Re-Grading Top 2019 Free-Agent Signings 1 Year Later

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 2, 2020

Re-Grading Top 2019 Free-Agent Signings 1 Year Later

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    With the NBA relatively quiet as it ramps up for the Orlando restart in late July, it's easy to forget that this week is typically the most frenetic and fast-paced on the calendar.

    In a normal year, our minds would be tangled up in electrified knots right now, refreshing Twitter with the frazzled intensity of a lab rat in a Skinner box. We're supposed to be freaking out over free agency; that's what the first week of July is for.

    We'll have to wait until October to get our fix, so in the meantime, we'll look back and assess the biggest deals signed this time a year ago.

    Only expenditures of $100 million or more qualify, and we're excluding rookie-scale extensions. Restricted or unrestricted free-agent signings only.

    These grades are from the team's perspective. We have to consider what the organization paid for and measure that against what it got (or what it might get in the future, in the case of some big-name signees who didn't even play this season).

    We're only a year into these deals, which means all the grades should technically be incomplete. But where's the fun in that?

Nikola Vucevic: 4 Years, $100M

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    Fernando Medina/Getty Images

    Grade: C

    This season, as in each of the last four, Nikola Vucevic has made the Orlando Magic better when he's been on the court. Though there was never much chance the 29-year-old center would match his outlier production from 2018-19, Orlando at least invested (on a declining deal, which is an added bonus) in a player who, historically, has been a positive difference-maker.

    The problem: Vucevic has yet to demonstrate he can make that difference on anything more than a fringe playoff team. The Magic were the No. 7 seed in the 2019 playoffs, and they head to the Orlando bubble in eighth at 30-35. That's hardly progress.

    Floor-raisers aren't worth $100 million when they can only haul a franchise from the high lottery to first-round-pushover status. Spending that kind of money for a late-prime conventional center is risky under any circumstances. For the Magic, it looks like the perfect way to ensure a prolonged jog on the mediocrity treadmill.

    Vucevic is a quality starter and relative to the other deals here, $100 million isn't that substantial an investment. But he also obstructs opportunities for some of Orlando's more promising frontcourt youth (Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba, principally), which makes it too great a stretch to say his deal is anything better than a break-even proposition.

Kawhi Leonard: 3 Years, $103M

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Grade: A+

    Considering Kawhi Leonard was coming off a breathtakingly dominant postseason run that culminated in a title and Finals MVP, the Los Angeles Clippers were, almost by definition, buying high.

    They still got everything they bargained for.

    Without Leonard's arrival, the Paul George trade never happens, and the Clips aren't anything close to what they are at the moment: a shortlist title-contender.

    In his age-28 season, Leonard is averaging a career-high 26.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists. His defense, not quite up to "best in the league" standards in the early going, looked very close to that level just before the hiatus. We should assume he'll be his typical lockdown self when the games truly matter.

    Though load management has kept Leonard's rep count low and thus precludes serious MVP consideration, nothing has changed since he established himself last postseason as the player arguably best equipped to carry a team to a title. The two-way play, the quiet confidence, the alpha scoring—it's all still there.

    The only way this deal could have been better for the Clips is if it'd been longer. Leonard can opt out after the 2020-21 season.

Al Horford: 4 Years, $109M

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Grade: D

    First, the best news: The last year of Al Horford's deal, worth $26.5 million in 2022-23, is only partially guaranteed.

    Based on the production decline in the veteran center's age-33 season, which has seen his true shooting percentage and player efficiency rating dip to levels not seen since his rookie year, it's tough to imagine the Philadelphia 76ers will want any part of that final season.

    A strong playoff performance could raise a near-failing grade on this deal, but as it stands now, the Sixers grossly overspent.

    In its defense, Philadelphia knew it had to address its consistent collapses whenever Joel Embiid went to the bench, and there was additional logic to signing the big man who was better than most at slowing Embiid in past matchups. Bolster a point of weakness and deny competitors the chance to add a potent anti-Sixers weapon. Two birds, one stone.

    Horford, though, has struggled defensively outside the Boston Celtics system. It can't go unnoticed that Daniel Theis, slotting into Horford's old role for head coach Brad Stevens (at less than a quarter of the annual cost) has outperformed Horford defensively this season.

