Finding Hope in NBA's Worst Free-Agent Signings
Even the worst moves and most questionable decisions of NBA free agency are not without their silver linings.
Some of these bright spots are flimsy, verging on invisible. Many of the signings that seem terrible now will continue to look bad as the 2018-19 season plays out. But some of them will invariably turn.
Young prospects with inflated salaries could go boom. Undeserved paydays may make for great trade filler later on. Crummy-seeming fits might transform into not-crummy fits. Short-term risks could overwrite initial sticker-price shock.
Oh, sure, we're about to step out on a few wobbly limbs. But faulty decisions and inexplicable gambles call for exceptional measures. We'll do what we must to inject hope into this offseason's worst contracts and ugliest fits.
Honorable Mention: Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls
Age (as of Feb. 1): 23
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
Primary Silver Lining: He's only 23!
A full-fledged inclusion for Zach LaVine aims an unnecessary shot at the Chicago Bulls. They matched his offer sheet from the Sacramento Kings, a justifiable, albeit risk-addled, move given how highly they initially valued him in the Jimmy Butler trade.
Maybe this context is negligible in the grand scheme. The Bulls apparently peddled similar money to LaVine before the Kings came along, according to ESPN.com's Nick Friedell. They could have drastically overpaid him on their own, which would have made this gamble look significantly worse.
Still, the Bulls have made enough questionable decisions without us nitpicking over LaVine in full force. This contract is bad, particularly when accounting for left knee issues—torn ACL and tendinitis—that limited him to 24 appearances. But overcompensating a 23-year-old with plenty of offensive pizzazz is not the worst gamble in the world.
LaVine has never shot lower than 34.1 percent from beyond arc, and Chicago needs reliable snipers in the 2 and 3 slots. Though his decision-making off the dribble is roller coaster-y when put in the kindest terms, the absence of half-court hesitation is valuable unto itself.
He'll need to distance himself from the dumpy long twos, but he canned 34.6 percent of his pull-up threes with the Minnesota Timberwolves through 2015-16 and 2016-17—an encouraging, if imperfect, harbinger of developing shot creation.
Marco Belinelli, San Antonio Spurs
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.1 points, 1.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 44.2 percent shooting, 37.7 percent three-point shooting
Contract Details: 2 years, $12 million (player option for 2019-20)
Primary Silver Lining: Pau Gasol and Rudy Gay opted out, so maybe he will, too.
Funneling most of the mid-level exception into Marco Belinelli would've reflected poorly upon the San Antonio Spurs even if they didn't end up trading Kawhi Leonard. As ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton wrote, they're betting an awful lot on the past feats of a 32-year-old spacing specialist:
"Belinelli returns to the site of his greatest NBA heights. The best true shooting percentage of Belinelli's career (60.4) came in 2013-14 as part of the Spurs' most recent championship team; the second-best (58.2) was last season, which he split between former San Antonio assistants Mike Budenholzer (in Atlanta) and Brett Brown (in Philadelphia). The question is how long Belinelli can sustain that level of performance, given he'll turn 34 by the end of this contract. A one-year deal for Belinelli would have been more prudent."
The new, awkward-looking Spurs need all the outside crutches they can get. Two of their best shooters are now suiting up for the Toronto Raptors, and DeMar DeRozan's arrival incites all sorts of floor-balance quirks.
Add in Dejounte Murray's nine three-pointers, and San Antonio's starting backcourt combined for 98 triples last season. More than 100 players hit more total threes on their lonesome. One of them was Quincy Acy (102).
Building an offense around DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge will be interestingly burdensome. DeRozan has increased his three-point volume but remains an inside-the-arc artist at his core—just like Aldridge. Together, they attempted more mid-range jumpers last season (1,057) than five teams.
Having someone like Belinelli orbiting this makeup isn't a necessary evil. It's just necessary. He splashed in more than 38 percent of his spot-up threes splitting time with the Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers. But he will go rogue. More than 35 percent of field-goal attempts during the postseason came as pull-up jumpers, on which he shot 25 percent.
Overpaying him for a year is a one thing. Giving him a player option for a second season is reckless. Cap space is of greater importance to the Spurs in the post-Kawhi era if they're not looking to rebuild. Belinelli's $5.8 million salary in 2019-20 will be a impediment next summer.
Or, actually, perhaps not. Pau Gasol (2017) and Rudy Gay (2018) both declined player options in the past two years that many expected them to exercise. Belinelli could do the same. The Spurs proceeded to give Gasol and Gay raises after they opted out, but still, the promise of additional flexibility is something.
