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Eight Overlooked NBA Free Agents

As free agency begins, Moke Hamilton singles out eight lesser discussed free agents who may be difference makers.

Moke Hamilton

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July rolls around, the sun is scorching in many places other than just Phoenix and NBA front offices buzz more than Kemba Walker’s Charlotte Hornets.

It is free agency season in the Association, and while the common NBA fan is preparing for a Fourth of July Weekend consisting of charcoal, hamburgers and fireworks, most of the league’s free agents are looking forward toward cashing in some big checks.

The chosen few—LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Eric Bledsoe and perhaps even Kyle Lowry—have managed to play themselves into whopping paydays. But often, it is a clever signing of a fifth or sixth man that helps put a team over the top, or at least allow them to swim near the surface with the other elites in the NBA.

As free agency begins, Basketball Insiders takes a look at a few of the lesser discussed free agents that could help to turn a pretender into a contender, or a contender into a champion.

Patty Mills (Point Guard, San Antonio Spurs, Unrestricted)

Last summer, fresh off of a productive playoff outing, the cost-conscious San Antonio Spurs opted to allow Gary Neal to seek greener pastures after the guard put together an all-around impressive playoff run.

Whether or not history will repeat with Patty Mills is a question that many are pondering, especially with recent reports suggesting that the New York Knicks and Mills have eyes for one another. Although the world only just became familiar with Mills over the course of the immediate-past playoffs, he has been a productive guard for the past three years he has spent in San Antonio.

An efficient shooter, Mills has the ability to create his own shot off the dribble and play the game at a breakneck pace. He takes care of the ball, as evidenced by his averaging just 1.5 turnovers per 36 minutes last season. During the playoffs, he came up huge for his team in the close-out Game 6 against the Oklahoma City Thunder when Tony Parker was unable to return for the game’s second half and, quite famously, in Game 5 of the decisive NBA Finals against the HEAT.

As J.J. Barea once did before him, Mills has again shown that a change-of-pace guard who has the ability to get hot and score points can pay major dividends in an important playoff series.

The Spurs seem far too wise to not realize that themselves and retain Mills—but they will not do so at all costs. He can be had and will likely end up representing good value for the dollar.

Shaun Livingston (Point Guard, Brooklyn Nets, Unrestricted)

By now, just about everyone is aware of the horrendous knee injury that Shaun Livingston suffered back in 2008. His career nearly ended, but now, after a long and winding journey, he has proven that he can be a productive contributor for a winning team.

During spurts last season, Livingston was forced to start for the aging Nets and did so 54 times. He averaged 26 minutes per game and routinely disrupted opposing offenses. Livingston’s athleticism has somewhat returned and today, he is one of the few players in the league that is capable of defending either guard position and blocking a forward’s shot at the rim.

At 6’8, his wiry and athletic frame is an asset on the offensive end, as well. Livingston, surprisingly, was one of the Nets’ more productive post scorers and, along with rookie Mason Plumlee, played an integral role not only in the Nets’ mid-season turnaround, but also the franchise winning their first playoff series of the Brooklyn era and the team’s first since 2007.

Mario Chalmers (Point Guard, Miami HEAT, Unrestricted)

With his struggles in the 2014 NBA Finals still fresh and the Miami HEAT being rumored to be in search of an upgrade at the point guard position, Mario Chalmers may have played his final game as one of LeBron James’ running mates.

Without question, though, he played a major role in the two championships that the HEAT won in recent years.

As a point guard, Chalmers does not have above-average ball handling skills or court vision, but when coupled with the correct personnel, he can be incredibly effective. He is an above-average on-ball defender, even if not light-footed. He is a better finisher around the basket than he is credited for and is a career 37 percent three-point shooter.

He may not necessarily be a starting point guard on scores of other teams around the league, but as a sixth man, with championship experience and pedigree, a team could do far worse than signing Chalmers. He has seen his fair share of big games and has had his share of big moments over the HEAT’s historic run. Unfortunately for him, his market value may be adversely affected due to his poor playoff performance this past season, but ultimately, if he leaves Miami, a wise contender will have scooped him up with his stock at a low point.

