In short: Superstar free agents receive top billing.
Way back when, LeBron James received an ESPN special in 2010 when he announced he was signing with the Miami HEAT. And (at least) ever since then, the NBA universe has been acutely aware of the signings made in the first few days of free agency. That’s the league’s balance of power shifts.
But what about the remaining free agents? You know, those who had to wait patiently for the big dominos to fall before determining where they’ll live and work for the upcoming years? Tons of guys make noise without being identified as superstars – but, for them, it’s more about fit and timing. The timing part is happenstance, but the fit can change come free agency.
To help navigate the upcoming free agency period, whenever that may be, Basketball Insiders has chosen to rank the best under-the-radar free agents. The players listed below aren’t first options – and they might not even be starters – but the following eight players are the most likely to exceed the value of their next contract, as well as their 2019-20 output. In order to identify as many breakout and/or underrated free agents as possible, we – once again – split the league by conference.
First up, the Eastern Conference.
Christian Wood, Detroit Pistons
We tried out best to avoid naming players we identified as top free agents, but Wood is an exception. His 2019-20 salary ($1.645 million) and the fact that he started only 12 of the 62 games he played this season render him the best of the rest in terms of free agents.
After closing 2018-19 strongly, averaging 16.9 points and 7.9 rebounds in eight games with the Pelicans, the 24-year-old has since confirmed he’s for real. He averaged 13.1 points and 6.3 rebounds in 21.4 minutes per game this year, which translates to 22 points and 10.6 rebounds per-36 minutes. Those are starter numbers.
Outside of NBA circles, Wood is still mostly unknown – but that might not be the case for long. It’s hard to imagine him reaching his full potential alongside Blake Griffin; but if Detroit sees him in their future, they’ll have to figure it out. And if not, the list of teams who will line up to poach him from Motor City will be almost as long as Wood’s reach – which is 7-foot-3.
Damyean Dotson, New York Knicks
Dotson has had a series of tough breaks in New York under head coaches David Fizdale and Mike Miller. Dotson flashed his potential in 2018-19 after an uneventful rookie season; he averaged 10.7 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 27.5 minutes per game this season. But the combo guard’s momentum slowed in his third season and he experienced drops in minutes (17.5), points, (6.7) and every other noteworthy statistic.
Still, there is reason to be hopeful. Dotson was a plus-five when he shared the court with fellow guard Frank Ntilikina (277 minutes), and he’s a career 36 percent three-point shooter. He stands to be an above-average 3-and-D for a second unit.
Dotson probably falls into the same category as Allonzo Trier for a Knicks team that needs to choose which youngsters to prioritize. And while he’s unlikely to be re-signed by the Knicks, he’ll be a welcomed addition wherever he lands. Yes, his offensive versatility and defensive grittiness make him an attractive addition.
And the fact that he fits so well alongside a range of players (Ntilikina, Trier, Julius Randle, etc.) speaks to his flexibility. It’s unclear where he’ll end up, but Dotson won’t be on the open market for too long.
Justin Holiday, Indiana Pacers
Holiday is not nearly a newcomer. The 31-year-old has been a career journeyman for seven seasons, during which he’s accumulated an 8.2-point-per-game scoring average. He’s long and athletic, plus one of the more versatile guys on the Pacers.
But despite being fairly accomplished, Holiday is a frequent traveler that has never signed a big contract. He’s played for seven teams in seven seasons and his biggest pay-day was this season at one year and $4.7 million.
Well, neither of those facts are likely to be true after this offseason. Holiday’s length (7-foot wingspan), ability to play multiple positions and his exceptional shooting touch (42.4 percent on three-pointers – ninth-best in the NBA in 2019-20) has almost certainly earned a new multi-year deal. The Pacers are going to regret not locking him up for a few more years, but that won’t stop them from starting the line to negotiate with the California native.
