2020 NBA Free Agents Whose Value Sunk This Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 21, 2020

2020 NBA Free Agents Whose Value Sunk This Season

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    It's not a stretch to say that almost every NBA free agent's value took a hit this past season.

    COVID-19 didn't just put the year on pause; it also cut fans out of the equation, which diminished league revenue and injected uncertainty into financial projections. The NBA has yet to determine what the 2020-21 salary cap and luxury tax figures will be.

    Even before any of the pandemic-related complications, the prevailing wisdom suggested punting on the 2020 free-agent class. We knew well over a year ago that precious few teams would have cap space, that the 2020 class was short on superstars and that the 2021 class, in contrast, would be flush with them.

    Now everyone's purse strings are drawn even tighter.

    That said, a few free agents find themselves in worse shape than they otherwise would have been. Whether because of poor play, the ascent of teammates at the same position, the changing desires of a copycat league or other circumstances beyond their control, these guys will head into free agency with fewer options and less earning potential than expected.

Mike Conley, Early Termination Option

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Mike Conley was never going to produce at a level that justified the five-year, $153 million extension he signed with Memphis in 2016. But heading into the 2019-20 season, his first with the Utah Jazz, Conley had an outside shot at playing well enough to justify exercising his early termination option and hitting 2020 free agency in search of one last multiyear deal at age 33.

    Instead, Conley flopped in Utah. Throw out his 12-game season in 2017-18, and you could argue the veteran point guard's 2019-20 was his worst showing in a decade. Conley's box plus/minus was his lowest since 2010-11, and his player efficiency rating of 14.1 was his worst since his rookie season of 2007-08. Unable to find his stroke early and then sidelined by a hamstring injury for most of December, Conley never caught a rhythm with his new team.

    At least he recovered to average 18.0 points and 5.0 assists with a 59.6 true shooting percentage in six bubble games, but the damage to his earning potential was done.

    Under no circumstances was Conley going to do better than his $34.5 million salary in 2020-21 by terminating early, but a solid year would have given him the chance to opt out and secure a three-year deal worth something in the neighborhood of $70 million.

    Gordon Hayward and DeMar DeRozan, two others with similarly massive 2020-21 player options, had excellent seasons and will almost assuredly opt in. Maybe Conley can take solace in the fact that even a banner year might not have made terminating his deal a wise move.

    Still, Conley did himself no financial favors this past season.   

Montrezl Harrell, Unrestricted

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    You're probably wondering how Montrezl Harrell, the 2019-20 Sixth Man of the Year, could have possibly hurt his value ahead of unrestricted free agency.

    Ever heard of recency bias?

    Sure, Harrell was stellar coming off the bench for the Los Angeles Clippers all year. Had his season ended in March, maybe Harrell would be among the most sought-after frontcourt free agents in this year's class. His averages of 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game more than justified the hardware he took home.

    But the image most evaluators have in their minds features a very different version of Harrell, one who struggled to find his form upon rejoining the Clippers for the playoffs. The five-year veteran deserves slack for his poor play, considering he had to exit the bubble because of the death of his grandmother; the emotional toll of that experience should hold weight in the analysis.

    Should, but probably won't.

    Interested teams will remember Harrell looking a step slow and failing to help the postseason Clips on either end. L.A. had a minus-11.6 net rating with Harrell on the court during the playoffs. When he sat, that number leapt to plus-15.6. One of the main criticisms in the wake of the Clippers' postseason collapse was that Ivica Zubac should have played more than Harrell did. That, combined with the forever-diminishing value of non-stretch bigs, will only drive down Harrell's earning potential.

    If not for the playoff letdown, Harrell might have signed with one of the few teams with cap space at a starter's salary. The Charlotte Hornets, for example, could have been convinced Harrell was the answer in the middle and used most or all of their projected $19 million in room on him. In December, the thinking around the league was that Harrell was in line for as much as a four-year, $100 million contract—not a bad bump from the two-year, $12 million deal he signed in 2018 with the Clips.

    Now? Harrell seems most likely to re-sign in Los Angeles, and his projected annual salary is down in the $8 million-$12 million range, according to The Athletic's Jovan Buha.

