Most Surprising NBA Players Who've Gotten PAID so Far in Free Agency
A stingy free-agent market has not bilked the NBA of its capacity to surprise. More than a few deals have incited head-scratching, general confusion, mass hysteria and 280-character feelz jobs.
Not all of these contracts are hopelessly bad. Most of them, in fact, are justifiable, perfectly fine or within the realm of eventually being both. Do not misinterpret this as a comprehensive overview of the crummiest agreements.
This is more of a nod toward the variance in reactions and the market. These players might be worth their coin someday, but the urgency to pay them never existed. Nothing about their skill sets or sticker prices is matter of fact. They are unknowns, expensive gambles and, in some cases, inexplicable overpays.
In a different market, at a friendlier price point, they might be no-brainer investments. Right now, though, the amount of money they've received is to some degree disarming.
Will Barton, Denver Nuggets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 15.7 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.0 steals, 45.2 percent shooting, 37.0 percent three-point shooting
Contract Details: 4 years, $54 million
Will Barton's contract shouldn't be too much of a surprise after the year he just wrapped.
Only nine other players averaged at least 15 points and four assists per game while shooting 37 percent or better from long range. His company reads like a who's who of present-day All-Stars: Bradley Beal, Kevin Durant, Goran Dragic, Nikola Jokic, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, Victor Oladipo, Chris Paul and Kemba Walker.
Barton might actually be disappointed he didn't extract more money from the Denver Nuggets—or another team—after turning down a four-year, $42 million extension last summer. And yet, look at the contracts handed out to other notable free-agent wings in the non-Durant and non-LeBron James divisions:
- Trevor Ariza, (Phoenix Suns): 1 year, $15 million
- Avery Bradley (Los Angeles Clippers): 2 years, $25 million (partially guaranteed in 2019-20)
- Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (Los Angeles Lakers): 1 year, $12 million
- Tyreke Evans (Indiana Pacers): 1 year, $12 million
- JJ Redick (Philadelphia 76ers): 1 year, $13 million
Barton could be the best player of this bunch. He's like a more dynamic and explosive Evans, without the questionable medicals. A one- or two-year contract worth more annually might've found its way to him.
Except, who was giving him more than the $42 million he passed on last year? Teams have not been getting into bed with second-tier wings on long-term deals. The Nuggets could have pressed harder, offered less and still come out on top.
Maybe they were more concerned with preserving goodwill with Barton. Or perhaps he always would've ended up among the few players who brokered lucrative agreements. Either way, his price point is abnormal relative to this year's market—particularly when the Nuggets remain entrenched in the luxury tax as the result of re-signing him and Jokic.
Dante Exum, Utah Jazz
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 8.1 points, 1.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 0.6 steals, 48.3 percent shooting, 27.8 percent three-point shooting
Contract Details: 3 years, $33 million
Talking yourself into Dante Exum's contract isn't especially hard.
Injury concerns work against him. He's missed more than half of the Utah Jazz' regular-season matchups since entering the NBA, and his health bill includes a torn left ACL that cost him his entire sophomore campaign.
That scant availability ever so slightly works in his favor as well. He is not a known commodity. Nor is he a straight-out bust. He is still young enough, still inexperienced enough, to turn into anything.
Utah has the leeway to hedges its bets on Exum's mystery arc. Both Alec Burks and Ricky Rubio come off the books after next season. This team could end up needing an extra facilitator alongside Donovan Mitchell.
At the very least, without Burks or Rubio on the ledger, Exum's cap hit doesn't torpedo next summer's flexibility. The Jazz are still set up to eke out max money if they renounce all their own free agents and ditch Derrick Favors' non-guarantee.
Besides which, Utah isn't exactly working off a blank slate. Exum's defensive chops warrant a lion's share of this gamble. He can competently switch across three positions and isn't automatically overmatched when pitted against offensive superhumans. He did serious work while pestering James Harden in the second round of the playoffs. The Houston Rockets averaged under 1.04 points per possession on plays that ended with Exum guarding the reigning MVP.
Still, the Jazz are not immunized against risk. Exum is a wild card on offense. Defenses will go under screens without remotely fearing the consequences unless Exum hones a semi-reliable jumper. And he has a ways to go there; he's shooting 30.6 percent from three and under 23 percent on long twos for his career. As Cleaning The Glass' Nick Sciria wrote:
"Exum has committed 19.1 turnovers per 100 plays, and over the past two seasons, 42 percent of those turnovers have come as a pick-and-roll ball handler. That suggests a player who is in over his head when trying to create. Exum’s poor shooting compounds his problem of running pick-and-rolls. He shot only 43 total pull-up jumpers over that same time period, while posting a paltry 23 effective field-goal percentage on those shots. His midrange shot doesn’t look comfortable at all. He tends to falls backwards when shooting off the dribble, leaving his trajectory inconsistent."
Take baby steps on offense, and Exum will validate Utah's faith in him. But even then we'll have to wonder what we're left asking now: Which other team was going to offer Exum the mini mid-level exception ($5.3 million), let alone more than the non-taxpayer's MLE ($8.6 million)?
Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.8 blocks, 43.4 percent shooting, 33.6 percent three-point shooting
Contract Details: 4 years, $84 million
Aaron Gordon's contract wouldn't jump off the page if it came under different circumstances. Even in scrimpy times, he was looked at as the one restricted free agent who could garner an over-the-top offer sheet from rival admirers. So it would have been one thing if the Orlando Magic matched an $84 million overture.
News of Gordon's contract broke on July 1, which makes for a curious timeline. The agreement itself coming on Day 1 doesn't matter. Players and agents typically do their due diligence. They understand the field before entering it.
