In the NBA, superstars win you titles. It’s no accident that the two teams in this year’s Finals had 7 of the top 25 players in the league. The more stars on your team, the better your chances of playing in June.
But to get to the promised land, a team needs complimentary pieces. Guys who know their role. There comes a time every season when a role player makes a critical contribution. This year Kelly Olynyk’s 26 points won Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals for the Celtics, and Andre Iguodala came alive with 20 points (season average 7.6) in the closeout Game 5 of the Finals. Stars get you rings, but it’s rare they do it by themselves.
This year, free agency will be dominated by the movement of max players – Hayward, Griffin, Lowry and Millsap – and second tier starters – Ibaka, Redick and Holiday. Their decisions will have serious implications on the fortunes of about half the league. But underneath, there’s plenty of value. The following players may not draw the headlines this July, but they are good enough to create one next June.
Danilo Gallinari – Position: SF/PF – Salary last season: $16,100,000
Gallo just had the best two year stretch of his career. He shot the ball well, just missing out on the 50/40/90 club, and finally regained his bounce after a long recovery from a lost 2013/14. He had his best year from behind the arc since he was a rookie and got to the free throw line at a decent rate. A 6’10” shooter with range who gets to the line is a valuable asset in today’s NBA – pair him with a rebounding, shot blocking centre and he’s the perfect stretch 4. That being said, he’s a sieve on defence and rebounds poorly for his size, so he won’t mesh everywhere. He’d thrive next to Hassan Whiteside in Miami, and would be a great replacement for Hayward if he ends up leaving Utah. Although his durability is a genuine concern (never played all 82 games in a season), at the right price – and with some rim protection – he’ll cause problems in the playoffs.
Omri Casspi – SF/PF – $3,149,524
Coming off an injury-plagued 2016/17 campaign (36 games), Casspi is there to be had. His career averages of 8/4/1 look much better when averaged out per 36 minutes: 14/7/2. He isn’t the nimblest wing out there, but has the size and positional sense to hang on in the right defensive scheme. He spaces the floor (career .367 from deep), has enough savvy to dribble-drive past close-outs, and has a drive and kick game that fits any modern NBA offence. If a playoff-bound team can snare him for the veteran’s minimum he could be useful. Think Peja Stojakovic from the 2011 Mavericks. Most teams could use Casspi’s game and experience as a 7th or 8th man, but if the basketball gods are kind this offseason, they’ll put him on the Spurs.
Tyreke Evans – PG/SG – $10,203,755
2017 wasn’t a good contract year for Evans. His injuries only gave him 40 games to woo potential suitors, and he delivered career lows across the board (points, assists, rebounds); he was effectively a replacement-level player. His market is likely to be tepid, but you can guarantee there’s a team out there willing to lavish $40m on a secondary ball handler who thrives in the pick and roll and has career averages of 16/5/5. If the Clippers choose not to blow it up, they could get creative, while Minnesota or Dallas could use his playmaking. But Miami’s success with reclamation projects makes them an enticing destination (especially if Waiters bolts). He’s more likely to get a bigger deal on a lottery team, but it would be much more fun watching him dash the hopes of a fanbase while proving half the league wrong in a playoff series.
Rudy Gay – SF/PF – $13,330,000
If you squint hard enough on a good day, you can talk yourself into seeing a poor man’s Joe Johnson. Rudy Gay has only ever been to the playoffs once, so perhaps a very poor man’s Joe Johnson. He’s coming back from a ruptured achilles and probably still has the stank of the Sacramento Kings on him so there’s an element of risk. He may not be at full fitness until year 2 of his next deal. But Rudy can score. He has the size and (recovery permitting) quickness to operate as a small-ball 4 and irrespective of how little the advanced stats community thinks of him, at the right organisation, in the right mood, in the right matchup, he can be effective. Win a playoff series? Unlikely. Swing a playoff game? Sure! Dallas and the Clippers could both use his scoring for a playoff push, but he’s already been spotted in Oklahoma City and if they can clear some space, he and Paul George will significantly ease the burden on Russell Westbrook.
Tony Allen – SG – $5,000,000
A postseason without The Grindfather is a postseason lost. Consider: the 2017 playoffs were the most lop-sided ever; Tony Allen missed the playoffs for the first time in 11 years. Coincidence? You be the judge. Since he joined the Grizzlies in 2010, Allen has made 6 All Defensive teams (3 first, 3 second) and was the catalyst of the Grit & Grind era. At 35, he’s still one of the league’s premier on-ball defensive stoppers. On the other hand he’s almost a non-entity on the offensive end. Sure, you don’t need to run plays for him (he feasts on back cuts and transition baskets), but if you can’t shoot – Allen is not a good shooter – you end up playing four on five offensively and you lose your spacing. This becomes even more acute in the playoffs. In an era of position-less basketball, 3-point shooting and multiple playmakers, Tony Allen is an anachronism; a specialist with a very refined skill-set from a bygone era. But unleash that skill-set in the right matchup and he can have a profound effect on a series. He’s part of the furniture in Memphis but they’re in danger of being squeezed out of the 8. Miami or Toronto could use him as a designated Lebron-stopper (good luck), but his future may be better spent adding some veteran savvy for a playoff run in Denver.