Free agency turning into bargain hunting for NBA clubs

TIM REYNOLDS
Associated Press

Even after roughly $1.5 billion in new contracts were hammered out during the first two weeks of free agency, there is still plenty of shopping for NBA teams to do over the coming weeks.

Most of it will be for bargains.

The biggest deals of NBA summer — like Chris Paul, Paul George and LeBron James getting contracts that will pay them a combined $450 million over the next four years — are almost certainly all done. A blockbuster trade involving San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard can obviously still happen, and at some point Carmelo Anthony's exit from Oklahoma City to a new home, mostly likely Houston, will get finalized.

But most teams have exhausted their salary cap space for next season, so the annual shift into fill-out-the-roster mode has essentially arrived for the majority of clubs.

Here's a look at some of the bargains that have already been found this summer, and a look at others who are bargains waiting to happen:

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BARGAINS FOUND

ISAIAH THOMAS

$2 million, one year, Denver

It seems so long ago that Thomas was averaging 30 points and answering questions about the max contract he would be signing. Except it wasn't a long time ago — it was at the 2017 All-Star Game. So much has happened in the last 17 months, and Thomas playing through a hip injury has clearly cost him tens of millions, at least temporarily. Now he's starting anew in Denver, with a coach in Michael Malone who believes fully in him, and that chip Thomas had as a No. 60 overall draft pick is squarely back on his diminutive shoulder. His massive deal may be waiting, but consider this: No fewer than 33 players will make more this coming season than Thomas has made in his entire career. "It's all good though.... I'll just stay on that slow grind," Thomas said on social media after agreeing with the Nuggets.

DEMARCUS COUSINS

$5.3 million, one year, Golden State

This could go down as the bargain of the summer, if Cousins returns to previous form and fits his enormous game — and enormous personality — into the Golden State system. When he comes back from his Achilles tendon injury, the Warriors could have five players from the 2018 All-Star Game in their starting lineup. Had he not gotten hurt in January, somebody would be paying at least $20 million and probably a lot more to Cousins this season. If this experiment works, and if the Warriors are healthy at playoff time, a fourth championship in five seasons will be the way Golden State closes out its time at Oracle Arena.

JUSUF NURKIC

$48 million, four years, Portland

Not all bargains are for small dollars. Nurkic is durable, and he's one of 13 players who averaged 14.3 points and 9 rebounds last season. But there's at least 24 centers alone who will be paid more next season than Nurkic.

WAYNE ELLINGTON

$6.3 million, one year, Miami

All Ellington did last season was make more 3-pointers than any Heat player had in any season, ever. And he didn't even get a raise. It's not that Miami doesn't value Ellington but he appeared to get caught in a numbers crunch. The Heat have tax concerns that kept them from being able to offer him more, and other teams probably knew that they would have to offer significantly more to get Ellington out of Miami. He's also a key voice in the Heat locker room, and if Miami is going to get out of the first round Ellington will likely have to play a key role.

RAJON RONDO

$9 million, one year, Los Angeles Lakers

Rondo and LeBron James have had battles aplenty over the years. Don't think for one second that James wasn't down with the Lakers making this move. On the day before Game 4 of the NBA Finals, the day before James' last game as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, he told a story about facing Boston many years earlier and being impressed with the way "Rondo was calling out sets every time" down the floor. James values smarts in teammates and Rondo has plenty of smarts, so if this works the $9 million will be a pittance to the Lakers.

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BARGAINS OUT THERE

DWYANE WADE

If he returns to Miami — and that's no lock — the sense is that it'll be for $5 million. A Hall of Famer who can still play and willingly accepts a bench role for small money is a steal, especially when considering how much he means to Heat fans.

VINCE CARTER

He'll almost certainly get the veteran's minimum from a good team, give it good minutes off the bench and use his experience — the 41-year-old has basically spent half his life in the NBA — to become the sage of whatever locker room he calls home next season. If he doesn't score a point, he'll still be worth the $2.4 million.

MICHAEL BEASLEY

He was really good at times for a really bad Knicks team last season. And he's still a gifted scorer. Put him on a good team, and the second unit will immediately get better.

MARCUS SMART

Many would be surprised if Boston lets the restricted free agent go elsewhere, and Smart's value to the Celtics is clear. But it's been one of the soap operas of this summer: What is taking so long?

DIRK NOWITZKI

He's "out there" on paper only. Nowitzki is eventually going back to Dallas, probably for about $5 million once again, but it's impossible to list NBA bargains and not include him. He'll spend what may be his final NBA season grooming Luka Doncic. The best player in Mavs history is about to become the best mentor in Mavs history.

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