Which 2022 NBA Free Agents Are Helping and Hurting Themselves So Far?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 16, 2021

Which 2022 NBA Free Agents Are Helping and Hurting Themselves So Far?

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    NBA free agency is either an opportunity to anticipate or a trial to be dreaded, and the difference depends on how the player who's approaching it performs.

    Remember, free agency isn't just about the money coming in the short term. Contracts signed in the 2022 offseason set a precedent. Once attached, it's difficult to peel off the "minimum" or "mid-level" label. On the flip side, it's much easier to fall out of max territory than it is to break in.

    These are the high-profile 2022 free agents who've done the most to change their fortunes so far—for better or worse.

Helping: Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns, RFA

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Deandre Ayton might have been disappointed that he and the Phoenix Suns couldn't agree on an extension before the 2021-22 season, but he won't feel that way after the next round of negotiations.

    The No. 1 pick in 2018 hasn't let his contract status affect his play, and Ayton is proving his worth as a key piece on a contender for the second straight season.

    The numbers are just one part of the case for his warranting the max-level deal he couldn't wring out of the Suns in October. Phoenix is 2.7 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, with most of the boost coming on defense. This is the third straight season in which Ayton has improved the Suns' bottom line.

    He's made that difference with efficient scoring (16.9 points per game on 62.1 percent shooting), elite rebounding (a career-high 11.2 boards per game) and the rare ability to dominate the interior while also surviving in space defensively.

    Ayton was a massive problem for the Golden State Warriors in Phoenix's two meetings with a team it will likely have to beat to reach another Finals, totaling 47 points and 17 rebounds, with eight of those boards coming on the offensive end. A center who can exploit the Warriors' lack of size while also keeping his bearings against one of the most movement-heavy and complex offensive systems in the league is basically priceless.

    He might also be the player best equipped to slow down Nikola Jokic. The reigning MVP hasn't held back praise for his 23-year-old rival.

    Ayton has some of the best interior touch in the game, cannot be played off the floor by small-ball opponents and is only getting better defensively. The Suns weren't sure he was worth a no-questions-asked max a few months ago. Restricted free agency will prove those doubts were a mistake.

Hurting: Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets, Player Option

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Kyrie Irving may not hit free agency at all this summer, a scenario that once would have been unthinkable.

    Why wouldn't a 29-year-old NBA champion and seven-time All-Star coming off the most efficient shooting season of his career head into 2021-22 with an unwavering intent to get back on the market as soon as possible? Framed another way, what's a guaranteed $36.9 million in 2022-23 when you can opt out and sign a new contract worth up to $242 million over five years?

    Considering Irving's spotty health history, which had held him under 70 games in seven of his 10 seasons before this one, few stars had better reasons to lock in multiple years at a max pay rate than he did.

    Now more than two months into the 2021-22 campaign, Irving hasn't played a minute. His refusal to be vaccinated against COVID-19 will likely thin the pool of potential suitors and cause those who remain to question what he's actually worth. The bet here is that no one will be quick to hand over as much money as the CBA allows.

    Hesitant teams won't just focus on this season's absence. They'll have to consider it as part of a longer track record that has seen the point guard leave his two previous organizations on less than amicable terms, not to mention Irving's dicey history as a teammate and penchant for stirring up controversy

    So what if rumors of his return are surfacing, as Shams Charania of The Athletic reported Monday? What team is going to sign up for the possibility of paying Irving a full year's salary for what recent history suggests might be a half-year of play—at best?

    Talent is still king in the NBA. So if Irving returns and shows out, helping lead the Nets to a title, perhaps his earning potential will be undiminished. More likely, the team that hypothetically signs him (if he enters free agency at all) will do so without any assurance of what it'll get for its money.

    It's bad business to commit anything approaching max cash to a player who doesn't warrant the minimum amount of trust.

Helping: Miles Bridges, Charlotte Hornets, RFA

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    Matt Kelley/Associated Press

    Miles Bridges' scorching start to 2021-22 made the four-year, $60 million extension offer he received from the Charlotte Hornets before the season look like a joke. Through his first nine games, the 23-year-old combo forward averaged 24.1 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.0 block on a 48.2/37.1/86.8 shooting split.

    He, not LaMelo Ball, was Charlotte's best player through the first few weeks of the campaign.

    Bridges' numbers have dipped from those levels, but he's on pace to crush his previous career highs with full-season averages of 19.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. More importantly, that production is coming for a successful team. Charlotte is 15-14 and in playoff position in the Eastern Conference.

    A decline in scoring efficiency won't hurt Bridges' earning potential. Anyone watching this year's Hornets can see the springy left-hander is being asked to do more as a shot-creator and facilitator than ever. Bridges is on pace for career highs in assist and usage rate, and he's never scored a higher percentage of his baskets without the benefit of an assist.

    The teams willing to offer Bridges upward of $100 million this summer will do so with an expectation that his growth process is far from complete. A player who continues to develop new skills like this is one franchises are happy to bet on.

