NBA

5 “Moneyball” free agents to look for during the 2024 offseason

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De'Anthony Melton, Philadelphia 76ers.

With the Boston Celtics now the 2023-24 NBA Champions, our focus has now shifted to the 2024 offseason, and a big part of the offseason is free agency.

Every season, teams aspire to acquire the best possible players for the best possible price. In sports, the goal is all about gaining a competitive advantage of their opponents. Part of that revolves around finding players who are undervalued by the market (the central premise of the film/book “Moneyball”). Last season, the Dallas Mavericks signed Derrick Jones Jr. to a veteran minimum, only for him to end up being a starter for them in the NBA Finals. That is incredible value to get from a player you are paying just 1.48% of the salary cap.

In this article, we are going to try to identify players who could sign similar deals. Players who, by getting underpaid, could help their new employers get a huge edge over the market.

De’Anthony Melton

Why He’s Good: Ever since being traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, De’Anthony Melton has been one of the best role playing guards in basketball. First flanking James Harden, then Tyrese Maxey, Melton has done a great job taking on the other team’s toughest perimeter assignment (87th percentile Defensive Estimated Plus-Minus, per Dunks & Threes) while also spacing the floor (37.9% 3-point shooter over the last two years) and providing some off-the-dribble juice. Last year, he was in the 56th percentile in estimated shots created for teammates per 100 possessions (per the Thinking Basketball database). Two-way players like Melton are incredibly valuable when you get to the playoffs.

Why He May Get Underpaid: After the New Year, Melton only appeared in 7 of the 76ers’ final 50 regular season games as he was dealing with a mysterious back injury. The injury was so debilitating that it limited to him seven total minutes in the 76ers first round series against the New York Knicks. Injuries like that do two things when it comes to a player’s value: 1) scare suitors away, and 2) make people forget how good the player really is. In Melton’s case, his unfortunate injury may dampen his value so much that he ends up signing for the Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level (which is worth about 12.9 million dollars) when he’s really something like 18-20 million dollars per year.

Goga Bitadze

Why He’s Good: What if I were to tell you that there was a center who was a good rim protector, rebounder, rim runner, and they had good hands? Is that something you would be interested in? Well then, Goga Bitadze is your guy. Last season, Bitadze was in the 97th percentile in block rate (rim protection), 94th percentile in offensive rebounding rate (rebounding), and 65th percentile in steal rate (good hands). Plus, he averaged roughly one dunk for every 18.8 minutes he played (rim runner). Bitadze can’t anchor the center spot for 30+ minutes a night, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better backup big than him.

Why He May Get Underpaid: Bitadze did most of his damage in the first half of the season, filling in as the Orlando Magic’s starting center while Wendell Carter Jr. was out with a hand injury. When Carter returned, Bitadze lost his place in the rotation, as Head Coach Jamahl Mosley preferred to go with Moritz Wagner at the backup five spot. The Magic’s depth at center may have diminished Bitadze’s value in the open market, leading teams to see him as a veteran minimum caliber player (roughly 2.4 million next year for his experience level) when he should be closer to the Bi-Annual Exception (about 4.7 million dollars).

Jae’Sean Tate

Why He’s Good: Functionally, Jae’Sean Tate is my favorite pick to be next season’s Jones. Tate is a strong defender (87th percentile in DEF EPM) who can wear multiple hats on that end of the floor. He’s a sound point-of-attack defender who can use his size (6’8 wingspan) and strength to handle bigger assignments (see clip below). His 81st percentile steal rate and 40th percentile block rate also indicate that he can operate as an off-ball/nail defender and tertiary rim protector. He’s a poor shooter (29.9% from three), but he makes up for it with a drive game that exceeds what you would normally expect from his archetype (84th percentile true shooting on drives).

Why He May Get Underpaid: First off, the Houston Rockets need to choose not to pick up Tate’s team option (worth about 7.6 million) in order for him to become a free agent. If that happens, I could definitely see Tate having to settle for a veteran minimum (2.2 million based on his experience level). The Rockets roster was chocked-full of defensive-first wings/forwards (Dillion Brooks, Jabari Smith Jr., Amen Thompson, Tari Eason, and Jeff Green), which led to Tate taking on a reduced role for a majority of the season (he averaged a career-low 15.9 minutes per game). On the right roster, Tate could easily be playing 22-25 minutes per night. Unfortunately for Tate, since the Rockets roster had so many overlapping skillsets, a team that could offer him that role may be able to acquire him at a bargain price.

Lonnie Walker IV

Why He’s Good: This last NBA Finals taught us the value of having rim protection come from positions other than center. Great rim protection is the best way to build a great defense, so being able to get it from as many different places as possible is a huge boost. Lonnie Walker IV can give you just that at the two-guard spot. Last season, he placed in the 57th percentile in block rate leaguewide (a good place to be if you’re a shooting guard). He gives you this rim protection while also not hurting your spacing. Last year, he was a 38.4% 3-point shooter while also placing in the 98th percentile in 3-point volume (9.8 threes per 75 possessions). Also, don’t forget that Walker is just a year removed from his heroic 2023 Western Conference Semifinals against the Golden State Warriors, where he averaged 10.6 PPG on 65.4% true shooting while providing excellent two-way play.  

Why He May Get Underpaid: Walker just spent a year on the directionless Brooklyn Nets. The team had a ton of complimentary wings/forwards (Walker, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Cam Thomas, and Dorian Finney-Smith, among others) but very little by way of on-ball creation. Players like Walker are at their best when they can stay off-ball in a very concentrated role. The Nets couldn’t give Walker that chance, and his numbers were hampered because of it (30th percentile true shooting). To make matters worse, Walker also missed 24 games last year with injury. In the 2023 offseason, Walker signed with the Nets for the veteran minimum. He didn’t do anything this year that would warrant him getting any more than that. But if you put him on a more well-constructed roster, he could produce at a level that far exceeds the value of a minimum deal.

Gordon Hayward

Why He’s Good: Before a calf injury derailed his season, Gordon Hayward was having a productive age-33 season for the Charlotte Hornets – averaging 14.5 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 4.6 APG, and 1.1 SPG in 31.9 minutes per contest. That version of Hayward was someone with size (6’7) who could shoot, drive, kick. And with 36 playoff games under his belt, Hayward is a battle-tested veteran who knows what it takes to play in a big game. On a competitive team, Hayward could be a strong asset off the bench (so long as he stays healthy).

Why He May Get Underpaid: At the trade deadline, Hayward was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder – a young competitive team that he was supposed to provide a jolt to during their 2024 Playoff run. However, for one reason or another, Hayward was never really given the chance to do that, only playing 46 minutes in the seven games he appeared in. Given his performance and his age and injury history, Hayward will likely sign for the veteran minimum (or slightly above that) this offseason. If he ends up being more like the player the Thunder thought they were trading for, he’ll be one of the biggest steals of the 2024 offseason.

Honorable Mention: Javonte GreenGreen only played nine games last year, but during that time, he placed in the 85th percentile in steal rate, 86th percentile in block rate, and 98th percentile in rim efficiency while also shooting 37% from downtown. If he signs with a team, Green won’t get more than the veteran minimum. But if the small sample size he flashed at the end of 2023-24 was any indication, he could mean a lot more than a minimum to an NBA team next season.