NBA Players Who Should've Changed Teams in Free Agency

Greg Swartz@@GregSwartzBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterAugust 18, 2021

NBA Players Who Should've Changed Teams in Free Agency

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Most of the 2021 NBA free agents who returned to the teams they played for last season made the right decision.

    Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul, Mike Conley, John Collins, Jarrett Allen and Duncan Robinson were among those who stayed put and were wise to do so, as they fit well with their existing teams.

    But for a few players who decided to re-sign, their situations are far more questionable.

    Whether it means returning to a perennial loser, agreeing to a backup job or not chasing a bigger payday elsewhere, these five players should have switched teams in free agency.

Mike Muscala, C, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    With every NBA team needing floor-spacing bigs, Muscala should have been in demand. But he settled for a two-year, $7 million deal with the Thunder that includes a team option in the second season.

    The 30-year-old center averaged a career-best 9.7 points and shot 37.0 percent from three on a healthy 5.3 attempts per game last year. 

    Oklahoma City could be the worst team in the NBA this season, a franchise that has prioritized picks over players and rid itself of nearly every veteran in its incredible tanking efforts. For example, after acquiring Kemba Walker in a deal with the Boston Celtics for Al Horford, the Thunder bought out Walker.

    There's no chance Muscala gets a chance to sniff the playoffs in OKC this season, and he may not have a starting job, either.

    Days before he re-signed, the Thunder agreed to take on Derrick Favors' contract to collect a 2024 top-10 protected first-round pick from the Utah Jazz.

    Favors will almost certainly start for OKC (if he's not bought out or traded first), meaning Muscala will be the second-string center, at best. Muscala also faces the possibility of being shut down after a few months so the Thunder can tank. After all, he was a healthy scratch for the final 33 games of the 2020-21 season. 

    Muscala would have been a nice addition to a contender's bench, especially for a Los Angeles Lakers team that desperately needs spacing after the Russell Westbrook trade. Muscala would have likely had to take a slight dip in salary on a veteran's minimum deal ($2.6 million compared to his $3.5 million) by signing with the Lakers or another contender, money that could have been partially offset by a deep playoff run.

Bruce Brown, G/F, Brooklyn Nets

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Heading into restricted free agency following a strong year with the Brooklyn Nets, it looked like Brown would cash in elsewhere given the Nets' enormous luxury tax bill.

    The New York Post's Brian Lewis wrote that "the Nets had been worried about Brown's market reaching $8 million or perhaps even $10 million," as rival teams had the ability to sign him to an offer sheet that Brooklyn may not have been able to match.

    Instead, Brown accepted the qualifying offer for a mere one-year, $4.7 million deal.

    For a 2018 second-round pick looking to cash in for the first time, this was a puzzling decision. Sure, the Nets are likely the championship favorites if they stay healthy next year, but usually players sign at bargain prices to win at the end of their careers, not at age 25.

    "I really didn't pay it any mind, honestly," Brown told reporters. "I thought everything would take care of itself. I really was just working out the whole time, and then when free agency started, I actually was on the plane back to New York. So I didn't really talk to anybody until I landed. I'm just happy to be back. It's a great fit. I didn't want to go anywhere else."

    In Brooklyn, Brown will win, but his opportunity to grow and develop into anything more than a rotation player off the bench is extremely limited.

    Seeking a starting role on a winning team elsewhere, or even a one-year deal with the Nets that was higher than his qualifying offer, would have been the better choice.

Nerlens Noel, C, New York Knicks

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    Rich Schultz/Associated Press

    Noel was rewarded for his strong play (and the Knicks' success) last season with a three-year, $27.7 million deal to stay in New York.

    For a player who had never earned more than $5 million in any of his eight pro seasons, this contract was a long time coming and more than deserved given his elite defensive play as a rim protector and pick-and-roll stopper.

    Staying in New York means returning to a team that should once again be playoff-bound in the East but is still far away from toppling the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks—and possibly even the Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers.

    It also likely means backing up a healthy Mitchell Robinson, who will be eager to show out as he approaches free agency himself in 2022.

    Noel deserves a starting job as a do-it-all defender, something he likely won't have in New York. He would have been an upgrade as the starting center for the Toronto Raptors, Dallas Mavericks and Charlotte Hornets, all teams that featured cap space or at least the full mid-level exception.

    Kudos for Noel for getting paid and staying on a winning team, but re-upping with the Knicks means yet another backup job for a player who deserves more.

Norman Powell, G/F, Portland Trail Blazers

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    The pressure was on Portland to re-sign Powell, something it was able to do on a five-year, $90 million deal.

    One of the top unrestricted guards on the market, Powell got paid handsomely to return to the Blazers, a team that should still be competitive, for now. He told reporters:

    "Dame [Lillard] reaching out, telling me that he wants me to come back, he wants me there, that text message goes a long way, a deciding factor. Having a superstar like that want you on his team because he sees the value in my play and my skill set to help get to the ultimate goal where he wants to be with this organization and franchise—winning a championship—for him to say that he wants me there to help get to that feat means a lot. CJ [McCollum] called me the day before free agency, wished me luck, wished me well, wanted me to come back, that he understood it's a business but that he really wanted me to re-sign with the team."

    Being recruited by the two best players on the team is great, but what if both aren't there much longer?

    Damian Lillard seems more restless than ever in Portland after another first-round loss, and McCollum represents the team's best trade piece to try to upgrade the roster around him. This could turn into something similar to what Christian Wood experienced last offseason after signing with the Houston Rockets, only to see both Russell Westbrook and James Harden traded within two months.

    Even if both stay, the 6'3" Powell will almost assuredly play the majority of his minutes at small forward and have to guard LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Brandon Ingram and other 3s much bigger than him. 

    The Blazers still aren't close to becoming a true title contender with a defense that finished 29th overall last season, even with a new head coach in Chauncey Billups.

    If the money was similar, Powell should have found a team that would play him at shooting guard full-time and doesn't feature nearly as much blow-it-up potential.

Richaun Holmes, C, Sacramento Kings

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Signing a four-year, $46.5 million deal was a nice contract for Holmes, a 2015 second-round pick out of Bowling Green State University whose six seasons in the league produced just $15 million in salary.

    Still, for a player who reportedly wanted $80 million over four years, Holmes' final numbers didn't come close. Re-signing with the Kings could have been a mistake for a number of reasons, especially since Sacramento could only pay him up to $46.5 million due to his Early Bird rights.

    In a loaded West, Sacramento isn't close to making the playoffs for the first time since 2006. The Kings had the NBA's worst defense last season and didn't solve their lack of wing depth by selecting point guard Davion Mitchell in the draft. 

    Outside of Jarrett Allen, Holmes was the best center on the market after showcasing his ability as a scorer, rebounder and rim protector, so there should have been plenty of interest in his services. The Toronto Raptors, Dallas Mavericks and New York Knicks either had max cap space, a need at center or both heading into free agency, and Holmes would have been better off with those teams. 

    Instead, he'll return to a Kings squad that will once again wallow in mediocrity and could have a logjam at center (Tristan Thompson, Alex Len, Neemias Queta, Damian Jones) behind him.

    Getting the contract was good, but finding similar money (or potentially much more) from a team with a better chance of winning would have been even better.


    Stats via unless otherwise noted. Contract numbers via