2022 NBA Free Agents Who Would Be Foolish to Change Teams

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 14, 2022

2022 NBA Free Agents Who Would Be Foolish to Change Teams

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    NBA free agency is all about players exploring possibilities. When contracts expire, it's time to check the landscape for more playing time, higher salaries or an old-fashioned change of scenery.

    In a league where teams can execute trades that upend lives and careers, free agency flips the power dynamic. It offers a chance for players to control their fates. Knowing that, it's easy to understand the appeal of shopping around.

    The free agents we'll feature here should only be browsing this summer. They won't find a better situation than the one they're already in.

    For some, the reasons to avoid opting out or signing elsewhere are purely financial. For others, it's about how they fit on their current roster. In every case, the grass under their feet is as green as it'll get.

Kevon Looney, Golden State Warriors, Unrestricted

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Kevon Looney has been with the Golden State Warriors for his entire seven-year career. Despite averaging 4.7 points and 4.8 rebounds across that 367-game sample, the undersized center occupies a special place with one of the league's most successful franchises.

    "He's just such a pro," head coach Steve Kerr told Mark Haynes of Clutch Points. "He's so respected in the locker room by every person in the organization, coaches, trainers, teammates. He's just got a way about him that is so admirable. It's his demeanor, the daily commitment, never any drama. It's always just about winning."

    Looney's work ethic and aversion to complaining about his role will earn him similar plaudits wherever he goes. But the corporate knowledge he's gained with the Warriors—the familiarity with the team's sets, personnel and habits—won't translate.

    Because there are no other teams constructed quite like the one with which Looney has spent his career.

    Knowing exactly how to find Stephen Curry when he relocates is a skill you only develop one way—by playing hundreds and hundreds of minutes with the two-time MVP. Ditto for figuring out how to spring Klay Thompson on screens while working in tandem with Draymond Green to orchestrate Golden State's movement-heavy, read-and-react offense.

    Looney plays a niche role, to be sure. But he's mastered it, turning himself into a hugely valuable contributor. Were he to leave the Warriors, he'd run the risk of becoming just another non-scoring, non-spacing backup big man. And that's to say nothing of the pay cut he'd surely take.

    The league doesn't spend on conventional centers anymore, so Looney almost certainly won't top 2021-22's $5.2 million salary if he signs elsewhere.

    Looney and the Warriors appreciate each other, and they've got a good thing going. There's no reason for either party to mess it up.

Russell Westbrook, Los Angeles Lakers, Player Option

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Thought exercise: What would Russell Westbrook get on this summer's market as an unrestricted free agent?

    The fact that only a small handful of teams have anything close to max cap space doesn't matter. Westbrook's declining performance over the last several seasons removes him from consideration for superstar money. He posted a negative box plus/minus and a player efficiency rating of 15.0, precisely the league average, in 2021-22.

    Name value isn't enough anymore. No team would spend big on a 33-year-old in clear athletic decline with those numbers.

    Don't forget the sheer difficulty of finding a use for a ball-dominant point guard who can't shoot, doesn't defend at a high level and offers no value as an off-ball floor-spacer.

    Westbrook has a $47 million player option for 2022-23. He'd be lucky to get that amount spread over three seasons on a new contract with another team.

    Russ' fit with the Los Angeles Lakers was terrible, and the team will likely look to move him this summer. Maybe the former MVP will cede some control over his destiny by picking up his option and waiting for the Lakers to trade him, but that's a worthwhile sacrifice in exchange for locking down that $47 million.

    Westbrook should want to play somewhere else after a disastrous year with the Lakers. But from the perspective of his pocketbook, free agency isn't the way to make that happen. 

Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns, Restricted

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Restricted free agents are short on, well, agency. So even if Deandre Ayton wanted to stick it to a Phoenix Suns team that didn't give him a max rookie extension before the season by signing an offer sheet from another organization, it wouldn't necessarily change anything.

    The Suns could simply match and bring him back.

    That said, if Ayton wants to exercise some measure of control, he's got a few choices. There's some logic to signing with another team on a three-year deal with a fourth-year option (or even a two-year deal with a third-year option). Either would get him back into free agency sooner and theoretically set him up to make more money overall—whether the Suns matched or not.

