The Contract Every NBA Team Wishes Could Disappear
It's almost as if that spendthrift summer of 2016 scared the NBA straight.
For many teams, it's almost impossible to find deals so bad they'd want them erased from existence. Caution has reduced the frequency of catastrophic contracts, but it hasn't eliminated them entirely.
Key among the parameters here: With one loophole exception, we're going to shy away from rookie deals. No matter how bad those might seem, they're almost always cheap, inherently laden with upside and defined by extreme team control.
In addition, we have to consider a player's health, which will sometimes seem cruel. Coldly, injuries can and do prevent talent from contributing at full capacity. We have to treat those situations honestly.
In order to come up with a contract bad enough for every team, we also had to consider players currently collecting checks while not technically playing for the organization writing them. If the idea here is to isolate the least team-friendly contracts out there, we have no choice but to consider the ones that were so bad that teams literally paid money to put them out of sight and out of mind.
Finally, an overarching message: Get yours, players. We can never emphasize enough that a player's inclusion here isn't a personal knock. If a guy is overpaid, he (and his agent) succeeded. We should all hope to earn more than we're worth.
This exercise operates exclusively from the team's perspective, where the goal is to sign players for far less than they deserve.
Atlanta Hawks: Dewayne Dedmon
We can't bust out the "N/A" move just yet (that's coming later), even if the Atlanta Hawks don't have an obviously damaging contract on their books.
Instead, we'll go with Dewayne Dedmons's deal, which extends two more years, with 2021-22 being nonguaranteed.
Dedmon shot 38.2 percent from deep in 2018-19 with the Hawks but completely lost his stroke and game last year after signing his current contract in free agency with the Sacramento Kings. A midyear trade back to Atlanta (weird, right?) didn't help him rediscover his form. He finished 2019-20 with averages of 5.8 points and 5.7 rebounds on 20.6 percent shooting beyond the arc.
The Hawks swung a deal for Clint Capela, which means Dedmon is a backup now—possibly a third-stringer if John Collins eats up more minutes at the 5. While $13.3 million isn't a massive figure, and though Dedmon's nonguarantee for the same amount in 2021-22 means he's basically on an expiring contract, we're still going with him here.
If anything, that speaks to the Hawks' clean cap sheets.
Boston Celtics: Kemba Walker
Kemba Walker's value to the Boston Celtics extends beyond his on-court production. He got his four-year max at least in part because he's a high-character professional who might average more smiles per minute than anyone else in the league.
That's not to say Boston inked him solely because he's a good dude. The Celtics also wanted a pick-and-roll maestro who could pull help defenders toward him, thus freeing up opportunities for his teammates. Walker delivered on all accounts during the regular season, posting a career-best 57.5 true shooting percentage and coming close to the per-36 scoring and assist rates he registered over the previous three years.
He was, however, prone to hot and cold stretches—caused mostly by a sore left knee. That injury seemed to linger through the layoff and affected him in the bubble. Celtics president Danny Ainge verified what we all saw, saying Walker was "definitely not himself" during the playoffs.
Walker is 30. That's a critical milestone for any NBA player, a signal that the downside is coming. Small guards tend to age worse than most, so we can't just write off Walker's knee issue as a blip. It might be a sign of decline.
Boston is on the hook for three more years and $108 million, assuming Walker opts in for the 2022-23 season, which seems likely. Thirty-three-year-olds don't tend to leave over $37 million on the table in search of longer-term deals.
Pain is coming toward the end of Walker's contract. And with Jayson Tatum proving he can be a No. 1 option on the ball this season, Walker's contributions on offense matter less than the Celtics might have envisioned. The playoffs showed Walker is already a target on the other end, which further devalues what he brings.
Walker is a very good player, and he's a zero-maintenance locker-room presence who helps morale. But if Boston had to do it over again, it probably wouldn't throw the full max at him.
Brooklyn Nets: Kyrie Irving
We have to pretend that if Kyrie Irving weren't on the Brooklyn Nets, Kevin Durant still would be. That requires suspension of disbelief, as the two seem to have been a package deal (throw DeAndre Jordan in there, too).
If we accept that premise, Irving's contract is the one Brooklyn should regret most.
