It's time for our annual search for what some team executives used to call the "next DeMarre Carroll" -- guys with NBA track records so limited, smart teams might be able to swipe them on the cheap.
Our list last year included Bismack Biyombo, Mirza Teletovic, Ed Davis, Cory Joseph, Will Barton, Derrick Williams, Jonas Jerebko and some other success stories, plus some semi-busts such as Kyle O'Quinn.
The unprecedented $20 million-plus leap in the salary cap ahead of next season makes the scavenger hunt tougher. There are not enough quality free agents to soak up the money; some teams will splurge on a no-names just to hit the minimum salary floor, or punt the floor altogether. Tested veterans such as D.J. Augustin will not be sitting there waiting for minimum contracts.
Guys entering free agency today with resumes equivalent to what Biyombo, Davis and Teletovic carried a year ago are going to get paid a ton. There is no point in putting Kent Bazemore, Allen Crabbe, Ian Mahinmi or Jerebko (if Boston lets him walk) on this list; those guys are going to bank $10 million per season or, in at least Bazemore's case, much more.
You have to dig deeper to find a real bargain, which means your chances of hitting go down. These are worse players, and some of them will bank crazy one- and two-year deals from teams desperate to unload cash on any leftover free agent with potential.
I was pretty confident most of last year's Carrolls would do well if given more minutes; they were obvious potential rotation players who contribute in almost any matchup. That is not the case with this year's class. As usual, we err on the side of younger players, so rugged vets such as Brandon Bass, Matt Barnes and Kris Humphries won't appear here.
Solomon Hill: Perhaps no under-the-radar player other than Biyombo made himself more money in the playoffs. Hill emerged as a dependable, small-ball power forward on Indiana's reserve units. The Pacers tried to give him away at the deadline, disenchanted with his busted jump shot, and found no takers. Now, Hill might earn almost $10 million per season, perhaps more, though a few GMs remain unconvinced that he's an NBA player.
He has an NBA-level feel -- a sense of rhythm, timing and vision that is hard to teach. Defenders sagged way off him to clog Indiana's already cloggy offense, but when they rushed back to close out on him, Hill sauntered by them with herky-jerky drives that often ended in slick interior passes:
He has a nifty spin move and can unleash out-of-nowhere, mean-spirited dunks in traffic.
Hone his jumper, and you should have a solid rotation wing player. Hill nailed 11 of his 19 3s in the playoffs and shot a very encouraging 44 percent for the season on corner 3s. Those looks weren't quite Andre Roberson-level open, but opponents are fine with Hill chucking. How many can he make if they take one step closer?
His so-so jumper is less of a problem at power forward because Hill's team should have at least three other decent shooters on the floor. As a pseudo-big, Hill can hang around the baseline, set screens and thread smart passes when he catches the ball on the pick-and-roll.
Problem: It's unclear if Hill can guard real power forwards. Light-in-the-butt stretch guys and backups? He's got those down, and he can switch easily between them and almost any wing player. He toggled from Patrick Patterson to DeMar DeRozan in the first round, and guarded everyone from Draymond Green to Russell Westbrook in the regular season. He's solid against perimeter players, strong and generally in tune both on and off the ball.
He gets a little handsy against speedsters who can zoom past him. He needs a loose whistle to survive those matchups.
Stick him against a real big with a post game, and he's roadkill. He might be able to drive-and-kick by those guys on the other end, but only if he becomes a reliable 3-point shooter -- someone plodders have to defend outside their comfort zones. If he can't get there, Hill will end up a wing-sized guy who can't really play the wing on offense but can only slide down a position against bench guys. If he pulls it off, he might be a borderline starter.
Still, that innate feel is intriguing. He showed enough in the playoffs that some team should take a flier on him, even a pricey one.
E'Twaun Moore: Chicago is confident that it can retain Moore for something around the mid-level exception -- about $5.6 million -- but the Bulls might have to pony up after the NBA watched Moore hold the fort amid injuries to Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose.
Moore is ideally a bigger version of Patrick Beverley, a guy who defends opposing point guards and spots up on offense while a ball-dominant wing such as Butler does the heavy lifting. He shot a scorching -- and unsustainable -- 45 percent from deep, feasting on catch-and-shoot looks from the corners and beyond.