Marc Gasol, Toronto Raptors
Gasol has been a difference-maker for the better part of his career — but he’s no longer a spring chicken. The seven-footer can still be a capable starter, running out with the Raptors’ first unit in 35 of his 36 games in 2019-20. And while those meager 7.6 points per game represent a significant step back his career scoring average, the rest of his 2019-20 per-36 numbers are mostly the same. And by some metrics, like three-point percentage, he’s actually having one of his best seasons – Gasol secured his first season shooting better than 40 percent on three-pointers with more than 100 attempts.
Gasol turned 35 in January, which will almost certainly affect how desirable he is to other teams. While he might not be alluring to rebuilding teams, he is an attractive option for the upper echelon of the NBA. He’s a high IQ player that can shoulder the burden of starting or he can come off the bench. He’ll be forced to accept a major decrease in pay either way, but, assuming that’s OK, Gasol should be able to hand-select his next opportunity.
Brad Wanamaker, Boston Celtics
Wanamaker is far from a household name — but the 30-year-old had a pretty good 2019-20, making him an option for teams looking to solidify their backcourt.
However, the Celtics are in a tough spot. Their rotation is crowded with versatile wing-type players and they’re aware of the investment it will take to sign Jayson Tatum. Besides, Wanamaker received only 19.3 minutes per game. While that represents a major jump in his playing time from 2018-19, he can’t be viewed as a key piece when behind a core of players he can’t leapfrog.
Wanamaker averaged 12.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists per-36 minutes this season, which is more than serviceable for a backup. The Celtics could offer him a $1.9 million qualifying offer, but he could just as easily find a team willing to give more than that. But Boston should think twice before letting Wanamaker walk: Depth is key in the NBA and losing a 38 percent three-point shooter is never great for a team that falls outside the top-10 in that category already.
DJ Augustin, Orlando Magic
Want to feel old? Augustin was drafted by the Charlotte Bobcats in 2008. He’s played for eight teams in his 12-year career, but he’s been with Orlando for the last four. And he’s been relatively successful in his time with the Magic, averaging more than 10 points per game in each of the past three seasons.
Augustin is one of the best backup point guards in the NBA, he can still shoot and create for his teammates. Even better, Augustin is a career 37.9 percent three-point shooter and he’s averaged 6.6 assists per-36 minutes in 2019-20.
He isn’t going to save an NBA franchise, and he’ll probably never again be a fulltime starter, but Augustin is reliable and effective. Further, Augustin can keep a team on track for extended minutes, having posted a positive VORP (.2) – better than and Dotson (.2) and teammate Markelle Fultz (.1), and tied with Wanamaker (.2).
Augustin should get a long look from any playoff-bound club that needs help with their second unit.
Michael Carter-Williams, Orlando Magic
But, surprise, Augustin isn’t the only Magic guard on the list. It wouldn’t be complete without the former Rookie of the Year, Carter-Williams.
Carter-Williams will probably never fully recapture the buzz from his early days with the 76ers but he’s at least re-established himself as an NBA player. After a hip injury forced him out of Milwaukee, Carter-Williams landed in Chicago and then Houston. He finally signed a 10-day contract with the Magic in 2018-19, was brought back this season on a veteran minimum deal.
And, case in point, this has been his best campaign since 2015-16. The former Rookie of the Year averaged 7.2 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game over 18.4 minutes of action. He looked serviceable too, posting a better-than-average VORP (.5) and PER (15.7). And he looked especially good down the stretch, averaging nearly 16 points and 1.5 steals during the last four games played in 2019-20.
Somehow, Carter-Williams is still only 28-years-old. The Magic will probably bring back one of Augustin and Carter-Williams – and they must decide which one sooner rather than later. While contenders will probably go after Augustin, everyone else will have an interest in the Syracuse product.
And the Magic really don’t want to lose both.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Toronto Raptors
After spending his whole career elsewhere, 2019-20 was Hollis-Jefferson’s first season with the Raptors. Prior to relocating north of the border, the tweener was a long-time cog in Brooklyn. He’s proven himself to be a versatile and snippy defender. Although his shooting leaves much to be desired, he excels in key areas like defending and rebounding.