The six-time All-Star's age-27 season included just 20 games before shoulder surgery ended it in February, and he missed an average of 19 games in the four preceding years. There is little reason to expect Irving's availability and health will improve as he ages, especially considering the various operations (hand, multiple knee surgeries and now the shoulder).
Add to that his history of mercurial leadership, resistance to playing defense and the Boston Celtics' undeniable improvement without him, and it's difficult to justify paying him $104 million over the next three seasons.
Durant is older and coming off a torn Achilles, but he's proved himself capable of being the best player on a title team. Irving has never done that, and he's been less healthy and less conducive to good team vibes throughout his career. If there's unrest in Brooklyn next season, and if Irving divides his third career locker room, you can bet the Nets will wish they had a do-over on his deal.
Charlotte Hornets: Nicolas Batum
Nicolas Batum only has one year and $27 million left on the massive contract he signed in 2016, which means the Charlotte Hornets are nearly out from under one of the worst financial decisions in franchise history.
Batum was overpaid but objectively productive in 2016-17, the first season of his five-year, $120 million deal, averaging 15.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.9 assists while contributing versatile defense on the wing. It's been all downhill from there, with Batum steadily declining and managing just 3.6 points in 22 games during the 2019-20 season.
The Hornets are one of the few teams with cap space this offseason, but they'd have more than anyone else if Batum's salary weren't on the books. And while the 2020 crop of free agents doesn't warrant major spending, Charlotte's investment in Batum has carried a hefty opportunity cost every offseason since 2016. In addition to offering substandard play, Batum has also limited the Hornets' ability to pursue other (better) options.
Fortunately for Charlotte, this ugly deal will disappear after the 2020-21 season.
Chicago Bulls: Cristiano Felicio
The Chicago Bulls are actually in pretty solid financial standing. Mid-tier deals for Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky, which might be mild overpays, are effectively expiring deals in 2020-21, as the Bulls wisely put nonguarantees on the 2021-22 season for both veterans.
Those contracts are prime salary filler in a potential trade.
Otto Porter Jr.'s $28 million player option also catches the eye, but he'll be off the books in a year and may, if healthy, be a productive starter until then. Zach LaVine's counting stats overrate him, but he's a fine investment at $19.5 million per season through 2021-22.
That leaves Cristiano Felicio's modest $7.5 million salary. Yes, it expires after next season. And yes, $7.5 million is an inconsequential amount in the grand scheme of things. But Felicio's contract was truly inexplicable from the moment he signed it in 2017, and it will always be a mystery why Chicago saw fit to commit $32 million over four years to a forward who'd just averaged 4.8 points and 4.7 rebounds with no defense and no stretch to his game.
Charitably, Felicio's production was that of a minimum-salaried player during the first three years of his deal. With little indication 2020-21 will be any different, the Bulls will have essentially set $32 million on fire by the time this contract expires.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Kevin Love
It's hard to imagine anyone accepting a contract faster than Kevin Love did in 2018, when, at age 29, he locked down four years and $120 million. That was on top of the $24 million he already had coming his way for the 2018-19 season.
That extension was fully guaranteed and featured no team options—just a straight $120 million locked in for the decline phase of a No. 2 scorer's career, spent somewhat desperately by a team that had recently lost LeBron James for a second time.
Cleveland's irrationality then is the main reason it isn't competitive now and has little chance of changing that in the immediate future. Love's deal is a negative asset—one the Cavs could only move by attaching young players or picks. That's not ideal for a team that needs young players and picks more than anything else.
This is a great example of the way a contract can change how a player is perceived. Love is a steady scorer who can stretch the floor at the forward spot and add intriguing dimensions to an offense with his excellent passing. Yet that contract is the first point of discussion in any analysis of Love or the Cavs' roster.
If Love were making $15 million per season, he'd be on every contender's shortlist of trade targets. But he's not, and is instead one of the toughest players in the league to move.
Dallas Mavericks: Dwight Powell
This will seem cruel because Dwight Powell went down with a torn Achilles in January, but there are reasons beyond his health that make his contract the pick here.
Powell is an ace roll man whose scoring efficiency on such plays ranked in the 87th percentile this past season. In 2018-19, he was in the 91st percentile. Perhaps most informatively, he was in the 96th percentile in 2017-18, which proves his success wasn't a product of Luka Doncic's pinpoint setups.
