This summer, the NBA's salary cap, as we all should know, is going to skyrocket. Experts and insiders expect the cap to rise to around $94 million, meaning that basically every team in the NBA universe will have cash to splash. The massive cap means that players are going to get paid a lot of freakin money. Every player, agent and alike know that teams have cap space, so when negotiating contracts, they are going to have as much bargaining leverage as there has ever been. There will be massive overpays, which means finding a bargain, like the next Bismack Biyombo, is going to be harder than ever.
The diamond in the rough that teams pray for will be stored deeper in the depths of the Earth than ever. Finding a gem this year, is going to be unbelievably difficult, but I believe that I have found 4 decent ones here. That I believe will enter the market undervalued and underappreciated and could walk into the next season well below what they should be paid. Here are my 4 gems:
Shane Larkin, Brooklyn Nets
Shane Larkin will enter the 2016-17 NBA season at just 23 years of age and he's already bounced around 3 NBA teams in as many seasons. He spent the 2015-16 season on the third worst team in the league, the Brooklyn Nets. A team, that as a Celtics brought be so much joy to watch this season, as I'm sure they will for the other two seasons we have their draft pick. Larkin got a great chance to establish himself as an NBA quality rotational player on those hapless Nets, a team in which he could very well be their franchise player -- that's how bad they are. But despite the talent deficit the Nets were working with, Larkin only logged 22 minutes per game. Even after Jarrett Jack had to sit out the season before the halfway point of the season, Lionel Hollins preferred Donald Sloan.
Because of the team he was playing on and lack of playing time he was receiving, Larkin will enter the market as a bottom of the barrel option. And because of that, as long as he actually gets another shot in the NBA after his Nets' stint, he could be a massive bargain.
From the outset, it looks like I'm crazy for rating Shane Larkin of all people, as the savior of the point guard position. In 22 minutes per game, Larkin averaged a bang average 7 points and 4 assists per game, on 44% shooting from the field. None of those jump out to you, nor should they. But a deeper dive into his advanced stats, tools and skills he possesses will reveal a vastly underrated player.
Larkin plays at Speedy Gonzales' level pace on the court. He sprints around screens like his pants are on fire and attacks the basket with the same type of blinding speed. This in itself should be enough to take a gamble on Larkin's point guard abilities. Not only does his athleticism stick out, but he uses it to great effect. Larkin knows where his weaknesses are, he's not an elite jump shooter, so he attacks the basket at every opportunity. According to player tracking data from NBA.com, Larkin averaged 4.6 drives per game, which if expanded over the course of 36 minutes per game, would rank above star players like Giannis, Jimmy Butler, Steph Curry and Chris Paul. When he chooses to attempt a shot on one of his drives, he shoots at a well above average mark of 53%.
But due to Shane's 5'11'' stature, he often isn't able to get to the rim as much as you'd like. Nor is he comfortable to take a shot in traffic at his height. But Larkin shows composure in these areas, with a tremendous willingness to pass up contested opportunities with tree trunks hanging over him, and instead turn them into great looks for teammates. According to that same tracking data, per 36 minutes, Larkin averages 15.4 potential assists per game (the amount of passes leading to attempted shots), a mark bested only by elite passers, and one that ranks over LeBron James. But due to the terrible talent on display in Brooklyn, his teammates were only able to convert on 7 of these attempts per 36 minutes. Just imagine what this guy could do on a competent team!
Larkin doesn't yet have a consistent jumper and he didn't show enough as a pick and roll ball handler to be sure that Larkin is actually a decent point guard, but the athleticism and passing instincts are already there and for me, that's enough to take a low salary gamble on him. Especially considering how broken that Nets team was.
Dwight Powell, Dallas Mavericks
As a Celtics fan, I still rue the day we traded away Dwight Powell as somewhat of a throw-in during the Rajon Rondo negotiations. Every Celtics fan in the world should already have a Taylor Swift-esque song written about Powell, just like all of Taylor's boyfriends (every single one of them), he's the one that got away.
Since Danny Ainge traded the big guy away, Dwight Powell has shown off some stunning potential. He has some great length, at 6'11'' with a 7'0'' wingspan, is extremely strong and for a player at his size, is very athletic. This traits have translated into him being a quality defender and shot blocker, as well as someone that is great at finishing around the rim as the Tyson Chandler type roll man in the Mavericks' system.
