The Riskiest 2020 Big-Money NBA Free Agents

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 7, 2020

The Riskiest 2020 Big-Money NBA Free Agents

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    With the pandemic trimming revenue and financial uncertainty looming, you'd think caution would be the theme of 2020 NBA free agency.

    Add to that a class short on stars, and there's even more reason for teams with cash to spend wisely.

    But this is the NBA, and we've seen how money burns holes in front offices' pockets year after year. Regardless of circumstances and almost without exception, teams spend up to and beyond the cap every offseason. We should expect nothing less, even now.

    When highlighting potentially risky signings, understand the goal isn't to knock guys who might be in line to get overpaid. Get yours, players. We're operating from the organization's perspective, pinpointing signees likely to command big deals and, possibly, fail to deliver full value.

    Every signing carries risk. The following come with a little more than the usual share.

Fred VanVleet, Unrestricted

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Fred VanVleet's upcoming offseason will illustrate the difference between being valuable and being a value.

    He'll be the former regardless of where he lands; the combo guard is a capable three-point shooter, top-flight competitor and scrappy on-ball defender with big-game bonafides. That plays anywhere. 

    If his new salary nudges up past $20 million per year, though, he'll cease to be a value.

    Sometimes, third options expand their games in new locales, proving outside circumstances, not individual limitations, held them back at their previous stop. Maybe that'll be the case with VanVleet.

    Several teams with money to spend need lead guards, with the New York Knicks heading up that list. That organization has a habit of spending as if cash had an expiration date, and new management might be eager to make a splash by hurling top-option money at the 26-year-old. 

    If we run with that hypothetical, there's a best-case scenario in which RJ Barrett improves his shooting and playmaking chops, effectively splitting facilitation and ball-handling duties with VanVleet, who's used to sharing those responsibilities with multiple teammates. 

    In the darker timeline, VanVleet could struggle against a level of defensive attention he's never seen before. That figures to be true with the Knicks, but it also feels likely that if FVV changes teams, he'll certainly have a worse supporting cast than the one he blossomed with in Toronto.

    VanVleet brings plenty of intangibles to the table, but his 55.3 true shooting percentage only ranked 61st out of the 86 players who attempted at least 700 shots during the regular season. If his efficiency declines under the added pressure of a larger salary, inferior teammates and more consistent top-of-the-opposing-scouting-report focus (pick one, but know that all could apply), the team that adds him could have a signee making superstar money but failing to match the high-end support-piece production of his past. 

Bogdan Bogdanovic, Restricted

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Several risk factors collide in Bogdan Bogdanovic's upcoming free agency, and the greatest downside actually applies to his own team, the Sacramento Kings.

    Ownership turned over the front office after the Kings' bubble departure, which means priorities could change. But the previous regime signaled its intent to keep Bogdanovic in restricted free agency with all the subtlety of a skywriter on a clear day. It doesn't happen often, but when the rest of the league knows a team is committed to spending whatever it takes to retain its own RFA, bloated offer sheets sometimes come in, forcing the incumbent to spend past its level of comfort.

    The recipe for an overpay is sitting right there. Incoming management may not be as committed to Bogdanovic as former general manager Vlade Divac was, but does the new group in power really want its first notable move to be letting a quality player walk away for nothing?

    In addition, Bogdanovic's three-year NBA career includes almost no meaningfully competitive games (that's life with the Kings), so all you know for sure about him is he can be a solid-but-unspectacular role player on a bad team.

    Is that worth $15 million (or more) per season? Somebody—likely the Kings—may soon find out. The answer might be no.

    Bogdanovic is a smart, skilled guard whose career 37.4 percent three-point hit rate makes him a useful off-ball weapon. His assist percentage has ranked above the 86th percentile among wings every year of his career, so teams know they can also put him on the ball as a lead playmaker in a pinch. He's got plenty of game, but at 28, it would be unwise to expect him to show more than he already has to this point.

    Combine all those concerns, and you've got a fringe starter who might get paid like a near star. Seems risky.

Montrezl Harrell, Unrestricted

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Undersized but not an elite switch defender, dependent largely on athleticism to be effective, lacking stretch to his offense and toting numbers fattened by competing mostly against backups, Montrezl Harrell doesn't profile as a free agent worth eight figures per season in salary.

    He's going to get that and more, though.

    To be fair to Harrell, he's not going to double or triple his 2019-20 salary of $6 million for no reason. We had to lay out the concerns and shortcomings because we're focused on risk factors, but the 26-year-old is an effective role player. You don't win Sixth Man of the Year on a fluke.

    Harrell can face up almost any defender, using power and speed to work his way to the bucket and the free-throw line. He's hovered around the top 10 percent among bigs in foul-drawing rate the last four years.

    He and Lou Williams also have mind-meld pick-and-roll chemistry, and there's intangible value in Harrell's hyper-competitive, energetic style of play. It's tough for teammates to loaf when he's on the floor going all out, all the time.

