During free agency, fans and media give much of their attention to the highlight deals that involve Superstars and All-Stars, or at the very least, league starters who are projected to receive 30+ minutes of playing time during this upcoming season. This occurs because those are the players who will more than likely play a large part in driving that team towards wins in a variety of ways. It is also why those players are paid eight figures annually.
But what about the "other guys"? It is easy to forget that NBA rosters are composed of somewhere between 13 and 15 members at any given point during the regular season and as many as 20 during the offseason. Not every signing a team makes can be flashy and drive headlines across all the major news outlets. For one, there are simply not enough minutes to go around. Additionally, teams operate under salary cap restrictions, which at some point forces organizations to target players several tiers down from the headliners who lead the NBA in jersey sales and total salary.
During our "on the margins" series, we set out to highlight several players who were recently acquired via free agency or trade who might not be day one starters for the team they will begin the 2021-2022 season with, but will still play an important role on those teams. Their strengths and weaknesses will be on display throughout this series, even when it comes to their salary for next year and beyond. Are these guys underrated? Could they achieve that status by the end of next season? You be the judge. In the meantime, let's see how a few teams attempted to improve their situations on the margins. First up is new Boston Celtic Josh Richardson, who is looking to return to the floor spacing, all-defensive level ceiling he flashed a few years ago in Miami.
Coming into the league, Richardson was not projected to be anything more than a 3-D contributor, if he even stuck in the league at all past the first couple of seasons. He slowly but surely gained the trust of the Heat brass through his impressive work ethic and sharply tuned defensive instincts. By his 3rd season, he was well-aware of his own strengths as a solid on ball defender and borderline telepathic when it came to giving help on off ball rotations. He was Miami's answers to silky smooth wing threats that were too physically imposing for other guards to deal with, yet too shifty for fellow 2015 draftee Justise Winslow to consistently constain.
His off ball action was incredible during his entire Miami tenure, but this season was particularly impressive. His quick twitch reactions made basketball a living hell from unsuspecting players and he wasn't afraid to go the extra mile in order to thewart likely buckets and good looks around the basket. His offensive RAPTOR mark from that season was a stout +2.7, which only the most elite lockdown guards like Dejounte Murray, Danny Green, Victor Oladipo, and Andre Roberson were outpacing.
The biggest difference between what Richardson was doing with the Miami Heat in 2018-2019 compared to the past two seasons with Philadelphia and Dallas was how much time he spent finishing possessions. Three seasons ago, Miami was short on reliable perimeter creators, with Dwyane Wade in the final days of his illustrious career, Dragic beginning to inevitably age himself, and prospects like Tyler Johnson still unproven in legitimate game action. The role of secondary creator then fell to the 40th pick in the 2015 draft. His third season is where his true abilities as a defender manifested themselves - more on that in a moment. Once that was solidified, the attention turned to what he could evolve into on the other end. His usage rate gradually grew each year until it eclipsed 21% in his 4th season. His minutes ballooned to almost 35 per contest and he attempt 14 shots per game. He was granted free reign to seek out any and all shots that made him comfortable, including pull up threes, pull up twos, and anything in between.
Now the Heat were well aware of Richardson's limitations as an initiator. He's not a particularly gifted ball handler or athlete, which capped his ability to punish defenders that stood him up one on one. You may have noticed from these clips that many of his looks came directly following a screen and/or handoff that gave him daylight to get downhill or stop and pop from his preferred location. He wasn't manufacturing much all by himself.That resulted in a multitude of assisted looks that came from Dwyane Wade, Bam Adebayo, and other teammates who were content to make life easier for the budding offensive focal point. 60% of his shots were assisted (76th percentile), which is easily the highest mark of his career. Offensive actions that helped Richardson get separation were particularly valuable when it came to his mid range game, which many of his shots came from. His mid range frequency for that season came out to 35%, which was one of the higher marks among wings that season. Clearly, the Heat found something worth building on when it came to how to best deploy Richardson. Problem is, the next two teams to give him minutes on their rosters didn't quite go in the direction necessary to get the most out of his skillset.
Richardson's usage rates dropped a bit back to the marks of his 2nd and 3rd seasons once he left Miami. Philadelphia acquired him in a sign-and-trade deal for Jimmy Buttler and that meant sharing the court with ball-dominant teammates such as Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Tobias Harris. Even so, the Sixers brass saw Richardson and a rock steady perimeter presence who could take on some difficult matchups that Philadephia came up against during the season. The idea was sound in theory, but without the ball movement or spacing that the Heat offered during his tenure, he never quite found the fit that he or the team envisioned when he came aboard. His shooting numbers were either similar or improved from the season before, but he still wasn't a legitimate threat from three, which bogged down the Sixers offense quite a bit.
