The Extra Pass: The All-Value Team

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The Extra Pass is a new daily column that’s designed to give you a better look at a theme, team, player or scheme. Today, we’ll put together a squad featuring some of the league’s most valuable contracts. 

Signing players to any substantial contract during the offseason free agency period is like tap dancing through a minefield — the chances of overpaying for a player or being stuck with a crippling long-term contract is very, very high. Those brave souls that have tried to build a team with above mid-level but below max players have more often than not put their teams on the treadmill of mediocrity.

Still, those players get signed every year, usually by teams who have false illusions of grandeur. That’s how Drew Gooden goes to the Bucks for $7 million dollars a year, or how Ben Gordon gets $58 million over five seasons with the Pistons.

The best value contracts in the NBA are players on their rookie deals, and super-duper stars like LeBron James and Kevin Durant for however much you’re allowed to give them. That’s generally how it works.

But for the sake of this exercise, we’re leaving off those max stars and any player still on a rookie deal to identify some of the real bargains pulled this offseason. Here’s my All-Value Team:

Jason Kidd$3 million a year – 17 PER – 8th in the NBA in true shooting percentage

Everyone laughed when the Knicks signed the 39-year-old aging point guard to a 3-year deal, but Kidd just keeps on adapting and producing. It might be surprising that the Knicks have a 23-12 record, but it’s even more stunning when you consider that Kidd has been their third best player in terms of net plus/minus, PER, and win shares. That’s some incredible bang for the ol’ buck, especially when you consider that Kidd is shooting 44 percent from behind the arc and turning the ball over pretty infrequently (4.2 assists to 1.3 turnovers a game). With pure scorers like Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith on the roster, Kidd has turned himself into the perfect sidekick — a mistake-free, spot-up shooting fiend. He’s a whole new player.

Honorable Mentions: Andre Miller and Kyle Lowry

Matt Barnes $854,389 a year – 17.9 PER –  4th in the NBA in effective field goal percentage

Here’s the story. Barnes was playing pickup ball one day at the Clippers training facility, and apparently, he was really tearing it up. Chris Paul was in attendance, and he asked Barnes who he was playing for. Much to Paul’s surprise, he found out Barnes was still available as a free agent. So CP3, being the go-getter that he is, immediately ran upstairs to the front office and told the Clippers brass to go sign Barnes right away. That turned out to be a pretty good move, eh? Barnes was the 15th man added to the roster and was treated like an afterthought with Caron Butler and Grant Hill already on the roster, but he’s quickly become the most integral piece of “A Tribe Called Bench” — the nickname for the Clippers second unit that has been destroying benches (and starters) with no impunity. Barnes ranks 13th in the league in plus/minus, using his brilliant cuts off the ball and instincts in transition to give the Clippers the glue guy they’ve lacked for years.

Honorable Mentions: Ray Allen, J.R. Smith, Jamal Crawford

Carl Landry $4 million a year – 18.4 PER – Leads Golden State in win shares per48 minutes

How did everyone forget about this guy? How could a player with such a proven history of being an effective scorer — even on horrible teams — fall in the laps of the Warriors for below the mid-level exception? Whatever the reason was, it sure seems silly now. Landry has proven to be a physical, hard-nosed player that hits the offensive glass (17th in offensive rebounding percentage), gets to the foul line a bunch (20th in the NBA), and shoots the ball incredibly well (9th in True Shooting Percentage). Landry and Lee working the high-low game in Golden State’s smallball lineup (Jack-Curry-Thompson-Lee-Landry) has been truly beautiful basketball. If Landry keeps this up and doesn’t get 6th Man of the Year consideration, we should all riot.

Honorable Mentions:  Thabo Sefolosha and Mike Dunleavy

J.J. Hickson $4 million a year – 20 PER – 3rd in the NBA in total rebounding percentage

What a strange journey. After being tagged as the guy Cleveland wouldn’t acquire Amare Stoudemire for, Hickson has had somewhat of a resurgence with Portland. While he’s still an awful, undersized defender at 6-foot-9, Hickson has helped account for his shortcoming elsewhere by becoming one of the best rebounders in basketball. Hickson is 3rd in total rebounding percentage this season, trailing only Anderson Varejao and Reggie Evans. Hickson’s glass eating mentality and decent scoring instincts (9th in field goal percentage) have helped the Blazers fill the gap at center while Meyers Leonard figures the game out. With Hickson next to LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum, the Blazers very quietly have one of the best offensive frontcourts in basketball.

Honorable Mentions: Jermaine O’Neal and Jason Smith

Andray Blatche – $854,389 a year – 23.7 PER – 8th in the league in PER

Just like the Knicks did with J.R. Smith, the Nets got the knucklehead discount on Andray Blatche this offseason. After wearing out his welcome in Washington in a serious way, the Nets were the only team really brave enough to take on a reclamation project, and the talented 26-year-old big man has rewarded them by playing his butt off. Blatche is 8th in the league in offensive rebounding percentage, 16th in total rebounding percentage, and 17th (!) in usage percentage. The last stat is particularly interesting — it’s not very often you’ll see an offense sculpted around a player making the league minimum, but Blatche has proven worthy of the touches, averaging nearly 20 points per 36 minutes on career-high percentages across the board. Thanks to the great play of Blatche and Brook Lopez, the Nets can firmly stake claim to having the best center rotation in the NBA. Who could have predicted that?

Warriors’ Matt Barnes on facing Kings: ‘I’m trying to kill ’em’

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The Kings were very good to Matt Barnes.

They signed him to a two-year contract worth more than $12.5 million when it seemed he wouldn’t come close to that on the market. Then they waived him, allowing him to receive all his salary and escape basketball hell for the Warriors, who make him much happier.

