Ten underrated NBA free agents who will impact the title chase

July 1 — and NBA free agency — is coming fast. The offseason has already reached insane heights; there were two blockbuster trades around the draft that ended with Jimmy Butler in Minnesota and Markelle Fultz in Philly, Phil Jackson was fired by the Knicks and David Griffin by the Cavs, and Chris Paul got traded to Houston. To top it all off, Butler gave out his phone number in his introductory press conference Thursday. If you’re wondering, the NBA still hasn’t jumped the shark.

But let’s zoom out for a second. The world will be focused on the marquee free agents come Saturday — Gordon Hayward, Blake Griffin, Paul Millsap — but let’s talk about the complementary guys. The Andre Iguodalas, J.J. Redicks, and George Hills of the world. The guys happy to play second-fiddle, who do the little things.

You can’t win a title with just three superstars, as all too many have learned the hard way. You need guys off the bench who are capable, who can perform in the clutch, play defense, space the floor, set picks and do all of the other little things that make a basketball team tick. These 10 will help decide who hangs a banner at the end of next season.

Andre Iguodala

Andre Iguodala

According to reports on Thursday, money could be an issue for Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob in re-signing Iguodala. Given that Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are also free agents, and the Warriors will probably have to dip into the luxury tax to retain the 2015 Finals MVP, this is a pretty big deal.

Iguodala’s positive impact on Golden State has been undeniably large. He was a vital part of the Death Lineup before Kevin Durant came and is a vital part of the Hamptons 5 lineup now that Durant is in the Bay. He’s the guy who guards LeBron James in the Finals, and the best player on the teams they play before Cleveland. He sacrificed a starting spot three years ago and it ended up being a huge part of the Warriors’ ascension. He deserves to get paid. (If you’re wondering why he qualifies as underrated, check the Sixth Man of the Year voting for the last two years.)

If he leaves the Warriors, it impacts the title chase no matter where he goes. Losing him would leave the champions without their best (really, their only good) defensive player off the bench. If he leaves to go to another contender — the Minnesota Timberwolves have been rumored — he could end up making an impact in the playoffs in another way. Imagine Iguodala anchoring Tom Thibodeau’s defense alongside Jimmy Butler, with Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns helping out. Maybe they won’t beat the Warriors, but it would be an interesting challenge.

J.J. Redick

Three-and-D players are requisite on any title contender, and Redick may be the best available in free agency this season. Not only has the former Duke star shot 44.6 percent from downtown over the past three years,  the Clippers also gave up two less points per 100 possessions with him on the floor as opposed to off.

Some of the metrics, such as real plus-minus, don’t rate Redick as a good defensive player, but this is a case where the eye test wins out. Redick isn’t perfect, especially as he ages, but he’s capable of checking nearly anyone on the perimeter. If he’s guarding, for example, James Harden in the playoffs, well, you’re not exactly confident because it’s James Harden, but you’re as confident with Redick as you’d be with anyone else.

Redick has been rumored to sign with the Brooklyn Nets or Philadelphia 76ers. Neither of those teams will contend for a championship this season — though the Sixers could end up making noise in the playoffs. On this end, we have to hope that a stronger contender enters the fray. The Washington Wizards could no doubt use someone of his caliber, if Redick were okay with coming off the bench. The Milwaukee Bucks and New Orleans Pelicans, the latter of whom has as much a shot in the West as any team other than the Warriors, Rockets, or Spurs, could give him a starting role without much trouble. Here’s hoping Redick gets a chance to have a playoff impact next year.

Jonathon Simmons


Simmons’ story is almost a caricature of the typical San Antonio Spurs pickup. An undrafted free agent who got into the league via paying $150 for a D-League tryout, Simmons has become a legitimate contributor for the Spurs over the past two seasons.

He’s one of those guys who does the little things. Plays hard, contributes on both ends, sets screens and is more than happy to play second-fiddle. It’s unlikely that he has a Kelly Olynyk-type performance out of nowhere in a Game 7, but Simmons played 20.4 solid minutes a game for the Spurs during the postseason. If a team like Golden State wants to add another capable bench player, Simmons will be there for a relatively low cost.

It’s worth noting here that Simmons is a restricted free agent, meaning that San Antonio has the rights to match any contract he signs on the open market. However, their situation is very fluid and who knows what their plans are now that Chris Paul — a top target — is off the market. If another contender decides to sign Simmons using the mid-level exception — or at least part of it — who knows if the Spurs will match?

