The 10 NBA Free Agents Most Likely to Be Overpaid This Offseason
Not every NBA free agent will be adversely impacted by this summer's skimp-and-save theme.
As ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon and Bobby Marks laid out last July, this offseason's market will still be correcting itself after 2016's spending bender. Teams are expected to continue tightening their purse strings and hand out more judicious contracts.
This shouldn't be confused with the eradication of bad deals altogether. Overpayments will forever remain a free-agency staple. There will always be desperate buyers, aggressive leap-seekers, warring risk-takers and front-office executives who feel as if they're prisoners of their cap situation or asset base.
Spotting potential recipients of these above-market deals is definitely more difficult during cost-conscious times. But they do exist.
Offer sheets for restricted free agents still need to include extra bloat; otherwise incumbent teams won't have to hesitate before kiboshing rival overtures. Certain players will always capitalize on reputations that embellish their true value.
Select overpays are matters of bureaucracy. Some teams will finance expensive deals to avoid cutting bait with marquee projects or recent acquisitions for nothing. Others will pony up out of sheer convenience or necessity because they don't have the flexibility to suss out replacements. Squads will even consider overcompensating key members of direct competitors or rising superpowers, just to stick it to them in some way.
Every player profiled fits neatly into one or more of these molds. Not all of them will be among this summer's most overpaid, but they're all, to varying degrees, at least positioned to nab more than they're likely worth.
10. Luc Mbah a Moute, Houston Rockets
Free-Agency Status: Unrestricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 7.7 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.5 blocks, 48.6 percent shooting
Meet this summer's Andre Iguodala.
League sources told ESPN.com's Chris Haynes over the offseason that the 2015 Finals MVP mentally prepared himself to leave the Golden State Warriors before 2017-18. He wanted more money than they were initially slinging and, even in a cash-strapped market, found leverage over the reigning champs.
"Certain teams were intrigued with the possibility of adding not only a top talent," Haynes wrote, "but also nabbing a key cog from the Warriors and weakening a budding dynasty."
This same target is now on the Houston Rockets' back. They don't need to win a title. They don't even have to make it out of the Western Conference. They have a firm hold on the NBA's top record and, according to USA Today's Sam Amick, fancy themselves a threat to win over LeBron James, just as they did with Chris Paul. The field will pounce at the opportunity to hit them where it hurts.
And losing Luc Mbah a Moute would hurt.
He is the Rockets' unrenowned hero—an impetus behind their hyperswitchy lineups that don't concede much, if anything, on defense. He's guarded more pick-and-roll ball-handlers than Kevin Durant, more post-ups than Serge Ibaka and as many isolations as Chris Paul.
Mbah a Moute is similarly miscast at the offensive end. More than half of his looks come as spot-up triples, on which he's shooting a good-enough 35 percent, but he's no idle bystander. He's averaging almost as many drives per game (3.1) as Joel Embiid (3.3), and Houston sprinkles in half-court sets that feature him as a cutter and rim-runner.
Trevor Ariza and PJ Tucker are comparably important to the Rockets' identity. But Tucker is under contract through 2020-21, while Ariza is slightly older (32) and less switchy. Plus, Houston's net rating when Mbah a Moute plays with Paul and James Harden speaks for itself:
- Harden-Paul-Mbah a Moute (252 minutes):29.3
- Harden-Paul-Tucker (483 minutes): 11.3
- Harden-Paul-Ariza (529 minutes): 10.4
Re-signing Mbah a Moute will be exponentially more difficult than retaining Ariza. Houston doesn't own his Bird rights, and he's never earned more than $5 million in a single season. He'll have offers worth substantially more than the $2.1 million he's taking home now—overtures the Rockets may not have the juice to match, depending on how much the rest of the league wants to chop them down.
9. DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans
Free-Agency Status: Unrestricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.6 blocks, 47.0 percent shooting
Going here stinks. It blows. It sucks. But we have no choice.
DeMarcus Cousins entered this season as a max-contract lock. He then spent most of his time on the court backing up that designation. A 28-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the only player to ever match his per-game averages for an entire year. Even now, close to two months after suffering his Achilles injury, NBA Math's TPA rates him as one of this season's 16 most valuable contributors.
That won't matter anymore—not as much as it should, at least. The NBA's long, complicated history with Achilles injuries now takes center stage.