But he can also do more than he’s been allowed to do in Toronto. He’s received a career-low 19.2 minutes per game, so it’s logical that his overall output is down. Yes, he’s struggled to connect on three-point shots, but he shoots so few that it doesn’t hurt the Raptors badly – it’s never been his strong suit, unfortunately.
Hollis-Jefferson didn’t fit well in Toronto, but next year will be different. The Raptors should begin their roster overhaul this offseason with Gasol, Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka all hitting free agency, too. Hollis-Jefferson could re-sign with the Raptors if he feels there’s a bigger role for him – but he’ll definitely have suitors considering his willingness to do the dirty work.
In the end, the first few days of free agency are the easy part.
After stars are locked up and taken off the market, teams must get to work determining needs and fit. These eight players all stand to be signed in the second wave of free agency – and, if given the right opportunity, all can step up and outperform whatever contract they sign.
Mavericks are expected to pick up Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option
Per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, the Dallas Mavericks are planning to pick up center Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option for the 2021-22 NBA season. The deadline is tomorrow. Last season, in 53 games played, the seven-foot big man averaged 5.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. The sixth-year player also shot 63.2 percent from the field last season.
On July 8, 2019, Cauley-Stein signed a two-year, $4.46 million contract with the Golden State Warriors. Then, on January 25, 2020, Cauley-Stein was traded to the Mavericks for a 2020 second-round pick. If everything goes smoothly, the 27-year-old center is set to earn $4.1 million next season. The 2015 sixth overall pick’s contract consumes less than three percent of the team’s total salary cap.
Source says Mavs are leaning toward picking up center Willie Cauley-Stein's $4.1 million option for next season. Deadline is Sunday and Mavs are waiting to see if situation unexpectedly materializes to make that cap space worth parting with a big man they like.
— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) July 31, 2021
This news comes right after Dallas received center Moses Brown from the Boston Celtics. Brown is a seven-foot-two, 2019 undrafted player out of UCLA. In 2021, Brown was named to the All-NBA G League First Team and All-Defensive Team. On March 28, 2021, the 21-year-old center signed a four-year, $6.8 million contract with the Thunder.
However, on June 18, 2021, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Brown, Al Horford, and a 2023 second-round pick to the Celtics for Kemba Walker, a 2021 first-round pick, and a 2025 second-round pick. With Boston, Brown was set to earn $1,701,593 next season. Of course, the Mavs’ organization is finalizing a trade to send Josh Richardson to the Celtics as well. In other news, today is Mavs’ owner Mark Cuban’s 63rd birthday.
Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 luxury tax totals, the Mavs’ current luxury tax space is $52,326,531. The 2021 NBA salary cap maximum is $112,414,000. Their current cap space is $27,595,632. Cauley-Stein’s contract is recognized as a club option, not a player option or guaranteed money. Richardson’s deadline is also tomorrow, so because he is getting traded to Boston, the team will not collect his $11,615,328 player option.
Plus, Jalen Brunson’s deadline is also August 1st. His guaranteed value is $1,802,057. Leading into the 2021-22 season, Kristaps Porzingis has the highest cap figure on the team, which is an amount worth $31,650,600, consuming 22.73 percent of the team’s total salary cap. At the moment, Porzingis is a popular name in trade rumor articles. Bettors and NBA analysts are predicting a possible trade to the Brooklyn Nets, Sacramento Kings, or Philadelphia 76ers.
Lakers Need More Than Big Three
The Lakers have their “big three” after trading for Russell Westbrook but is he the right fit in Los Angeles? The former MVP has had an incredible career but he may not be the point guard the Lakers desperately need.
The Los Angeles Lakers have formed their three-headed monster as they pursue the franchise’s 18th championship next season. Just as the NBA Draft was getting started, the Lakers completed a deal with the Washington Wizards that landed them the 2016-17 league MVP, Russell Westbrook.
