NBA Free Agency: Regrading Biggest Moves from 2016 Offseason

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 21, 2017

NBA Free Agency: Regrading Biggest Moves from 2016 Offseason

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    Is there anything better than hindsight? 

    Exercising it makes you feel smart, and everything seems so obvious. It's a real self-esteem booster, and we'll deploy it here to retroactively grade the biggest free-agent signings of the 2016 NBA offseason.

    Up front, we're not going to grade the Cleveland Cavaliers on their decision to re-sign LeBron James, who was technically a free agent when he opted out before inking a foregone conclusion of a deal to return. There was never any drama there.

    Similarly, we'll give quick treatments on other free agents who stuck with incumbent teams. That saves room for players who changed clubs. Those were bigger decisions, and they warrant the bulk of the analysis.

    All of this will happen from the organization's perspective, and the ultimate grade will depend on how much sense the signing made for the team—factoring in short-term performance, long-term repercussions and opportunity cost.

    We'll dive deep on the biggest contracts distributed as measured by average annual value.

Al Horford, Boston Celtics

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Grade: C

    It was tempting to go with a "TBD" mark on this one, as a complete evaluation of the Al Horford signing should include whether the Boston Celtics come out on the wrong end of a 1 vs. 8 first-round matchup.

    Early indications aren't good, though, and you'd have to think the Celtics are a little disappointed with the way Horford has performed.

    I'm not sure they have a right to be, though.

    Horford's biggest weakness has always been on the glass, so it shouldn't come as a surprise the Celtics are trash on the boards. That deficiency is killing them so far against the Chicago Bulls, and Horford's subtler values as a passer and efficient scorer aren't offsetting the issue.

    Boston upped its win total over last year and posted a plus-5.0 net rating with Horford on the floor (much better than the plus-0.7 with him off), so he certainly helped the cause overall. But for four years and $113 million, it'd be nice if some of that value showed up in the postseason.

    The good news is Boston can easily dump a contract or two and clear max cap space again this summer.

    Ideally, the Celtics will get more of a needle-mover this time.

Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Grade: A+

    Shocking, right?

    For two years and $54.3 million, the Warriors added an MVP in his prime who not only fit in well on a team that crushed the league in average margin of victory, but who also plans to stick around for the long haul.

    Here's Kevin Durant on the Warriors Plus/Minus podcast with Tim Kawakami and Marcus Thompson:

    Obviously I'm thinking about the playoffs right now, so I haven't thought about it that much. But I don't plan on going anywhere else. Obviously you want to keep this group together. We want to see how far we can go with this thing, but I'm sure once the season is over with, we'll figure that stuff out, everybody. I'm sure it will all work out for the best.

    As was the case with Horford, you might think some of this grade should depend on how well Durant's team does in the playoffs. For the Golden State Warriors, it's title or bust.

    But that feels a little silly. Because in what world could you spin signing a player of Durant's Hall of Fame caliber as anything but a total win? Maybe if he'd shown up, poisoned the locker room and sent the Warriors crashing into the lottery, we'd have a tougher decision.

    As it is, the first year of KD's stay has worked out perfectly. And the fact that it looks like a prolonged partnership means we can't do anything but give the highest possible mark.

    Oh, and if Durant takes less than the max this summer after opting out, which would allow the Warriors to keep both Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, we'll have to explore the possibility of upping this to an A+++.

Harrison Barnes, Dallas Mavericks

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    Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press

    Grade: A-

    Whatever your expectations were for Harrison Barnes, he exceeded them.

    It's difficult to overstate just how shocking it was to see Barnes develop into a high-usage isolation scorer after signing with the Dallas Mavericks—especially if you watched him fumble away possessions and attack with a positively robotic quality as a Warrior.

    Barnes must improve his efficiency. Among the 25 players who attempted at least 1,200 field goals in 2016-17, his true shooting percentage ranked 21st.

    The ability to create as many looks as Barnes did this year, without much help, is a talent on its own—one it didn't appear he possessed until he proved he did. Remarkably, despite increasing his usage percentage from 15.9 percent to 25.3 percent, his true shooting percentage only fell from 55.9 to 54.1.

    It's hard to add that kind of volume (Barnes attempted almost seven more field goals per game) without losing much in efficiency.

