5 Under-the-Radar Bargains in 2021 NBA Free Agency
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Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press
NBA free agency sometimes shares a lot in common with bank heists from the movies.
Organizations select their high-profile marks, construct the right team (of executives) for the job and clear financial resources well in advance. They study their targets, accumulating data and compiling dossiers. Then, they wait patiently for the opportunity to execute their plans. The risks are always high. Failing to account for a key variable, like, say, Free Agent X not wanting to play in a cold-weather city, and the whole operation’s ruined.
At least instead of years in prison like you’d get in a botched heist, NBA teams only have to contend with a return to the drawing board when they fail in free agency.
High-stakes pursuits are exciting, but there’s also a way to take most of the drama and risk out of free agency.
Here, we’ll highlight a handful of free agents available to opportunistic teams that recognize an easy get when they see one. To extend the metaphor, these restricted free agents aren’t in their current team’s main vault. They’re lower priorities for their incumbent teams, left relatively unguarded for a variety of reasons.
Maybe their teams have bigger names to protect or are distracted by other critical offseason concerns. In some cases, poor performance might even have some of these incumbents hoping someone comes in and takes a free agent off their hands.
These players could make up a valuable class of low-stress, high-reward acquisitions. It won’t take a heist to get them, but they could still be steals in their own right.
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Derick Hingle/Associated Press
Lonzo Ball will be the New Orleans Pelicans’ first free-agent priority. The offer sheets for him will come first and be far richer than the ones for Josh Hart, and the Pels will have to decide where to draw the line on matching them.
Beyond that, the Pelicans are in for a potentially tumultuous offseason that will further distract them from less pressing issues—like retaining Hart.
NOLA.com’s Scott Kushner reported there were tensions between head coach Stan Van Gundy and the team this past season. Whether founded in fact or not, speculation about Zion Williamson becoming the latest superstar to ditch his underperforming small-market team will only increase. After such a disappointing season, the urge to make sweeping changes (Brandon Ingram trade, anyone?) could intensify.
That’s all great news for a team targeting Hart. And so is the fact that the 26-year-old wing struggled through a difficult shooting season that ended with a torn thumb ligament. There’s never been a better time to buy low.
Hart’s shooting slump doesn’t seem legit. He hit 32.6 percent from deep this past season, but that number got dragged down by a hard-to-fathom 28.0 percent hit rate on corner threes. Hart had never previously been worse than 38.0 percent on those shots and drained 44.0 percent of them in 2019-20. That he also hit the highest percentage of mid-rangers and free throws of his career also suggests his errant stroke from the corner was an anomaly.
Even if you believe shooting is an unknown for Hart, his hustle and heart are certainties. Few guards match his intensity, and none are better on the boards. He was the best defensive rebounding wing in the NBA last season.
Smart teams should have their eye on Hart, a potential quality starter who could come with an eighth-man’s salary.
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
I’ve already argued the Los Angeles Lakers should make retaining Talen Horton-Tucker a focus this offseason. They’ll have advantages in that effort, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be easy for them.
Starting point guard Dennis Schroder seems convinced he’s worth a massive new deal, and the Lakers will surely put negotiations with him atop their offseason to-do list. Alex Caruso is among the best defensive guards in the league, and the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent will draw serious interest from other contenders. Toss in Wesley Matthews’ and Andre Drummond’s unrestricted free agency, plus Montrezl Harrell’s player option, and the Lakers have several significant concerns.
And if they make a deep playoff run—perhaps one that concludes with another ring—they’ll have no choice but to focus more on veterans who can help in the short term than 20-year-old projects like THT.
This is the Lakers we’re talking about, a prestige organization built to contend. They could break the bank and go deep into the tax to keep this roster together. But every organization has to have a spending limit.
If the Lakers know they’re going to commit gobs of cash to Schroder, Caruso, Drummond and all the rest, maybe a slightly above-market offer sheet for Horton-Tucker will give them pause. Every team wants intriguing prospects, and Tucker is one of those, but younger clubs with more time to wait on the realization of a player’s upside have reason to value them more.
