5 NBA Free Agents with the Most to Prove During 2016-17 Season

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 16, 2016

5 NBA Free Agents with the Most to Prove During 2016-17 Season

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Every former NBA free agent experiences some sort of pressure.

    DeMar DeRozan, Mike Conley, Hassan Whiteside and Andre Drummond will have to live up to their massive paydays now that they've each re-signed with their old teams. Al Horford will be tasked with carrying the Boston Celtics to the upper tier of the Eastern Conference. Even Ian Clark needs to meet the expectations of his new deal now that he's back with the Golden State Warriors for another year.

    But a handful of signees have even more to prove.

    Maybe they were overpaid by their new (or, in two cases, old) squads. Maybe they're replacing departed legends. Maybe they're attempting to rehabilitate their declining images. Maybe they just haven't broken out like they're supposed to and are now being paid as if they have.

    Whatever the reasons, these guys better work hard before the start of the 2016-17 campaign, or the whispers will grow even louder.

Honorable Mentions

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    Dwyane Wade (SG) and Rajon Rondo (PG), Chicago Bulls

    Dwyane Wade has never played professional basketball for an organization other than the Miami Heat, but he's going back to his hometown, attempting to prove he can still perform like one of the NBA's best 2-guards. Rajon Rondo is also joining the Chicago Bulls on a two-year contract with a mutual opt-out clause after 2016-17. 

    Neither guard can drain shots from beyond the arc; both have to prove themselves in the Windy City. 

    Never before have Wade and Rondo, who have a decent amount of bad blood between them, had so much in common. 

    Kevin Durant (F), Golden State Warriors

    It's hard to claim Kevin Durant needs to prove himself. He's been operating at an MVP level whenever healthy for years now, and he remains one of the greatest offensive threats in NBA history. 

    But Durant is entering an entirely different situation, and there's a significant amount of pressure on him to make sure the Golden State Warriors somehow get better. He's now tasked with blending in next to Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, even though he's rarely spent much time working as an off-ball scorer. (Watching Russell Westbrook operate in isolation requires playing off the ball, but it's not the same role.)

    It isn't difficult to guess who gets the blame if the Dubs fall well short of 73 wins. 

    Harrison Barnes (SF), Dallas Mavericks

    The Dallas Mavericks are paying Harrison Barnes $94 million over the next four years, but the small forward hasn't earned such a large sum. He disappeared during the 2016 NBA Finals, and it's not as if he was a standout member of the Warriors before stepping onto that biggest stage. 

    Though Barnes has always possessed undeniable talent that manifests itself in many facets, he hasn't developed into the star he was touted as while at North Carolina. He's been a quaternary offensive presence, only receiving opportunities when Golden State couldn't draw anything up for Curry, Thompson or Green. 

    Now, it's time to prove that lack of stardom was due only to his role—one necessitated by the existing stars surrounding him in the Bay Area.

5. Bradley Beal (SG), Washington Wizards

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    Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

    New Deal: Five years and $128 million, per The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski

    Age: 23

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 17.4 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.2 blocks

    Since he was drafted at No. 3 in 2012, Bradley Beal has suffered a laundry list of injuries. Per Pro Sports Transactions:

    • 2012-13: Sprained right wrist, sprained left ankle, stress injury in right fibula (season-ending)
    • 2013-14: Stress injury in right fibula
    • 2014-15: Fractured left wrist, sore right big toe
    • 2015-16: Sore left shoulder, stress reaction in right leg, fractured nose and concussion, sprained pelvis, pelvic injury (season-ending)

    At some point, Beal must prove he's capable of staying healthy. He's missed at least 19 games in three of his four professional seasons, and that won't be acceptable now that he's making nearly $26 million per year.  Of course, Beal also must evolve when he's on the court too.

    Perhaps it's due to those injuries, but he's failed to become much more than a three-point marksman—a damn good one, but a glorified specialist nonetheless. His passing hasn't developed to the point he's a useful secondary distributor, he's a mediocre rebounder and his defense hovers between average and woeful, depending on the night. 

    Beal has been pegged as a max-contract player for a long time. Now he has that coveted deal and has to justify it retroactively.

4. Tyler Johnson (SG), Miami Heat

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    New Deal: Four years and $50 million, per The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski

    Age: 24

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 8.7 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.4 blocks

    Replacing a legend is never easy, and that's essentially what Tyler Johnson is doing. With Dwyane Wade gone to the Chicago Bulls, he'll be one of the Miami Heat's primary shooting guards and could hold down the starting spot his predecessor owned since his 2003-04 rookie season.

    Is that fair? Not particularly. 

    But it's the reality because Johnson—not Josh Richardson, who could also start at the 2—signed a $50 million offer sheet with the Brooklyn Nets that the Heat chose to match. They're invested in his development, and it's hard to look at the money spent and not wonder if some could've gone toward appeasing Wade's monetary requests and keeping him a Heat lifer. 

