Who Got the Best and Worst Contracts at Each Position During 2016 NBA Offseason?
Virtually every NBA team had money to burn in the 2016 offseason, and some spent it wisely in free agency.
Others, unfortunately, might as well have literally set it on fire.
There's always a hastiness to audits like this; we haven't seen any of these new additions take the court, so judging them requires a little speculation and a lot of extrapolating future fit and performance from what we've seen in the past.
Still, in a few outlying cases, it feels easy to see impending success and failure—even at this early juncture.
In choosing the best and worst signings at all five positions, we'll consider the value to the team. The financial factor is huge, but fit, chemistry and on-court impact also matter.
Best Point Guard
Jordan Clarkson, Los Angeles Lakers: Four years, $50 million
We're fudging the positional requirement with our first contract, as Jordan Clarkson is more of a combo guard than a true point. Still, he played 42 percent of his 2015-16 court time at the 1 (which worked out to over 1,000 minutes), according to Nylon Calculus, so we're not stretching things too far.
And anyway, we're making the exception so we can heap praise on his deal.
Clarkson is just 24, so locking him up for four more years at an average annual rate of $12.5 million gives the Lakers major cost control through the first portion of his prime.
The rule of thumb in this new cap environment is that an average starter is worth roughly $15 million per season. Count on Clarkson—who averaged an encouraging 15.5 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game in Los Angeles' poorly coached, mostly dysfunctional system last year—to be worth much more than that.
Worst Point Guard
Rajon Rondo, Chicago Bulls: Two years, $28 million
It's generally difficult to slap a negative label on a short-term deal. They tend to be easily tradable if things go bad, and even if a player is so damaging as to make a trade impossible, one- or two-year contracts can be purged via the stretch provision less painfully.
That said, Rajon Rondo's two-year agreement with the Chicago Bulls is a potential disaster.
The notoriously ball-dominant Rondo will cramp Jimmy Butler's style far more than Derrick Rose ever did. If the Bulls are serious about running more, spacing the floor and freeing up the offense, he is not the point guard for them. Add in his lack of defensive commitment, poor shooting and a recent history that includes a dismissal from the Dallas Mavericks during a playoff series and the ugly run-in with referee Bill Kennedy last year, and you have a genuine malcontent who also made his team worse when he was on the floor last year.
When the only upside of a contract is the ability to get out of it quickly—there's a mutual option after the first year—that's a bad sign. Even more ominously, the hapless Sacramento Kings, who find new ways to do the wrong thing year after year, determined Rondo needed to go.
"The occasional breathtaking assist simply comes at too high of a cost," Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver explained. "Even Vlade Divac managed to figure that out."
The over/under on when Chicago reaches that same realization is somewhere around Nov. 15.
Best Shooting Guard
Courtney Lee, New York Knicks: Four years, $48 million
The financial terms are solid, even if a four-year contract for a 30-year-old is cause for minor concern. But Courtney Lee rates as the best free-agent deal among shooting guards because of what he isn't rather than what he is.
Lee is not spectacular. He's not a big-name acquisition, he's never been an All-Star and he's likely unfamiliar to casual fans who haven't kept up with his seven-team, nine-year sojourn through the league. In other words, he's exactly the kind of low-maintenance, quality-on-the-margins, borderline-anonymous talent the New York Knicks so rarely pursue.
He is a dedicated, consistent defender with a track record of hitting three-pointers at a reliable clip. He's a career 38.4 percent shooter from deep, and he has attempted 10 or more shots per game in just two of his nine seasons. He doesn't depend on volume, which will be a plus on this roster.
Unfortunately, Lee's signing doesn't represent a broader philosophical shift in New York. The Knicks still spent lavishly on Joakim Noah and traded for Derrick Rose—big names with bigger question marks.
In a way, the Knicks' continued infatuation with splashy, high-risk moves makes Lee's reliable, understated production even more valuable.
