2021 NBA Free Agents Losing Money This Year

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 8, 2021

2021 NBA Free Agents Losing Money This Year

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    Derick Hingle/Associated Press

    The 2021 offseason was supposed to be loaded with high-end free agents, but several extensions thinned the field.

    That's not necessarily bad news for the players still set to hit the open market. Teams that thought they had shots to sign Giannis Antetokounmpo or Rudy Gobert, for example, will just spend that money on someone else. Cap space burns holes in teams' pockets, so windfalls are coming for free agents who might have otherwise been ticketed for the mid-level exception.

    That said, a handful of impending free agents picked the wrong time to have a down year.

    There's still time for these guys to rehabilitate their earning potential, but right now several players' work to date is driving their market rates down.

LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    LaMarcus Aldridge's 2021-22 salary was never going to touch the $24 million he's collecting this year, which isn't a surprise for a 35-year-old vet.

    Floor-spacing bigs are valuable, though, and it stood to reason that Aldridge would command something in the range of $12-15 million per season on a short-term deal. Now, in the midst of his least productive campaign since his rookie year of 2006-07, Aldridge might struggle to land a contract for the full mid-level exception.

    Though it's partly because he's lost mobility and is struggling worse than ever to convert at close range, at least Aldridge is finally firing away with real volume from deep. His 5.0 three-point attempts per-36 minutes are easily a career high. That means Aldridge could still have value as a spacing specialist, provided whichever team targets him has a robust defensive support system.

    Potential buyers will know all about the fact that the San Antonio Spurs have been worse with Aldridge on the floor in five of his six seasons with the team. That alarming trend, coupled with clearly diminished impacts on both ends, are conspiring to cost Aldridge serious cash.

    Good thing the seven-time All-Star has career earnings of over $195 million.

Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    I'm not giving up on Lonzo Ball. The improvements he made to his shooting form last season took real work, and his climb to 37.5 percent from long range in 2019-20 wasn't luck. He changed a core component of his game, and it paid off. That indicates humility and a willingness to attack weaknesses head-on.

    You can work with a player like that.

    Ball is shooting more threes, which is encouraging. But until a scorching 23-of-46 stretch from deep over his last six games, he was in a season-long slump. For much of the season's first month, he was converting treys at a sub-30-percent clip.

    Perhaps more troubling to potential suitors, Ball's assist and rebound rates are both at career-low levels. That's the opposite of the progress you'd hope for in a player's fourth season, and those declines are even bigger concerns for a player like Ball, who needs to contribute across several categories to make up for the fact that he's not a great on-ball scorer and isn't useful as a pick-and-roll initiator.

    The New Orleans Pelicans' failure to reach an extension agreement with the 2017 No. 2 overall pick is a sign they didn't view him as a no-questions-asked cornerstone. A trade seems increasingly likely.

    Ball is only 23, has a history of impacting the game on defense and possesses unteachable feel and passing instincts. He needs to showcase those gifts and sustain his recent hot streak.

    If he can't, Ball is in for a less lucrative payoff than most would have expected coming into the season.

Devonte' Graham, Charlotte Hornets

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    Devonte' Graham was one of last season's most pleasant surprises, as the 2018 second-rounder shook off a rough rookie season to average 18.2 points and 7.5 assists while proving himself as a major deep threat off the bounce.

    He didn't replace what the Charlotte Hornets lost when Kemba Walker departed in the 2019 offseason, but Graham's willingness to fire when defenders went under screens allowed him to do a shockingly good impression of one of the league's more dangerous pick-and-roll ball-handlers.

    This year, Graham has been less threatening from long range, but it feels reasonable to assume he can nudge his hit rate up a little closer to the 37.3 percent he shot last season. The real problem is his brutally inefficient scoring from two-point range.

    Graham owns the worst conversion rate in the league among players who've attempted at least as many shots inside the arc as he has.

    With LaMelo Ball looking like Charlotte's clear long-term floor leader, Graham's importance to the franchise has also diminished. The Hornets can match any offer sheet Graham signs in restricted free agency. If Graham had equaled or improved on last year's numbers, they might have worried about matching a contract worth up to $20 million per year.

    Now, the Hornets can anticipate offer sheets worth half that much.

Kelly Oubre Jr., Golden State Warriors

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Maybe the 40-burger Kelly Oubre Jr. hung on the Dallas Mavericks in Thursday's blowout win is the start of a turnaround. The high-energy 25-year-old wing had better hope so.

    If it's only a blip in what's been an otherwise horrendous season, Oubre is in line to lose serious cash.

    He creates chaos on defense, and even if he's a bit of a gambler who can lose focus off the ball, his ability to harass players at positions 1-4 is valuable. Quick, springy and gifted with a 7'2" wingspan and an aggressive mindset, Oubre has all the physical tools you'd want in a two-way wing.

    The problem: For most of his first season with the Golden State Warriors, he has been a one-way player.

    He's improved since, but over his first 15 games, he shot just 20.7 percent on 82 three-point attempts. That's the worst "first 15 games" accuracy rate to start a season we've ever seen. Add to that his tunnel vision and struggles to function in a read-and-react offense, and Oubre's shortcomings have been on full display this year.

    If the threes start falling at a league-average rate and Oubre gains comfort in the Dubs' system, all this could turn around. But we're a quarter of the way into a pivotal year for the soon-to-be free agent, and almost all of that sample indicates he's not going to command starter-level money.

    That would be a stunning development for a player who, just a couple of months ago, seemed to be on the rise at a premium position.

Josh Richardson, Dallas Mavericks

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    The fit was supposed to make more sense for Josh Richardson in Dallas. Moving from a role with the Philadelphia 76ers that never quite felt right to one with the Mavs—where his defense would shine and the playmaking burdens would ease—hasn't upped his earning potential.

    It's had the opposite effect.

    As with all matters related to the Mavericks, we have to note the impact of COVID-19, team-wide bad shooting luck and Luka Doncic's general dissatisfaction. Neither Richardson nor Dallas has had a chance to get their legs underneath them.

    Still, Richardson isn't exactly thriving in what could be a walk year. He's shooting 27.0 percent on catch-and-shoot threes, and his rebound and assist rates have never been lower. In 2018-19 with the Miami Heat, Richardson flashed solid shooting, elite defense and a burgeoning talent for secondary playmaking. He got a pass because of the fit in Philly, but now he is struggling in a much better situation.

    The 27-year-old will still almost certainly decline his $11.6 million player option. Had he returned to form with Dallas, a multiyear deal worth somewhere between $80-100 million would have been possible. Unless J-Rich finds his game, he'll have to knock a big chunk off that expected total.

           

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through games played Friday, Feb. 5. Salary info via Basketball Insiders.