The 10 NBA Free Agents Most Likely to Be Overpaid This Offseason
Very few NBA free agents actually get overpaid. Their price point is whatever the market dictates. Unless teams throw money at someone without real competition for his services, contracts are an accurate reflection of a player's value at that time.
Our interpretation of prospective overpays is more about peering into the future. We want to know who's in line for lucrative windfalls that won't quite align with his value over the life of the deal.
Neither players nor their fans should take this as an insult. If a free agent's price tag looks out of whack, it speaks to their curb appeal.
Maybe they're about to trigger a bidding war on the heels of a career year. Perhaps they play a position of far-flung interest. Or maybe they'll be considered top-shelf consolation prizes for teams who get spurned by this summer's headlining names.
Whatever the reason, these players have positioned themselves to negotiate outsized deals that span more than a year or two. Good for them.
Notable Exclusions to Monitor
Who They Are: The next five up. Either they have a good shot at meeting the value of their next deal, or they're more likely to be overpaid in the short term.
Jimmy Butler, Philadelphia 76ers (player option)
Offering Jimmy Butler the max is not without risk. He turns 30 in September, played most of his career under noted drill sergeant Tom Thibodeau and doesn't have the cleanest health bill. Maxing him out is more dangerous than doing the same for Tobias Harris, an inferior player, if only because the back end of a four- or five-year deal for Butler may bust.
But let's not overthink his situation. Butler began this season as one of the top 10 or 12 players in the league. His place in Philly's offensive pecking order has not stripped him of his star power. The ceiling on his performance following a max or near-max payday is higher than it'll be with other fringe cases.
Teams to watch: Philadelphia, Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Lakers
DeMarcus Cousins, Golden State Warriors
DeMarcus Cousins has not played his way into a max contract. The limited number of teams on the prowl for bigs and the ruptured Achilles in his rear view will keep his next pact in check. (Ditto for his post-recovery defense.)
And if he does get superstar money, don't bet on that deal spanning longer than one or two years.
Teams to watch: L.A. Lakers, Atlanta Hawks, Los Angeles Clippers
Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks
Brook Lopez is going to get paid. But will he be puh-aid? Or paiiiiiid? We can't be sure.
Opponents are shooting 53 percent against him at the rim, a top-12 mark among 215 players who have challenged at least 100 close-range looks. He's also on course to be the first-ever player who averages more than two made threes and two blocks per game. Milwaukee will have a hard time keeping him after this effort.
Forecasting a demonstrative overpay is tougher. It won't take much to pry him from the Bucks. They don't own his Bird rights and need to hash out contracts for Malcolm Brogdon (restricted) and Khris Middleton (player option) before knowing how much they can offer him. Tack on the questionable market that faces all non-star bigs, and Lopez, while a shoo-in to make much more than the $3.4 million he's getting now, isn't as likely to luck into an over-generous long-term deal.
Teams to watch: Milwaukee, Atlanta, New Orleans Pelicans
Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks (restricted)
Buy into Kristaps Porzingis accepting his qualifying offer, playing out next season and entering unrestricted free agency in 2020 at your own risk.
Going that route promises him $4.5 million. Dallas can give him a four-year max worth $122.1 million or the five-year full monte, which checks in at $158.1 million. Outside admirers can go as high as $117.2 million over four years.
Porzingis is not guaranteed any of those offers. He has yet to return from a torn left ACL and was hardly a billboard for durability before this injury. But he's also a 23-year-old with proven superstar potential. The Mavericks didn't give up Dennis Smith Jr., fork over two firsts and absorb Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee for no reason.
A max or near-max agreement may look out of place at first blush but doesn't amount to an automatic overpay.
Teams to watch: Dallas, Atlanta, L.A. Clippers
Terry Rozier, Boston Celtics (restricted)
Impact restricted free agents are magnets for overbids, and Terry Rozier has perked up in recent weeks. But his stock isn't anywhere near last season's peak.
His shooting percentages have dipped, his playing time is down, and most of the league's biggest spenders don't have the timeline to invest in a wild-card point guard.
Teams to watch: Boston, Chicago Bulls, Phoenix Suns
Who They Are: The market may—or will—dictate that these studs get the full boat or something close to it, but they are not, in a vacuum, superstars or typical max-money sidekicks.
Tobias Harris, Philadelphia 76ers
Tobias Harris is a safer max investment than other non-superstars. He doesn't turn 27 until July, and his shot-making translates to alpha-scorer, second-option and third- or fourth-wheel roles.
That functional malleability is on full display with the Sixers. His touches have not suffered a Thanos-snap blow—he's at 61.9 per 36 minutes, compared to 65 with the Clippers—but he's not tasked with creating as much from scratch. Over 45 percent of his looks come without taking a dribble, up from 32.5 in Hollywood, and he's traded out parts of his floor game for quicker passes and shot attempts.
