Tempting 2019 NBA Free Agents to Stay Away From

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 28, 2019

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 15: Jimmy Butler #23 of the Philadelphia 76ers and Derrick Rose #25 of the Minnesota Timberwolves look on at the Wells Fargo Center on January 15, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

You know what makes NBA free agency so great?

The knowledge that offseason spending can change a franchise's fortune—for better or worse.

While a superstar gives helium to an ascending team, an overpaid player drags a club's finances into the mud. Have more than one of the latter on the books, and your squad might be trapped for the foreseeable future.

Injuries or poor systematic fits can turn almost any contract into a bad one, but some are more inherently risky than others. We'll examine three here that fit the bill as tempting investments sure to go wrong.


Jimmy Butler, SG/SF, Philadelphia 76ers

The case for giving Butler major coin almost makes itself.

He's on a short list of the Association's top two-way talents. He's made four All-Defensive rosters and a pair of All-NBA teams. He's been honored as an All-Star four times, and that's not including this season, when he's holding down the 16th spot in ESPN's real plus-minus rankings.

The 6'8" swingman can be both an unstoppable force and an immovable object. He's been the defensive answer to nearly every perimeter question Philly has faced, plus a 47.2/37.5/84.8 percent finisher in clutch situations.

"He's our best closer," Joel Embiid said, per NBC Sports Philadelphia's Paul Hudrick.

If you're an NBA executive, you're ready to give Butler a blank check, right?

Well, there's a lot more to this story.

Butler the player might be worth a max-money commitment. Butler the 2019 free agent, though, could be a different story.

"Jimmy Butler's next contract isn't a no-brainer," Bleacher Report's Dan Favale wrote. "He turns 30 in September, isn't a beacon of durability and has Tom Thibodeau miles on his treads. Most teams will think more than twice about giving him a full-term max—including the Sixers."

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MARCH 20: Jimmy Butler #23, Joel Embiid #21, and Ben Simmons #25 of the Philadelphia 76ers look on against the Boston Celtics in the third quarter at the Wells Fargo Center on March 20, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The 76ers defe
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Since playing all 82 games during his sophomore season of 2012-13, Butler has only made more than 67 appearances once (76 games in 2016-17). Despite that, he's still logged the 15th-most minutes since 2013-14 (14,614) and finished among the top four in minutes per game five different times.

There's an injury history to account for as well, including February 2018 knee surgery. There's also that looming milestone birthday, which becomes more relevant on the back end of a big-money commitment potentially paying him through his age-34 or -35 seasons.

Butler also had messy exits from Chicago and Minnesota, and it hasn't always been smooth sailing in Philadelphia. He's also largely an inside-the-arc scorer in a perimeter-obsessed league, and he often does his best work with the ball in his hands despite never being an elite shot-creator (career high of 5.5 assists).

Some team will likely decide talent trumps everything else and deem Butler worthy of a max (or near-max) commitment. But between the risks associated with health and aging, plus the maintenance needed to accommodate his skills, he might be more trouble than he's worth—relative to his cost, at least.


Nikola Vucevic, C, Orlando Magic

Season No. 8 of Vooch's NBA career has been his best by far.

Perhaps pegged as a plateaued, post-oriented big man as recently as last season, the 28-year-old emerged as this year's most surprising All-Star. The debut has been well-earned too, considering he's doing career work as a scorer (20.8) and rebounder (12.1) while adding a stretch component (76 threes at a 36.7 percent clip) to his offense and transforming from liability to asset at the defensive end.

Considering all of this has occurred during Magic coach Steve Clifford's first season at the helm, it's easy to assume the leadership change is the primary source of the maturation.

ORLANDO, FLORIDA - JANUARY 29:  Nikola Vucevic #9 of the Orlando Magic talks with head coach Steve Clifford of the Orlando Magic against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the second half at Amway Center on January 29, 2019 in Orlando, Florida. NOTE TO USER
Michael Reaves/Getty Images

"To me the biggest impact was Coach Cliff," Vucevic told News 13's Pat Welter. "The one thing he's done great is using me inside and out. Give me an opportunity to really use my skills."

