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Paul Sancya/Associated Press
Free-agency signings have the potential to pan out—for now. But the league will eventually have to play the games. That barrier separating uncurbed optimism from brass tacks will be stripped down and reassembled into cold, hard, necessary reality checks.
For the record: That won’t happen with every team. Certain situations are safe. Kevin Durant will not go belly-up for the Golden State Warriors. LeBron James is not a curse masquerading as a blessing for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Potential busts are reserved for contracts and additions with ingrained risks and noxious consequences. And these caveats can be anything.
A new player may be an exceptionally poor fit. Contract values could fail to align with current and future values. Harmless-seeming deals might have undefined downside. Win-now windows may have been unnecessarily hamstrung. Locker room chemistry might be alarmingly fragile.
Every unflattering scenario is on the table. Many of the selected deals and team fits will turn out just fine. Others will backfire; some always do. Each free agent, though, is in danger of being remembered as “that mistake Team X made during the 2018 offseason.”
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John Raoux/Associated Press
Age (as of Feb. 1): 23
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.8 blocks, 43.4 percent shooting, 33.6 percent three-point shooting
Contract Details: 4 years, $84 million
Aaron Gordon’s contract could technically be considered a mistake before he retakes the court. The Orlando Magic locked him down July 1, but waiting for him to explore the field might have saved them a few shekels. Another team could have tossed him an offer sheet, but this summer’s market has already squeezed fellow restricted free-agent bigs.
Clint Capela remains unsigned, and Jabari Parker and Julius Randle ended up on two-year deals. The leverage just hasn’t been there for the 2014 draft class. Gordon is no different, even if the Magic believe he has the highest ceiling of this player pool. (He doesn’t.)
Having Gordon set his own market in a more official capacity could have bruised his ego or ruffled his feathers. Relationships are a part of this business. The Magic have purchased some goodwill with their could-be cornerstone. That’ll prove valuable down the line if his stock explodes and they’re trying to re-sign him as an unrestricted free agent in 2022.
Orlando’s decision is already paying off in some ways. Gordon’s deal unfurls on a declining scale. The front office will have a slightly easier time retooling around him as other pacts expire. Letting Gordon sign an offer sheet elsewhere would have opened the Magic up to a less palatable structure.
This remains an overpay anyway. Gordon has yet to find his niche on the offensive end. He should primarily be a lob-catcher and rim-runner who finishes the occasional pick-and-pop. His usage thus far infers that he, the team or both see something more.
Grooming Gordon as a featured weapon could blow up in everyone’s face. His progression as a scorer and spacer is overstated. He shot under 30 percent on pull-up jumpers last season and just 30 percent from three after the Magic’s 8-4 start.
Partnering him with Mo Bamba and Jonathan Isaac only complicates his development. All three will play together at some point, which is fine in a nutshell. Positional designations are prisons. But neither Gordon nor Isaac can function like a wing on the more glamorous end.
Orlando’s offensive efficiency generally cratered when they shared the floor with a big, according to Cleaning The Glass. If Gordon doesn’t break right as scorer or floor-spacer and the defense doesn’t crack the league’s upper crust, the Magic will have a tough-to-trade roadblock on their ledger.
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Scott Taetsch/Getty Images
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.6 points, 12.5 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.6 blocks, 55.5 percent shooting
Contract Details: 2 years, $11 million
Good job, Washington Wizards.
Howard’s arrival poses minimal risk at first glance. The Wizards aren’t into him for too much money or too many years. And per John Wall‘s request, they needed an athletic diver at the 5. Howard is past his athletic peak, but he plays above the rim more than Marcin Gortat and can still operate on a swivel at the defensive end.
What could possibly go wrong? Everything.
Washington is putting Howard, Wall, Bradley Beal, Markieff Morris, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Austin Rivers in the same locker room. Their behind-the-scenes interactions and players-only meetings are going to single-handedly ignite a new golden age of content aggregation.
Even Wall, a fan of this move, has acknowledged Howard’s capricious personality and functional stubbornness.
“I can’t force him. He has to want to be able to change on his own,” Wall said, per the Washington Post‘s Candace Buckner. “But I think he just helps our team, and that’s why he was probably the best center we could probably get at the time for our team.”