This role suits Harris. He's averaging almost 20 points per game on enviable shooting slashes, including a 40.8 percent clip on catch-and-fire threes, since arriving in Philly.
Max money will be available to Harris on the open market. Maybe he takes a discount in exchange for a fifth year with the Sixers, but other squads will offer him a four-year colossus to leave. And while talent evaluations don't exist in a bubble, only a handful of teams have the bandwidth to shell out max or near-max deals to someone who doesn't qualify as a top-25 player without creating an eventual or immediate obstacle.
Philly is one them. That doesn't mean Harris is a max-type star. Market value and vacuum value are two different things.
Teams to watch: Philadelphia, Indiana Pacers, Utah Jazz
Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks (player option)
Khris Middleton's situation is a stronger version of Harris' case. He is not a conventional star, but the free-agency landscape will treat him as such, and he happens to play for a contender that needs him to be the No. 2.
ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote:
"Milwaukee will need peak Middleton to bust through the East, and compete with (at least) Boston and Philadelphia beyond this season. He is not as good as the typical second banana on a title team. The Bucks hope to compensate with depth and fit—and with Middleton raising his level to at least approximate that championship second banana when it matters."
Middleton's status within Milwaukee is accompanied by a market flush with more superstar money than actual superstars. The Bucks, by all appearances, are already gearing up to pay him. Eric Bledsoe's extension, coupled with offloading Matthew Dellavedova and John Henson, has positioned them to max out Middleton and pursue the returns of Malcolm Brogdon (restricted) and Brook Lopez without belly flopping into the luxury tax.
Perhaps a fifth guaranteed year from Milwaukee convinces Middleton to accept a hair below the max. Potato, patato. He's getting paid like a star no matter what. Other teams will have to sling the full four-year, $140.6 million offer to apply any sort of pressure to the Bucks, and Middleton might even have the leverage necessary to extract a five-year, $189.7 million max from Milwaukee.
Price point won't matter if he helps the Bucks or another franchise to a title. But his next contract isn't entirely about his skills as a secondary ball-handler, deadly shooter and three-position defender. It's also about reaping the benefits of a free-agency supply unfit to meet the market's demand.
Teams to watch: Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Dallas
It Could Go Either Way
Who They Are: Slightly risky inclusions. Their numbers and overall performance theoretically pave the way for them to broker over-the-top deals, but the market for their services lacks a certain depth.
Julius Randle, New Orleans Pelicans (player option)
Julius Randle's production seems to portend a ScroogeMcDuckDivesIntoGold.gif windfall. Only four other players are clearing 24 points, 10 rebounds and three assists per 36 minutes: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns—all superstars. And at 24, Randle is an open-ended target, suited to join a contender or team following a more gradual timeline.
Whether he'll have the list of admirers necessary to cash in is another matter. The richest paydays are reserved for megastar bigs. Everyone else is left in some form of lurch, including Randle.
Lackluster defense will squeeze his market. He is neither a rim protector nor consistent source of on-ball defense, and New Orleans' splits do not paint him in a favorable light. As NBC Sports' Tom Haberstroh wrote:
"Randle is an undeniable talent on the offensive end, but he gives up just as much defensively. Randle is averaging 23.8 points per game since Davis’ tanking, err, load-management program went into effect on Feb. 12. Since that point, the Pelicans surrender 110.4 points per 100 possessions to the other team when Randle is on the floor, compared to a stingy 102.8 points per 100 possessions, when he’s on the bench, per NBA.com. As long as Randle is playing, there will be buckets."
Parse the teams with cap space, and an obvious suitor fails to emerge. Dallas went out the window after it acquired Kristaps Porzingis. Indiana doesn't make sense unless it's sure Thaddeus Young is leaving and that the extension-eligible Domantas Sabonis will cost substantially more. Brooklyn needs a playmaking big but cannot afford to overpay a non-factor on defense.
Still, Randle doesn't need a long line of enthusiasts to earn a contract that outstrips his court value. It only takes one team. That team might be the Pelicans. They're interested in keeping him "at the right price," according to The Athletic's William Guillory.
And that's the other thing: It won't take much of a raise for Randle to comfortably enter the overpaid ranks. His player option is worth $9.1 million. He won't decline it without assurances of netting more. A deal that pays him $12 million or $13 million per year represents a safer investment. Climb closer to the $15 million range, and said contract becomes more roadblock than resource without major improvement on the defensive end.
Teams to watch: New Orleans, Brooklyn, New York Knicks
Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic
Nikola Vucevic's free agency parallels that of Randle: He is clearly a valuable player, but the league remains light on teams with both cap space and the roster construction conducive to funneling that spending power into a big man.
