The 2021 Bucks had Bobby Portis. The 2020 Lakers had Dwight Howard and Markieff Morris. Golden State's dynasty lived off of minimum-salary role players. Miami's nabbed Shane Battier and Ray Allen with back-to-back mid-level exceptions. Championship teams are star-driven, but the often exorbitant price of those stars makes these teams extremely reliant upon the bargain bin. The 2019 Raptors are the only recent champion not to keep a below-market-value free agent in their rotation.
The two most recent champions had several. Milwaukee was hard-capped and needed players like Portis and Bryn Forbes to leave money on the table for an opportunity to win in order to build a remotely palatable bench. The Lakers carved out max cap space, but when Kawhi Leonard didn't take it, they had to use that space to build a worthwhile supporting cast around their stars. This, essentially, is the path traditional contenders need to take to develop depth.
Last season's contenders largely did a good job of that. So let's look at some under-the-radar signings that will impact the championship picture either now, or, in one prominent case, potentially in the future.
The reported contract: Two years, $12.1 million (taxpayer mid-level exception):
Utah's fatal flaw last season was rigidity. The Jazz play the way that they play and lacked alternatives when the Clippers solved their drop-coverage and 3-point barrage. Nobody is suggesting a complete overhaul, but Milwaukee laid the blueprint last season for a more modest adjustment. The Bucks dipped their toes into the switching pool on defense during the regular season after years of overreliance on dropping. They traded for P.J. Tucker at the deadline in part because of his comfort in that scheme. When the playoffs arrived, that schematic versatility was critical against Brooklyn and Phoenix.
The Jazz are never going to switch as a base. It would be a waste of Rudy Gobert's transcendent rim protection. But they needed an alternative somewhere on their roster, if only for the minutes that Gobert sits out. Rudy Gay was about as promising an option as they were going to find for the taxpayer mid-level exception. In 250 possessions at center last season, San Antonio outscored opponents by 6.5 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. That number fell to 4.5 with him at power forward and 4.0 at small forward. Like many aging wings, Gay is well-suited for moving up the positional spectrum. Doing so mitigates his declining mobility.
That Nicolas Batum was another example of this theory ultimately proved fatal to the Jazz. Gay is no Batum. Few players are. While Batum's improved shooting got most of the publicity, it was his superb help defense that ultimately got the Clippers to the Western Conference finals. Gay has never had Batum's instincts, but he's far more comfortable closing out on shooters than Gobert is, and in a pinch, he can generate individual buckets in a half-court setting. That's a major luxury in postseason bench lineups, and something few opposing benches have a counter for with a big man on the floor.
At best, the Jazz will treat small-ball the same way the Bucks treated switching. They'll experiment, but they won't ditch the core concept that built their team. They can't. Gobert is really the only thing holding their defense together most of the time. Small-ball is a tool for their back pocket and likely something they'll only use for shorter stretches in the postseason. But it's an alternative. The Jazz don't have to sit idly by and watch Terance Mann shoot their season away from the corner.
The reported contract: Two Years, $12 million (taxpayer mid-level exception)
The Nets didn't need Patty Mills, but the Lakers did. With Russell Westbrook in place, elite off-ball offense players were at a premium for them. Mills was their primary mid-level target and would have been extraordinarily valuable for them, and consequently, dangerous for Brooklyn in a possible Finals matchup. But Joe Tsai's willingness to pay an exorbitant luxury tax bill helped the Nets take him off of the board for the Lakers. That forced them to settle for Kendrick Nunn in that salary slot, a valuable player, but one more reliant on having the basketball in his hands. What Mills will contribute to the Nets themselves is a bonus.
A high-volume 3-point shooter is, frankly, redundant on this roster in high-leverage moments. Mills will be the fifth-best marksman on this roster at best. Of course, there is little evidence suggesting that teams experience diminishing returns with shooting in the same way that they do with ball-handling. Defenses can almost always be stretched further. There's something to be said for strengthening a strength in free agency rather than treating a weakness. Brooklyn's strengths are so strong that its weaknesses are largely irrelevant. This is a team that could afford a luxury signing.
That is the key here. The Nets didn't need to use this exception to sign a player capable of playing 40 minutes for them in playoff games. Mills probably isn't going to close for Brooklyn. That is usually a goal for multi-star teams using mid-level exceptions, but in Brooklyn's case, regular-season insurance may actually have been a wiser priority. James Harden and Kyrie Irving can scale up their usage when the other needs to sit due to rest or injury, and the ideal partner to pair either with in those scenarios is an elite shooter. In Mills, the Nets have essentially spent their mid-level exception on extra rest of Harden and Irving. As last postseason proved, their health is more important to the Nets than mid-level signing could be.
