5 NBA Free Agents Most Likely to Be Overpaid This Offseason
Let's begin with a disclaimer: Few NBA free agents get overpaid. Price points are whatever the market dictates. Unless teams throw money at someone without real competition for his services, contracts are an accurate reflection of a player's value at that time.
This particular view of prospective overpays is more about identifying potential market overcorrections.
A handful of teams are slated for gobs of cap space, and a little more than one-third of the league can chisel out significant spending power. That money can then be spent on...mostly non-stars. A flurry of extensions eliminated the biggest initial draws, and of the scant few entrenched stars available, three seem overwhelmingly likely to stay put: Mike Conley, Kawhi Leonard (player option) and Chris Paul (player option).
Absent a notable number of A-listers, this year's cap space will go somewhere else. Maybe teams decide to enter next season with more flexibility than usual. Maybe the most cap-rich squads—Charlotte Hornets, Dallas Mavericks, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs—opt out of big spending. Maybe the most aggressive shoppers divvy up their cash among multiple parties.
All those scenarios will play out in some form. But max and near-max spending isn't stopping altogether. At least one team, and probably more, will be desperate enough to make a splash that it goes over the top for a non-star, offering a windfall that neither aligns with what he's done or what he might still do.
Players and their fans should not take this as an insult. If a free agent's price tag explodes, it speaks to his curb appeal. The player could be capitalizing on a career year, play a commoditized role or just profile as a top-shelf consolation prize for squads who were hoping to reel in bigger fish.
Either way, good for them. They have positioned themselves to negotiate outsized deals that span more than a year or two.
Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans
Though Lonzo Ball's future has remained a talking point all season, the tenor of these conversations has changed dramatically, going from "When will the New Orleans Pelicans trade him?" to "Will they actually move him?" to "Is he a max-contract candidate?"
The latter is ambitious but not unfounded. Since his name was first bandied about the rumor mill back in January, Lonzo is averaging 14.7 points and 6.2 assists while downing 39.8 percent of his threes on 8.2 attempts per game. The only players matching or exceeding his outside volume and efficiency over this span: Malik Beasley, Stephen Curry and Buddy Hield.
That is not max-money production in a vacuum. Whether it's worth a max-money dice roll is a separate matter.
Lonzo can get better. He's only 23. But he doesn't project as someone who can set up a half-court offense. He's not enough of a scoring threat to run pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll, and the results of his dribble penetration leave much to be desired. Among 147 players who have finished at least 200 drives, his 38.9 percent clip ranks 140th, and he has the third-lowest free-throw-attempt rate of anyone averaging at least 14 points per game.
Certain admirers might see a more complete scorer and playmaker. Others may think he's young enough to expand his horizons. Many big spenders will just want for alternatives, and if they're going to back up the Brink's truck for someone, it might as well be a 23-year-old with a fringe star's ceiling.
New Orleans will be on the hook for a massive commitment if teams subscribe to any of this logic. And that's part of the calculus, too. Rivals could be more willing to bust open the piggy bank for Lonzo because they assume the Pelicans have a breaking point.
It's a reasonable assumption. New Orleans already maxed out Brandon Ingram, gave Steven Adams a two-year extension, owes Eric Bledsoe $18.1 million in 2021-22 and also has Josh Hart entering restricted free agency.
Brushing up against the tax is not out of the question. Paying a combined $38 million for both—roughly the sum of their cap holds—would put the Pelicans right there depending on where their first-round pick lands. Investing so much in a core that, while intriguing, has yet to make the play-in tournament is awfully risky. New Orleans can always broker salary dumps, but the point stands: Its increasingly awkward position may invite ultra-aggressive offer sheets for Lonzo.
Potential Suitors to Watch: Memphis, New Orleans, New York
John Collins, Atlanta Hawks (Restricted)
John Collins essentially set a max contract target by turning down a $90-plus-million extension over the offseason. Collins is good, but a max deal will pay him more than $28 million in Year 1.
And he might get it.
His performance has something to do with it. He has developed into one of the league's most comprehensive frontcourt weapons, someone who stretches the floor, can finish downhill out of the pick-and-roll and who is comfortable putting the ball on the deck.
Just three other players are averaging at least 15 points per game on an effective field-goal percentage better than 60 over the past three seasons while appearing in as many games: Clint Capela, Rudy Gobert and Montrezl Harrell.
Bake in Collins' rebounding and improved defense—he is closing out well on shooters, quicker to pick up divers and busting up plays as the helper—and it won't take much for teams to talk themselves into giving him the bag.
A lackluster tippy top of the free-agent market only further emboldens those willing to spend. Let's assume Mike Conley, Kawhi Leonard and Chris Paul all stay put. The best available free agent is then who? Kyle Lowry? DeMar DeRozan? It could be Collins.
That title, however superficially inflated, ensures top-dollar offers on its own. The Atlanta Hawks' payroll does the same. They paid Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari last offseason, have Trae Young's extension to think about this summer, employ Capela (having a terrific season, by the way) and selected Onyeka Okongwu, another big man, at No. 6 in the 2020 draft. Atlanta's commitment to keeping Collins may be finite.
This is different from saying the Hawks will let him walk. They won't. They can't. Losing a 23-year-old fringe All-Star for nothing would be franchise malpractice. But rival suitors may sense a chance to poach Collins via sign-and-trade or just mess with Atlanta's big-picture cap sheet by tabbing him as a max player.
