The NBA’s annual trade deadline is in the books, but teams still have one more way to add talent heading into the stretch run: dipping into the buyout market to sign players not currently under contract elsewhere in the league.
On balance, the returns on such late-season additions don’t tend to be all that great. Some post-deadline signings do pan out, though. Think P.J. Brown grinding for the 2008 Celtics, or Peja Stojakovic bombing away on the 2011 Mavericks. Remember how the Spurs landed a returning-from-China Patty Mills and a post-Charlotte-hibernation Boris Diaw in 2012, or how Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova totally revamped the 76ers’ offense in 2018. Picture Chris “Birdman” Andersen giving LeBron James a huge rim-protecting lob threat in Miami in 2013, or Enes Kanter helping fuel the Trail Blazers’ run to the Western Conference finals last spring.
It’s those successes that keep owners and general managers going back to the well time and again, and this season—which has already seen the Bucks pluck Marvin Williams out of Charlotte, with his former Hornets teammate Michael Kidd-Gilchrist also on the move, headed to Dallas—figures to be no exception. Let’s take a look at some players who might have a chance to move the needle for a team in need between now and the start of the postseason:
Tristan Thompson, C, Cavaliers
We’ll get this one out of the way early: After holding on to Thompson at the deadline despite his reported desire to hitch up with a contender, and despite swinging a deal to import Andre Drummond, the Cavaliers don’t plan to buy out Thompson’s contract, according to The Athletic’s David Aldridge.
By keeping Thompson into the summer, when hardly any impact free agents will hit the market and few teams will have significant cap space, Cavaliers GM Koby Altman preserves the chance to find sign-and-trade deals that would send Thompson to a team eager to add a tough defender and rebounder, and willing to send young talent and/or draft capital back to Cleveland. By staying put, Thompson continues to earn every cent of the rest of the $18.5 million he’s owed this season, the final year of the five-year, $82 million deal he signed in 2015. Keeping him also ensures that the Cavs retain his Bird rights, allowing them to go over the salary cap to re-sign him before shipping him off to a team that would again be able to go over the cap to absorb his new deal; this opens the door to securing a more lucrative pact than he’d receive on the open market. The arrangement makes sense for both sides.
But if, for some reason, feelings about that arrangement change between now and March 1—any player waived before that deadline is eligible for postseason play—Thompson would instantly become the most coveted player available. He remains a relentless and voracious offensive rebounder, pulling down the league’s fourth-highest share of his teammates’ misses—a skill that tends to go overlooked during the regular season, but that gets magnified in playoff games when the ability to extend possessions and generate second-chance points can demoralize defenses and swing games. Even after all the hard-driven miles he logged during four straight Finals runs in Cleveland, he still moves well enough defensively to hold his own for a spell when switched onto smaller guards on the perimeter, and has the size and strength to bang with burly post-up threats on the block.
If Thompson reaches the market, expect the Clippers (who might want another big for a potential Anthony Davis matchup) and Celtics (ditto, but for Joel Embiid) to be at the front of the line. He might be too tall for the game Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey are running in Houston these days, but I’d imagine the perpetually all-in Rockets would make a bid, too.
Maurice Harkless, F, New York Knicks
Before he was the contractual makeweight in the deal that sent Marcus Morris to the Clippers for a first-round pick, Harkless was pretty damn good in L.A. this season. The 26-year-old averaged 5.5 points, four rebounds, an assist, and a steal in 22.8 minutes per game with the Clips, shooting 51.6 percent from the field and 37 percent from 3-point range. At 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, he can defend both frontcourt spots and even provide spot duty on smaller guards and larger bigs, too.
It’s unclear whether the Knicks will look to buy the Queens native out. If they do, though, he should find a few suitors. Dallas might have made sense, as a team in need of a versatile defender on the wing, before it signed Kidd-Gilchrist. The Lakers could, too, after missing out on Morris and seeing both Andre Iguodala and Robert Covington go elsewhere. He’d fit well in Houston’s “what if we played small, but with big wings who can do a few different things?” approach. Oklahoma City could also use a more stable and consistent perimeter player to step in at the 3.
