Free Agency

A guide to the buyout season

david lee celt

After the trade deadline, the next and final part of the player movement schedule before the summer in the NBA is the buyout market.

Typically, the buyout season features veteran players on the final year of their contracts on teams that are out of the playoff picture, and are focusing on cutting costs or opening up playing time for young players. The trade deadline is the last opportunity for teams to try and grab some value for players that they don’t use as a part of their future – either for even a lowly second-round pick or a player on a longer contract that another team doesn’t want.

There are a few noteworthy exceptions however. For example, teams may be willing to swallow a bigger buyout if a change of culture is needed. Glen “Big Baby” Davis was bought out by the Magic with two more years left on his deal after butting heads with Stan Van Gundy and having some off-the-court issues back in 2014. In 2013, the Rockets bought out Patrick Beverley’s (part of which Beverley paid for himself, due to restrictions in the CBA) contract when he was playing internationally, and the Spurs negotiated a buyout with Aron Baynes’ with Olimpija Ljublijana for $400,000 – both of which turned out to be great moves for their respective teams.

On the other side of the equation, playoff teams that are looking to bolster their rotation with solid spot minutes have the opportunity to sign players that have been waived and are now on the free agent market. Some teams have mini mid-level, mid-level or other exceptions they can fit a potential player’s salary into, and teams can always extend a minimum contract offer regardless of being over the salary or luxury cap lines. By the first of March, players will have to sign with their new teams to be eligible to play in the playoffs.

Here’s a look at the top candidates to be bought out, and thoughts on their potential to help playoff teams in the standings during the last two months of the season and in the post-season.

David Lee

Lee is the No. 1 buyout candidate right now and it’s almost a certainty that the Celtics will come to an agreement to allow him to enter free agency.

Lee hasn’t been able to crack the Celtics’ rotation, and is averaging a career low 15.7 minutes per game in just 30 games this season. In the first part of the season when Brad Stevens tried playing Lee, he wasn’t good and was regularly the only contributor on the Celtics who was in the negative in the plus/minus column. For the season, Boston has been outscored by 4.0 points per 100 possessions with Lee on the court, compared to outscoring opponents by 5.6 points when he’s on the bench – a difference equivalent to the difference in net rating between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the New Orleans Pelicans.

Lee’s ability as a post scorer has degraded as he’s aged, scoring just 0.79 points per possession on post-ups this season, ranking him in the 39th percentile. A skill you would have hoped Lee would require as he aged was shooting, but only 14 percent of his field goal attempts have come from beyond 10 feet, and Lee has made less than 30 percent of those attempts.

However, Lee still has one clear NBA skill left. He’s an elite passer in pick-and-roll situations as the roll man. This skill isn’t completely inconsequential and actually changed parts of the Warriors’ Finals series against the Cavaliers. Lee actually, for a second there, performed better on the “short roll” reads than Draymond Green.

Double the pick-and-roll ball handler and Lee will make the right read every single time, and even this season he’s been averaging an elite 4.1 assists per 36 minutes.

Defensively, Lee is slow and doesn’t protect the rim at all. Against teams with a shooter at power forward, it’s impossible to ask him to chase those players around the perimeter and recover to shooters on time.

Teams that need depth on the frontline could still use Lee, and if the offense really bogs down he can work as a facilitator to open things up. but finding the right fit is tough.

The Cavaliers are already filled with talented front line guys in Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov. Moreover, they’re gearing up to play the Warriors and have no use for players who can’t stay on the court defensively. The Mavericks can’t absorb his defense with Dirk Nowitzki already being a subpar defender on the front line.

The Grizzlies could be a great fit for Lee, and he can take Marc Gasol’s place as a playmaker, who is out for the year with a broken foot.

The Heat are playing Amare Stoudemire as their de-facto third big when they don’t play small-ball, and Lee could be a potential option instead of him for those minutes. Miami ranks 23rd in offensive efficiency right now, and they may want to take a swing at Lee to improve those numbers. Chris Bosh’s health is obviously the major question mark, and hopefully he’ll be okay.

kevin martin minn

Kevin Martin

Martin has always been a superbly efficient scorer, despite his relatively low shooting percentages because of his ability to get to the foul line. Even this season, shooting 37.5 percent from the field, Martin has been able to scrape to average efficiency thanks to his 8.5 free throw attempts per 100 possessions.