Horton-Tucker has yet to prove he can shoot. But he’s a burly wing who can get downhill, make good decisions with the ball and defend multiple positions. If that jumper comes around, he’ll be a starting-caliber player at that critical wing spot. By then, it’ll be too late to steal him away. The time to pounce is now.
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Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
Lauri Markkanen has his share of weaknesses. He’s not a strong defender in any capacity, and the concept of passing is mostly foreign to him. He’s registered more turnovers than assists in his career.
The Chicago Bulls’ 24-year-old big man can, however, stripe it from long range.
He’s just the seventh player listed at 7’0″ or taller to drain over 40.0 percent of his threes in a season (minimum 250 attempts). He’s basically a plug-and-play floor-stretcher, which most teams would covet. In Chicago, though, where Nikola Vucevic and Zach LaVine are already defense-averse cornerstones who need little help getting buckets, Markkanen isn’t a great fit.
In a situation where other defenders could cover for him and Markkanen could play to his strengths by firing on the catch or attacking closeouts with straight-line drives, the 2017 No. 7 pick could thrive.
Considering the Bulls excised Markkanen from his starting spot with more than a month left in their desperate but ultimately unsuccessful playoff push, it seems fair to say they won’t put up much of a fight to retain him in restricted free agency.
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Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press
Malik Monk, the 23-year-old lottery pick from 2017, just finished the best season of his career, complete with an average of 20.1 points per 36 minutes and 40.1 percent shooting from deep. Though consistently a reserve (Monk has one career start), the high-scoring guard showed what he could do with more minutes. He racked up a career-high 36 points in a win over the Miami Heat on Feb. 1, and then amassed five 20-point efforts in six games from Feb. 14-28.
Always a high-usage player, Monk was better than average at his position in points per shot attempt for the first time in 2020-21. Efficiency is entering a profile that already had plenty of volume, which is an encouraging sign.
It might seem too late for another team to grab him, but the Charlotte Hornets guard may still be gettable for cheap.
Monk has struggled with consistency throughout his career. And that suspension for violating the league’s anti-drug policy in 2020 could sour some suitors. Beyond those, the Hornets have another guard, Devonte’ Graham, set to hit restricted free agency.
Graham has been the more productive option and his ability to facilitate should make him a higher retention priority than Monk.
Charlotte also has significant cap space and a hole to fill at center now that both Bismack Biyombo and Cody Zeller are off the books. Spending to match an offer sheet for Monk, a fourth guard, wouldn’t make a lot of sense for a team needing to address a critical void in its starting five.
It might not be the safest move to bet on Monk becoming a star—or even a trustworthy starter. But in light of his draft pedigree, flashes of scoring punch and potentially manageable price tag, teams should be willing to take that wager.
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Brandon Dill/Associated Press
The Miami Heat’s roster-building ambitions tend to skew toward “grand.”
This offseason figures to be no exception, as Miami has organized its books to include ample cap space if it chooses not to pick up team options on Andre Iguodala and Goran Dragic. Excluding the max-level deals for Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler, no one but Tyler Herro is guaranteed more than $4 million in 2021-22 salary.
Even if we assume the Heat strike out on whatever big swing they take in free agency, Duncan Robinson will be their most valuable restricted free agent, drawing attention further away from Kendrick Nunn.
Nunn enjoyed a quiet breakthrough in his second season, which perhaps shouldn’t have been surprising since he finished No. 2 in the 2019-20 Rookie of the Year race. Though the combo guard still has a long way to go defensively, he averaged 14.6 points per game with a 48.5/38.1/93.3 shooting split. Miami, a playoff team, was better with Nunn on the floor than off—which couldn’t be said of Herro, for comparison’s sake.
The Heat got ridiculous bang for their buck from Nunn, an undrafted minimum-salary signee who started 111 games for them over two seasons. Now that he’s in line for a contract that lines up with his production, maybe the Heat will take their gains and move on in search of the next bargain to complement what they hope will be an otherwise star-studded and expensive roster.
The supply of guards in this year’s free-agent class will be deep, but there aren’t many who can match Nunn’s production, big-game experience and success in a serious, no-nonsense organization. The Heat almost can’t afford to make him a top priority this summer, though, and that will create an opportunity for enterprising organizations to capitalize.
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