NBA Offseason Moves with the Most Bust Potential in 2021-22
Every offseason transaction carries downside risk, that hard-to-define chance a trade or signing won't pan out as positively as hoped.
Some moves carry more of that "this could really go bad" mojo than others.
If you're an unsullied optimist, you should probably find something else to read. Because this exercise is all about mental preparation for worst-case scenarios. Here, we're highlighting a handful of offseason decisions that could work out just fine but have elevated risk of, well...not working out just fine.
These are the 2021 offseason moves with the most bust potential.
The Lakers Add Russell Westbrook to Their Superstar Constellation
Of course the Los Angeles Lakers' acquisition of Russell Westbrook could go boom, and not just because so much of what the 2016-17 MVP and nine-time All-Star does on the floor is punctuated by concussive force.
Westbrook could absolutely give the Lakers the regular-season floor-raiser and innings-eater they need. In an ideal scenario, he could win games against substandard competition all on his own, providing LeBron James and Anthony Davis low-lift outings and, ideally, full nights off. Russ could also commandeer second units for long stretches, pulverizing opposing backups and adding to leads generated by L.A.'s starters.
Let's also not forget that talent, and specifically star-level talent, is the most precious resource in the NBA. Westbrook has it in spades.
All that said, history tells us the best way to support James is to surround him with shooting and defense. Westbrook provides neither of those, ranking 101st in accuracy rate out of the 101 players who've attempted at least 3,000 career triples and never coming particularly close to making an All-Defensive team.
He's a star, but an ill-fitting one on this roster because he needs the ball in his hands to make a difference. And any tactical decision that takes the ball out of James' hands is by definition a bad one.
The true bust potential for the Westbrook move may not manifest until the postseason, which is a problem because that phase of the year is all that matters to the title-chasing Lakers. Even if Westbrook helps Los Angeles reach the playoffs with more rested and fitter versions of James and Davis, his track record suggests he'll be a liability against dialed-in playoff opponents.
Russ' 29.6 career postseason three-point percentage is even worse than his regular-season figure, and the book on how to handle him in the postseason has been out so long and is so widely read that its publishers are probably printing the fourth or fifth edition by now. Teams have long ignored Westbrook off the ball, flooding the lane, cramping spacing and daring him to shoot.
The exploitation of Westbrook's poor shooting and his unwillingness to compromise his style are major reasons he's lost six of the last seven playoff series in which he's played.
It's an oversimplification, but if Westbrook can't help the Lakers in the playoffs, then Westbrook can't help the Lakers.
The Bucks Let P.J. Tucker Walk
Even if sympathy for the financial strain facing billionaire team governors is (rightly) a little silly, you can sometimes understand why ownership would balk at paying excessive luxury-tax penalties. But when a team has so recently won a championship, as the Milwaukee Bucks did this past season, spending hesitancy just hits the wrong way.
P.J. Tucker was only a member of the Bucks for 43 games (20 in the regular season, 23 in the playoffs), and he wasn't great in a lot of them. But the rugged veteran forward capital-m Mattered in the successful title chase, bullying opposing superstars and improving Milwaukee's defensive rating by 17.6 points per 100 possessions in a pitched seven-game East semifinals battle against the Brooklyn Nets. The Bucks probably wouldn't have even reached the Eastern Conference Finals without his contributions, let alone won a title.
Yet, per Sam Amick of The Athletic, Milwaukee chose cash savings over retaining such a critical piece of the franchise's first championship in 50 years: "An offer that started at, say, $7 million would have cost the Bucks approximately $23 million in tax and, thus, would mean a $30 million bill. That, above all else, is why he's not coming back to the Bucks."
Miami signed Tucker, much to his surprise and disappointment, for two years and $15 million.
Tucker might be past his expiration date as an effective starter. Most of the playoffs, Brooklyn series excluded, revealed him to be an offensive liability. In a vacuum, you could excuse the Bucks for not bringing back a 36-year-old who averaged 2.6 points per game for them during the regular season. You might even call it an obvious move.
But these specific post-title circumstances change the calculus. Letting Tucker go feels like a signal that Milwaukee is only willing to go so far in its efforts to build the best possible roster. A $30 million bill for Tucker would have been more than worth it if he could have given Milwaukee one great playoff series in 2022.
When you're at a championship level, pinching pennies is a bad look.