Granted, Vucevic is a far better option than Randle. He won't lead fast breaks, but he's an offensive hub in his own way and a more reliable shooter. And under head coach Steve Clifford, he has tightened up his rim protection, cut down on his fouls and turned more of his blocks and deflections into new possessions for the Magic.
Assuming his numbers hold, Vucevic will be the NBA's first player to average more than 23 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and one made three-pointer per 36 minutes. That's legitimately bonkers. And this output is not empty fare. Catch-all metrics have consistently rated him as a top-10 player this season.
Again: The plight of most big men will hold him back. He's not a max-money candidate over the long term. But even if the Magic don't face intense competition for him over the summer, he's not signing for peanuts. All-Star performances tend to be rewarded, and surprise suitors will materialize.
For his part, Vucevic is worth a raise from the $12.8 million he's making now. But compensating him like the best player on a postseason team—like a fixture in the top-25 discussion—isn't an investment that supports his living up to the payday. If he catches the eye of a jilted free-agency heavyweight or franchise looking to expedite its rebuild, chances are his next contract won't look so hot.
Teams to watch: Orlando, Atlanta, L.A. Lakers
Restricted Free Agents
Who They Are: Restricted free agents who have played well enough to catch the rest of the league's attention and stand to benefit most from their limited availability. Incumbent teams have the right to match any offer they receive, and it usually takes aggressive overbids to make their returns a matter of debate.
Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks
Rival teams will see an opening to steal Malcolm Brogdon if the Bucks are resigned to paying whatever it takes for Khris Middleton. Their wiggle room beneath the tax dictates outside overtures come in hot and heavy, but a max for Middleton leaves them with more than $50 million committed to him and Eric Bledsoe next year.
Matching a monster offer for Brogdon might become untenable. Something in the ballpark of $15 million to $17 million per year is workable, but what if he costs closer to $20 million? Or more?
Laugh it off, but Brogdon is turning enough heads for things to get weird. He has the wingspan to defend up to small forwards and is the ideal offensive complement for a team with primary ball-handlers already in tow.
Noticeably, more than half Brogdon's made baskets come off assists, and he's draining nearly 50 percent of his catch-and-shoot treys. Stephen Curry is the only other player averaging as many points, assists and three-pointers per 36 minutes while matching Brogdon's true shooting percentage.
Outside interest might not matter. The Bucks may be open to paying the tax or bringing back both Brogdon and Middleton and figuring out the rest later. Taking that stance won't scare off anyone. Certain teams will have no qualms about temporarily tying up their cap space in Brogdon if it messes with Milwaukee's books.
Teams to watch: Milwaukee, Chicago, Utah
Kelly Oubre Jr., Phoenix Suns
Kelly Oubre Jr. wouldn't have made this cut a few weeks ago. He's played himself into the conversation.
Since failing to score in double figures for three consecutive games at the beginning of January, he's averaging 18.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.0 block. His three-point splits are still bumpy during this stretch, but he's canning more than 54 percent of his two-pointers and getting to the line at a career-best clip. Phoenix's defense is even having some nice moments when he plays beside Mikal Bridges and De'Anthony Melton.
Happier times, which include a recent surge of above-.500 basketball, have left Oubre smitten. He wants to stick with the Suns.
"I'm here, No. 3, small forward for the Phoenix Suns," he said, per the Arizona Republic's Duane Rankin. "Trying to keep it that way for the rest of my career."
Oubre's return is anything but a given. Matching huge offers for him is difficult when they have a few other wings on the roster—Bridges, Devin Booker, Josh Jackson, T.J. Warren— and a hole at point guard.
Unloading other money helps, as does picking up a floor general in the draft, but the Suns have to be conscious of how much they're spending to preserve a sub-25-win nucleus. They've already paid Warren, and Booker's max extension kicks in next season.
All of this invites enemy courtship. Switchable wings are among the NBA's most coveted assets, and Oubre's offensive uptick will sway more than a few teams. That he's just 23 only increases the likelihood he gets an above-market offer.
Teams to watch: Atlanta, Phoenix, Sacramento Kings
D'Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets
D'Angelo Russell is the riskiest inclusion of this exercise. On the one hand, 23-year-old All-Star point guards are hard to come by. On the other hand, this summer's market isn't teeming with cap-rich suitors looking to mortgage all of their buying power for one.
Orlando picked up Markelle Fultz at the trade deadline. Phoenix needs to renounce Oubre and pawn off additional money to give Brooklyn a real scare. Indiana doesn't dabble in poaching restricted free agents.
Bogdan Bogdanovic, De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield have played the Kings out of Zach LaVine-ing another guard. The Knicks are liable to get stupid if they miss on all the A-listers, but they have Dennis Smith Jr. Do the Bulls dare try pairing Russell with LaVine in the backcourt?
