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The Seven Most Intriguing Under-the-Radar Deals in NBA Free Agency

From a reclamation project in Detroit to the perfect plug in Miami, here are the signings you may have missed that could pay major dividends next season

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA is in a holding pattern for the time being, with the big deals struck at the start of the offseason long since put in the rearview mirror, and the major dominoes left standing—Kevin Durant’s trade request and its impact on Kyrie Irving, Donovan Mitchell’s future with the Utah Jazz, the Los Angeles Lakers’ Russell Westbrook problem—unlikely to topple until the onset of training camp. Let’s take advantage of our collective moment’s quiet by taking a closer look at a few lower-wattage, lower-price-tag moves worth noting, starting down in South Beach:

The Miami Heat Power Forward by Promoting From Within

Miami suffered one of the offseason’s toughest losses when P.J. Tucker pulled up stakes and headed north to rejoin old pals in Philadelphia—the opponent the Heat had just handily dispatched in the second round of the playoffs. Suddenly, a team that had downright quietly won more games than any other team in the Eastern Conference and came within one front-rimmed pull-up of the NBA Finals had lost its starting power forward, its first option to guard elite perimeter scorers, and a tenacious, versatile defender who locked perfectly into the switch-and-zone scheme that Erik Spoelstra deployed to produce the NBA’s no. 4 defense.

All else being equal, you’d imagine Spoelstra and the Heat’s front office would prefer to replace Tucker with another proven-commodity veteran who’s got plenty of playoff experience. (Well, they’d probably prefer to bring in Durant, but that’s proving pretty tricky.) Until or unless one of those comes available, though, the Heat will have to move forward (never look a gift pun in the mouth!) with what they’ve got on hand at the 4. That could mean a promotion for Caleb Martin, the 26-year-old who parlayed a two-way contract into a three-year, $20.4 million deal after earning his way into Spo’s rotation by grinding it out on both ends of the court, and who just might be Miami’s best bet at replicating Tucker’s work.

On a per-minute basis, they produced on a pretty similar level for the Heat last season …

Meet the New P.J.?

Player Points/36 Rebounds/36 Assists/36 Steals/36 Blocks/36 Turnovers/36 Fouls/36 2P% 3P% FT% BPM VORP
Player Points/36 Rebounds/36 Assists/36 Steals/36 Blocks/36 Turnovers/36 Fouls/36 2P% 3P% FT% BPM VORP
Caleb Martin 14.5 6.0 1.7 1.5 0.8 1.4 2.7 0.565 0.413 0.763 1.1 1.1
P.J. Tucker 9.8 7.0 2.7 1.1 0.3 1.2 2.9 0.540 0.415 0.738 0.6 1.3
Data via Stathead

… and, like Tucker, Martin brings a level of positional fluidity and on-the-ball tenacity that could make him a seamless fit in Miami’s existing structure. Among 272 players to notch at least 1,000 minutes in the NBA last season, Martin—who stands 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan—ranked 29th in defensive versatility and 44th in average matchup difficulty, according to The BBall Index, regularly guarding 1 through 4 and taking on tough assignments ranging from Durant and Khris Middleton to Stephen Curry and Trae Young.

Spoelstra raved last season about Martin’s ability to serve as the “definition of a Swiss Army knife” and an ever-flowing font of “winning plays that don’t necessarily show up anywhere” on the stat sheet. He makes ones that do show up, too: He averaged just under three deflections per 36 minutes of floor time, and was one of only 15 non-centers to log blocks and steals on more than 2 percent of opponents’ possessions. That’s a level of defensive havoc-wreaking that puts Martin in the company of menaces like Draymond Green, Patrick Beverley, Matisse Thybulle, and Herb Jones, and that helps generate the sort of transition opportunities that Miami’s offense feasts on:

