Midseason free agency can separate NBA contenders from pretenders


Terrence Jones has flourished as a starter for the Rockets, but he might benefit from veteran help in the playoffs. (Pat Sullivan/Associated Press)

After the NBA’s Feb. 20 trade deadline came and went with relatively little activity, teams have been a bit busier this past week shopping the buyout market in hopes of adding a player who could elevate their playoff standing.

With free agents needing to sign with teams  players needing to clear waivers and gain free agent status before Saturday’s deadline in order to be eligible for the postseason, a handful of veterans with expiring contracts and waning interest in playing for non-playoff teams have worked to negotiate buyouts.

For several teams, a free agent signing could mean the difference between being an easy out and becoming dangerous come playoff time. Here’s a look at three middle-of-the-pack teams that could find a potential boost in signing a recently bought-out veteran:

Chicago Bulls
Though Chicago stands as one of the leagues’ hottest teams, winning eight of its last 10 games through Wednesday, the Bulls’ offense remains a work in progress. With franchise player Derrick Rose again sidelined for the season after suffering a knee injury in November and leading scorer Luol Deng gone in a trade to Cleveland, the Bulls have yet to find an offensive leader.

The Bulls rank last in the NBA in effective field goal percentage with a mark of 46.4 percent and last in points per game at 92.9, according to NBA.com/stats — despite boasting seven players averaging at least 11 points per game. Chicago has been able to combat its lack of offensive firepower with strong defense, yielding an effective field goal percentage of 47.3, second best in the league. But the Bulls’ lack of a go-to-scorer is likely to catch up with them in the playoffs. Chicago entered Thursday averaging just 8.4 points in clutch scoring, defined as the last five minutes of games decided by five points or less, putting it in the bottom half of the NBA.

Brooklyn Nets
The Nets made perhaps the biggest splash in free agency before the season by bringing in future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, but as the playoffs draw near and Brooklyn hanging on to the No. 7 seed in the East, another acquisition could be necessary. Following Wednesday’s 124-80 loss to Portland, the Nets have allowed at least 100 points in 26 of their 55 games. That stat, along with the 6.6 more points given up per 100 possessions when Garnett is not on the floor, illustrates Brooklyn’s defensive concerns.

Also contributing to Brooklyn’s struggles is its rebounding, which ranks 29th at 38.9 per game. Minus starting center Brooks Lopez, who suffered a season-ending foot injury in December, and with a roster that has an average age of about 32, an able body off the bench to crash the boards and lock down opponents would be critical in helping the Nets approach their once-sky-high expectations.

Houston Rockets
Despite Wednesday’s loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Rockets have won 10 of their last 12 games, averaging a blistering 111.1 points in that span. While some have highlighted Houston’s propensity to give up a lot of points en route to victory, the Rockets actually rank sixth in net rating, outscoring opponents by a margin of 5.8 points per 100 possessions.

Still, Houston’s defense could use another capable defender who could decrease its dependence on Dwight Howard. The Rockets surrender 2.5 more points per 100 possessions without Howard on the floor, and opponents shoot just 47.2 percent at the rim against the three-time defensive player of the year , according to NBA.com’s player tracking stats.

Terrence Jones has excelled since becoming the team’s starting power forward on Nov. 12, averaging 12.3 points and 7.6 rebounds while shooting 53.1 percent from the field. Still, the second-year pro has never been to the postseason and could benefit from the wisdom and defensive boost of savvy veteran as the Rockets look to contend with Western Conference favorites Oklahoma City and San Antonio.

BY THE NUMBERS
16.0
Assists per turnover for Clippers guard Chris Paul during the team’s four games from Feb. 21 to Feb. 26. Paul recorded 48 assists and just three turnovers in that span.

13
Points scored by new Pacers guard Evan Turner off the bench on Tuesday in his debut with the team after a Feb. 20 trade. Indiana’s bench players totaled a season-high 50 points in the 118-98 win over the Lakers.

QUOTABLE
“This is not a distraction to this team. I’m focusing on finishing out this season, finishing out these games with my teammates.”

– Knicks guard Raymond Felton during a Wednesday news conference after being charged with one count of criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree and one count of criminal possession of a firearm on Tuesday.

“But that’s why you have to be disciplined and implement discipline. That’s how you kind of make that better or make that not a factor. I don’t think there’s a lot of discipline right now”

- Lakers forward Pau Gasol to the Los Angeles Times following Tuesday’s blowout loss to Indiana. Lakers Coach Mike D’Antoni called Gasol’s comments “disturbing,” continuing the franchise’s season of turmoil.

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