How Every Bad Free-Agency Signing Could Actually Work
Did your favorite NBA team overspend on free agents this summer? Still scratching your head over that $60 million deal for the career backup? Has your team's front office lost it, or is there actually a plan here?
For some big-money free agents, the initial numbers may be a bit shocking based on level of stardom, age, durability or fit with the team. That doesn't mean these contracts can't turn out all right, of course.
Take Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine, for example. His four-year, $78 million deal seemed atrocious coming off a 2017-18 campaign in which he played in just 24 games and averaged 16.7 points a night. After putting up 23.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.5 assists at age 23 last season, the Bulls now have LaVine under contract for the next three years for half of what he could have possibly commanded this summer.
While the following free-agent signings didn't exactly scream "bargain," they could all turn out to be quality moves for their respective teams.
Bobby Portis, PF/C, New York Knicks
Contract signed: Two years, $30.8 million (team option in 2020-21)
While a number of New York Knicks signings could have qualified for this list, Bobby Portis' annual money seemed like the biggest overpay.
His $15 million salary for the 2019-20 season was ranked as the second-worst contract by FiveThirtyEight, according to its CARMELO market values.
The former Chicago Bull and Washington Wizard is a poor defender who was suspended eight games in 2017 for punching then-Bulls teammate Nikola Mirotic in the face during practice. He's primarily come off the bench in his four-year career, only starting 49 of 249 career games. His defensive real plus/minus ranked 88th out of 94 power forwards, even behind teammate Jabari Parker, per ESPN.
How This Ends Well
The second year of Portis' deal is a team option, meaning the Knicks can open up $15.8 million in cap space next summer if they'd like. There's no long-term financial commitment.
Portis also won't turn 25 until February, meaning we've yet to see the best of a rising young big man who's already shown a diverse offensive game. He registered a career-high 14.2 points and 8.1 rebounds a game for the Bulls and Wizards last season while also hitting 39.3 percent of his threes.
While the Knicks are now loaded with power forwards, Portis could see big minutes as a stretch-5, either starting at center or playing primary reserve to Mitchell Robinson.
In his 28 games with Washington (22 starts), the Wizards were 4.2 points per 100 possessions better with Portis in the game. If he continues to play well now in New York, the Knicks may want to pick up that second year option after all.
Ricky Rubio, PG, Phoenix Suns
Contract signed: Three years, $51 million
A veteran pass-first point guard was a necessity for the young Suns, but they massively overpaid to get one.
The Utah Jazz seemed content letting Ricky Rubio walk out the door in free agency—never a good sign for the next team that player lands on. It's not that Rubio is bad, per se, but rather that Utah craved an upgrade at the position.
Patrick Beverley, while not the passer Rubio is, only got $40 million over the same three years. His impact on a team is arguably greater, especially when factoring in defense, outside shooting and intensity.
By the end of this contract, Rubio will be making $17.8 million at age 31. That's a hefty amount for someone who only gave the Jazz 12.7 points and 6.1 assists on 31.1 percent shooting from three last season.
How This Ends Well
Looking purely at numbers, Rubio won't be worth this contract, and that's OK.
Instead, the Suns should see this as an investment in culture. With so many shoot-first players in Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Kelly Oubre Jr., Dario Saric and Cameron Johnson, they desperately needed someone who's primary objective is to get others the ball.
For example, during Utah's first-round playoff series against the Houston Rockets, Rubio averaged 15.4 points. While this was a respectable amount, his true impact was felt in the team's offensive rating, which plummeted from 109.4 down to 78.1 anytime he went to the bench. This swing of 31.3 points wasn't just due to Rubio's scoring but rather his playmaking and overall job of keeping everyone involved, something the Suns haven't had.
Expect the same now in Phoenix. Rather than analyzing Rubio's stats, look at how he impacts those around him.
Terry Rozier, PG, Charlotte Hornets
Contract signed: Three years, $56.7 million
Giving a player nearly $60 million who's started just 30 games in four years seems like a stretch, especially one with a 38.0 lifetime field-goal percentage.
With Kemba Walker walking out the door and no real cap space left to replace him, getting Terry Rozier in a sign-and-trade with the Boston Celtics was perhaps the best Charlotte could do to try to replace the offensive production lost.
Rozier spent last season as Kyrie Irving's backup, a role he didn't seem too thrilled to play.
"I don't give a f--k what nobody say, I sacrificed the most out of anybody. I'm a top point guard in this league," Rozier said in May, per Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports.