A team looking to bolster their wing depth and add scoring could be interested in Martin, and that team would sign him with the hope that his efficiency numbers bounce back to elite in a clearly defined role.

The Timberwolves are going in another direction, and really have no use for Martin, who has a player option for next season. Martin is pretty big money to just eat up as a sunk cost, but with Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad, and hopefully Zach LaVine moving to a bigger role as a shooting guard, playing Martin 22.6 minutes per game isn’t needed.

Martin may be a good option for the Cavaliers as a spot-up shooter, but his main strength is getting to the foul line – meaning he does need the ball to succeed.

The Bulls could use another good wing player, and Martin is a veteran option that they can rely on if playing Tony Snell becomes untenable. After lighting teams up last year, the Hawks offense has been just average. Martin could grab minutes over Thabo Sefolosha in case his shot leaves him in the playoffs again.

Playing Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford is cute during the regular season, but the Clippers desperately need a wing to go up against Klay Thompson, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant. Martin isn’t a better choice, but considering their needs the Clippers could talk themselves into giving Martin a shot.

hickson

JJ Hickson

Hickson is known as an energy guy and a great rebounder, and his 11.0 career rebound average per 36 minutes is almost historically good for such a lengthy period of time. Over with the advanced stats crowd however, Hickson has been known as the worst rebounder ever, relative to how many rebounds he grabs.

It seems counter-intuitive, but how good of a rebounder you are has very little to do with how many rebounds you get. Roy Hibbert and Bosh have been oft-maligned for their poor individual rebounding numbers, but it’s much more important to see how the team rebounds with them on the court. Marc Gasol has never in his career averaged 10 rebounds per game, but his teams have always been much better with him on the court on the boards.

Hickson is the anti-Gasol and anti-Bosh, and his teams have uniformly rebounded the ball better with him off-the-court.

Despite the fact that Hickson’s rebounding, his perceived strength, really isn’t that great for the team, some teams still view him as an energy guy who can help off the bench with his intensity.

The Hawks rank 29th in total rebounding percentage, which is the team’s biggest weakness. However, Atlanta really values floor spacing and Hickson can’t really shoot outside of three feet. Even at his best, Hickson has an unreliable jumper and doesn’t take three-pointers.

Another team surprisingly at the bottom of the league in team rebounding is the Clippers, ranking 28th, just ahead of the Hawks. Mainly the problem is on the wings. Crawford, JJ Redick and Rivers both manage to somehow get under two rebounds per game, which is unfathomable considering they play over 20 minutes per game. When the Clippers are criticized for not being able to add good 3-and-D wings around their big three, the underrated aspect of losing those types of long defenders is that they can’t rebound the ball at all, and are completely reliant on DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin to grab literally every board.

Jan 24, 2016; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) defends against Brooklyn Nets forward Joe Johnson (7) during second half at Barclays Center. The Nets defeated the Thunder 116-106. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Johnson

Currently, the two highest paid players in the NBA are Kobe Bryant and Johnson. JJ’s contract was bad almost the moment he signed it with Atlanta, and the team managed to pull off a coup being able to move him to the Nets and actually take back assets – one first rounder and another second. A move they would have made even without any sweeteners to be sure. Another Nets loss in the Billy King-era.

As wing players slow down, it can be quite beneficial to move them up a position or two to make up for the speed deficit and use their skills at one of the big positions to stretch the defense. Johnson has probably hit that point in his career and, a la Paul Pierce, he’s probably at his best as a power forward in small-ball units.

For the season, Johnson is averaging 11.5 points per game, the lowest mark since the 2002-03 season, and he’s only making 40.0 percent of his attempts. On the plus side, he still gets rebounds and assists, and can make three-pointers at a high rate.

Thanks to their poor rebounding situation on the wing and need for three-point shooting, the Clippers would be a pretty good fit for JJ. The Nets would have to pay a pretty big sum for Johnson to agree to a buyout, but he can definitely still help a team.

