Unless you happen to be from the Oakland area or Northeastern Ohio, it's tough to get too excited about the NBA right now. After all, we're coming off of a postseason comprised, essentially, of three rounds of filler followed by an inevitable Finals we had seen the two seasons prior and will likely see again next spring. The fan lethargy over an NBA currently being hijacked by the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors stands in direct opposition, however, to the league's exceptionally lofty financial standing. Thanks to the lucrative TV deal that keeps on giving, the salary cap has taken yet another sizeable jump.
When the league is flush with cash, it keeps the owners happy, which also keeps the players happy. As we've seen over the past two summers, that means Mike Conley becomes the highest paid player in NBA history and injury-prone vets Chandler Parsons and Joakim Noah pull in more than $160 million. More recently, we've entered an era of $200 million mega-deals, with the likes of Steph Curry and, reportedly, Chris Paul inking deals that will see them earn $40 million per season. Heck, Kevin Durant just re-upped with the Warriors for two years and $53 million and is being lauded for sacrifices that will see him take home "only" $26.5 mil per year.
The rising cap and soaring salaries in the NBA mean that bargain deals are harder than ever for clubs to find, but ugly contracts have seemingly been emerging daily in the early days of free agency. Indeed, through instant reaction on social media and simple common sense, it becomes quickly and abundantly clear in certain cases that money, even when there is lots of it, is being spent poorly. You can almost sense when, amidst the mania that is the NBA's annual free agent frenzy, general managers and other team executives quickly recognize that they've thrown the wrong amount of money at the wrong guy. These are - to date - this summer's biggest examples of free agent money being spent foolishly.
15 Paul Millsap - Three Years, $90 Million
The addition of Paul Millsap via three-team sign-and-trade launched the Denver Nuggets from an intriguing curiosity to a legitimate threat in the West. They'll miss Danilo Galinari, who was shipped to the Clippers in the same deal, but Millsap should nicely compliment franchise cornerstone Nikola Jokic in the front court and lend a veteran presence to a promising, young roster. By keeping the contract term to three years, the Nuggets were also able to avoid paying Millsap into his late-30s. But about that $90 million...
Before the free agent zaniness began on July 1st, only one player was set to earn north of $30 million next season - LeBron James. For as good as the four-time All-Star Millsap is, LeBron he ain't. That the former Atlanta Hawk's new contract is a by-product of the NBA's nutty new economics still doesn't entirely excuse the staggering sum he is now owed. That $30 million is just shy of one-third of the club's cap space. Absorbing those costs may not be an immediate issue for a Denver team enjoying exceptional production from guys on rookie deals - especially if they can unload Kenneth Faried and/or Wilson Chandler, but things will get increasingly tight as Jokic and Jamal Murray seek extensions.
14 Cristiano Felicio - Four Years, $32 Million
The Jimmy Butler trade set the Chicago Bulls firmly into rebuild mode, shifting their focus towards acquiring and developing young talent for future growth. So it was no surprise, then, that the team placed an emphasis on getting restricted free agent center Cristiano Felicio locked up long term. Who, you might ask, is Cristiano Felicio? The little-used Brazilian big man starred for a pro club back home before joining the Bulls in 2015, but hasn't quite established himself as a bona fide NBA'er, let alone a quality player owed a long-term deal.
At 25, Felicio still has some upside, which is good considering his career averages to date are a paltry 4.3 points and rebounds. The backup center will need to improve considerably to warrant a deal that spans four years. Perhaps a sign of the times, but the Bulls signed Taj Gibson, a player of significantly higher caliber, to an identical contract four years ago. This contract should at least pan out from a statistics standpoint, given that Felicio is due a substantial minutes upgrade on the rebuilding Bulls. Still, it seems unlikely that rival teams were readying an offer sheet for the raw big man, making the contract terms rather curious.
13 Tony Snell - Four Years, $46 Million
Although it was teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo who won Most Improved Player honors following the 2016-17 season, fellow Milwaukee Bucks forward Tony Snell also came into his own this year. After three seasons of struggling to find a role amid sparse minutes with the Chicago Bulls, Snell developed a reliable three-point shot and produced above average defense, particularly shining during a stretch in which the 25-year-old was asked to take on a greater role in the absence of Khris Middleton. For his efforts, Snell was generously rewarded with a four-year deal that will pay him $11.5 million per season.
