With one major exception, the recent list of NBA players acquired after late-season contract buyouts is mostly unimpressive: a group of past-their-prime veteran players with more name than game, who ultimately had little impact on the championship picture.
That exception occurred in March of 2008, when the Boston Celtics signed Sam Cassell after a contract buyout with the Clippers, and P.J. Brown out of semi-retirement, helping the Celtics go on to win their first title since 1986.
Neither Cassell nor Brown was a star for that Celtics team, but each player had some big moments late in the season, and together they significantly upgraded the Celtics bench. By taking minutes away from lesser players, Cassell and Brown may have made the difference between a season that could have ended in disappointment, and a season that ended with a parade.
It has become an annual tradition for contending teams to look for their own version of the Cassell and Brown signings, with the hope that the right freely available player could push an already strong team to glory. In 2014, another group of post-buyout players with questions about their current abilities signed with contenders, and if all goes well, none of them will be asked to play huge minutes on their new teams. However, in a season where so many teams have realistic title hopes, if a team is able to find the right additional piece, it could swing the result of the NBA Championship.
Here are this year’s key players that changed teams after contract buyouts, in the order of the magnitude of their likely impact on the playoffs.
Glen Davis - Los Angeles Clippers
When the Orlando Magic made Davis a free agent, he instantly became the best commodity on this year’s post-trade deadline buyout market. Davis has only had an above average PER once in his career, but it was just last season. And at only 28 years of age, there's reason for optimism that he can still be a solid contributor on a good team.
However, the biggest benefit about this signing for the Clippers has less to do with Davis directly, and more to do with the players who he displaced in L.A.’s rotation. If the Clippers are able to get even slightly below average production from Davis, it will be a big upgrade over extremely limited former backup bigs Antawn Jamison and Byron Mullens. The efficiency numbers look more favorably on current Clippers player Ryan Hollins, but he has only been playing 8.3 minutes per game, and is a much less skillful offensive player than Davis.
Even without J.J. Redick, the Clippers starting five of Chris Paul, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan has been one of the better lineups in the NBA this year. They’ve posted
a very solid point differential of +20.4 per 100 possessions, leading the Clippers to the top spot in the numberFire power rankings.
With a starting unit that strong, having a merely competent bench can make a team a legitimate championship contender. Davis is capable of providing that extra depth, and he is the biggest upgrade made by any contending team this buyout season.
When great players toil away on small-market teams, it's often noted that they are never fully appreciated for just how well they are playing. On the other hand, when bad players play outside of the national spotlight, they never get full credit for how bad they have been. As a former All-Star, Butler’s acquisition by the Thunder was greeted with less skepticism than was probably warranted by his play for the Bucks this season.
As soon as he signed, Butler became the least-efficient player on the Oklahoma City roster. The situation in Milwaukee this season was less than ideal, but Butler’s play this year has been the continuation of a downward trend in his career, as his last above-average PER came in 2008-2009.
Over the next 4-6 weeks while Thabo Sefolosha is out with an injured calf, it makes sense to ask Butler to handle some minutes for the Thunder, given how few other options they have. Even off the bench, the degree of Butler’s success in fitting in with the Thunder will depend on how effectively he can alter his game to defer to his more efficient teammates. Butler’s usage rate in Milwaukee was double Sefolosha’s this season, so he must make a big adjustment to avoid being a liability. However, once the playoffs start and Sefolosha returns, Butler should mostly stay confined to the bench, and the Thunder must resist the temptation for Butler to become another Kendrick Perkins-like veteran for them to lean on too heavily despite superior alternatives.
Merely looking at our player efficiency metric, Danny Granger would seem to be a more important addition to the Clippers than Davis, as he has been the slightly more effective player this season. However, factoring in team need, it's unlikely that Granger will play as big of a role as Davis during the rest of the season.
Compared to their very thin frontcourt rotation, the Clippers have much more depth on the wings - Jared Dudley started 42 games at small forward this year before losing his starting job to Matt Barnes. With Dudley remaining as his backup, Barnes has been an excellent fit with the starting unit, decreasing his usage rating from 17.4 to 14.9 while increasing his offensive rating from 94 to 113. With high usage teammates like Blake Griffin, Jamal Crawford and Chris Paul, Matt Barnes’s style of play is a better fit for the Clippers than Granger’s high-volume approach.
Subjectively, Granger looks several steps slow on the court, and it seems like the injuries that have ruined his recent seasons have taken their toll. The
fact that the Pacers were so desperate for an upgrade to their bench that they took a chance on Evan Turner - one of the least-efficient players in basketball - rather than relying on Granger as a part of their title push is very telling of how far Granger’s play has fallen.
Unless Granger can effectively fill in as an undersized 4, a role he has never really played before, his on-court contributions are likely to be limited. More importantly, if Doc Rivers decides to give him a starting job, it would almost certainly not be wise.
It's unclear how much of a role Fredette will actually have with the Bulls this year. In three games with the team after the Sacramento Kings bought out
his contract, Fredette has only played a total of six minutes. However, given the Bulls precarious luxury tax situation, the fact that the Bulls signed Fredette indicates that they saw the potential for him to be a real contributor this year.
The advanced stats show some of Fredette’s promise. In limited minutes, his efficiency numbers are solid, and his .584 true shooting percentage in Sacramento supports his reputation as an excellent outside shooter.
The Bulls are a unique offensive team because their best player, Joakim Noah, actually has a below average usage rate at 18.1, meaning there are extra shots to go around for a gunner like Fredette. Noah is also an elite passing big man, leading all centers in assists at 4.8 per game. If Noah could use his passing skills to hit Fredette for some open three pointers, it theoretically could give Chicago's offense the spacing that they sometimes lack. However, that possibility depends on how much Fredette is actually on the court.
The key for Fredette’s offensive value will be how quickly he can fit into the Chicago Bulls vaunted defensive scheme, therefore earning playing time. Kirk Hinrich is not an elite offensive player, but he and D.J. Augustin form a point guard combination that doesn’t appear to leave many minutes for Fredette. There are other lineups that conceivably could get Fredette’s shooting on the floor, but it's unclear if he’s a good enough player to convince Tom Thibodeau to change the Bulls rotations.
Unless more opportunity opens up because of an injury, it is hard to envision Fredette playing much of a role in Chicago this season.