    In a perfect world, the Mavs would be getting a little more defense and something slightly better than 35.1 percent from three-point range out of Barnes' four-year, $94 million contract. But after watching him grow in wholly unexpected ways during his age-24 season, we can no longer rule out the possibility of him progressing in those areas, too.

Chandler Parsons, Memphis Grizzlies

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Grade: F

    The idea of Chandler Parsons is worth four years and $94 million...and at least a passing grade.

    But the real thing, in practice, and brought low by all of the most foreseeable circumstances, turned out to be a massive failure.

    Parsons' first year with the Memphis Grizzlies started late (because of injury) and ended early (because of injury). What came between was equally dispiriting, as the small forward shot a career-low 33.8 percent from the field while looking almost pitiably ground-bound when attacking the rim.

    His legs were gone.

    If Parsons somehow rediscovers his bounce and gives Memphis the wing weapon it hoped it was getting in the first place, this signing is salvageable.

    But what have we seen in the last year or so of Parsons' career that suggests an upward swing is forthcoming?

    That's rhetorical. The answer is "nothing."

Dwight Howard, Atlanta Hawks

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    Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    Grade: A-

    Dwight Howard wasn't an All-Star this year, but he gave the Atlanta Hawks everything they could have hoped for in the first season of a three-year, $70 million deal.

    With averages of 13.5 points, 12.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks, the 31-year-old center was a major contributor to a top-five defense while shooting a career-high 63.3 percent from the field. Better still, the personality issues and locker room discord that accompanied Howard on each of his three previous teams didn't manifest in Atlanta.

    The worst we saw was a brief on-court spat with Dennis Schroder in which the point guard was the one in the wrong, as indicated by his subsequent benching. That rift got a quick mending, though, and Howard has otherwise avoided being a distraction.

    The concern with a contract like Howard's, considering his age and position, is that the first year would deliver reasonable value, but that the subsequent ones would become overpays as the player declines. For the Hawks, it's encouraging that Howard's drift away from stardom appears gradual.

    There's little reason to think Atlanta won't get excellent bang for its buck going forward.

Dwyane Wade, Chicago Bulls

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    Grade: C-

    Aside from the hometown return angle, this signing never made any sense.

    Dwyane Wade was an odd fit with the Chicago Bulls during what turned out to be his worst season since 2003-04, when he was a rookie. Not since his first year had Wade's scoring average, true shooting percentage and PER been as low as they were in 2016-17.

    At the same time, the Bulls somehow made the playoffs, and it's hard to lean too heavily on the idea that Wade (and Rajon Rondo) held Jimmy Butler back. The Bulls' best player had a career year.

    And considering Wade will probably opt out after this season, his two year, $47.5 million deal hasn't done lasting damage.

    Still, saying Wade didn't ruin Chicago's year is different than saying the signing was a good one. The Bulls performed 5.5 points per 100 possessions more efficiently with Wade on the bench, and perhaps the money they spent on him could have been better used on shooters to space the floor for Butler.

    Because we're mostly knocking the signing for an opportunity cost we can't accurately calculate, it's tough to be too negative, though.

    Let's call it a mildly below-average deal and move on.

Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, Houston Rockets

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Grade: A-

    Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon are a package deal here because this whole idea of the Houston Rockets, taken to a philosophical basketball extreme of three-point shooting and a "meh" attitude toward defense, are of a piece.

    Anderson's four-year, $80 million contract wasn't quite as valuable as Gordon's four-year, $53 million agreement, but both players provided exactly the kind of production Houston wanted.

    Both were high-volume, high-efficiency snipers from three, with Anderson hitting 2.8 triples per game at a 40.4 percent clip and Gordon knocking down 3.3 on 37.2 percent shooting.

    Health, a concern for each signee, turned out to be another plus. Anderson played 72 games, his second-highest total ever, while Gordon logged 75.

    As part of the grander vision in Houston, these two 28-year-olds fit perfectly. Given their age and the limited roles they're being asked to play, each should maintain value for at least the next couple of years.

Joakim Noah, New York Knicks

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    Grade: F-

    Yep, we did it.

    We doled out the F-minus.

    Had to.

    A four-year deal for a center already on the decline would have been a mistake at almost any number, but when the New York Knicks gave the shell of Joakim Noah $72 million (inexplicably without a team option or some kind of partial guarantee on the final year), it was immediately the worst contract in the NBA.

    It hasn't gotten better.

