Cheap Seats: Best Free Agent Deal So Far?

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Each week, Basketball Insiders’ interns Jesse Blancarte, Cody Taylor and John Zitzler give their thoughts on an NBA-related topic. This week, we asked them: Which free agent contract has been the best so far? Here is what they had to say:

Shaun Livingston, Golden State Warriors

In 2004, Shaun Livingston decided to forgo college and jump straight into the NBA. He was drafted fourth overall by the Los Angeles Clippers. He was selected ahead of players like Luol Deng, Andre Iguodala, Al Jefferson and Josh Smith because of his enormous potential as a tall, pass-first point guard.

In his few first seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers, he showed flashes of the potential that had people (unfairly) comparing him to Magic Johnson. However, in early 2007, in a game against the Charlotte Hornets, Livingston suffered what is considered to be one of the worst sports injuries ever.

After going up for a fast-break layup, Livingston’s knee buckled while landing. He dislocated his patella, his tibio-fibular joint and tore his ACL, PCL, lateral meniscus, and badly sprained his MCL. Players tend to tear one ligament (usually the ACL) when they suffer a major knee injury. Sometimes a torn ACL is accompanied by a torn meniscus. However, this injury was different. This injury was so bad that it was later reported that Livingston’s leg was at risk of needing to be amputated. Livingston’s career was in jeopardy.

On June 16, 2008, over a year after the injury, Livingston was cleared to resume basketball activities by his doctors. He was a free agent at this point, and signed with the Miami HEAT in October, 2008. He only played in four games for the HEAT, and was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies (and waived that same day). He then bounced from team-to-team, going from the Tulsa 66ers of the NBA D-League, to the Oklahoma City Thunder, to the Washington Wizards, to the Charlotte Hornets (traded), to the Milwaukee Bucks (traded), to the Houston Rockets, back to the Washington Wizards, to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and most recently to the Brooklyn Nets, signing a minimum contract to back up Deron Williams.

In Brooklyn last season, Livingston averaged 8.3 points, 3.2 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game. While these numbers are not overly impressive, it was Livingston’s athleticism, playmaking and defense that helped turnaround a struggling Nets team. On March 12, John Schuhmann of wrote, “The Brooklyn Nets are the most expensive team in NBA history, and their most important player right now is a guy [Livingston] making the league minimum.” At that point, the Nets were 8.5 points per 100 possessions better defensively (since January 1) when Livingston was on the floor. His 6’7 frame, 6’11 wingspan and athleticism allowed him to effectively guard opposing point guards, and switch onto shooting guards and small forwards when needed.

After years of bouncing from one team to another, showing flashes of the player he once was, Livingston grabbed the attention of the league with the Nets, often outplaying star point guard Deron Williams, who has struggled with ankle injuries for the last few seasons.

On July 1, Livingston and the Golden State Warriors agreed on a three-year, $16 million contract. It is the first significant contract Livingston has gotten since his rookie deal, and is the reward of never giving up on his tough road to recovery. But the Warriors didn’t commit their full mid-level exception to Livingston because it is a feel-good story, but because of the versatility he will add to a backcourt that lacked significant help off the bench last season.

Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were the best three-point shooting duo in the league last season. Curry is a good playmaker, a threat from almost anywhere on the court and a top-10 player in the league. Thompson is athletic, has good size for a shooting guard, runs off the ball for open shots well and is lethal from the beyond-the-arc. However, Thompson is not a great playmaker, and this requires Curry to handle the ball a great deal. With Livingston, Curry can now work off the ball, and focus more on his own scoring. In addition, Livingston has the size and skill to fill in for, and play alongside, both Curry and Thompson.

There are weaknesses in Livingston’s game however. The biggest deficiency in Livingston’s game is his three-point shooting, which has been an issue going back to his rookie season. After nine seasons in the league, there is little reason to believe this is something Livingston will ever really be able to address. However, Livingston is most effective when he is setting up teammates, and is able to overcome his lack of three-point shooting with his other unique contributions. Also, between Curry and Thompson, there is more than enough three-point shooting for Golden State’s backcourt.

