NBA Free Agents Hoping GMs Didn't Watch Them Play Last Season

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 3, 2019

NBA Free Agents Hoping GMs Didn't Watch Them Play Last Season

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Nothing means more to NBA free agents than timing.

    Some of it is beyond their control. Market conditions like cap increases or the quantity and needs of big-ticket shoppers can change a player's financial outlook without him doing anything.

    But contract-year performance is the most critical task in the business. Ace it, and you might play your way into a new tax bracket. Fail it, and you could deny yourself tens of millions in potential earnings.

    Some players can afford minor slip-ups. For all the static that surrounded Kyrie Irving at times this season, his max-contract payday is likely still coming.

    That's not the case for the following five players, though. Their 2018-19 regressions could prove literally costly once the market opens.

Jordan Bell, Golden State Warriors, PF/C (Restricted)

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Jordan Bell entered the 2018-19 campaign on breakout watch. Between a slimmed center rotation and his promising rookie performance, talk of his potential emergence were all rooted in logic.

    But life doesn't always go according to script, and the springy sophomore learned that lesson early. His first "Did Not Play—Coach's Decision" came in just the second contest of the season, and the Golden State Warriors sporadically sidelined him the rest of the way.

    That wasn't the most frustrating part of his second go-round, though.

    When he made it inside the lines, he wasn't the same. His field-goal percentage took a double-digit hit. He was less productive per game and per minute. After he finished an encouraging 60th in player efficiency rating as a freshman (minimum 500 minutes), he plummeted to 198th in his follow-up.

    "Two years into his NBA career, he has yet to show enough consistency—on the court or off—to carve out a regular rotation spot," Connor Letourneau wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle. "Memorable plays are often followed up by head-scratching sequences. Although he has slowly quieted concerns about his work ethic, Bell's maturity remains in question."

    This won't scare off all suitors. Bell is still a 24-year-old with loads of physical tools and several modern enhancements, like defensive versatility and more playmaking than your typical post player (career 4.0 assists per 36 minutes).

    But the bidding war his free agency could have sparked seems highly unlikely to materialize.

Marquese Chriss, Cleveland Cavaliers, PF (Unrestricted)

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Three summers back, Marquese Chriss arrived as the eighth overall selection and one of the biggest boom-or-bust prospects in his class. His skills were raw, but his physical tools were elite. It seemed his career could go either way.

    Three years later, all signs point to bust.

    After modest production netted him an All-Rookie second-team spot in 2016-17, his numbers have backtracked ever since. Two disappointing years in the desert ended his tenure with the Phoenix Suns, who moved him in an August salary dump involving Ryan Anderson. Chriss' next employer, the Houston Rockets, declined his fourth-year option in November, then dealt him to the Cleveland Cavaliers in another cost-cutting exchange.

    While multiple scenery changes would've been tricky for any 21-year-old to navigate, Chriss did himself no favors when he stepped inside the lines. The 6'10" forward shot a woeful 37.2 percent overall and 22.2 percent from distance across 43 games, averaging just 4.2 points and 3.3 rebounds.

    Advanced metrics painted an even less favorable picture. His minus-5.75 real plus-minus ranked 512th out of 514 players, per ESPN. His minus-6.2 box plus/minus put him dead last among the 283 players to log 400-plus minutes.

    At one point, Chriss' best-case scenario was essentially that of the ideal modern big man. If he could put everything together, he would provide three-point shooting, shot-blocking, defensive versatility and above-the-rim artistry. None of that shows in his statistical profile.

    Some club will likely take a low-cost flier on him this summer. But few, if any, NBA stocks are stuck in a worse downward spiral.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte Hornets, SF/PF (Player Option)

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The switch was supposed to flip by now for 2012's second overall pick, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

    After stagnating in recent seasons, he seemingly found a new lease on his basketball life under first-year Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego. The non-shooter ditched the wings for good, suiting up exclusively at the 4 (95 percent of the time) and 5 spots. Early returns looked good. In October, The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks dove into MKG's adjustment in a piece titled, "The Hornets Have Found Their Own Personal Draymond."