That's essentially Powell's only top-flight skill, though. And because the Dallas Mavericks should always be pushing for more minutes with Kristaps Porzingis at center, Powell's role upon returning ought to be confined exclusively to the second unit.
If his health weren't a question mark, you could justify paying a useful backup $11 million per season through 2022-23. But we can't pretend an Achilles rupture is a sprained ankle. Particularly for players who depend on athleticism, which Powell does as a high-rising lob threat, a torn Achilles is a big deal.
By no means a cap-crippler, Powell's deal projects to return very little bang for the buck over the next three seasons. On the bright side, his placement here shows how little bad money Dallas has invested in recent years.
Denver Nuggets: Gary Harris
It's telling that when the Denver Nuggets fell short in games during their sterling 2020 postseason run, it was obvious that the type of player they needed most was Gary Harris.
Actually, they needed the version of Harris who signed a four-year, $84 million contract in 2017.
That player responded to his new deal by averaging 17.5 points per game, shooting 39.6 percent from deep, playing some of the better wing defense in the league and establishing a read-and-react cutting mind-meld with Nikola Jokic.
Injuries seem to have reduced Harris to a shadow of the 2017-18 player who made his extension look like a bargain. Over the past two seasons, Harris has missed 51 games, hasn't cracked 34.0 percent from deep, watched Jamal Murray rocket past him in the team hierarchy and struggled to find his past defensive form.
Now, with Michael Porter Jr. ascending and likely further reducing Harris' importance, the Nuggets are stuck paying a guaranteed $39.6 million to a fringe starter over the next two years.
Detroit Pistons: Blake Griffin
A free-agency acquisition could change this, but at the moment, Tony Snell projects to be the Detroit Pistons' second-highest-paid player in 2020-21 (if he picks up his player option). The $12 million he'll collect next year is less than a third of what Blake Griffin will cost.
So...this one's pretty clear.
Griffin was an All-Star as recently as 2018-19, and he deserves praise for the rare mid-career evolution from nuclear athlete to skill-based technician (with a dash of bully ball sprinkled in). But other than that last All-Star season, Griffin missed at least 15 contests every year since 2013-14. Injuries and surgeries have piled up in that span, to the point that it's probably not realistic to expect Griffin to stay healthy or play like his old self for anything close to a full season.
The Pistons are shoving aside talk of a rebuild, which isn't the worst PR move for a franchise that hasn't won a playoff game in a dozen years. You don't want to signal to an already disaffected fanbase there won't be much reason to care about the upcoming season months before it starts.
Better to let their disinterest develop naturally...
But the other rationale for Detroit's plans isn't discussed enough. Griffin's presence, and that of his contract, make a true rebuild impossible. He's owed just under $76 million over the next two years, assuming he picks up his 2021-22 player option.
Until that contract is gone, the Pistons are stuck.
Golden State Warriors: Andrew Wiggins
Even if it's only a means to an end—a matching salary the Golden State Warriors hope to package with draft picks to trade for another star—Andrew Wiggins' contract is still among the worst values in the NBA.
The 25-year-old has yet to post a positive box plus/minus over the course of a full season, and of the 45 players to attempt at least 5,000 field goals since 2014-15, his 52.2 true shooting percentage is the lowest in the league.
The five-year, $148 million extension Wiggins signed just prior to the 2017-18 season once had theoretical upside. There was still a slim chance Wiggins, the then-22-year-old former No. 1 pick, could master his obvious physical tools and become a superstar. But that never happened, and the 6'7" wing produced two-and-a-half empty-calorie seasons before the Warriors acquired him and a future first-rounder for D'Angelo Russell, a player they seemed destined to offload from the moment he came over in the sign-and-trade exchange for Kevin Durant.
Wiggins is now a third option on a potential contender, and there's some renewed hope he might thrive as a role player on a winner. Even if Wiggins suddenly embraces defense, plays with intensity for more than a handful of minutes at a time and settles in as a high-end support piece with the Warriors, he'll still be catastrophically overpaid at $94.7 million over the next three seasons.
That's just not role-player money. Not even close.
Houston Rockets: Russell Westbrook
It's not a great sign when the player that cost you Chris Paul, two first-round picks and two more sets of swap rights on additional first-round picks is the one playoff opponents actively dare to shoot.
