Every Top 2019 NBA Free Agent's Biggest Red Flag

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJune 10, 2019

Every Top 2019 NBA Free Agent's Biggest Red Flag

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    The NBA has become a 12-month sport.

    As soon as the Finals are over, it's onto the draft. Right on the heels of the draft is the madness of free agency. For the last several summers, July 1 has been a legitimate event for fans.

    And the start of 2019's free-agency period might be bigger than anything we've seen since LeBron James made "The Decision" in 2010.

    Two of the biggest names in this year's Finals, Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant, could be on the move. That alone is unprecedented, but it's only the tip of the iceberg. 

    Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, D'Angelo Russell, Tobias Harris, Kristaps Porzingis, Khris Middleton, Nikola Vucevic, DeMarcus Cousins, Al Horford, Julius Randle and Malcolm Brogdon form just a small sampling of this year's class. According to RealGM's Keith P Smith, as many as 16 teams can create enough cap space to sign at least one max-contract free agent.

    The beginning of July is going to be busy.

    Some of the first names off the board will be no-brainers for the teams that sign them, but no one is flawless. Believe it or not, even the league's best free agents have some red flags.

    Let's identify one for each of the top 10 players set to hit the open market, as ordered by Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes.

Honorable Mentions

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    Before we get to the top 10, let's quickly go through a few notable guys who didn't make the cut.

         

    Malcolm Brogdon: Restricted Free Agency

    Brogdon is an interesting plug-and-play option for just about any team. He doesn't demand a ton of touches, rarely makes mistakes and just put up a 50/40/90 season.

    But it would take a monster offer to get the Milwaukee Bucks to think about letting him walk. Even a max deal might just tie up the team's cap space for three days before Milwaukee brings him back.

           

    DeMarcus Cousins: Health

    Setting aside the volatility that sometimes comes with having Cousins on your team, the four-time All-Star suffered one of basketball's most catastrophic injuries (ruptured Achilles) and will turn 29 years old in August.

            

    D'Angelo Russell: Defense

    Russell experienced an offensive breakout during his first All-Star campaign, but he ranked 347th in ESPN.com's real plus-minus. Of course, that's not a definitive form of analysis on a player's defense, but few would consider him anything approaching a lockdown perimeter guy.

           

    Kristaps Porzingis: Perception vs. Reality

    In some ways, the idea of Porzingis may be better than what he's actually produced in the NBA. According to Basketball Reference, a player with a zero box plus/minus is average. Porzingis' career BPM is minus-0.1. He's also never posted an average true shooting percentage, and he's 85th out of 101 in total rebounding percentage produced by 7-footers in the three-point era. 

    Those numbers and his injury history should be a little worrisome, though it's still easy to buy into the potential of a 7'3" player who can play on the perimeter, hit threes and block shots.

10. Khris Middleton: Untested as a No. 1 Option

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    It's actually pretty tough to find an obvious red flag for Khris Middleton, especially since the warning might only apply to the team he's already on. According to Yahoo's Keith Smith, the Bucks are the overwhelming favorite to secure his services.

    And he makes plenty of sense there. Middleton may not do anything that leaps off the stat sheet, but he's steady in just about every facet of the game and knows how to complement Giannis Antetokounmpo.

    Now, is that enough to pay him a starting salary of $32.7 million with the option for 8 percent annual raises? That's the max salary for which Middleton is qualified, and it's likely the price Milwaukee will pay to keep him. This is just what it takes to keep a solid core together under the NBA's current collective bargaining agreement.

    But if you're another team hoping to pry Middleton away, that's a price tag that should cause at least a little concern.

    If someone other than the Bucks commits that much money to Middleton, "No. 1 option" offense may be expected. He's only led his team in scoring once in his career. That team, the 2015-16 Bucks, won just 33 games.

    And among players with at least 3,000 minutes over the last three seasons, Middleton is 106th in BPM. Is he someone a general manager will want to max out? That's probably what it would take to get him to entertain leaving his already solid situation.

