Ranking the 10 Worst Signings of 2021 NBA Free Agency

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 11, 2021

Ranking the 10 Worst Signings of 2021 NBA Free Agency

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    The 2021 NBA offseason was never going to be remembered as the summer of free-agency regrets.

    Most teams lacked significant cap space. Some that had it were without the win-now motivations to spend it aggressively. The select few still ready to splurge largely recognized there wasn't a lot of splurge-worthy talent available.

    That being said, not everyone got it right.

    Some spent unnecessary premiums on salaries. Others let deals stretch deeper into the future than they should have.

    In the grand scheme, few may be remembered as bad signings. They aren't attached to bad players, and the fits are mostly fine.

    Objectively weighed against this summer's other spending, though, these deals don't quite seem as valuable as the others that were inked.

10. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns

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    Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    The Contract: Four years, $120 million

    This is where it's worth reiterating that we aren't talking about bad players or even necessarily bad decisions. The Suns had to come out of this offseason with a new pact for the Point God; the fanbase may have revolted without it.

    Paul's transformational touch helped Phoenix rise out of a decade-long playoff drought and into the NBA Finals. He coaxed significant, sustainable growth out of this young core and took the team to places beyond its wildest dreams.

    And yet, the sticker shock here is unavoidable—even if the Suns safeguarded themselves a bit with a partial guarantee on the third season and no guarantee on the fourth.

    Paul's 36th birthday came before the Finals run. He might turn 40 before this contract is up. He doesn't have a spotless health record either, having missed double-digit games in three of the past five seasons. Father Time could come for him at any moment—it seemed that might be happening in 2018-19 when he averaged just 15.6 points on 41.9 percent shooting—so the Suns will hope to reap as much value as possible before that happens.

9. Kyle Lowry, Miami Heat

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    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    The Contract: Three years, $85 million

    Let's get off to a jarring start, shall we?

    Some will be shocked to see Lowry listed here, as others will identify his sign-and-trade to South Beach as one of this summer's best moves. It should certainly rank among the most impactful, as his on-court ability and obvious #Culture fit—his tenacity is right up this team's alley, and he's a close friend of franchise face, Jimmy Butler—could put the Heat right on the cusp of championship contention.

    From a value perspective, though, this may not pass the smell test.

    This is a long, rich deal for anyone, let alone a 35-year-old who has topped 65 games once in the past five seasons and just posted his worst box plus/minus (and fewest win shares) in more than a decade. It's debatable if he's worth a near $30 million salary now and has virtually no chance of measuring up to his 2023-24 money.

8. Daniel Theis, Houston Rockets

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    The Contract: Four years, $36 million

    Something drew the Rockets to Theis. It's just tough to tell what that might have been.

    The contract is hard to decipher. Why four years? That kind of commitment might make sense if he had untapped potential, but he's a 29-year-old with four seasons of NBA work, so...nope. It also might work if Houston wanted to lock him into a role on a perennial playoff participant, but the Rockets just posted a .236 winning percentage. These are the early stages of a top-to-bottom rebuild.

    Maybe Houston sees some value in Theis being a temporary placeholder who can tutor the likes of Christian Wood, Alperen Sengun and Usman Garuba, but again, does that role take four years to execute? Some might argue Theis is tradeable at this rate, but for what kind of return? The Boston Celtics sent him out at the deadline for only Moritz Wagner and Luke Kornet—and Theis was on an expiring, $5 million salary.

    Theis is...fine. No, really, he logged 1,601 minutes this past season and delivered a perfectly average 15.0 player efficiency rating in them. Modern teams don't need to commit this kind of money or this many years to average bigs.

7. Zach Collins, San Antonio Spurs

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    The Contract: Three years, $22 million

    The Spurs just spent $22 million on the idea of Collins. Even in the wacky world of NBA economics, that's an overpay.

    Reality shows the 23-year-old already fighting to salvage his career, and it's been a losing battle each of the past two seasons. He suited up a total of 11 times in that stretch, first recovering from surgery on his left shoulder and then fighting a left ankle problem that has required three separate surgeries in the past year.