    But that wasn't the only change Borrego made. He also plucked Kidd-Gilchrist out of the starting lineup, where he'd been for 353 of the first 357 games of his career.

    It was a quietly ominous start, as the year ushered in a prolonged role reduction. Injuries were the first thing to force him off the floor, but inconsistency proved the bigger plague. By March, it necessitated the first DNP-CD of his career.

    It's problematic for any former top prospect to fall entirely out of a rotation, especially in what should be the heart of his prime (age-25 season). But it's even less forgivable in this case given the sad state of Charlotte's roster. Hornets forwards were 20th in net rating, and Kidd-Gilchrist still couldn't salvage his role.

    Though defensive versatility and motor remain potent weapons in his arsenal, he continues to look more and more like a one-way specialist. He's always graded deep in the red on offense, and a minor effort to expand his range (career-high 16 triples) did little to keep him on the floor.

    He's either a one-trick pony or a 25-year-old project. That's probably reason enough to pick up his $13 million player option, but he might be disappointed with what he finds if he opts to test the open market.

Terry Rozier, Boston Celtics, PG (Restricted)

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    The way Terry Rozier sees it, his 2018-19 season was less about disappointment than it was the byproduct of taking a step back for the greater good.

    "I sacrificed the most out of anybody," he told Yahoo Sports' Vincent Goodwill. "I'm a top point guard in this league."

    Every player in the Association should feel he's among the best at his position. But for Rozier to say that when he did felt off for a couple of reasons.

    For starters, the Boston Celtics were just coming off an earlier-than-expected postseason exit, making it an awkward moment for any Shamrock to toot his own horn publicly. For Rozier specifically, though, it was extra strange as the postseason had been an exaggerated example of his contract-year flop.

    Through four NBA campaigns, he has really had just one stretch in which he looked like an above-average point guard. That came during the 19-game emergence of "Scary Terry" in last year's playoffs when he filled in for an injured Kyrie Irving and delivered per-game contributions of 16.5 points, 5.7 assists and 5.3 rebounds.

    But even in that stretch, he connected on an underwhelming 40.6 percent from the field and 34.7 percent from distance. He's always struggled with his shot—his next season as a 40-percent shooter will be his first—and he's never been much of a distributor (career 4.2 assists per 36 minutes).

    He was 42nd among point guards in RPM this past season and 171st overall in PER (minimum 1,000 minutes). He had the worst on/off differential among Celtics regulars, as the team fared 9.6 points per 100 possessions better without him.

    Point guard-needy teams won't completely bail on him, but this season did nothing to secure the money or role he probably feels he deserves.

Ricky Rubio, Utah Jazz, PG (Unrestricted)

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    Associated Press

    Ideally, someone in a contract year performs like never before.

    Technically, that's what Ricky Rubio did, only not how he wanted. The eight-year veteran posted the worst PER of his career while losing both volume and efficiency.

    His assist totals came way down after joining the Utah Jazz in 2017, but he offset those subtractions by improving as a scorer and shooter. Over his first six seasons, he averaged just 10.3 points on 37.5 percent shooting (31.5 from three). During his first year in Salt Lake City, he bumped those numbers to 13.1 and 41.8 (35.2).

    But his second year saw him turn back into a pumpkin on offense.

    The points didn't dip by much (12.7), but he clearly regressed as a shooter. His 40.4 field-goal percentage placed him 78th out of the 81 players to log 1,500 minutes and post a 22-plus usage percentage. His three-point shooting took the bigger hit. Including the playoffs, he was just 83-of-274 from distance (30.3 percent).

    Without a reliable jumper, Rubio becomes a relic—a throwback to a simpler time for point guards. His defense and vision have some value, but his lack of range is a space-killer. He just posted his first negative offensive box plus/minus since his rookie year, while RPM placed him outside the top 30 point guards on offense.

    Had he hit the market last year, he may have been a legitimate target for teams in need of a floor general. Now, he's more like the Plan C choice of a club not at all living its best offseason life.

                     

    Unless noted otherwise, statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.

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