Max contract superstars are nice, but championships aren’t possible without spark plug sixth men and stalwart glue guys. Let’s identify some top candidates.
With the NBA Draft now in the rearview, free agency is approaching faster than Lewis Hamilton’s souped-up Mercedes on a straightaway.
Contracts can officially be agreed to as of 6 p.m. on Monday, and you already know the list of biggest names available headlined by Kawhi Leonard. But we’re going to your local big box store to hunt for some bargains and deals — specifically, players projected to make $12 million or less per year according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks.
Which players are set to become the next Jae Crowder, Derrick Rose, or Jordan Clarkson, the small-money, big-production players of 2020-21? We have 10 names in NBA free agency to watch out for.
Devonte’ Graham (Restricted): After Charlotte took UConn guard James Bouknight with the 11th overall pick on Thursday, do the Hornets really need Graham, Bouknight, reigning Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball, and Terry Rozier at guard? The 26-year-old Graham averaged just under 15 points and 5.4 assists per game on 37.5% from three. At $12-14 million per year, could he become the next Clarkson and win Sixth Man of the Year? It’s far from a crazy thought.
UPDATE 8/2: Devonte’ Graham signed with the New Orleans Pelicans for four years and $47 million via sign-and-trade from the Hornets.
Derrick Rose: “The next Derrick Rose” could be Rose himself, an integral part of the surprising New York Knicks playoff run last season, adding great scoring punch and leadership at a discount price. The 32-year-old averaged 14.7 points and 4.2 assists per game on an efficient 47% shooting from the field and 38.8% from three.
New York should prioritize keeping the former MVP, especially at a projected $8-10 million annual salary — they’ve got the most cap space in the league.
UPDATE 8/2: Derrick Rose re-signed with the New York Knicks for three years and $43 million.
Victor Oladipo: Injuries have stalled the 29-year-old’s career. He played 33 games last season for three different teams, putting up nearly 20 points to go with 4.8 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game but on inefficient shooting. However, if he can be had at Marks’ projected $4-6 million per season, he could be a steal of a veteran contributor for a contender.
Happy JJ Redick: If he goes to the right situation — near his family in the New York area, for instance — JJ Redick could be a leader and 3-point sniper off the bench at a relatively reasonable $4-6 million. Before he got hurt following a controversial trade deadline deal to Dallas, the 37-year-old hit nearly 40% of his threes in just over 11 minutes per game. He could thrive in a similar, but perhaps slightly larger role.
Talen Horton-Tucker (Restricted): After trading most of their quality depth in a swing-for-the-fences Russell Westbrook trade with the Wizards on draft night, the Lakers need as many cheaply-priced but quality pieces around LeBron James and Anthony Davis as possible. That certainly includes the restricted THT, who averaged nine points per game on good numbers from inside the three-point arc.
Did we also mention he’s still only 20 years old? A team could definitely sign him to a deal that Los Angeles can’t afford and hope his game translates to a larger role.
UPDATE 8/3: Talen Horton-Tucker re-signed with the Los Angeles Lakers on a three-year, $32 million deal.
PJ Tucker: Yes, the Tuck Wagon is a small forward again! Milwaukee wouldn’t have won its first championship in exactly 50 years without Tucker’s defense (or his insane sneaker game, probably). Even better, the 36-year-old forward shot 39.4% from deep during the regular season after a March trade from Houston. He’s the kind of player a contender can and should snap up in the $6-8 million range whether they want to go big like the Bucks did or roll him out as a small-ball five.
UPDATE 8/2: PJ Tucker signed with the Miami Heat for two years and $15 million.
Lauri Markkanen (Restricted): At 24 years old, we feel like we can still see The Finnisher take his game to the next level. He shot 48% from the field and 40% from three last season for a disappointing Bulls team and continued a career-long trend of missing 20-plus games. Whether Chicago matches an offer sheet for Markkanen is an interesting offseason sub-plot; we’ll see if a team can secure a bargain for his services.
Blake Griffin: Griffin seemed more at ease after getting his Detroit buyout and playing a complementary role in Brooklyn, shooting 38.3% during the regular season and 41.2% with some strong defense in the Nets’ playoff defeat to Milwaukee. If he remains healthy, the 32-year-old still has plenty of quality basketball left in him. While he’s still getting plenty of Pistons money, a team could only get him for $4-6 million in a quality bargain.
UPDATE 8/2: Blake Griffin re-signed with the Nets on a one-year deal.
Serge Ibaka: No, he’s not an unrestricted free agent yet, but if Ibaka does decline his $9.7 million player option for next season, a team can still get a strong defender and shot-blocker at 31 years old for about $10 million. His shooting numbers left a lot to be desired last season, and a team could still get a really good big man for a good price.
UPDATE 8/1: Serge Ibaka picked up his $9.7 million player option to return to the Los Angeles Clippers for 2021-22.
Bobby Portis: Portis became a cult hero in Milwaukee after he brought defense, rebounding, and energy for the champs. Playing 20 minutes per game, the 26-year-old former Knick, Wizard and Bull averaged 11 points and 7 rebounds per game while hitting 47% of his threes on 2.4 attempts per game during the regular season. Who wouldn’t want that production at $4-6 million per season, assuming he declines a $3.8 million player option?
UPDATE: 8/2: Bobby Portis re-signed with the Milwaukee Bucks on a two-year, $9 million deal.