He has some craft to his off-the-bounce game, and he needs it. He isn't explosive enough to get to the rim, so he relies on hesitation dribbles, shoulder shimmies and snakey crossovers to open space for floaters.
He never gets to the line because he almost never gets near the rim. When opponents duck under picks against him, they are generally fast enough to beat Moore to the other side -- and wall off Moore's driving lane before he can get downhill.
It's harder to loft floaters over wing players, and at 6-foot-4, Moore is at a size deficit against them on the other end. Klay Thompson types can rain fire over him, and bullies can dislodge him on the block.
That's the downside: Moore can't quite run point for a functional offense, but he can't defend other positions against at least some opposing starters. On some nights, Moore's fine because he's a rugged, heady defender who works hard.
If he settles in as an above-average 3-point shooter, Moore will be a reliable backup at multiple positions who can start in a pinch.
Maurice Harkless: Harkless may have graduated out of this group after starting down the stretch for Portland, but he hit just 28 percent of his 3s, and the Warriors hit him with the dreaded Tony Allen treatment.
He has never quite found the game we glimpsed down the stretch of the 2013-14 season in Orlando, when he canned 38 percent of his 3s and looked confident making plays off the bounce.
But Harkless just turned 23, and at 6-foot-9, he should be able to switch across every position but center on defense. He spent some time as a small-ball power forward on Portland's bench mobs, and he is a hungry rebounder when he wants to be. As with Hill, Harkless' shooting issues are less damaging when he's working as a "big" man.
To thrive on the wing against post-season defenses, Harkless has to shoot better. Defenders play off him to strangle his team's spacing, and it's hard for Harkless -- not the most intuitive dribbler -- to juke guys who chill 15 feet from him.
Teams routinely hide their worst defenders on Harkless, and he hasn't found a reliable method of punishing those weak links, whether they are big guys or point guards.
He works on defense, but he's still learning the nuances. He'll smash into picks now and then and space out away from the ball. Again: He's only a few months older than Buddy Hield. Harkless is a restricted free agent, and it's going to take a monster offer sheet north of $10 million per season to pry him from Portland. It's worth a shot.
Boban Marjanovic: Are you ready for a world in which a guy who played 75 percent of minutes in garbage time might sign a one-year, $8 million deal? You'd better be because Boban is coming to take your money, stomp on your city's tallest buildings and drip soft, righty hooks over defenders sniffing his armpits.
Seriously: Boban is skilled and massive, and he made guys such as Hassan Whiteside and DeMarcus Cousins look like fifth-graders guarding Billy Madison. He was probably San Antonio's best hard-roller after they dumped Tiago Splitter -- a gap that worried GM R.C. Buford before the season -- and he can pick-and-roll himself into fatal post-up position underneath the rim.
He drew nearly eight free throws per 36 minutes, and he can actually hit free throws. He shot an even 50 percent on post-ups, one of the best marks in the league, and he got to the line on nearly 20 percent of his post-up tries, 12th among 109 players who finished at least 50 such plays, per Synergy Sports. He would have led the league in offensive rebounding rate had he played enough minutes to qualify. He's a canny passer who clowns fools with snappy fakes. Ask Jahlil Okafor, and kindly ignore the happy feet.
He's surprisingly nimble on defense, provided he doesn't have to venture above the foul line. When pick-and-roll ball-handlers enter the Boban zone, they find a giant human, arms spread so wide that he blocks all passing lines while remaining a threat to vacuum up any floater. If ball-handlers scoot by him, Marjanovic uses his long arms to whack at the ball from behind.
Alas, life forces all of us out of our comfort zones, and teams with extra shooting can torture the big fella. Point guards who launch triples off the bounce are his kryptonite, since he has to lurch out an extra few steps to corral them.
A breakdown anywhere, by any of his teammates, sends the game into a sort of drive-and-kick frenzy that unfolds too quickly for Marjanovic. Opponents shot 62.5 percent on shots at the rim when he was nearby, a hideous number for a big man, in part because offenses attack the rim after they've busted a defense -- the sort of jailbreak Marjanovic isn't fast enough to snuff. He can be a weapon if the walls hold. He can't repair damage.
Meet the wrong small-ball team in the playoffs, and you might have to nail Marjanovic to the bench. But those are rare opponents. Big fellas can sustain in most matchups, especially if you pair them with skilled perimeter defenders who allow them to hang back.