    Already accomplished as a complementary scorer and high-flying finisher, Bridges is now showcasing the playmaking skills everyone wants from a combo forward. The 2022-23 season could see him pull everything together, combining efficiency and volume while continuing to expand his impact, possibly to an All-Star level. 

    The Hornets are going to wish they'd shown more financial faith in Bridges before his breakthrough season. He's positioned himself for a nine-figure payday.

Hurting: Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers, RFA

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    In October, the Cleveland Cavaliers were nearing an extension with Collin Sexton that would have paid him $20-25 million per year, until those talks "hit a 'snag,'" per Jason Lloyd of The Athletic.

    Fast-forward a couple of months, and the Cavs are one of the East's best teams without Sexton on the floor. In fairness, his season ended Nov. 7 when he tore his meniscus. But even without that injury, the fourth-year guard wasn't going to command the kind of money he almost got from Cleveland as a restricted free agent.

    The Cavaliers have their core in Jarrett Allen, Evan Mobley and Darius Garland. The first already has a $100 million deal that, considering his impact on the team's turnaround, looks like a bargain. The second might be this generation's Kevin Garnett. The third, Garland, has thrived as the primary ball-handler. He won't hit free agency until the 2023 offseason, at which point a max rookie extension should be a foregone conclusion.

    There's no room for wild spending on a guy who'll top out at fourth in the team hierarchy.

    Cleveland's success this season has been fueled by an elite defense. On the other end, the Cavs have hovered around the league average. You could argue they need someone with scoring chops like Sexton, who averaged a team-high 24.3 points per game in 2020-21. But the Cavaliers can find those buckets for far less than $20-25 million per season, and their new status as playoff locks will only make that easier.

    Sexton profiles as a scoring sixth man on a good team. Guys like that don't sniff $100 million deals, and Sexton's downgraded status in the Cavs' pecking order will further prevent gaudy offers from coming in. Any team that tries to force Cleveland's hand with an overly aggressive offer sheet will run the risk of the Cavs confidently declining to match.

    Sexton has a future in the league, and it might even be with the Cavaliers. That future just involves a lot less cash than it used to.

Helping: Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls, UFA

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    Marta Lavandier/Associated Press

    The Chicago Bulls couldn't give Zach LaVine what he was worth in the 2021 offseason. The best they could offer was a 120 percent raise on his laughably inadequate $19.5 million 2020-21 salary, generating a four-year, $105 million extension that would kick in for 2022-23.

    It's hard to know what they would have offered him if that limitation hadn't been in place, though it's worth noting the Bulls could have cleared cap space to increase the amount of available cash beyond that grossly inadequate $105 million.

    What's certain is that LaVine, a 2021 All-Star and one of the most efficient high-volume scorers in the league, is going to collect double that amount. Potentially the top unrestricted free agent on the market, the 26-year-old guard could even play his way into a supermax deal worth $235 million. That'd require making an All-NBA team this season, but that's no longer an unrealistic goal.

    LaVine isn't on track to replicate last year's production, which saw him post just the 12th season this century with a scoring average of over 27.0 points per game on at least 63.0 percent true shooting. But he's averaging 26.0 points per game on a 49.0/39.1/84.6 shooting split for a Chicago team that has to be considered among the favorites to challenge for a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals.

    Those are superstar numbers, and they now come with a level of defensive performance, honed during the Tokyo Olympics, that can't be held against LaVine.

    The Bulls balked at a supermax for Jimmy Butler in 2017, opting to trade him instead. That seems unlikely to happen again. And if it's not Chicago readily shoving a max offer across the table, it'll be someone else.

Hurting: Russell Westbrook, Los Angeles Lakers, Player Option

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    Randall Benton/Associated Press

    Russell Westbrook is, at best, the third-most important player on a Los Angeles Lakers team that has spent most of the season fighting to stay around .500.

    Much like Irving in Brooklyn, he may have taken 2022 free agency off the table entirely. Russ won't exactly be hurting if he accepts the $47.1 million coming his way on the last year of his current deal, but his play this season has cost him the chance to opt out and grab what would have been the last big bag of his career.

    The triple-doubles, of which Westbrook has five this season, haven't meant much. Three of them came in losses. He is on pace to post his lowest PER since his rookie season and his worst box plus/minus ever. The Lakers have a negative point differential when he's on the floor, and that figure goes further south when Russ plays without LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

    So much for him propping up second units so the Lakers' stars could pace themselves during the year.

    Had things gone differently, Westbrook might have had a chance to opt out and secure another high-priced multiyear deal. Instead, we're seeing an athletically diminished former star struggling to fill what's essentially a supporting role. Keen observers saw this result as the likely one; the Lakers were Russ' fourth team in four years. All of his career arrows were pointing in the wrong direction.

    Still, with the homecoming angle for the Los Angeles product and the rejuvenating potential of playing alongside James and Davis on a team that won it all in 2020, you could squint and see some upside.

    To date, Westbrook has only driven his free-agent potential down.


    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through Dec. 14. Salary info via Spotrac.