    On the bright side, Philly has a plus-5.3 net rating when Horford mans the center spot without Embiid on the court. But it's troubling that units including both Horford and Embiid have mostly failed, producing a negative net rating and struggling mightily to score in the 1,123 non-garbage-time possessions they've logged.

    If the Sixers reach the conference finals and Horford has a lot to do with it, consider the investment validated. Otherwise, this is a rough one.

D'Angelo Russell: 4 Years, $117M

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    Jordan Johnson/Getty Images

    Grade: D+

    Among the 19 players who've attempted at least 18 shots per game this season, Russell ranks 16th in true shooting percentage and 17th in defensive box plus/minus. That's about as clear a synopsis of the 24-year-old's game as you'll find; he's a volume scorer who gets his points at below-average efficiency rates without contributing anything on the other end.

    Granted, Russell was set up to fail with the Golden State Warriors. He was never a sensible fit alongside Stephen Curry, and following the two-time MVP's broken hand, he understandably didn't muster much effort for a talent-starved team clearly spiraling toward the cellar.

    It's instructive that the asset-desperate Dubs were the only team willing to extend Russell a max offer in the sign-and-trade scenario that got them something for the departing Kevin Durant.

    Though conventional wisdom suggested the Warriors intended to trade Russell all along, they were lucky the Minnesota Timberwolves felt special urgency to appease a frustrated Karl-Anthony Towns by acquiring Russell, his close friend. At his salary and production, Russell might have been almost impossible to trade without that set of circumstances making a deal possible.

    And though Golden State extracted a potentially tasty Wolves first-rounder in the bargain, it's not a great indicator of value when the salary exchanged for Russell belongs to Andrew Wiggins, one of the most overpaid players in the league.

    Russell is young enough to address some of his flaws, and he's in a situation with the Wolves in which his primary skill, patient pick-and-roll orchestration, could allow him to thrive. To justify the contract he signed, he'll have to.

Kemba Walker: 4 Years, $141M

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    Grade: B+

    Despite nagging knee issues that cost him nine of the Boston Celtics' final 17 games prior to the shutdown, Kemba Walker has had himself a fine statistical season. Slotted into a lower-usage role on a Celtics team full of ball-handlers, Walker's assist rate has dipped, but he's actually averaged slightly more points per shot since being freed from the primary-creator duties he handled with the Charlotte Hornets.

    The knee and a new role may have prevented Walker from getting to the rim as often as in previous years, but he's finishing a career-best 60.5 percent of his looks inside three feet. Overall, his 56.9 true shooting percentage in 50 games prior to the hiatus fell just short of the career-high 57.2 percent he converted in 2017-18.

    And though not necessarily famous for his defense, Boston hit the stoppage ranked fourth on that end, holding opponents to 106.2 points per 100 possessions, which nudges up to a still-respectable 108.5 in Walker's minutes on the floor. 

    More than the numbers, the 30-year-old has brought calm professionalism to a locker room previously marked by division and moodiness. That culture change matters; Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, still forming habits as they move toward stardom themselves, now know how a leader is supposed to act.

    The next three years of Walker's deal could still get ugly. Small guards generally can't afford to lose a step. But there's no denying Boston has gotten what it paid for in Year 1.

Kyrie Irving: 4 Years, $142M

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    Ned Dishman/Getty Images

    Grade: C-

    Kyrie Irving's usage rate hit a career-high 32.6 percent this season, and his true shooting percentage remained in elite territory at 59.5 percent. But the Brooklyn Nets only got 20 games of that volume-efficiency combo, and they lost a dozen of them.

    That sample might seem small enough to gloss over on its own, but the Celtics went 12-3 in games Irving missed last season and 14-8 without him in 2017-18. It's at least fair to question whether Irving's individual production drives team success, though it might be best to reserve full judgment until we see him as a second option (assuming he accepts that role) behind a healthy Kevin Durant.

    The Nets knew in advance that 2019-20 would be a write-off without KD, but they probably didn't expect to compound the $37.2 million they gave an inactive Durant with $31.7 million for less than a quarter of a season from Irving, who's averaged 54.4 games played over the last five years.