Marjanovic isn't a mascot. He's a skilled player worth a look as a third big, and some team might pay a lot to investigate. The Spurs extended Marjanovic a qualifying offer this week, which means that for now, Marjanovic is subject to the so-called Gilbert Arenas rule for restricted free agents with only one or two years in the league; suitors can offer him only $5.6 million in the first year of any deal. If San Antonio needs cap space, it could rescind that offer and let Marjanovic into unrestricted free agency. Alert your cities.
Cole Aldrich: The snaggle-toothed hook-splayer has gradually developed into a workable pick-and-roll big capable of catching in traffic, taking a rhythm dribble and finishing with a soft touch on a surprising variety of scoopy moves.
He's a smart passer who knows where his shooters are, so he doesn't have to waste precious seconds finding them -- and give the defense time to rotate. Aldrich cleans the glass on both ends, tries hard and takes up a ton of space on defense. Like Marjanovic, he struggles against smaller teams who dot the floor with shooters and ping the ball around faster than he can move. Having zero post-up game compounds the small-ball issue. Teams aren't afraid to defend him with wing players, unlocking the turbo lineups that torture old-school centers.
Aldrich posted up a ton as a Knick in 2014-15, but he turned the ball over too much and flung blind hooks that posed a danger to fans seated in the first five rows. The Clippers excised the post-up form Aldrich's game, and he was better for it in the short run. To survive longer minutes, Aldrich needs to get in better shape and hone one go-to post move he can hit over smaller dudes. He has never logged 1,000 minutes in any NBA season.
That's the risk with players in this class: If Aldrich makes a mini-leap, he could become a nice third big, someone worth $10 million per season in this wild, new cap environment. If he stalls out, Aldrich is probably a fourth big who falls outside playoff rotation. Would you rather pay Aldrich $6 million or $7 million per season to coax out that upside or sign an old, back-of-the-rotation big for a little less?
HOPPY TWEENER BIGS
Jon Leuer: Malleability is a skill, and Leuer, in the prime of his career, appears to morphing into a big who can play in lots of combinations -- provided you can absorb his limitations at either front-line spot on defense. Play him alongside a shooter, and Leuer shifts into pick-and-roll mode, slicing down the gut for bouncy finishes.
Things get dicey when another big man is around to muck up the lane, but even then, Leuer has flashed the ability to veer through traffic.
Play him next to a Tyson Chandler type, and Leuer slides out to the perimeter to pop jumpers. Leuer nailed 38 percent of his 110 3-point attempts last season -- more than he had in the previous four seasons combined. When defenders run him off the arc, Leuer is comfortable working off the bounce. He has a soft floater, and he's a willing passer with good vision.
But his advantages melt away against skilled power forwards. They can keep up with Leuer off the dribble, and his jumper isn't polished enough to drag them out of the lane. He shot just 35 percent on long 2s this season, and his 3-pointer is unproven. Leuer has zero post game, so teams aren't afraid to go small, stick wing players on him and run Leuer off the court. Leuer is probably best on offense as an undersized center, but he struggles to hold his ground there on defense. Real centers bulldoze him, and Leuer doesn't frighten anyone around the basket. He's sort of a shorter Kelly Olynyk, with a worse 3-point shot.
But the dude is skilled, and all those tweener limitations matter less against opposing bench units. He's a reliable locker-room presence, and he busts it. He blew away his career-high rebounding numbers last season and battled at center when the Suns paired him with Teletovic. He made a hair over the minimum for Phoenix, but it might take $8 million per year -- or more -- to get him this summer. Keep an eye on the Pistons.
Dwight Powell: He is similar to Leuer, but Powell's skill set on offense tilts even more toward the center spot -- something that could make him a more finicky lineup fit. The Mavs' main bounty in the Rajon Rondo trade is a legitimately explosive pick-and-roll finisher who zooms through tight spaces for dunks.
If Powell's big man partner clutters up space around the basket, dialed-in defenses can wall off his pathways to the rim and turn those dunks into tricky floaters. To thrive on offense, Powell needs to play as the nominal center alongside four shooters. To survive on defense, he usually needs to guard power forwards. He's too small to jostle with starting centers on the block or keep them off the glass. Dallas shoehorned him into that role to spare Dirk Nowitzki some punishment, but it was a stretch.