For argument’s sake, let’s assume Howard is finally ready to ditch visions of offensive grandeur and settle into his wheelhouse as a rim-runner and lob-finisher. The Wizards’ spacing warts may neutralize this tactical epiphany.
They finished fourth in three-point accuracy last year but were 23rd in attempts per 100 possessions. Their long-range reliability gets prickly after Beal and Otto Porter. Wall is more non-shooter than dependable option until he knocks down threes at a near-average clip in consecutive seasons. Morris and Oubre are wild cards. Rivers is a step above them. Jeff Green is Jeff Green.
Inserting Howard for Gortat fudges up the Wizards’ floor balance. They ran pick-and-pops as a means of opening lanes for their ball-handlers. Howard doesn’t have that kind of range. And he rated in the 42nd percentile of efficiency as the roll man with the Charlotte Hornets. The fit with Washington won’t be much cleaner if he’s not surrounded by more above-board jump-shooters.
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Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.7 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.0 steals, 38.3 percent shooting, 34.1 percent three-point shooting
Contract Details: 4 years, $78 million
The Chicago Bulls needn’t defend their decision to match the Sacramento Kings’ offer to Zach LaVine. He was the most coveted asset in the Jimmy Butler trade until Lauri Markkanen started doing his thing.
Letting LaVine walk for nothing would have been tough to stomach. He is still a kid, has never shot worse than 34.1 percent from downtown and doesn’t shy away from creating off the dribble. His decision-making isn’t the best. He has never drilled more than 39 percent of his pull-up jumpers (2016-17) and too easily falls in love with dumpy twos. But there remains value in his volume.
Confident from-scratch scorers on the right side of 25 are hard to find. Teams can work with overeager aplomb, even when the resulting shot selection is steeped in errancy. LaVine may be a project, but he’s a worthy one. Writing him off after a 24-game post-injury sample wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, have sat right.
Still, this contract could quickly turn. The transition from reasonable leap of faith to cap-clogging dreck won’t necessarily be a gradual one when so much obvious risk is caked in. As Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes wrote:
“This is All-Star money wasted on a one-way reserve. At 23, improvement is possible. But LaVine would have to morph into a different player for the Bulls to get what they’re paying for.
“His minus-2.14 defensive real plus-minus figure ranked 490th out of 521 qualified defenders last season. That’s bad enough before you realize LaVine’s 2017-18 DRPM was the best of his career.”
Chicago has a lot of money and sweat equity invested in the best-case scenario. The problem: It doesn’t know what the ideal outcome entails.
Did the Bulls wrap up LaVine at eventual market value? Will he improve on defense? Will his offensive game progress enough that his defense doesn’t matter? Is he this summer’s version of Tim Hardaway Jr.—that just-fine player who doesn’t move the needle and cannot even tangentially spearhead your rebuild? Could he be something less than that? The Bulls will have a better idea of what they’ve spent themselves into by midseason.
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Noah Graham/Getty Images
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 7.7 points, 1.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 0.5 steals, 45.9 percent shooting, 27 percent three-point shooting
Contract Details: 2 years, $10 million
Signing Tony Parker seems innocent enough. The Hornets needed a backup playmaker, and the Frenchman has a working relationship with new head coach James Borrego from their days in San Antonio.
But two years? Two guaranteed years? Really?
Parker is not an asset. He graded out as one of the Spurs’ two least valuable players in every season since 2013-14, according to NBA Math’s total points added. Tim Duncan was still a year away from retirement the last time San Antonio’s offense fared better with Parker in the game (2014-15).
Granting him any sort of control over the second unit does nothing for the Hornets. They’re better off giving reps to Malik Monk and trying to push the boundaries on Jeremy Lamb’s ball-handling.
Remember: While the offense was generally a hot mess without Kemba Walker last year, the bench placed first in points scored per 100 possessions after the All-Star break. Late-season returns can be skewed by surrounding tank jobs, but reading into grain-of-salt improvements beats shelling out two guaranteed years for Parker.
Play the mentorship card if you must. Kawhi Leonard will have a thing or 90 to say about that if he ever speaks again. Dejounte Murray also previously cited Jamal Crawford as his most trusted teacher.
Picking up Parker feels like another feeble attempt by the Hornets to delay an inevitable rebuild. (They re-acquired Bismack Biyombo as a way of adding value. Good times.) If anything, though, Parker’s arrival makes it more difficult for them to keep Walker beyond the trade deadline.