On the one hand, recovery timetables don't appear as long. Wesley Matthews ruptured his Achilles in March 2015 with the Portland Trail Blazers. He debuted with the Dallas Mavericks on opening night of the 2015-16 season, less than eight months later. Rudy Gay suffered a similar injury last March with the Sacramento Kings. He was ready for opening night this season, with the San Antonio Spurs, exactly seven months later.
On the other hand, while serious Achilles setbacks aren't as likely to ruin a career, they almost always alter them. Gay has seen his playing time slashed by more than 10 minutes per game. Cousins is younger (by almost exactly four years)—and the Spurs are notoriously cautious—but he's also a nimble-footed big man. His mobility will be compromised to some degree.
Just ask Mehmet Okur. Or Anderson Varejao. Better yet, ask Elton Brand, who was 28 when an Achilles injury rerouted his career arc.
Not one of these comparisons is perfect. Cousins is by far the most superior player of the bunch. He will retain much of his cornerstone cachet in free agency. But that just means he has further to fall. And with so much uncertainty now attached to his future, giving him even close to max money on a multiyear deal defaults to an overpay.
8. Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers
Free-Agency Status: Restricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.2 blocks, 48.8 percent shooting
Jusuf Nurkic's inclusion is less about outside admirers padding his bank account and more about the possibility of him failing to make good on his next contract.
Indeed, after endearing himself to all of Portland with a brilliant performance over 20 appearances last season, his 2017-18 campaign has played out with textbook duality:
- Before Jan. 18 (41 games): 27.0 minutes, 14.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.3 blocks, 46.4 percent shooting, minus-0.3 net rating
- Since Jan. 18 (24 games): 24.4 minutes, 13.5 points, 9.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.2 blocks, 53.4 percent shooting, plus-7.7 net rating
He has ditched a nice chunk of his mid-range jumpers and isn't killing as many possessions with junky post-ups. He's instead letting the offense come to him; he's attempted as many dunks (24) over his past 24 games as he did through his first 41.
That this upswing comes amid fewer minutes and nutshelled usage is nevertheless a concern. Nurkic will try to secure starting-center money in restricted free agency, but is he a starting center? Can his rim protection hold outside of Portland's particularized schemes? Will he ever boast a reliable shot from pick-and-pop range?
Does he have it in him to remain in his wheelhouse for an entire season? Even if it requires him to take fewer shots, log fewer minutes and occasionally watch from the sidelines during crunch time?
Simplified even further: What are the Blazers or his next team paying him to be, and can he be it? Having to answer that question makes it impossible to gauge his value. His next contract will be steeped in risk almost irrespective of how much it's worth.
7. Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
Free-Agency Status: Restricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 10.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.4 blocks, 36.7 percent shooting
Marcus Smart's best-case contract offer may be bankrolled by his current team.
Window-shoppers will no doubt take a look. The point guard market is underwhelming after you remove Chris Paul from the ranks and factor in Isaiah Thomas' fall from stardom. Smart can at least run a half-adequate pick-and-roll these days. His pesky defense—which spans guards, wings and even some bigs—will draw more than a few glances.
So will his jumper, albeit for vastly different reasons.
Smart remains a distinct non-shooter—unless he's playing in the postseason, when he's downing 36.4 percent of his deep balls. The rest of the time, though? Yeah, he's not good. He's putting down under 28 percent of his attempts from the corners, and his finishing around the rim is suspect on his best nights.
Add in a right thumb injury that could sideline him for the rest of this season, and Smart's foray into restricted free agency doesn't figure to stress out the Boston Celtics. Archrivals won't overpay him for the sake of sticking it to team president Danny Ainge—if only because he may have designs on pumping up Smart's annual salary himself.
Perhaps you haven't heard, but Boston has a soft spot for Anthony Davis. ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski also said last summer certain teams are already plotting Giannis Antetokounmpo's escape from the Milwaukee Bucks. You can bet the Celtics are one of them. But they need salary-matching tools to keep these pipe dreams within reach. They don't have them right now.