Reggie Jackson, G, Detroit Pistons
Marc Stein of The New York Times reported Friday that Jackson was “still assessing whether to pursue a buyout” or stick around to collect the rest of the $18.1 million he’s guaranteed in the final season of his five-year, $80 million contract, which expires this summer. Jackson said he hadn’t thought about it after Stein’s report, but I’m betting he’s thought about it more since Darren Collison decided to remain retired; if Jackson agreed to terms on a buyout, he’d become arguably the best point guard on the market.
Granted, that might not be saying much for the crop of potentially available table-setters. (Some other names to watch in the backup point guard market: the just-waived Trey Burke and Tim Frazier; the perhaps-about-to-be-waived Brandon Knight; maybe Matthew Dellavedova.) But when he’s healthy—an admittedly large caveat for someone who has missed 30 or more games in three of the past four seasons (including this one)—Jackson can resemble a credible high-volume pick-and-roll creator and complementary scoring threat.
Jackson can facilitate for others and take care of the ball, with a 3.2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio this season. He hardly ever gets to the rim or the foul line, but he’s pretty consistently viable with his midrange J. He’s not a knockdown 3-point shooter, hitting just under 36 percent of his triples during his tenure in Detroit, but he’s been a bit better on catch-and-shoot attempts, hitting 37.7 percent of his tries over the past five seasons. He’s made four trips to the playoffs, and played a major role in tilting a series in 2014 with his play off the bench. Jackson hasn’t quite panned out as a leading playmaker. In a smaller role, though, he could provide an offensive boost for a team in need of a second-unit jolt.
The Lakers, who have Rajon Rondo averaging 21 minutes per game, and Quinn Cook and Troy Daniels combining for 23, might be such a team. Then again, Jackson’s agent is CAA’s Aaron Mintz, whose relationship with the Lakers is … shall we say … thorny.
Besides: It sounds like Rob Pelinka and Co. might be looking elsewhere for help in the backcourt. To wit:
Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith, Free Agents
Smith, 34, hasn’t played in an NBA game in nearly 15 months after being “exiled” from the Cavs locker room. Waiters, 28, has made just three appearances this season—which is also the number of suspensions he racked up in Miami for “failure to adhere to team policies, violation of team rules and continued insubordination.”
Expecting either to step into the thick of a title chase and meaningfully contribute in a positive way feels like an awfully big ask. J.R., God bless him, has looked mostly cooked as a defender and supplemental creator since the 2016 championship, and that’s before taking more than a year off. Waiters has played more recently, but has also played himself out of a job: Pat Riley shipped him to Memphis in the deal that brought Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder to the Heat, and the Grizzlies wasted no time in deciding that Waiters’s services would not be required, preferring to waive him, even though he had another year and $12.6 million left on his contract.
None of this seems like the stuff that Forum blue and gold championship dreams are made of. And yet: The Lakers are expected to at least kick the tires on Smith and Waiters—who, we must note, are both Rich Paul clients and members of the Klutch Sports family—in hopes that they can still provide some approximation of the 3-point-shooting, off-guard-defending, secondary-creating games each flashed in better days.
LeBron James has experienced the highs and lows of life with J.R.; he played just 33 games with Waiters in Cleveland before then–Cavs GM David Griffin shipped Dion out in the three-team deal that, ironically enough, brought Smith and Iman Shumpert to Northeast Ohio. Does James think that either can help improve the Lakers’ chances of winning it all this season? (Waiters, in particular, brings an ability to create his own shot that’s in short supply in the Lakers backcourt.) Or does a Lakers team that’s seemed to be fueled by great chemistry all season—and that finds itself in a uniquely odd position when it comes to making roster changes right now—instead decide that, when it comes to bringing in talented but also potentially volatile swingmen, discretion might be the better part of valor?
Iman Shumpert, G/F, Free Agent
Smith and Waiters both carry (or, at least, carried) greater offensive upside, but Shumpert might be a better option for teams looking for defensive help. You never could quite call Shump a 3-and-D guy; he’s shot 36 percent or better from deep just twice in nine NBA seasons. But the 29-year-old—who played pretty well early last season in Sacramento, wound up making eight playoff appearances last spring for Houston, and spent about a month in Brooklyn earlier this season before being waived in mid-December—has the size (6-foot-5, 215 pounds), length (6-foot-7 wingspan), and quickness to guard multiple perimeter positions. That, plus his reputation as a good dude to have in the locker room, could earn him another look.