Russell Westbrook found some success this past season with the Rockets, but only after the team completely scrapped conventional centers so he'd be the lone nonthreatening shooter on the floor. Though diminished, the 31-year-old's athleticism was still sufficient enough to make him an effective attacker against scrambled defenses on a spaced floor.
A player with Westbrook's contract shouldn't require roster overhauls, extreme stylistic tweaks and careful scheming to be effective as a secondary scorer. That's just backward. A contract like his should belong to someone who forces the opponent to make concessions.
Westbrook, despite glaring limitations like his 25.8 percent hit rate from deep, failure to consistently defend and an alarming lack of passing feel in the playoffs, was still a cosmetically productive player this past year. But his 27.2 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists can't hide the lowest value over replacement player (VORP) figure since his rookie season.
Games based on athleticism don't age well, and Westbrook may depend more on his speed and bounce than any player in the league. The Rockets are on the hook for three more years and $132 million, and they're not getting those four first-round assets back.
Indiana Pacers: Jeremy Lamb
The Indiana Pacers have always been careful spenders, so their roster doesn't currently have any players with salaries wildly out of step with production.
Malcolm Brogdon might seem a little costly with three years and $65 million left on his deal, but he's in his prime at 27 and would net positive value in trade. Victor Oladipo's health is a concern, but he's on an expiring contract. If Indy decides to deal the two-time All-Star rather than extend him, he'll net at least a quality player and a first-round pick in return.
Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis, TJ Warren—all properly or, in Warren's case, significantly undercompensated.
The absolute closest we can come to a "wish it would disappear" contract belongs to Jeremy Lamb, and that's only because a torn ACL last February puts his future productivity in doubt. That said, he's only due $10.5 million in each of the next two seasons. If healthy, Lamb has shown he's worth much more than that.
Los Angeles Clippers: Patrick Beverley
It's too hot of a take to say Kawhi Leonard or Paul George figure into this discussion. Even if a team's catastrophic postseason failure should rest mainly on the shoulders of its best players, those two aren't options here.
Those two do, however, have player options for 2021-22, which should nudge the Los Angeles Clippers to do what they can to make smart financial decisions elsewhere. They could start with Patrick Beverley.
Beverley's performative intensity overstates his defensive impact. Kent Bazemore was the only guard who logged at least 1,300 minutes with a higher foul rate than Beverley in 2019-20, which is part of the reason the starting point guard only averaged 26.3 minutes per game. The other: Beverley's substandard facilitation and playmaking.
With only $27.6 million coming to him over the next two seasons, Beverley is making low-end starter money. But he doesn't address L.A.'s key needs and just proved he couldn't help in the postseason by averaging 6.3 points and 3.9 fouls in 20.8 minutes per game.
Los Angeles Lakers: Luol Deng
We get a nice, clean cop-out here, as Luol Deng's salary is still being paid by the Los Angeles Lakers.
They came as close as they could to making Deng's money disappear by using the stretch provision, but it's still there.
We're duty-bound to remind everyone what a ridiculous decision it was to lavish a four-year, $72 million contract on Deng in that fateful summer of 2016. In 2016-17, Deng played 56 games and scored just 7.6 points per contest on 38.7 percent shooting from the field. He logged a grand total of 13 minutes in 2017-18.
Deng's Lakers tenure concluded with a buyout in September 2018, halfway through the original agreement. Per the terms of that move, Deng is getting $5 million a year from L.A. through the 2021-22 season.
The Athletic's John Hollinger recently lamented the class divide in the NBA that forces small-market teams to operate perfectly, while "a glamour franchise can screw up damn near everything and still basically come out of it OK."
Deng (and to an even greater extent, Timofey Mozgov, whom L.A. also signed to a four-year, $64 million contract in 2016) is a perfect illustration of his point.
Memphis Grizzlies: Dion Waiters
Another waiver salary bails us out here, as the Memphis Grizzlies are short on bad money beyond the $12.6 million they owe Dion Waiters in 2020-21.
Waiters was part of the cost of doing business, with his essentially dead salary the burden Memphis had to bear in order to complete its trade for Justise Winslow. Waiters was suspended three times with the Miami Heat prior to his Memphis arrival.
