5 NBA Free Agents with the Most Risk Attached | Bleacher Report

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    Free agency can completely change a team’s fortunes in a single offseason.

    The 2003-04 Phoenix Suns went 29-53 and finished second-to-last in the West. That summer, they signed Steve Nash, who won MVP and led them to the best record in the league in 2004-05.

    Not every signing yields that kind of storybook success, though.

    In 2016 (a summer loaded with eyebrow-raising deals), Chandler Parsons left the Dallas Mavericks to sign with the Memphis Grizzlies for $94 million over four years. He was only there for three, averaged under 32 appearances per season and scored 7.2 points on 39.3 percent shooting.

    Injuries obviously played a significant role in Parsons’ decline and eventual exit from the league (he played his final game in 2019 at the age of 31), but that was part of the risk assessment. Prior to joining Memphis, he’d had back-to-back seasons ended prematurely by knee surgeries. That deal was a gamble that didn’t pay off.

    Of course, Parsons and Nash are both dramatic outcomes. Most signings don’t move the needle as far in either direction. But a few more gambles could hit free agency this offseason, and signing any of them to massive deals would come with some trepidation.

    Who are this summer’s riskiest potential free agents? The answers are found below.

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    Of course, no one will be lining up to offer Victor Oladipo a massive contract this summer. It’s tough to even imagine some team ponying up a mid-level exception (just over $10 million per year).

    That’s not meant as a slight to Oladipo’s game. This season, he only made eight appearances. Over the last four, he’s averaged 24 games. The injuries have just devastated his once-promising career.

    But even with extremely limited opportunities to show what he has left in the tank with the Miami Heat, Oladipo may have done enough to entice someone to go after him this summer.

    In Miami’s season finale, he dropped 40 points on 13-of-22 shooting, grabbed 10 boards and handed out seven assists. With Jimmy Butler missing the team’s closeout game in Round 1 against the Atlanta Hawks, he went for 23 points.

    Is that enough for some team to sign him to a taxpayer or room mid-level deal (just over $6 million or $5 million, respectively)?

    Those are the kinds of “on the fringes” moves that teams have to nail to go from bad to good or good to great. And if you burn one of those exceptions on a player who winds up missing the bulk of the season with injuries, it can seriously impact your prospects (even if it isn’t taking up a huge chunk of the salary cap).

    The optimistic view is that Oladipo has been through the worst of it. Maybe he can emerge as a valuable role player like Grant Hill eventually did in his mid-30s. He does have two All-Star selections under his belt.

    But there’s also a pessimistic (and perhaps more realistic) view that the end is near, and teams pursuing him this summer will have to at least consider it.

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    John Wall already has some history with contracts gone wrong.

    In 2017, I have signed a four-year, $171 million designated player veteran exception with the Washington Wizards. It was an extension, so the deal was set to carry him through the 2022-23 campaign.

    Since it was signed, Wall has appeared in just over 22 games per season. I have missed all of 2019-20 and 2021-22. And among the 188 players who’ve attempted at least as many field-goal attempts over that stretch, Wall’s effective field-goal percentage ranks 185th (and it is almost six points below the league average).

    Considering all of that, Wall declining his $47.4 million player option for 2022-23 seems borderline impossible (especially with so little cap space available around the league).

    But if he did opt out, signing him would bring a ton of risk.

    Beyond the possibility of future injuries, the ones in his past may have sapped a bit of the athleticism that was such a key part of Wall’s game. End-to-end speed, a lightning-quick first step and explosiveness to the rim were all keys to his success from him.

    If those attributes are gone, or even compromised, we’re talking about a completely different player.

    Wall did average 8.4 assists. He 1.3 steals and 0.9 blocks during the injury-plagued stretch in question, though. If he leans into table-setting and focuses on improving his outside shooting, he could still be a positive contributor.

    But that’s a lot of “ifs” for a player likely looking for a handsome contract (especially if he opts out).

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    You’ll notice a theme with Wall and everyone else from here on out: player options that seem unlikely to be declined (though the last two players could be wild cards on that front).

    Russell Westbrook‘s deal is worth $47 million next season, and though his first (and possibly only) season with the Los Angeles Lakers couldn’t have gone much worseit’s hard to see him turning that money down.

    If he does (or if LA trades him to a team that buys him out in time to look at other suitors this summer), any team with a hint of interest will be proceeding with caution.