Powell's ideal front-court partner is a shooter big enough to defend centers -- an NBA unicorn. Powell can change that equation if he improves his jumper, but his resume is discouraging. Powell has canned just five career triples and clanked two-thirds of his midrange jumpers last season. Right now, he's an intriguing, short-minutes bench center.
That said, he's only 24, and his shooting stroke looks good from the hips up. He has the wheels to leap off stretch power forwards, cut off opposing point guards on the pick-and-roll and scurry back before his guy can jack a pick-and-pop jumper. Powell is an athlete and a worker; he's worth a flier in the $5 million range or more. That's nearly the most teams can offer him in the first two years of any offer sheet. Like Marjanovic, Powell is subject to the Gilbert Arenas rule.
FORMER NETS WHO MIGHT NOT BE GOOD
Markel Brown: Now it's getting a little depressing. Signing Brown would be a long-shot, low-cost bet on two things: his 44 percent mark on corner 3s last season and a rangy, almost 6-foot-9 wingspan that could help Brown defend above his listed 6-3 height. Those corner 3s were wide open because defenses have correctly concluded Brown's jumper is busted. They ignored him to muck up Brooklyn's spacing, and it's unclear if Brown's newfound accuracy from the corners would sustain if defenders slid even one half-step closer to him.
To earn a rotation spot, Brown will have to do something off the dribble when a teammate swings him the ball and defenders close out at him. That bricky jumper makes the job harder. Defenders won't sprint at him in a panic and should be able to hold their balance when Brown tries to drive by them. The Nets tried Brown a bunch in the pick-and-roll, but defenders moonwalked under picks, inviting him to belch midrange jumpers. But when he found a driving lane, Brown showed unexpectedly good vision. He dished 3.3 dimes per 36 minutes last year, double his average from 2014-15, and he can make every basic read out of the pick-and-roll -- plus some advanced looks.
He maps the floor well in his head and runs a clean, confident fast break. Brown is a leaper with some highlight dunks in his dossier, but he might be one of those guys who needs a long runway into a 2-footed jump to really get up. He doesn't fly as high after tip-toeing through tight spaces.
He's solid in defending point guards and smaller wings, but bigger guys can overpower him. He ball watches now and then. Brown is a restricted free agent, but a team might be able to pry him away for $3 million or $4 million per season. Without the cap boom, Brown would be a minimum player. In this brave new world, there might not be any minimum players.
Shane Larkin: Bad news: Larkin turned the ball over on 22.3 percent of pick-and-rolls he finished, 150th among 178 players who ran at least 50, per Synergy Sports. Larkin is track-star fast, but he doesn't think and feel the game at a sophisticated level. He zooms to the rim without a Plan B, and when you're (listed at) 5-foot-11, you really need a Plan B. If a defender appears in front of him, Larkin either hoists a wild shot or flings a desperate heave in the general direction of a teammate.
He needs to mine the start-and-stop craft of Isaiah Thomas, another turbo-charged mighty mite who discovered he could be more effective amid the trees by slowing down and keeping his dribble alive. Defense is an uphill battle for short dudes, and Larkin makes it worse by taking bad routes around picks -- or slamming right into them. He sometimes exhales when his guy passes the ball, and against active cutters, that blip of relaxation can sabotage an entire defense.
But there is a capable backup point guard in here somewhere. Spread the floor around Larkin pick-and-rolls, and you weaponize his speed by allowing him to attack a single help defender in an uncluttered lane. That's a simpler chessboard, easier to read, and Larkin has developed some nifty moves to clown big men on an island -- push shots, killer in-and-out dribbles, and more.
He jacked his assist rate up to a career-best level last season and drilled 36 percent of his 3s, a key development, as defenses will sneak under screens against Larkin to wall off his zippy drives. Sustain that, add in a dash of savvy on both ends, and you've got something. It may take $5 million per year to get him, which sounds insane until you remember it amounts to about 1/20th of the salary cap -- perfectly fair if you think Larkin can give 15 quality minutes off the bench every night.
HONORABLE MENTION: Tyler Johnson, Seth Curry, Troy Daniels, Lance Thomas, Andrew Nicholson, Dewayne Dedmon, Garrett Temple, James Michael McAdoo.