NBA Teams Already Regretting Their Free-Agency Pickups
Let's begin with a disclaimer and perhaps a pat on the back for NBA teams: This season is thus far light on extreme buyer's remorse. Last summer's salary-cap squeeze repressed the number of overpriced deals while inflating the short-term market.
Some free-agency decisions that were initially eviscerated or still don't make sense are even difficult to destroy.
Nemanja Bjelica, a 30-year-old on a rebuilding Sacramento Kings squad soaking up invaluable developmental time in the frontcourt, is playing very tradeable basketball. Zach LaVine's offensive swagger is starting to rejigger perception of his four-year, $78 million pact. Marco Belinelli is hilariously overpaid (two years, $12 million) and shooting well under 35 percent from beyond the arc, but his three-point volume remains a necessary evil for a San Antonio Spurs offense without many outside weapons.
Accounting for players who demand a longer grace period only makes it harder to identify cases of insta-regret. The Orlando Magic shouldn't yet question their existence for giving Aaron Gordon four years and $76 million. They have plenty of other reasons for self-reflection. The last thing the Washington Wizards' budding implosion needs is Dwight Howard, but he hasn't yet made his season debut—he'll play on Friday, per Vice Sports' Michael Pina—and the team's broken culture predates his arrival.
Spotting the biggest whoopsidaisies this early will be a labor of context. Extensions that haven't kicked in are not eligible for inclusion, otherwise there would have to be a Kevin Love conversation. Minimum salaries are off the table because they're too cheap to genuinely lament.
Likewise, newcomers will not be penalized in instances where teams more so regret predecessors who got away. The Houston Rockets should regret losing Trevor Ariza, a loss that basically necessitated additions such as Carmelo Anthony and Michael Carter-Williams.
One-year deals are fair game. Price is a factor, but missed opportunities, poor fits without clear paths to improvement and just generally crappy decision-making are the prevailing emphasis.
Chicago Bulls: Jabari Parker
Jabari Parker's deal remains a low-risk dice roll for the Chicago Bulls. His $20 million salary is grotesque, but they have a team option for next season. They can move on if this experiment flops (it will).
Plus, Parker is posting the second-highest true shooting percentage of his career. His offensive output is, at the bare minimum, up to snuff and not something in which Chicago can be disappointed.
His defense? Not so much.
Sopping-wet fabric-softener sheets provide more resistance than Parker. He has trouble staying in front of anyone with average speed and ricochets off just about every post-up scorer. Offenses target him, and it works.
Opponents are scoring 1.17 points per possession against him in the post. Right now, attacking Parker with your back to the basket is statistically more valuable than a Kevin Durant spot-up. What a world.
The Bulls are coughing up more than 119 points per 100 possessions with Parker on the floor. They might be able to overlook this if he wasn't a chatterbox. He lit into their defensive schemes after a loss to the Charlotte Hornets, per the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson. He later walked back his comments, but someone so culpable in the Bulls' lackluster energy has no business offering criticism, constructive or otherwise.
Injuries to Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis allow Chicago to write off Parker's sad-sack defense as a matter of circumstance. If he's still hovering around 25 to 30 minutes per game a few months down the line, though, the Bulls will be limiting reps and exposure for frontcourt assets who actually belong in the big picture.
Los Angeles Lakers: Michael Beasley
Signing Michael Beasley for part of the room exception originally looked like a whatever move by the Los Angeles Lakers. Relative to the offensive obstacles posed by the more expensive Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson, paying him made some semblance of sense.
Beasley isn't in the Lakers rotation. Ivica Zubac is the only player who has seen fewer total minutes, and that's not about to change. Los Angeles' defense is too fragile. Playing Beasley in tandem with Kyle Kuzma or regular-season LeBron James—or both—has yikes potential.
A placeholder deal for $3.5 million isn't breaking the Lakers. Almost their entire roster is a stopgap. They have both eyes on 2019 free agency, and James is smart enough to know they're not contending for a title this year.
Still, lofty expectations are the default bar for every LeBron-led squad. It doesn't matter how cheap or temporary the investment. James' prime cannot be mishandled in the slightest. That room-exception money could have been used to address more obvious holes—like the absence of a playable center behind JaVale McGee.
Brook Lopez is earning less than Beasley and killing it with the Milwaukee Bucks. Kyle O'Quinn accepted a one-year deal for the full room exception from the Indiana Pacers. The Lakers could have doubled-down on wing defense and signed Luc Mbah a Moute. They had other, more suitable options even if they weren't willing to dole out multiyear agreements.
This doesn't let the Lakers off the hook for their other signings. But Rondo and Stephenson are at least in the rotation and shooting well from three-point range (for now), and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope occasionally brings some defensive gusto. Beasley, meanwhile, is getting paid more than the minimum to be a non-factor.
Memphis Grizzlies: Kyle Anderson
More than a handful of people appreciated the Memphis Grizzlies signing Kyle Anderson. (I just sheepishly raised my hand.) Going full-boat on the mid-level exception was costly, but at 25, he fits what they're trying to be: a not-over-the-hill Western Conference irritant that isn't dripping with inexperience.