That is the beauty of how Sean Marks has constructed this roster. In the regular season at least, he has essentially injury-proofed this team. So long as the Nets have at least one of their stars on the floor, he has quickly amassed enough shooters and defenders to credibly remain competitive for short stints. Ask the Lakers if they could say the same last season after they lost LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Mills will help Harden and Irving get all of the in-season rest that they need.
The reported contract: Three years, $37 million
In a vacuum, you could make a compelling argument that this is a bad contract. Teams typically spend eight figures annually on players they expect to play meaningful postseason minutes for them. The Heat used Olynyk sparingly in their 2020 run to the Finals before Bam Adebayo got hurt. The Pistons probably don't expect Olynyk to play starter minutes when they eventually transition from rebuilder to contender.
But context defines all contracts, and even if this one is an overpay in a vacuum, it's going to be a valuable resource for the Pistons over the next several years. Shooting big men carry substantial developmental value for younger players because they create easier driving lanes than that player would otherwise see against NBA-caliber defenses. Al Horford was present in Boston as Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum ascended. In different ways, Jonas Valanciunas had a similar effect on the Grizzlies. The right big man can serve as a set of half-court training wheels for an offense. Valanciunas did so as a bailout option in the post. Olynyk can do so with his shooting.
He pairs nicely with Isaiah Stewart in that sense. It likely isn't an accident that the Pistons are exposing Cade Cunningham to a variety of different sorts of pick-and-roll partners from the get-go. It will help him down the line, and even if Olynyk isn't around when Cunningham starts to blossom, he can help the Pistons in the same way Valanciunas did this offseason: as matching salary in an asset play. All in all, it was a wise use of cap space on several levels even if it won't change the championship picture this season.
The reported contract: One year, $4 million (mid-level exception)
Atlanta needed two things out of a short-term replacement for the injured Onyeka Okongwu. Rim protection was a must. Atlanta's defense relies heavily on its centers, and Okongwu grew tremendously as last season concluded. Dieng can't quite fill his shoes, but he's more than adequate defensively by backup standards.
What makes the signing standout is his improved shooting. Dieng has extended his range out behind the 3-point line over the past two seasons, attempting 4.8 3-pointers per 36 minutes and making almost 38 percent of them. Atlanta prizes big men with some degree of shooting capability because it unlocks their favored double-drag pick-and-roll. If a center is capable of both diving to the rim and popping behind the arc, defenses have a much harder time solving them in pick-and-roll coverage.
Finding a big man who checks those boxes for $4 million is a steal, especially since he can serve as Okongwu insurance in case his still-developing offensive game proves problematic in the postseason. Worst-case scenario, it's an extra bit of matching salary for an in-season trade. At such a low price, there's almost no way this deal can go wrong.
The reported contract: One year, $2.4 million (minimum)
Sometimes free agency can be extremely simple. Otto Porter Jr. is coming off of a max contract. His new deal is a minimum contract. Injuries are responsible for that dip, but if healthy, what are the odds that the 28-year-old's value has declined from literally the most he could possibly receive to literally the least?
Fairly minimal, though the "if" in that equation is sizable. Back and foot injuries have limited Porter to just 42 games over the past two seasons. He hasn't exactly looked spry when he has played, but the beauty of a minimum contract is the lack of risk attached to it. If Porter doesn't work, no harm, no foul.
If he does? The Warriors will have gotten that most precious of commodities: a forward that can make 3s at an elite level (over 40 percent for his career!) and defend across multiple positions. Teams pay tens of millions of dollars for such players. Golden State might get one for a fraction of the price. It's not hard to imagine Porter closing games for the Warriors at power forward in a revamped version of the Death Lineup. At a minimum, he's an enormous upgrade over the players typically available at this price point. The Warriors know this well. They relied heavily on minimums to supplement their four stars from 2017-2019. That killed them in the 2019 Finals against Toronto. When Kevin Durant went down and those minimum-salaried players had to occupy bigger roles, they were simply unable to meet Golden State's "3" or "D" quota. Warriors not named Curry or Thompson shot just over 31 percent from behind the arc in that series. Golden State allowed the Raptors to score 114.9 points per 100 possessions.
As low-risk, high-reward propositions go, it would be hard for the Warriors to do much better. Without even using their mid-level exception, they managed to not only snag a possible starting-caliber player, but one who fills a hole that has festered on their roster for years.