    "Once you feel like you've made it is when it all starts to go away," Johnson told Bleacher Report's Zach Buckley in December, referring to the motivation behind his continued progress. "The biggest thing is for me to keep my head down and continue to get better."

    That's a tougher mentality to maintain with this much money in the bank.

3. Timofey Mozgov (C), Los Angeles Lakers

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    Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

    New Deal: Four years and $64 million, per The Vertical.

    Age: 30

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 6.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, 0.4 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.7 blocks

    Let's look at the top dozen (true) centers on our free-agency Big Board who changed locations this offseason, specifically at the average annual value (AAV) of their new deals and total points added (TPA), per NBA Math. Something doesn't quite add up when you get toward the bottom: 

    Overall RankPlayerAAVTPA
    No. 4Al Horford$28.3MM218.2
    No. 12Dwight Howard$25MM32.45
    No. 20Bismack Biyombo$18MMMinus-3.5
    No. 27Ian Mahinmi$16MM87.72
    No. 30Festus Ezeli$7.5MMMinus-3.1
    No. 34Al Jefferson$10MMMinus-24.04
    No. 41Boban Marjanovic$7MM35.75
    No. 50Joakim Noah$18MM25.32
    No. 53Zaza Pachulia$2.9MM55.11
    No. 76Timofey Mozgov$16MMMinus-30.92
    No. 77Roy Hibbert$5MMMinus-44.88
    No. 95Cole Aldrich$7.3MM76.66

    The Minnesota Timberwolves may have landed a bargain in Aldrich. The Golden State Warriors could will be unfair with Pachulia (and some guy named Kevin Durant). Landing Ezeli at his price is a flat-out steal for the Portland Trail Blazers. 

    But the Los Angeles Lakers are on the opposite end of the spectrum with an early overpay for Mozgov, whose role declined so significantly while with the Cleveland Cavaliers that he barely played during the title run. His style was wholly outdated on the roster, despite him looking like a breakout star just one year prior. 

    If you wriggle around enough, you can kinda-sorta justify the move—the Lakers have so many young players with significant roles and rookie-scale contracts that they can manage an overpay. They need to send players bigger checks to lure them into a wholesale rebuild.

    But Timofey Mozgov's confidence looked shattered in 2015-16, and gambling on his upside—yes, it might still exist—is risky at this exorbitant price. 

2. Joakim Noah (C), New York Knicks

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    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    New Deal: Four years and $72 million, per ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne

    Age: 31

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 4.3 points, 8.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.0 blocks

    Apparently, the New York Knicks thought it was the 2014 offseason when they decided to give Joakim Noah a massive contract. That would have meant he was coming off a campaign that saw him win Defensive Player of the Year and trail only Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Blake Griffin in MVP voting.

    Alas, Noah isn't far removed from suiting up in only 29 games for the Chicago Bulls last season. Even when he was on the floor, his level of play was severely hampered by the combined effects of advancing age, nagging injuries and diminishing skill set. Chicago was better defensively when he played, but his offensive woes almost negated the benefits.

    Now, he has to rebound during a season that will feature his 32nd birthday. He's being paid like a star, and the Knicks need him to perform like one or else he'll become a rich member of the second unit, while Kristaps Porzingis slides over to the 5.

    And that's only at the beginning of this four-year contract. 

    Noah's insatiable work ethic should offer optimism to the Knicks' tortured fanbase. But watching him prepare for games, only to contribute at less than an All-Star level, won't be satisfying.

1. Dwight Howard (C), Atlanta Hawks

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    New Deal: Three years and $75 million, per The Vertical's Shams Charania 

    Age: 30

    2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 13.7 points, 11.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.6 blocks

    Rewind to 2012, and a bitter Dwight Howard was finishing his Orlando Magic tenure by flirting with trades, pushing out coaches and becoming a bona fide diva.

    Since then, he hasn't done much to re-establish himself as a goofy, fun-loving fan favorite. Instead, his time with both the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets was plagued by negativity, substandard production (by his standards), back injuries and tabloid headlines. 

    He's coming home for 2016-17, to the Atlanta Hawks and a city that saw him develop into a high school state champion and a prep-to-pro legend. The big man still has roots firmly planted in Georgia's capital city, and that only builds more pressure on him to deliver while he attempts to replace Al Horford as the team's starting center. 

    Howard can still produce like an All-Star. So long as he accepts his role and eschews demanding post-up touches, he can thrive as a rim protector, defensive specialist, elite rebounder and roll man. If anything, he should fill a major need for head coach Mike Budenholzer, who has often seen Atlanta struggle on the glass—the natural result of his carefully chosen schemes and the team's personnel. 

    But Howard has to accept the role. Only then can he make progress in the attempted rehabilitation of his once-attractive image. 


    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @fromal09.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Basketball-Reference.com or NBA Math.

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