The money in play here won't be particularly daunting if Snell continues to start and play 30 minutes each night, as he did this past season. The problem is that by inking Snell, the Bucks are essentially settling for mediocre. Milwaukee is capped out and will head into next season with a nearly identical roster to the one that couldn't get out of the first round this past spring. The prospect of playing with an emerging young core which includes Jabari Parker, Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon and, of course, the Greek Freak should be an enticing allure that makes the Bucks competitive on the free agent market. Unfortunately, they won't know if that's the case until at least next summer.
12 J.J. Redick - One Year, $23 Million
The current strategy being executed by Bryan Colangelo and the Philadelphia 76ers is an understandable one. By inking capable veterans J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson to one-year contracts, the Sixers' front office is taking a shot at a playoff push built around a young core without sacrificing future flexibility. As the promising quartet of Joel Embiid, Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons and Dario Saric learn the ropes in the NBA both individually and collectively, Colangelo is looking to stay competitive by rounding out the roster with able pros on short-term deals. Sam Hinkie's "Process", this isn't.
But for all of the credit Colangelo has received for adding two key rotation pieces without committing to lengthy terms, there still remains the fact that Redick and Johnson will earn $34 million this year. While Johnson is earning something that resembles fair market value (he pulled in $12 million in each of his past two years in Boston), the Redick contract is bewildering. While Fultz has yet to sign his rookie deal, assuming that he brings in the $6 million or so that Simmons did as the No. 1 overall pick last year, then Redick will earn more than the promising foursome of Sixers youngsters, combined, this year.
11 James Johnson - Four Years, $60 Million
There is a well-worn bit of executive-speak, particularly in the sports world, that essentially boils down to, "I love this guy at $1 million, I hate him at $3 million." Indeed, all of these contracts exist in a vacuum - no one should be getting paid this type of money to play a kid's game professionally, but, at the same time, these are all premier athletes who shouldn't be flippantly dismissed as bums. James Johnson is precisely the type of hard-nosed, high energy, defensive-minded player that you love to have as a teammate and hate to play against. Is he a $15 million-per-year-caliber player? Probably not.
Once an in-demand free agent destination, the Miami Heat have swung and missed in free agency over the past two summers, losing LeBron James and Dwyane Wade while being left empty-handed in pursuit of other marquee names. While they won raves for how fiercely they competed in rallying to secure a playoff spot last season, all they have to show for it is spending $162 million to retain Johnson and Dion Waiters and bring in Kelly Olynyk. None of the three contracts look terribly appealing, but shelling out $60 million to a career 7.5 point scorer who still hasn't averaged 13 per game in a season seems particularly confounding.
10 George Hill - Three Years, $57 Million
By signing matching three year, $57 million contracts, point guards Jeff Teague and George Hill have linked themselves into what is a pretty well inevitable comparison coupling. By playing the same position at the same salary, the two are inviting easy valuations based on whether the Minnesota Timberwolves (Teague) or Sacramento Kings (Hill) get more bang for their buck. The betting here is that the Timberwolves, building what seems to be a super team around Jimmy Butler, Karl Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, will get the better of the dual signings.
Part of it is situation. Teague will have no shortage of passing options in the T'Wolves' attack, while Hill seems like he will be stuck spinning his wheels on an irrelevant Kings team passing to unproven No. 1 option Buddy Hield. For Sacramento, however, it doesn't help matters any that Minnesota probably got the better player. While the two men are similar enough that the Indiana Pacers actually swapped out Hill for Teague back in a 2016 three-team deal, Teague has the slight edge in age (29 to Hill's 31) and All-Star appearances (one to Hill's none). The really unfair thing here for Kings fans is that Teague has been set up to thrive in Minny, all but guaranteeing that they will be left to obsess over Hill's inferior stats at the same price.
9 Joe Ingles - Four Years, $52 Million
No, you aren't misreading the above heading - Joe Ingles is really making $52 million over the next four years. The do-it-all Aussie small forward has morphed into a fan favorite in Utah as something of a blue collar hero, serving as the glue guy on the playoff-bound Jazz. However, it must be noted that he's done so in a complimentary role that has seen him average less than six shots a game and fewer than 25 minutes of floor time per night.
Now, a nearly 600 % raise from last season, coupled with the substantial void created by the exit of Gordon Hayward, could represent a recipe for disaster. Jazz head coach Quin Snyder deserves enough credit to receive the benefit of the doubt in terms of not allotting minutes and roles based on finances. But he will still need to find scoring from somewhere and none of the current in-house options (Donovan Mitchell?), provided the club doesn't make a significant roster addition, seem terribly encouraging, Ingles included. The Ingles contract could come to look even worse a year from now, as players like Derrick Favors, Dante Exum and Rodney Hood have contracts come due while comparing favorably to their likable teammate.
