Last summer, the NBA’s salary cap spiked upward in a way we had never seen before. The result was a bevy of contracts that, by previous standards, were enormous. Most look fine now, in accordance with the cap spike, but the bad contracts look much worse than normal.
Instead of Allen Crabbe and Evan Turner being minor annoyances to the Portland Trail Blazers’ cap space, the two will keep the team from making any moves in free agency this year and vault them into the luxury tax. If the Los Angeles Lakers want to go after Paul George this summer, they have to move Timofey Mozgov or Luol Deng first.
Entering last summer, there were different theories among teams as to how the cap spike would affect player value. Since it had never gone up by that much, nobody knew what would happen. This list looks at the nine worst contracts of last summer. Players like Mozgov and Deng signed contracts worth more than the career earnings of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, combined.
There are three repeat offenders on this list: the Lakers, Blazers, and Orlando Magic. Those teams anticipated player value to jump significantly more than it actually did. Thus, the Lakers were trying to sign Mozgov to a $64 million deal at 12:01 on July 1, while the rest of the league sat by idly and laughed.
Last summer was unique. We’ll probably never see an NBA free agent summer as hectic with as few superstars on the move. The league was like the stock market, circa 1928, and some were overpaid worse than others.
Timofey Mozgov, four years, $64 million, Los Angeles Lakers
The first signing of last summer is, perhaps, the worst. Former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak had Mozgov inked by 12:30 on July 1 for a truly stupefying amount of money. One season later, the deal looks just as bad as it did at 12:31.
On a per game basis, Mozgov averaged 7.4 points and 4.9 rebounds. He shot 51.5 percent from the field, despite 79.4 percent of his shots coming within 10 feet of the basket. The team shut him down after 54 games to help the tanking process, but it’s tough to see a future for Mozgov in L.A..
Second rounder Ivica Zubac was better than expected at center, even if the expectation was nothing. There’s a backlog at power forward, which resulted in Larry Nance playing 16 percent of his minutes at center. Would it surprise anyone if he, or Julius Randle, end up playing 15 minutes a game at the position next season? We haven’t even gotten to Brandon Ingram’s inevitable move to power forward within the next two years.
If you need any more reason to hate this signing, Mozgov (and Luol Deng — more on him in a second), may swallow up enough cap space to put a roadblock in front of a potential Paul George signing. When a star that big is on the line, you find ways to work around roadblocks. But if it does get to that point, the Lakers will have to start throwing assets at teams to get them to take a contract this bad. That gets all the more harder if the team loses their pick this year, which would mean they also lose their pick in 2019 and can’t trade their picks in 2018 or 2020 because of the Stepian Rule.
It’s easy to see why Kupchak got canned.
Luol Deng, four years, $72 million, Los Angeles Lakers
Now for part two of the Lakers’ disastrous 2016 offseason: Luol Deng.
Like Mozgov, Deng was shut down midway through the season as part of the team’s effort to tank. And, like Mozgov, this signing looks as terrible now as it did at the time it happened, for largely similar reasons.
In the first year of the deal — supposedly the best, as Deng is now 31 years old — the veteran barely averaged 10 points per 36 minutes. He shot below 40 percent from the field and a terrible 31.1 percent from three. He had a 1.72 assist-to-turnover ratio, a well below-average 10.1 PER and a -2.5 box plus-minus. Again, this was supposed to (and will likely be) his best year with the Lakers.
Deng’s contract has the same effect on cap space as Mozgov’s and is just as hard to trade. Within the Lakers’ rotation, his presence isn’t quite as stifling, but Brandon Ingram should be getting the bulk of the minutes at small forward. There’s also a chance, however slight, that the Lakers end up with Josh Jackson or Jayson Tatum in the draft, small forwards both. If they end up with point guards Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball and re-sign Nick Young, the ripple effect could force Young to small forward full time.
In either scenario Deng is the obvious odd man out in the rotation, but his contract makes it impossible to bench him. More likely, the Lakers end up letting Young walk in free agency (which makes it all the more stupefying that they didn’t trade him in February). Even if re-signing him was feasible from a rotational standpoint, his pay raise would further hinder the Lakers’ ability to sign a superstar, another ripple effect of Deng’s contract.