He was never going to play for the Grizzlies, so at least they knew they were signing up to burn $12.6 million when they added him. That doesn't take all the sting out of spending rotation-player money on an empty roster spot, but it helps a little.
Things turned out fine for Waiters, as he joined LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers.
Miami Heat: Ryan Anderson
Few teams have been more deliberate in their efforts to preserve 2021 cap space than the Miami Heat, whose only significant non-rookie-scale commitment for the 2021-22 season is Jimmy Butler's $36 million salary.
The only fully dead money on Miami's books is actually related to Butler's contract. The Heat had to waive and stretch Ryan Anderson's salary in the 2019 offseason so they could complete the sign-and-trade with the Philadelphia 76ers that brought Butler into the fold. Considering how valuable Butler was to the franchise in his first season, the Heat would gladly cut bait with Anderson and accept paying him $5.2 million in 2020-21 and 2021-22 again.
That said, Miami just doesn't have any contracts providing less value than Anderson's.
Kelly Olynyk has a $13 million player option for 2020-21, and Andre Iguodala's $15 million salary is fully guaranteed. Both are rotation players making market-value money, with Iguodala being significantly more valuable than that, considering his big-game experience, unsurpassed basketball IQ and shockingly intact athleticism at age 36.
Anderson has to be the pick, even if $5.2 million in each of the next two seasons is small potatoes. Credit the Heat for running such a tight ship.
Milwaukee Bucks: Eric Bledsoe
A team's financial situation doesn't exist in a vacuum.
Example: The Milwaukee Bucks are in the tricky spot of not only contending for a title but also having to actively prove to Giannis Antetokounmpo that they're willing to spend whatever it takes to retain that status. They can't pinch pennies.
This is why 29-year-old Khris Middleton's deal, which will pay him $146 million over the next four seasons, isn't the one Milwaukee would erase from existence if given the choice. The Bucks need that contract—both to keep Antetokounmpo's best teammate in the fold and also to signal to the two-time MVP something along the lines of "See? We're serious about this."
Middleton's contract will be painful toward the end, but it's a pain the Bucks have to embrace.
That leaves Eric Bledsoe, whose salary in each of the next three seasons will be right around half of Middleton's. The overall hit to the cap (three years, $54 million with the 2022-23 season nonguaranteed) isn't as severe, but Bledsoe has now twice proved himself incapable of being a positive contributor in postseason play.
When you also consider that Milwaukee essentially opted to extend Bledsoe during the 2018-19 season instead of retain Malcolm Brogdon in restricted free agency, his salary hurts just a little more.
Minnesota Timberwolves: James Johnson
It's highly unlikely D'Angelo Russell's production over the remaining three years of his current contract will justify its $90 million cap hit.
The 24-year-old point guard has only proved he's a floor-raiser to this point in his career, capable of providing high-volume, low-efficiency scoring for a team hovering around .500. His dreadful defense and extreme reliance on the pick-and-roll game are the kinds of limitations you don't expect to find in a player averaging $30 million per year in salary through 2022-23.
BUT! Russell is a favorite of franchise pillar Karl-Anthony Towns. As such, he has value to the Minnesota Timberwolves beyond his work on the floor.
That leaves James Johnson as the only eight-figure salary on the ledger for 2020-21, and even his contract could prove useful. Assuming the veteran forward opts in for $16 million, he could be a desirable expiring salary in a trade. The Wolves could attach a pick and potentially get back a younger rotation player on a longer deal.
Wolves president Gersson Rosas completely turned over the roster in a little more than a year on the job. It remains to be seen if his moves will help Minnesota establish its first consistent winner since Kevin Garnett led the way in the early 2000s, but he's already stripped virtually every bad dollar from the team's cap sheet.
That's a start.
New Orleans Pelicans: N/A
The New Orleans Pelicans have their problems, just like every other NBA team.
Zion Williamson's long-term health and conditioning are concerns, and the Pels face a "go for it now, or build gradually?" conundrum by virtue of having a mostly young roster...but also relatively costly veterans in Jrue Holiday and JJ Redick.
Bad contracts, though? The Pels just don't have those.
Holiday makes more than anyone on the team, with $26 million coming next year and a player option for $27 million in 2021-22. But he's a two-way star, a universally respected defender (at least among his peers) and a positive locker-room presence. He's worth keeping at his current price, but he'd surely return value in trade. By definition, that's money well spent.
