10 under-the-radar NBA free agents who could make a big splash
In this year’s NBA Finals, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant — three all-timers who have claimed seven of the last nine MVP awards — operated at the height of their powers. But it was an under-the-radar Warriors forward who finished with by far the best plus-minus of any player in the series: Andre Iguodala.
Iguodala finished the series +60, 20 points better than the next-most impactful player (Draymond Green was +40). And the 33-year-old Iguodala saved his best performance for last, playing 38 minutes, scoring 20 points, notching a +18, knocking down two vital threes, and playing excellent defense on James in the decisive Game 5.
Iguodala played so well that the Warriors were able to employ small-ball for most of the game, as JaVale McGee didn’t see the court and Zaza Pachulia played only 10 minutes.
Golden State acquired Iguodala in the 2013 offseason in a sign-and-trade deal involving the Nuggets and Jazz. The next year, the Dubs signed Shaun Livingston. And in the 2016 offseason, they inked three veteran big men (McGee, Pachulia, and David West) to bargain-basement deals. The three combined to make $5.7 million — nearly $2 million less than Channing Frye.
Role players don’t draw much attention when they sign with a new squad, but these players often prove to be difference-makers — even on the most talented teams.
Here are 10 under-the-radar free agents to keep an eye on this offseason.
10. Ersan Ilyasova
Ilyasova is a 10-year veteran who has bounced around after spending his first seven NBA campaigns with Milwaukee. He’s suited up for five teams in the past two years, but he’s still a valuable piece. Most recently he was dealt from the Sixers to the Hawks in exchange for Tiago Splitter and a second-round pick and potential pick-swap.
This season he averaged 10.4 points and 5.8 rebounds in 24.3 minutes per game for Atlanta. It wasn’t his best year, but he did notch 31 points in a January game, and throughout his career he’s consistently put up double-digit points and provided a punch on the offensive end.
The Turkish big man, a second-round pick in 2005, presents potential suitors with an interesting skill set. He can stretch the floor; he’s a career 35 percent three-point shooter. He’s a good pick-and-pop guy and he runs the floor.
Ilyasova, 6-foot-10 and 30 years old, lacks lateral athleticism, so he struggles to keep up with guards on switches, but he plays hard on defense and is a good rebounder. He could be a key bench guy for a contender.
9. Tony Allen
Allen is getting up there — he’s 35 now — but he’s still one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. He’s not showing signs of slowing down.
Allen, 6-foot-4, doesn’t get playing time for his offensive abilities, but he put up 9.1 points per game this season, the third-best mark of his career. The Grindfather also averaged 1.6 steals per game with Memphis this season.
Entering his 14th season, Allen has only played for two teams (Boston and Memphis), but he may well be looking for a third this summer, as the Grizzlies have several key free agents and a lot of money tied up in Mike Conley, Chandler Parsons, and Marc Gasol.
In a league filled with scorers, wings who can lock a guy up on the defensive end have real value (as we saw with Iguodala and Klay Thompson in the Finals). Tony Allen may have an Old Man Game, but it’s an important game.
Bruce Bowen, a similar player, competed in the NBA until he was 38. Allen should at least match that. When the season came to an end, Allen expressed his desire to return to Memphis.
8. Patrick Patterson
Patterson, a stretch forward out of Kentucky who feels like he’s been in the league forever, just recently turned 28.
He has been a key piece on the Raptors’ playoff teams of the past four years, but Toronto appears to be headed for a mini-rebuild — what else can you do when you’re so far from overtaking Cleveland? — and Patterson may depart with this era of North basketball. Patterson has expressed interest in returning to Toronto, but the team’s hands are tied because Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka are also free agents.
Patterson is the consummate example of a guy who doesn’t put up big stats, but simply finds ways to make his team better — the “glue guy.” He’s a good shooter, facilitator, and defender; he gets the ball moving on the offensive end and defensively, at an athletic and strong 6-foot-0, 235, he can switch on a wide range of players.
He’s played a consistent 24 minutes per game throughout his career, and has always hovered around 8 points and 5 rebounds per game. He’s been one of the more valuable bench players in the East over the past few years.
He’s also beloved in Toronto. It’s one of those special athlete-city relationships that unfortunately looks like it’s headed for its conclusion.
7. Ian Clark
Clark signed a 1-year, $1 million deal with Golden State last offseason. He was still a project at that point. Now he’s a verified solid backup point guard.
It’s unlikely Clark will want to leave the Warriors, where he has fit in well and been privy to a lot of winning, but they may have a tough time keeping him around. Clark had a career year, scoring 6.8 points per game as an energy guy off the bench.
He may be lured elsewhere by the promise of more money (he’s made less than $3 million in his career) and a bigger role. He knows Curry, who’s only three years older than him, will be the lead dog at the point for Golden State’s foreseeable future.
There are a lot of good point guards available in free agency this year — Kyle Lowry, George Hill, Jrue Holiday, and maybe even Chris Paul. Clark is probably not a starter, but the 26-year-old former undrafted free agent out of Belmont will garner significant interest from teams looking for lower-tier, more affordable help at the 1 spot.
6. Tyreke Evans
Evans is a head-scratching case study. The Memphis product, who was a one-and-done in 2008-09, is super talented, but he hasn’t lived up to expectations. Still, it feels like the former No. 4 pick is just searching for the right situation. His best season was his first, when he averaged 20.1 points and 5.3 rebounds per game.
Evans was sent back to Sacramento, his original NBA home, as part of the DeMarcus Cousins trade in February (Sacramento received Evans, Buddy Hield, Langston Galloway, and 2017 first- and second-round picks in exchange for Boogie and Omri Casspi, a trade that looks much more favorable for Sacramento now than it did at the time).
Evans has developed an improved three-point shot, and though his scoring numbers have dipped (he averaged 11.6 points per game this year), he remains an adept scorer and creator. He’s shifty in the paint, a good finisher, and capable of exploding for 30 on a random night. Though there are some parallels between Evans and Lance Stephenson, it wouldn’t be fair at this point to make that comparison; Evans is a better player, and he may still have some untapped potential.
Evans, 27, is poor on defense and has a history of injuries, so teams should approach signing him with caution, but it might be worth the risk to see if he finds a career resurgence a la Shaun Livingston.