The big moves get our attention, but sometimes it’s the little ones that make the difference. The 2021 NBA offseason was filled with splashy signings and trades that saw some of the league’s top talent find new surroundings. Be careful, however, not to discount the transactions made around the fringes.
We’ve gathered plenty of evidence over the years for the crucial importance of role players, and a team’s culture — one of the buzziest terms of the modern NBA — is often built from players who don’t necessarily make a huge impact on the court. With that in mind, we decided to take a look at each team’s most underrated offseason move, whether it was a trade, signing, re-signing, extension or through the draft. It will be interesting to take a glimpse back after next spring’s postseason to see how many of these players have made a difference.
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- Drafting Jalen Johnson
The Hawks made some splashy moves this offseason that mostly involved bringing back their own players — re-signing John Collins while extending Trae Young and Clint Capela — but they also had an excellent draft, grabbing Johnson and Sharife Cooper with the 20th and 48th picks, respectively. Johnson in particular is incredibly intriguing. He was one of the top prospects in his class before a polarizing 13-game career at Duke, and many pre-draft projections had him going in the lottery. Following a tremendous summer league performance (19 points per game on 57/42/82 shooting splits), Johnson is exactly the type of talent that could blossom into a foundational piece, much like Collins, who was drafted 19th overall in 2017. Given their young talent and location, the Hawks are an attractive franchise for the next disgruntled superstar. Having a piece like Johnson to throw into a potential trade package could help push Atlanta to championship contention.
- Extending Robert Williams
The Kemba Walker trade, Dennis Schroder signing and Marcus Smart extension got most of the headlines this offseason, but locking up Williams on an extremely reasonable four-year, $54 million deal solidifies the center position alongside Smart, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown for years to come. Williams’ average annual salary of $12 million (including this season’s $3.6 million price tag before the extension kicks in) ranks him 15th among NBA centers, according to Spotrac. Last season, he finished first among centers in offensive efficiency including assists at 1.497 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports, and allowed the fifth-fewest points per possession around the basket for his position at 0.904. If Williams can stay healthy, the Celtics have an extremely efficient finisher with playmaking ability who can also protect the rim — which equals great value for his deal.
- Trading for Jevon Carter
The Nets had the best offensive rating in NBA history last season, but their defense finished a paltry 22nd, allowing 113.1 points per 100 possessions. They were much better in the playoffs, but with a historically potent offense likely on tap again for 2021-22, they needed to make a move to shore up the defense. Enter Carter, one of the league’s best defensive guards who saw his minutes limited last season by Cameron Payne’s emergence in Phoenix. The Nets swapped an offensive player (Landry Shamet) for defense with Carter, who will presumably come off the bench to lock up opposing guards. But don’t sleep on Carter’s shooting either — he’s knocked down 40 percent of his 2.5 3-point attempts per game over the last two seasons. He could be an extremely valuable player for a Brooklyn team that will likely need guard depth given the recent injury history of Kyrie Irving and James Harden.
- Trading for Mason Plumlee
Anyone who watched the Hornets last season realized what a disaster the center position was, and Plumlee is an excellent player to fill that void. His size and athleticism will allow him to get out on the break with LaMelo Ball in what should be an incredibly exciting Hornets transition attack, but he’s also an adept playmaker, in the 95th percentile last season with 1.418 points per possession in the halfcourt including assists, according to Synergy. The Hornets were 26th in the league in halfcourt offense last season, per Synergy, so Plumlee should be a huge help in that department coming off a career-high 3.6 assists per game. Defensively, he’s mobile enough to be able to handle the pick-and-roll, and has been at least an average rim protector over the course of his career. Overall, Plumlee should offer much more stability in the middle than Charlotte had last season.
- Trading for Derrick Jones Jr.
The Bulls had one of the most publicized offseasons in the league, so it’s somewhat difficult to find a move that went under the radar. But it’s safe to say that the trade for Jones hasn’t exactly moved the needle the way that the DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso signings did. While his offense is mostly limited to highlight-reel transition dunks and back-cuts, Jones will help address the Bulls’ most glaring issue heading into next season — defense. At 6-5 with tremendous length, Jones has proven himself a versatile, active defender who should fill in some of the hole left by Thaddeus Young on that end of the floor. Jones also gained NBA Finals experience as a member of the 2019-20 Miami Heat, so he should help the Bulls if they reach their goal of returning to the postseason. A pretty good pickup in the Lauri Markkanen deal, considering they also received two future draft picks.
