Hey, you heard anything new on LeBron, Bosh or ‘Melo that actually seemed like a thing? Yeah, me neither. Well, while we’re waiting for the big names to make their decisions, let’s take a quick trip through the latest crop of smaller agreements to have been reached, starting in Arizona.
• The Phoenix Suns have reached a three-year deal with free agent P.J. Tucker, ponying up $16.5 million — an average of $5.5 million per year, just north of the starting value of the non-taxpayer’s midlevel exception — to re-sign the 29-year-old forward, according to Yahoo Sports NBA columnist Marc J. Spears. It remains to be seen how Tucker’s annual salary payouts are structured in each of the three seasons, but Paul Coro of azcentral sports reports that a large chunk of the final year of the contract — $3.8 million, nearly 70 percent of the deal’s average annual value — will be unguaranteed.
The added flexibility that comes with that partial third-year guarantee matters, at least a little bit. It might not seem like it would, considering the Suns’ pristine balance sheet — they’ve only got rookie contracts (2012’s Miles Plumlee, 2013’s Alex Len and Archie Goodwin, and the forthcoming agreements for 2014’s T.J. Warren and Tyler Ennis) carrying beyond the end of the 2015-16 season, and they have no eight-figure deals on the books at the moment (though that would surely change if they’re forced to match an offer sheet to restricted free agent guard Eric Bledsoe, which Phoenix general manager Ryan McDonough has repeatedly said he intends to do). But after a surprisingly, phenomenally successful start to the rebuild in the desert, McDonough and company appear to be thinking big in Arizona, and when you’re thinking big, it’s a good idea to sweat the small stuff — declining year-over-year salaries, team options, the chance to make a veteran eminently tradable in any deal by chopping his payout down to about $1.5 million, etc. — in your other dealings, especially when committing a multi-year deal to a limited role player. That’s what Tucker is, and there’s no shame in it at all.
After spending five years playing ball in Israel, Ukraine, Greece, Italy and Germany, the former Longhorn and 2006 second-round pick of the Toronto Raptors came back to the States prior to the 2012-13 season, inking a two-year, veteran’s-minimum deal to join the Suns. The 6-foot-6 grinder quickly became a fan favorite for his aggressive, committed perimeter defense — neither advanced plus-minus-based statistics nor Synergy Sports Technology‘s game-charting numbers look favorably on Tucker’s defensive output, but as Kevin Zimmerman of Valley of the Suns notes, that could be “because he took on the best scorers in the league every night” — and his perpetually-in-the-red motor; fittingly, he’s won the team’s annual Dan Majerle Hustle Award two years running. Tucker began making greater offensive contributions last season by adding a reliable 3-point shot (a career-best 38.7 percent from deep) taken primarily from the corners (87.4 percent of his attempted 3s were high-efficiency short launches, and he hit 40.7 percent of them, according to NBA.com’s shot charts).
While there’s not much variety in his offensive game — he grabs offensive rebounds at a high rate for a small forward, but he’s not a strong finisher at the rim, knock-down midrange shooter, or especially adept ball-handler or playmaker — Tucker served well as a floor-spacing functionary, a stand-in-one-place safety valve who could make opponents pay for collapsing to cut off the dribble penetration of Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. Combine that with the Suns’ belief in his defensive work and locker-room leadership (especially after losing Channing Frye to a $32 million deal with the Orlando Magic) and you’ve got the conditions for what feels like something of an overpay — albeit perhaps not a major one in a world where multiple middling free-agent wings have gotten annual salaries slightly below (C.J. Miles) and above (Jodie Meeks) Tucker’s — for a not-quite-elite defender with one trick on offense.
How much of an overpay depends largely on whether Tucker can keep doing that trick — as SB Nation’s Tom Ziller noted, the one-year spike in 3-point accuracy does scream “potential fluke” — and whether his ability to take on those top-flight wing scorers night after night ebbs as he nears and passes age 30. For now, Phoenix has decided to make a significant investment in Tucker’s talent for setting the tone for a young Suns squad, with designs on building a culture that will sustain long after he hits that partially guaranteed third year.
• The Portland Trail Blazers have brought back Steve Blake on a two-year deal, according to Yahoo Sports NBA columnist Marc J. Spears. The veteran point guard, who previously plied his trade in the Pacific Northwest during the 2005-06 season and again from the start of the ‘07-’08 campaign through the February 2010 trade deadline, will receive Portland’s bi-annual exception, starting at $2.077 million this season, and will include a player option for the second year, according to Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com.
It’s essentially the same contract that Blake’s former Los Angeles Lakers teammate, Jordan Farmar, got to join the Los Angeles Clippers, and it’s a decent enough price, given the higher-dollar deals that multiple secondary ball-handlers (Shaun Livingston, Darren Collison, Patty Mills, Greivis Vasquez) have received thus far in free agency. The Clips got Farmar at that price tag, in part, because of injury concerns; with Blake and the Blazers, it’s a similar story.
