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Little Moves, Big Dividends

Real contenders move in silence. While superstars get the spotlight, all eight NBA teams left standing are getting help from under-the-radar transactions. Here are the best sneaky-good moves by each.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Big-time offseason moves are paying off in the playoffs. Houston amped up its roster by trading for Chris Paul. Philadelphia finally saw returns on its first overall pick from the year before in Ben Simmons. Golden State recruited Nick Young. But the moves that went unnoticed—the footnote signings after summer league, or the second-round draft picks from a season ago—are also providing major boosts to the teams left in the postseason. Here are largest returns on investment among those eight teams.

Warriors: Quinn Cook

The defending champions are leaning on an undrafted, 6-foot-2 guard with 47 regular-season games to his name. What (the 2011-12 season) could’ve predicted (the 2011-12 season) Steph Curry would be out (like the 2011-12 season) for long stretches? Two months after winning the 2015 NCAA championship at Duke, Cook was passed over by every team in the draft. Since then, he’s played for two G League teams, signed three 10-day contracts, and been put on waivers four times. He has yet to start in the playoffs, but his 40 total points are more than David West, Kevon Looney, and Nick Young have scored this postseason.

Sixers: Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli

After Ilyasova and Belinelli were bought out by the Hawks—Atlanta apparently couldn’t trade either at the deadline—and signed by the Sixers, Brett Brown’s bench turned into 2016-17 Rockets Lite. The duo attempted (and made) more shots per game than any other Philly reserve by the end of the season, providing Ben Simmons and Co. an additional 24.4 points per game combined. Since Phillaysova joined the team in March, the Sixers have gone 24-5. Their one-year deals are costing $1,341,935. That’s 15 times less than what the Sixers are paying Jerryd Bayless and Amir Johnson combined this season.

Rockets: Luc Mbah a Moute

Mbah a Moute was with the Clippers last season, but wasn’t part of the blockbuster Chris Paul trade; he signed for the $2.1 million veteran’s minimum in free agency after the fact. Fast-forward 10 months, and he’s a critical piece of the NBA’s best team; if the shoulder injury he suffered prior to Round 1 lingered into their series against the Jazz, it could’ve had major repercussions. The Rockets didn’t have to reach too deep into their pockets for the 31-year-old journeyman, but his ability to guard multiple positions has become as important as Clint Capela’s ability to finish lobs. Honorable mention goes to Gerald Green, who will protect Paul at all costs.

Cavaliers: Uh ...

Right, so … [skims down Cavaliers roster] getting Kendrick Perkins for so cheap is … and, um, that Tristan Thompson signing in 2015 is paying real dividends …

Only one person on the entire roster–coaching staff–front office undoubtedly makes LeBron James happy, and that’s Cedi Osman, whom Cleveland signed after he spent the past five seasons in the Turkish Basketball League. And since LeBron is the only player that matters on the Cavs, this is the only signing that matters.

Raptors: Fred VanVleet

“When Fred is out there,” Pascal Siakam said last Friday, after the Raptors eliminated Washington in Round 1, “we feel complete.” VanVleet’s NBA career was grown from the ground up: After going undrafted in 2016, he was signed off of Toronto’s training-camp roster. He was soon a G Leaguer with a handful of guards in front of him, hoping to be Kyle Lowry’s backup. A season later, he’s the playmaker for perhaps the most underrated bench in the league.

Celtics: Pretty Much Everyone

Boston took a bunch of seemingly made-up players like Daniel Theis, Guerschon Yabusele, and Abdel Nader and turned them into an NBA bench. The front office drafted Semi Ojeleye in the second round, and three years ago they took 6-foot-2 Scary Terry Rozier 16th overall. Take your pick.

Jazz: Royce O’Neale

The very last player to make the Jazz’s 15-man roster is now a major cog in the postseason’s second-best defense. O’Neale’s had a long path to becoming a 24-year-old rookie: The Baylor product went undrafted, spent the past two seasons overseas, then got teeth knocked out in his very first workout with Utah. Now, the 3-and-D wing is guarding James Harden and starting in the second round of the NBA playoffs.

Pelicans: Darius Miller

Before this season, Miller looked like another Kentucky product who couldn’t stick in the NBA. He was drafted in the second round in 2012, then spent time abroad after three bleh seasons with New Orleans. Then the Pelicans signed him again, and what never happens with an ex actually did: It worked out.

Miller is the team’s second-most accurate 3-point shooter (41.1 percent), after only E’Twaun Moore. He attempts the third-most deep shots, despite coming off the bench, and has made a reputation for himself as a reliable spot-up threat who contributes the most points of any Pelicans reserve.