Building the 2017 NBA All-Underrated Free-Agent Team
Only a week elapsed before most of the NBA’s prized players had come off the board as teams attempted their best non-New York Knicks impressions. In the wake of that initial spending spree, many teams were left scrambling to find replacements once they’d missed out on their main targets.
And just like every year, certain players were overlooked as the market misjudged their value. Below are five of them, and together they form the 2017 All-Underrated Free-Agent Team. Note that these are not the best free agents still available, but rather the ones who will become the best bargains going forward, based on deals already signed at the time of publication and contracts to come shortly thereafter.
Forward: James Johnson (re-signed with Miami Heat for four years and $60 million)
Johnson was nearly an NBA afterthought, playing for five different teams (including two stints with the Toronto Raptors) in his first seven years. The 29 year-old forward might have finally found his niche with the Miami Heat, though, with whom he became one of the most fearsome defenders in the league.
That doesn’t mean he’s not a two-way player, as Johnson is certainly a plus on the offensive end. His 20.68 offensive points added (OPA) in 2016-17 left him in the 82nd percentile, he had an above-average effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) of 53.5 percent for the year and the Heat offense was 0.3 points per 100 possessions worse with Johnson off of the floor (109.1 offensive rating with him), per nbawowy.
However, it’s his value on the defensive end that puts him on this list.
His versatility and strength allow him to guard nearly every player on the floor. Despite losing 40 pounds over the offseason, he was even capable of bodying up DeMarcus Cousins:
The New Orleans Pelicans, thinking they have a mismatch in the low post, continuously look to get the ball to Cousins for a post-up, but Johnson relentlessly denies the entry pass, leading to a shot clock violation. He also has almost Draymond Green-esque awareness when it comes to timing and watching plays unfold. In the clip below, he is able to time the drive perfectly while avoiding contact and still manages to position himself perfectly to block Jordan Clarkson’s shot:
He uses his size to fight through screens, and he has a 7’1” wingspan that allows him to easily get his hands into passing lanes. It’s not difficult to see why he was in the 94th percentile of defensive points saved this past season with a team-high mark of 90.98. The Heat were 4.7 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Johnson on the floor, per nbawowy, and had a top-five defensive rating (105.5) during those minutes.
Age is a bit of a concern for Johnson. But at the right price, he could be the steal of the offseason.
Forward: JaMychal Green (restricted free agent for the Memphis Grizzlies)
NBA Math’s own Dan Favale covered Green’s rise back in March, so I’ll try to focus on some of the other things he brings to the table.
For a team lacking offensive firepower like the Grit-‘n’-Grind Grizzlies, this power forward became the player everyone once hoped Jeff Green would turn into. The 2016-17 campaign was this Green’s first real season seeing extended minutes, and he delivered. He shot 38 percent on 1.9 three-point attempts per game, helped by a late-season surge that saw his shooting efficiency increase dramatically:
Due to this improvement, he mandated that teams respect his range, which opened up the floor for plays like the one below:
Green wasn’t, and likely will never be, a major facilitator on offense, but he does have good court vision and shows patience waiting for the right windows to open:
He can bring exactly what you need as a third option on offense, and his 10th-highest catch-and-shoot eFG% points to his understated scoring prowess. Though not necessarily important, Green’s top-20 finish in points off put-back opportunities—1.17 points per possession (PPP)—is also notable.
Additionally, the 27-year-old is a major factor on the defensive end.
He’s a lanky wing who can guard multiple positions and small-ball 5s. His 40.4 DPS placed him in the 84th percentile, and he only surrendered 0.83 PPP on defensive isolations last season—well better than average. Green is a little old for a player looking for his second contract, but he’s only been in the league for three years and made great strides already. A certain degree of risk stems from the small-ish sample size, but he is a gamble who could reward a team looking to make the jump.
Guard: Patty Mills (re-signed with San Antonio Spurs for four years and $50 million)
Mills is another player, similar to Johnson, who won’t typically wow in box-score stats. He’s already been in the league for eight(!) years and will turn 29 before the start of 2017-18.
Do the San Antonio Spurs know what they are doing handing out a contract like that? Of course they do. Don’t be foolish.
Mills is a key cog to the Spurs engine, specifically on offense, and not always with the ball in his hands. They posted a 115.4 offensive rating with Mills on the floor (6.7 net rating) in 2016-17, per nbawowy, and shot 40.6 percent from deep. Even though Mills benefits from playing most of his minutes alongside one of the best players in the NBA (Kawhi Leonard), he is still inherently valuable to their offense.