Relying on him in any meaningful capacity is a recipe for disappointment. And if that’s the plan, Charlotte’s record at the halfway mark will reflect as much. So, too, will the Walker rumor mill.
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Layne Murdoch/Getty Images
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 8.3 points, 4.0 rebounds, 8.2 assists, 1.1 steals, 46.8 percent shooting, 33.3 three-point shooting
Contract Details: 1 year, $9 million
One-year deals don’t typically warrant sounding the alarm. Overpays and awkward fits aren’t as problematic when they’re so temporary. Imperfect signings are often by design, a mechanism used for preserving future flexibility.
The Lakers’ moves following LeBron James’ arrival are subject to this line of thought. They’re also playing with a different, more dangerous brand of transience.
Stockpiling shooters has always been a default responsibility of James’ teams. The Lakers are going in a contrarian direction with Rajon Rondo. His outside stroke has improved in recent years. He swished 36.9 percent of his spot-up triples in 2015-16 and 40.6 percent in 2016-17. But his standstill clip plummeted to 31 percent last season. Defenses will have zero qualms leaving him unattended to pack the paint, trap James or throw extra bodies at actual shooters.
And yet, Rondo’s addition isn’t being portrayed as a last resort or premature judgment of the free-agent market. Rather, his contract has been finespun into a deliberate act—part of a larger plan from team president Magic Johnson that has, apparently, received James’ stamp of approval.
ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst explained:
“What Johnson pitched to James was a team stocked with tough-minded playmakers like [Lance] Stephenson and Rondo who could free up James to finish in the lanes and from the post, rather than having to create the lion’s share of the offense himself.
“Rondo and Stephenson are also defensively versatile, as their length enables them to be effective defenders in switches. That also follows with the talents of the 6’6″ [Lonzo] Ball, who showed the ability to be an elite rebounder and defender for a guard in his rookie year.”
Assuming the Lakers’ premise deserves the benefit of the doubt (it doesn’t), Rondo barely fits the requisite mold. He doesn’t allow James to play off the ball; he demands it. He’s mostly a non-factor if he’s not dominating the action.
Ignore this, along with the adverse impact it could have on learning-curve reps for Ball and Brandon Ingram, and the Rondo signing is…still weird. He isn’t a real defensive asset until April begins bleeding into May, and the Lakers will invite closed-door tension no matter who is dubbed the starting point guard between him and Ball.
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Ron Hoskins/Getty Images
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 9.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.6 steals, 42.7 percent shooting, 28.9 percent three-point shooting
Contract Details: 1 year, $4.5 million
Yes, yes, yes: another Laker. On a one-year deal. This is real life—and not a reach.
Lance Stephenson is further evidence of Los Angeles’ wacky approach to building around James. He qualifies as a playmaker and defender in theory. He’s much less valuable in practice.
Viral antics are misappropriated as warm and fuzzy cliches: hustle, engagement, desire, etc. Really, Stephenson’s shenanigans are nothing more than distractive folklore—anecdotes with the shelf life of a lightning bolt that, somehow, fortify a defensive reputation defying actuality.
His playmaking resume is similarly misinterpreted. Ball dominance should not be confused for floor-general IQ. He is probably the Lakers’ seventh- or eighth-best option to run a pick-and-roll.
If Stephenson cannot control the fate of half-court possessions, he’s of insignificant use. He shot 31.9 percent on catch-and-fire threes last season and is an unspectacular cutter for someone with his north-to-south gust.
Look at his signing next to Rondo’s, and the Lakers aren’t just set up for a single season’s worth of potential clumsiness. Larger issues are afoot. As ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe noted: “Almost nothing they’ve done since signing LeBron suggests they have any coherent vision, or have followed the NBA since 2011—the last time Rajon Rondo was the plus defender they will surely tout him as.”
One year is one year is one year. James is on board with this whatever plan. Los Angeles is not in real danger of failing to end its playoff drought. I get it. But James is entering his age-34 season. Punting on a year of his prime for cap space’s sake is objectively ridiculous.
It would be different if the Lakers were deferring to 2019-20 so the kiddies-plus-Bron core could marinate. They’re not—at least, not entirely. That’s dangerous territory to be in, even if only for a year, when the best possible reward doesn’t include an NBA Finals cameo.