Pre-season games are underway and the 2023-24 NBA season is tantalizingly close to beginning. Except for James Harden and the Philadelphia 76ers, the majority of expected blockbuster trades have been made. All 30 teams are likely set with the core of their rosters and the decisions they are making now relate to their nightly rotations, and who will fill out the final roster spots.
Deciding who takes spots 12-15 on an NBA roster is never easy. There are two common approaches, take a gamble on a handful of young players who may have some upside or bring in some reliable veterans who are a good locker room presence and often meet their minimal expectations. Some teams also elect to do a mixture of the two.
While the options seem straightforward, the decision itself is far from it, proven by the fact that all teams regularly get these final roster decisions incorrect. The Boston Celtics cut Max Strus at one point, who went on to help eliminate them from this season’s conference finals.
The Philadelphia 76ers let Isaiah Joe go last summer and most would argue that was a mistake in terms of the talent and shooting ability he ended up showcasing with the Oklahoma City Thunder last season. These decisions are about more than talent and potential as well.
Take Joe for example. The young movement shooter had some flashes in pre-season and certainly looked the part, but the Sixers head coach at the time, Doc Rivers, had a track record of focusing on win-now veterans over developing talent. Many within the organization may have agreed Joe was quickly among the top 15 players on the roster, but if there are doubts about the coach actually playing him then it doesn’t make sense to keep him.
These final roster decisions are complex and often have many voices weighing in all with different motives. Getting a final roster spot correct, though, can be very lucrative. A big part of the Miami Heat’s success over the past few seasons is primarily because of Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, but also because they were able to develop Strus, Gabe Vincent, and Duncan Robinson all of whom were undrafted.
There are several non-guaranteed players vying for final roster spots currently. Here are five who could make the team, have an impact, and why.
5. Isaiah Joe and the Oklahoma City Thunder
Even after having a strong 2022-23 NBA season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Joe is still in the same position he was with the Sixers one year ago: fighting for a final roster spot. The Thunder currently have 20 players on their roster, and Joe is competing for one of six roster spots on the wing.
He is up against Jalen Williams, Victor Oladipo, Lu Dort, Jack White, Aleksej Pokusevski, and Aaron Wiggins. The Thunder also have an abundance of big guards in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, and Vasilije Micic meaning minutes on the wing are at a premium this season for any player who aspires to earn some.
Joe should make the Thunder’s final roster though. He shot 41 percent from 3 on nearly 400 attempts last season, proving himself not only a capable movement shooter but arguably one of the best in the league. This skill set allows him to fit perfectly alongside any two of Gilgeous-Alexander, Giddey, and Micic as well as Holmgren. He will open the floor for all of them to attack the lane and make help defense decisions difficult for opponents.
Joe is owed just under $2 million for the 2023-24 season should Sam Presti decide to hold onto him, and there is a team option for the 2024-25 season for just over $2 million. The worst-case scenario for keeping him is you cut another young player probably at a similar level. The best-case scenario is you have one of the best movement shooters in the league on a steal of a contract. While these decisions are never easy, this one should be when it comes to a player like Joe. Keep him, and watch your offense flourish.
4. Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and the Boston Celtics
Mykhailiuk was heavily pursued by some of the best non-NBA teams in the world this summer. Both Greek EuroLeague clubs Olympiacos and Panathinaikos pursued the sweet-shooting wing, the latter with much more fervor. But the 26-year-old Ukranian opted for another basketball club with a storied history, shamrock logo, and green and white dominant colors: the Boston Celtics.
Mykhailiuk signed with the Celtics on a non-guaranteed minimum deal, and signs point towards him making the final roster. Head coach Joe Mazzulla is heading into his second season in charge and there is nothing the West Virginia alum loves more than shooting threes, sans chewing gum on the sidelines. Mazzulla stressed the importance of 3-point attempts constantly last season. He ditched the duo of Al Horford and Robert Williams that anchored the Celtics' 2022 Eastern Conference champion defense a year ago until the Sixers put the Celtics on the ropes in the 2023 Eastern Conference semifinals.
