The free-agent frenzy during each NBA offseason is one of the most exciting times of the year for fans and teams alike. Each team is discussing potential deals with free agents—some big, some small—hoping to make themselves better for the next season.
The Miami Heat are the team that all franchises taking this approach wish to emulate. The Heat continue to make the team better, even two years removed from the free-agent assault that saw the Heat sign LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in one offseason.
This offseason, Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis have both agreed to free-agent deals with Miami, taking less money to be part of a potential champion.
However, this approach also comes with risks. Free agents often don’t live up to their preconceived hype, and sometimes teams miss out on free agents despite doing everything possible to sign them.
Free agency is nothing close to sure science. In fact, it is one of the most dangerous approaches a team can take in building its squad.
Is He Really Worth That Much?
Oftentimes, teams are desperate when going after a free agent and assume that overpaying is worth it if they get the superstar they want. Instead of being fiscally responsible and building a team within their means, they break the bank on one big star.
It is great if that one star really pans out, but we have seen numerous “big” stars that end up being hugely disappointing compared to the expectations of their contract.
Take Joe Johnson in Atlanta. In the big free-agency period that sent James and Bosh to join Wade in Miami, Johnson was another highly touted free agent. The Hawks signed him to a $119 million deal to stay in Atlanta.
Even at the time, we all knew he was not worth that. Atlanta was desperate to keep its star, even if it severely handicapped the team financially. New Atlanta GM Danny Ferry was incredibly lucky to get rid of Johnson’s contract.
A similar situation occurred in 2008, when Gilbert Arenas became a free agent and threatened to leave the Washington Wizards. Washington desperately convinced him to sign a six-year, $111 million deal. Fast forward four years later, and Arenas has been either traded or amnestied by two separate teams.
The examples abound: Amar’e Stoudemire has become a shell of himself in New York. He signed a $100 million deal two years ago. Rashard Lewis was the highest-paid player in the NBA last season, despite disappearing for two years. Brook Lopez was just offered a max deal, despite being nowhere near worthy of one.
Teams overpay for these people, crippling their payrolls for the better parts of decades. Granted, not all free agents come at such a steep price, but the name guys do. That is something that probably won't change.
Another example of this team-building strategy gone wrong is this year’s Dallas Mavericks. They got rid of everyone on their team other than Dirk Nowitzki in hopes of landing Deron Williams and potentially Dwight Howard.
Instead, they have landed Chris Kaman and Elton Brand, along with Darren Collison in a trade. Those results are obviously a far cry from Williams and Howard. In addition, both Brand and Kaman will be free agents at the end of next season, forcing Dallas to try all over again.
It seems the plan is to try for Chris Paul next offseason, which seems unlikely given their lack of success in this offseason.
The New York Knicks are another example of a team that has struck out multiple times in free agency. They always seem to sign players for far more than they are worth, which they can do as one of the richest teams in the league. Then, those players under-produce and are shipped off for more bad contracts.
Right now, the Knicks have Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler taking up the majority of their payroll. They had better hope those three—two of which were signed as free agents—could start winning. Otherwise, they will just be more in a line of unsuccessful-yet-overpaid players.
We Can Be the Next Miami, Right?
The inherent risk in building a team on the backs of free agents is that you are betting your franchise on the fact that players who performed well elsewhere will perform similarly or better in your environment. You are also taking a chance on how much you pay them, hoping that you get enough bang for your buck.
The Miami Heat are one of very, very few examples of a team that used free agency to build a championship contender. It is extremely difficult to do and even requires a large bit of luck.
Other teams that have tried have overpaid, struck out or just had sheer bad luck with the players they chose to sign. Most teams fall into those categories, as opposed to the one Miami is in.
It is not easy, and it probably is not worth it in most cases, but teams will keep doing it.
Would you rather have a million dollars now, or a thousand a day for the rest of your life? The former looks good right now, but it is not really the more valuable option.