Nemanja Bjelica, Sacramento Kings
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 6.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.7 steals, 46.1 percent shooting, 41.5 percent three-point shooting
Contract Details: 3 years, $20.5 million (non-guaranteed in 2020-21)
Primary Silver Lining: Spacing is spacing.
Anyone claiming that Nemanja Bjelica's addition is solid or inconsequential needs to check themselves. His contract isn't terrible in a vacuum, but the Kings didn't need him. They needed a small forward—a wing.
Bjelica isn't that. The Timberwolves outscored opponents by 1.5 points per 100 possessions when he played the 3 last season, but that return is skewed toward the rosier side by intractable circumstances, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Two outlier lineups buoyed Minnesota's plus-differential. One was made up of Karl-Anthony Towns and a bunch of bench players. Sacramento won't have that kind of safety net. The other is propped up by a 17-game stretch in which he replaced Jimmy Butler as the starting 3. That arrangement overachieved on defense—and still barely held up, allowing a so-so, at best, 108.4 points per 100 possessions. Almost every other Bjelica-at-the-3 iteration had a defensive rating north of 116.0.
At 6'10", Bjelica belongs at power forward. The Kings should be poring over super-small combinations with him at the 5 before they earmark him for meaningful playing time at the 3. But they can't.
Sacramento's big-man carousel is beyond capacity. Marvin Bagley III, Willie Cauley-Stein, Harry Giles, Kosta Koufos, Skal Labissiere and Zach Randolph have the 4 and 5 spots on lock. Justin Jackson can kiss his power forward minutes bye-bye.
Committing to low usage for the veterans doesn't do much to help the optics—mostly because Bjelica, at 30, is one of them. Any minutes that go to him amount to playing time that didn't go to Bagley, Giles, Labissiere and maybe even Cauley-Stein.
The Kings have to view Bjelica as a small forward if they don't want to gum up development of their younger bigs. And even then, his time at the 3 is coming at the expense of Jackson, Bogdan Bogdanovic or Buddy Hield.
On the bright side, Sacramento finished 28th in three-point attempts per 100 possessions last season. Bjelica is shooting 37.1 percent from deep for his career on 4.8 looks per 36 minutes. And he's used to playing without the ball; nearly half of his looks last year came as spot-up threes.
Complementary spacing doesn't always come cheap. The Kings would have been better off with Doug McDermott at his price point (three years, $22 million), but Bjelica arms them with enough firepower to drum up their outside volume. And while he might be a touch overpaid, Sacramento retains a clear path to more than $50 million in cap space ahead of 2019 free agency.
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, $80 million
Primary Silver Lining: Orlando's defense, possibly.
Aaron Gordon may be a more worthwhile investment than LaVine. At the very least, the Orlando Magic get to play the "He doesn't turn 23 until September!" card.
Throw in Gordon's declining pay scale, and this deal has its merits. But the Magic didn't need to give him this money so soon. They agreed terms with him on July 1 without matching an opposing offer sheet.
Restricted free agents have not warranted that swiftness this summer. They're without leverage. Clint Capela remains unsigned. Jabari Parker and Julius Randle settled for short-term deals. Waiting could have saved the Magic money. Worst-case scenario, they match an over-the-top offer sheet they basically gave him on their own.
Pinching pennies can damage egos and relationships. Losing assets for nothing also stinks. But Orlando wouldn't have risked an irreversible relationship by letting restricted free agency run its course. Gordon falls noticeably shy of being a sure-thing cornerstone. As Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal explained:
"After earning an even 1.0 VORP in 2017-18 (the second-best mark of his four-year NBA tenure), Gordon is up to 3.3 VORP in his career. Twenty-five players matched or beat that lifetime mark last year alone, but here's a sampling of the 135 men who have reached that tally over the last four combined seasons: Anthony Tolliver (3.3), Dwight Powell (3.6), Chandler Parsons (4.0), John Henson (4.1), Cody Zeller (4.4), Nerlens Noel (4.7), Kyle O'Quinn (4.9), Patrick Patterson (5.7)."
Support for this contract begins at the defensive side. It also ends there. Footnotes on Gordon's age can be sprinkled in-between, but his offensive upside is more finite than his shot profile suggests.
Orlando posted a defensive rating in the 95th percentile whenever Gordon and Jonathan Isaac shared the court this past year, per Cleaning The Glass. Tack on rookie Mo Bamba and more availability from Isaac, along with head coach and celebrated defensive architect Steve Clifford, and the Magic have some terrifying, switch-everything frontcourt permutations on their hands.
