Parsing the Risk and Reward of NBA Free Agency
For every safe and sensible signing made on the NBA's free-agent market, there are a handful of risky additions made for the sake of reaping potentially incredible rewards.
Some of that is simply the nature of investment, but that nature is augmented by the disparity between the cream of the basketball crop and the legions of talented also-rans. NBA teams are forced to confront these kinds of risk-reward scenarios on an annual basis as they attempt to supplement or stabilize their rosters, ultimately resulting in contract values that range from the incredible to the incredibly damaging.
Here are a few of the most compelling risk-reward scenarios of the off-season thus far, accentuated—naturally—by the financial considerations involved.
Roy Hibbert and George Hill, Indiana Pacers
Coming off of a remarkable season and an impressive playoff run, the Indiana Pacers committed heavily to their current core by re-signing Roy Hibbert on a four-year, $58 million deal, and bringing back George Hill on a four-year deal of predictably lesser value.
The Pacers didn't exactly have the option of letting either player go in order to window shop in free agency given Indy's other financial commitments, but this is nonetheless a big chunk of change to commit to a team that looked a few steps behind the Miami Heat in their playoff matchup last season.
This is a team worth maintaining and cultivating, and both Hibbert and Hill are inextricable parts of the formula in place. But those facts alone won't make all of these investments any easier to swallow if things suddenly go downhill for these Pacers, nor will it grant Indiana any momentum if this team eventually hits a wall in its progress.
At this point, the Pacers are relying on the improvement of Hibbert, Hill and Paul George, yet even if those three continue to develop, is this a team that can credibly pose a threat to the Heat for the Eastern Conference Crown? And if not, what is the aim of its construction?
Landry Fields, Toronto Raptors
Toronto's three-year, $20 million deal with Fields hinges on the notion that he's better than a .506 true shooting percentage, and after just 144 career games (and a variety of different circumstances), it's difficult to definitively say whether the Raptors have valid reason to believe that to be the case.
When he's in good form—as he was in his rookie year—Fields is a tremendous addition. He's a wing who doesn't need the ball, spaces the floor well, rebounds tremendously for his position, and does so many little things well on the defensive end.
When he's not in good form, he's practically unusable, despite the fact that the Knicks were essentially trapped into playing him through his struggles last season. We can split those extremes and expect a more moderate Fields for the sake of fairness, but even that wouldn't really be worth this kind of investment. This is a contract based on a best-case scenario, and considering that the Raptors still have quite a few moves to make before they're even entrenched in the playoff ranks, an inflated deal for a potentially underwhelming role player could prove to be incredibly costly.
Ryan Anderson, New Orleans Hornets
The Ryan Anderson who completed over 39 percent of his nearly seven three-point attempts per game last season is surely deserving of a four-year, $36 million deal, but we currently have little way of knowing whether Anderson is able to maintain that form on a team without an interior threat like Dwight Howard.
There's no reason to think that Anderson's shooting accuracy will somehow crumble, and yet the Magic's offensive system was so uniquely reliant on Howard—and so uniquely consistent in using him to draw double teams and defensive attention—that Anderson's skills can't be so easily translated to other contexts.
We can certainly look at how Anderson performed for Orlando both with and without Howard (and see significant margins in net rating and three-point shooting percentage, per NBA.com), but given the Magic's universal disarray and lack of shot creation without Howard on the floor, that's hardly a fair litmus test.
The next few seasons should be far more telling, as Anderson works in a new offense alongside new teammates, and either comes to validate the value of his four-year deal or fades beneath his own creator-dependent scoring abilities.
Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets
The Nets didn't exactly have much of a choice when it came to re-signing Brook Lopez, but that doesn't make the $61 million owed him over the next four years any less glaring. It can be tricky to evaluate Lopez given the complicating factors of his past two NBA seasons, but at best he's an effective scoring center capable of growing in other areas and at worst an inefficient shooter lacking in out-of-position rebounding and defensive mobility.
Again: none of that means that Brooklyn shouldn't have re-signed him, but it does put a lot of pressure on the 24-year-old big man to perform and in terms of salary alone it hinders the Nets' efforts to round out the rest of their roster going forward.
Lopez's play shouldn't necessarily be weighed against the monetary value of a deal that was borne out of necessity; the dollar figure itself is less relevant than the fact that the Nets are now practically locked into the core that they have. Should Brooklyn look to move Lopez down the line—a realistic notion if this team is need of a shake-up—the girth of this contract could make things quite complicated.
Conjecture on that line is quite a bit premature, but if things go poorly for the Nets over the next few seasons, I suspect many will look past Deron Williams and toward the trio of productive, flawed and handsomely paid semi-stars assembled to back him up. Lopez, as the big, easily targeted stiff, may make for an all too convenient scapegoat—fair or not.
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