The Heat haven’t shot the three well this season, and Johnson could fit well in small-ball lineups featuring Gerald Green, Justise Winslow and Dwyane Wade. These lineups could switch a ton to give headaches to other team’s offenses.

The Mavericks are still playing Charlie Villanueva, who is a disaster on both ends. Rick Carlisle often finishes with lineups featuring multiple guards, and in the last six minutes of close games there have been pretty funky four-man combinations featuring Deron Williams, Raymond Felton, John Jenkins, Jeremy Evans and Wesley Matthews. Johnson would keep the Mavs a bit bigger, which helps the defense on the wing, and add to their three-point shooting.

The Thunder still have a problem between either playing the defense of Andre Roberson, or choosing the shooting of Anthony Morrow (the two of whom would combine to make an awesome player). Johnson would give the Thunder a taste of both worlds. The Thunder’s lack of depth on the wing will get highlighted in the playoffs in small-ball units featuring Kevin Durant at power forward getting heavier minutes – a move that is a lock to happen and makes the Oklahoma City virtually unguardable – and adding Johnson could really help them, provided Johnson would be willing to sign for the minimum to be on a true championship contender.

hibbert duncan

Roy Hibbert

Roy Hibbert is probably the least threatening offensive player in the NBA getting big minutes right now. He’s only shooting 44.4 percent from the field, a disastrous mark for a low-usage 7-foot-2 player, and the Lakers have been outscored by a ridiculous 15.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the court. In Offensive Real Plus-Minus, Hibbert ranks 71st among 76 qualified players.

The reason to go after Hibbert is his defense as he’s still an elite rim protector. Opponents are shooting 48.8 percent at the rim with Roy Hibbert defending the play, which is a great mark considering the complete lack of perimeter defense on the Lakers.

However, even defensively that’s where his usefulness ends. Rim protection is a key part of a successful defense, perhaps even the most consequential part of it, but in an era with a ton of shooting and spacing on the court, it’s become increasingly important for bigs to be able to move their feet and cover larger distances defensively.

Hibbert is among the slowest NBA players right now, and he has no shot to stay in front of anyone on switches. A team would have to be in desperate need of rim protection and a back-up big to be interested in Hibbert. For 10 minutes a game, though, there are ways to use his rim protection to help, and that’s a clear skill that he can contribute.

The Grizzlies are in need of center minutes, but they already have spacing problems and Hibbert would completely torpedo what’s left of their offense now that Gasol is out. The Grizzlies defense would probably be pretty good with him, but signing Hibbert would also clog the Memphis’ games down to a point where they would become unwatchable.

The Hornets and Celtics don’t have great individual defenders at the rim, but both have done well defensively thanks to smart schemes and players making multiple efforts every possession. Defensively, the fit for both may make some sense, but signing Hibbert would completely go against anything a team that values pacing and space holds important.

stojakovic dallas

The impact of buyout players

By and large, most players that are bought out don’t make an impact on contending teams. In 2011, Peja Stojakovic was bought out by the Raptors and signed by the Mavericks, and he legitimately helped them win playoff games on the road to a title. Most players that bad teams don’t want just don’t make an impact on the good ones, though providing a few minutes here and there can be valuable.

Every year there are role players in the playoffs who make an impact, perhaps with a timely three-pointer or fighting for a 50/50 ball that changes the momentum in a crucial game. You never know where success stories come from.

Teams fighting for a championship need the boost, and every potential edge they can get is extremely valuable. If getting Joe Johnson off the waiver wire – if he reaches an agreement for a buyout with the Nets – increases the Thunder’s chances of winning a title by just 0.1 percent, that’s a move they have to make. Kevin Martin may go off for five three-pointers in a game because the defense is focused on covering the other threats. Who knows what could happen?

Mika Honkasalo is an NBA writer, geek, chart maker and most of all fan. He studies computer science and works in software development and business analytics. His writing can be found at Nylon Calculus and Vantage Sports, and you can find him on Twitter @mhonkasalo.

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