This bodes well for the Nets. Russell's career year will cost them, but he probably won't have the leverage to take them for near-max money. Then again, he's grown in almost every facet of the game. His finishing around the rim is spotty and he doesn't get to the line nearly enough, but he's elevated his table-setting and shot creation.
At this rate, Russell will join Stephen Curry and James Harden as just the third player in league history to average more than 20 points, eight assists and three made triples per 36 minutes. His leadership deserves a shoutout as well. The way he handled sitting in crunch time earlier this year was beyond professional.
It only takes one team to inflate the sum of his next contract. His cap hold will stand at nearly $21 million entering free agency. He'll find an offer sheet valued at more per year if he's deemed cornerstone material. That's too much to gamble on a single breakout year.
Teams to watch: Brooklyn, Chicago, Utah
Non-Stars with Widespread Appeal
Who They Are: Not necessarily consolation prizes for teams that get spurned by marquee targets, but they'll appeal to buyers with cap space in a big way. They all have a good chance at securing the bag as rivals look to poach them.
Al-Farouq Aminu, Portland Trail Blazers
The four-year, $30 million contract Al-Farouq Aminu signed with the Blazers in 2015 will go down as a relative steal. His three-point accuracy has hovered close to the league average since, and he's a dream small-ball 4—a gritty defender and scrappy rebounder who won't try to overextend himself on offense.
Just two players have matched his defensive rebounding, steal, block and three-point percentages over the past four seasons: Dewayne Dedmon and Nikola Mirotic. Aminu doesn't receive enough credit for the assignments he tackles, either.
Here are the 11 players he's spent the most time guarding this season—there was a tie for 10th—in order of decreasing possessions: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Karl-Anthony Towns, Danilo Gallinari, Paul George, Harrison Barnes, Jerami Grant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul Millsap, Rudy Gay and Jae Crowder.
Opposing offenses are averaging more than 1.12 points per possession when Aminu defends one of these 11 names, but his utility is rooted in the workload. He's shouldering an All-Defensive Team burden.
Portland has the inside track on keeping him, but he'll fetch a pretty penny. Another four-year deal only takes the 28-year-old into his early 30s, and teams are forever on the hunt for players who can handle the toughest defensive covers while shooting a respectable percentage from downtown. Don't be surprised if he doubles this year's $7 million salary.
Teams to watch: Portland, Indiana, L.A. Clippers
Bojan Bogdanovic, Indiana Pacers
If assistant coach Bill Bayno is any indication, the Pacers are worried about how much Bojan Bogdanovic will command as a free agent. He told The Athletic's Bob Kravitz:
"I'm just praying we don't lose him.
"He sees how important he is to us and that's not the same with every team. He may end up going to another team and taking more money and being miserable. All we can do is hope he wants to be here and know how much we love him. And I'm speaking for the entire coaching staff when I say that."
The coach's concern is not misplaced. Bogdanovic is enjoying a career year, one in which he's established himself as an offensive lifeline who will nuke defenses off the dribble, at the rim and from beyond arc. He is one of eight players who are eclipsing 19 points and two made threes per 36 minutes with a true shooting percentage better than 60, and his company reads, for the most part, like a who's who of stars: Malcolm Brogdon, Stephen Curry, Danilo Gallinari, James Harden, Tobias Harris, Kyrie Irving and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Bogdanovic is due for a raise from the $10.6 million he's making. He's too important for the Pacers to lose, but they have to take a somewhat measured approach in free agency before knowing what Victor Oladipo looks like following his return from a ruptured quadriceps tendon.
Showing an inclination to pay Bogdanovic doesn't change much, if anything. It merely stands to incite larger offers from the gaggle of teams that will set their sights on him after the superstar crop is off the board.
Teams to watch: Indiana, L.A. Lakers, Utah
Marcus Morris, Boston Celtics
Marcus Morris' outside shooting has cratered over his past 25 games, but he's still earned himself serious money in advance of free agency.
Just seven other players are scoring as much and hitting as many threes per 36 minutes with an effective field-goal percentage of at least 50: Bogdanovic, Curry, Gallinari, Irving, Tobias Harris, Buddy Hield and Klay Thompson. And like Aminu, Morris' defensive responsibility is paramount to how his team operates. Boston throws him on some of the most mobile combo forwards and bigs, and he's no stranger to pestering wings.
Poaching Morris from the Celtics may not be that much of a chore. They'll be well into the luxury tax if they retain both Al Horford (player option) and Kyrie Irving (player option).
Re-signing Morris verges on critical if Boston gives up Jaylen Brown and/or Jayson Tatum in an Anthony Davis trade, but a lion's share of the bidding might take place outside Beantown.
Teams to watch: Boston, Dallas, Sacramento