The 34-year-old triggerman has missed 77 of a possible 230 games over the last three seasons with a variety of injuries, including a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, a strained right hamstring, and a strained lower abdominal muscle that required surgery. When on the court, though, he’s been a pretty effective caretaker of the offenses he’s been handed, posting a strong 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio for the Lakers and Golden State Warriors, who imported him at the February 2014 deadline to stabilize the backup point guard spot behind All-Star Stephen Curry and hopefully bring his playmaking (he was averaging a career-best 8.3 assists per 36 minutes prior to the trade) and steady long-range shooting (just under 40 percent from 3-point land before the deal) to the Bay Area. That didn’t work out so well; Blake’s assist rate dropped precipitously and he shot a below-league-average 34.7 percent from long distance after joining Golden State and scarcely made an impact in the short-handed Warriors’ first-round playoff loss to the Clippers.
The Blazers will hope that — with a return to full health and an insertion into Portland’s free-wheeling, ball-sharing, open-shot-generating offense — Blake will rediscover his shot-making and play-making productivity in a role that would figure to see him play both behind and alongside another All-Star guard, Damian Lillard. If he can shake the elbow ailment enough to get his long-range stroke right, Blake can fit in perfectly well as an off-ball spot-up option alongside Lillard — he drilled 40.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot triples last year, according to NBA.com’s SportVU optical tracking data — and while he’s neither the sturdiest nor swiftest defender in the world, he’s a bigger, better option on that end of the floor from the guy who filled this role for Portland last season.
Speaking of Mo Williams, my immediate reaction to Blake’s signing was to wonder whether his addition meant the end of the line in Oregon for the Alabama product, who found the market for his services depressed enough last summer to ink a sub-$3-million-per-year deal in Portland, and has now seen his employer land an even more cost-effective veteran option. Williams’ agent, Mark Bartelstein, told CSNNW.com’s Haynes that it doesn’t necessarily close the door on his client returning to the Blazers, but with Lillard, Blake and rising sophomore C.J. McCollum giving head coach Terry Stotts a trio of combo guard options, Williams — who led Blazers reserves in minutes, points and assists last season — could soon find himself on his fifth team in the past five years.
• The Memphis Grizzlies agreed to terms to bring back free-agent point guard Beno Udrih, according to ESPN.com’s Marc Stein. Like Farmar and Blake, the Slovenian lefty will receive the bi-annual exception starting at just under $2.1 million to stick with the Grizzlies, who picked him up off the waiver wire after he was bought out by the New York Knicks in late February.
It’s kind of funny to think that the 32-year-old Udrih is actually getting a pay raise after a season that saw him sign a one-year deal for the veteran minimum of $1.3 million, promptly land in Knicks coach Mike Woodson’s doghouse, and persistently struggle to get off the bench for a New York team that spent most of the year circling the drain en route to a 37-45 finish that left them out of the playoffs and Woodson out of a job. (Well, a head-coaching job, at least.) What a difference a couple of months can make, especially when those months include your new team’s backup point guard testing positive for a banned substance right before the start of the playoffs … forcing you into the rotation for a Round 1 matchup with Russell Westbrook, Reggie Jackson and the Oklahoma City Thunder … against whom you play fantastically to start the series, scoring 26 points in 28 minutes to help spark wins in Games 2 and 3, becoming something of a minor folk hero in Bluff City along the way, even as the Grizz ultimately went down in a Z-Bo-less Game 7.
Go from out of nowhere to eight points and a couple of assists a night in taking OKC to the limit, and suddenly you start looking like a very attractive option to keep around behind Mike Conley … especially considering Calathes may or may not be eyeing a move back overseas after what I think we can call a fairly rocky first year in the NBA. All the stuff that made Beno a high-value low-cost option for the Knicks last season — solid ball-handling, creative playmaking, pick-and-roll prowess, experience in a variety of systems on teams that have played deep into the postseason, ability to contribute on and off the ball — remains true. So does the stuff that gave Woodson pause, namely Udrih’s poor defense, hit-or-miss long-range accuracy — four below-average 3-point shooting seasons (2006-07, ’08-’09, ’11-’12 and ’12-’13), four well-above-average ones (’04-’05, ’07-’08, ’09-’10, last year) and two around-average ones (’05-’06, ’10-’11) under his belt — and that penchant for pull-up jumpers in transition. But those drawbacks are less damaging on a Grizzlies team that can hide bad defenders, and those benefits are more important for a Memphis squad that can struggle to score and desperately, permanently, ineluctably needs more long-range shooting.
Beno would be worth a shot for a number of teams in need of backup point men, but he’s just the right sort of bargain on Beale Street, and he seems very excited to stay there:
Good times all around. Enjoy the barbecue, Beno.
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