- Trading for Ricky Rubio
Evan Mobley is the headliner of the Cavs’ offseason and Lauri Markkanen is an interesting risk, but the addition of Rubio could have the most direct impact on winning this season. Rubio was in the 97th percentile in offense including assists last season with Minnesota, per Synergy — a welcome addition for a Cavs team that has finished in the bottom 10 in assists for the last three seasons. It seems like Rubio has been in the league forever, but he’ll only be 31 when the season starts in October and he’ll bring defensive toughness to Cleveland, which finished 25th in the league in that department last season. Perhaps most importantly, he’ll serve as an excellent mentor for the young backcourt of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, who are essential to the Cavs rebuild, either on the court or as assets.
- Signing Sterling Brown
Getting Luka Doncic to ink his supermax extension was obviously the most important move of the offseason for the Mavericks, and swapping Josh Richardson for Reggie Bullock seems like a solid idea to get more shooting on the court. Not many are talking about the addition of Brown, a 6-5 guard who shot 42 percent from 3-point range last season with Houston on 4.2 attempts per game. He was in the 80th percentile in catch-and-shoot situations, according to Synergy, which suggests that he could thrive on the receiving end of some of Doncic’s wizardry. The Rockets had the fourth-worst defense in the league last season, but they allowed four fewer points per 100 possessions with Brown on the court, so he should be able to help the Mavs on that end as well with his ability to guard multiple positions.
- Drafting Nah’Shon Hyland
In a relatively quiet Nuggets offseason, the splashiest move was probably the addition of Jeff Green, who’s coming off an excellent postseason run with the Nets. Taking “Bones” Hyland with the 26th pick in the draft looks like a strong choice, particularly with Jamal Murray expected to miss a good chunk of the season while recovering from ACL surgery. Hyland’s shooting range is almost as deep as his self-confidence, and he dazzled at Summer League with averages of 19.8 points and 4.8 assists while making 40 percent of his 8.8 3-point attempts per game. The Summer League assist average is more than twice as high as his final season at VCU, which suggests he might have some untapped playmaking potential that he could showcase in a Murray-esque two-man game with Nikola Jokic. Hyland seems like an exciting offensive prospect who should be able to contribute in some capacity right away.
- Re-signing Cory Joseph
Cade Cunningham is the poster boy of the Pistons’ offseason, and they also brought in Kelly Olynyk to replace Mason Plumlee, but another important move was retaining Joseph on a modest two-year, $10 million deal. Joseph was quietly solid for Detroit after coming over from the Kings last season, putting up averages of 12 points and 5.5 assists on 51/37/88 shooting splits in 19 games. For a team that parted ways with a few veteran players this offseason, including Plumlee, Wayne Ellington and Rodney McGruder, Joseph will serve as a much-needed leader and locker-room presence for Cunningham, Killian Hayes and the rebuilding Pistons.
Golden State Warriors
- Signing Otto Porter Jr.
Two lottery picks, the return of Andre Iguodala and a Stephen Curry extension — the Warriors had a productive and eventful offseason. One move that might have gone slightly under the radar was the signing of Porter to a minimum contract. The eight-year vet has had problems staying on the court of late, but is still just 28 years old and has made 42 percent of his 3-pointers over his last five seasons. In his last full season in 2017-18, Porter put up 14.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game on 50/44/83 shooting splits. Given their newfound depth, the Warriors won’t need to rush Porter along, and he could end up being extremely helpful as a floor-spacer come playoff time.
- Re-signing David Nwaba
It’s easy to get caught up with the Rockets’ four first-round picks, led by No. 2 overall selection Jalen Green, but all those youngsters are going to need some vets around them. Nwaba can play multiple positions and brings relentless effort on both ends of the floor — ideal characteristics for a role player. He put up per-36-minute averages of 14.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.6 steals last season, and Houston remarkably had a plus-7.6 net rating in nearly 700 minutes with him on the floor. Overall, Nwaba is simply the kind of player you want on your team, and he should fit in well on a young, fast-paced Rockets squad.