To win the job starting in the frontcourt and slot between Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, Martin’s going to have to prove that he can hold up in a larger role than he’s ever had. (One fun note: the 37-year-old Tucker has played more minutes just in the postseason than Martin has in his career.) He’ll need to add heft to be able to wrestle with opposing centers on switches as deftly as Tucker did—something he swears he’s working on, so update your #MUSCLEWATCH files. He’s discussed developing the kind of screen-and-short-roll playmaking touch that Tucker provided last season. We’ll also have to see whether the 3-point stroke that produced more triples last season than Martin had made through his first two NBA campaigns sustains at higher volume—particularly from the corners, where Tucker’s made his living for the past decade, and where Martin shot 30-for-74 (40.5 percent) last season.

That is, admittedly, a lot of stuff to have to prove; I wouldn’t bet against the Heat continuing to poke and prod for more help at power forward as the season wears on. It’s notable, though, that Miami believed in Martin enough to give him a multiyear deal to earn the gig over fellow former two-way contract signee Haywood Highsmith and rookie Nikola Jovic—the most likely other in-house options, barring Spoelstra deciding to go huge by sliding Adebayo down to 4 to play next to another center or play small by moving Butler up to make space for another wing.

If Martin can check most of those boxes, and Miami’s stars stay healthier—Butler, Adebayo, Kyle Lowry, and Tyler Herro combined to miss a whopping 86 games last season—the Heat may find themselves in the running for the East’s top spot once again. If he can check all of them, the Heat might have gotten the best bargain of the summer—a prime-aged, high-end role player at a position of need for the low, low price of the taxpayer midlevel exception.

The Revamped Wolves Go Slo(Mo) and Steady

Minnesota’s chances of leaping up the Western Conference pecking order and contending for a championship depend on how Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert mesh in a massive new frontcourt. How well the big fellas work together, though, will likely depend on how neatly the complementary pieces fit around them. Over eight pro seasons, Kyle Anderson—brought in on a two-year, $18 million deal—has proved pretty adept at plugging a variety of gaps.

Want maximum size up front? Plug Slo-Mo, with his 6-foot-9 frame and 7-foot-3 wingspan, in at the 3 alongside Gobert and KAT, and let him match up with the opponent’s most dangerous wing on defense, while allowing him to use his estimable IQ to freelance with off-ball cuts while opponents focus on Minny’s starrier scoring threats. Need to split up the bigs? Anderson’s a ready-made reserve 4 with the bulk to bang and help out on the defensive glass. (He also did yeoman’s work in Memphis filling in for the oft-injured Jaren Jackson Jr., making him a valuable stopgap in case of an injury to one of Minnesota’s top-line bigs.) Time to throw a curveball and go small against an opponent without a Jokic-or-Embiid-sized monster in the middle? Put Anderson at the 5 flanked by shooters and playmakers, and let him spread the floor, lope, poke, and prod his way to havoc.

Chris Finch likely wouldn’t want to lean heavily on that kind of alignment, especially on a team paying $100 billion (roughly) to two centers, but it’s at least an option, thanks to Anderson’s versatility. He also provides a savvy ballhandling and playmaking element—4.4 dimes per 36 minutes during his four years in Memphis, a 2.3-to-1 career assist-to-turnover ratio—that the Wolves lacked at power forward last season. Another smart, steady decision-maker could be extremely useful for a Minnesota team that flamed out in fourth quarters against Memphis in the postseason—especially one who can both generate grab-and-go buckets in transition and thread the needle through tight squeezes in the half court.

Anderson’s a heady defender whose teams have almost always allowed fewer points per possession when he’s on the floor. The Wolves forced turnovers at the NBA’s second-highest rate last season, thanks largely to a hyperactive scheme that Slo-Mo’s Grizzlies picked apart in the playoffs; getting Gobert to protect the paint will allow them to dial back the blitzes, but adding Anderson might help keep those turnover numbers up. The combination of length and instincts makes Slo-Mo a quiet chaos agent, averaging the same number of deflections per-36 as PatBev did last season.