8 Zach Randolph - Two Years, $24 Million
Comparisons have come easy between Zach Randolph and DeMarcus Cousins in the past, given their common status as bruising big men who have been known to get a little hot-headed on occasion. In fact, things came to a head between the two back in February of 2015 when a chippy game between Randolph's Memphis Grizzlies and Cousins' Sacramento Kings led to an on-court scuffle. Cousins has since been shipped out to New Orleans and one has to wonder if Kings owner Vivek Ranadive and GM Vlade Divac were seeking out a replacement when they picked up Randolph in free agency.
For Ranadive and Divac to commit $24 million to Randolph at this stage of his career, it begs the question of whether they happened to notice his level of play last season. The man known as Z-Bo is clearly on the decline, having seen his scoring average drop in four straight seasons. The 2016-17 campaign was, to this point, the nadir of that fade for the 35-year-old. Far from his days of serving as half of the Grizzlies' fearsome interior alongside Marc Gasol while advancing as far as the Western Finals, Randolph started just five games for Memphis last season. He might have more opportunities on an uninspiring Kings squad, but that doesn't change the reality of an aging player growing less and less useful in the modern NBA.
7 Kyle Lowry - Three Years, $100 Million
For the second off-season in a row, the Toronto Raptors found themselves in something of a quandary related to their own free agents. Having reached the postseason in four straight years, there was some pressure from the fan base to keep the core together amidst the free agency of DeMar DeRozan and then Kyle Lowry. However, having been swallowed up by the Cavaliers in two straight springs, did the club really want to commit long-term to a group with no evident path to the Finals? Team president Masai Ujiri decided that his All-Star back court was worth keeping around, even if the duo will rake in more than $60 million this year, alone.
No one can blame Ujiri and co. for keeping the band together - not after the team won two more playoff series in the past two years than they had in the first 20 of their existence. But it's an awful lot of money to shell out to retain a group that may not be any better - and might be worst - than the club that was easily swept by Cleveland in the second round last May. Looking at Lowry, alone, he rightfully slots somewhere in between the upper tier of Steph Curry and Chris Paul (assuming he signs the rumored max extension in Houston) and the second grouping of George Hill, Jeff Teague and Jrue Holliday. Still, even though the three-year term is manageable, $33 million a year doesn't leave much room for team improvement.
6 Gordon Hayward - Four Years, $128 Million
Few Boston Celtics fans will take issue with the job that GM Danny Ainge has done in constructing a talent-laden roster built to win now while maintaining a wellspring of highly coveted future assets. Ainge has now landed a big fish in each of the past three summers (Isaiah Thomas, Al Horford and now Gordon Hayward) to bring current success while continuing to reap the seemingly endless rewards of the Brooklyn Nets trade. But even as defending Eastern Conference finalists, there remains some skepticism around the Celtics over whether they are locked into the right group.
In Horford and Hayward, the Celts have two very good players who are now making superstar money. The $56 million they will collectively make this year is made manageable by Thomas' remarkably team-friendly contract and the plentiful production they currently enjoy by players on rookie deals. Neither of those contractual assets will last forever. Thomas is a free agent next summer and certainly sees himself as a max player, given how valuable he has been in Boston. Then the likes of Marcus Smart and eventually Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum will be in need of new contracts, making Ainge feel the squeeze. Too much talent is a nice problem to have, but it still might become a problem in Boston, likely around the same time that giving Hayward $128 million stops seeming like a good idea.
5 Jrue Holiday - Five Years, $126 Million
The New Orleans Pelicans' gamble on the superstar front court pairing of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins is barely even five months old, and there is already reason to doubt its viability. The Pelicans faded from the playoff picture after going an underwhelming 11-14 after the trade, which could be chalked up to Davis and Cousins learning how to play together. However, the worry of whether it'll work out at all looms large, prompting team brass to do all they can to make it work. That's why even though Jrue Holiday may not have been one of the top five point guards on the market, he was unquestionably off-season priority No. 1 for New Orleans.
By bringing Holiday back into the fold, the club ensured at least some degree of continuity carrying over from year one of the Davis/Cousins experiment and the chance to grow with a player whom both big men have become comfortable. The downside is that he was handed a contract that all but erases any future flexibility. Despite questionable wing talent, the Pels' front office was not in position to add any additional help and will be forced to rely on a core that wasn't good enough to even battle for a postseason spot last year. The half full glass perspective holds that Holiday just turned 27 and has now been signed through his prime, but the half empty side would contend that he's also coming off three consecutive injury-plagued seasons and has just one All-Star campaign to his name, which came back in 2012-13.