Jayson Tatum is the Celtics' fourth-highest paid player. Al Horford's max contract would suffice in any theoretical trade talks, but superstar sellers aren't usually keen on footing the bill for aging talent. Re-signing Smart is Boston's ticket to beefing up its contract base, as Danny Leroux outlined for Sporting News:
"That means Ainge could wait out the restricted process with the expectation that the limited market will prevent Smart from getting a lucrative contract, and then agree to a manageable contract for whatever duration of time is acceptable to both parties. As long as it is more than a one-season contract (so not the qualifying offer either), the Celtics could eventually include Smart in a larger trade without needing his approval."
Keeping Smart on a market-value, long-term deal does the trick, but the Celtics could try tempting him with a lavish two- or three-year pact that other teams view as a low-risk flexibility lifejacket. Going that route also helps keep them stay leaner as Kyrie Irving (player option for 2019-20) and, to a lesser extent, Terry Rozier (restricted in 2019) play deeper into their next contracts.
Deliberately drumming up the cost of your own free agent just to use him (maybe if you're lucky) as superstar bait is hardly business as usual. But the Celtics aren't a typical team. They're built to hedge against both now and later. Methodically overpaying Smart helps preserve that open-ended timeline.
6. Julius Randle, Los Angeles Lakers
Free-Agency Status: Restricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 15.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.6 blocks, 57.0 percent shooting
Great news, Los Angeles Lakers fans: Julius Randle's breakout season won't necessarily prevent him from waiting around while team president Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka wine and dine Paul George and LeBron James before circling back to him.
"It would be tough to say no to L.A., honestly," Randle said when asked how much he wants to remain with the Lakers, per ESPN.com's Ohm Youngmisuk. "It is the place that drafted me. I would love to be here. I have to do what is best for the family and hopefully they want me here as well."
Counterpoint: He might not be that patient.
"I knew I had a place in this league," Randle added. "Whether it was here or not."
ESPN front-office insider Bobby Marks estimates Randle will net between $12 and $14 million annually on the open market. The Lakers don't have to worry much if that's the case. His cap hold sits at $12.4 million until he signs a new contract.
Matching the highest end of that projection from the jump wouldn't preclude them from dredging up the money necessary to lure both Paul George and LeBron James to Hollywood. They'd have to navigate a couple extra hoops to clear the decks, but it wouldn't entail anything too steep or implausible. Think along the lines of using the Cleveland Cavaliers' first-round pick and maybe another future selection to pawn off the final two years and $36.8 million left on Luol Deng's contract.
Yet another team could be open to driving up Randle's price tag out of the gate. He's played well enough for this to be a possibility.
Randle has basically cleansed long twos from his offensive diet. Around 81 percent of his looks come within eight feet, from where he's shooting 63 percent. His defense has never been better. Only Clint Capela has guarded more isolation possessions, and his diligence in chasing rim-runners and bodying up in the post has allowed the Lakers to predominantly stash him at center, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Seeing a dip in playing time hasn't fazed Randle. His usage is at an all-time high, and he's never come closer to epitomizing controlled chaos. Joel Embiid is the only other player clearing 20 points, 10 rebounds and three assists per 36 minutes. Someone could be ready to pay him more than expected on the off chance this year is a harbinger of what's to come.
5. Rodney Hood, Cleveland Cavaliers
Free-Agency Status: Restricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 15.1 points, 2.8 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.2 blocks, 42.1 percent shooting
Rodney Hood's reputation belies his play. He's supposed to be a quality secondary option—a genuine shot-creating hub. And he has the pull-up volume to prove it.
But his accuracy is so-so in these situations, and he's been a non-entity off the dribble since being jettisoned by the Utah Jazz. The Cleveland Cavaliers are more inclined to use Jordan Clarkson as their anchor for LeBron James-less lineups. Their offense has been fine when Hood runs without the four-time MVP, but not great.
Cleveland has thus far been reluctant to play Hood on his own at all. At least one of Clarkson or James can almost always be found beside him—which, with Kevin Love on the shelf, says something.
To his credit, Hood is not particularly turnover-prone. He's coughing up the rock on just 10 percent of his pick-and-roll possessions with the Cavaliers. But he's still not a talented enough setup man. His assist rate peaked in his second season two years ago.
Hood's defense is similarly overstated. He can hold his own in many one-on-one situations, but he should have an easier time, at 6'8", covering bigger wings. He cannot be trusted to jockey with players on the block and doesn't get his hands up quick enough on closeouts. Maneuvering around and through screens is a specialty, but he still suffers from protracted stretches of passivity.