Jabari Parker, Chicago Bulls
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.6 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 48.2 percent shooting, 38.3 percent shooting
Contract Details: 2 years, $40 million (team option for 2019-20)
Primary Silver Lining: That team option, though...
And now you understand why it makes so much sense to give Chicago a pass on LaVine.
Parker's deal is decidedly low-risk. The Bulls are getting a flier on a No. 2 pick who eclipsed 20 points per game in 2016-17 and has drastically improved his three-point stroke. His two ACL injuries are a red flag, but the Bulls aren't married to him forever.
If things don't work out, they can decline his team option and amble into next summer with max room yet again. If he does pan out, they'll have the means to keep him for at least another year or the flexibility to broker a longer-term agreement.
Spoiler: Parker isn't going to work out. The Bulls fancy him a small forward. The data say he's not. Look at the Milwaukee Bucks' net ratings with him at the 3:
- 2014-15 (244 possessions): -9.4
- 2015-16 (404 possessions): -29.7
- 2016-17 (1,052 possessions): -2.8
- 2017-18 (24 possessions): -16.7
Nothing about the Bulls' roster makeup implies they're better suited to incorporate Parker. Taking positional designations off the table doesn't change that. Parker struggled to coexist with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Why should rookie-year Wendell Carter Jr. be any different?
Playing Parker at small forward may fly at the offensive end. His change-of-pace of attacks and outside shooting make him a tough cover for wings. Surviving on defense feels impossible. After all, Parker isn't paid to play defense. As he said on 670 The Score in Chicago (via ESPN.com):
"I just stick to my strengths. Look at everybody in the league. They don't pay players to play defense. There's only two people historically that play defense. I'm not going to say I won't, but to say that's a weakness is like saying that's everybody's weakness. Because I've scored 30 and 20 on a lot of guys that say they play defense."
Interpret Parker's sentiments as you wish. It doesn't matter. No team should want to hear this from a player it is paying $20 million per year. The Bulls are fortunate they're on the hook for only the first season of this experiment. That's their only saving grace for now.
Rajon Rondo, Los Angeles Lakers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 8.3 points, 4.0 rebounds, 8.2 assists, 1.1 steals, 46.8 percent shooting, 33.3 three-point shooting
Contract Details: 1 year, $9 million
Primary Silver Lining: Midseason trade bait! (And 2019 cap space.)
Rajon Rondo's contract with the Los Angeles Lakers is innocuous enough. One-year deals tend to be harmless, and he won't cut into their wiggle room next summer.
In a long line of puzzling post-LeBron James signings, though, Rondo's arrival is by far the strangest. Lance Stephenson rivals his oddball-fit, but he doesn't make even half as much. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is actually good. JaVale McGee at the minimum is fine. Michael Beasley is shooting better than 40 percent from three over the past two seasons.
The Lakers would have you believe signing Rondo fits neatly into their plan of surrounding James with playmakers and versatile defenders, per ESPN.coms Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst. It most certainly does not.
With the exception of a few nationally televised games, Rondo will not move the defensive needle until mid-April at the absolutely earliest. His playmaking can be overstated. He sees the floor well and works impossible angles, but protracted ball-domination counteracts his craftiness.
The 2011-12 Boston Celtics were the last team to score more points per 100 possessions with Rondo on the floor. That was seven years ago. The New Orleans Pelicans pumped in points more efficiently with him during the playoffs, but that doesn't negate nearly a decade of imbalanced returns.
Cast aside Rondo's shooting warts—he dipped to 31 percent on spot-up threes in New Orleans—and Los Angeles is still left to grapple with the unquantifiable. What happens if Lonzo Ball beats him out for the starting point guard job? Are there enough on-ball reps to go around for him, Ball, Beasley, James, Stephenson, Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram?
If Rondo's stay goes belly up, then the Lakers' mistake will be short-lived. Expiring contracts are nice that way. But his $9 million salary will be useful salary-matching fodder in prospective superstar trades once his restriction lifts in December. Expiring contracts are nice that way, too.
If it turns out Rondo is a solid fit for the roster, well, then the Lakers could treat him as trade filler anyway. James and the front office are clearly playing a longer game, but free-agency coups are not a given.
Leonard (player option) could stay in Toronto. Kevin Durant (player option) may want to play in the Golden State Warriors' new arena. Jimmy Butler (player option) could convince Kyrie Irving (player option) to join forces in Brooklyn.
A lot can change between now and next summer. Ostensibly removing themselves from the Kawhi sweepstakes by burning through their cap space after James' arrival doesn't mean the Lakers won't have their ears to the ground in the coming months. They will, as they should, because they'll have the salary-matching tools to make things happen if the opportunity presents itself.