Worst Shooting Guard
Evan Turner, Portland Trail Blazers: Four years, $70 million
Evan Turner played 30 percent of his minutes (670 in total) at shooting guard for the Boston Celtics last year, per Nylon Calculus, so we're opportunistically cramming him in here to save room for someone who signed an even more ridiculous deal at small forward.
While it's tempting to bury the Toronto Raptors for spending nearly max money on a five-year deal for DeMar DeRozan or pillory the Bulls for adding the ill-fitting Dwyane Wade, Turner's deal warrants the most criticism.
The Portland Trail Blazers have one of the best backcourt combos in the league with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum—two guards capable of getting their own shots and setting up teammates. Both handle the ball extremely well, and both are best utilized as primary facilitators. Turner, unfortunately, is only valuable when he has the rock.
Valuable is a relative term here, as Turner has never posted an above-average player efficiency rating.
You could make the case that Lillard and McCollum might benefit from less responsibility and may add new dimensions to Portland's offense by spacing the court away from the ball. But changing the roles of your two best players to accommodate Turner, a guy who nearly washed out of the league before Brad Stevens saved him in Boston, doesn't make any sense.
And it really doesn't make any sense for $70 million, especially when they subsequently brought back Allen Crabbe, whose shooting makes him a much more dangerous weapon on the wing.
Best Small Forward
Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors: Two years, $54.3 million
If a signing renders an Executive of the Year dumbstruck, there's a good chance it's a big one.
Speaking with Scott Howard-Cooper of NBA.com, Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers recounted the call with Kevin Durant that left him stunned:
He said, "I wanted to let you know that I appreciate you guys and how you conducted yourself. You're a first-class organization, but"—and then he said "but" and I figured that was it—"but I wanted to tell you that I'm coming. I'm going to be a Warrior." I don't even remember what I said after that. I probably said something stupid. I really don't remember. I might have said something like, "Are you serious?" which is a stupid response. But I think that's what I said.
Just like that, the NBA landscape changed, tilting even more severely in favor of a team that won a record 73 regular-season games last year. In light of that, we can forgive Myers for his temporary amnesia.
For our purposes, the cost of Durant's deal is irrelevant. The optics, the pressure attached to the construction of an unprecedented superteam, the emotional shockwaves—all meaningless. The Warriors signed an in-his-prime MVP in free agency.
Let's not overthink this one.
Worst Small Forward
Harrison Barnes, Dallas Mavericks: Four years, $94.5 million
Harrison Barnes has value. His size (6'8"), strength (he routinely guarded power forwards with the Warriors) and age (24) mean he'll probably also have a long NBA career.
But holy smokes, is he ever miscast as a max-salary player.
Barnes was an afterthought as the Warriors' fourth or fifth option last year, receiving only cursory defensive attention. In the Finals, when his outside shot deserted him, he got almost none at all.
Athletic but unable to regularly channel it, intelligent but plagued by mental lapses, theoretically a perfect floor-stretching 4 but legitimately outplayed by journeyman Brandon Rush when injured—Barnes was this offseason's biggest nugget of fool's gold.
Anyone arguing Barnes will thrive with more responsibilities in Dallas didn't watch him fail to create shots for himself and his Warriors teammates time and again. Dependent on others for his own scoring, showing little growth in four NBA seasons and now stamped with a wilts-under-pressure label because of last year's Finals, Barnes has everything to prove with the Mavericks.
That's just not the kind of player you pay like a star.
Best Power Forward
Marvin Williams, Charlotte Hornets: Four years, $54.5 million
There were a ton of great deals at power forward this summer, including Jared Dudley with the Phoenix Suns (three years, $30 million), David West with the Warriors (one year, $1.55 million) and Jared Sullinger with the Toronto Raptors (one year, $5.6 million).
Despite coming with a much higher price tag, Marvin Williams' contract with the Charlotte Hornets is the best.
Williams is 30, but his strength and versatility figure to age well. Much like Dudley, he has evolved in the later stages of his career, morphing into a combo forward who exploits mismatches at either the 3 or the 4 while defending both spots well.
