Tempting 2021 NBA Free Agents Most Teams Should Avoid
It's not fun picking on players. They deal with so much external pressure all the time, and many of them have talked about internalizing the criticisms embedded within articles like this one. It's important to always keep that context in mind when reading.
However, we also don't want teams to make mistakes in free agency that could screw up their future roster flexibility. None of the players listed here are in the midst of bad seasons per se, but whether it's situation, age, skill set, or a combination of the three, paying them more than they're worth could set a team's competitive aspirations back.
Tentatively, let's look at a few players whose impending free agencies might prove to be costly, both literally and figuratively, in the years to come.
At first glance, Lonzo Ball might not seem like a great fit here, as he was in the midst of a career-best stretch of play before missing time with a hip injury.
But there's a reason why Lonzo is just now putting it together. To quote Liam Neeson in Taken, he's got a very particular set of skills, and there are very few teams with both the personnel and savvy to utilize them correctly.
One important thing that the Pelicans seem to have realized about Lonzo is that while he is easily one of the most appealing passers in the league, mastery of avant-garde basketball does not guarantee success as a traditional ball-handler. However, New Orleans happens to also have Zion Williamson, and ever since he became the team's primary playmaker, Lonzo has been unleashed. It seems now that the 2017 second overall pick is best suited to being an off-ball agent of chaos, throwing creative passes and draining spot-up threes on offense while patrolling the passing lanes on defense.
He may not be the league-altering superstar many anticipated predraft, but this version of Lonzo is still incredibly fun.
As a restricted free agent, there's inherently some barrier to entry in trying to sign Lonzo this offseason, but given how well he's been playing, plenty of teams will likely have interest. However, these teams better be very certain of his fit, because if Lonzo is asked to be a standard point guard, he likely won't live up to expectations.
Despite a rough first impression, Evan Fournier seems to be settling into his ideal role with the Celtics. However, Boston is particularly well-suited to take advantage of Fournier's skill set, highlighting his strengths as a scorer while minimizing weaknesses thanks to the presence of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker.
Other franchises around the NBA without such pedigreed offensive talent might see Fournier's years of big counting stats with the Orlando Magic and contribution to a competitive Celtics team and then overpay him.
The Frenchman has more or less been the same player for the entirety of his career, though he's become a slightly more efficient scorer in recent years. He's averaged between 15.0 and 19.0 points per game, 2.6 and 3.2 rebounds per game and 2.7 and 3.6 assists per game in each of the last six seasons. Additionally, the 28-year-old has rarely been a notable contributor to winning basketball, as evidenced by the fact that he was never one of the Magic's top five on/off-split players during his tenure (a stat that feels particularly telling, considering the team never advanced past the first round with him on the roster).
Can Fournier ever contribute to winning? Sure. With better teammates around him in Boston, he's likely to rate more favorably in player impact stats. But don't expect to compete for anything significant with him as a main offensive engine.
Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported back in March that Kyle Lowry wants a two-year contract at a minimum of $25 million per year. Considering that he'll likely end up on a championship contender this offseason, that might be a worthy price. However, the six-time All Star is 35, and we should hedge against his decline.
From a counting stats perspective, Lowry has largely held steady this year. However, he is currently recording his worst two-point shooting mark in three years and, for the first time ever, the Toronto Raptors are worse when he's on the court.
Those might seem like coincidences, and we probably should take his performance this year with a grain of salt, given how badly Toronto has been affected by COVID-19. But Lowry has always been a candidate to age poorly. From his history of nagging injuries to being undersized to being the NBA's foremost charge-taker, when the Villanova alum starts to fall off, it will be noticeable.
For fans of teams like the Philadelphia 76ers or Miami Heat who are now worried about signing Lowry, a player to watch is Chris Paul. The Point God has been at risk of entering his post-prime for several years now, largely for the same reasons as Lowry. However, he's still as good as ever, helping the Oklahoma City Thunder overachieve last season and lifting the Phoenix Suns to the top tier of the Western Conference this year.
Lowry could very well follow in Paul's footsteps, but it's just sensible to be cautious when we're talking about contracts this large.
Let's hope that Malik Monk's surge is a sign of things to come. He himself recently said that he "started taking everything serious" during the Hornets' extra-long 2020 offseason, per Sam Perley of the Hornets' official site. But considering just how significant a leap Monk has made, it's fair to wonder whether this is his new baseline or merely a classic contract year performance.
Through Monk's first three seasons in the NBA, he recorded 39.5/32.2/85.0 shooting splits, resulting in a 47.8 effective field-goal percentage. In summary, he was not making shots, and considering that DraftExpress compared him to consummate bucket-getters like Lou Williams and Monta Ellis, such inefficiencies were a bad sign for Monk's future in the league.
However, we've seen a massive step forward this year. The Kentucky alum is now shooting 46.0 percent overall and 42.4 percent from three while recording seven games with at least 20 points (five of which came against current playoff teams). It's such a positive development that until we see Monk continue his hot shooting in the postseason or even just through the rest of this year, sustainability is a real question.
It's possible that Monk is right and is merely beginning to take his new job seriously enough for him to improve this much. A 5.6 on/off-court swing, which ranks third on the overachieving Hornets, is quite encouraging as well. But we'd prefer to take a wait-and-see approach with the restricted free agent this offseason.
If, for whatever reason, an executive is reading this and thinking about paying Dennis Schroder nine figures to become a franchise point guard, as he seems to be be looking for, here's a counterproposal: Don't do that.
The German has played on winning teams for most of his career, spending time with the mid-2010s Atlanta Hawks, the Paul George and Chris Paul-era Thunder and these current Los Angeles Lakers. However, that's largely because all of those clubs were able to relegate Schroder to secondary playmaking duty. Atlanta rostered prime Jeff Teague, Al Horford and Paul Millsap; Oklahoma City also had Russell Westbrook; and Los Angeles features LeBron James (and, notably, has a wretched offense without him).
Maybe Schroder has improved skill-wise and mentally in the ensuing years, but if that's not the case, then he's much better suited to being a sixth or seventh man on a great team.
If a team wants to pay Schroder $90 million over four years to be a secondary ball-handler to the likes of Luka Doncic or Jimmy Butler, go ahead. He'll probably succeed in that role as he has in years past. But if a team offers up that much money to give Schroder the keys to its offense, it might as well say goodbye to any dreams of contention for as long as he's in charge.