Predicting the Biggest 2022 NBA Free-Agency Overpays This Offseason

Greg Swartz@@GregSwartzBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterJune 4, 2022

Predicting the Biggest 2022 NBA Free-Agency Overpays This Offseason

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    The 2022 NBA free-agency class should come with a "buyer beware" label, as there are no true superstars for teams to blindly throw max contracts at.

    Instead, there's going to be some fascinating negotiations between star players and teams. We could see several franchises go out of their comfort zone to re-sign players rather than lose them for nothing in free agency, while others could make significant offers to try to steal stars away.

    With the help of contract projection site, we'll look at what players are projected to be worth in 2022-23 and predict the five biggest overpays to come out of the 2022 free-agent class. 

Mitchell Robinson

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    Free Agent Type: Unrestricted 2022-23 Projected Fair-Market Value: $10 million

    While Deandre Ayton will get the most money in free agency by any center, he's shown the upside on both ends of the floor to ultimately end up being worth a max contract.

    After Ayton, however, Robinson could be the second-highest paid big man on the market. His upside is, well, a little more limited.

    No team will give Robinson a max deal, but there are plenty of clubs that need an upgrade at center or a long-term solution at the position. Many of them (Detroit Pistons, San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers) have or can create significant cap space as well.

    Robinson passes the eye test as someone teams may be tempted to give a hefty deal to. A 24-year-old, super-athletic rim-runner who can throw down devastating dunks and also finished second in the league in block percentage this season (7.1 percent) certainly has a place in the league.

    Of course, this ignores his lack of overall improvement during his four professional seasons, or that he's a non-factor on offense when not catching lobs. The Knicks were also better the past two years with Robinson on the bench, as his minus-2.9 swing rating ranked in the 36th percentile overall this season.

    The Knicks can still sign Robinson to a four-year, $55 million extension up until June 30, and one NBA executive told HoopsHype's Michael Scotto that any bidding war could land him $15 million per season on a new deal.

    Given his lack of growth over the past four years and with fellow centers such as Andre Drummond, JaVale McGee, Isaiah Hartenstein and Hassan Whiteside all signing for $5 million or less last summer, Robinson just isn't worth paying significant money to.  

    Look for him to either re-up with the Knicks or get a big offer from a team such as Detroit or Portland.

Bradley Beal

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    Free Agent Type: Player option ($37.3 million); unrestricted if not opted into 2022-23 Projected Fair-Market Value: $42 million

    Beal is arguably the best free agent in the 2022 class as a 28-year-old three-time All-Star who fell just short of leading the league in scoring in 2020-21 after averaging 31.3 points per game.

    So how could he be overpaid?

    He has all the leverage when negotiating with the Washington Wizards, who will likely have to offer him a full five-year, $248 million contract that will be (at least temporarily) the largest deal in NBA history.

    When we're talking historically large contracts, the player would ideally be an MVP candidate or at least be coming off an All-Star season. Beal was neither this past year, as the Wizards went just 17-23 overall in his 40 games.

    The veteran guard is also coming off wrist surgery, shot a career-low 30 percent from three and has never been a plus defender. While players such as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Stephen Curry have more than justified their $200-plus million deals with MVP awards and championships, Beal isn't this level of a superstar. 

    Even though his first year under a max deal would be close to his projected worth ($42.7 million), it will climb all the way to $56.4 million in 2026-27 when Beal is 33.

    The Wizards can't lowball their franchise player and risk him leaving as an unrestricted free agent or forcing his way out via a trade, and they'll almost certainly end up overpaying him as a result.

Jalen Brunson

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    Free Agent Type: Unrestricted 2022-23 Projected Fair-Market Value: $27.3 million

    Outside of Kyrie Irving, Brunson is the best point guard in a market where several teams (New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons, Washington Wizards, Houston Rockets) need a floor general upgrade. His strong postseason play with the Dallas Mavericks has proved his importance to his current franchise as well.

    Given that at least one of his potential suitors has significant cap space (Detroit), there could end up being a bidding war that the Mavs will be forced to open up their wallets to win.