    The Portland Trail Blazers saw too much risk to extend Collins his $7 million qualifying offer, despite lacking the cap space to sign a significant replacement. The Spurs pressed on, apparently buying into Collins not only staying healthy but becoming the player the Blazers long hoped he could be.

    Of course, that's another way of saying Collins isn't that player right now. He owns career averages of 5.7 points and 4.0 rebounds across 154 contests, plus a forgettable 44.4/32.4/72.2 shooting slash. This signing should probably rank even higher, but a team can only hurt itself so much with a commitment of this level.

6. Duncan Robinson, Miami Heat

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    The Contract: Five years, $89.9 million

    The Heat needed Robinson more than he needed them. Their offense is already squeezed for spacing—and always will be with Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo at the center of it—and had they lost Robinson's prolific perimeter stroke, they would have struggled to find viable replacements.

    They're clearly all-in on this core and have essentially signaled money is no object in pursuit of this group's potential. If you want to tip your cap, note that it's #NotMyMoney and credit the front office for a highly productive offseason, you can do that.

    We just can't.

    We're here to weigh contract values, and it's hard to get behind the idea of throwing $89.9 million at a 27-year-old specialist with effectively two NBA seasons under his belt. Robinson is exceptional at that specialty, bagging the NBA's third-most triples and splashing at a 42.7 percent clip since the start of last season.

    But he's not someone who can create offense (for himself or his teammates), doesn't rebound much and improved to reach a serviceable level on defense. It made a lot of sense for Miami to keep him because his shooting and off-ball movement are critical components of the offense, but the salary seems high for his skill set and the length seems unnecessarily long for a role player.

5. Kelly Olynyk, Detroit Pistons

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    Robert Seale/Getty Images

    The Contract: Three years, $37.2 million

    While the Pistons got the last laugh on 2020's similarly stunning signing of Jerami Grant, history won't repeat itself with Olynyk.

    For starters, the 30-year-old offers nothing when it comes to upside, which is what a young, rebuilding team like Detroit should be chasing. Sure, he had a great 27-game run late last season with the tank-tastic Houston Rockets, but they wagered his production wouldn't nudge too many wins their direction and it didn't. The Rockets went 5-23 following his debut.

    The lack of potential with Olynyk is tied to his age, which again makes him a strange target for this team. While the Pistons should be playing the long game (and are with much of their roster), Olynyk is racing against the clock to capitalize on what's left of his prime. His best basketball will stop well before his teammates' starts.

    Finally, it's hard to see a great bail-out option if (when?) it becomes obvious Olynyk was a poor fit. He is hard to hide on defense, since he doesn't protect the basket and can't switch out onto perimeter players. That lessens the impact of the offensive skills he does provide (primarily, floor spacing and secondary distributing) and plugs him into an offensive reserve role, which isn't an itch winning teams should pay this much to scratch.

4. Devonte' Graham, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The Contract: Four years, $47.3 million

    In a vacuum, this contract isn't egregious for Graham, a lights-out three-point shooter who can create out of pick-and-rolls. It might be on the high end given his two-way limitations as a 6'1", 195-pounder who lacks length and explosion, but the pay rate alone doesn't make it jump off the page.

    Once you factor in the total cost for the Pelicans, though, it gets rough real quick.

    For starters, it's hard to separate Graham's arrival from Lonzo Ball's departure, since the former should step into the starting role vacated by the latter. Can anyone explain why the Pelicans let Ball walk? He's a 23-year-old who can shoot, distribute and defend, plus Crescent City centerpiece Zion Williamson wanted Ball to stay. The Pels let him walk and didn't even get a first-round pick back.

    Meanwhile, they did sacrifice a future first for the right to overpay Graham, who might only be keeping the seat warm until Kira Lewis Jr. or Nickeil Alexander-Walker forces their way into his spot. It's just confusing all around for the Pelicans, who didn't need a confusing offseason with all of the uneasiness around Williamson.