Powell could rank on here just with his length, athleticism and defensive prowess alone. The latter of which is looking especially good. According to NBA.com's tracking data, Powell causes the man he's marking to shoot 2.9% worse than normal with Powell draped over him. That's a good stat for a guy that had a mightily limited role in Dallas.
But there's more to Powell than meets the eye, as he has intriguing upside as a pick-and-pop, floor stretcher in any offense. Every NBA team needs big men who can shoot and are mobile and if Powell continues his progression he could be one of the more valuable role players in the league because of that ability. Last season, on mid-range jumpers above 16 feet, Powell, according to basketball-reference, made 33.3% of those shots, on a reasonable amount of attempts too. That's not a great mark at all, especially considering it's only from mid-range, but for a young, developing big man it's at least workable as long as he keeps developing it.
Dallas always chases after big free agents, so Powell could very well be one guy that the Mavs forgo re-signing to go after bigger fish. If this is the case, Dwight Powell could be available at a very cheap price.
Jared Dudley, Washington Wizards
I'm taking a detour away from potential city and making a stop at veteran island just for Jared Dudley's case. Powell and Larkin were both undervalued young guys that could be gotten on very low level contracts, whereas Dudley's in a different category. Dudley already made $5 million this past year, so he'll probably make more than that in the inflated market, but I think that due to his advanced age and just underrated-ness in general, he could go well below his market value.
In this day and age, every team could use a Jared Dudley. The veteran is equally adapt at playing both forward positions. He's a savvy defender, that has the foot speed to keep up with athletic wings and the strength to body up beefy power forwards. His defensive versatility allows him to switch between positions with relative ease, something that has become about as valuable as anything else in the NBA these days.
If the ability to switch isn't the most valuable skill to have in the NBA, it is surely the ability to shoot. Again, something Dudley prides himself on. Dudley drained 42% of his treys this past season on more than 4 attempts per game, for a lousy Wizards team. Other than John Wall barreling to the rim, Dudley had no one else to get him these shots, so just imagine what he could do on a contender, where star players could create acres of space for Dudley to release his shots. According to NBA.com, Dudley had an eFG% of 59.4% on catch and shoot attempts too, further proving how great a three-point shooter he is.
To conclude, if a contender doesn't give Dudley a ring to try and tie him up on a small, ring-hunting contract, they are missing out. He is perfect for the modern NBA and due to his underrated stature and age, he could prove to be one of the biggest bargains in July.
Austin Rivers, Los Angeles Clippers
Don't laugh just yet, here me out.
Austin Rivers enters free agency in an interesting predicament. Does he re-sign with his father, or does he walk to another team, for potentially more money and a life outside of his father's shadow? In all likelihood, he'll stay in Los Angeles, but I think the rest of the league would be stupid to not even put in an offer on the guy. What could make Rivers a bargain, is that everyone thinks he's overrated, due to his relationship with Doc. I've heard enough of the talk online of making Austin Rivers the butt of all their jokes and people meme-ing the hell out of him, and I think to some extent, he is underrated within the league and front offices too, largely due to his father being his coach. That relationship has probably caused a lot of front office execs to believe that Austin's success is dictated by Doc, as is his playing time.
If all this is true, Rivers could very well be undervalued by the market and plunge him into bargain bin territory.
At just 23 years of age, Rivers hasn't reached his ceiling yet at all. He still has some room to grow, which is a great thing because I think he is already a very capable contributor on any level of team. To me, his main asset is his defense. Austin plays with a fearless tenacity defensively, which goes unnoticed by most of the NBA world. Rivers busts his ass whenever he is out there on the court and gives his all whenever his number is called. Maybe that ferocious defensive mindset is why he causes the opposition to shoot 4.7% less than their average when guarded by Doc's son. When Austin is guarding the rim, or someone attacking the rim, Rivers is elite at disrupting those shots too. Although he only gets 1.3 shots like this attempted in his vicinity, Rivers holds these shots to just a 41% clip, a number that ranks among the NBA's very best.
His offensive game is still a work in progress, but he holds some good playmaking abilities that allow him to play both guard positions with ease. He is a bad jump shooter at this point, at just 33.5% from deep and if he does leave the Clips, this could drop even further as he will be unlikely to find a team that gives him more open shots. But his defense and ball-handling alone is reason enough to give him a contract.
Critics of Rivers will point to his woeful net rating, of over -13 per 100 possessions, but much of this can be attributed to the terrible Clippers bench. It's hard to garner even a near positive net rating with a bench as bad as the one the Clips owned in 2016.
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