Although he considers himself an elite floor general, the numbers far from back it up. Even stretching Rozier's 2018-19 stats over 36 minutes of play yield just 14.2 points and 4.6 assists, combined with his shooting marks of 38.7 percent from the field and 35.3 percent from three.
How This Ends Well
The 2018 postseason, when he was named the Celtics' unquestioned starting point guard while Irving was out following knee surgery, should have the Hornets most optimistic.
In 19 games (all starts), Rozier responded with 16.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 1.3 steals and shot 40.6 percent in 36.6 minutes. He had the Celtics within one game of the NBA Finals with a mostly young and untested supporting cast.
In Charlotte, Rozier should have the ultimate green light now that the Hornets' top two leading scorers (Walker and Jeremy Lamb) are gone. With full control of the offense, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Rozier break the 20-point-per-game mark while rebounding and assisting at high levels.
Rozier's contract is also front-loaded, meaning his salary decreases each year. He'll be earning $17.9 million in the final year of the deal at age 27, whereas Walker will be making over twice as much ($36 million) with the Celtics at age 31.
While his shooting efficiency needs improvement, Rozier is primed to put up big numbers in Charlotte with few other options to turn to. While this won't necessarily translate to wins without a better supporting cast, at least the Hornets have a go-to scorer to turn to with Walker gone.
Harrison Barnes, F, Sacramento Kings
Contract signed: Four years, $85 million
Harrison Barnes averaged 14.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.9 assists in 28 games for the Kings following a trade from the Dallas Mavericks, his lowest scoring output since 2015-16 as a member of the Golden State Warriors. Barnes' box plus/minus of negative-2.3 ranked 89th among all NBA forwards.
Still, the Kings felt this warranted an average annual salary of over $21 million, despite there being no other reported offers for Barnes.
While his was far from the biggest contract handed out in free agency, Barnes was ranked the most overpaid free agent of 2019 by FiveThirtyEight's CARMELO market value.
While no one is saying Barnes isn't a solid starter in the league, paying him like a star seemed to be a questionable move by Sacramento, especially since his four-year deal will overlap with likely extensions for De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and Marvin Bagley.
How This Ends Well
The Kings saved about $6 million this season when Barnes opted out of his $25.1 million player option and signed this new deal, helping to facilitate the signings of fellow veterans Trevor Ariza, Dewayne Dedmon and Cory Joseph.
Although his raw numbers were modest, Barnes showed he could fit in with the Kings' young core, improving Sacramento by 2.1 points per 100 possessions while in the game. This was his highest on/off rating since the 2014-15 season.
Barnes also showed the willingness to become a third or fourth scoring option while gladly making the extra pass when necessary. Fox and Hield connected on 22 of their 44 three-point attempts (50.0 percent) off passes from Barnes.
While the Kings may have overpaid, Barnes has already proved to be a good starter who fits the rest of their core. Since Sacramento isn't a hotbed for free agents, allocating this amount of cap space for a player of Barnes' caliber likely isn't as bad as it seems.
Tobias Harris, F, Philadelphia 76ers
Contract signed: Five years, $180 million
Nothing against Tobias Harris, but there's just no way he'll live up to this contract.
The Sixers were forced to throw the bag at Harris after giving the Los Angeles Clippers a package involving two first-round picks and Landry Shamet. With Jimmy Butler uninterested in returning, the Sixers couldn't afford to lose Harris as well.
But still, $180 million?
To put that in perspective, Harris will earn more on average over the next five years ($36 million) than LeBron James has ever made in any of his 16 seasons.
There's also a matter of positioning. Harris has spent 93 percent of his court time at power forward the last two seasons, and it appears to be the most natural fit now for his 6'9", 235-pound frame. With the Sixers signing Al Horford as well, however, Harris will be forced out onto the wing if Philly wants to put all of its best players on the court at the same time.
The last time Harris spent the majority of his time at small forward was in 2015-16 while with the Orlando Magic.
How This Ends Well
Sixers head coach Brett Brown will need to stagger his lineups a lot, using Harris at the 4 as much as possible with either Horford or Joel Embiid at center.
While Harris is more than a capable three-point shooter (40.5 percent over the last two seasons), he needs to get his post touches, too.
Philadelphia will be a juggernaut defensively, but it'll need Harris to step into a larger offensive role with Butler and JJ Redick gone. Having just turned 27, there's still room for growth as a ball-handler and shot-creator. Harris even shot better from behind the arc off the dribble (41.3 percent) than he did spotting up (38.2 percent), an encouraging sign given how much he could be asked to create this season.
Although the financial commitment is substantial, Harris' deal will take him through his prime years and expire when he's only 31.