The Bulls Chase a Playoff Berth at Exorbitant Cost
The Chicago Bulls will be better than they were a year ago, and they might even post a winning record for the first time since 2015-16. But they've positioned themselves to achieve modest goals at great expense, culminating with their decision to give DeMar DeRozan a three-year, $85 million deal.
This reckless pursuit of what feels like a 45-win ceiling began with last season's trade for Nikola Vucevic, which cost them the No. 5 pick in the 2021 draft and will likely result in a 2023 first-rounder (it's top-four protected) following that one to the Orlando Magic.
DeRozan is a big name, and his self-created offense and passing will juice a Bulls offense that also added Lonzo Ball's playmaking. But Chicago was already fighting an uphill battle building a defense around noted sieves Zach LaVine and Vucevic, and that slope might as well be a straight vertical climb with DeRozan in the mix.
The four-time All-Star's defensive impact has ranged from poor to catastrophic during his career, with the last half-decade skewing toward the uglier end of that spectrum. The Bulls' "best" lineup will now feature DeRozan, LaVine and Vucevic—three players who can fill it up but who give back at least as much as they get on the other end.
Maybe the offense will really hum, vaulting into the top five on the strength of three terrific talents. But if the defense isn't in the bottom 10 of the league, it'll be a minor miracle. That profile belongs to a middling playoff team, one very likely ticketed for first-round elimination. That's not a high enough level to justify Chicago's spending and draft-capital outlay. And if the Bulls don't reach the very highest end of reasonable projections, LaVine, a free agent after this year, could either angle for a trade or walk away for nothing.
Talk about downside risk...
The Thunder Go a Step Too Far
The bust potential of a trade involving two heavily protected future first-rounders and a teenaged import with zero NBA experience is almost impossible to calculate. Every data point is an unknown.
It still feels like the Oklahoma City Thunder took their "no such thing as too many first-rounders" approach too far this time. The franchise already had an unprecedented number of incoming future picks when it flipped the No. 16 selection in the 2021 draft (which it acquired from the Boston Celtics in the deal that swapped Al Horford for Kemba Walker) to the Houston Rockets for future first-rounders via the Washington Wizards and Detroit Pistons.
Alperen Sengun was a predraft darling, pegged by some as the best prospect available after winning the Turkish League MVP as an 18-year-old. He comes with questions about his defense, athleticism and position, but his skill level is undeniable.
The 6'10" big man averaged 14.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists during summer league and left evaluators like The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor awed: "Alperen Sengun is the real deal, folks. I'm flying to Vegas right now gushing from my seat watching him get buckets. Already improved as a shooter and defender. All of the Rockets rookies look great too. Rafael Stone's draft is looking pretty, pretty good."
The Thunder had Sengun, a tantalizing talent with the statistical profile of a potential steal, sitting right there. But they punted on him, preferring whatever undetermined future value might come from that pair of first-rounders. At some point, OKC is going to need actual players instead of picks.
Sengun might turn out to be the one who got away.
The Mavericks Put the Franchise in Jason Kidd's Hands
Jason Kidd has a litany of troubling personal and legal transgressions in his past, to the point that it takes more than one comprehensive list to chronicle them all, and he's been not-so-coincidentally tied to some form of palace intrigue at nearly every stop of his coaching career.
Mirin Fader's book, Giannis: The Improbable Rise of an MVP, chronicles several ugly incidents of what one player termed "psychological warfare" during Kidd's tenure as Milwaukee Bucks head coach, summarized by Drake Bentley of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Add to that the fact that Milwaukee made a leap after Kidd was replaced by Mike Budenholzer, and you've got evidence that in addition to some shortcomings in the character department, Kidd's tactical acumen as a head coach is dubious.
And this is the person the Dallas Mavericks, a team still very much defined by the 2018 Sports Illustrated report from Jon Wertheim and Jessica Luther that revealed a toxic, corrosive workplace, chose to install as a figurehead and key decision-maker.
Luka Doncic might be so transcendentally great that Dallas will win a ton of games and push all of Kidd's past into the background. Or perhaps Kidd will learn from his mistakes and improve across the board. Everyone deserves a chance at redemption—and where better to do so than with the franchise that drafted him and with which he later won his lone NBA title?
But very little about his track record indicates he's adept at the personal or strategic sides of his new position.