- Trading for Isaiah Jackson
The Pacers had a relatively quiet offseason, selecting Chris Duarte with their lottery pick and re-signing TJ McConnell. They were also a part of the monster five-team trade headlined by Russell Westbrook to the Lakers, in which they picked up rookie big man Isaiah Jackson and gave up Aaron Holiday, who struggled to find consistent minutes last season with McConnell’s excellent year. Though he’ll likely need time to develop, Jackson could potentially be the best shot-blocker in his draft class and could fill an immediate role as an energy big off the bench behind Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. Turner is constantly in trade rumors, and Jackson could increase their willingness to pull the trigger if he comes along quickly enough.
Los Angeles Clippers
- Signing Justise Winslow
The Clippers brought back Kawhi Leonard, Reggie Jackson and Nicolas Batum, which equates to a successful offseason, but they also took a flier on Winslow, a useful and intriguing player who has suffered through two injury-plagued seasons. In his last semi-full season in Miami, Winslow put up 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists while shooting 37.5 percent on nearly four 3-pointers per game. If he can get anywhere near those numbers, including the 66 games played, he’ll be incredibly valuable to a team that will likely go a large portion of the year without Leonard. To get Winslow, still just 25 years old, on a two-year, $8 million deal seems like a worthwhile gamble with major upside.
Los Angeles Lakers
- Signing Malik Monk
The Lakers essentially replaced their entire roster around LeBron James and Anthony Davis, with Russell Westbrook and the swath of 30-something vets getting most of the attention. One of the few young players on the Lakers roster is Monk, 23, who has shown brilliant, albeit inconsistent, flashes of scoring and playmaking over the course of his four NBA seasons. Last season with Charlotte he put up per-36-minute averages of 20.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.6 assists on 40 percent 3-point shooting in 42 games. He’ll have his work cut out for him in terms of earning playing time, but the average age of the Lakers’ roster suggests that injuries and rest should provide Monk with sporadic opportunities to showcase his value.
- Trading for Jarrett Culver
Our own James Herbert wrote about how the Grizzlies are acting like a rebuilding team this offseason despite their success over the last two years. One such maneuver was acquiring Patrick Beverley from the Clippers and then flipping him for Culver, the No. 6 overall pick in 2019 who wasn’t able to make much of a mark in two seasons with the Timberwolves. Culver was a prolific scorer at Texas Tech, and perhaps a change of scenery along with the Memphis development team can help bring out some of that talent at the NBA level.
- Re-signing Dewayne Dedmon
The Heat had one of the best offseasons in the league, so understandably nobody is talking about Dedmon, who was quietly pretty awesome in 16 games for the Heat last season. His per-minute production was off the charts, putting up 7.1 points and 5.4 rebounds on 71 percent shooting in just 13 minutes per game. He’s also been an effective rim protector, averaging over a block per 36 minutes in each of his eight NBA seasons. The Miami front office clearly liked what it saw, and it brought back Dedmon to be the only traditional center on the roster behind Bam Adebayo. His minutes will likely stay limited, but Dedmon proved he can be effective in short bursts in both the regular season and the playoffs.
- Trading for Grayson Allen
The defending champs let PJ Tucker go in order to add depth, and Allen should help provide it. He’s been very good for the Grizzlies over the last two seasons, averaging 9.8 points on 39.5 percent 3-point shooting in 22.5 minutes per game, and he should be able to earn minutes off the bench for Milwaukee. Allen averaged 1.228 points per possession in catch-and-shoot situations last season, good for the 78th percentile per Synergy, so he should help create room for Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday to operate.
- Trading for Taurean Prince
The lone offseason additions for Minnesota have been Patrick Beverley, Nathan Knight, McKinley Wright and Prince, so it was slim pickings in terms of an underrated move. Beverley probably got the most attention, so let’s go with Prince, who could be their starting four or come off the bench. He’s been a solid NBA player despite bouncing around a bit, averaging 12.7 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists on 37 percent 3-point shooting over his last four seasons. The Wolves were 25th in 3-point percentage last season and 28th in defense, so the addition of a potential 3-and-D wing like Prince makes a lot of sense.
