How Every Top NBA Free-Agent Signing so Far Could Backfire
It's almost a cliche at this point to state that the NBA offseason has become more exciting and interesting than the actual October-through-June slate of games, but it’s true, and for a great reason. With no basketball to watch besides the three-week long B-movie that is Summer League, fans are given eons of time to convince themselves that THIS will be the year that their team finally breaks through and wins a title.
And this year, more than any in recent memory, most fans might be right. So many stars have changed zip codes over the past week in an effort to capture the Larry O’Brien Trophy that almost half the league has a legitimate chance at a Finals berth.
However, despite so much high-level player movement, only one team can win a championship in 2020, leaving 29 teams and their flashy newcomers disappointed.
In this time of perpetual basketball optimism, let’s take a look at the worst-case scenarios for every top free-agent signing.
Let's briefly address the top five free agents who re-upped with their current clubs. Having seen four of them in action last year, we have a general sense of how they fit with their respective rosters, but the busy nature of this week has altered each of their team contexts in a significant way.
Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
Klay Thompson is one of the hardest players in the NBA to doubt because his skill set is so transferable—he may be the only player in the NBA worth the five-year, $190 million contract he agreed to sign who is not a primary shot creator. However, his knee injury leaves some room for questioning.
First, of course, there is the possibility Klay never returns to peak form after that ACL tear. Additionally, the acquisition of D'Angelo Russell (more on him later) will seemingly shift Klay to small forward indefinitely once he returns, assuming Russell is still on the roster past the trade deadline. If this is the case, Thompson's physical tools (6'7" with a 6'9" wingspan) could lessen his defensive impact when facing bigger wings on a full-time basis.
Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
Like Klay Thompson, Khris Middleton's skill set is low maintenance enough that he is hard to question from an on-court perspective.
However, he agreed to sign a five-year, $178 million contract, which comes out to an average annual salary of over $35 million per season. For a one-time All-Star who is not a primary shot creator, that number may look hefty in the years to come and could prohibit Milwaukee from effectively rounding out its roster behind Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
In fact, the Bucks were already forced to let starting combo guard Malcolm Brogdon walk away to the division-rival Indiana Pacers. What other quality role players might they be forced to renounce or not pursue as a result of Middleton's behemoth salary?
Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks have been somewhat lost in the shuffle this week, but let's not forget they still boast one of the best and most promising young duos in the NBA in newly minted Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis.
However, while Doncic is an excellent fit with almost anyone, the original Unicorn may present a bit of a challenge. In a strictly basketball sense, Porzingis is an inefficient scorer and an afterthought as a passer. He recorded just a 48.9 percent effective field-goal percentage in his injury-shortened 2017-18 campaign, and he has not averaged more than 1.5 assists in any season of his career.
Off the court, he has an unsettlingly long list of injuries beyond the ACL tear from which he is recovering and is dealing with allegations of rape that occurred during his time in New York. For such a good, young talent, there are a lot of red flags that will plague Porzingis, especially on a reported five-year max contract worth $158 million.
Tobias Harris, Philadelphia 76ers
Tobias Harris' situation is a lot like Middleton's, but it might be even more dire. The Tennessee alum agreed to re-sign with Philadelphia on a similarly large five-year, $180 million contract, but unlike Middleton, Harris has never made an All-Star team.
Also, in exchange for signing Harris, the Sixers had to let Jimmy Butler, their top clutch shot-maker, walk. Philadelphia has plenty of talent in its new starting five, but high-level shot creation remains an elusive skill within the quintet. Joel Embiid is at his best working from the paint, Ben Simmons remains in search of a jumper, and reported new additions Al Horford and Josh Richardson are also not primary shot creators.
That leaves Harris, who is not known for his ball-handling or shooting, completing just 32.6 percent from three-point range after joining the Sixers. Is he up to the task?
Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic
It's been quite a year for Nikola Vucevic, as he broke out in almost every conceivable way. He made his first All-Star team, ranked eighth in the NBA in Real Plus-Minus ahead of the likes of LeBron James, Damian Lillard and Kevin Durant, and he ended the Magic's five-year playoff drought. Congratulations, Nikola—you get a reported four-year contract and $100 million!
Now, the real work begins, which is to say he must continue that high standard of play. Once again, the Magic lack a real point guard and reportedly added forward Al-Farouq Aminu to a big-man rotation that already includes previous lottery picks Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba on top of Vucevic.
Vucevic is clearly the best player in that group and should not have to worry about his playing time going forward, but this contract suggests the Magic may already be giving up on Bamba and/or Isaac after less than three combined years in the league. If that is the case, it's admirable that GM John Hammond and team president Jeff Weltman are willing to admit their mistakes so early. However, they should still try to declutter the rotation and try to find trades for those players—hopefully a trade that nets them a starting-quality point guard.