Perhaps that gamble isn’t worth taking early in free agency when signing Simmons to an offer sheet would put cap space on hold for three days, potentially without reward, but after all the big guys are off the market, it’s worth it for a team like Golden State to go after him.

Danilo Gallinari

If you haven’t gotten around to watching the Denver Nuggets recently, you may have forgotten about Danilo Gallinari. Well, the Italian is currently hitting free agency and in his prime. A solid defender, Gallinari has scoring ability as well. He averaged 18.2 points per game last season on a career-high (saving for the 28-game season he played in 2008-09) 53.1 effective field goal percentage.

All told, Gallinari has a solid 17.4 PER last season and finished in the top-10 — above Paul George(!) — among small forwards in real plus-minus, with positive numbers on both offense and defense. That’s not to say Gallinari is better than George, any sane person knows he isn’t, but Gallo isn’t some sad sack bench player. The guy can make a difference on a title contender.

Right now, it looks like much of Gallinari’s free agency prospects will depend on where George and Gordon Hayward end up. Assuming Kevin Durant and Otto Porter Jr. are locks to stay put, Gallinari is the next-best option at the three this summer.

If a team like the Boston Celtics fails in their run at Hayward, he’ll be a potential target. Since he’s openly stated that returning to Denver is not his first choice, it could be a free-for-all to get him once teams lose out on Hayward and George. Gallinari won’t have the same impact as those guys, but he can be a starting player on a championship contender. Someone is going to pay him a lot of money this summer to do just that.

Nick Young

Perhaps the most surprising individual performance of the 2017 season belonged to Nick Young. His effective field goal percentage jumped over 12 points from 2016 to ’17, he forced far less bad shots, he passed the ball a decent amount, he was, in short, a good NBA player! Defense still seems optional to him, and a 14.1 PER isn’t something to write home about, but Young played well enough to opt out of his contract, something nobody would have predicted a year ago, when it seemed more likely that the Lakers would waive Young via the stretch provision than put him on the court.

The best precedence for what Young could receive in free agency comes from his former teammate in Lakerland, Lou Williams, who signed a three-year, $21 million deal in the summer of 2015, before the cap spike. Young’s contract may end up being worth more because of that cap spike, but expect it to be in the range of $7-$12 million per year, which is the money a good sixth man gets in this market.

And yes, Young’s defense will prevent him from being a major player in the postseason. But remember, Williams still got minutes during Houston’s postseason run and they managed to survive. Ditto for Ryan Anderson, another player who is simply horrible on defense.

Young is bad defensively, but he’s not on the Enes Kanter level, where you can’t even play him in a big game. Whoever signs Young will get a heat-check scorer off the bench, which is still a valuable player to have, defense or not. With the right coach, and the right teammates, Young’s poor defense can be mitigated.

George Hill

Hill may be 31 years old, but he continually ranks among the league’s most underrated point guards. In a market that features Curry, Kyle Lowry, Jrue Holiday and Jeff Teague at the same position — all better, younger, or both — Hill could very easily slip through the cracks.

There are only so many teams with a need at point guard — a fair number of them featured one of the players heading into free agency at the position last season — but Hill could slot in and be productive on any team. He had a 19.3 PER last season, can do a little bit of everything on both ends of the floor and is happy to play the complementary role as he has for his entire career.

The most-intriguing potential suitor for Hill, without a doubt, is the San Antonio Spurs. Hill spent the first three years of his career near the Riverwalk before Gregg Popovich dealt him to Indiana for the pick that became Kawhi Leonard. Seeing a reunion would no doubt be heartwarming, as well as give the Spurs a boost at point guard. The only snag is whether or not Tony Parker is okay with playing a secondary role.

Parker is 35 years old and coming off a quadriceps tear. To expect him to be the same player he was last season, let alone three seasons ago, may be asking too much, but the organization has too much respect for Parker to relegate him to a bench role without consent. Whether or not Parker accepts that role could decide just how much of a chance the Spurs have against Golden State next season.

Taj Gibson

Taj Gibson will be a highly sought-after free agent.

Gibson is too old at 32 to be looking at a deal longer than two or three years this summer, but he can certainly make a difference in the near-term. After being traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder last season, Gibson became a key part of their rotation, averaging 15.3 points and 7.6 rebounds per 36 while playing solid defense.