Williams has now departed in the trade that brought in Jrue Holiday. The new starting center is Kristaps Porzingis, arguably the best stretch big man in the league, and the Celtics roster and core are clearly built to acquiesce to Mazzulla’s demands for players who will shoot three-pointers without a conscious. This makes Mykhailiuk a perfect fit for the coach and the roster. He’s a career 36 percent shooter on nearly 1,000 attempts and his size, 6-foot-8, gives him an advantage and will allow him to plug into many positions on the court around the Celtics core. He can help keep the floor spaced and easily be stashed on an opponent's worst offensive player. Mykhailiuk has never found a steady home in the NBA, but Boston might be his best shot.
3. Rudy Gay and the Golden State Warriors
Rudy Gay is entering his 18th season in the NBA and the once reliable borderline 20-point-per-game scorer is, well, no longer that at the age of 37. Father time is undefeated, and Gay has suffered defeat at its hands. But no longer being a consistent 20 points-a-night player doesn’t mean Gay’s ability to help a team win is gone.
Gay is a career 35 percent 3-point shooter on nearly 3,500 attempts. Playing alongside the likes of Steph Curry, Chris Paul, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and others will likely lead to Gay getting the most open looks he’s ever had since maybe the beginning of his career in Memphis?
Veterans like Gay also tend to have more value for contending teams like the Warriors than young players do. Coaches of contending teams often prefer veterans because they usually, at the very least, do not make a lot of mistakes. They are unlikely to explode for an unexpected double-digit scoring night but also rarely waste or give away possessions. They follow schemes and overall orders better and thus, are more reliable in the playoffs.
Gay’s high-flying days are behind him, but his ability as a floor spacer and even a potential post scorer alongside his experience and leadership could lead to one of the best players to never make an All-Star team finally getting an NBA Finals ring.
2. Danny Green and the Philadelphia 76ers
Another veteran wing, but one who has won multiple championships, may have shot his way back onto the roster of the team that traded him away only one year ago. At the age of 36 and with some significant wear and tear on his body, Danny Green is not the prime 3-and-D option he was at the peak of his powers.
His hips have mobility akin to C-3PO in the 1977 Star Wars film A New Hope, and that’s being generous. His focus drifts as well, and without the athleticism to outrun his mistakes anymore these lapses have moved from concerning to guaranteed consequences.
But, he can still shoot the lights out, and he is reminding the entire Sixers roster, coaching staff, and front office of that fact in their pre-season games so far. He’s a 40 percent 3-point shooter on nearly 4,000 attempts and still shot 43 percent from 3 in 11 games last season. He is not good enough to start for the Sixers as he did for two seasons with the organization from 2020-2022 but still knows the team and organization well, and can fill in as needed on any given night.
The Sixers as a whole lack a ton of stability due to James Harden trying to force his way out for the third time in three years and Joel Embiid, serious or not, making the occasional comments about maybe wanting out has not helped things at all. In times like this, having a proven winner who won’t rock the boat like Green could prove very valuable.
1. Justin Champagnie and the Miami Heat
You can’t write something like this and not include the Miami Heat, who just made the NBA Finals for the second time in four years while having undrafted players taking on significant roles for them in the playoffs. While many of us have taken our fair share of jabs at Heat Culture over the past few seasons, there is no denying that there is some legitimacy to those words. The Heat are doing something differently, and it's working. There’s an element of luck to making rotation players out of undrafted free agents, as there are with all amount of success in the NBA, but it's also a combination of tangible work and regimen that the Heat have mastered. So who could benefit this season?
The Heat struck out on Damian Lillard and then also Jrue Holiday. There is yet to be a full report on how invested they got in either of those players, but they certainly had interest. As they toiled on pursuing a star guard, Gabe Vincent and Max Strus signed with the Los Angeles Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers respectively.
This leaves minutes at the wing and guard spot up for grabs, and undrafted Pittsburgh alum Justin Champagnie could be the next beneficiary of Heat culture. Going undrafted in 2021, Champagnie has spent most of his time in the G-League where he averaged 19.3 points and 8.1 rebounds per game while shooting 36 percent from three on 199 attempts. At 6-foot-6 and over 200 pounds, he could potentially offer defensive versatility.
In the Heat’s preseason loss to the Victor Wembanyama-led Spurs Champagnie managed to grab 11 rebounds in 30 minutes of play. Anyone will tell you that NBA teams always have space for a good rebounder, always. With his potential defensive versatility and three-point shooting ability, it’s easy to see where a world where Champagnie becomes the Miami Heat’s next undrafted and non-guaranteed gem. He’s no Lillard or Holiday, and not even a consolation, but could still be another steal for the organization.