    Alternatively, Ayton could work out a deal with Phoenix, where HoopsHype's Michael Scotto reported he's "happy because he loves winning." In addition to match rights, the Suns also have the ability to give Ayton a five-year contract worth more than any other team can offer. The only thing better than winning is winning while making as much money as possible.

    The Suns are the only team that can check both boxes.

    You could forgive Ayton for wanting to prove he's worth the kind of money many players picked after him in the 2018 draft have already secured. And getting away from a Phoenix franchise led by governor Robert Sarver, who's currently under investigation following allegations of racism, misogyny and workplace hostility, might be compelling.

    On the floor, though, Ayton has it pretty good. Chris Paul and Devin Booker do the heavy lifting and facilitating, while Mikal Bridges ensures that any offensive player who makes it into the paint Ayton is protecting will arrive battered and exhausted.

    Phoenix looks to be a title-chaser for a while. Ayton matters in that pursuit, and the money is going to come. A little more freedom would be nice, but it's hard to beat the situation Ayton is already in.

Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards, Player Option

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Bradley Beal has already made $177.8 million in his career, but don't expect that to make him consider turning down another quarter-billion.

    The 28-year-old can opt out and sign a five-year agreement with the Washington Wizards worth an estimated $246 million this offseason.

    Come June, the Wizards will be in the lottery for the fourth time in the last five years. That might give Beal pause, and from the outside, it also seems likely that the Wizards' chances of adding enough talent to change their losing ways will only get slimmer with so much capital devoted to one guy.

    It's possible Deni Avdija will level up on offense in the next few seasons, and there's always the chance Washington will hit on this year's pick, which should fall in the top 10. But Beal has to know he's most likely signing up for a half-decade with a noncontender.

    Who cares?

    Beal should get all the money he can and ask for a trade in a year or two if he's unhappy. He'd hardly be the first star to secure a figurative bag while packing a literal one.

    And finally, Beal quietly had a rough 2021-22. Maybe the wrist injury that eventually required surgery was partly to blame, but the 10-year vet also looked to have lost some zip in his legs. Considering he's averaged 2,200 high-usage minutes per year for a decade, physical decline might already be on the horizon.

    That's one more reason to sign that massive deal with Washington ASAP.

Robert Covington, Los Angeles Clippers, Unrestricted

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Robert Covington has bounced around the league in recent seasons, sporting five different jerseys over the last four years. If anyone should want to stay put, if only for a break from the vagabond lifestyle, it's the 31-year-old forward.

    Beyond the fact that staying with the Los Angeles Clippers would help Covington avoid another change of address, there's also the not-so-small matter of his perfect fit with the team.

    The Clips are among the teams at the vanguard of the positionless revolution. They downed the Utah Jazz in the 2021 playoffs using a lineup without centers, and they've since accumulated a considerable stockpile of guards, wings and forwards. Next season, when Kawhi Leonard returns to join Paul George, Nicolas Batum (player option) and Marcus Morris Sr., Covington could complete an ideal next-generation quintet of tweeners*.

    That group could switch screens, double and recover against imposing post-up threats, clog passing lanes with extreme length and stretch defenses with five-out spacing. The Toronto Raptors used a similar center-free look this year, but they trotted out the relatively diminutive Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. with Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Scottie Barnes. This Clippers version would consist entirely of rangy, versatile players measuring between 6'7" and 6'8".

    Covington logged 18 percent of his minutes at the 5 during his 2020-21 stint with the Portland Trail Blazers, and the Houston Rockets slotted him at center for 16 percent of his court time during his brief stay with the team in 2019-20. Though overrated as an on-ball stopper, Covington's menacing work as a help defender makes him an ideal small-ball big man. He's spent his career hanging around the top 10 percent at his position in steal and block rate.

    Every team needs a capable shooter who can contribute defensively, but the Clippers seem to specifically have an eye for what Covington brings.

    L.A.'s deep-pocketed ownership group has no problem spending well beyond the tax, and the Clips have Covington's bird rights, which means they can compete with any outside offer.

    Stability, a role suited to his game and a potentially hefty salary combine to make staying with the Clippers Covington's best option.

    *No longer a pejorative!


    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through 2021-22 season. Salary info via Spotrac.