Striking a deal right away with Orlando, though, suggests Gordon didn't need to set his own market. That's bizarre.
Players are getting squeezed left and right. Fellow restricted free agent and big man Julius Randle inked a two-year, $18 million deal with the Pelicans. Clint Capela and Jabari Parker remain unsigned. Acting so quickly on Gordon, in this bare-bones climate, probably cost the Magic money they didn't need to spend.
Sure, their closest thing to an established cornerstone is locked up for less than the max. That matters. And a quick negotiation process lays the foundation for good juju between player and team. Was it really worth letting Gordon set his own price just to save, say, a couple of million dollars per year? Debatable.
On the flip side: Welcome to the business of basketball and, more specifically, restricted free agency! Orlando surrendered exclusivity when it didn't sign Gordon to an extension last fall. Neither he nor the organization should be penalized for permitting the process of restricted free agency to play out.
It would be different if Gordon were a sure thing. He's not. The Rockets are opening themselves up to long-term ramifications by playing hardball with Capela. He will consider signing his qualifying offer ($4.7 million) and hitting the unrestricted pool next summer if the two sides cannot find a happy medium, according to Rockets Wire's Kelly Iko.
Gordon didn't have the incumbent value to take such a stark risk. He doesn't have a niche on offense, and only so much of his stunted development can be attributed to Orlando experimenting with him at small forward. He logged more time at the 4 last year and still sought to carry himself like a wing. Almost one-third of his attempts came as pull-up jumpers, on which he shot under 30 percent.
Wagering $84 million on Gordon's future could pan out in the end. His physical tools remain tantalizing. But when your highest paid player is not a seamless fit beside your two other most important building blocks, Mo Bamba and Jonathan Isaac, you're seldom in good shape. And after giving Gordon so much, so soon, the Magic are far from an exception.
Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.7 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.0 steals, 38.3 percent shooting, 34.1 percent shooting
Contract Details: 4 years, $78 million
Zach LaVine does not share in our shock. As he told reporters of his $78 million doozy, per ESPN.com's Nick Friedell:
"I'm my hardest critic. There's nothing that any of you guys can say to me that I [don't] take harder upon myself. I go back and critique my game every year. I'm used to people sleeping on me, and I'm also used to waking them up as well. I'm happy that I have this contract, and I'm happy that I have a little extra motivation to go out there and prove it to some people that don't believe in me."
Fair enough. And to LaVine's credit, the Chicago Bulls' decision to match the four-year offer sheet he nabbed from the Kings is neither puzzling nor indefensible. He was viewed as the crown jewel of the Jimmy Butler trade roughly one year ago. Lauri Markkanen now carries that burden, but losing LaVine for nothing would still sting.
Account for context, and, well, the money LaVine scooped up makes little sense.
This starts with the Kings. It always starts with the Kings. They didn't draft Luka Doncic at No. 2 in large part because they're reluctant to take the ball out of De'Aaron Fox's hands, per the Sacramento Bee's Jason Jones. So, naturally, they threw $78 million at LaVine in free agency. That makes total sense. (It does not.)
Applauding the Kings for messing with the Bulls' cap sheet gives them too much credit. They structured their deal in a way that implies desire—with hefty up-front payouts and no player or team options, according to NBA.com's David Aldridge.
Complicating matters even further, the Bulls apparently came in just a tick below the Kings before LaVine went window shopping, per Friedell. And their initial overture didn't include the injury protection Sacramento baked in, according to the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson. That debunks any notion of the Kings and Bulls directly bidding against one another.
Slice it any way you please. The LaVine deal is weird. Opening up with anywhere near $78 million was a strange ploy by the Bulls. Sniffing $80 million for a non-fit is an equally oddball decision from the Kings. Questions surrounding LaVine's defense, shot selection off the dribble and recovery from an ACL injury linger, and more polished swingmen in the Will Barton tier signed for way less.
Doug McDermott, Indiana Pacers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 7.8 points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.2 steals, 46.7 percent shooting, 42.6 percent three-point shooting
Contract: 3 years, $22 million
Doug McDermott is a solid addition for the Pacers. They needed to beef up their spacing on the wings after an over-reliance on long twos and a post-All-Star rut. McDermott's outside accuracy fits nicely within that theme.
He canned 42.6 percent of his treys while splitting time with the New York Knicks and Dallas Mavericks and was even more lethal off the catch (45.8 percent). He shouldn't be tasked with generating his own looks and needs to quicken his release coming around screens, but Indiana's offense will be better for having him orbit drives from Evans, Oladipo and Darren Collison.
Here's the thing: Three fully guaranteed years is a lifetime in this market. The Pacers had the cap space to peddle a more expensive one-season pact, just like they did with Evans. That would have armed them with even more projected wiggle room next summer, when they'll again enjoy clear access to $50 million or more in spending power.
Anyone pointing out the value in getting quality free agents under lock and key for a few years isn't on the wrong track. This deal could surely work out for Indiana.
On the flip side, LeBron, McDermott and Kyle Anderson are now the only wings to grab contracts spanning longer than two years while changing teams. That is, objectively, a weird thing to write.
LeBron is LeBron, so his four-year pact comes as no surprise. And as a restricted free agent, Anderson invited aggressive pitches from his admirers. McDermott's qualifying offer was already pulled by the time the Pacers got to him. They're showing real trust in his fit.
And again: That's fine. McDermott has played on four teams in two years. Continuity might do his stock some good. But leaps of faith, however minor, have thus far been few and far between. That makes this marriage something of a risk.