The deal sent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and the 21st overall pick in this year’s draft to Washington, paving the way for Westbrook to join fellow superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. While the Lakers added a dynamic point guard, not everyone is sold on the idea that the Lakers are the team to beat in the loaded Western Conference.
Over the past several weeks, the Lakers were rumored to be seeking perimeter shooting. Some reports had Los Angeles linked to guys like Chris Paul, Buddy Hield and DeMar DeRozan. When the dust settled, it was Washington that made the deal as Westbrook informed the front office that he preferred the Lakers as a destination.
The move is a homecoming of sorts, as Westbrook grew up in the area and spent two seasons playing at UCLA, leading the Bruins to the 2008 Final Four. He had a solid 2020-21 season, averaging 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists per game for the Wizards, who earned the No. 8 seed in the playoffs.
Oddly enough, this is the third straight offseason in which the 9-time All-Star has been traded. After leaving Oklahoma City, Westbrook was not able to find postseason success in Houston or Washington. Will that now change in Los Angeles?
For all of his accomplishments, Westbrook’s legacy has been defined by his play during the regular season. This past season, the point guard passed Oscar Robertson for the most triple-doubles in the history of the game. Out of his 184 triple-doubles, only 12 have come in the playoffs. By comparison, Magic Johnson has the most playoff career triple-doubles with 30, and James is next with 28. Now all three will have played for the Lakers during their careers.
The thing about triple-doubles (and this is especially the case with Westbrook) is that they don’t always translate to wins. They clearly help the team overall but some would argue that a more balanced attack is tougher to stop. History has shown that having a “big three” is almost a requirement to be considered a legitimate championship contender, but this trio in Los Angeles doesn’t exactly fit together like many of those others.
As talented and valuable as Westbrook has been over the course of his career, he needs to have the ball to be effective. His poor perimeter shooting has been the big hiccup in his game, and that is something that this Lakers team desperately needs. The problem isn’t that any of these three won’t share the ball. In fact, they had already discussed checking their egos even before this trade went down.
LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, and Anthony Davis got together at LeBron’s house two weeks ago and agreed to set aside their egos and focus on winning a championship in LA. Per @BA_Turner pic.twitter.com/CDhidtvHxv
— NBA Retweet (@RTNBA) July 30, 2021
Westbrook has never had a problem sharing the ball. He was able to co-exist with Durant in Oklahoma City, Harden in Houston and Beal in Washington. The difference in this scenario is that he will be occupying the same space as James and Davis. The concern is efficiency. Out of 34 players to average at least 20 points per game over the last four seasons, Westbrook ranked 33rd in true shooting percentage.
When James drives to the rim or when Davis is facing a double-team inside, how confident will they be in passing out to Westbrook for a three-pointer? Better yet, how patient will they be if the shot isn’t falling? We have already seen what happened with Danny Green and Caldwell-Pope.
Now that the Lakers have assembled their trio of stars, many fans are hopeful to witness an NBA Finals matchup where James and the Lakers meet Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. As juicy as that series would be, the Western Conference is a gauntlet. There is no guarantee that the Lakers will make it there.
What helps their path is that the crosstown rival Clippers will likely be without Kawhi Leonard next season. The Denver Nuggets will be without Jamal Murray and the Golden State Warriors might not be the Warriors from four years ago. There is also uncertainty surrounding Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers and some potential roster changeup with the Utah Jazz.
— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) July 30, 2021
Considering all of the top-tier point guard talent available in free agency this summer, the Lakers may have been better off trying to do a sign-and-trade. Such a scenario would have hard-capped them but after this deal, they are just $12.6 million below the hard cap with just five players on the roster. Putting together a deal for Hield is still possible, but the Lakers will have to get creative. Adding a third team to this trade, in particular, is one way to accomplish that. Again, it is possible but it will be complicated.