Basically, Anderson represents a hedge. He won't derail a playoff pursuit or age out of an impromptu rebuilding project, and his defensive instincts epitomize Memphis' approach. What he lacks in speed and flair he makes up for with length, smarts and hustle. As long as the Grizzlies carve out enough space to let him work at the offensive end, he'll be worth his four-year, $37.2 million price tag.
Narrator: The Grizzlies do not have enough space at the offensive end to let him work.
Anderson is currently playing career-worst basketball. His turnover rate has skyrocketed without an uptick in usage, and the enduring absence of a three-point stroke has given way to cratering efficiency. Fewer of his shots are coming around the rim, and he's firing blanks on looks in the paint but outside the restricted area.
Memphis doesn't have the floor balance to roll him out at small forward and put points on the board. Playing him at the 4 helps, but finding minutes for him there will be tough when both JaMychal Green and Chandler Parsons are healthy. The Grizzlies also don't have the wing depth around an Anderson-Marc Gasol frontcourt to survive on defense.
Giving more run to arrangements that feature Anderson and Jackson at the 4 and 5, respectively, is worth a try, but the early returns on that partnership are scary bad, according to Cleaning the Glass. Nor is Memphis going to fully indulge the experimental without hitting reset.
That puts the Anderson acquisition in an awkward light. The Grizzlies offense is already straining for production. They can't afford to play him 25-plus minutes when they're scoring under 94 points per 100 possessions with him in the lineup. At the same time, they shouldn't be paying him to play less than he did with the Spurs last season.
New York Knicks: Mario Hezonja
Mario Hezonja is averaging more shots per 36 minutes (20.2) than LeBron James (20). Think about that.
Then think about this: Among the 79 players who are firing at least 15 field-goal attempts per 36 minutes, Hezonja's effective field-goal percentage ranks 68th.
Look, the New York Knicks didn't do anything inherently wrong by taking a flyer on a 23-year-old No. 5 pick who has always wanted for legitimate opportunity. But his role on the team is being flubbed by both parties.
In no universe should Hezonja be second on the Knicks in usage rate—not as a spark plug for the second unit, not even with both Kevin Knox and Kristaps Porzingis on the shelf. And if he's going to jack up shots with superstar volume, they better damn well be the right ones.
Hezonja is hitting an unsustainably high 50 percent of his pull-up jumpers, but he's having difficulty getting buckets within the flow of the offense. He's downing under 29 percent of his catch-and-shoot looks, which count for nearly one-third of all his attempts.
For the sake of being optimistic, let's say Hezonja rebounds from his bricky beginnings. The Knicks will have still screwed up.
Teams in their situation should be structuring contracts to create maximum control over a player's future. The Knicks have almost no leverage over Hezonja next summer. That they didn't work in a team option on the back of his contract is a failure. Other suitors were not tripping over themselves to pay him most of the mid-level exception in a cap-starved market, and his non-Bird rights won't get them very far if he outperforms his pay grade.
Viewed this way, the Knicks wasted valuable cap space on the wrong what-if, missed the chance to control the cost of a potential long-term asset or did both. Either way, short of signing Kevin Durant next summer, they're not coming out of the Mario Hezonja experiment looking squeaky clean.
Phoenix Suns: Trevor Ariza
Spinning Trevor Ariza's deal as a major whiff for the Phoenix Suns isn't popular practice. They wouldn't have signed an impact veteran of his ilk without an overbid. His $15 million salary is the market value for playing in Phoenix.
But this presupposes the Suns needed to chase win-now talent. They didn't. They're not there yet. They're one of three Western Conference teams, along with the Kings and Dallas Mavericks, that can safely be purged from the playoff ladder. (We think.)
Someone has to help the kids learn how to lose though, right?
"The intangibles provided by Ariza and [Ryan] Anderson—along with fellow veterans Tyson Chandler and Jamal Crawford—cannot be measured by a box score," The Athletic's Gina Mizell wrote. "Unprompted, [Deandre] Ayton praised those players inside Saturday's postgame locker room for helping him manage the first four-game losing skid of his basketball life, reminding him that keeping a positive demeanor with teammates is imperative."
Emotional rocks can be invaluable to NBA teams. They also don't cost $15 million.
The Suns didn't sign Ariza to notch the second-worst effective field-goal percentage of his career and disappear on offense for protracted stretches while he coached up the tots. He wouldn't be logging north of 30 minutes per game if they only wanted him to be the most expensive mentor in league history.
Subsequent acquisitions of Anderson and Crawford infer the same: Phoenix wanted to be more relevant now. Coddling that impulse is shortsighted and not the least bit admirable. The Suns don't get a pass because Ariza is on the books for a year. That money could have been spent on an upgrade at point guard—aggressive offer sheet for Fred VanVleet, anyone?—or preserved as flexibility for future trades.
It doesn't even matter if Ariza's individual numbers bounce back. They might! But he's not going to transform the Suns into more than a regular-season steppingstone. He won't yield value on the trade block, either. No one's dealing for him without sending back unsavory long-term money. There's a real shot this all ends with Phoenix paying most of the balance on Ariza's salary in a midseason buyout so he can join a contender.