The very existence of a salary cap creates the need to find bargains. For those teams under the cap, every dollar spent comes at a clear opportunity cost. For those over it, any spending at all is limited by finite cap exceptions—windows of predetermined value that force a team’s grand plans to fit into league-mandated financial constraints. Superstars and their big-money contracts dictate the direction of NBA teams. Bargain contracts, however, fine tune their steering. For every player capable of outperforming their deal, a franchise gains a greater means to navigate the marathon regular season and the league’s unpredictable landscape.
We can’t possibly know the full return on every deal signed this summer, but based on their parameters and how they’re viewed around the league, these are the early contenders for the best bargain contracts to come out of free agency in 2018.
DeMarcus Cousins, Warriors - One year, $5.4 million
Through the perfect storm of a concerning injury, a polarizing track record, and more cautious spending at large, Cousins was put in a position to consider nontraditional options. A healthy Cousins would never sign with Golden State because a healthy Cousins could easily command upwards of $20 million a season. Some team would inevitably swing big on a center putting up 25 points, 13 rebounds, and five assists a game in the thick of his prime. A ruptured Achilles tendon, however, tipped the scales in so many teams’ calculation of risk. Even those who weren’t put off by Cousins's attitude or history were inclined to wait and see. Nothing about the recovery from this particular injury is simple; even in the best-case scenarios, it has taken players years to work their way back.
In light of that, Cousins chose to make himself a bargain. Cousins is on record as saying that he had no other offers from any other teams, a claim that seems at least half-true. The other half is rendered opaque by the semantics involved, particularly what Cousins considers to be an offer in the first place. Regardless, his hopes for the first unrestricted free agency of his career were quickly dashed. The Pelicans may have discussed parameters with Cousins’s representatives, but they clearly never extended an offer compelling enough to take or even discuss in greater depth. At minimum, Cousins—rightly—wanted to be treated as a priority. Instead, he was reportedly scheduled for a meeting with New Orleans days into free agency—the equivalent of years in this summer’s fast-moving marketplace.
When Cousins had looked ahead to his eventual free agency, he may not have even considered the Warriors a possibility. Golden State adding another high-salary star alongside Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green would have been a logistical nightmare. Yet after drawing such tepid interest to open the moratorium, Cousins relaxed his contractual parameters. Rather than push for his next big contract, he made short-term arrangements to make the most of his rehab—signing for a lower value than many, Cousins likely included, ever thought possible.
Isaiah Thomas, Nuggets - One year, $2 million
This round of free agency has been especially unkind to point guards, who have been almost uniformly squeezed by the lack of available starting jobs. One could argue that Thomas was affected most of all; there was almost no market for an undersize point guard making his way back from a major hip injury, no matter his other recent successes. Denver stands to benefit. The Nuggets sit squarely at the intersection of teams trying to win now and teams that could use some point guard help. That’s not an indictment of Jamal Murray so much as his backups. Getting even replacement-level minutes at the point has been so much of a struggle in Denver that balancing the rotation between Murray and Thomas should make for a rather substantial upgrade.
The best basketball of Thomas’s career is clearly behind him, but it would be misplaced to view last season’s performance as strictly indicative of what he could offer going forward. Nothing in his career would suggest that Thomas is actually that poor a shooter (29.3% from three, 37.3% overall). Further distance from his hip injury and a full offseason to work on his mobility should make him a better creator. Thomas’s window for stardom may have been slammed shut, but he should easily out-produce the veteran minimum as a contributor to Denver’s playoff push.
Seth Curry, Trail Blazers - Two years, $5.6 million (player option included)
To crystallize a theme with these first three bargain contracts, Curry lost his entire 2017-18 season to injury. Yet by comparison, Curry’s ailment—a stress reaction in his left leg—was less distressing. This wasn’t an athletic big man recovering from one of basketball’s most damaging injuries or a severely undersize guard suddenly slowed by a bad hip. It was a simple stress fracture, the kind which should heal fully if given time.
And supposing it does, Curry is exactly the kind of pick-and-roll scorer that should run for far more on the open market. Teams in need of secondary or second-unit creation could lean comfortably on Curry to generate offense. He has a great feel for the space of shot creation and the pull-up jumper to make it all viable. At bare minimum, he would make for a wonderful floor spacer. If empowered to do more, he can do for Portland what he did for Dallas and Sacramento: get buckets in ways that other role players can’t.
Ed Davis, Nets - One year, $4.5 million
Davis was a steadying influence in Portland last season behind one of the most inconsistent starting centers in the league. The Blazers never knew whether they would get the dominant Jusuf Nurkic or the foul-prone, ineffective alternative. They could, however, trust in Davis—a cagey rebounder and defender who always finds ways to be effective. Davis might be a touch too limited offensively to work as a full-time starter, but he’s clearly something more than your standard reserve. The free agent value of those sorts of players is so deeply contextual that they sometimes wind up signing to team-friendly terms, as Davis did here with Brooklyn.
The Nets need Davis for much the same reason the Blazers did, save that the starter in question is Jarrett Allen—a 20-year-old rising sophomore feeling his way through the NBA game. Where Allen brings potential, Davis complements with reliability. Their arrangement in tandem gives the Nets the means to stabilize their rotation without compromising on key developmental opportunities.
Brook Lopez, Bucks - One year, $3.4 million
Even in a league where the station of big men has never been less secure, it’s shocking to see a scorer of Lopez’s repute sign for so little. This is a player not 14 months removed from averaging 20 points per game, and in the season since still managed to score 20 points per 36 minutes in a reduced role. The reason for that reduction wasn’t some precipitous decline on Lopez’s part, but the reality that the team he played for (the Lakers) had little reason to invest in his touches. A then-rebuilding club with Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Kyle Kuzma was best served expanding their skill sets, not working the ball through their 30-year-old center in the final year under contract.
There are limits as to when and how much the Bucks can play Lopez, but any such concerns are alleviated by the minimal investment involved. Lopez is a far better player than Milwaukee seemed likely to get for this sum—a seven-footer with touch who can score on the move, hit enough threes to keep defenses honest, and fill the gaps with duck-ins and cuts. Lopez may be a bit lumbering, but he’s always seemed to be a better modern fit than he’s given credit, in part because his scoring isn’t quite as reliant on back-to-the-basket work as one might expect.