In a perfect world, the Lakers could have worked with Toronto on a sign-and-trade for Kyle Lowry. Even though Lowry is older than Westbrook, the current window for Los Angeles to win with this group is closing fast. Lowry would be cheaper and a much better fit overall. His durability, toughness, defense and high basketball IQ would pay dividends for the Lakers. Adding in the fact that he is a much better shooter, one has to wonder why the Lakers wouldn’t pursue this route instead.
Westbrook is still going to help this team. He is a tremendous asset for them in the regular season, especially when James is on the bench or unable to play. Having another floor general on the court to generate offense is something they have not had since James arrived. If Los Angeles can land some above-average shooting to the roster, Westbrook could flourish in this role.
With James sliding to the power forward position and Davis playing more at center, the key for Los Angeles will be to surround these guys with shooters. The Lakers ranked 21st in three-point percentage and 25th in makes last season. Expect the organization to be busy when free agency starts next week. Targets will include guys like Duncan Robinson, JJ Redick, Norman Powell, Evan Fournier, Doug McDermott, Bryn Forbes, Patrick Mills, Reggie Bullock, Kendrick Nunn and Alec Burks.
Obviously, the Lakers are counting on their individual talent and figuring out the rest later. It likely means the end for Dennis Schröder. Can Alex Caruso fit in and where does this leave Talen Horton-Tucker? The rest of the roster is in limbo, but the star players and the front office both feel confident that they will land the other pieces that they need to raise another banner next summer.
Jazz offering Mike Conley $75 million over next three years
According to veteran NBA reporter Marc Stein, the Utah Jazz are preparing to offer point guard Mike Conley a three-year, $75 million contract to remain with the team. Of course, the exact amount is a ballpark figure. Stein stated, “Utah has made retaining Mike Conley its top priority, league sources say, and is preparing a three-year offer said to be in the $75 million range.” The 14-year NBA veteran is a significant piece to the Jazz’s championship window, playing alongside superstar teammates, such as center Rudy Gobert and guard Donovan Mitchell. He helped the Jazz finish their regular season with the league’s best record of 52-20 (.722).
Utah went on to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies in five games in the first round of the playoffs. Though, the team lost four games to two in the conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers. In the 2020-21 NBA season, Conley averaged 16.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, and six assists per game in 51 games started. Then, in the postseason, he averaged 15.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 7.7 assists per game. The 33-year-old also shot 44.4 percent from the field in the regular season. Last season, the 2007 fourth overall pick earned his first NBA All-Star selection.
The Jazz will be pressing hard to re-sign Mike Conley, league sources say, and are preparing an offer estimated in the three-year, $75 million range.
More coming soon in my This Week In Basketball column you can get directly by signing up here: https://t.co/A6ycVm5PUQ
— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) July 30, 2021
On July 6, 2019, the Grizzlies traded Conley to the Jazz for Grayson Allen, Darius Bazley, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, and a 2020 first-round pick. Furthermore, the Jazz can still trade Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles this offseason, if they wanted to improve their current salary cap situation. Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 cap holds, Mike Conley’s cap figure is $39,344,900. Cap holds are for pending free agents. Conley earned $34,504,132 last season.
The team’s current luxury tax space is $11,173,027. In addition to the aforementioned cap figures, Mitchell and Gobert have a combined cap figure worth 51.34 percent of the team’s total salary cap. These two players’ contracts alone are consuming a huge chunk of the team’s cap. Plus, on November 23, 2020, Mitchell signed a contract extension with Utah. He is set to earn $28,103,550 next season. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. He will earn $35,344,828 next season and $38,172,414 in the 2022-23 season.
However, if the team were to still trade Bogdanovic and possibly Ingles as well, this would clear up an additional 25.68 percent of the team’s salary cap. Bogdanovic’s future guaranteed cash amount total is $19,343,000. They are contributing role players who play together well with the team’s big three, but re-signing the most valuable players is the team’s main objective this offseason. Jazz general manager Justin Zanik might contemplate trading role players who are not worth their asking price. Competitive teams in both conferences have to trim the fat at some point.
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