Recently Signed NBA Free Agents Primed for Decline
Unfortunately, NBA players can't stave off declines forever.
Father Time is undefeated, and every contributor eventually starts to trend in the wrong direction. This year's free agents are no exception, though some squads have inked new acquisitions due for immediate regression rather than a more elongated fall from grace.
Maybe they're already older and reminiscing about their 30th birthday parties. Perhaps they're landing in crowded situations that won't afford them as many opportunities to strut their stuff. There's a chance they just aren't great fits for the new scheme.
But all of them will see their stocks fall in 2017-18.
Bojan Bogdanovic, SG/SF, Indiana Pacers: 2 Years, $21 Million
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 13.7 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.1 blocks
Bojan Bogdanovic is capable of functioning as a stellar offensive option, but he has to be deployed correctly. The Washington Wizards, for example, used him quite well during his half-season in the nation's capital.
As opposed to the Brooklyn Nets, who allowed him to start games and serve as more of a featured option, the Wiz brought the swingman off the pine and let him take advantage of weaker matchups. It worked, and his offensive box plus/minus (OBPM) rose from minus-0.5 in 2015-16 and minus-0.4 during the portion of 2016-17 he spent in Brooklyn to a career-best 0.6 in Washington. For the first time in his three-year NBA career, he recorded a distinctly positive score.
It doesn't appear the Indiana Pacers have learned.
"The biggest news Bogdanovic heard Tuesday after being introduced to reporters is that coach Nate McMillan projects him to be the Pacers' starting small forward," Nate Taylor reported for IndyStar.com. "Yet McMillan could only guarantee such a role for Bogdanovic when the team begins training camp in two months."
Initial struggles may actually be for the best, since they would push him to a role more conducive for maximizing his talent. If he's asked to start at small forward and spark a lineup featuring Darren Collison, Victor Oladipo, Thaddeus Young and Myles Turner, that's problematic.
Not only is Bogdanovic beginning to move away from his athletic prime, but he's surrounded by a lack of established offensive talent, allowing defenses to focus even more on his motion away from the primary action.
Langston Galloway, PG/SG, Detroit Pistons: 3 Years, $21 Million
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 7.9 points, 2.1 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.1 blocks
This isn't meant as a slight against Langston Galloway.
He's proved himself a fine player at the NBA level, though the sample with which he's done so is still rather small. It wasn't his work with the New Orleans Pelicans that earned him a shiny new contract with the Detroit Pistons, so much as the 19-game stint with the Sacramento Kings. And unfortunately, the 47.5 percent shooting from beyond the arc and uptick as a secondary distributor might be fluky.
But will we get a chance to find out?
Even after letting Kentavious Caldwell-Pope waltz into a one-year balloon deal with the Los Angeles Lakers, the Pistons boast a crowded backcourt. Galloway can play both guard positions, but he still has to deal with Reggie Jackson and Ish Smith at the 1, as well as Avery Bradley and Luke Kennard at the 2.
Who among those four is guaranteed to cede minutes to the 25-year-old Galloway?
Jackson's contract mandates playing time, no matter how disappointing his 2016-17 efforts may have been. Smith has proved himself a solid backup. Bradley is the exciting new piece after the Pistons dealt Marcus Morris to the Boston Celtics for his rights, and the team just drafted Kennard at No. 12 in June.
"Galloway will have a tough time averaging 20 minutes a game for the Pistons if everyone's available to [head coach Stan] Van Gundy next season. Bradley's going to play about the same as he did last year, about the same as Caldwell-Pope did, somewhere in the 32 to 36 range," Keith Langlois wrote for NBA.com.
Openings simply don't exist. And that, coupled with adjustments as he starts operating in a new system, point toward regression from Galloway's already modest production.
Rudy Gay, SF, San Antonio Spurs: 2 Years, $17 Million
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 18.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.9 blocks
Rudy Gay's presence in this article is unfortunate.
The 30-year-old forward was in the midst of an impressive season for the Sacramento Kings before an Achilles tear ended his efforts. He'd improved on both ends of the court, and his newfound willingness to do everything the right way seemed like it was going to extend his prime for at least a few more years.
But then came the injury. And unfortunately, this just happens to be the malady that's so notoriously difficult to recover from, especially when the affected player has a game predicated upon his athleticism.
The list of veterans to come back at full strength from an Achilles rupture basically begins and ends with Dominique Wilkins—a Hall of Fame talent to whom Gay can't measure up fully. So while he could become an unexpected exception, it's far more likely that he takes on a lesser role in his new home with the San Antonio Spurs.
To his credit, Gay is remaining positive.
"I'm going to have the best comeback ever," he told Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News. "That's the motivation of it."
Hopefully he does. But for now, the safer bet involves him struggling to replicate his 2016-17 exploits while playing primary backup to Kawhi Leonard at small forward.
George Hill, PG, Sacramento Kings: 3 Years, $57 Million
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 16.9 points, 3.4 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.2 blocks
As Ailene Voisin wrote for the Sacramento Bee, the Sacramento Kings don't envision George Hill's value coming solely from his work on the court:
Signing Hill was the key move, the one that figures to have more of a lasting effect.
Part of this has to do with age – Hill is only 31 – but even more to do with his role. The nine-year veteran is expected to compete for minutes while tutoring and providing cover for prize rookie De’Aaron Fox, especially against elite point guards Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Isaiah Thomas, John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook, the league’s Most Valuable Player who also happens to be the former Kentucky standout’s favorite player.
Hill's age is concerning, and not just because he's at the magical number where point guards traditionally begin steep declines. His lengthy injury history makes him an elderly 31, and it should also force the Kings to use him even more sparingly.