    Noah was 30 when he signed the deal, coming off a 29-game season in which he underwent shoulder surgery and scored 4.3 points per game on 38.3 percent shooting. If you want to give the Knicks credit for anything, he wasn't quite that bad in the 46 games he played this year.

    But Noah's season ended with knee surgery, he's facing the possibility of another operation on his shoulder, and he'll lose a dozen games at the start of 2017-18 to a PED suspension.

    It's hard to think of ways for the remaining years on this contract to look worse.

    I guess maybe if Noah had been ejected from Madison Square Garden for fighting Charles Oakley, that would do it.

    Let's not rule it out for next year.

Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Grade: F

    The Los Angeles Lakers had some money to burn, and burn it they did.

    Luol Deng (four years, $72 million) and Timofey Mozgov (four years, $64 million) can still be helpful role-fillers for the right team. Deng enjoyed some success playing power forward for the Miami Heat in 2015-16, and Mozgov isn't so far removed from helping the Cleveland Cavaliers reach the Finals.

    But for a Lakers team that had every incentive to lose this past season, and for an organization that always thinks it's a destination for top-line free agents, there was never any sense in either signing. Why consume cap space on long deals for players who don't match up with the big-picture organizational timeline and can't make meaningful differences more immediately?

    It was a no-win from the start.

    If Deng and Mozgov had been good enough to get the Lakers close to 40 wins, it would have cost them first-rounders in 2017 and 2019. When they weren't that good, and all their presences did was rob minutes from members of the young core, what was the point?

    These deals were baffling from the outset, desperate ploys by a franchise consumed with being relevant. The only reason they grade out better than the Noah deal is Deng and Mozgov's late-season shutdowns weren't the result of surgical procedures.

Evan Turner, Portland Trail Blazers

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    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    Grade: D-

    Just...why?

    In a narrow sense, adding a ball-dominant wing with a shaky jumper to a roster that already had Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to do the distributing (and shooting) seemed risky. And when you also consider the presence of Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Allen Crabbe, whom the Blazers also spent big on to keep, the positional glut further obscured the sense of the move.

    But in a much broader way, committing four years and $70 million to a player who couldn't raise the Portland Trail Blazers' ceiling was a clear mistake.

    Turner is a limited role player whose role was already filled on Portland's roster. You can make the case that his passing could help Lillard or McCollum play off the ball more, but why would you take the rock out of their hands in the first place?

    And though it may not end up crippling the Blazers, who wound up securing a possible third star via trade when they grabbed Jusuf Nurkic from the Denver Nuggets, it's still difficult to defend tying up so much cash on Turner, who averaged 9.0 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists while hitting 26.3 percent of his treys.

    Portland's net rating with him on the floor was minus-4.5. When he sat, that figure climbed to plus-3.2.

    Seventy million should get you more than that.

Bismack Biyombo, Orlando Magic

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    Fernando Medina/Getty Images

    Grade: D

    When you commit four years and $72 million to a guy who you need to do just one thing, and he doesn't do that one thing...yeah, that's a bad signing.

    In a related story: Bismack Biyombo did not help the Orlando Magic play respectable defense.

    To be fair, Biyombo wasn't the only one contributing to the total lack of stopping power on the league's seventh-worst defense. Serge Ibaka didn't move the needle, Elfrid Payton regressed, and in the biggest shock of all, head coach Frank Vogel didn't pack his successful schemes when he left Indiana.

    But Biyombo somehow managed to post an on-court defensive rating worse than Nikola Vucevic, who has lost his starting job at various points during his career precisely because he can't guard anyone. Vucevic made legitimate improvements on that end this season, but there's no way to spin a purported specialist like Biyombo performing worse on D than Vooch.

    Opponents shot 52.7 percent on shots at the rim when Biyombo was the primary defender this year, a marked uptick from last year's 45.2 percent.

    Maybe we'll see a return to the norm next season, but Biyombo and the Magic have a long way to go before this contract starts to look good.

Ian Mahinmi, Washington Wizards

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Grade: B-

    We saw Ian Mahinmi make a positive impact in an area of need, but we just didn't see him do it often enough.

    Knee and calf injuries limited the 30-year-old center to 31 games with the Washington Wizards, meaning his dollar-per-minute ratio on a four-year, $64 million contract was excellent—for him.

    The Wizards will need to see their money stretched a little further in the future, and that means banking on Mahinmi being healthy enough to gradually absorb more of Marcin Gortat's minutes. Trusting big men over the age of 30 to get healthier as they age is risky, but Mahinmi's potential to help Washington makes the gamble worthwhile.