Redick's $13 million is a bargain, considering the experience and spacing he brings to the offense. And that contract expires after 2020-21.
Everyone else on the roster is on a rookie deal, has a nonguarantee for 2020-21 or is due to make less than $5 million per season going forward.
If you can find the contract New Orleans would want to eliminate, good on you.
New York Knicks: Bobby Portis
The New York Knicks are in a rare position. They don't have to wish their worst contract would disappear; they can actually make it happen.
Bobby Portis' $15.7 million salary in 2020-21 will only hit his wallet if the Knicks pick up their team option.
Portis' deal is similar to several others the Knicks handed out in the summer of 2019, in that the team has control over its duration. Though the contracts for Taj Gibson, Elfrid Payton, Wayne Ellington and Reggie Bullock have nonguarantees for 2020-21, the effect is the same. New York can clear heaps of cash by letting the guarantee dates pass without taking action or, in Portis' case, deciding not to exercise its option.
Julius Randle's deal is the only fully guaranteed 2020-21 salary that exceeds $10 million. He was a candidate for this spot, but he's only 25 and averaged 19.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists for the Knicks this past season. He also has a $19.8 million nonguaranteed salary for 2021-22, which effectively means he's on an expiring deal. Randle isn't much of a defender, and his lack of stretch is an issue. But he's a positive asset on his current deal.
Portis is also 25, but he only managed 10.1 points and 5.1 rebounds while playing some of the worst frontcourt defense in the league last year. Unlike Randle, he's not a good value at his salary.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Chris Paul
If Chris Paul's salary were a little less onerous (and if he were a few years younger), the Oklahoma City Thunder would either a) happily keep him around and continue on as a mid-tier playoff threat, or b) easily move him to a contender for a positive return.
It may still be the case that OKC can extract value, rather than surrender it, to get off Paul's contract, which will pay him $41.3 million in his age-35 season with a player option for $44.2 million the following year. But because there are so few teams with both a pressing win-now need and the ability to send back the kind of young asset-draft pick package the Thunder should be seeking, it's also possible Paul can't be dealt without sweeteners going along with him.
So, despite the fact that Paul is OKC's best player, and despite the fact that he was an All-Star and reliable clutch maestro in 2019-20, the Thunder might not be able to turn a profit by trading him.
Not to be overlooked, Oklahoma City is so flush with future picks from its trades of Paul George and Russell Westbrook that its need for draft capital is far less than most teams'. You can never really have too many first-round picks, but the Thunder are about as close to testing that theory as any team has been in a long time.
Paul is a great player who continues to age well. But the Thunder are quickly moving past the stage where his cost and on-court contributions square with their long-term direction.
Orlando Magic: Nikola Vucevic
We haven't gone to it yet, but one of the best questions to ask when scouring a roster for its worst contract is, "Which of these would be hardest to trade?"
For the Orlando Magic, that honor clearly goes to Nikola Vucevic. Though he's the Magic's most consistently productive player—one who followed up a terrific All-Star 2018-19 season with averages of 19.6 points, 10.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists in 2019-20—Vooch makes a little too much money and plays the wrong position to be easily movable.
The 6'11" center is undeniably skilled on offense. He has a deft touch inside and has now offered passable accuracy on relatively high volume from deep in each of the last two seasons. He's also been in the 94th percentile or higher in assist rate among bigs every year since 2017-18. Other than an inability to get to the foul line, Vucevic's offensive game is among the most complete in the league.
That said, centers who can't singlehandedly transform a defense with rim protection, the ability to switch or both simply aren't worth what they used to be. Vucevic's salary declines from $26 million next year to $24 million the year after, and will dip to $22 million in 2022-23. So his isn't a completely cap-crushing deal. And there's something to be said for a player who can raise a team's floor and keep playoff hopes alive.
Let's circle back, though. Vucevic's contract is harder to move than Aaron Gordon's—both because two-way forwards are more portable than centers, and because Gordon's deal is a year shorter and pays him about $8 million less per season. Terrence Ross is properly paid at an average of $12.5 million over the next three seasons, and Evan Fournier will be on the last year of his contract in 2020-21 if he picks up his $17.1 million option.