But what if this breakout goes beyond Clifford's influence? What if this is, say, the latest example of the contract-year illusion of growth?

With millions of dollars at stake, Vucevic had every incentive to make this season a career masterpiece.

"Players are definitely conscious of it, prepare better, are more sensitive," an NBA agent told Yahoo Sports' Ben Rohrbach. "I think it's fair to say guys put more pressure on a situation—and most of all themselves—in a contract year, and then once they are paid, they coast more. Human nature."

Even if you're convinced Vucevic won't be a post-contract coaster, basic economics say it'd be silly to pay his skyrocketing premium this summer. If you're playing the stock market, you don't buy when the price is at its absolute peak, right? This is no different.

For seven seasons, we've regarded Vooch as an empty-numbers producer with severe limitations in his game. He's always been strong on the glass and in the points column, but his production rarely translated to victories. It was fair to wonder if it even could, since he clogged the offensive end as a non-shooter and left the defensive side vulnerable as a ground-bound interior anchor.

Are those concerns wiped away because he's slightly above-average from distance, more disruptive than a traffic cone on defense and possibly leading Orlando to an eighth-placed finish in the East? That's quite a leap in logic.

We don't know if Vucevic's newfound three ball could sustain over more seasons or handle a volume increase. We don't know if this defensive energy will be the same should he start collecting Powerball-sized paychecks. We have zero evidence he can be the best player on a decent team or even a top-two or -three option on a really good one.

We don't know enough to justify an annual salary north of $20 million, especially in a crowded center market. But considering what this season's stat sheet says, would you be surprised to see an organization throw that kind of change his way?


Derrick Rose, PG, Minnesota Timberwolves

It seems strange saying this about a former MVP, but this might have been the most incredible season of Rose's career.

He hit the free-agent market in both 2017 and 2018, never finding more than the veteran's minimum. The Cleveland Cavaliers signed him in July 2017 and then traded him in February 2018. The Utah Jazz acquired him in that deal and then dumped him two days later. The only deals he's inked since were signed with Thibodeau, who loves nothing more than his former players.

It was a tumultuous enough journey to think spending this season in China was more realistic than what actually occurred. Before elbow surgery prematurely ended his run, he'd delivered per-game contributions of 18.0 points and 4.3 assists, shooting 48.2 percent from the field and a personal-best 37.0 percent outside.

Rose's per-36-minute marks included 23.7 points, 5.7 assists and 3.6 rebounds, numbers nearly on par with the per-36 stats he posted during his MVP season in 2010-11 (24.1, 7.4 and 3.9, respectively). He also had better field-goal and three-point shooting rates in this season than that award-winning one, and he engineered his first 50-point eruption.

"Even when a superhero's knocked down, he's still a superhero, and Derrick Rose showed why he's still a superhero," LeBron James told reporters after Rose's 50-point performance.

That's where the temptation lies: thinking you're getting some version of the superhero Rose at a fraction of the cost. That's not happening.

Rose didn't have a great season; he had a good couple of months. He suited up just 19 times after the calendar changed, and in those contests, he only distinguished himself as a volume scorer (16.5 points on 47.6 percent shooting). Otherwise, he had the same shooting (12.5 percent from three) and distributing (3.5 assists) limitations we've associated with his post-ACL-tear version.

We also shouldn't gloss over the fact that he made just 19 appearances over the final four months. He's still someone whose career has been defined by injuries. The last time he played even 70 games was 2010-11. He managed just 51 appearances or fewer in six of the eight seasons since.

And with his 31st birthday coming in October, there's no reason to believe his body will start cooperating now.

He can still contribute as a microwave scorer, but a larger role would set him to be exploited. He doesn't have the burst from his MVP run, can't defend a lick (96th among point guards in defensive real plus-minus) and has never been an accurate outside shooter (career 30.4 percent).

In other words, alarm sirens should be sounding from every angle. And yet, NBC Sports Chicago's Mark Schanowski expects Rose "will be looking for at least a $10 million average on a multiyear deal."

If any club wants to write that check, it might as well put "Buyer's Remorse" on the memo line.