Joakim Noah, four years, $72 million, New York Knicks
— 🐰Easter Wobby🐰 (@World_Wide_Wob) April 12, 2017
In a summer of bloated contracts, Joakim Noah might be the worst and it might not be that close. He played just 46 games before being shut down with a torn left rotator cuff, in which he averaged 8.2 points and 14.2 rebounds per 36 minutes. Like Deng and Mozgov, the first year of Noah’s contract was supposed to be his best year of the contract.
Noah had a true shooting percentage of 49.5 percent, capping an all-around horrible season offensively. Defensively, where he should have been in his wheelhouse, Noah looked out of his element.
The Knicks — not a stalwart defensive team — were three points per 100 possessions better on the defensive end without Noah on the floor.
On the ever-growing list of Phil Jackson’s failures, Noah is at the top. The Knicks are stuck paying an injury-prone, aging center who’s always relied on his defensive game top dollar for the next three seasons. Defense is the first thing to decline with age, something we saw firsthand in each of the 46 games Noah played this season.
When next year starts, Noah will be 32, and coming off an injury. He’ll be playing in the toxic environment of Madison Square Garden, with God knows who around him. After Phil Jackson’s stunning presser and the fallout surrounding it, anything is in play. The only thing Knicks fans should hope for (other than a new president of basketball operations), is that the team finds a way to offload Noah’s deal.
Jeff Green, one year, $15 million, Orlando Magic
The short length of this deal makes it pale in comparison to some of the others on this list. However, the Magic learned the same lesson as Boston, Memphis, and the Clippers: don’t pin your hopes on Jeff Green.
Green’s 44.2 effective field goal percentage exemplifies the inefficiency by which his career has been defined. He shot just 27.5 percent from three — unacceptable from a forward in today’s league — with a 10.5 PER. Green didn’t rebound particularly well, and if you expected his passing to save the season you probably haven’t watched much of Jeff Green. Defensively, Green was predictably bad, with a -1.32 defensive real plus-minus and -1.8 defensive box plus-minus.
Unlike most other deals on this list, this won’t harm Orlando in the long term. In fact, with Green hitting 31 next season and going into free agency on the heels of a terrible season, it’s tough to see anyone paying him more than the veteran minimum. However, Green’s contract does exemplify the nature of last summer’s free agent class.
We knew coming in that we would see bloated contracts, but we didn’t realize just how bloated. There’s no world in which Jeff Green was worth $15 million, cap spike or not. Even with the cap going up again by a smaller amount, we won’t see as many contracts like this because the bubble has burst.
Nicolas Batum, five years, $120 million, Charlotte Hornets
The Hornets didn’t have much choice but to give Batum this massive deal after they traded Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh for him in the summer of 2015. After that, Batum followed up with a career year. Letting him walk in free agency would have destroyed a trade which, at the time, looked great for Charlotte.
However, Batum simply hasn’t lived up to the contract. The drop-off hasn’t been drastic and has mostly come in shooting and defense. Batum looks more like the player who the Portland Trail Blazers deemed expendable than the one who helped carry the Hornets to the playoffs. He shot just 40.3 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from three — both drops from last season.
Defensively, Batum was in the negative on real plus-minus and opposing effective field goal percentage ticked up when he was in the game. All told, Batum’s Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) was just 2.1, his lowest since 2011-12. It wasn’t a massive decline, but for the first of a five-year, nine-figure contract, it was alarming.
This mistake won’t haunt Charlotte like others will to their respective teams. Batum is still a fine wing, he’s just taking up an exorbitant amount of cap space. It limits Charlotte’s options in free agency, and in a couple of years when Batum’s decline is more obvious, it will start to seriously weigh them down.
Chandler Parsons, four years, $94 million, Memphis Grizzlies
When Memphis gave Chandler Parsons a massive deal, it had to know he was a massive injury risk. Apparently, the franchise just ignored that factor. Parsons was in and out of the lineup, never playing more than eight games in a row, until the Grizzlies shut him down in March with a partially torn meniscus.
The 34 games Parsons played this season were a career low, and he hasn’t played over 70 since 2013-14. And while a 34-game sample size, taken while a player was dealing with various injuries, is far from indicative, Parsons didn’t look great when healthy.
Parsons scored just 11.2 points per 36 minutes, with a 7.6 PER. One of the bigger reasons Memphis signed him was to help its spacing, but Parsons shot just 33.8 percent from the field. From three, he was a lowly 26.9 percent. Defensively, Parsons has never been particularly strong and this season was no different. The Grit-n-Grind were nearly four points per 100 possessions worse defensively when Parsons was on court.