    When he was on the court, the Wizards allowed 104 points per 100 possessions. When he wasn't, they permitted 107.3. For a team that collapsed on D after the All-Star break, consistent minutes from Mahinmi could eventually make a huge difference. Maybe with a full season from him next year, Washington could rank among the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

    He'll never have the pick-and-roll chemistry Gortat shares with John Wall, but as a change-of-pace anchor who can stop the bleeding when opponents go on runs, Mahinmi still profiles as a key piece of Washington's near-term future.

Grade-a Bargains

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Finding rotation players at end-of-bench prices is the key to a deep roster. All of the following free-agent signings earn "A" grades in this on-the-cheap section.

     

    Golden State's New Centers

    The Warriors' rebuilt center rotation came together when Zaza Pachulia and David West signed one-year deals for $2.9 and $1.5 million, respectively, and JaVale McGee leaped off the scrap heap to ink a $1.4 million contract.

    And suddenly, the Dubs had a deeper frontcourt than they did a year ago when they won 73 games.

     

    The Other Curry

    The Mavericks went through a 20-16 stretch after Seth Curry took over full-time starting duties, and he outshot his slightly more famous brother from long range on the season. Not bad for a two-year deal worth $6 million.

     

    The Spurs Did It Again

    Yet again, the San Antonio Spurs found a dirt-cheap retread and turned him into a quality starter. The only negative to Dewayne Dedmon's two-year, $6 million deal is the player option in the second year. He'll hit free agency again this summer and cash in.

     

    Budget Vacation

    I'm not sure what one year of clutch shots, immeasurable swagger and the repopulation of Waiters Island is worth, but I'm guessing it's more than $2.9 million—which is all the Miami Heat had to pay for Dion Waiters.

$100 Million Returners

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    Mark Sobhani/Getty Images

    These guys all agreed to return to their former teams on nine-figure contracts.

     

    Player: Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies

    Contract: Five years, $153 million

    Grade: C+

    That's a lot of money to pay a point guard well into his 30s, and the end of this deal is likely to be rough. But Conley was better than ever in his first year as the owner of the richest contract in NBA history, so this still gets an above-average grade for now.

     

    Player: DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors

    Contract: Five years, $145 million

    Grade: B

    DeMar DeRozan is a bit like a premium version of Harrison Barnes—a player who creates a high volume of moderately efficient offense. That's valuable, and DeRozan kept the Raptors' attack afloat when Kyle Lowry missed time, but this is a massive contract for a player who doesn't defend much, can't shoot threes and depends on foul-drawing for a good portion of his scoring.

     

    Player: Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons

    Contract: Five Years, $130 million

    Grade: C

    Let's just say it's not ideal when your supposed franchise center and freshly minted $130 million man plays 81 games and you get outscored by a total of 274 points when he's on the floor.

    Drummond can rebound, and he's still just 23 years old. But he's got nothing in the post and still can't make his free throws.

     

    Player: Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards

    Contract: Five years, $128 million

    Grade: A-

    Beal is four years younger than DeRozan and may already be more dynamic offensively.

    Among players who attempted at least 1,200 shots this season, only Isaiah Thomas, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Karl-Anthony Towns, James Harden and Kawhi Leonard posted higher true shooting percentages than Beal's 60.4.

    Injuries, long an issue for Beal, didn't crop up this year, either. If he's truly over the stress reactions and ankle woes, this deal may need an upgrade.

     

    Player: Nicolas Batum, Charlotte Hornets

    Contract: Five years, $120 million

    Grade: D

    If in the coming years you wonder why the Hornets can't get off the mediocrity treadmill, just remember they lavished $120 million on Batum—a fine two-way player who'd warrant rotation minutes on any team.

    Note: You don't pay $120 million for anyone best described as "fine."

     

    Player: CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers

    Contract: Four years, $106 million

    Grade: B+

    Given the skill redundancy with Damian Lillard, the defensive questions and some justifiable skepticism about CJ McCollum's ability to keep making tough mid-rangers, this looked like a bit of an overpay at first. But now that McCollum has solidified himself as a star and made an even higher percentage of shots from 10-16 and 16-23 feet, this is an excellent deal.

     

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    Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise indicated. Salary data courtesy of Spotrac and Basketball Insiders.