- With the best available talent long gone, it's time to scrape for the best budget options remaining in the market.
The first run of free agency has emptied out the cupboard. The best available talents are long gone, as are most of the top supporting stars and role players. What remains are largely contributors with more particular games. Therein lies the potential for value. What makes players like Gordon Hayward so expensive to begin with is that their games are broad and inarguably productive. They attract enough interest that their contract price is driven to its maximum value. Not so for specialists, prospects, and spot contributors, all of which have enough gaps in their skill sets as to narrow the market significantly.
What makes bargain hunting worthwhile is that a player doesn’t need to be valuable to every team (or even most teams) in order to be a sound investment. He needs only to be valuable to one—a single context that aligns perfectly with what he can and cannot do. The right low-cost signing can free up money and cap room to be spent elsewhere, all while contributing well beyond their price point. With that in mind, let’s dig through some of the better budget options still available in search of those situational fits:
C.J. Miles, Pacers (UFA)
There are still plenty of quality players without deals in place, but Miles’s persistent availability is a bit confusing. He might be best known at this point for taking a buzzer-beating shot in the playoffs that Paul George wanted for himself. Beyond that confidence in his shooting stroke, Miles is a team-first role player who can contribute defensively and space the floor from either forward spot. Miles, at 6'6", guarded opposing power forwards because George didn’t want to. He shot a career-best 41.3% from three last season. What team couldn’t use that sort of player? Miles plays confidently without being pushy. He should have more of a market than he appears to, even if he’s good enough to be in a different level of “bargain” than many of the other players on this list.
Dewayne Dedmon, Spurs (UFA)
A stealthy part of the framework behind the best defense in the league last season, Dedmon, a seven-footer in the prime of his career, can change the look of the defensive interior. His hands have also improved to the point where he can be a reasonable finisher. There seems to be little question that Dedmon is worth more than the $2.9 million the Spurs paid him last season. The question is whether a league flush with centers (and starting-quality ones, in particular) really has room to make a substantially more lucrative offer.
Vince Carter, Grizzlies (UFA)
A persistently helpful wing player, even at 40 years old. Any player that age is going to look (and move) better on some nights than others, but Carter’s range of offerings—from perimeter shooting to heads-up passing to leveraging his strength on defense—is impressive for his age. Teams can pay for his game and be happy with the returns. Carter’s experience, influence, and easy personality come as a bonus.
(Update: Carter has reportedly agreed to a one-year, $8 million deal with the Kings)
Ersan Ilyasova, Hawks (UFA)
Ilyasova always seems better than he’s given credit for—especially since he was dumped via trade twice last season. Along the way, Ilyasova averaged 15.4 points (including 34.8% from three), 8.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 1.3 steals per 36 minutes. There’s just enough peskiness to his defense and self-awareness to his offense to make his complete game kind of work.
Zaza Pachulia, Warriors (UFA)
Every layup attempt with Pachulia is an adventure, full with twists and turns, booby traps and found treasure. You live with that for the sake of his smart defensive positioning. You put him on the floor anyway because of how much a single screen or box-out can change a possession. Pachulia will bend the rules governing basketball physicality as much as an officiating crew allows. The final product is a center who, in controlled minutes, can contribute beyond what his box score contributions suggest.
Thabo Sefolosha, Hawks (UFA)
A subtle team defender with enough wiry strength to guard across multiple positions, Sefolosha is somewhat smoother on offense than other stopper types, though he’s never going to score all that much—or all that efficiently. What makes Sefolosha’s game work is its underlining feel. He knows how (and when) to get out of the way, where to cut, and how to funnel a scorer into the help. There will always be a ceiling on players who don’t project as a scoring threat, but Sefolosha picks up the slack in so many other regards as to ease his team’s execution.
Ian Clark, Warriors (UFA)
Clark’s play with the Warriors likely bumped him out of minimum salary range, which is part of the reason Golden State went searching for alternatives. As franchises pull as many stars together as they can find, the responsibility for bench scoring has increasingly fallen to cost-effective players like Clark. The shooting and cutting Clark offered last season was good for an efficient 16.7 points per 36 minutes—enough to help spell Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson during rest and injury. Clark’s streak scoring is still a bit too inconsistent for a big deal, but his market should fit comfortably into the various (and moderate) salary cap exceptions available.
Willie Reed, Heat (UFA)
Reed is a great candidate to sop up spare center minutes, just as he’s done for the Nets and Heat over the last two seasons. There isn’t all that much upside to the 27-year-old; what you see is essentially what you’ll get. But what you’ll get is a strong rebounder, an effort defender standing 6'10", and a big man comfortable with limited touches. Filling a reserve slot with that kind of contributor—especially if Reed can be signed on another discount deal—can help bring a rotation to balance.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Clippers (UFA)
The fact that Mbah a Moute could never be quite as dynamic as the Clippers needed obscured the progress he had already made. A strong, versatile defender made the jump from sub-par perimeter shooter to 39.1% from beyond the arc last season. Taking wide-open looks in the corner courtesy of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin can have that effect. But other teams have star playmakers, too, and could position Mbah a Moute to fill a similar role role on many rosters. There is an increasing need for wings and bigs who can compete in the chaos of switches and cross-matches. Mbah a Moute isn’t ideal in that regard, though he’s cagey enough to hang in those matchups and prevent defensive collapse.
JaVale McGee, Warriors (UFA)
McGee is the most conditional player on this list. What he needs most—and more than even other players in this range—is a team that can disguise his defensive liability as much as possible. Do that and his rolls to the rim can force changes to an opponent’s approach. Defenses aren’t used to dealing with players quite this big and quite this mobile, which in itself makes McGee interesting as a change-of-pace alternative. Franchises simply need to understand that what they saw of McGee in Golden State was a best-case scenario on both sides of the ball: a spread offense that gave him room to dive and a defense that switched so often as to limit his need to show and rotate.