In the long run, though, the 28-year-old Alaskan will bounce back and continue to be a winner.

Shawn Marion (Small Forward, Dallas Mavericks, Unrestricted)

Despite the fact that this production has been steadily declining over the past few years, Shawn Marion is still a productive and versatile front court weapon. If he continues to age as gracefully as his current teammate Vince Carter, Marion can be a productive player for the next three years.

For the past five, though, Marion has been a part of the Dallas family and was a major contributor to the team winning its NBA championship back in 2011. Although his production has steadily declined since then, last season, even at 35 years old, Marion was able to play about 32 minutes per game for the Mavericks, scoring 10.4 points and grabbing 6.5 rebounds per contest. He has become renowned as a rare breed of NBA player who never takes a play off and has consistently managed to impact games over the course of his 15-year career.

Marion has flourished playing system basketball and has embraced the role of being a scrappy go-getter who never complains about minutes, touches or a lack of shot opportunities. In other words, he is one of the key ingredients in a winning basketball program, so it is no surprise that success has followed him over the course of his career.

Because he is fairly durable and not overly-reliant on his athleticism, Marion is very likely to remain a productive player in the NBA for at least a few more years.

Paul Pierce (Small Forward, Brooklyn Nets, Unrestricted)

With the now departed Jason Kidd having taken his talents to Milwaukee, there are even more questions in Brooklyn now than there were this spring when the Nets flamed out against the Miami HEAT in just five games.

Entering this offseason, there was questions surrounding the health of both Deron Williams and Brook Lopez and the potential departures of Shaun Livingston and Andray Blatche.

Today, there are questions about the circumstances leading to Jason Kidd’s departure, but the one that has seemingly flown under the radar is whether or not Paul Pierce will return.

Pierce will become a free agent and could make sense for the Los Angeles Clippers, among other teams. Both Pierce and Kevin Garnett were staring at the prospect of heading to Los Angeles with Doc Rivers last summer before then-Commissioner David Stern stepped in and forbade such a maneuver. Now, though, the veteran Pierce will enter the free agent market, and there will be a demand for his services.

Over the course of last season, Pierce capably led the Nets, especially in a few tight moments. He, like Pau Gasol, has seen his best days pass him by, but Pierce is still a capable defender and can still score effectively in spurts. In end of game situations, he is perhaps one of the players that the opposition does not want to give an opportunity, but more than being just a decoy, last season, Pierce proved that he can still play.

A team could do far worse than inking the 36-year-old to a two-year deal, especially since Pierce is in line for a substantial pay-cut from last season’s $15.33 million salary. His days of scoring 25 points per game may be done, but he is far from finished.

Pau Gasol (Power Forward, Los Angeles Lakers, Unrestricted)

With the arrival of Julius Randle, there is at least one more big man to take rotation minutes from Pau Gasol—making his return even more improbable. Gasol had a famous falling out with former coach Mike D’Antoni, but even with D’Antoni’s resigning, Gasol has openly discussed the thought of ending his career elsewhere. Largely under-appreciated in Los Angeles, Gasol has battled myriad health issues over the past three years, where he has missed 72 total games.

Still, even at 33 years old, there are few seven-footers in the league that possess the all-around skill set as Gasol. He still plays with his back to the basket, he still sees the floor tremendously well and he still has impeccable timing. If he can stay healthy, he would make a world of difference for any contender that has a void in the middle.

With the Lakers thinking about life after Kobe Bryant—and after committing $48.5 million to him over the next two years—it is highly doubtful that the Lakers would be willing to commit significant money to the aging Gasol.

Still, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure and if Gasol found his way to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Chicago Bulls, Dallas Mavericks, Miami HEAT or Houston Rockets, his impact would be felt immediately.

