By Michael Pina
T.J. Warren and more names to keep an eye on ahead of free agency.
It appears most of the high-wattage star power that might otherwise change teams—Bradley Beal, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Zach LaVine—are all staying put. But that doesn’t mean the offseason isn’t compelling. Here are a few under-the-radar free agents worth keeping an eye on when June 30 rolls around.
It’s not every offseason where one of the 10 most talented free agents also happens to be in his prime and affordable for just about every team. Nobody is talking about T.J. Warren. On one hand this makes perfect sense because it’s been 546 days since he played in an NBA game. On the other hand, it’s astonishing, especially when you consider that he was “a full participant in on-court activity with his teammates” back in March when the tanking Pacers revealed that Warren’s season was over. He fully recovered from “consecutive stress fractures in his left foot” and there’s no physical reason to believe that at 29 years old he can’t get back on track as a potent three-level scorer.
In 67 games during the 2019–20 season, Warren shot 73% at the rim, 47% from the mid-range and 41% behind the three-point line. You can fry an egg with highlights from that glowing 53-point ember that burned in the bubble. Plop him onto any competitive team and they’ll be better (especially when he’s free from playing small forward on a cramped floor next to Domas Sabonis and Myles Turner). He’s a 6’8” slasher who can space the floor, take care of the ball and generate decent looks for himself without any assistance. That player remains valuable in the heat of a playoff series, particularly against an opponent that’s committed to limiting transition opportunities.
Warren has limitations, of course. He doesn’t set others up, isn’t a ball mover and has played only 156 postseason minutes in his entire career. On very good teams he won’t hear his number called as often and will need to be more efficient with fewer touches. (According to Synergy Sports, of the 78 players who finished at least 75 possessions coming off a screen in 2020, Warren scored 53.3% of the time, which ranked first.)
But the regular season is a great time to grow comfortable in a new role. Imagine him supplementing genuine superstars on the Bucks, Mavericks, Celtics, Sixers or Nuggets.
As I said at the top: Players this good usually make far more than the mid-level exception. Warren needs to show he’s who he was before injuries kept him off the court as long as they did. If he can, whichever team signs him will get an absolute bargain in 2023.
Hartenstein is only 24 years old and coming off a season where he played like one of the best backup centers in basketball for the Clippers. But his position, role and pedestrian box score numbers all help explain why he’s a tad overlooked. Nobody is checking for a seven-footer who doesn’t shoot threes and averaged only 17.9 minutes per game last year. That’s a mistake!
As a versatile big who can protect the rim (opponents converted only 57.8% of those shots when Hartenstein was on the floor last year), switch on the perimeter, execute pretty much any pick-and-roll coverage at a high level, make decisions on a short roll, finish and run the floor, Hartenstein makes life easier for his teammates without sucking up any oxygen.
Last year was his first logging over 1,000 minutes. And when on the court L.A. was noticeably better on both ends, performing like a 62-win team with Hartenstein and a 33-win team without him. Going forward, he fills an important spot behind Ivica Zubac, a fantastic, smart dribble handoff partner for all the Clippers’ guards and wings. Hartenstein has great touch around the rim and can confidently knock down difficult push shots in the paint, too. Big men who can pass like this are to be cherished:
For all those reasons and more the Clippers would love to bring Hartenstein back. But the most they can offer is the $6.3 million taxpayer mid-level exception, and if John Wall signs in L.A.—as he’s reportedly planning to do—it’s probable he fills that slot. Assuming Hartenstein isn’t willing to take a major pay cut—though that possibility isn’t zero—he is terrific coming off just about any contender’s bench. And even if it may not be enough, the Lakers are one team that would be wise to offer Hartenstein their taxpayer mid-level and a spot in the starting lineup. As someone who isn’t going to average 30 minutes, his passing could alleviate some of the natural spacing issues found in units that include Russell Westbrook, LeBron James and Anthony Davis (who, in all likelihood, isn’t going to jump up a position full-time).
On defense, those humongous groups will be very difficult to deal with inside. The Lakers allowed opponents to shoot 67% at the rim last season, which was 26th in the league.
Hartenstein could work well in Portland as Jusuf Nurkic’s backup, too. They have the full midlevel ($10.2 million) to offer.
Nobody watched the Magic last season. But on a team that didn’t have anything to play for, Harris quietly made 41.3% of his catch-and-shoot threes, firing them up with a quick, confident release. This stat alone isn’t enough to cement him as the same athletic, pitbull-ish combo guard who, just four years ago, was given an $84 million contract by the Nuggets. But for those who believe Harris, at 27 years old, can still contribute in a relevant situation, it certainly doesn’t hurt.
A slew of injuries and a mercurial, seasons-long shooting slump made it O.K. to think Harris’s current contract might be his last. But now he heads into free agency having answered some important questions that plagued the past few years of his career. He’d be a suitable addition to any team that wants inexpensive two-way wings who won’t be asked to create offense for anybody but themselves—which is to say: every playoff team!
That said, Harris’s first step isn’t quite what it used to be, which was glaring in Orlando’s jumbo lineups, curling around dribble handoffs with a cramped floor clogging his path to the basket. Still, he made the most of it, shooting a respectable 63% at the rim. Complementing established All-Stars, he should be even more efficient, blending into the scenery, converting the occasional dunk in transition, floating into wide-open shots on the weakside.
The Sixers are reportedly trying to reunite James Harden with PJ Tucker, but Harris would be an ideal addition if that signing falls through. On several other teams, including the Bucks, Heat, Mavericks, Jazz or Suns, he can rehabilitate his reputation on a grander stage.
If willing and able to carve out a meaningful role spending one season on a veteran’s minimum deal playing for a championship contender, Harris can build up his worth and hit the market in 2023 looking for another payday. This player-type won’t be going out of style anytime soon.
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