NBA Free-Agency Gambles That Will Pay Huge Dividends
USA TODAY Sports
Some NBA free-agency gambles will pay huge dividends for the teams willing to take those risks.
These gambles include investing significant dollars in a free agent who is now being asked to play an entirely new position. They also include offering a max contract to a superstar who hasn't appeared healthy or happy for much of the last two seasons.
All of the calculated risks highlighted, however, involve players who signed multi-year, lucrative contracts this summer and who I expect to ultimately succeed in 2013-14.
For example, while Josh Smith could become a success story for the Detroit Pistons, that gamble and others like it were omitted because those risks appear less likely to pay off.
5. Tyreke Evans, New Orleans Pelicans
Contract: Four years, $44 million
Tyreke Evans' statistical production has declined on an annual basis since he averaged 20.1 points, 5.8 assists and 5.3 rebounds during his Rookie of the Year campaign for the Sacramento Kings in 2009-10.
This past season, he posted career lows in each category of 15.2, 3.5 and 4.4, respectively.
Evans also spent the majority of his NBA career at the point guard position and will now be asked by the New Orleans Pelicans to fill a role alongside Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon on the wing.
While $44 million might seem like too steep of an investment for Evans, expect the gamble to ultimately pay off for New Orleans.
Working against Evans in Sacramento was the fact that he played for a dysfunctional Kings franchise that failed to develop talent with any sort of consistency. Over the last two seasons, specifically, he was also forced to play under the rampant speculation that his team could relocate on a moment's notice.
Additionally, I've never been convinced the 6'6" Evans possess a natural skill set best suited for the point guard position. Playing in a new, healthy environment moving forward, with the opportunity to focus solely on scoring instead of running a team, Evans will have a better chance for success than he has in years past.
4. Al Jefferson, Charlotte Bobcats
Contract: Three years, $41 million
To execute an effective rebuild, an organization cannot only acquire talented young players through the draft. It must also support those rookies with proven NBA veterans who can actually help it win.
Over the last two seasons, the Charlotte Bobcats have marched out top draft picks like Bismack Biyombo, Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to a nightly slaughter.
They had no real chance to compete collectively and lost as consistently as any team in the league because of it.
The free-agent signing of Al Jefferson provides the Bobcats' young core, which now includes Cody Zeller, an opportunity to not only win but also develop a confidence that is critical to organizational success.
Investing $41 million in the 28-year-old Jefferson is a significant price without question. But if that gamble also helps maximize the potential of Walker, Kidd-Gilchrist, Zeller and others, the payoff is far more valuable than simply the points and rebounds Jefferson projects to contribute.
3. Brandon Jennings, Detroit Pistons
Contract: Three years, $24.2 million
While I'm not bullish on the Detroit Pistons' investment in free agent Josh Smith this summer, I do believe their acquisition of Brandon Jennings will yield a significant return.
Despite the warranted critique of Jennings' shot selection, highlighted by a career field-goal percentage of 39.4, he will begin the 2013-14 campaign as a 24-year-old point guard who's averaged 17 points in his career.
In addition to creating his own shot, Jennings also improved as a facilitator to post a career-high 6.5 assists last season.
Even though he may never enter the stratosphere of truly elite point guards, the chances are likely that Jennings will consistently produce like a very good one for Detroit.
He will provide a substantial upgrade for the Pistons in the backcourt, and there's reason to believe that his shooting percentage could improve as his NBA game matures. At three years and $24.2 million, the Pistons' bet that Jennings has his best days ahead of him is well worth the gamble.
2. David West, Indiana Pacers
Contract: Three years, $36.6 million
Whenever an NBA team invests multiple years and lucrative dollars in a 32-year-old power forward who has been banging in the paint over the last 10 years, there are inherent risks involved.
The decision to assume that risk by signing free agent David West, however, will keep the Indiana Pacers on a collision course with the Miami Heat for an Eastern Conference championship in 2014.
West is coming off a year where he appeared in 73 regular-season games while averaging 17.1 points and 7.7 rebounds. His impact proved instrumental in the success Indiana achieved and will remain critical in its attempt to build on all it's accomplished.
If the Pacers had let West walk, based on the fear that his game could diminish with age, they would have taken a dramatic step back heading into 2013-14. Whether he produces the type of numbers that warrant a $12 million annual salary during the final year of his contract is simply the price of doing business.
West is needed now to keep Indiana's momentum moving toward an NBA championship. Not signing West is a gamble the Pacers couldn't afford to make.
1. Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets
Contract: Four years, $87.6 million
Dwight Howard was unhappy during his final days with the Orlando Magic. He was then reported to be unhappy at times again this past season with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Injuries, meanwhile, forced Howard's overall production to decline from averages of 22.9 points and 14.1 rebounds with the Magic in 2010-11 to 17.1 and 12.4, respectively, with the Lakers last year.
Despite that, gambling with a max contract that Howard will be healthy and happy moving forward is a risk the Houston Rockets will gladly assume.
Howard is a rare talent who remains the NBA's most dominant physical force at the center position. Nothing he says or does off the court will change that.
So long as Howard stays engaged with his new opportunity, the Rockets project to be a championship contender over the life of his deal.