    Most of this isn't Harrell's fault, but there's no denying the market has cooled on him.

Paul Millsap, Unrestricted

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Jerami Grant's emergence, particularly during the playoffs, may have done more than anything else to drive down Paul Millsap's value.

    Grant, just 26, seems assured of declining his $9.3 million player option and signing a larger, long-term deal to stick with the Denver Nuggets. That doesn't preclude the Nuggets from also retaining Millsap, 35, whom president of basketball operations Tim Connelly would like to see retire in Denver. But it will make it more difficult to justify spending on the veteran forward.

    Don't forget: Michael Porter Jr. also showed flashes of elite scoring punch in the bubble. He projects as a starter and, like Grant, is a more important part of the Nuggets' future than Millsap.

    The unsentimental move is obvious: Unless Millsap is willing to take on bench duties and accept a salary in line with that diminished role, Denver should let him walk.

    If that's how Millsap's free agency plays out, he can't expect more than the mid-level exception on the market. The New York Knicks, Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets and Detroit Pistons are the only organizations with significant cap space, and none of them should have interest in spending big on a player who's closer to 40 than 30.

    If Grant hadn't verified his three-point-shooting gains and defensive versatility, and if Porter Jr. hadn't ascended, Millsap might have had more negotiating leverage. His "hey, Nuggets, you guys still need me" case would have been stronger.

    Unfortunately, age-based regression and improvements by younger teammates conspired to leave Millsap without much of an argument that he's worth a major investment.

Hassan Whiteside, Unrestricted

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    You don't find many glaring mistakes in the Miami Heat's financial past, but signing Hassan Whiteside to a four-year, $98 million contract in 2016 was one of the outliers.

    Whiteside, a conventional "no stretch, no switch" center, played last season with the Portland Trail Blazers and, as he did throughout the life of his now-expired deal, put up numbers. The 31-year-old posted averages of 15.5 points, 13.5 rebounds and a league-best 2.9 blocks per game.

    Yet, when Jusuf Nurkic was ready to return in the bubble after nearly a year-and-a-half on the shelf, Whiteside was promptly banished to the bench.

    Nurkic's game is more diverse than Whiteside's, and the former's reinsertion into the starting unit—even after all that time off because of a leg injury, and even after Whiteside's productive year—is illustrative of why Whiteside won't come close to matching the $27 million he made in 2019-20.

    The broader devaluation of big men in the NBA has been well documented, and that hurts Whiteside as much as anything else. The market has spoken on players with his skill set. Unable to play anything but drop coverage in pick-and-roll defense, incapable of passing effectively as a roller on offense and only inconsistently energetic, Whiteside appears ticketed for a backup role on a good team—unless one of the few clubs with cap space mistakenly views him as a difference-making starter.

    Even in that far-fetched scenario, Whiteside will be lucky to sign a deal that pays him a third of his 2019-20 salary this offseason.

Dion Waiters, Unrestricted

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    Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press

    Dion Waiters is getting his money regardless, as the Memphis Grizzlies, who waived the shooting guard in February, will still pay him $12.6 million in 2020-21.

    That figure reflects Waiters' value in 2017, when the Heat signed him to a four-year, $52 million contract. Waiters was productive when available for the first two years of that agreement, but after his three suspensions early in the 2019-20 campaign, Miami realized it essentially had dead salary on its books.

    Waiters landed on his feet, signing with the Los Angeles Lakers after getting the boot from Memphis, and winning a title. But if he's in the league at all next year, it'll be on a minimum deal.

    At his best, Waiters can be a source of high-volume offense for teams that need a spark and some secondary playmaking. In 2016-17, the then-25-year-old averaged 15.8 points and 4.3 assists in 30.1 minutes per game, hitting 39.5 percent of his threes. Whether that version of Waiters still exists is up for debate; all we know for sure is we haven't seen it in a while.

    A player whose conditioning has fluctuated wildly during his career, Waiters might not be incentivized to ramp up his training this offseason. He's getting that $12.6 million from Memphis whether he signs a new deal or not.

    Even on a minimum salary, this is a buyer-beware situation. That's quite a dip in value from the 2019 offseason, when Waiters was in terrific shape and primed to deliver on his eight-figure annual salary.

                 

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