Again, take heed in small sample sizes, but this looks bad for everyone involved. Next season, Parsons will be coming off knee surgery. In two years more he’ll be in his thirties and will being paid $24.1 and $25.1 million. Parsons was Memphis’ first big free agency get, ever (not including Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, who were members of the team before they signed big contracts.) A year in, it looks like the Grizzlies may be better served building through the draft.
Evan Turner, four years, $70 million, Portland Trail Blazers
Turner’s contract didn’t make sense when it was signed and it doesn’t make sense now. This isn’t so much a case of decline as it is a case of simply overpaying someone.
Turner shot 42.6 percent from the field with a heavy dose of mid-range shots. He rarely took a three and when he did, Turner shot just 26.3 percent. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists per 36 minutes and had an 11.4 PER while playing lackluster defense. In other words, Evan Turner is exactly what we thought he was.
Exactly why Blazers general manager Neil Olshey devoted $70 million to a player who had similar numbers to those last year and the year before is a question without an answer. Turner has never had a PER above the league average of 15 — in fact, he’s never had a PER above 14, and his main skill is offense.
The Blazers managed to stay above water this year and made the playoffs, but in signing Turner (and Allen Crabbe; more on him in a bit), they’ve handicapped themselves for the future. Olshey’s goal heading into last summer was to take the next step and turn Portland into a title contender. Instead, he may have prevented it from becoming one.
Bismack Biyombo, four years, $72 million, Orlando Magic
Bismack Biyombo says he's going to take his summer very seriously. He knows the recipe, now he just has to do it pic.twitter.com/9WFRJwV2pC
— Courtney Jasmin (@CourtneyWESH2) April 13, 2017
So, in the end, it turned out giving a player $72 million based mostly on two playoff games didn’t work out. After Biyombo’s all-world performance in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, then-Magic general manager Rob Hennigan decided to splurge on Biyombo, which didn’t make sense at the time for a litany of reasons.
First and foremost, that move, in conjunction with trading for power forward Serge Ibaka on draft night, forced power forward Aaron Gordon to play the bulk of his minutes at small forward. That helped stunt both Gordon’s development and Orlando’s chances of winning. Furthermore, playing Gordon, Ibaka and Biyombo together was a spacing nightmare. That three-man group was outscored by 8.4 points per 100 possessions before Hennigan dealt Ibaka to Toronto in February.
For the team’s $72 million investment in Biyombo, it got 9.7 points and 11.4 rebounds per 36 minutes, which translated to a 14.2 PER. Even his defense, the only sure thing about Biyombo’s game, saw notable decline. In Toronto last year, opponents shot just 49.6 inside six feet with Biyombo defending. This season, that number shot up to 59.4 percent.
If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that Biyombo will be 25 next season. Even if they’re overpaying, the Magic still get him in his prime and there’s a chance his defensive performance this year was a mere aberration. Although his age has come into dispute, the Magic are probably still getting Biyombo’s best years. That alone makes this contract better than the likes of Mozgov, Deng and Noah.
Allen Crabbe, four years, $75 million, Portland Trail Blazers
Crabbe represents the other end of Portland’s disastrous duo of contracts given out last summer. A more efficient scorer than Turner, Crabbe can shoot. But no team should be paying $75 million for a bench scorer. Sure, Crabbe is scoring 13.5 points per 36 on 44.4 percent shooting from three, but that’s about it.
Crabbe is averaging only 1.5 assists per 36, shoots just 43.9 percent on drives to the basket, is a non-factor in the pick-and-roll and a terrible defender. The Blazers are 2.5 points per 100 possession worse with Crabbe on the floor, and his -2.54 real plus-minus — 76th among shooting guards — is almost entirely the result of a defensive RPM that ranks 95th at the position.
As with Turner, the Blazers knew what they were getting when they offered this deal — Crabbe has played his entire career in Portland — which serves to make it all the more baffling. On a list of bad contracts, Crabbe’s may qualify as the best solely because he turned 25 last week and will most likely improve on the defensive end. However, that doesn’t mean he’ll ever be worth $75 million.
The Blazers can’t go after a superstar this summer, in large part because of Turner and Crabbe’s contracts. Right now, their projected salaries are at $140 million, well over the projected salary cap of $102 million and into the luxury tax. In handing out money to mediocre players, the Blazers have strapped themselves to mediocrity for the near future.