New Orleans Pelicans
- Drafting Trey Murphy III
The Pelicans moved down in the draft to offload the contracts of Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe on the Grizzlies, but they still got a strong prospect at No. 17 with Murphy. New Orleans needs to put as much shooting and defense as possible around Zion Williamson, and that’s the exact skill set that Murphy possesses. The Virginia product was named to the All-Summer League Team after filling up the stat sheet with 16.3 points, seven rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.3 blocks per game on scorching 56/44/100 shooting splits. Pelicans coach Willie Greene said he wants Murphy to “let that thing fly without thinking,” and he should have plenty of opportunity this season.
New York Knicks
- Re-signing Alec Burks
The acquisition of Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, plus the extension for Julius Randle and re-signing of Derrick Rose were probably the biggest headlines for the Knicks this offseason, but don’t sleep on the importance of bringing back Burks, who was at times the Knicks’ only scoring option off the bench last season. Burks also has a very tradeable salary at around $10 million per season, and the final year of the deal is a team option. So, if and when the Knicks make a big move, he could potentially be part of the deal. Burks was in the 74th percentile in offensive efficiency as a pick-and-roll ball-handler last season, according to Synergy, and is adept at creating his own shot — something the Knicks offense will need even after their offseason additions.
Oklahoma City Thunder
- Drafting Jeremiah Robinson-Earl
Extending Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and (somewhat surprisingly) drafting Josh Giddy at No. 6 were the big moves for OKC this offseason, but Robinson-Earl could prove to be a valuable asset moving forward. The Thunder traded the Nos. 34 and 36 picks to move up to No. 32, where they grabbed Robinson-Earl, so clearly he was a player they were targeting. A versatile 6-9 forward out of Villanova, Robinson-Earl averaged 12 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.8 assists on 50 percent field goals during Summer League, after finishing in the 79th percentile in half-court offensive efficiency including assists last season in college, according to Synergy. He might not have the upside of some of the Thunder’s other young players, but Robinson-Earl has the look of a winning player.
- Signing Robin Lopez
Every rebuilding team needs quality vets, and Lopez is exactly what you’re looking for in terms of leadership and work ethic. He should be able to take young Orlando players like Mo Bamba, Jonathan Isaac and Jalen Suggs under his wing, while providing defense, rebounding and efficient offense highlighted by the best hook shot in the game. Lopez averaged 17.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per 36 minutes last season on 63 percent field goals, and should be a big help to the Magic both on and off the court this season.
- Signing Georges Niang
The Andre Drummond signing, the Joel Embiid extension and the re-signing of Danny Green were the Sixers’ biggest moves this offseason, but Niang is a solid addition at a rock-bottom price. The versatile 6-7 forward has become an elite 3-point shooter, knocking down 41 percent over his last three seasons in Utah. He was also in the 90th percentile in catch-and-shoot situations last year, according to Synergy, while shooting over four 3s per game. Niang should be able to thrive off the looks created by the 76ers’ stars, and can also serve as a secondary ball-handler when needed.
- Re-signing Frank Kaminsky
Obviously bringing back Chris Paul was first, second and third on the Suns’ offseason to-do list, and they got the job done quickly. They also brought in Landry Shamet and JaVale McGee to fill needs, but don’t underestimate the value of Kaminsky returning. Unless Jalen Smith is ready to contribute consistently, Kaminsky is the only reliable stretch big on the Suns’ roster. He may be unplayable in certain postseason matchups, but Frank the Tank was an important contributor to the Suns’ regular-season success last year, averaging 15.6 points, 9.5 rebounds and four assists per 36 minutes on 36.5 percent 3-point shooting. It’s important to have options, and Kaminsky provides a unique wrinkle to the Phoenix offense.
Portland Trail Blazers
- Trading for Larry Nance Jr.