The concern: Playing Anderson, a career 33.4 percent 3-point shooter, alongside Gobert will embolden opponents to pack the paint in hopes of jamming up the Wolves’ offense. The glass-half-full take: Slo-Mo’s just a year removed from shooting 36 percent from deep on five attempts per 36, and while his touch fell off a cliff last season, he’s long boasted a pretty sound floater and midrange game. If his 3-point shooting numbers bounce back, and if Anderson’s able to translate his chameleonic game to a new setting, he could be a pitch-perfect role player for a Wolves team intent on making a massive leap next season.

Can a Reclamation Project Provide Detroit Some Muscle?

A zag, if you’ll permit it: While Martin, Anderson, and some other players we’ll discuss later profile as potentially important role players on playoff teams, Marvin Bagley III occupies a somewhat different space. Four years after the Kings infamously chose him over Luka Doncic, Bagley’s now a “second draft” candidate on a Pistons team that’s entering Year 3 of a rebuild—and still trying to figure out where he fits on the NBA level.

Predraft concerns about Bagley’s “tweener” status—not sound enough defensively to play center, not a good enough shooter or passer to play power forward—largely proved true throughout his tenure in Sacramento. An already bad Kings defense fared even worse with Bagley on the floor during his three-plus seasons in California’s capital; it was downright abysmal when he played the 5, giving up points at or near league-worst levels whenever he slotted in as the last line of defense. And while the former Duke star showed the capacity to get buckets, his underwhelming shooting numbers—just 29.9 percent from 3-point range and 67.1 percent from the free throw line as a King—made him a tricky piece to fit next to more traditional centers like Kosta Koufos, Richaun Holmes, and Hassan Whiteside. (This, you might remember, is one big reason Sacramento spent $40 million on stretch-5 Dewayne Dedmon. That didn’t go so hot, either.)

Those shortcomings—combined with frequent injuries, the stellar performances of the three players chosen after him, and some very public disputes over his role—left Bagley on the outside looking in as the Kings set about yet another franchise reboot, shipping the once-prized prospect out in a four-team February swap. Landing with the Pistons seemed to give Bagley a new lease on life. He averaged 14.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game in Detroit, shooting 55.5 percent from the field, and quickly developed a rhythm with playmaking savant Cade Cunningham in the two-man game. Bagley produced 1.36 points per possession as the roll man in the pick-and-roll—22nd out of 154 players to finish at least 25 such plays, according to Synergy’s tracking.

The quick chemistry Bagley found with Cade in his 18-game debut was evidently enough to convince Pistons GM Troy Weaver to pay him $12.5 million per year for the next three seasons. That’s a pretty hefty wager by Weaver, considering how Bagley’s other issues persisted in Detroit (an 8-for-35 showing from long distance, 59.3 percent at the charity stripe, allowing 63.9 percent shooting at the basket) and the plethora of other 4/5 options (Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart, Kelly Olynyk, Isaiah Livers, Nerlens Noel, Jalen Duren) on the roster.

On the other hand, though, it’s a bet that Bagley plays like either the 21st-highest-paid power forward or the 16th-highest-paid center in the league next season, depending on which position you see him filling … which is to say, a fringe starter/first-big-off-the-bench-caliber performer, rather than an expected face-of-the-franchise-level centerpiece. If the 23-year-old can continue to improve as a defender against switches while keeping up his work as a vertical spacer and a second-chance producer on the offensive glass, he might just play up to that pay grade.

I’ll admit: “Maybe he can become sort of like a downmarket Brandon Clarke?” is pretty far from the lofty heights Bagley and his backers aspired to back when he was a Blue Devil. It’s a legitimate role, though, and until or unless Bagley starts stroking 3s or swatting shots, it might be his best path to sticking in the league and finding a way to stand out.

