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NBA free agency is a rough game that produces winners and losers.
Seriously, Google it. Everybody separates free-agency participants into those two categories. It’s an “NBA in 2018” requirement.
Here, we’re getting even more critical. This is about identifying the teams that are royally messing up—the ones squandering huge opportunities or even compromising their shots at long-term competitiveness.
Qualifying here means a team is actively doing something negative. Maybe it’s overpaying new players or not spending enough to keep old ones. Maybe it’s not addressing obvious needs or failing to capitalize on advantages.
Maybe you’re playing too much with Clint Capela, Houston Rockets. What are you doing?
By contrast, teams that are mere victims of circumstance aren’t blowing it. That’s why the Cleveland Cavaliers, who lost LeBron James, don’t make the cut. They were powerless to stop James’ exit when it happened, even if they could have transacted more intelligently in the preceding four years.
Finally, you can have a disappointing summer without making this list. The Philadelphia 76ers didn’t land a big name but added useful pieces at good prices. That’s probably less than they wanted to accomplish, but it’s hardly a failure.
And failure’s our focus.
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The Los Angeles Lakers hit the basketball lottery when they added James.
But if you continue that analogy, it’s hard to avoid the feeling the Lakers are following the dark path of so many real-life lottery winners, in that they’re squandering a windfall by making ridiculous decisions in the giddy haze of new wealth.
Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson were two key post-LeBron acquisitions. Purportedly hard-nosed grinders with experience and playmaking chops, Rondo and Stephenson are unreliable shooters who would have been hard-pressed to collect anything close to the $9 million and $4.5 million the Lakers agreed to pay them, respectively.
Rondo outperformed modest expectations with the New Orleans Pelicans down the stretch last season, but he’s joining his sixth team in five years. Heading into his age-32 season, Rondo hasn’t played consistent defense since he was 26. Though he’s improved his three-point shooting, he’s still reluctant to fire when open—especially if there’s a chance to hunt an assist.
The Lakers will be Stephenson’s seventh team in five years. He is a career 30.3 percent shooter from deep who hasn’t posted a positive defensive box plus-minus figure since 2014-15.
Maybe James wanted these two, and the Lakers weren’t in a position to quibble. But by any objective reasoning, Rondo and Stephenson are bad fits made worse by gross financial overcompensation. Show me the team that would’ve paid Rondo two-thirds of what he got from Los Angeles. I’ll wait…
The Lakers’ offensive spacing will suffer, and losing Brook Lopez to the Milwaukee Bucks for $3.4 million will further gum up the works. There’s little reason to believe in their defense.
These are one-year deals, so the damage won’t last. But James is entering his age-34 season, and L.A.’s window for contention is open precisely as long as LBJ remains a dominant force. Los Angeles is effectively wasting what could easily be James’ last year as the league’s best player.
Everything changes if a Kawhi Leonard trade materializes soon, but the Lakers didn’t get Paul George and don’t have any other star-level free-agent options to pair with James. The line between boldness and self-sabotage is almost invisible here.
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If your goal is beating the Golden State Warriors (which it should be if you’re serious about winning a championship), you can’t have too many versatile three-and-D wings.
The Houston Rockets lost two such players in Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, and as a result, the team that should have defeated the Dubs in last year’s conference finals is sliding back to the crowded, far less interesting pack. Houston, painfully thin on the wing, joins a cluster of clubs that’ll only have a shot at a ring if the Warriors suffer significant injuries to several key players.
This is a step backward. Make no mistake—even as the James Ennis signing eases some of the depth concerns.
The saddest part of Houston’s offseason is the talent leak seems to be about money.
Ariza left the Rockets to take a one-year, $15 million deal with the Phoenix Suns, and all it took for Mbah a Moute to return to the Los Angeles Clippers was a one-year, $4.3 million contract.
Houston could have topped both offers but chose not to. It seems unlikely the Rockets decided Gerald Green, Ryan Anderson and (soon, maybe) Carmelo Anthony would be better options against Golden State. This wasn’t about basketball reasons. This was about the refusal to inflate a tax bill.
Capela figures to be back eventually, but what if he’s miffed by the way Houston is gaming the restricted market, refusing to make him a big-money offer until it’s clear none are coming from other teams?
