Believe it or not, there is another kind of “March Madness” in the world of basketball this year that doesn’t involve bubble teams, chalk, Cinderellas, or shining moments. As has become the rule rather than the exception in recent years, the overhyped February 18th, 3:00 PM NBA trade deadline came and went mostly to the sound of crickets. Instead, smart teams salivated over the second window to improve for the playoffs, the NBA buyout/waiver period. Following the trade deadline, players under contract had until March 1st to negotiate a release from their contracts and reach free agent status in order to become eligible for the post-season on another team. While not superstars for the most part, many viable players languishing through the remainder of their oft-questionable deals had a chance to part ways with disappointing teams and shop their wares to playoff contenders. For the most part, the players agreed to a buyout with their former teams as opposed to being released outright, meaning that they had to take a pay cut to be free. For their part, the owners ended up saving a little cash in the process.
He might not be the redefining player that LeBron James was during the team’s championship runs, but the Miami Heat’s acquisition of seven-time All Star guard Joe Johnson after being released from the Brooklyn Nets is more significant than a mere trinket. Johnson briefly became the NBA’s highest paid player in 2010 when he signed a six-year; $123.7 million contract to remain with the Atlanta Hawks, a move that was widely criticized at the time. Atlanta was able to wiggle away from that decision two years later when the team traded Johnson to Russian billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov and his talent-starved Nets, who were hoping to make a splash for the team’s relocation from New Jersey to the Barclay’s center in Brooklyn. Despite also acquiring future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett from the Boston Celtics at the twilight of their careers, the past four years have been disappointing to say the least. Both Pierce and Garnett have already moved on in prior deals, and Johnson accepted about a $2.5 million pay cut on the final year of his contract last month in order to join a contender before the free agent deadline.
Although several teams recruited Johnson for the stretch run, including LeBron’s current team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, Johnson ultimately settled on the team that James helped to reach four-straight finals from 2011-2014, winning two of them. As of this writing, the Heat has won four straight games since the February 27th acquisition and currently sit in fourth place in the Eastern Conference standings. Miami GM Pat Reilly has readily admitted that the city’s climate and culture make it a prime destination for veteran players contemplating their post-NBA life. Johnson agreed saying that his family, who are avid swimmers, were thrilled to be leaving New York for the pleasures of South Beach. Although veteran former champions like Garnett and Pierce’s former NBA title-winning Celtics teammate Kendrick Perkins, along with Lakers championship point guard Derek Fisher have joined teams that made deep playoff runs in recent years, only the likes of bit-contributors Corey Brewer and Ronny Turiaf have actually joined the eventual title-winner in post-deadline acquisitions since 2010. For most teams, these pickups are generally used in the hopes of providing a slight talent improvement, additional veteran leadership, or both.
It should be completely clear by now that the San Antonio Spurs are not like most teams. GM R.C. Buford is more often than not credited with running the most successful organization in all of pro sports, and he has pounced on this year’s bargain bonanza. The Spurs, who despite a 52-9 record and outscoring their opponents by a whopping 12.5 points per game, actually trail the historically incredible Golden State Warriors by 3.5 games for the league’s top record. Not to settle for amazing, Buford added two talented and respected veterans to the team’s arsenal by acquiring both shooting guard Kevin Martin and point guard Andre Miller after both players agreed to buyouts from the Minnesota Timberwolves. The pair will bolster a lineup that already features All Stars Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobili, and perhaps the best supporting cast in the NBA. It remains to be seen if it will be enough to defeat the otherworldly Warriors, but the two teams appear on a crash course to meet in the Conference Final.
Despite its record pace for the NBA’s best regular season ever, the Warriors also used the waiver period to boost its lineup. The 6-10, big-haired effort-and-hustle player Anderson Varejao may be the most beloved Cleveland Cavalier ever that’s not named LeBron (and probably the most-beloved during James’ four-year Miami vacation). Unfortunately, Varejao’s hustle has also been his downfall, as he has spent nearly as much time injured as healthy during his 12-year career. In an effort to clear cap space, the Cavs traded Varejao to Portland at the deadline in a three-way deal to acquire role-player Channing Frye, a move largely regarded as the most significant deadline trade. Portland then waived Varejao, who quickly signed with the Warriors team that defeated the Cavs for the title in 2015. Granted, Varejao joined a host of Cavaliers who were injured and unable to play in the series. While Frye’s pickup is certainly a roster improvement over Varejao, whose tank is likely on empty, his veteran savvy and awareness of his opponent could make him a valued asset for the Warriors in case of a very plausible NBA Final rematch.
Even teams that aren’t considered to be top contenders have used this year’s unusually talented buyout pool to enhance their long-shot odds. Former two-time All Star forward David Lee, a role-player for last year’s Warriors championship team before being traded to Boston in the offseason, was waived by the Celtics after the deadline. Lee signed with the Dallas Mavericks shortly thereafter, and former Houston point guard Ty Lawson agreed to a deal with fringe-contender Indiana this past week. Also, former reality star and Kardashian doormat Kris Humphries signed with the Atlanta Hawks after being waived by Phoenix, and forward J.J. Hickson signed with Washington after being released by Denver. Former number one overall pick Andrea Bargnani was also bought out by the New York Knicks and remains available, although rumor has it that he will return to his native Italy to play. Although none of these players have the pedigree of Johnson, this year’s class of castoffs is significantly more talented than usual. It is very likely one or more of these players could make moderate contributions to title-winning team, as well as several competing against each other in the later stages of this year’s NBA playoffs.