Among the 86 players with at least 50 relevant possessions, the combo guard was arguably the best shooter off screens in the entire NBA last season, netting 1.37 PPP. Since Leonard draws so much attention on the offensive end, Mills often finds himself left open, and he makes opposing defenses pay in those situations. The Spurs realize this and frequently draw up plays to get Mills open looks:
Due to his small frame and lack of explosiveness, Mills can often struggle to open up the floor by driving. He only averaged 1.7 drives in 22 minutes per game last season, and he averaged 0.76 PPP as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. Despite the fact that he doesn’t fit the traditional mold at point guard, he still had 86.06 OPA last season, putting him in the 92nd percentile.
On top of firing off screens, he’s a great spot-up shooter, averaging 1.15 PPP (85th percentile), and is deadly from just about anywhere behind the arc. He even shot 40.6 percent on catch-and-shoot treys. It’s evident Mills is most effective off the ball, which is fine when the Spurs have someone like Leonard to handle the primary distribution role.
One potential downside, however, is Mills’ defense. Opponents will attack him because of his small stature and try to get him caught in PnRs, where he was one of the most frequently targeted players in the entire NBA last season. But having other good defensive players can mitigate that, and offensive value can sometimes outweigh defensive liabilities. The Spurs certainly seem to think so, as evidenced by their commitment to re-sign Mills as he likely takes over for Tony Parker as the primary point guard.
Guard/Forward: C.J. Miles (unrestricted free agent)
You can never have enough swingmen in the modern NBA, and that’s why C.J. Miles is a perfect fit for nearly any team.
Given his meager production in the box-score stats, how did Miles record a 53.22 OPA (88th percentile) last season? Simple: He shot the lights out of the ball.
Miles scored 1.34 PPP on spot-up possessions, which was the highest in the NBA among those who took at least one such possession per game—even better than Stephen Curry (1.33) and Kevin Durant (1.36). The efficiency didn’t stop there. Miles also shot 42.3 percent from deep and had a 59.9 eFG% on catch-and-shoot opportunities. He won’t be able to take many players off the dribble, but his range can provide plenty of spacing for his teammates.
The veteran can contribute on the other end of the floor, as well. He wasn’t targeted that often in the PnR—only 1.1 possessions per game—but his opponents were limited to 0.59 PPP (93rd percentile). Other teams were a little more successful against him in isolation, but he was still above average defending there, only allowing 0.80 PPP. Take the clip below, where he forces Evan Turner to go to his right hand and angles himself well enough to get in position for a block:
Miles is already 30 and probably looking for his last shot at a big contract. But with the market drying up, he could be had below market value.
Center: Dewayne Dedmon (unrestricted free agent)
When evaluating Dedmon, it’s important to note he did play for the San Antonio Spurs in 2016-17. Gregg Popovich is one of the NBA’s best coaches at getting his players to reach their full potential, and that likely contributed to the big man’s per-game and per-36-minute splits:
Dedmon will not give a team much on the offensive end, as his role was limited to setting screens and cleaning up around the glass. At 28 and with four seasons under his belt, there isn’t much room to grow. With that said, he was very effective on the defensive end, where he posted an 83.52 DPS (93rd percentile) and limited opponents to 0.81 PPP on post-ups (69th percentile).
At 7’0″, 245 pounds, he can give bigger players such as Steven Adams fits in the low-post:
Dedmon is also an underrated shot-blocker and rebounder.
He had the sixth-highest total rebounding percentage (minimum 50 GP) in the NBA last season, and his blocks per 36 minutes (1.7) might have placed him within the top 10 on the per-game leaderboard if he’d logged more than 17.5 minutes per contest. He does not have the lateral quickness to stay in front of quicker players, so opposing teams try to get him to switch onto ball-handlers. But this strategy doesn’t always work, as Dedmon can use his 7’4″ wingspan to block shots even when he gets beat off the dribble, like with Victor Oladipo below:
The idea behind using per-36 figures is that a player can produce more with expanded run. However, Dedmon is probably most effective in a role similar to the one he occupied for San Antonio in 2016-17. It also may be difficult to quantify how he would fit outside of the most structured/disciplined team in the sport. But given the saturated big-man market, he should end up becoming a low-cost steal for a team looking to bolster its defensive interior.
Follow Tim on Twitter @StubbHub.