Knicks' Mess, Rozier to Hornets, Barnes to Kings and NBA Offseason's Worst Moves
It seems like NBA front offices are smartening up.
Though we'll cover a handful of moves from the 2019 offseason that look bad in relative terms, the net damage feels less severe than we've seen in the past.
Maybe the memory of so much poorly spent money in 2016 is still fresh, or maybe it's just too early to tell which of the deals struck this summer will age worst. Not all duds are immediately obvious. Still, nobody sprinted to the phone and offered Timofey Mozgov $64 million over four years as soon as free agency started.
That's how the spending frenzy of 2016 began, and teams had more money to burn this summer than they had since that fateful offseason three years ago. This feels like progress.
Still, mistakes were made in 2019. Here are some of the worst.
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The Hornets Hand Keys, $58 Million to Terry Rozier
In four NBA seasons spent playing largely against second units, Terry Rozier has yet to shoot 40 percent from the field, average more than five assists per 36 minutes or get to the foul line more than three times per 36 minutes.
Harsh as it sounds, there's nothing in his track record that suggests he's capable of producing efficient offense for himself or others. For some reason, despite all that, the Charlotte Hornets believe Rozier has the capacity to be a starting-caliber point guard. They're either overvaluing that short stretch of playoff success he had in 2018, trusting he'll take major steps forward in his age-25 season or hoping a change of scenery unlocks some new level of performance.
Rozier lamented his role with the Boston Celtics, but it's difficult to separate his dissatisfaction from the opportunity he wasted. If he wanted to see more time or handle greater responsibilities, all he had to do was tear up the opposing backups against whom he played.
He failed to do that, but the Hornets determined he was a starter worthy of a three-year, $58 million contract anyway.
At the risk of piling on, Rozier's dubious deal is indivisible from Charlotte's greater sin: failing to trade Kemba Walker for value when it had the chance. The Rozier sign-and-trade, perhaps an attempt at damage control, only exacerbated the harm.
The Kings Go Too Big on Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes had the Sacramento Kings over a barrel after coming aboard via trade last season and opting out of his deal, putting Sacramento in a position to lose him for nothing after just a few months on the roster. With little history of free-agency success, the Kings were eager to quickly reach a new four-year, $85 million agreement with the 27-year-old forward.
The optics of a Barnes exit would have been bad, but committing to him at such an inflated price could be worse.
Barnes graded out as the most overpaid free-agent signing of 2019, according to FiveThirtyEight's CARMELO market values. He'll collect $15.5 million more than he's projected to be worth in 2019-20.
Among small forwards who played at least 2,500 minutes last season, only Andrew Wiggins finished with a worse player impact plus-minus, according to Jacob Goldstein. And in seven NBA seasons, Barnes has posted a positive box plus/minus just once, in 2014-15 with the Golden State Warriors.
Sacramento could argue that Barnes filled a need. He stretches the floor as a small-ball 4 and can hold his own on defense against wings. But if we're going to view Barnes as the marginally negative player he's been for most of his career, how much worse off would the Kings have been splitting his minutes between Nemanja Bjelica (a better long-range shooter and passer) and Trevor Ariza (a better defender)?
Add to that the squeeze Barnes' contract will cause when the Kings have to work out extensions for De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and Marvin Bagley III, and you have a signing that could do real damage down the line.
A Roster Spot for Rondo
Rajon Rondo has been a member of the Sacramento Kings, Chicago Bulls, New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Lakers over the past four seasons.
All four of those teams logged higher net ratings with Rondo on the bench than they did when he played. So even if the Lakers only inked Rondo to a minimum deal, they still made a mistake. He hasn't helped a team perform better for a long time.
Maybe if the Lakers still had several young players on the roster and were focused on development, they could have justified the roster spot for Rondo. He provided some value in that regard last season, though it's hard to know how heavily to weigh those kinds of contributions against on-court production.
These Lakers are grownups, though. They don't need mentors. They need players who can contribute to a title push. When the aims are that high, every roster spot matters.
The Magic Commit to Mediocrity
Nikola Vucevic had a brilliant season for the Orlando Magic last year, averaging 20.8 points, 12.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists while shooting 36.4 percent from long range. It was a career year for the 28-year-old, and it resulted in his first All-Star berth.
Vucevic's breakthrough campaign also produced the Magic's first winning season in his seven years with the franchise, and that's where the problem lies.
Orlando committed $100 million over four years to Vucevic after an outlier season produced a 42-40 record. It's possible the youth on the roster—led by Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon and Mo Bamba—will collectively improve enough to offset expected slippage from Vucevic, but those players may have a hard time truly expanding their games with a costly veteran center occupying such a central role.
We don't even need the typical criticisms you'd expect to hear after a $100 million investment in a (mostly) conventional, offense-first center who can't switch on defense...though they apply. The real issue here is that the Magic seem to have gotten a taste of mediocrity after years of losing ball and liked it a little too much.
Their deal with Vucevic feels like a commitment to average basketball.
The Knicks Squander All That Cap Space
If the New York Knicks turn around and flip short-term signees Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, Marcus Morris, Elfrid Payton, Wayne Ellington and Reggie Bullock for draft assets a few months from now, no harm done.
But if they can't extract value from the bevy of deals they signed this summer, the Knicks will have compounded one crippling disappointment (the failure to even sniff max-level free agents) with another. There were first-rounders to be had this summer, and New York got none of them.
The Memphis Grizzlies hauled one in from the desperate Golden State Warriors, who had to attach a first-rounder to move Andre Iguodala and get under the hard cap. The Brooklyn Nets sent two firsts to the Atlanta Hawks in an Allen Crabbe salary dump. The multi-team swap that sent Jimmy Butler to the Miami Heat also redirected Moe Harkless and a first-rounder to the Los Angeles Clippers.
Where were the Knicks when all this was going down? Why the rush to dump eight-figure annual salaries on middling free agents when that money could have been used to take in similarly impactful vets on short deals with assets attached?
There was just so much more to be had if only the Knicks had been patient.
By avoiding longer-term panic signings, New York didn't do maximum damage to its future. But the Knicks absolutely could have utilized all that cap space to greater effect.