Potential Suitors to Watch: Atlanta, Charlotte, Miami
Josh Hart, New Orleans Pelicans (Restricted)
Josh Hart's market value is more ambiguous than fellow restricted free agents Lonzo Ball and John Collins.
No one is mistaking him for a star-in-waiting, so a max payday is out of the question. But teams pay through the teeth for three-and-D contributors who can handle heavy workloads. Hart typifies the latter.
At 6'5", Hart's defensive range transcends his size. New Orleans has used him to cover slots 1 through 4, and Lonzo is the only player on the team who has spent more time guarding No. 1 options, per Bball Index.
This body of work rings slightly hollow knowing the Pelicans rank 27th in points allowed per 100 possessions. That's not on Hart. Rebounding is the only overrated part of his defense. Just 26.8 percent of all his boards are considered contested, the third-lowest mark among everyone averaging at least eight per game.
Hart has more trouble holding up the "three" in three-and-D. His 32.6 percent clip from beyond the arc is a career low yet not a total outlier. He's putting down just 33.6 percent of his triples since 2018-19.
Shaky outside shooting will scare some teams away—or at least dissuade them from forking over a moon-sized offer sheet. But Hart can put real pressure on the rim, and plenty of suitors will see a career 34.8 percent success rate from behind the rainbow as eminently workable when paired with his defensive range.
Attempts to pry him out of New Orleans should be particularly swift and unforgiving if the Pelicans look like they're going to keep Lonzo. Matching a huge offer sheet for him makes doing the same for Hart prohibitive. The larger the overture, and the quicker it comes, the more likely New Orleans will be to let him walk—a window of opportunity that could convince interested parties to pony up $15 million per year for someone who, right now, is worth closer to $10 or $12 million.
Potential Suitors to Watch: Charlotte, New Orleans, Toronto
Norman Powell, Portland Trail Blazers
Norman Powell's career-year detonation couldn't possibly come at a better time. Not only is this a contract year, but he's also set to enter a market in which he will be somewhere between the sixth and 10th most coveted free agent.
League executives told ESPN's Zach Lowe they expect Powell to net somewhere around $20 million per year—nearly double what he's making this season.
Fronting that much for a non-star seems ludicrous, but Powell isn't leaving teams with much choice. Among the 39 players averaging more than 18 points per game, his 62.2 true shooting percentage ranks eighth. And his efficiency comes on a wholly scalable mix of shot-making: catch-and-fire threes, pull-up jumpers and rim pressure.
Account for the big picture, and Powell probably isn't someone you should be signing to a four-year, $80 million deal. This season isn't an outlier; it is eerily similar per minute to last year. But he turns 28 in May and, at 6'3", isn't big enough to tussle with full-sized wings and not enough of a playmaker to initiate the offense for extended stretches.
Impulsive decisions rule free agency, though. Powell's past two seasons will be fresh on everyone's minds, and 28-year-olds are hardly ancient. This next deal will take him through his prime. The contract only ages poorly if he's working on a season-long hot streak. (Possible!)
Offers could be even more hot and heavy if teams sense the Portland Trail Blazers are willing to pay whatever. They probably aren't, not when they have more than $70 million per year committed to Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Powell can sponge up plenty of reps at the 3—he's starting there now—but $90 million(ish) is a lot of money to have vested in three dudes under 6'4".
Then again, the Blazers did trade for Powell. That infers some level of intent. If it looks like they're prepared to pay somewhere between $18 and $22 million to keep him, it paves the way for a more desperate spender to go even higher.
Potential Suitors to Watch: Dallas, Miami, Portland
Duncan Robinson, Miami Heat (Restricted)
Some of last year's glitter has washed off Duncan Robinson. This is to say: He's "only" shooting 40.2 percent from long distance, down from 44.6 percent in 2019-20, on more than eight attempts per game.
Believe it or not, this won't preclude him from having a robust mark. Wild, I know. The level of difficulty on Robinson's threes is gargantuan. He is not binge-swishing standstill, ultra-open triples. He is firing treys off motion and doesn't need oodles of breathing room to let 'er rip.
Robinson's 66.8 effective field-goal percentage when coming around screens ranks second among all players who have attempted at least 50 shots in those situations. Pinballing around the floor is going to earn him serious cash. Just two other players (minimum five appearances) are averaging four made three-pointers per game while hitting them at a 40-plus-percent clip over the past two seasons: Davis Bertans and Stephen Curry.
Bertans' foray into 2020 free agency is a good proxy for what awaits Robinson. He bagged a five-year, $80 million deal. It's possible Robinson nabs an even higher average annual value. He is slightly younger, can defend some wings and boasts better vision both on the move and from standstill positions.
The Miami Heat's own free-agency ambitions only stand to drive up Robinson's price tag. They can chisel out more than $20 million in room if they renounce everyone except Robinson and Kendrick Nunn (restricted). They could also re-sign Victor Oladipo and function as an over-the-cap team.
Footing the bill for Robinson's next contract won't be a big deal if the Heat aren't trying to preserve flexibility. But the relative dearth of star power on the market might tempt them to prioritize 2022 cap space, in which case any multiyear offers, let alone one that pays him upward of $20 million per year, for Robinson become problematic.
Will Miami shell out whatever it takes to keep Robinson? Would the front office consider letting him walk without compensation? Is a Robinson sign-and-trade the Heat's most efficient path toward landing another star, be they a free agent (Kyle Lowry) or the next disgruntled guy under contract? Whatever happens, Robinson is about to get puh-aid.
Potential Suitors to Watch: Miami, New York, San Antonio