None of which succeeds in damaging Hood's value—not even in a penny-pinching cap climate. Like-sized wings who can switch in theory are all the rage. Teams will be more worried about him clearing the 60-appearance marker once through four seasons than about unmet functional expectations.
This won't be enough for Hood to encourage max-contract overtures, but he's holding plenty of leverage. The Cavaliers haven't retained their own free agents at appreciable discounts during James' second go-round, and competing teams know they won't have the cap space to replace him.
James' own free agency factors into this equation. Cleveland may have to pay a surcharge for Hood to sit tight until that situation resolves itself. And even then, there might be a team or two willing to make a huge offer to him early on in hopes that James' deliberation process doesn't allow the Cavaliers enough time to make any major decisions or investments.
4. Clint Capela, Houston Rockets
Free-Agency Status: Restricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.2 points, 10.9 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.8 blocks, 65.2 percent shooting
Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey may have backed his team into corner ahead of this summer.
"We'll have him here as long as he'll have us," he told ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon of Clint Capela back in November. "He couldn't price himself out."
These sentiments seem equal parts flattering and innocuous at first glance. Bigs who don't shoot threes or face up and attack off the dribble don't incite a flurry of outrageous offer sheets. This isn't 2016. And even it was, the NBA is overrun with centers. No team has both a deep slush fund and an urgent need to burn its disposable income on a non-unicorn.
But Morey's stance always read like a dare to big spenders. Capela's performance since then only increases the likelihood an unfriendly courter tosses him a lucrative offer sheet.
Victor Oladipo has this year's Most Improved Player award bound and gagged in his locker. But Capela will steal a lion's share of the second-place votes, along with a few first-place tallies. He hasn't noticeably evolved like most candidates. He's the next-best thing—a nitrous-oxide version of his best self.
Capela is not Dwight Howard or pre-2017 Andre Drummond. The Rockets needn't pander to his desire for role expansion. Almost half of his offensive possessions end as the pick-and-roll diver or on putbacks, and more than 81 percent of his made buckets come off assists.
Capela lives to set screens, make a beeline toward the hoop and finish lobs. Any team with incumbent ball-handlers can appreciate his fondness for and mastery of this specific role—especially when that job description includes a consistent commitment on defense.
Routinely giving up brawn to opposing centers hasn't impacted Capela's presence on the glass. He has the NBA's fourth-highest defensive rebounding percentage. He's not the purest deterrent at the rim, but he's a solid shot-swatter, holds his own outside the restricted area and works his tail off to get back in transition after missed shots.
The Rockets are not 36-2 in games Capela plays with James Harden and Chris Paul by accident. Their two megastars garner the most credit—and justifiably so. But Capela is the bridge between traditional size and contemporary switchability.
Scheming general managers may not think twice about overpaying him. Either they make Morey eat his own words, or they'll end up with a shiny new toy in the middle who's capable of thriving within pretty much any nucleus they put together.
3. Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks
Free-Agency Status: Restricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.3 blocks, 50.0 percent shooting
Jabari Parker's return from a second ACL injury is not going off without a hitch.
His offense is coming around. A smaller share of his looks are coming around the rim, but he's draining enough of his threes (42.9 percent) and shots between 10 feet and the arc (50.3 percent) for it not to matter.
Parker continues to straddle the line between ball-dominator and complementary piece. His 59.4 effective field-goal percentage on pull-up jumpers ranks fifth in the league among players to attempt at least 30 shots, and he's in the 80th percentile of efficiency off the catch.
Defense remains Parker's downfall—now more so than ever. Whatever progress he made last season has been erased in the aftermath of his latest injury. He doesn't work as the last line of defense near the rim and he's an unreliable rebounder.
Milwaukee allows more shots at the rim than any other team, and it's coughing up even more gimmes with Parker in the game, according to Cleaning The Glass. That downward trend continues on the board. The Bucks' defensive rebounding rate craters when he's in the frontcourt to go along with an uptick in opponent putbacks, per Cleaning The Glass.
Interim head coach Joe Prunty is still hesitant to play Parker down the stretch of close games—and for good reason. Not only is he a sieve, but he's having trouble coexisting beside Giannis Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton. The Bucks offense sputters when these four play together.