9. Tobias Harris: Defense

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    Middleton and Tobias Harris share a lot of similarities. Both can fill that emerging combo forward role. Both can play off the ball. Both space the floor.

    But on the other end of the floor, the comparison starts to break down.

    "Harris may accumulate the offensive volume to become a borderline All-Star, but his defense could continue to hold him back," NBA Math's Adam Spinella wrote. "His on-ball work is suspect, and his showings in help situations are generally hit or miss."

    In 2018-19, the Clippers' defensive rating was 1.5 points per 100 possessions worse (35th percentile) when Harris was on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. And things weren't much better when he was with the Philadelphia 76ers, for whom he finished in the 44th percentile.

    In theory, Harris should be a decent defender. He has the size and athleticism to cover multiple positions—a near-must in today's NBA—but his consistency and awareness still have a long way to go.

8. Nikola Vucevic: Contract-Year Boost?

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    Nikola Vucevic was a force this season.

    He finished eighth in RPM, 10th in BPM and 19th in win shares per 48 minutes. In just 31.4 minutes per game, he averaged 20.8 points, 12.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.1 blocks and 1.0 steals.

    But Vucevic is 28. A max deal would take him into his mid-30s with an annual salary that would take up 30 percent of his team's cap. And in his seven seasons prior to this one, his value was nowhere near what it was in 2018-19.

    Is this a case of a contract-year boost?

    From 2011-12 through 2017-18, Vucevic had a 0.9 BPM and a 52.7 true shooting percentage—ranked 88th and 167th, respectively. Those aren't bad numbers, but they're nowhere near what he produced this season and aren't what you want from a max player.

    Vucevic probably won't instantly regress back to that level in 2019-20. He even has the kind of game that should age fairly well.

    There just isn't much of a track record for this level of production.

7. Al Horford: Age

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    Al Horford should age fairly gracefully, as well. His game is predicated more on smarts and fundamentals than explosiveness. But the Boston Celtics big man just turned 33. Any long-term deal would put him at the tail end of his career.

    And if Horford exercises his player option and turns down the $30.1 million he's owed in 2019-20, long-term security is probably what he's after.

    If he essentially wants to trade in $30 million in one year for something like $60 million over four, he has a decent chance to live up to the contract, even during his age-36 season.

    Much more than that starts to get a little risky, though.

6. Jimmy Butler: Mileage

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    Jimmy Butler has been in the NBA for eight seasons. Tom Thibodeau was his coach for a little over five of them. Since 2013, Butler has averaged 66.5 games per season.

    "Fatigue and Thibs have been attached at the hip for years," The Ringer's Paolo Uggetti wrote. "Fans and pundits half-joke about keeping players away from his grasp for the sole purpose of keeping them healthy. By now, Thibodeau is presumably known more for his stubbornness than for his defensive schemes."

    Every player is different, so maybe this isn't a fair comparison. But the Thibodeau minutes eventually took a sudden and terrible toll on Luol Deng.

    Over his last three-and-a-half seasons with the Bulls, Deng averaged 38.9 minutes of grind-it-out, Thibs-style ball. He was 28 at the end of that run.

    The number of games he played in each of his next five seasons? That would be 72, 74, 56, one and 22.

    Again, this isn't meant as some kind of forecast for doom. Rather, it's just what the title suggests: a red flag.

    Jimmy Butler has a lot of NBA mileage on the metaphorical odometer. And they're not wide-open, Wyoming-highway miles. They're more like stop-and-go-traffic-in-the-desert miles.

5. Kemba Walker: Size

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    Even as the game continually trends toward perimeter players, there's still a generally prevailing natural law of basketball: Size helps.

    In 2018-19, 498 of the 530 players who logged at least a minute in the NBA were taller than Kemba Walker. And as the 29-year-old ages, that could start to become more of a weakness on the floor.

    Those two factors may already be starting to converge. This season, Walker posted a below-average true shooting percentage for the first time since 2014-15. The next year, he posted career highs in box plus-minus and win shares per 48 minutes. Both have steadily fallen since.