    Dallas is the only team that can offer Brunson a fifth year, and a max deal would end up costing $175.5 million. For a player who's never even been a full-time starter over the course of four pro seasons, this is a number the Mavs should desperately try to avoid.

    As ESPN's Tim MacMahon wrote: "NBA pro personnel scouts and executives polled by ESPN for this story anticipate that the floor for Brunson's next contract will be an average annual salary of $20 million. The high end of the estimates range around $25 million per year."

    These figures still seem low in a watered-down free-agent market, especially with so many of the top guys expected to return to their respective franchises. Brunson is one of the few who could soak up the near-max salary-cap space on a team like the Pistons, or at least use Detroit as leverage to get a deal closer to $30 million per year with a desperate Mavericks team.

    Brunson is a good player. He's a talented scorer, a willing passer, and he can be a go-to option for stretches while Luka Doncic needs a break.

    Don't be surprised if he ends up being paid like an All-Star or All-NBA player this summer, however, as Dallas will likely end up making him an offer he can't refuse.

Kyrie Irving

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    Free Agent Type: Player option ($36.5 million), unrestricted if not opted into 2022-23 Projected Fair-Market Value: $34.8 million

    Irving is the most talented free agent in this class, the No. 1 point guard, and he is still playing at an extremely high level now at age 30.

    The problem, of course, is his availability.

    Be it injuries, vaccination status or personal leave from the team, Irving has played in fewer than half of his contracted games since signing with the Brooklyn Nets in 2019. We're guessing he's not going to be willing to take half of his next projected contract to make up for these absences, meaning the Nets (or another suitor) should be extremely wary of what they offer him.

    Now with 11 years of service in the league, Irving is eligible to sign a five-year, $245.6 million max deal in Brooklyn or $182.1 million over four years with any other team, per Spotrac's Keith Smith. Given his lack of availability over the past few seasons, however, these are numbers teams should try to avoid at all costs.

    The Nets are the most likely team to get bitten here, as they remain in championship-or-bust mode as long as Kevin Durant is on the roster. Durant is set to begin a four-year, $194.2 million extension this coming season.

    Irving could seek his own four-year deal, which would likely cost the Nets north of $160 million. If the seven-time All-Star can play in the vast majority of his games, he may be worth it. History tells us this isn't likely to happen, however, especially for a player who's already had a number of serious injuries and is now in his 30s.

    Brooklyn should try to negotiate a one-plus-one or two-plus-one deal with Irving, protecting themselves against any of his injuries or unforeseen reasons why he'll be away from the court.

    With his stepmom Shetellia Riley Irving now his agent, according to The Athletic's Shams Charania, let's not expect any hometown discounts from Irving in free agency. The Nets will be forced to overpay to keep Durant happy in a situation that is unlikely to end well.

James Harden

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    Free Agent Type: Player option ($46.9 million), unrestricted if not opted into 2022-23 Projected Fair-Market Value: $39.9 million

    Even if Harden simply opts into his $46.9 million deal and skips free agency, he'll be the fourth-highest paid player next season behind Stephen Curry, John Wall and Russell Westbrook.

    Seeing two of those names should be a cautionary tale for Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, who now has to battle his personal relationship with Harden while discussing his next contract.

    Morey can't let this turn into a Wall or Westbrook situation (i.e., guards who are considered to be on the worst contracts in the NBA and will likely need draft picks attached to their now-expiring deals to get rid of).

    Paying Harden for who he was (MVP, scoring leader, No. 1 option on a championship-caliber team) is far different than paying him for who he's going to be.

    The veteran guard will celebrate his 33rd birthday before the 2022-23 season begins and is coming off his lowest scoring output in a postseason run (18.6 points on 40.5 percent shooting) since he was with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

    Either opting in and signing an extension with the 76ers or opting out in favor of a five-year max would net Harden roughly $270 million, including a $61-plus million salary in 2026-27 when he's 37. Even if Harden doesn't get a full max in Philly, Morey has to keep him on a long-term deal to help justify the 2022 deadline trade.

    Harden is one of the NBA's best playmakers and can still get buckets (although not as efficiently anymore), but he will likely get paid like one of the league's top players, something he no longer is.