With a 40.2 percent accuracy rate from deep and 1.16 points per possession on post-ups last year (second-best in the NBA among players with at least 30 such plays), Williams torched slow-footed bigs and punished conventional wings.
Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post, noting Williams' versatility, called him "the kind of player teams are dying to get."
It's fair to wonder whether he can sustain that kind of production as he progresses into his 30s, but a mild decline is priced into his contract. Not to pick on Barnes again, but Williams does everything better than his fellow Tar Heel, and he's collecting $40 million less than Barnes over the next four seasons.
Worst Power Forward
Ryan Anderson, Houston Rockets: Four years, $80 million
A few short years ago, Ryan Anderson was a prototype. He was the floor-stretching forward everyone craved. Those were the days when peak Dwight Howard helped hide his defensive deficiencies with the Orlando Magic, when Anderson was a deadeye three-point assassin. Those were also the days before he underwent neck surgery.
Now, the league and Anderson are both changed.
Today's stretch 4s are really small forwards who can survive defensively against bigger opponents. They're not immobile 6'10" bigs who have shot 34 and 36.6 percent, respectively, on threes in their last two seasons.
Anderson is now a perfect "life comes at you fast" example of how abruptly the league changed its floor-stretching preferences.
Five years ago, Anderson's skills might have justified $20 million per season. Now, he's a massive defensive liability who'll have to stay completely healthy and shoot threes at something close to a 40 percent clip to be a break-even player.
Very little from his four years with the New Orleans Pelicans (during which he missed 98 games) suggests either of those things are likely.
Al Horford, Boston Celtics: Four years, $113 million
This one is kind of a Durant-lite situation, as Al Horford is a little older and a little less league-altering than the Warriors' big get.
Nonetheless, the Celtics earn top marks at the center spot for snagging the second-best free agent available. For Boston, getting Horford means something extra because it has spent the last few seasons hoarding assets, saving cap space and waiting for an opening to grab a star. In addition to being the best big man available, Horford also represented the culmination of the Celtics' time-biding gambit.
Practically speaking, the 30-year-old forward/center gives Boston an offensive fulcrum from the elbows or the block who can also space the floor and facilitate. He'll immediately become the Celtics' defensive anchor as well.
The fit is perfect, as Jae Crowder told Tom Westerholm of MassLive.com: "We play through our bigs, and a lot of teams don’t play through their bigs," Crowder said. "They post them up and give them the ball. Our bigs, like he did in Atlanta, he makes the play. We were explaining our basketball terminology to him, and how ours will fit right in with (his) game. It’s going to mesh."
Though $113 million is a lot of cash, the price isn't prohibitive because of the talent involved.
Timofey Mozgov, Los Angeles Lakers: Four years, $64 million
Set aside the oddity of acting so quickly—Timofey Mozgov was the first reported signing of free agency—when the market yielded far better deals to more patient teams, and you still have plenty of reasons to criticize the Los Angeles Lakers' agreement with their new starting center.
Here's one: Mozgov ranked 71st out of 72 qualifying centers in ESPN.com's real plus-minus last season. Adding to the sting, Roy Hibbert, who left the Lakers to sign a one-year, $5 million deal with the Hornets, ranked one spot higher.
L.A. is paying a $59 million premium for marginally worse production.
It's possible that Mozgov, who underwent offseason knee surgery in 2015, never felt like his real self last season. In the past, he's been a potent defensive force at the rim. Remember, too, that he scored 28 points in Game 4 of the 2015 NBA Finals, and that the Cleveland Cavaliers defended much better with him on the floor two years ago.
Even during his atrocious 2015-16 campaign, Mozgov was still useful as a roll man on offense, ranking in the 88th percentile in that category.
If the Lakers get the 2014-15 version of Mozgov, this deal looks less ridiculous. Banking on improvement from a 30-year-old 7-footer coming off knee surgery and a marked decline in performance doesn't seem like a great idea, though.