Evan Turner, F, Minnesota Timberwolves
The former no. 2 draft pick has barely played this season, logging just 251 minutes over 19 games for a rebuilding Hawks team that seemed to have little use for him. (This, despite desperately needing a second ball handler to make something happen offensively when Plan A—loosely described as “Trae Young, Do Some Cool Shit, Please”—isn’t working or available.) Turner wound up on the move to Minnesota in the four-team deal that brought Clint Capela to Atlanta, but he’s evidently not long for the Twin Cities:
Evan Turner did not attend Wolves press conference today. Both sides discussing a buyout. Wolves are going young. The vet Turner would like to play for a contender, so the options are being explored.— Jon Krawczynski (@JonKrawczynski) February 7, 2020
Finding a fit for Turner on a “contender” is a bit tricky. One potential option: the Boston Celtics. Sean Deveney of Heavy.com reported before the deadline that Boston, for whom Turner played the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, “would be interested in bringing him back.”
The 31-year-old played some of the best ball of his NBA career as a backup point forward in Brad Stevens’s offense, averaging 10 points, five rebounds, five assists, and one steal in 27.8 minutes per game over two seasons. He’d be joining a very different Boston team from the one he left, one built around the scoring and playmaking flair of Kemba Walker and the two-way talents of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown; how he’d fit into a new structure, and how much he could contribute within it, remain to be seen. But if Danny Ainge is looking for a way to potentially upgrade the end of the bench, Turner might be worth a look.
Isaiah Thomas, PG, Free Agent
Speaking of ex-Celtics: Thomas’s bummerific post-Boston journey continued when, as part of a three-team deadline deal, he got shipped from a Wizards team struggling to win 35 percent of its games across the country to the Clippers, one of the very best teams in the league … only to be almost immediately let go.
Thomas’s hip injuries have cost him the explosive quickness that fueled his off-the-dribble game during his Boston heyday. He did show in Washington that he could still be a productive offensive player, averaging 12.2 points and 3.7 assists in 23.1 minutes per game while shooting 41.3 percent from 3-point land on nearly five attempts per game. The bad news: The 5-foot-9 point man is still a massive liability at the point of attack, with the Wizards giving up an eye-popping 120.2 points per 100 possessions when he was in the game. Teams in need of playmaking and shooting off the bench might check in on IT, but at this stage, his offensive gifts aren’t devastating enough to overwhelm opponents to the point that they justify what he gives back on the other end.
Tyler Johnson, G, Free Agent, and Courtney Lee, G, Mavericks
The Suns just let Johnson go, an acknowledgment that he’d slipped in Phoenix’s guard rotation behind not only starters Devin Booker and Ricky Rubio, but also young points Elie Okobo and Jevon Carter; Phoenix “released him with the understanding that there wouldn’t be much of a role for him the rest of the season,” according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. It’s possible, though, that there could be a role for him elsewhere.
Johnson’s not a dynamic creator, and his shot’s gone from pretty reliable to downright shaky. But he can be a possession’s caretaker, and at 6-foot-3 with a 6-foot-6 wingspan, Johnson’s got enough size to defend either guard position. That’s how he first earned his minutes in Miami as an undrafted free agent out of Fresno State, and how he eventually performed well enough to convince the Brooklyn Nets to tender him a four-year, $50 million offer sheet in restricted free agency that he claimed made him throw up a couple of times. Johnson is unlikely to be in line for that kind of payday again, but he could provide “in case of emergency, break glass” backcourt depth for a team dealing with injuries.
Like Johnson, Lee has found himself stuck in the back of the super-deep Dallas backcourt, which features Luka Doncic, Tim Hardaway Jr., Seth Curry, Delon Wright, Jalen Brunson, and J.J. Barea. While he has seen some more floor time with Doncic (right ankle sprain) out of the Mavericks’ past three games, it’s unlikely that Lee will continue receiving a steady diet of minutes. If Dallas decides to let him go, he could be a low-risk, high-reward signing; a steady veteran with lots of playoff experience who has hit nearly 39 percent of his 3-pointers in his career and who can still play some D might generate interest in a market where everybody’s always looking for more shooting and more perimeter defense.
Other names to keep an eye on: Markieff Morris (Pistons), John Henson (Pistons), Omari Spellman (Timberwolves), Allen Crabbe (Timberwolves), Bobby Portis (Knicks), Wayne Ellington (Knicks), Taj Gibson (Knicks), Jeff Green (free agent), Jamal Crawford (free agent).