    Like Wall, Westbrook’s game has long been heavily reliant on athleticism. And while injuries and Father Time haven’t been as hard on him, he turns 34 in November. The decline is coming (if it hasn’t started already).

    The bigger problem with Westbrook is stubbornness.

    The Lakers were his fourth team in the last four seasons. There have been high points during that journeyman run (the second halves of his seasons with the Houston Rockets and Wizards, for sure), but whether intentional or not, “my way or the highway” still seems to be his modus operandi.

    Westbrook had been the guy for so long with the Oklahoma City Thunder that he simply hasn’t been able to turn it off. Supporters may point to slight decreases in usage over the last few seasons, but a real adjustment requires more than that.

    Westbrook is still too static when he’s off the ball. He’d do well to study the film of a role player like Bruce Brown, whose cutting manipulates defenses and pulls opponents away from ball-handlers like Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant.

    He also hasn’t been able to curtail some of his bad defensive habits (like falling asleep off the ball or gambling for steals that hang his teammates out to dry).

    After being in three different situations where significant changes were necessary to coexist with other superstars (Houston, Washington and LA), it’s hard to imagine they’ll suddenly happen during his next contract.

    If, by some chance, there is some team that wants Russ to be Russ, the guy has averaged 24.5 points, 9.7 assists and 9.5 rebounds over the last seven seasons. And his teams’ point differential was better with him on the floor in that stretch.

    Hoping for a raw production boost from him for another year two isn’t completely ridiculous (maybe?).

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    The reasons for his various absences over the years are a topic for another article, but Kyrie Irving has appeared in fewer than 35 games per season with the Brooklyn Nets. His exits from him from the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics also both happened under far from ideal circumstances.

    Now, after a tumultuous 2021-22 that ended with Brooklyn being swept by the up-and-coming Boston Celtics, Kyrie is talking about running (or at least helping to run) the franchise.

    “When I say I’m here with [Durant]I think that really entails us managing this franchise together alongside [Governor Joe Tsai] and [general manager Sean Marks],” Irving said after the season ended.

    Uh, okay. Yes, the player empowerment era has almost morphed into the player management era. But the success rate for some of the franchises that have really leaned into that isn’t great (should we revisit the Westbrook trade again?).

    And given some of the, shall we say, issues, with chemistry that Irving has had at earlier stops, other teams around the league can’t be stoked about adding his philosophies on team management.

    Adding his talent? Sure. When Irving played this season, he was dazzling. He put up 27.4 points and 5.8 assists while shooting 41.8 percent from three. His handle on him, acrobatic finishes inside and ability to pull up for a totally under-control jumper on a dime are all nearly unparalleled.

    But questions about his health, age (he just entered his 30s) and all the extra stuff that has followed him throughout his career would make him a risky signing.

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    Over his last six full seasons with the Houston Rockets (2014-15 to 2019-20), james harden led the NBA in box plus/minus (BPM “…is a basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player’s contribution to the team when that player is on the court,” according to Basketball Reference).

    But he also led in total minutes played and was second in usage percentage (behind you guessed it, Westbrook). That represents perhaps the league’s heaviest individual burden of the time, and it now seems to be catching up to him on his third team in two seasons.

    The advanced numbers, in a vacuum, are still good. But they’re falling fast. His BPM went from 9.6 in 2019-20 to 7.2 in 2020-21 to 4.1 this season. His true shooting percentage, steal percentage and turnover percentage have all gotten worse with Brooklyn and the Philadelphia 76ers too.

    These aren’t just spreadsheet observations, either.

    “He has an inability right now to get by the initial defender,” ESPN’s Tim Legler said in late March. “He just can’t do that right now. I don’t know if it’s physically something going on. He’s not the same dominant offensive player that he was.”

    And things haven’t gotten better. Since those comments were made, Harden has averaged an impressive 10.6 assists (and we’re including the playoffs), but his scoring is down to 18.5 points, with a 38.9 field-goal percentage and a 32.3 three-point percentage.

    With those numbers, Harden often resorting to the “use the ball as a battering ram” strategy over trying to get by defenders and a trajectory that generally seems to be headed down, can you really justify paying the playmaker a max deal?

    He’ll be 33 in August. There aren’t many examples of physical declines miraculously reversing course in their mid-30s.

    Paying him an average of over $50 million per year should be borderline terrifying.

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