4 Tim Hardaway Jr. - Four Years, $71 Million
Lest anyone think that all the head-scratching decisions made by the New York Knicks in recent years would be no more after Phil Jackson was shown the door, we present to you the Tim Hardaway Jr. contract. Until the widely rumored trade of Carmelo Anthony to Houston comes to fruition, the Knicks' most significant on-court move of the summer - possibly aside from drafting French point guard Frank Ntilikina - has been bringing Hardaway back into the fold at a pretty lofty cost. The son of the five-time All-Star point guard will make more on his four year, $71 million contract than his more decorated father did his entire career.
To be fair, Hardaway Jr. did have something of a breakout last season at age 24 in Mike Budenholzer's perimeter-friendly offensive system in Atlanta. By upping his floor time by more than 10 minutes per game, the shooting guard managed to increase his per game scoring average from 6.4 points to 14.5. Whether that necessitated a deal that will pay over $17.5 million per season, however, is another story. The contract was partially a necessary evil owing to the nature of offer sheets and constructing a deliberately less than appealing deal to discourage a player's previous team from matching it. Still, for a franchise mired in dysfunction, this isn't exactly the move to convince anyone - fans, Kristaps Porzingis - that stability is coming.
3 Chris Paul - Five Years, $205 Million (Reported)
Given some of the contracts being issued this summer, the Houston Rockets' prized new point guard Chris Paul will look like an absolute steal this season after he opted into a player option for $24.5 million. However, that value may not last long for the Rockets. As part of the trade, Houston is believed to be handing Paul the same type of "super max" extension that Steph Curry just got from the Golden State Warriors. That will make for one expensive back court once teammate James Harden's four-year, $170 million extension, the richest in NBA history, kicks in.
Putting Paul in the same financial ballpark as 2009 draftees Curry and Harden is problematic, however. While CP3 is an elite point guard, he isn't a premier scorer or perennial MVP candidate in the mold of the other two. Even more troubling is Paul's age compared to the other two. At 32, he is five years older than his new Rockets teammate and three years Curry's senior. He will be 38 at the end of his reported contract extension. With no guarantees that they can present a worthy rival to Curry's Warriors in the West, it seems like a lot to commit to a team that may still not be good enough.
2 Otto Porter - Four Years, $106.5 Million
The perils of the offer sheet struck again with Otto Porter, whom Brooklyn attempted to snatch away from the Washington Wizards with an onerous contract offer to the restricted free agent. The Wizards matched the offer and will retain the 24-year-old small forward, but surely team brass had to grimace a little bit before they committed over $26 million a year for the next four years to a career 9.3 point per game scorer. Even teammate John Wall, who stands to make $18 million less than Porter over the next two years despite being clearly established as the team's star, seemed to throw the former Georgetown star under the bus by suggesting that Paul George would have been a significant upgrade.
While its possible that Porter makes good on his promise stemming from being the No. 3 overall pick in 2013, $106.5 million is a very big risk to take on a largely unproven commodity. The Wall comments also hint at an internal awkwardness stemming from a team salary structure that will now see their third-highest scorer from a season ago - by a long shot, no less - become their highest paid player. The already cap strung Wizards are now essentially handcuffed by a core of Wall, Porter, Bradley Beal, Ian Mahinmi and Marcin Gortat that will pull in $94 million this coming season.
1 Blake Griffin - Five Years, $173 Million
The Los Angeles Clippers found themselves at a crossroads heading into this summer. For all the excitement that their All-Star roster has created in the years since Blake Griffin was taken first overall in 2009, the franchise's Conference Finals drought has persisted. On top of that, the club's core came under siege thanks to the pending free agency of Griffin and Chris Paul, arguably the two primary founders of Lob City. Facing some tough decisions, the brain trust of team president / head coach Doc Rivers and GM Dave Wohl opted for a middle ground between rebuilding and going all-in, shipping Paul to Houston and resigning Griffin.
The Paul move was sound. For as valued as CP3 was in LA, there was no clear path to improvement with the aging point guard at the helm - especially given the mega-extension he appears primed to get from the Rockets. By getting a litany of assets in return, headlined by Patrick Beverly and Sam Dekker, the club did well to maximize the value of a player they were set to lose for nothing. Resigning Griffin is a little tougher to understand. While a forward-heavy core of he, DeAndre Jordan and new addition Danilo Galinari might be enough to maintain a playoff spot in the West, it simply doesn't carry the upside to justify the $34 million per year that Griffin will earn. Though only 28 years of age, his numbers have dipped a bit and injuries have cropped up, pointing to a possible decline in the athleticism that has made him such a compelling superstar. This is one contract that bears watching.
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