Orlando could easily move all three of those players for a good return. It's harder to imagine that with Vucevic.
Philadelphia 76ers: Tobias Harris
Thirty-eight players averaged at least 19.0 points per game in 2019-20, and Tobias Harris' 55.6 true shooting percentage ranked 36th among them.
There's nothing easier to find than cheap scoring, especially if you're not concerned about efficiency. That's why the remaining four seasons on the five-year, $180 million contract Harris signed last offseason are so brutal. The Philadelphia 76ers are paying through the nose for something they could have found at a fraction of the cost.
The Utah Jazz signed Bojan Bogdanovic for four years and $73 million the same day Philly inked Harris to a contract with more than twice as much guaranteed money. The Indiana Pacers got a draft pick for taking on TJ Warren's contract from the Phoenix Suns, which will pay him just $11.7 million in 2020-21 and $12.6 million in 2021-22. Both players are in that 38-man group that averaged at least 19.0 points per game last year, and both crushed Harris in the true shooting department.
The Sixers aren't short on bad deals. Al Horford's is no peach, either. But Philly should feel the most regret over inking Harris to such an enormous deal when it knew his contributions could have been made by someone earning far, far less money.
Phoenix Suns: Deandre Ayton
Hear me out on this.
The Phoenix Suns only have three players set to make over $6 million on non-rookie-scale deals for 2020-21: Devin Booker, Ricky Rubio and Kelly Oubre Jr. Each of those guys will make money commensurate with his production, and all three would hypothetically net the Suns value in trade.
No bad deals there.
Deandre Ayton would also bring back a mint in assets if the Suns, for some reason, tried to move him. The second-year center showed immense growth on defense (he's solid there now after being awful as a rookie), and it's easy to envision how such a skilled and athletic big will work well in tandem with Booker going forward.
We have to contort this exercise to make Ayton's deal the contract Phoenix would like to erase, but couldn't we all agree the Suns would rather be paying a No. 1 pick's salary to Luka Doncic?
Of course we can.
Ayton is going to be really good, possibly a multi-time All-Star. But Doncic has MVPs in his future and is already a top-10 player at 21 years old. The Suns, and anyone else that had a shot at Doncic, made a mistake in the 2018 draft.
That's a roundabout way to justify choosing Ayton, but we got there.
Portland Trail Blazers: Andrew Nicholson
Some will clamor for CJ McCollum here, and it's fair to argue that the Portland Trail Blazers would benefit from devoting the $129 million they owe their second-best small guard over the next four years to other needs. McCollum is a brilliant shotmaker with one of the shiftiest handles and purest jumpers in the league, but Portland already has Damian Lillard entrenched, rightfully, as the team's engine.
There's a reason we can't go two weeks without wondering, just a little, whether the Blazers would be better served breaking up their backcourt pairing. It's the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis duo of the Western Conference—effective, but not the best division of resources from a roster-building perspective.
Fortunately for us but unfortunately for the Blazers, Andrew Nicholson is collecting $2.8 million per year through 2024. No team wants to spend money on a player who isn't on the roster, but that's what Portland is stuck doing after waiving and stretching Nicholson's contract back in 2017.
While $2.8 million may not sound like much in a league where the cap is over $100 million, it's still an expenditure with literally no return. Think of it as a wasted minimum roster spot every year for seven years. That's worse than paying a lot of money for a very good player who might not be an ideal fit.
Sacramento Kings: Buddy Hield
It's not a great look when the player you just signed to a four-year deal worth between $86 and $106 million, depending on incentives, manages to get benched and consider asking for a trade before said deal even kicks in.
That's the Buddy Hield story, and it's why the Sacramento Kings would strongly reconsider their investment if given the chance.
Hield is among the league's very best pure snipers, a career 41.1 percent crack shot from deep and the record-holder for most threes made in the first four years of a player's career. But he's a low-end athlete by NBA standards, can't handle the ball, only sporadically defends and is now (rightly or wrongly) stuck with a "malcontent" label.
The Athletic's Jason Jones noted that Hield also didn't always see eye to eye with former Kings coach Dave Joerger and that he's now not returning current head coach Luke Walton's calls. It's not hard to find the common denominator in that separate set of sour relationships.