None of this positional quagmire is Vucevic's fault, obviously. But playoff berths are now a reasonable expectation in Orlando, and the franchise owes its new face a well-constructed team around him. If the Magic can't make that happen sooner rather than later, then they may regret giving Vucevic that deal.
8. JJ Redick, New Orleans Pelicans
Honestly, there is not much to nitpick about JJ Redick agreeing to sign with the Pelicans. He remains one of the league's best shooters and will provide brilliant spacing for a team that desperately needs it. He is also a highly regarded off-court leader whom T.J. McConnell and Landry Shamet swore by in Philadelphia and will hope to do the same for Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball.
Redick's one deficiency is man-to-man defense, but that shouldn't be an issue in a lineup featuring a combination of Ball, Jrue Holiday, Ingram, Williamson and Derrick Favors, all of whom are above-average or elite defenders. The reported deal is also spectacular—just two years for $26.5 million. It's a perfect marriage between team and player.
One issue that may arise in the coming weeks, though it is relatively minor compared to the other questions in this article, is backcourt depth: There is almost too much of it. How will Alvin Gentry split minutes between Ball, Redick, Holiday, Josh Hart, Frank Jackson and rookie Nickeil Alexander-Walker? Holiday and Redick are easily the two best players in that group, but will Lonzo feel like he deserves to start? Do you play a super-small three-guard lineup with Ingram and Zion as your "bigs"?
It's very telling that even in a piece questioning the major free-agent signings of this summer, we are grasping at straws to criticize Pelicans general manager David Griffin's moves. Once again, well done, sir.
7. Bojan Bogdanovic, Utah Jazz
After Victor Oladipo's season-ending knee injury, Bojan Bogdanovic leveled up in a way nobody expected. In the All-Star's absence, Bogdanovic became Indiana's primary shot creator, averaging 22.4 points per game on 52.7 percent shooting in February and March to lead the Pacers to the Eastern Conference's fifth seed. The Utah Jazz took notice of this unbelievable hot streak and reportedly offered him a four-year contract worth $73 million to join Donovan Mitchell and Co.
However, Utah reportedly offered far more money to their new forward than any other team, including the Pacers, and it seems even riskier as speculation arises that Bogdanovic may be the full-time power forward. At 6'8", he has played the 4 on occasion throughout his career but never on a full-time basis. Additionally, the Jazz already start Joe Ingles, who spent two-thirds of his minutes last season at power forward.
Positionless basketball becomes more and more influential in the NBA each year, but those labels still do matter, especially on the defensive end. If Bogdanovic ranked 73rd out of 96 small forwards in ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus stat last season and Ingles ranked 15th, why not make Ingles handle the tougher, bigger forwards?
This dilemma won't make or break Utah's championship aspirations; if a player gets past Bogdanovic, Rudy Gobert will still be waiting for him at the basket. But it's worth monitoring if for no other reason than to test Quin Snyder's coaching acumen.
6. Malcolm Brogdon and Jeremy Lamb, Indiana Pacers
The Pacers underwent as much roster overhaul as any team in the NBA this week, losing three full-time starters. But to its credit, Indiana did not rest on its laurels, immediately replacing Darren Collison and Bojan Bogdanovic with combo guard Malcolm Brogdon and wing Jeremy Lamb. Brogdon in particular was one of the most coveted non-All Stars on the free-agent market, and for Indiana to land him is an absolute coup.
However, acquiring Brogdon comes at a steep price—specifically, $85 million over four years. His average annual salary in excess of $21 million may prove to be prohibitive, as he is not an All-Star and has a history of troubling leg and foot injuries. Plus, Indiana will likely have to pay top dollar for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis in the coming years, making for an expensive core.
Lamb, on the other hand, was as valuable to the Hornets as he's ever been last year, but that resulted in a mere 15.3 points per game, 34.8 percent three-point shooting and 2.2 assists per game with a 49.9 percent effective field-goal percentage. In fact, he regressed in multiple major statistical categories from the 2017-18 season.
You could do a lot worse than paying Lamb $31.5 million over three years, but if he doesn't perform in the postseason—a stage on which he lacks experience—that $30 million may very well feel like $60 million.
5. D'Angelo Russell, Golden State Warriors
There were plenty of shocking transactions this week, but none of them hold a candle to the Golden State Warriors not only reportedly trading for breakout guard D'Angelo Russell but agreeing to sign him to a four-year max contract worth $117 million.