Some may argue that offering Livingston the full mid-level exception over three years is too much for a guard with an injury history like Livingston. However, at age 28, and in his ninth season in the NBA, Livingston played in 76 games for Brooklyn last season, the most in his career. He also played 26 minutes per game, the most since 2006-07, when he played 29.8 minutes per game. He also looked closer to his old-self physically, throwing down big-time dunks every so often. Also, in a free agency market where Ben Gordon agreed to terms ona  two-year, $9 million deal, and Jodie Meeks got a three-year, $19 million contract, Livingston should be considered fair value, if not a bargain, considering his versatility and defensive impact.

For a Golden State team that relied on Steve Blake and Jordan Crawford to supplement Curry and Thompson off the bench last season, Livingston is a significant upgrade on the defensive side of the ball. The Warriors were the third-best defense in the league last season and now add Livingston, who was one of the best defensive players for Brooklyn last season. Livingston also gives the Warriors an insurance option in the event that the Warriors trade Thompson to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for Kevin Love, as has been discussed. His three-point shooting will be an issue, and he cannot replace all of Thompson’s production, but with Love in the fold, along with Curry, three-point shooting will not be a weakness for the Warriors. Livingston also provides some insurance for Curry, who has his own history of injuries.

The Warriors rewarded Livingston for years of hard work and perseverance. If last season was any indication, Livingston will reward Golden State for taking a chance on him and making a significant investment in him.

– Jesse Blancarte

Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

Kyle Lowry was one the bigger names on the open market this free agency period – an unrestricted free-agent, who had his fair share of suitors. The most talked about potential destination for Lowry was the Miami, and the interest was reportedly mutual. The HEAT have a gaping hole at point guard with Mario Chalmers’ contract expiring after a very underwhelming Finals showing, leaving the team with Norris Cole and rookie Shabazz Napier. Pat Riley is desperately trying to assemble a more talented roster to appease his star LeBron James, and Lowry and the HEAT appeared to be a great fit. However, talks with the HEAT never got the off the ground. The HEAT weren’t the only team interested in acquiring Lowry’s services, as the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers were also rumored to be players for Lowry.

After all was said and done, Lowry decided Toronto was the best place for him and agreed to terms on a four-year deal worth $48 million. Lowry had a fantastic year this past season in Toronto, certainly the best of his career. He averaged a career-high in points (17.9), assists (7.4) and shot a career best 38 percent from three. He was the leader and of an under-the-radar group that featured players like Patrick Patterson, DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas – very good players but not the big-name star types that most contenders rely on.

Despite lacking any real household names, the Raptors put together a surprising season and emerged as a one of the stronger teams in the East. The team finished with 48 wins, tied for third-best in the conference with the Chicago Bulls, and secured the three seed in the playoffs. The Raptors faced a veteran Brooklyn Nets team expected to be one the few threats to the HEAT outside of the Pacers. The Raptors, with the support of a rabid fan base, were able to get out to a 3-2 advantage before losing the final two games of the series and being eliminated. Lowry continued his strong year and excelled in the playoffs despite the Raptors coming up short. He was fearless throughout the series and continually stepped up when the team needed buckets.

DeRozan may have been the Raptors’ only All-Star last year, but you could easily make the case that Lowry was the team’s most important player. He was the orchestrator to the team’s offense, which finished 13th  in the league in scoring with 101.3 points per game. Lowry was able to find a great balance between looking for his shot and creating for his teammates; he was the team’s second-leading scorer and finished second in the conference in assists. His impact wasn’t just felt on the offensive end; Lowry is one the better defensive point guards in the league as well.