By the time 2017-18 season's opening salvo is complete, Sacramento should realize it's not going to hang tight with the true playoff teams in the Western Conference. It doesn't yet have the talent necessary to do so, despite the fantastic job the management has done accumulating upside since dealing DeMarcus Cousins.
And once that realization is complete, Hill's playing time should diminish further as he cedes more run to De'Aaron Fox and the other youngsters. The ex-Utah Jazz floor general remains a two-way asset, but he's now locked into a situation where he's not only valuable for what he does on the hardwood.
Serge Ibaka, PF, Toronto Raptors: 3 Years, $65 Million
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 14.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.6 blocks
Serge Ibaka's offensive value won't decline anytime soon. He's a perfect fit for a modern offense, given his proclivity for stepping out to the three-point arc and burying triples to help space the floor.
His defensive development, however, doesn't look so promising.
Ibaka originally made a name for himself with his point-preventing prowess, factoring into Defensive Player of the Year conversations as he blocked countless shots. Even during his last year with the Oklahoma City Thunder (2015-16) he excelled around the rim by holding opponents to 43.6 percent shooting while he contested 7.6 attempts per game—numbers only Rudy Gobert could surpass.
With the Orlando Magic in the first half of 2016-17, Ibaka showed serious signs of regression.
He gave up 53 percent shooting at the hoop while defending 6.2 shots per contest. While those were a far cry from his prime days in OKC, they were at least understandable. He was playing on a losing team and wasn't particularly motivated—easy to see whenever turning into an Orlando broadcast. But far more concerning was what happened next.
During 23 regular-season games with the Toronto Raptors, he squared off against 6.8 shots at the rim throughout his average outing and allowed his foes to convert at a 51.6 percent clip. And though he recovered nicely during the playoffs (40 percent allowed on eight attempts per game), that first set of numbers is significant.
Ibaka might not be capable of functioning as a game-changing presence on defense any longer, as the Raptors could soon find out.
Ersan Ilyasova, PF, Atlanta Hawks: 1 Year, $6 Million
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 13.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.3 blocks
First, let's note that Ersan Ilyasova struggled during last season's brief tenure with the Atlanta Hawks.
He averaged only 10.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.7 assists while shooting 41.2 percent from the field and 34.8 percent from downtown. Even though head coach Mike Budenholzer's system should be a good fit for his spot-up talents, he produced the worst player efficiency rating since his rookie season (13.5) and a negative OBPM.
This is probably a small-sample-size fluke.
But what if it's not? What if Ilyasova is legitimately starting a steep decline as he moves into his 30s? What if the Hawks gave him $6 million to flounder away in 2017-18?
Chances are, that's hyperbolic. Ilyasova should bounce back and make more of his three-point attempts while providing spacing for the Atlanta offense.
But two primary issues still surface.
First, the Hawks are significantly weakened after losing Dwight Howard, Paul Millsap and Tim Hardaway Jr., which leaves them without many other players to provide spacing. Ilyasova should be a focal point of defensive schemes whenever he's on the floor, and that's not a situation he's handled well in the past.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, the Hawks don't have many incentives to win and should hand the bulk of the available minutes to their youngsters. Ilyasova could easily settle in as a depth piece for the second and third units, watching as John Collins, Mike Muscala, Dewyane Dedmon and Diamond Stone attempt to develop in expeditious fashion.
Amir Johnson, PF, Philadelphia 76ers: 1 Year, $11 Million
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 6.5 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.8 blocks
Amir Johnson was an analytical stud last year.
Thanks to his defensive excellence, he finished No. 53 overall in NBA Math's TPA and trailed only Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford on the Boston Celtics, narrowly edging out Jae Crowder for third place. According to ESPN.com's RPM, only Draymond Green, Kevin Love, Paul Millsap and Anthony Davis were more effective at power forward. On the positionless leaderboard, Johnson finished No. 21 overall.
How does this work? Johnson obviously isn't a top-50 player in today's NBA, or else the 30-year-old would've earned a far better contract than the one-year, $11 million deal he signed with the Philadelphia 76ers.
The springy power forward just didn't do anything that earns penalties. He played fundamentally sound defense. He shot 57.6 percent from the field, 40.9 percent from downtown (on 66 total attempts) and 67.0 percent from the free-throw line. He turned the ball over just once per contest. Of course advanced metrics are going to love him, even if his positive contributions don't match up with many of his positional peers.
But will that continue with the Sixers?
Probably not as Johnson continues to see his athleticism decline and is forced to adjust to a new system. It also doesn't help that he'll be used sporadically, as Philadelphia should feature Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, Joel Embiid, Richaun Holmes, Robert Covington and Jahlil Okafor ahead of him at the two biggest lineup slots.
Johnson should continue to look like a per-minute stud. But those minutes will come fewer and further between, and his studliness might not be on quite the same level.
Zach Randolph, PF, Sacramento Kings: 2 Years, $24 Million
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 14.1 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.1 blocks
For years, Zach Randolph has been one of the Association's prevailing forces on the low block. Even as the league trended toward more perimeter-oriented sets, he kept dominating with his negative vertical and fundamental set of back-to-the-basket moves.
But here's a dirty little secret: Randolph struggled when posting up in 2016-17.
He produced just 0.82 points per possession in those situations during his final go-round with the Memphis Grizzlies, which left him in the 34.2 percentile. The year before that? He sat in the 52.9 percentile while throwing up only 0.85 points per possession.
Randolph is trending in the wrong direction as Father Time saps some of his skills. He's no longer able to contribute much on the defensive end, and his pet moves on the blocks haven't been effective enough to justify throwing him many entry passes.
Fortunately, he'll be able to serve as a mentor on the Sacramento Kings. Unfortunately, he won't add too much on the floor and will likely see his role decline as some combination of Skal Labissiere, Willie Cauley-Stein, Georgios Papagiannis and Harry Giles develops.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.