Hield's extension starts in 2020-21, when he'll already be 28.
San Antonio Spurs: DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge
Plenty of NBA teams finished the 2019-20 season with multiple players making at least $25 million, but only three had two such players all year and still missed the playoffs.
The Washington Wizards got zero games from one of their two costly investments, John Wall, while the Golden State Warriors got five games from Stephen Curry and none from Klay Thompson. Those two organizations have excuses.
The San Antonio Spurs are a different story.
They paid DeMar DeRozan $27.7 million and LaMarcus Aldridge $26 million last season and saw their 22-season playoff streak end anyway. In 2020-21, assuming DeRozan opts in, the Spurs will owe another $27.7 million to the veteran guard, while Aldridge will only make $24 million in the final year of his contract.
Those deals will be expiring. The pain they induce will be short-lived, the trade possibilities strong. But the Spurs would be better off if neither player's money was jamming up their flexibility—even if it upped the odds of the organization missing the postseason for a second straight year.
Teams that spend big on talent expect that talent to deliver. San Antonio's didn't
Toronto Raptors: Stanley Johnson
It says a lot for the Toronto Raptors' money management that Stanley Johnson's expiring $3.8 million deal, technically a player option in 2020-21, is the one they'd like to get rid of. But you don't win a title and then back it up with an almost equally inspiring playoff run by wasting resources.
Johnson's contract hard-capped the Raptors last season, which is strike one. They may not have known just how close to serious contention they'd be without Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, or that they might have needed one more rotation piece to elevate that status, but Johnson's deal was a hindrance.
And now, Johnson is the rare end-of-bench player with the power to say to his team, "Yep, you're stuck paying me again."
The downside risk with a player option always resides with the team, which is why it's so unusual for a non-star to get one written into his contract. Organizations usually don't have to make that concession to players who score a grand total of 60 points in 150 minutes, Johnson's contributions in 2019-20.
Part of the reason Johnson lands here has nothing to do with him. Toronto just doesn't have many commitments going forward. Kyle Lowry is entering the last year of his contract, and at $30 million, he'll either offer the same brilliant, gritty play he's given the Raptors for years, or he'll instantly infuse whichever team acquires him in trade with those valuable characteristics. That deal is still an asset, as is every other one on Toronto's ledger.
Except for Johnson's.
Utah Jazz: Mike Conley
It feels a little too cute to peg the contract Rudy Gobert might sign as the one the Utah Jazz should want off their books. Nobody's sure quite how much of the available supermax extension the two-time DPOY will get this offseason—if he extends at all. But anything approaching the high end (around $250 million over five years) would be a disaster for the Jazz.
Down around $100-120 million over four years? That's easier to justify.
We don't have to speculate about Gobert, though, because Mike Conley's $34.5 million salary is the easy winner. Via one of the league's only ETOs—basically a player option but one where the player has to actively opt out rather than in—the veteran is set to be the fifth-highest-paid point guard in the league next season, trailing only Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and John Wall.
Conley is a high-character leader and performed better in the bubble than he did during the earlier part of his difficult first season in Utah. But he's nowhere near All-Star-caliber at this stage of his career and isn't producing like a player making half of his projected 2020-21 salary.
Conley's deal expires after the upcoming season, which limits its impact to some degree. Still, that's a ton of money going to a player who has yet to justify it.
Washington Wizards: John Wall
Brass tacks: John Wall's deal is the worst in the NBA.
We don't even have to get into the concerns about a speed-dependent player aging poorly following an Achilles tear. And we can also leave aside worries about Wall's feel and conditioning (physically, he looks good) after missing NBA game action for nearly two full years, assuming a January 2021 start.
All we have to do is think about what the Wizards have already paid and what Wall would have to do to justify the four-year, $171 million extension that kicked in this past season. Already, the Washington Wizards have gotten nothing from that first year and $38.2 million in 2019-20 salary. That money is gone.
Keep your sunk-cost fallacy "well actually's" to yourself for a moment and understand that wasted season was, theoretically, the most likely chance for Wall to measure up to his salary. As he ages and his annual payments increase, peaking at $47.3 million in 2022-23, the odds Wall will provide dollar-to-production value decrease.
No contract is truly untradeable, but Wall's comes closer than anyone else's.