During the off-season, the job of NBA front offices is simple: improve the on-court product without jeopardizing the team’s long-term outlook via albatross contracts. Every franchise should aim to target superstars, fall back on mid-tier free agents with palatable contracts or even just sit on its hands to maintain precious cap space (as difficult as that may be).
Take the Phoenix Suns’ off-season as an example. The desert dwellers are not going to compete in the Western Conference anytime soon. The Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers and others are positioned to maintain a stranglehold out West. So, instead of panicking and gifting a mid-tier player a massive payday, the Suns signed swingman Jared Dudley to a modest three-year, $30 million deal and picked up former Sixth Man of the Year Leandro Barbosa on a two-year, $8 million contract. The two former Suns will provide a veteran locker room presence without breaking the bank.
Of course, not every franchise was as reserved as Phoenix this summer. As happens every year, a number of teams overpaid players who may not carry adequate value now or into the future.
My PointAfter colleague, Will Laws, developed a metric called Free Agent Quotient last year to determine a free agent’s value based on his age, player efficiency rating, win shares, value over replacement player and box plus-minus. The scale of FAQ is roughly as follows:
Using a player’s FAQ relative to his free-agent peers, we’ll determine some of the worst deals of the off-season based on the money received.
Harrison Barnes, Dallas Mavericks
FAQ (Rank Among FAs): 9.3 (26th)
Contract: Four years, $94 million
I already wrote about why Harrison Barnes isn’t worth a max contract, so I’ll try not to belabor that point. That being said, the Mavs are banking on a breakout from Barnes with this deal.
As a point of comparison, consider that veteran small-ball power forward Marvin Williams netted a four-year, $54.5 million deal to remain with the Charlotte Hornets—a much more favorable deal financially compared to Barnes. The PointAfter visualization below compares each player’s stats from last season.
Williams averaged the same amount of points (a full point more per 36 minutes), made a higher percentage of his threes and free throws, grabbed more rebounds, blocked more shots and had a superior PER. He was also more durable, playing in 81 games compared to Barnes’s 66.
The only big advantage Barnes holds is youth. At 24, Barnes still has plenty of time to develop into an All-Star-caliber player. However, it should have been concerning for Dallas that Golden State was actually marginally worse offensively when Barnes was on the court last season, even though he was part of the notorious Death Lineup.
That would be more understandable for a bench player who doesn’t often get to play with the team’s top talents, but Barnes played the overwhelming majority of his minutes alongside Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and/or Draymond Green, per Basketball Reference.
Additionally, Warriors’ opponents were more productive when Barnes was on the court, which doesn’t speak highly of his defensive contributions.
The advanced stats back up that narrative, as Barnes recorded a defensive box plus-minus of -0.6.
Perhaps max deals to DeMar DeRozan, Mike Conley or Chandler Parsons look just as egregious to some, but those players are all more established players and have consistently been relied upon as more than a team’s fourth option.
Evan Turner, Portland Trail Blazers
FAQ (Rank Among FAs): -4.5 (51st)
Contract: Four years, $70 million
Pegged as worse than an average starter by FAQ, Turner cashed in with Portland to the tune of $70 million over four years. With the Blazers already having the backcourt tandem of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, this seems a curious fit from a basketball standpoint.
Turner is a solid distributor for a forward (he dished out 4.4 assists per game last season), but he needs the ball in his hands in order to operate. In theory, that will take away playmaking duties from Lillard and McCollum, who are elite scorers. The duo ranked 6th and 18th, respectively, in points per game.
Career highs in scoring for both players were tied to increased usage rates. Lillard’s usage hit 31.3% in his first season without LaMarcus Aldridge, and McCollum’s reached 27.1% in his first year as the full-time starter. Could Portland be sacrificing some offense next year if those figures go down?
Most coaches would rather have one of those two guards leading the charge, but that leaves a bit of a quandary. Turner is one of the last guys in the league you’d want spotting up for open threes off the ball. The former No. 2 pick made a paltry 24.1% of his threes in 2015–16, which would have ranked dead last in the league if he shot enough to qualify.
In a league that has become so dependent upon spreading the floor and knocking down the three-ball, players without that skill need the perfect situation to succeed. Turner found that as Boston’s sixth man. And while a starting gig in Portland reportedly has not been promised, $70 million would be a lot of money to pay a bench player.
Timofey Mozgov, Los Angeles Lakers
FAQ (Rank Among FAs): -5.0 (53rd)
Contract: Four years, $64 million
Even though the cap is exploding, making virtually every deal signed this summer look absurd, it’s difficult to defend Mozgov’s new contract with the Los Angeles Lakers.
The 7′ 1″ center is 29 years old and if you can believe it, is older than former Lakers center Roy Hibbert. Say what you will about Hibbert, but the former Georgetown Hoya has two All-Stars and one All-Defensive Second Team nod under his belt, in addition to a justified reputation as a reliable rim protector. (He reportedly signed a one-year, $5 million deal with Charlotte.)
Mozgov, on the other hand, averaged 6.3 points and 4.4 rebounds for the Cleveland Cavaliers last season. He was essentially glued to the bench during the NBA Finals (and playoffs overall), because Cleveland embraced offensive spacing and outside shooting.
Mozgov has had some good performances in the past, but enough to warrant a $64 million commitment after he became a complete afterthought in the postseason?
Adding insult to injury for Lakers fans going through success withdrawals is the fact that the Trail Blazers reportedly signed free-agent center Festus Ezeli to a two-year, $16 million deal. Ezeli is three years younger by comparison and will make Mozgov’s yearly salary over the span of two seasons. (Cut to Lakers fans shaking their heads.)
Adding a veteran presence in Luol Deng to mentor young players was a savvy move by L.A.’s front office. Overpaying for Mozgov was not.
Joakim Noah, New York Knicks
FAQ (Rank Among FAs): -10.3 (60th)
Contract: Four years, $72 million
Joakim Noah brings veteran know-how, grit, hustle and a sky-high basketball IQ to the table, but he finds himself among the worst deals of the off-season due to age, injury woes and team fit.
Reduced largely to a bench role in 2015–16, Noah spent most of the season dealing with injuries. He played a career-low 29 games, and while he doesn’t have a reputation of being injury-prone, the big man certainly hasn’t been durable.
In fact, Noah has missed double-digit games in five of his nine NBA seasons.
Paying a 31-year-old $72 million fresh off his most trying season in terms of health, coupled with the history of games missed, should be troubling for Knicks fans. Few (if any) big men tend to get better with age, and Noah is starting a four-year deal already on the wrong side of 30.
Adding to those disconcerting factors are the pieces in house. With Kristaps Porzingis and Carmelo Anthony already firmly entrenched in New York’s frontcourt, is Noah truly a good fit?
According to 82games.com, Anthony recorded a PER of 24.2 when playing at the four last season, and a 20.6 PER at small forward. He held opposing power forwards to a 10.6 PER. Opposing small forwards notched a 14.1 PER.
Since Anthony seems to be flat-out better as a small-ball power forward, Porzingis should slide down to the center spot as a stretch 5. He doesn’t have the strength necessary to guard opposing centers yet, but his outside shooting chops make him a matchup nightmare. Under new head coach Jeff Hornacek, who loved pushing the pace and experimenting with dual-point-guard lineups in Phoenix, those positions make even more sense for Anthony and Porzingis, respectively.
Noah will improve New York’s defense if he stays healthy, but the Knicks should be investing heavily in Porzingis’s development. This move, paired with others New York has made (see: Rose, Derrick), has added a lot of mismatched clutter around the team’s young budding star.
The “win-now” mantra could very well be moving the Knicks franchise in the wrong direction.