    The combination of health, a dubious impact on winning and the potential for future unrest from a player who left his last two terms on bad terms makes Irving a risky investment. He's productive and among the most offensively talented players in the game. But a quarter of the way through his four-year contract, he hasn't delivered much value.

Jimmy Butler: 4 Years, $142M

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    Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

    Grade: B+

    Throw out the abbreviated portion of the 2018-19 season that Jimmy Butler spent with the Minnesota Timberwolves and every other team he's played for has been better with him on the floor. This year's Miami Heat have gotten what they expected from the 30-year-old as Butler has averaged 20.2 points while setting career highs with 6.6 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game.

    That the five-time All-Star has managed such strong production during a year in which his outside shot has abandoned him speaks to resourcefulness that should help his four-year deal age well. Butler has replaced the scoring efficiency he lost from the perimeter by perfecting his foul-drawing craft. The only players in the league with higher free-throw attempt rates are Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden.

    Butler's notorious work ethic and demanding leadership style make him a perfect fit in a Heat system built on accountability and effort. In him, Miami found one of its own.

    The final three seasons of Butler's deal will cover his age-31 through age-33 seasons, and the high mileage accrued during those demanding Tom Thibodeau years could become an issue down the line. For now, Miami should feel encouraged by what it's getting from Butler in his first season and cautiously optimistic about the next three at an average annual value of around $36 million (player option in 2022-23).

Kristaps Porzingis: 5 Years, $158M

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    Tim Warner/Getty Images

    Grade: A

    Everything about Kristaps Porzingis and the Dallas Mavericks just works.

    Though there were some expected growing pains, KP has shown enough as the season has progressed to suggest he's the ideal complement to Luka Doncic. A floor-stretching center with extra-deep range and a quick release, Porzingis is a devastating pick-and-pop option with the coordination to also run off screens like a guard. Defenders his size can't keep up, and anyone under 6'10" has no chance to bother his high release.

    The spacing he provides gives Doncic a clear floor, which makes offense almost unfairly easy for the future MVP. It's no coincidence that Dallas is on pace to set a record for offensive efficiency.

    The Mavericks are posting a plus-7.0 net rating with Doncic and Porzingis on the court together, but that figure noses up a tick when filtering lineups to only include those with KP at center. And in an even more encouraging development, Dallas is plus-8.3 when Porzingis plays without Doncic—well beyond the sort of "hold the fort" performance you'd want from a second star.

    On the other end, Porzingis can still improve as a team defender. But as his 2.1 blocks per game indicate, he's a quality rim protector who should only grow more imposing as he adds strength to his frame.

    The Mavs inked KP for five years and $158 million, which will take the 7'3" big man through his prime from ages 24-28. Unlike almost every other $100 million deal signed in 2019, Porzingis' won't get scary toward the end due to age. Everything we've seen in 2019-20 suggests Porzingis can be the second-best player on a title-winning version of these Mavs, and his deal would be an A-plus if not for his spotty health history.

Kevin Durant: 4 Years, $164M

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    Chris Elise/Getty Images

    Grade: B

    It seems like the calculus should be simple on this one. When you sign a guy who's spent the better part of the last decade occupying top-five status in the league, the dollars and duration don't matter. You should get an A-plus and jealous glares from 29 other teams.

    Right?

    Not exactly.

    Kevin Durant's ruptured Achilles, suffered in the 2019 Finals, casts real doubt on his ability to regain prime form. Nobody is the same after this specific injury. It's no longer a certain career-ender, but everyone not named Dominique Wilkins (among those who've made it back at all) suffers post-Achilles slippage in games played and overall production.

    Durant will be 32 before he logs another NBA minute, and though he could falter substantially and still be an All-Star, decline is coming.

    KD's otherworldly talent means we can't give Brooklyn anything less than a B, even though it got zero on-court production from him this season and faces significant uncertainty about his future performance. Framed another way, almost any team in the league (that had the space to do so) would have given Durant the same deal—even knowing injury would make the first year a throwaway.

Khris Middleton: 5 Years, $178M

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    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    Grade: A

    This is a lot of money for a second option, but Khris Middelton's massive deal is a perfect example of how each team's individual circumstances change the value of years and dollars. Contracts don't exist in a vacuum.