Marcin Gortat (Center, Washington Wizards, Unrestricted)

One of the more underrated centers in the entire league, Marcin Gortat has long been overlooked as a reason for his team’s success. Although he has played with a number of talented teammates including Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and John Wall, Gortat’s ability to impact the game on both ends of the floor has been evident to anyone who has watched him closely over the years.

For a man of his stature, he has exquisite footwork. He reads and reacts to pick-and-rolls exceptionally well for a center and has been integral to the success of the Orlando Magic, Phoenix Suns and now, the Washington Wizards.

After helping lead the Wizards to their first playoff appearance since 2008 and to their first series win since 2005, it is quite difficult imaging the Wizards allowing Gortat to flee, especially with the deep pockets of owner Ted Leonsis.

What is worth noting, however, is that the Wizards have a few other free agents, as well. The most notable includes Trevor Ariza, who was just as important to the Wizards’ success as Gortat. Though Gortat is not a max player, and though he is aging, big men have historically been well compensated on the free agent market. Gortat will benefit from this, even at 30 years old.

With a winning pedigree, size, a back to the basket game and the ability to impact the game on both ends of the floor, he will get droves of love in free agency. If he can be stolen away from Washington, they will immediately go from a team on the rise to one that will regress dramatically.

Whether in D.C. or elsewhere, Gortat’s presence will be felt, just like it has his entire career.

Greg Monroe (Center, Detroit Pistons, Restricted)

The lone restricted free agent of this batch, Greg Monroe warrants attention not only because of the growth he has shown over his first four years as an NBA pro, but also because of the very interesting situation in which he currently finds himself.

In Detroit, Andre Drummond and Monroe could form one of the most dominant interior tandems the Eastern Conference has seen in quite some time. However, with about $57 million committed to the combination of Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith over the next three seasons and the Pistons coming off of a 29-win campaign that saw them fail to qualify for the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season, the Pistons opting to retain Monroe at a hefty tag is no slam dunk. That is especially true with Drummond progressing and seeming like an everyday double-double machine.

Having just celebrated his 24th birthday, Monroe’s best days seem to be ahead of him. Whether or not he spends them in a Pistons uniform remains to be seen. But what can be said for sure is that wherever he spends them, they will be productive.

History has shown that building a team around a dominant big man yields productive results. Monroe will once again prove that theory to be true, either in Detroit or elsewhere.

As the clock strikes midnight, it is the LeBrons and Carmelos of the world who will get the attention and the affection. But don’t be surprised if a lesser thought of acquisition ends up making a huge difference. Just ask the general manager of the 2014 NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, R.C. Buford. He signed Boris Diaw from the scrap heap back in 2012. Clearly, that paid major dividends.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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NBA AM: Was Watson Setup To Fail or Just Ill Equipped?

Was Phoenix’s Earl Watson setup to fail or did he just not have the tools and experience to overcome the tenuous job of a rebuild?

Steve Kyler

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Set Up To Fail? Maybe

The Phoenix Suns have parted ways with head coach Earl Watson just three games into the 2017-18 season. Associate head coach Jay Triano is expected to be his replacement as interim head coach.

Some have suggested that Watson was set up to fail, but let’s be honest for a minute. Was Watson really the best option the Suns had after parting ways with Jeff Hornacek during the 2015-16 season? Watson was well liked and that an easy and intoxicating concept, but even as an interim coach Watson won just nine games in 33 tries.

It’s not as if Watson took the team in a totally new direction; the Suns were a bad team when they took the gamble on Watson. Moving the needle wasn’t exactly likely when the massive inexperienced Watson took over the team. Is anyone really surprised he couldn’t make it work?

Sure, the roster and the priorities of the franchise were an uphill climb, but let’s be real for a minute: The Suns couldn’t have expected Watson to have the tools to bring it all together. Rebuilding is hard all by itself, and doing so with a head coach that has never coached isn’t exactly smart. In fact, it rarely works out.

It’s easy to say Watson was set up to fail, but equally easy to say he never had the experience to believe he’d be successful. It was a gamble on the Suns’ part, a gamble that ran its course.

So What Next?