It wasn't just his offense that took a hit, either. His Defensive Win Shares and Defensive Box Plus Minus dropped once he left Miami, which combined with his offensive shortcomings resulted in Richardson's tenure in the Northeast ending as a dissapointment. That team needed floor spacing and shot creation to maximize the abilities of the franchise centerpieces and he could not offer either at a high level, resulting in him being moved to Dallas in exchange for Seth Curry.
As we now know, Seth Curry turned out to be exactly what the doctor ordered for the Sixers. He has evolved to become one of the very best three point shooters in the game and currently holds the highest catch & shoot percentage in the league among active players (46.7%). However, Richardson trended in the wrong direction after his relocation. Many saw Richardson's smaller role next to the ball dominant Luka as an incoming boon for his shooting efficiency, but alas, it was not to be. Whether it was due to the scheme, his role, or COVID ravaging the team and being unable to recover, his three point hit rate was a huge letdown at 33%.
A big reason for that was a drop in the catch and shoot category that Curry dominates so often. In his final season in Miami, he was very comfortable converting looks that became available from drives by Wade, Dragic, and others. He had a 36.7% frequency when it came to C&S looks and he was hitting them at a 38.5% clip. With Dallas last season, that regressed to only 32.2% on a similar frequency. As for his two point looks, they were almost all self created, but his accuracy and attempts from that area did not change much between those two seasons. Boston brought him in to rediscover his pesky defensive game and three point stroke off the catch. We'll see if he make good on that bet, but either way, there is a ton riding on this season from Richardson.
What's at Stake
Well for starters, his yearly paycheck. He picked up his player option in Dallas before being traded to Boston this offseason, which is worth $11.6 Million for 2021-2022. In a slightly surprising move, Boston offered him a one year extension worth just a bit more at $12.1 Million for 2022-2023. It could be looked at as an indication they believe in his ability to regain his prior form, since he would have otherwise been a free agent next summer. However, there is a counter argument to be made. They could have tacked on another year to the contract in order to give them ammo to make another next year and prevent them for losing him for nothing in case things don't work out. Teams might start losing faith in his ability to be a reliable rotation player if he can't find footing in Boston.
When he was given that original contract a few years ago by Miami (4 years, $42 million), it was seen as a positive value contract that he would quickly outproduce and end up declining his player option for this season. The fact that he tapped into guaranteed money tells everyone things haven't gone as planned in the years since. Regardless of what happened in the past, there is still time for him to turn things around. He is entering a much more free flowing offense with the Celtics. new head coach Udoka has been highly praised and he should be great at putting players in positions to be successful. Tatum and Brown should be able to take pressure off of Richardson to be a creator much like Luka did last season, without leaving him in the cold for significant stretches of the shot clock or working with the limited spacing of the Philadelphia lineups. Tatum's evolution as a passer is particularly encouraging. He continues to become more lethal as a scorer, which opens up more passing windows and he's capitalized on that. His assist average has increased each year, reaching over 4 assists per last season.
He's not the top tier predictive passer that Luka or Ben Simmons (get him outta there!!) are, but he has learned to keep his head up in the face of aggressive double teams, making subtle and flasher passes when the situation calls for it. Teams can no longer get away with endlessly sending two men to the ball, which means Richardson should thrive on the type of looks that Smart, Theis, and Pritchard got in these clips.
There's also the matter of the team's performance overall. With Kemba Walker's departure, they have some offensive production to replace in the backcourt. That could result in Marcus Smart moving up to the first five, leaving an open position on the 2nd unit. Smart has been supremely valuable in that role for all these years because he evolved into a reliable floor spacer and versatile defender. Richardson has yet to make an all-defensive team, even with his length plus incredible instincts. Even if he doesn't achieve that honor this season. he needs to be a rock steady presence that the team could even play next to Smart, Tatum, and Brown at times for a borderline impenetrable defensive squad.
All in all, the price to bring in Richardson wasn't too steep, but it wasn't a free pass either. Losing the talented young big Moses Brown hurts, even if his path to playing time was pretty murky this season. In addition, Richardson will be the 5th highest paid player on the roster, which is no insignificant matter, considering the team is over the tax by about $6.8 million. The Celtics incur an additional costs for each player that makes the roster this season. There is a lot riding on this man to be a hero of sorts both for the sake of career, as well as the teams title hopes that seem to be becoming more pronounced each season their wing stars are on the roster.