3. Evan Fournier, New York Knicks

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    The Contract: Four years, $78 million

    It's tempting to snicker at New York's summer and chalk it up to how the Knicks are always gonna Knick. That's partly because the Knicks seemingly did a decent amount of Knicking, spending significant sums to keep together a core that followed a solid regular season (.569 winning percentage) with a swift playoff exit (4-1 series loss to the Atlanta Hawks).

    But New York's internal spending was largely forgivable, as the club smartly tacked team options onto the third season of the contracts for Derrick Rose, Nerlens Noel and Alec Burks. Fournier has a team option on his deal too, though not before he'll collect a massive amount of money for what he brings.

    He's a good shooter, solid scorer and decent complementary passer, but he isn't elite in any one area and might be below average when everything is tied together.

    He has a subpar 14.0 career PER and a negative BPM across nine NBA seasons. He has only reached the playoffs four times and never advanced past the opening round, and while some of that could be attributed to his team, it's worth noting they've been outscored by 1.9 points per 100 possessions over his career. They've fared better with him than without, but not enough to change their fate (plus-1.5).

    He's not a difference-maker, so why are the Knicks paying him like one?

2. Jarrett Allen, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    The Contract: Five years, $100 million

    It takes a lot for a modern center to be worth a $20 million salary. The conditions have to be near perfect, and they're simply nowhere close for Allen in Cleveland.

    For starters, the Cavs just used the No. 3 pick on a player at the same position, Evan Mobley. Now, Cleveland fans will say the two bigs can share the floor in a twin-towers model, but how can the Cavs find proper spacing with that frontcourt?

    Oh, and let's not forget small forward Isaac Okoro, last year's No. 5 pick, isn't a shooter, either. Or that despite spending consecutive top-10 picks on point guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, the Cavs don't have the kind of floor general who can make the most of an imperfect offense. For all of the holes Mobley and Allen might plug defensively, they could create just as much congestion on offense.

    Allen is a rim-runner. He's good at his gig, but it's a pretty limited role teams don't invest a ton of resources into anymore. Tack on the fact that he was a restricted free agent, and who else was going to give him this kind of coin? Who were the Cavaliers bidding against? Allen surely had a market, but a nine-figure one? That's hard to imagine, which could mute his trade market if (when?) Cleveland decides he doesn't fit with Mobley.

1. DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls

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    The Contract: Three years, $85 million

    The gap between any two spots on these rankings might be the widest at the top. Look past DeRozan's per-game production (21.6 points and 6.9 assists), and you'll see a 32-year-old who's a poor fit with his new club and limited in worrisome ways for someone aging past his prime.

    He has never been a great (or even good) defender, and that deficiency won't get better with time (or while playing alongside similar sieves in Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic). DeRozan's growth as a playmaker won't be easily utilized in Chicago, as LaVine, Vucevic and Lonzo Ball all need significant touches. Moving DeRozan off the ball only highlights his limited shooting range (career 28.1 percent from three) and shrinks the floor.

    Those are just the issues of fit. The costs are what make this the worst of the worst. There were hopes in league circles DeRozan might be open to taking the $5.9 million taxpayer mid-level exception for a chance to contend, per B/R's Jake Fischer. DeRozan seemingly fueled those hopes telling Fox Sports' Shannon Sharpe, "I've been fortunate to make a lot of money, but at this point, the ultimate goal is to compete for a championship."

    So much for that idea. The Bulls should be better next season, but better as in maybe competing for the sixth or seventh seed in the East. That's probably why DeRozan didn't give any type of discount, instead collecting an average salary north of $28 million. And the money isn't the only cost, since Chicago also parted with Thaddeus Young, Al-Farouq Aminu, a future first-round pick and two future seconds in the sign-and-trade.

    Yikes. You could argue that Young, who will cost $14.2 million next season, contributes more to winning than DeRozan. It's at the very least debatable, which just further shows how poorly Chicago mismanaged the summer's worst signing.

                  

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.

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