    Still, this is a thin free-agent market, and it's easy to imagine some team viewing Harrell's 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game as starting-center material. Pan out, though, and the decline in value of non-switch, non-stretch 5s should give interested teams pause. Sure, you pay the Rudy Goberts of the world. But smart teams shouldn't devote big money to the fungible group of bigs below that star level—especially undersized ones.

    Harrell is back with agent Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, a representative known for securing his clients sizable bags. Teams that enter negotiations for his services this offseason do so at their own peril.

Christian Wood, Unrestricted

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Initially just a productive reserve, Christian Wood exploded as a starter late in the Detroit Pistons' lost 2019-20 season. He averaged 21.9 points and 9.4 rebounds with a 64.7 true shooting percentage in a dozen games with the first unit, numbers right in line with his career per-36 averages.

    That would seem to suggest that Wood has always had something close to this year's performance in him and that he could have broken out sooner if the opportunities had been there. It's possible the natural maturation process of aging into his mid-20s and the humbling experience of bouncing around the league (and nearly slipping out of it altogether) created a new, more reliable version of an obviously talented player.

    At 6'10", Wood can stretch the floor with his 38.6 percent three-point shooting (36.8 percent for his career) and attack closeouts off the dribble. His offensive skill level is undeniably high.

    Here come the buts...

    But can he play like this in an environment where the stakes are higher than they were with this year's Pistons—which would be, almost literally, any other environment?

    But does his inconsistent commitment to the defensive end mean Wood will give back almost everything he gains on offense?

    But are we sure the lack of focus and maturity that nearly cost him a career won't return when Wood's future is secure on a fat new contract? What happens now that Wood's back is no longer against the proverbial wall?

    Detroit will have competition to keep Wood; the Charlotte Hornets have money to spend and could see him as their starting center. That will drive the price up, potentially earning Wood a deal worth $12-15 million annually on the low end.

    Few free agents in this class will be paid amid so much uncertainty and based on such a small sample of stellar play. Then again, few have Wood's sky-high offensive potential.

Hassan Whiteside, Unrestricted

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    Hassan Whiteside has produced positive on-off differentials for his team in all but one year of his career, and his past includes league-leading averages in rebounds and blocks per game. Obviously, he has his uses.

    The issue with Whiteside's free agency is one of perspective.

    He just finished up the last season of a four-year, $98 million contract, collecting $27.1 million from the Portland Trail Blazers. The leaguewide devaluation of centers means he won't get anywhere near that number on his next deal, but with the anchoring effect in place, it'll be possible for some team to view acquiring him for half that annual value as a bargain.

    It won't be.

    Whiteside is as old-school as old-school centers come. His range is limited to the paint, but he scores with extreme efficiency down there. He defends the rim and hoards boards but can only be utilized in drop coverages against the pick-and-roll. As effective as Whiteside can be in a limited role, all of those descriptors belong to a backup in the modern NBA—which is exactly what Whiteside became for the Blazers when the more versatile Jusuf Nurkic returned from injury.

    A matchup-specific rotation option like Whiteside should warrant some mid-level-exception consideration, but there's a real danger of some team becoming enamored by his gaudy averages (career 11.7 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game) and paying him like a high-end starter.

Malik Beasley, Restricted

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    The Minnesota Timberwolves didn't acquire Malik Beasley as a rental, and his play in 14 post-trade games with the club indicates he's worth the long-term investment that's almost certainly coming in restricted free agency.

    That said, the concerns over low-leverage production with Bogdan Bogdanovic are even more pronounced here. Beasley shot the lights out for a Wolves team that, unlike the Kings, wasn't even good enough for an invitation to the bubble. The 23-year-old shooting guard, who turned down a three-year, $30 million extension from the Denver Nuggets in 2019, is in line to get paid as if his small-sample production is fully sustainable.

    Maybe it is. Beasley had never matched the 42.6 percent he shot on a higher-volume diet of threes with the Wolves, but he was at 40.2 percent in 2018-19. Even if the shooting is real, Minnesota still has to be worried about Beasley's lack of defensive impact. He plays D without force, and his block and steal rates, low throughout his career, were even less impressive with the Wolves.

    Since becoming a rotation player in 2018-19, Beasley's teams have unsurprisingly defended better with him off the floor.

    If the defense never comes around, Beasley simply isn't a starting-level player on a good team—which, in theory, is something Minnesota would like to be. That leaves open the possibility that Beasley could add value as a scoring spark off the bench a la Terrence Ross of the Orlando Magic. But Ross is a tad overpaid at four years and $54 million. Beasley seems likely to get significantly more than that.

    His youth allows for potential improvement, so Minnesota might be just fine investing $16-18 million per year in Beasley. If he reaches passable levels on D and continues to shoot it like he did down the stretch, a pay rate in that range might actually be a bargain. But we're talking about risk here, and Beasley, unproven in many respects, comes with plenty.

           

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Salary info via Basketball Insiders.