    For the Milwaukee Bucks, nothing matters more than keeping Giannis Antetokounmpo happy. Had the team skimped on Middleton after letting Malcolm Brogdon go to the Indiana Pacers, it would have risked sending the worst possible message to a megastar with the option to leave in 2021.

    It certainly helps that Middleton is in the midst of a career season, averaging 21.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists while scoring with obscene efficiency. The 28-year-old wing seemingly hasn't missed from the mid-range area all year, and he's a hair's breadth away from 50/40/90 territory overall.

    He's at 49.9 percent from the field right now. If he goes 2-of-2 on his first two attempts once the season resumes, he'll climb over that 50.0 percent mark and put himself in line to become just the 11th qualified player to join that exclusive club.

    Brass tacks: The Bucks had to max out Middleton. The optics, as observed by the only set of eyes that matter, Antetokounmpo's, would have been too damning otherwise. That Milwaukee got All-Star production in the first year and is again poised to contend for a title only further validates the decision to splurge.

Tobias Harris: 5 Years, $180M

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    Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

    Grade: C-

    There's no question Tobias Harris is a quality NBA player. You don't have to parse the stats finely to prove it.

    He's one of just six guys currently averaging at least 19.0 points and 6.0 rebounds while shooting over 36.0 percent from deep. The others—Kawhi Leonard, Khris Middleton, Jayson Tatum, Brandon Ingram and Jaylen Brown—are all somewhere on the star-to-superstar spectrum.

    And yet...Harris doesn't quite measure up to that high-end company. Leonard, Middleton, Tatum and Brown are better defenders, while Ingram is five years Harris' junior and already a more dangerous off-the-dribble three-point shooter.

    Harris is currently a second option on a team that'll hit the restart seeded sixth in the East, which makes it difficult to justify his enormous salary. Generously, the 76ers might be entitled to a relative pass like the Bucks got with Middleton; they're contenders (or at least view themselves that way), so last summer wasn't the time to pinch pennies. Still, other teams could only offer Harris four years and $141 million.

    Did Philly have to go quite so big to retain him?

    We started this section off by noting how Harris is in impressive statistical company, but it's still hard to shake the feeling that the Sixers could have replaced, say, 75 percent of his production at a small fraction of the cost.

    By way of example, Kelly Oubre Jr., four years younger than Harris, re-signed with the Phoenix Suns for two years and $30 million last summer. His 2019-20 production hasn't been all that different from the Sixers' $180 million man.

    Just saying.

Klay Thompson: 5 Years, $190M

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    Noah Graham/Getty Images

    Grade: C+

    At the risk of exposing the unscientific nature of the grading rubric, here's roughly how we land at a C-plus for Klay Thompson.

    He's an A player, perhaps the lowest-maintenance, most portable two-way wing in the league on a contract that, from a value perspective, kind of looks like an F.

    The Athletic's John Hollinger crushed the deal:

    "Signing Thompson to a five-year max in the summer of 2019 would have been a risky-to-bad proposition even if Thompson hadn't hurt his ACL. Combined with the knee injury, it has the potential to be the worst contract in the league. I say this as somebody who knows a thing or two about possessing the worst contract in the league."

    He's referring to Chandler Parsons, who inked a four-year max worth $94 million in 2016, while Hollinger was the Memphis Grizzlies' vice president of basketball operations.

    This deal isn't that bad. Thompson's track record is longer and far more impressive than Parsons' was. Prior to his torn ACL, from which he's now fully recovered, Thompson was a paragon of durability. Parsons was already a walking injury red flag when he signed with the Grizzlies.

    Golden State has to maximize the remainder of Stephen Curry's prime, and Thompson is integral to that effort. That, along with the fact that Thompson's historically clean stroke should age well, combine to bump this massive deal up above average.

    This is far from a perfect contract. The Warriors got nothing in the first year, and it'll take Thompson through his age-33 season, when decline will surely be a factor. But we can't all agree there's a premium on shooting and then deride a team for paying a premium to get it.

              

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through games played March 11, 2020. Salary info via Basketball Insiders.