He can play that role again for a contender this season. Shooting range will always be an issue for Gibson — or any other power forward who can’t shoot threes– but in a bench role, that doesn’t matter quite as much. Without a doubt, Gibson could be a rich man’s David West. If that doesn’t sound particularly appealing, well, consider the alternatives for most contenders: late first-round or second-round picks and whatever scrubs they can convince to take the minimum.

Gibson’s salary will likely have an inverse relationship to the years on his contract. At 32, Gibson could probably get something similar to the $8 million he was paid last season on a one or two-year deal, but the per-year number goes down as the length of the contract gets longer.

Exactly who ends up signing him probably depends on who has cap room — or an open mid-level exception (which is roughly $8 million per year) — at the end of the frenzy which will occur over the first week of July, but Gibson can still contribute to a contender, if only in the short term. Expect to see him making an impact in the playoffs come April.

Jonas Jerebko

Jerebko is probably a seventh or eighth man on a title team, but that doesn’t mean he can’t have an impact. The fact is that any player who can be a part of a playoff rotation makes a difference and Jerebko put up 10.7 playoff minutes per game with the Boston Celtics — a team that went to the Eastern Conference Finals — last season.

If nothing else, Jerebko is a capable three-point shooter and passable defender who put up 7.9 rebounds per 36 last season. Not bad for an eighth man.

Like almost everyone else on this list, Jerebko’s ultimate destination will depend on who has cap space or is willing to use some sort of exception on him — presumably the mid-level. Jerebko made $5 million last season and will probably end up in the same range after free agency. Maybe he’ll get a slight raise in accordance with the cap spike. In any case, perhaps the potential destination where Jerebko can make the most difference would be Memphis. No team is in greater need of shooting off the bench, particularly at four.

The Grizzlies aren’t exactly a title contender, but they’re still a perennial playoff team, at least for now. They can — and probably will — compete in a series against a team like San Antonio or Houston, and Jerebko could conceivably make a difference in such a series, impacting the title that way. Or, he could go to San Antonio or Houston (probably not Houston given their cap situation) and impact the title by playing for them directly. Right now, it’s anyone’s guess.

Nene Hilario


Nene is heading into his age-35 season, so expect a one-year deal, but keep in mind that the Brazilian was Houston’s best bench player last playoffs, and their only bench player who could play a shred of defense. He was on the room exception for one-year and $2.8 million last season and a similar contract makes sense with virtually any contender, including re-upping with the Rockets.

Even though he’s coming off an injury, Nene is expected to be ready for training camp and at a low price, he’s worth the risk. Nene managed to put up an 18.9 PER at age 34 last season (albeit with some help from James Harden) and remains a solid offensive player. A good enough rebounder to get by, Nene is also a solid defender. Among centers, Nene was fourth in defensive real plus-minus last season.

For a bench player, at a low price, that is one hell of a bargain. Think about all the defensive problems the Warriors had at center with Zaza Pachulia and Javale McGee last season and imagine if they slotted in Nene. The 35-year old South American would fit the bill of a typical Gregg Popovich signing as well. Or, of course, he could simply stay in Houston and play with Harden and Chris Paul. If he’s willing to take the room exception, or a chunk of the mid-level, Nene will have options, and good teams will be vying for him.

Dion Waiters

If not for Swaggy P, Waiters would be the runaway winner of the imaginary “Player who had a shockingly good 2017 season award.” Waiters Island transformed from a desolate, third-world wasteland to a haughty resort in the blink of an eye. On a one-year, prove-it deal in Miami, Waiters shot a career-high 39.5 percent from three, averaged 19 points and five assists — blowing by his career-high — per 36 minutes, and spearheaded the Heat’s rise from the dead. In short, he proved it.

Waiters won’t start for a title contender anytime soon, but if he’s willing to come off the bench, as he did with the Oklahoma City Thunder, opportunities will be open for him. He’s only 25 years old and, at this point, it’s clear that he can ball.

Where Waiters ultimately goes will depend much more on cap space than other players on this list. It’s unclear exactly what he’ll command on the front office, but one imagines it will be more than the mid-level exception, meaning that suitors would have to take him into cap space. That takes teams like the Warriors, Cavaliers and Rockets out of the running, though the Celtics, Spurs and Wizards may have space depending on what happens with higher-priced free agents. Assuming Waiters does sign with a contender, he will get serious playoff minutes and could make a big impact on the title.