Perhaps still the second-best squad in the West, Houston has fallen considerably behind the Warriors. It didn’t have to be this way.
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This one’s simple: The Chicago Bulls paid too much to keep Zach LaVine.
It would have been a bad look to let the centerpiece of the Jimmy Butler trade walk away for nothing, but if that logic contributed to Chicago’s immediately matching the four-year, $78 million offer sheet LaVine signed with the Sacramento Kings, we’ve got an illustration of the sunk cost fallacy that’ll show up in textbooks for years.
We shouldn’t judge LaVine’s value by what he did last season, which represented his first action since returning from a torn left ACL. Even at his best, though, LaVine profiled as an offense-only bench contributor—one best utilized against second units less likely to exploit his shockingly poor defense.
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 is still positioned well for summer 2019, but its spending power took a major hit with the LaVine deal. Better to have let the Kings shoot themselves in the foot again and walk away with oodles of cap space to use on players who can contribute on both ends.
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Devin Booker could justify his five-year, $158 million extension—a deal first reported by Yahoo Sports’ Shams Charania—with the Phoenix Suns. He averaged 24.9 points per game in his age-21 season while shouldering an immense amount of offensive responsibility for a crummy team. Only James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Joel Embiid posted a higher usage percentage than Booker’s 31.7 this past season.
Volume like that means you can excuse Booker’s 50.1 effective field-goal percentage, which ranked 28th among the 36 players who attempted at least 1,000 shots in 2017-18.
Any 21-year-old capable of shouldering that kind of offensive load without coming unglued is worth keeping—even at a max rate.
But locking up Booker now, rather than waiting until next summer’s restricted free agency, may cost the Suns. Had Phoenix waited, it could have carried Booker’s $9.9 million cap hold into summer 2019 and had enough space to sign a max free agent. Now, clearing that room could require moving other assets via trade or renounced Bird rights. The Suns can still get the room they need, but they’ve made it harder.
It’s possible Booker would have groused about not getting an extension at the earliest juncture, but his shaky defense and underdeveloped facilitation mean he’s no lock to warrant max money. It would have been smarter for the Suns to wait.
This is a minor “blowing it” accusation—one based more on timing than Booker’s merits as a player. Still, a Suns team stocked with young talent shouldn’t have limited its chances to add major veteran help next summer.
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And another thing!
Ariza is a fine player, and he’s probably worth the $15 million he’ll collect from the Suns. But what does a team like Phoenix, still rebuilding, want with a veteran such as Ariza—especially when he occupies a position at which the Suns have young players in need of minutes?
Sure, Phoenix can flip Ariza for draft assets at the trade deadline. He’s got value in that regard. The problem with that approach is the Suns have to give him minutes to make sure his trade value stays as high as possible. Those minutes are bound to come at the expense of Josh Jackson, Mikal Bridges, Dragan Bender and/or Marquese Chriss.
Jackson might be a star. He needs every minute he can get. The Suns valued Bridges enough to trade up in the draft for him. He’s got to play, too.
One way or another, the Suns will marginalize some of their young players. Otherwise, Ariza’s value will dip.
If Phoenix wanted veteran experience, what’s wrong with Tyson Chandler and Jared Dudley? They’re already on the roster!
Suns, please explain yourselves.
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It hurts to mention the Bulls a second time, but they belong in this group of losing teams with cap space that aren’t taking advantage of a major opportunity this summer.
Granted, adding money that’d negatively affect the 2019 books is viewed as sacrilege these days. But these three teams are the only ones with meaningful space right now, and they should be leveraging it to add long-term assets.
Why aren’t all three kicking down the Oklahoma City Thunder’s door trying to trade for Carmelo Anthony’s dead money? Why aren’t they blowing up the Denver Nuggets’ phones in search of a deal for Kenneth Faried with draft picks attached?
The Kings tried to blow their bankroll on LaVine, but the Bulls leapt in front of that awful decision. Meanwhile, Atlanta and Sacramento still have the money to complicate the Rockets’ lives by slipping a huge offer sheet to Capela. If they won’t eat bad money, then why not at least take a crack at a franchise center—especially if it might not even take the max to make the Rockets queasy about matching?
You can’t say this about much when it comes to the Hawks, Bulls and Kings, but they’ve got a legitimate advantage. And they don’t seem interested in exploiting it.