This move was not just surprising because it was unexpected; it makes almost no sense from a basketball standpoint. The fifth-year guard is a pick-and-roll fiend, ranking second in the NBA in pick-and-roll possessions per game, and loves mid-range jumpers, attempting the sixth-most shots per game between 10 and 14 feet. The two basketball innovations that the Steph Curry-era Warriors are most known for are free-flowing ball movement and volume three-point shooting. Bringing Russell into that fold seems like a dangerous proposition, and then the Warriors also have to deal with the eventual return of Klay Thompson.
Earlier this week, the New York Times' Marc Stein reported on The Dan Patrick Show that the Warriors will trade Russell and only acquired him because they would otherwise lose Kevin Durant for nothing. Stein better be right, because there are far more questions about a Stephen Curry-D'Angelo Russell backcourt than there are answers.
4. Al Horford, Philadelphia 76ers
In one of the more unexpected moves this week, Al Horford agreed to leave the Boston Celtics and sign a four-year, $109 million contract with the Philadelphia 76ers. While Horford's size alone dictates that he should play center, he has long enjoyed spurts at power forward and should fit seamlessly alongside Embiid.
Like Klay Thompson, Khris Middleton and several other high-profile free agents from this summer, Horford's personality and skill set are such that he would be a strong signing for most contending teams in the NBA. However, Horford is already 33 years old, has played no more than 72 games in each of the last three seasons, and while the Sixers may have one of the best starting lineups in the league, they still severely lack proven big-man depth—names like Kyle O'Quinn, Mike Scott and Jonah Bolden dot the current roster.
Philadelphia is relying a great deal on Horford these next few years and better contend sooner rather than later.
3. Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics
The Boston Celtics salvaged what could have been a disastrous free-agency period, agreeing to sign three-time All-Star point guard Kemba Walker to a four-year, $141 million contract to replace Kyrie Irving.
In Boston, Walker will play with what is easily the most talented supporting cast he has ever had, and under the guidance of Brad Stevens he will be able to unlock his full potential. However, even if Walker continues to improve, there is a ceiling on this team's playoff hopes.
The recent history of small lead guards in the playoffs is rough; the Point God himself, Chris Paul (6'0"), didn't make the conference finals until he was 33 years old and needed to team up with James Harden to do so. Playoff defense is light-years more intense than its regular-season counterpart, and the 6'1" Walker will be stuck shooting impossibly difficult jumpers and attempting to draw fouls that aren't called in the postseason.
Also, while Walker's teammates have high potential, the way things played out for the Celtics last year suggests they may never reach it. Gordon Hayward might never return to form after that devastating leg injury, and Jayson Tatum may not become a perennial All-Star like many expected after he helped lead Boston to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals as a rookie. If either or both of those scenarios occur, then are the Celtics really that much different from the Hornets teams Kemba led for so long?
The potential for Walker's failure in Boston depends on your individual definition of "backfiring," but if the Celtics believe Kemba can lead this team to the NBA Finals, then they are sorely mistaken.
2. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
On one hand, Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat appear to be a perfect pairing. The Heat are well-known for their strict conditioning regimen and employ the likes of mixed-martial artist James Johnson. This tough, military-esque brand of basketball should be a dream for Butler, who has been openly discontent on three basketball teams in as many years, often due to his teammates' supposed lack of toughness and effort.
However, Butler has also said he wants to win, which is a tough proposition considering the roster around him. As the team stands, the starting lineup may be Goran Dragic, Butler, Justise Winslow, James Johnson, and Bam Adebayo. That group makes for a playoff team in the Eastern Conference, but it is also definitively worse than at least five or six other clubs.
Luckily for Butler, who agreed to a $142 million deal in a sign-and-trade from the 76ers, many of Miami's oversized contracts will soon expire, freeing up the Heat to chase top-tier free agents or trade for unhappy stars (the fanbase's recruiting pitch is already on for Bradley Beal). Historically, Miami is an attractive free-agent destination, but what if they don't land any major players? Will Butler become disgruntled yet again? Given recent history, it's definitely possible.
1. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets are huge winners of free agency for numerous reasons. But anybody who has paid attention to the NBA in 2019 understands the large amount of risk that signing both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving entails, especially with the four-year, $164 million and $140.8 million contracts they respectively agreed to.
Durant is expected to miss next season while he rehabs his ruptured Achilles, and that injury has essentially ended the primes of numerous superstars—from Chauncey Billups to Kobe Bryant to Durant's onetime teammate DeMarcus Cousins. KD is so supremely skilled that even in a diminished state, he can still be a quality NBA starter, but there are no guarantees.
And while Durant and Irving appear to be the best of friends off the court, both are ball-dominant scorers. If Durant misses a game-winning shot or holds the ball more often than Irving would like, will the point guard cause problems within yet another clubhouse? Conversely, could Durant take issue with Irving doing the same thing?
It's often said talent trumps all. We'll see that theory face a big test over the next four years in Brooklyn.