    Sure, we can chalk some of that up to an underwhelming supporting cast. Perhaps better teammates would get him trending upward again. But it would be hard to surround him with that if Kemba signs a supermax extension, for which he's now eligible after making third-team All-NBA.

    By the end of such a deal, Walker's salary would be around $50 million in his age-33 season.

    That's concerning for a 6'1" player at a position that's getting bigger by the year.

4. Klay Thompson: Can He Carry an Offense?

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    Among the 420 players with at least 1,000 career three-point attempts, Klay Thompson is 14th in effective field-goal percentage.

    Few players in the history of basketball shot the ball as well as Klay, but he's spent his entire career alongside Stephen Curry, probably the best shooter of all time.

    The spacing Curry creates by forcing defenses to account for him the moment he crosses half court has helped every Warrior for a decade. And that includes Klay, who's been assisted on 79 percent of his career field goals.

    If some team is looking to pry Thompson away from Golden State, does it have a plan and the personnel in place that will allow him to continue working mostly off the ball? Or will he be asked to create a little more for himself and others?

    He's qualified for a max salary worth 30 percent of the projected $109 million cap. And if that's what he gets, especially for a team other than the Warriors, he might be called upon to do more.

3. Kyrie Irving: Leadership

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    Kyrie Irving and the Boston Celtics had a fun honeymoon phase at the start of the 2017-18 season. By the end of Year 2, Boston superfan Bill Simmons was borderline ranting on his podcast about wanting to drive Irving, a former guest of the show, to the airport.

    "There are plenty of reasons to explain why this season was so hard, and why these Celtics were so disappointing," ESPN.com's Tim Bontemps wrote. "At the root of all of them, though, is Irving—and, more specifically, his leadership through words and actions on and off the court."

    Throughout Boston's underwhelming campaign, the Celtics were surrounded by drama, and Kyrie was often seemingly the source. He repeatedly took shots at the "young guys," which is interesting, given where he's rumored to go now.

    "Kyrie Irving is serious about the Nets," ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted. "And the Nets are serious about beating the Knicks—and rest of league—to the biggest free agents in the marketplace, per league sources."

    Unless Kyrie knows something we don't about other veteran free agents who are interested in Brooklyn, he'll be on yet another team with "young guys." Will he assume—and ultimately fall under—the leadership mantle there, as well?

2. Kawhi Leonard: Health

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    Kawhi Leonard just threw his hat back in the ring for the title of world's best player with his 2019 postseason run. But there are health concerns with the King in the North.

    In an interview with ESPN's Rachel Nichols, Leonard said, "I don't think I'd be playing right now" if not for the "load management" strategy the Toronto Raptors laid out for their star.

    After appearing in only nine games for the San Antonio Spurs in 2017-18, Kawhi sat another 22 in the regular season for Toronto this season. Even still, he's been seen laboring at times during the postseason, especially in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks.

    When he's physically OK, Kawhi's unreal. A no-brainer max player. Having to rest him for a quarter of the season to keep him at that level isn't ideal, but in Kawhi's case, it's worth it.

    The worry is that the issues necessitating the load management become worse.

1. Kevin Durant: Age

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    At this point, we might have to get a little nitpicky. Trying to identify a "red flag" for Kevin Durant isn't easy. Something along the lines of leadership or drama seemed to be in play, but the indicators here weren't nearly as clear as they were for Irving.

    Instead, we'll go with age.

    Durant turns 31 in September. He just wrapped up his 12th season. And over his last five, he's averaged just 61.4 appearances.

    A five-year deal with the Warriors, or a four-year deal elsewhere, will start at $38.2 million and end around $50 million.

    That's probably still fine value if Durant is at or near his current level and playing around 60 games. If he's healthy and on your team for the postseason, you're pretty much a de facto contender.

    If he breaks down a bit with age, you may miss him right when you need him most, as the Warriors found out in these playoffs.