without taking a dribble, and he downed 42.5 percent of his catch-and-fire threes for the year.

    Better still, Bullock wasn't merely binging on standstill triples. He shouldn't be tasked with putting the ball on the deck or launching off-the-bounce treys, but he can uncork ultra-deep triples in a hurry. Another team would have him operating in more constant motion, and he showed the ability to prop up more shot volume, having jacked 7.5 threes per game after March 1.

    Poaching him from the Knicks won't be easy—or necessarily possible. They only have his Early Bird rights, but they'll be wielding, in all likelihood, league-best cap space. They can shower him with an inflated annual salary to try keeping him on a short-term deal or simply match whatever money the market is throwing at him.

    Interested contenders need to hope for a Jae Crowder-type exit circa 2020. The Knicks are more likely to retain Bullock than sign-and-trade him, but like the Miami Heat last summer, they may be more inclined to preserve their spending power for future free-agency classes. The Phoenix Suns were able to woo Crowder by guaranteeing him three years at the full mid-level. Championship hopefuls with the room necessary under the apron can—and should—try doing the same with Bullock.

    Best Fits Among Projected Title Contenders: Atlanta, Denver, L.A. Lakers

Kyle Lowry

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    Rich Schultz/Associated Press

    Kyle Lowry might end up being the biggest-name free agent to change teams over the summer. Mike Conley, Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul and even John Collins all fit the star mold, but each seems overwhelmingly likely to stay put. (Forced to choose, Conley seems like the biggest flight risk from that quartet.)

    That should, in turn, create a frothy market for Lowry—one including the Toronto Raptors, a team that will be muuuch better at full strength next season than this year's record suggests. There's also a chance The North elects to start over after snaring the No. 4 pick, and with Lowry angling for a steep payday at age 35.

    Select teams can and should be willing to foot a supersized bill for the next two or three years. Lowry is among the stars who can at once shape and conform to identities.

    He has the off-the-bounce ability to send defenses scrambling with his jumper and full-fledged drives and remains someone willing to initiate, finish or pass through contact. But he can also take up secondary duty as a spot-up threat, pump-and-driver and even screen-setter.

    What he brings on defense is similarly valuable. He isn't going to rumble with the toughest guard assignments as frequently—though, he's been spared the same volume against them with Toronto in part as a luxury—but he can still handle those responsibilities in stints. More to the point, he can guard up and tackle more physical opponents. And whatever you think of his defensive tactics, he will put his body on the line to draw charges and force live-ball turnovers.

    It'll be interesting to see which team lands Lowry and how much he costs. In this market, two or three years at $20 million annually feels like the low end. Cap-space shoppers have the edge by default, but given how close the Raptors came to shipping him out at the deadline, sign-and-trade possibilities should be in play for any contenders with ample runway under the hard cap. (So, not Philadelphia.)

    Best Fits Among Projected Title Contenders: Dallas, L.A. Lakers, Miami

Doug McDermott

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Offering Doug McDermott a three- or four-year deal at the full mid-level exception might rattle some teams. He turns 30 in January and remains a net negative on defense whether he's at the 3 or 4.

    Related: Any squad unsettled at the thought of paying McDermott that much doesn't deserve him. He just wrapped a season in which he proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, he's so much more than an outside sniper.

    Oh, make no mistake: McDermott is still an outside assassin. He converted 38.8 percent of his three-pointers, a good chunk of which came off motion. But he also annihilated defenses with his movement inside the arc and a heightened on-ball attack mode.

    McDermott averaged a typo-looking 1.57 points per possession on cuts, tying him for the third-best mark among 84 players who attempted at least 50 shots in those situations. The four drives he finished per game were by far and away a career high, and he still managed to knock down more than 52 percent of the shots he attempted off them.

    Maintaining otherworldly efficiency in a niche role is not unprecedented. McDermott's functionality is now a cut above limited specialist. Defenses can neither relax around him nor close out too aggressively. And he has (slightly) branched out while upkeeping his incandescence from the floor. Mikal Bridges and Michael Porter Jr. were the only other players to attempt more than 200 twos and 250 threes and match McDermott's efficiency.

    Just how gettable Dougie McBuckets is remains to be seen. He should be fairly attainable for anyone with the flexibility to pony up the non-taxpayer MLE—or poke around sign-and-trade scenarios.

    Carrying cap holds for McDermott ($13.9 million) and T.J. McConnell ($4.6 million) will leave the Indiana Pacers right around the luxury-tax line, and they'll pass it if the two combine for more than $19 million in salary. Without trimming money from the bottom line, they will hard-pressed to keep him.

    Best Fits Among Projected Contenders: L.A. Lakers, Miami, Philadelphia

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball ReferenceStathead or Cleaning the Glass. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by NBA Math's Adam Fromal.

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