A few other smaller deals that could pay bigger dividends:

  • Danuel House Jr., two years, $8.4 million with the 76ers: James Harden’s somewhat controversial $15 million haircut allowed Daryl Morey to use the nontaxpayer MLE to snare Tucker from the Heat, but it also opened the door to using the biannual exception on House—another ex-Rocket, and an injection of size, athleticism, switchability, catch-and-shoot aptitude, and playing-off-of-Harden experience that the Sixers sorely needed on the perimeter. Don’t be surprised if the 6-foot-6, 220-pound two-way wing, who shot 41.5 percent from deep and took on tough perimeter assignments in a late-season stint with the Jazz last season, winds up slotting in next to De’Anthony Melton for major wing minutes off the Sixer bench—and, in the process, potentially pushing the offensively challenged Thybulle out of the picture.
  • JaMychal Green, one year, $2.6 million with the Warriors: For the most part, Golden State’s hopes of defending its title rest on the play of what Steve Kerr recently called his “foundational six”—core legends Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green; fellow starters Andrew Wiggins and Kevon Looney; and top reserve Jordan Poole. A team that lost 2,500-plus minutes of steady veteran frontcourt play in the departed Otto Porter Jr. and Nemanja Bjelica, though, was in the market for a capable set of hands off the pine just in case young guns Jonathan Kuminga and James Wiseman aren’t quite ready for prime time. Enter the 32-year-old JaMychal Green, who brings 49 games of postseason experience from his years with the Grizzlies, Clippers, and Nuggets; who can slot in comfortably at power forward or center; and whom two-time MVP Nikola Jokic once said he’d like to play with “for the rest of my life.” If Green can switch screens, protect the rim, and play in space while rehabilitating the 3-point stroke that cashed in 38.5 percent of the time over a five-season stretch, Steph, Draymond, and Co. might just find themselves feeling the same way.
  • Joe Ingles, one year, $6.5 million with the Bucks: We probably won’t get to see how this investment pays off until the spring, with Ingles continuing to work his way back from the torn left ACL that ended his season and, eventually, his eight-year tenure with the Jazz. And if the 34-year-old doesn’t come back looking capable of moving better on defense and knocking down shots more frequently than he did prior to going down last season, it might not wind up amounting to much. But watching the Bucks come up just short against Boston in the playoffs despite being without Khris Middleton and essentially playing seven guys, you got the sense that Milwaukee could use at least one more bankable option on the wing. If he’s healthy, the creative 6-foot-8 pick-and-roll playmaker from Australia—42.3 percent from deep with a 2.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio over his last five full seasons—could be just that.
  • Ricky Rubio, three years, $18.4 million with the Cavaliers: Like Ingles, Rubio’s season ended prematurely with a torn left ACL. Before going down, the Spaniard looked like a hand-in-glove fit as a pass-first playmaker off the bench, averaging 13.1 points, 6.6 assists, 4.1 rebounds, and 1.4 steals in 28.5 minutes per game for the surprising Cavs. He was serving beautifully as a caretaker behind the ascendant Darius Garland, as a table-setter capable of allowing the sweet-shooting Garland to work off the ball, and as a source of rejuvenation for former Minnesota teammate-turned-Sixth Man of the Year runner-up Kevin Love; Cleveland outscored opponents by 5.4 points per 100 possessions with Rubio on the floor. His absence, combined with Collin Sexton’s season-ending injury, put the weight of the world on Garland’s shoulders. Cleveland tried to alleviate it by using Rubio’s salary as a make-weight in a trade deadline deal for Caris LeVert, but never quite could restore order. Bringing Rubio back doesn’t necessarily answer every question in Cleveland—there’s still the matter of Sexton’s restricted free agency to settle—and, if he’s unable to get back to 100 percent following the injury, there might still be a playmaking gap to bridge. But bringing him back is an inarguable boon for the vibes of a Cavs team trying to build on last season’s stunning rise, and that ain’t nothing.