His new four-year deal will be the most lucrative of his career, paying him on average nearly double his salary from this past season, $6.2 million. When compared to peers, his deal falls right in line. Ty Lawson on average makes $12 million per season, Rajon Rondo is making $11 million per year and Deron Williams is making over $19 million per year. Compared to a guy like Williams, Lowry is a steal. Lowry was the best point guard on the market, something he could certainly have leveraged against teams desperate for help at the position. However, Lowry agreed to one of the more reasonable deals thus far during free agency. With teams throwing money around at lesser players like Jodie Meeks (agreeing to a three-year deal worth over $19 million with the Pistons) and Avery Bradley (agreeing to a deal that will pay him an average of $8 million per year with the Celtics), Lowry is one the few guys to agree to a deal that doesn’t appear to be an overpay.

With Lowry back, the Raptors figure to contend in the soft Eastern Conference. The landscape may change dramatically depending on how things shake out down in Miami and on where guys like Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love end up, but the Raptors should be right in thick of the playoffs again next year. The team has also agreed to terms with forward Patrick Patterson for three years and $18 million, so like Lowry, he will back in Toronto next year. General manager Masai Ujiri has done a nice a job keeping the team’s impact players with the organization and maintaining the group of players that were responsible for the team’s resurgence. Bringing back Lowry allows the team to build on the momentum from this past season and should propel the team going forward. If Lowry can continue to play at the high level he did this past season, his deal may prove to be one the best signed during this off-season’s free agency period.

– John Zitzler

Spencer Hawes, Los Angeles Clippers

On the Fourth of July, the Los Angeles Clippers reportedly agreed to a deal with free agent center Spencer Hawes. After garnering interest from teams like the Portland Trail Blazers, Miami HEAT and Phoenix Suns, Hawes ultimately agreed to join the Clippers. This has the potential to be one of the best deals of the class, outside of possible moves from Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, etc.

Hawes started last season with the Philadelphia 76ers and then was dealt to the Cleveland Cavaliers around the trade deadline. The 7’1 center averaged 13.5 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game while shooting 45 percent from three-point range in 27 games in Cleveland.

Hawes has played center almost exclusively throughout his seven-year career in the NBA, but that may change upon his arrival to L.A. where the team needs depth at both frontcourt positions. He’ll may play some minutes at the four next to DeAndre Jordan and provide head coach Doc Rivers with some offensive production off of the bench. The Clippers last season had a plethora of forwards on their second unit, including Glen Davis, Hedo Turkoglu and Antawn Jamison, all of whom were unable to provide the scoring the Clippers needed. In addition, the Clippers also relied on Ryan Hollins as Jordan’s backup. Now, it’s possible that none of those players will be back with the Clippers next season.

The reported Hawes deal is very friendly for the Clippers on the salary cap. Per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, the deal will pay Hawes $23 million over four years with a player option for the fourth year. There were reports that Hawes was seeking in the neighborhood of $8 million per season, so this deal brings great value for the Clippers. The fact that the Clippers were willing to commit that kind of money toward a bench player shows just how much they needed a proven scorer. Once the duo of Jordan and Blake Griffin came off of the floor, the Clippers were exposed off of the bench in scoring. Jordan and Griffin both averaged 35 minutes per game in the regular season, and players like Hollins, Davis, Turkoglu and Jamison didn’t prove to be very effective. Even though their offense was rated the highest in the league, Hawes will only add to that off of the bench.

Hawes is coming off perhaps one of the best years of his career, since his 13.5 points per game in Cleveland was a career-high. He also showed steady improvement in his three-point shot over the last several seasons, as he shot just 24 percent in the 2010-11 season versus his 40 percent in Philadelphia and 45 percent in Cleveland last season. Hawes isn’t necessarily known for his defensive skills, but coming off of the bench in reserve minutes wouldn’t expose that area of his game like it would in starting minutes. With Jordan and Griffin ahead of him, Hawes will just be asked to stretch the floor and score off of the bench when those two big men need a breather.

– Cody Taylor