Other teams should see Parker's uneven fit and outlook as an opportunity. He can be peddled as an alpha scorer, and Milwaukee still has to worry about brushing up against next year's luxury tax even if Mirza Teletovic's 2018-19 salary gets purged from the ledger by way of a medically forced retirement. (He was waived on March 10.)
Maybe an inflated offer sheet won't deter the Bucks. Losing a No. 2 overall pick for nothing stings when he's far from a bust. But the prospect of increasing their salary bill may coax some team into tying up its cap space with Parker.
Failing that, the Bucks could try pitching Parker on a significantly above-market salary—something closer to his $20.3 million cap hold—in exchange for his signing a short-term deal that limits their big-picture risk.
2. Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls
Free-Agency Status: Restricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.2 blocks, 38.3 percent shooting
Zach LaVine hasn't done anything to garner straight-out overpayments. He's not yet 25 games into his return from an ACL injury, and his efficiency is drooping.
Though more of his looks are coming at the rim than ever before, he's converting them at a career-low clip. He's cut down his long-two attempts, but that doesn't mean much when he's hitting just 32.3 percent of his non-restricted-area opportunities in the paint and hovering beneath the league average from long range.
LaVine can run a pick-and-roll and is less predictable on drives. He is not, however, a premier facilitator. He shouldn't be piloting units without a playmaking buffer. The Chicago Bulls have seldom let him work without another floor general.
Massive defensive concessions must be stomached in the event LaVine pans out as a primary orchestrator. He shouldn't be pestering point guards, and his injury history compromises his mobility in space. He's staying glued to off-ball snipers with watermark discipline this year, but he still places 486th out of 505 players in ESPN's defensive real plus-minus.
So why the inclusion? And why so high?
Kris Dunn has generally exceeded expectations, and Lauri Markkanen's recent freezing-cold streak doesn't curb enthusiasm for his future. But LaVine remains one of the centerpieces from last year's Jimmy Butler trade. The Bulls aren't about to give up on him after a half-season. They're already chided for forking over the No. 16 overall pick last year as part of the blockbuster. Letting LaVine walk would open them up to a new wave of criticism and trolling.
Rival teams know this. And it only takes one mischievous general manager to force Chicago to pay out the wazoo for an unfinished project less than one year into his return from a major injury.
1. Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic
Free-Agency Status: Restricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 18.3 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.9 blocks, 44.3 percent shooting
Max-contract formalities are typically peppered throughout every restricted free-agency class. This year's crop doesn't include that matter-of-fact recipient—a unique development even in a scrimpy market.
Last summer's gaggle wasn't overflowing with afterthought maxed-out signees. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope never signed the massive contract for which he was initially ticketed, and no one rolled the dice on overpaying for an Andre Roberson or Nerlens Noel.
Still, the 2017 class had Otto Porter Jr., who could have inked a max offer sheet with a few teams. He chose the talent-starved Brooklyn Nets—a safety net this year's group won't enjoy. The Nets don't have an effortless path to max space this summer. Nor do they have the same incentive to shell out over-the-top offers after regaining control of all their own first-round picks.
A quick scan of the landscape doesn't reveal any remotely similar suitors. Few teams have max-level breathing room, and most of the ones that do will be more methodical in how they spend it.
Aaron Gordon is the closest this offseason gets to an Otto Porter. He isn't guaranteed max money, but a handful of squads are expected to vie for his offer-sheet affections, according to Sporting News' Sean Deveney. His admirers already have to come in hot to get the Orlando Magic second-guessing his value, and at least one team might be able to convince itself that gambling on a big with the trace tools of a wing is worth the moon.
Playing that card would result in an substantial overpay. Gordon has yet to anchor an above-average offense as the first or second option. His 34.8 percent clip from downtown infers improvement from the outside, but he's still capitalizing on an early-season explosion. He's barely canning 30 percent of his threes since Orlando's opening 8-4 mirage.
Gordon's shot-creating chops leave much to be desired. He's drilling just over 31 percent of his pull-up jumpers, and an offense can't dump it to him in the post. While he's established himself as a legitimate catch-and-fire weapon, he doesn't have the battle-tested track record coming off screens that made it easy for the Washington Wizards to match Brooklyn's max offer for Porter.
Anything close to a max, whether it comes from Orlando or elsewhere, would be a gross exaggeration of Gordon's ceiling.