The Suns are not very good, as three straight blow out losses have proven. It’s possible that Triano can make enough changes to at least get the Suns to compete, but the word in NBA circles was the Suns locker room had basically quit after three games, so Triano’s task may be tough for even a coach that been around the block a few times.

Like Watson, Triano is incredibly likable and approachable, but unlike Watson, Triano has experience. Triano has experience not only as a head coach, having coached the Toronto Raptors for three years, but he is the head coach of the Canadian National Team and has been on the Team USA and Portland Trail Blazers staff as an assistant. While Triano’s stint in Toronto looked a lot like Watson’s stint in Phoenix, the big difference is Triano has been around a lot more situations and may be better equipped to put a system and structure in place that could yield improvement, or at least that’s the newest bet the Suns are making.

With Triano at the helm, it’s also likely that the front office will have a better relationship than what’s emerged in Watson’s time in Phoenix. General Manager Ryan McDonough and Watson haven’t exactly been on the same page, and Watson had grown emboldened enough to make it clear in the media somethings were not in his control, often taken subtle shots at decisions made by the front office.

It is rare for inexperience and dysfunction to yield success. The hope is Triano will smooth some of that over.

“I Dont wanna be here.”

As news of Watson’s firing began to leak Suns guard Eric Bledsoe, who had a very good relationship with Watson, took to Twitter to announce “I Dont wanna be here.”

Bledsoe has been a constant name in NBA trade circles for the last few years, and with Watson out of the picture, Bledsoe seems to be looking for the door too.

The 27-year-old Bledsoe has two more seasons remaining on his deal, $14.5 million this season and $15 million owed for next season. The Suns have listened to offers on Bledsoe off and on for some time, with many in NBA circles believing this would be the season the Suns would finally trade him.

With Watson, a long-time champion of Bledsoe, out of the picture, there is a belief that Bledsoe’s role is going to decrease, which is likely why Bledsoe took to Twitter.

Pulling off a trade three games into the season seems highly unlikely, especially given that Bledsoe has likely killed his own trade value. There have been several teams over the last two seasons with interest in Bledsoe; the question is, will the Suns close this chapter or try and see if Bledsoe can help them right the ship under Triano and rebuild some trade value when the trade market opens up in December?

$41.11 Million

Of the Phoenix Suns’ $85.448 million in guaranteed contracts, $41.11 million belongs to Bledsoe, injured guard Brandon Knight and center Tyson Chandler. You can toss $10 million more for injured forward Jared Dudley. While Bledsoe and Chandler have played in all three regular-season games, both are not part of the long-term future of the team.

The question becomes, what role will they play under Triano?

The Suns are truly a tale of two teams. There is the old veteran squad that is clogging up the top of the Suns salary cap chart, and there are rookie scale players that are the future, and not coincidentally the players performing at their worst so far this season.

Will the Suns just let the $41.11 million owed at the top just sit, or will the Suns try and fire-sale some of those veterans? The belief is they would like to do the latter.

As much as people may want to say Watson was set up to fail, the evidence in the situation is he was never proven enough to succeed.

The Suns are in a dreadful no-man’s land of bad contracts and underperforming players. Maybe a more proven established coach could have set this situation in a better direction, but the reality is Watson was never experienced enough to handle a rebuild like this because getting the most out of players while losing is a very tough job even for the most experienced of coaches.

Watson, like many before him, will find another job in the NBA. Maybe like Triano who is replacing him, he can take the lessons learned in Phoenix and become a better coach somewhere down the road and get a shot with a team that wouldn’t require as much as the Suns desperately need.

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NBA Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise

The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.

Moke Hamilton

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He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.

He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.

Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.

The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.

“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.

“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.

So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.

As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.

In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.

But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.

So is Porzingis.

Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.

In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.

Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.

And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.

“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.

“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”

Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.

Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.

The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.

So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.

Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.

If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.

So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.

Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.

To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.

When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.

He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.

And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.

With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word. 

It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.

For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.

In this town, that’s more than half the battle.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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