Ben Wallace's departure from the Detroit Pistons to the Chicago Bulls for a reported four-year, $60 million deal was the biggest, most high-profile signing of free agency. Wallace, the NBA's four-time Defensive Player of the Year, leaves a void in the Pistons' lineup that will entirely change the makeup and philosophy of their team. His insertion into the Bulls' starting five, meanwhile, might turn Chicago into a championship contender.
There have been several other big-money deals this summer that made headlines, such as Peja Stojakovic's signing with the New Orleans Hornets and the reported sign-and-trade that will bring Al Harrington back to the Indiana Pacers. Speedy Claxton could be the point guard that the Atlanta Hawks have needed, and the Los Angeles Lakers added Vladimir Radmanovic to improve their outside shooting and general skill level on the front line. The Los Angeles Clippers countered the Radmanovic loss by signing Tim Thomas to a $24 million contract.
But what about the smaller, less noticeable deals?
Every summer, there are a handful of free-agent signings that go under the radar but end up being very significant moves. For example, Joel Przybilla inked a modest deal with the Portland Trail Blazers in 2004. Nobody seemed to notice since he was a bit player early in his career with the Milwaukee Bucks, but the Blazers saw something they liked in him, and he became an important part of their team for a reasonable price. Following two solid seasons with Portland, Przybilla was one of the hottest names on the market before the Blazers re-signed him to a long-term contract.
Adrian Griffin is another example of a guy whose signing went unnoticed by most basketball fans, but his impact on the Dallas Mavericks last season was critical. After bouncing around the league for much of his career, Griffin earned a spot in the Mavericks' starting lineup with his defense and poise. He was an important role player during Dallas' run to the NBA Finals, and all he cost the Mavs was the veteran's minimum salary.
Raja Bell was way down most teams' lists of free-agent shooting guards last season, well behind Michael Redd, Larry Hughes and Joe Johnson among others. But he signed with the Phoenix Suns, replaced Johnson and became a starter and one of the Suns' key players. His toughness and defense helped Phoenix win the Pacific Division, and now he's a major part of the team's long-term plans.
In this day and age of big contracts and luxury taxes, one of the keys to building a strong team is to fill the roster with solid, affordable players who can be major contributors without breaking the bank. You can't win without stars, of course, so you'd better be paying the right guys at the top of your roster. But assuming you have a good core group of highly paid guys – like the San Antonio Spurs, for example, with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili – then the entire offseason focus becomes filling spots four through nine with reasonably priced talent. That means drafting well (finding rookies who are ready to play), and it means uncovering the "diamonds in the rough" – guys who are relatively unknown commodities but ready to contribute to the success of a team.
With that in mind, which NBA teams made the shrewdest moves in free agency this summer? Not the Ben Wallace signings, but the little ones that may pay off in a big way? Which teams were able to add players who will be contributors but didn't cost a fortune?
Let's take a look:
San Antonio Spurs: Jackie Butler and Francisco Elson. Gregg Popovich had so little faith in Rasho Nesterovic and Nazr Mohammed by the end of last season that neither played in the Spurs' Game 7 loss to Dallas in the West semifinals. They're both gone, having been replaced by the much cheaper – and more agile – Butler and Elson. (Butler signed a three-year, $7 million deal and Elson will make $3 million per over two seasons). Elson, in particular, will be a big factor for San Antonio. He's an active defender and a solid shooter from 17 feet. As for Butler, he showed flashes of brilliance in New York. He's young and athletic and has a chance to be a good player, particularly by learning from Duncan. All told, the Spurs signed two centers who should play quite a bit and got them both for about $5 million this season. Pretty impressive.
Chicago Bulls: Adrian Griffin. Unfortunately for Dallas, Griffin played so well last season that he earned himself a three-year contract with the Bulls. Chicago has an interesting mix of young and old, and Griffin is the type of player who can help build a winning culture. Griffin is also a big defender at the guard spot. He'll help the Bulls deal with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
Dallas Mavericks: Greg Buckner. To replace Griffin, the Mavericks brought back Buckner, the former Mav who is not only a tough defender but also a much improved shooter. By the end of last season, he was Denver's best three-point shooter. And he'll provide a good veteran influence in the locker room.
Phoenix Suns: Sean Marks. Marcus Banks was the Suns' big acquisition this summer, and he'll provide excellent defense and speed and be a good backup to Steve Nash. But Marks, who signed a minimum deal, just might crack the rotation. He didn't play much in San Antonio, but Phoenix is the perfect place for him. Marks is an excellent shooter who should fit right in with the Suns' pick-and-pop game. He's close to 7-foot, athletic and has the shooting range to spread the floor and open up driving lanes for Nash.
Toronto Raptors: Anthony Parker and Jorge Garbajosa. Parker, a one-time first-round pick of the Philadelphia 76ers, has been playing overseas for most of his career. He's now better known as the older brother of Candace Parker, the Tennessee Lady Vols' dunking star. But with years of international experience, Parker should be ready to come in and contribute right away. He can really shoot the ball, has good size and will fit into the Raptors' run-and-gun plans. Garbajosa, meanwhile, is another player with plenty of international experience, having come from Spain's top professional league where was an all-star performer. Garbajosa gives the Raptors a smart, skilled forward who will help fill the void left by Charlie Villanueva's departure.
Detroit Pistons: Ronald Murray and Nazr Mohammed. Murray was a big factor in Cleveland after a mid-season trade last year, and yet Detroit got him for a very reasonable price – two years, $3.6 million. He has the size to defend multiple positions and the ability to put the ball down on the floor and create. And having two different guys named "Flip" in the same organization has to be a bonus, doesn't it? Mohammed was signed to the mid-level exception (not a bad price for a starting center these days) and while he does have some big shoes to fill, Mohammed is a guy who can score on the block – something Wallace couldn't do. Both Mohammed and Murray figure prominently in the Pistons' plans as they look to make the transition to a more offensive-minded team now that Wallace is gone.