Today's NBA front offices must have the ability to fill out rosters with cheap, veteran talent. When you find on-court value from that cheap talent, you create roster flexibility, a goal that cannot be understated. With a new, draconian luxury tax system taking effect, most competitive teams will have a limited amount of salary to allocate to a handful of rotation spots. They gain a significant advantage if they have the ability to identify, recruit and ultimately sign vets to bargain deals.
It's essentially the NBA equivalent to shopping at a thrift store and getting as much utility (at a fraction of the cost) as you would get from the same item from a high-end store. And the teams that signed the following five players are enjoying the very inexpensive fruits of their scouting.
These are the five best value deals signed last summer; all five were one-year deals and under $3 million.
Andray Blatche | Brooklyn Nets
2012-13 salary: $1,146,337 | 2012-13 cap hit: $854,389
After seven underachieving and at times controversial seasons in Washington, Blatche was virtually run out of town this past offseason, and was the youngest player to be waived under the new collective bargaining agreement's amnesty provision. After clearing waivers, Blatche signed for the veteran's minimum in Brooklyn, which for a player with seven years of service is $1,146,337.
However, Brooklyn benefits doubly by signing Blatche to a one-year deal: Because of a CBA provision designed to encourage the signing of veterans, not only does his salary appear on the books as $854,389 (the minimum for a player with two years' experience), but the league actually pays the balance between his actual salary and the cap hit salary.
As such, the Nets have benefited from Blatche's rebirth on an extreme budget; he's averaging career highs in effective field goal percentage (0.499), true shooting percentage (0.544), offensive rebounding (13.4), defensive rebounding (19.9) and steal percentage (3.0). He has provided their second unit a go-to scorer on the low post (career high usage rate of 26.3), and he has brought more activity and energy on the defensive end than at any other point in his career.
His ballhandling ability, particularly in the open court, has been a boon at times but also has gotten him into trouble, overcomplicating simple basketball plays. Still, no one expected this level of performance, and it has been especially important for the Nets, who have one of the highest payrolls in the league at over $83.5 million, to get that kind of production for cheap.
Nate Robinson | Chicago Bulls
2012-13 salary: $1,146,337 | 2012-13 cap hit: $854,389
Robinson's value proposition (explosive scoring, energetic athlete) hasn't changed since he entered the league in 2005, and he has brought that same spark off Chicago's bench this season, and is a big part of why the Bulls are in the hunt for the Central Division title, despite not having Derrick Rose available. Amazingly, Robinson was not only signed for the veteran's minimum (with the same cap advantages as those mentioned in the Blatche section), his deal was actually only partially guaranteed for $400,000 until January, when it became fully guaranteed.
In turn, he has rewarded the Bulls with great shooting efficiency (39.4 3-point percentage, 84.5 free throw percentage), and has been particularly effective off the ball coming off screens (1.513 points per possession, according to Synergy) and in spot-up (1.171 points per possession) situations. You still have to live with his questionable decision-making at times, but the rewards far outweigh the risks at this cost, particularly because the Bulls' payroll ($73.6 million) is over the tax threshold ($70.307 million), and dangerously close to the "apron".
The apron is basically the point $4 million above the tax threshold; if a team uses any exception earmarked specifically for non-taxpayers, the apron becomes a hard cap that they aren't allowed to exceed. In the Bulls' case, signing Kirk Hinrich to a deal using the non-taxpayers' midlevel exception made the hard cap a reality, so the ability to sign Robinson to a deal that gave them maximum flexibility was crucial.
Matt Barnes | Los Angeles Clippers
2012-13 salary: $1,352,181 | 2012-13 cap hit: $854,389
The Clippers are another team that has taken advantage of the CBA's veteran's minimum provision, signing 10-year vet Matt Barnes to a $1,352,181 deal and taking advantage of the nearly $500,000 "chip-in" by the league and the bookkeeping benefit of listing him on the payroll as $854,389.
Recruited by Chris Paul from the crosstown (cross-arena?) Lakers, Barnes has brought toughness and grit to the Clippers' locker room as a versatile wing defender who can space the floor (3P%: 0.344), allowing Paul to operate. He's averaging career highs in points per game (10.6), steals (1.1) and eFG% (0.551), and all of those numbers have actually dropped from higher levels in recent weeks with Paul's absence. He's also averaging a career low in turnover percentage at 11.6, surprising considering the sheer audacity of some of his passes (when he played in Phoenix, we used to always joke that the reason Barnes' turnover numbers seemed too low was because his few turnovers are always memorable). Additionally, he has been the Clippers' premier wing defender for most of the season with Grant Hill missing extensive time because of injury.
The significance of the Clippers' ability to sign Barnes to a cap-friendly deal lies in their payroll: At $69.9 million, they are within a whisker of the luxury tax threshold, and so it's crucial to be able to add a huge contributor at what basically amounts to less than a million dollars. Also, it cannot be discounted that when working for an owner notorious for tightening the purse strings, the front office continues to be extremely cost sensitive, regardless of whether there is a publicly stated window of "spending what it takes to win" (i.e. the bottom line still matters!).
Martell Webster | Washington Wizards
2012-13 salary: $1,750,000 | 2012-13 cap hit: $1,750,000
Martell Webster's original 2012-13 salary of $5.7 million was only partially guaranteed for $600,000, and so the Timberwolves took advantage of the cost savings and waived him last summer. The Wizards were willing to take the chance on Webster, despite his history of back issues, and he has rewarded them by shooting a career-high 42.7 percent from 3-point range (good for eighth in the league), including 26-of-51 in his last 10 games (51 percent on five attempts a game).
His Synergy situational numbers have been nothing short of elite this season: 1.243 points per possessions in spot-ups and 1.174 points per possessions off screens. Additionally, he has been able to use his size to draw fouls and get to the free throw line (0.362 FTArate), where he has converted at a high level (career-high 87.0 percent).
Unlike the previous teams listed, the Wizards are not facing significant luxury tax implications. Rather, they are a team that is in a different stage of the life cycle, trying to build for the future and create an identity and culture. Adding a vet such as Webster -- who can contribute not only on the court, but also off the court in helping the younger players -- while still maintaining payroll flexibility is incredibly important, as it is difficult to justify to your owner the dissonance between payroll and win percentage by saying "he's a great guy."
Randy Foye | Utah Jazz
2012-13 salary: $2.5 million | 2012-13 salary: $2.5 million
Foye has been a nice find for the Jazz, particularly with injuries that have decimated the point guard depth chart (Mo Williams, Earl Watson). Foye gives them another ballhandling/playmaking option in the backcourt, although he has been more aggressively looking for his shot, and the ability to play off the ball and not have to focus on creating for others has allowed his offense to flourish more naturally. Utah's flex-ish offense has proven to be a nice match for Foye's skill set, and has boosted his offensive efficiency to a career high 1.11 points per possession thanks to a career high in 3-point percentage (43.3, seventh in the NBA) and a low turnover percentage (10.6).
Foye's deal is as much about the Jazz's current cap situation ($67 million, roughly $3 million away from the tax threshold) as it is about their future. With potentially more than $30 million in cap space this summer, it was important for Utah to secure a veteran guard who can step in and produce at a price tag that would neither put them in jeopardy of paying the luxury tax, nor hamstring future flexibility.
For NBA front offices, filling out the roster with rotation players on a budget can be akin to finding exact pieces to an intricate puzzle. The player not only has to fit the system, the need and the culture, but he must be acquired at a price point that makes sense in both the short and long term. So far, that has been the case with the guys above.
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