The Blazers’ lack of a splash this offseason amid Damian Lillard’s dissatisfaction has been one of the key storylines of the summer, as re-signing Norman Powell was their most publicized move. Another useful transaction, however, was bringing Nance aboard in the three-way trade involving Lauri Markkanen and Derrick Jones Jr. Our James Herbert broke down the ways in which Nance will help the Blazers on both ends, mostly as a potential remedy for one of the league’s most porous defenses. Nance also shot a career-high 36 percent from 3-point range last season and dished out 3.1 assists per game. Out of all the Blazers’ offseason acquisitions, Nance will probably make the biggest immediate difference.
- Re-signing Terence Davis
Bringing back Richaun Holmes was a priority, and the addition of Tristan Thompson and Davion Mitchell should help improve the league’s worst defense from last season, but re-signing Davis on a team-friendly two-year, $8 million deal could end up being the Kings’ shrewdest move of the offseason. After coming over from the Raptors midway through the year, Davis averaged 11.1 points and 3.3 rebounds in 21.5 minutes per game for the Kings while shooting 37 percent on over five 3-point attempts per game. In addition to Davis’ offensive contributions, Sacramento’s defensive rating also improved by 3.5 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court. The Kings have a crowded backcourt, but Davis’ ability to defend multiple positions should earn him playing time as the team attempts to end the league’s longest postseason drought.
San Antonio Spurs
- Signing Doug McDermott
Trading away DeMar DeRozan and making the most shocking selection of the 2021 draft with Josh Primo headlined the Spurs’ offseason, and the acquisition of McDermott on a three-year, $42 million deal was wise for a couple of reasons. First, the 41 percent career 3-point shooter will provide necessary floor spacing for San Antonio’s platoon of young guards, most of which are average NBA shooters at best. Second, McDermott immediately becomes a valuable trade asset for whichever direction the Spurs plan to take moving forward. He’s the perfect addition for a team looking to make a playoff push before the deadline if San Antonio is in the market for assets, and his salary is large enough that the Spurs could also cobble him into a package deal for a higher-caliber player. Whether McDermott stays in San Antonio or not, he’ll likely end up making the Spurs better in some capacity.
- Re-signing Khem Birch
The sign-and-trade with Miami for Kyle Lowry and drafting Scottie Barnes over Jalen Suggs got most of the attention for Toronto this offseason, but bringing back Birch was an important move considering the volatility of their center rotation. Chris Boucher had mixed results as a starter last season, and Birch, a native Canadian, was excellent for the Raptors after being bought out by the Magic in April. He averaged over 30 minutes in 19 games with Toronto, putting up 11.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game while shooting 56 percent from the field. When Birch was on the floor, granted in a small sample size, the Raptors’ offensive rating went from 101.1 to 112.3. It’s safe to assume that the starting center position is Birch’s to lose, and he’s locked up on an affordable three-year, $20 million contract.
- Drafting Jared Butler
The Jazz mostly brought back the same team from last season that produced the NBA’s best record, with the exception of Derrick Favors, and they’ll likely replace his center minutes with some combination of offseason acquisitions Rudy Gay, Hassan Whiteside and Eric Paschall. Their most underrated move, however, could be picking up Butler with the 40th pick of the draft. Utah traded the No. 30 pick to Memphis, presumably with the knowledge that Butler would still be around at No. 40. Before a health situation required league clearance, Butler was considered a potential lottery talent, almost certainly a first-round lock, after being named the Final Four Most Outstanding Player during Baylor’s championship run. He averaged 16.7 points, 4.8 assists and two steals per game as a junior at Baylor while shooting 42 percent from 3-point range, and the 21-year-old should be able to compete for rotation minutes right away in Utah’s backcourt.
- Trading for Aaron Holiday
The Wizards completely revamped their roster this offseason, shipping out Russell Westbrook while acquiring six players in a five-team mega-deal. Everyone knows about Westbrook’s replacement, Spencer Dinwiddie, and the Lakers they acquired (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell), but the addition of Holiday is a smart and intriguing development. He struggled to find consistent playing time in Indiana, but has per-36-minute averages of 14.2 points, 4.5 assists and 1.3 steals on 38 percent 3-point shooting over the last two seasons. Holiday will presumably slot in next to Dinwiddie and Raul Neto in the point guard rotation, with minutes potentially available due to the departure of Ish Smith. Maybe Holiday never gains traction in Washington, but it seems like a worthwhile gamble for a team in flux.