Yet, he’s going into tonight’s Golden State-Sacramento game with an edge.

Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle (hat tip: CSN Bay Area):

Matt Barnes holding a grudge? Why, I never.

Surging Heat have playoffs in sight after dreadful start

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MIAMI (AP) — They have won 24 times in their last 31 games. They put together the NBA’s longest winning streak this season, a 13-game run that was beyond surprising. They are on the cusp of doing something never accomplished in NBA history.

This Miami Heat comeback tale has been an epic one.

And now comes the toughest part – finishing the job.

None of the other 125 teams in NBA history who started 11-30 or worse made the NBA playoffs. The Heat, with 10 games left on their regular-season schedule, are in position to change that. They held the second-worst record in the league in mid-January, are tied with San Antonio for the best record since, and hold a one-game lead over Chicago and Detroit for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot entering Friday’s games.

“These guys want this so bad,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra – a reluctant coach of the year candidate who cringes when players lobby on his behalf – said Thursday after a loss to the Toronto Raptors. “They want this opportunity to be in the playoffs. We’ve fought, scratched, done everything we possibly can to put ourselves into a position to fight for it.”

More fighting and scratching awaits.

Of Miami’s final 10 games, a stretch that starts Sunday in Boston, eight are against teams still battling for either a playoff spot or playoff positioning. The only two exceptions are a home-and-home next week with New York, which earlier this season was seven games ahead of the Heat in the standings and now are eight games behind Miami (35-37).

“We’ve dug ourselves out of a deep ditch,” Heat center and NBA rebounding leader Hassan Whiteside said.

True, but they’re not on firm playoff footing yet.

Under normal circumstances, Whiteside almost certainly would not have played Thursday. He needed 13 stitches to repair a cut in his right (shooting) hand on Tuesday, and a similar injury two years ago left him sidelined for three games.

Not only did he start Thursday, he led the Heat with 16 points and 14 rebounds. Afterward, he had icepacks strapped to both of his knees, covered his right hand in a clear plastic bag so the stitches wouldn’t get wet in the shower, and had his newly sprained left ankle wrapped.

“He’s a tough dude,” Heat point guard Goran Dragic said.

He hasn’t been the only one.

Factoring in that Chris Bosh‘s on-court tenure with the Heat was declared over when he failed a physical in September, Miami has had at least two players unavailable to play in every game this season because of health reasons. Since Jan. 1, it’s been at least three every game – and often more.

A huge blow came last week when shooting guard Dion Waiters sprained his left ankle. He’s at three missed games and counting, and the Heat offense has struggled since.

“This is that time of the year,” Spoelstra said. “Everybody is feeling it, so this is the mental toughness we have to get to.”

The Heat have no practice Friday, though most players will be in the training room for treatments. Practice resumes Saturday, preceding the flight to Boston. And then Sunday, the 10-game sprint to the finish begins.

“I want our guys to enjoy this,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t feel that we’re putting any undue pressure, but everybody will feel like when they lose that the world is collapsing. This playoff race is still going on. And I think we need a day to get away from it, to decompress and to get back to work on Saturday.”

Remember when Shaq started practice naked? His former Lakers teammates do

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The Lakers are unveiling a statue for Shaquille O’Neal tonight, a perfect opportunity for his former teammates to share their favorite Shaq stories.

Mark Medina of The Orange County Register:

“We had a rule you can’t be late to the center huddle,” said Lakers coach Luke Walton, who played with O’Neal as a rookie in 2003-04. “He got here where he didn’t have time to get his clothes on. So he made sure he was on time in the center circle.”

“I’m just scarred by the one where he ran out into the middle of the court naked before practice,” said former Lakers forward Rick Fox, who played with O’Neal from 1997 to 2004. “I can’t get that image out of my mind.”

“Shaq walked onto the court, put his hands up and said ‘I’m ready to practice,’ said Lakers assistant coach Mark Madsen, who was O’Neal’s teammate from 2000 to 2003. “He had not one inch of clothing on. So he was there in all of his glory.”

“He would start running around looking for guys to hug. Everybody was trying to get out of the way,” mused former Lakers guard Derek Fisher, who played with O’Neal from 1996 to 2004. “That’s’ why when I hit that shot in San Antonio in 2004, that’s why we were so good at sprinting off of the court.”

As much as he toed the line with his wardrobe choices before practice started, O’Neal always practiced with his actual uniform. Fox expressed the views of many saying he’s “not guarding him, not doubling down in the post and digging for the ball” sans uniform. As Madsen mused, “that would’ve been the day I would’ve submitted my resignation papers.”

Want to criticize Shaq for not setting a better tone of punctuality? It’s a fair argument, and you might have had Kobe Bryant on your side.

But Shaq keeping the Lakers loose was instrumental in their high-pressure pursuit of championships. Don’t discount that contribution to their three titles with him.

Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac, probable top-10 pick, declares for NBA draft

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Jonathan Isaac explored bursting through a loophole to declare for the 2016 NBA draft straight out of high school.

Instead, he went to Florida State. Now, he’ll enter the 2017 draft.

Isaac:

If he doesn’t hire an agent, Isaac can maintain college eligibility, but this message seems pretty final. Expect Isaac to remain in the draft, and expect him to go in the top 10.

What I like most about the 6-foot-11 forward: Despite being so lanky, he was an elite defensive rebounder. That shows an underlying technical proficiency and physicality that should serve him well.

And then there are the drool-inducing flashes – his ability to go up and get alley-oops above the rim and a sweet-looking jumper.

He’s still a work in progress, and he deferred a lot at Florida State. But he’s just 19, and he has the tools to do more. I’d love to get him on my team as he learns to assert himself.