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Ashley Landis/Associated Press
Spending big in NBA free agency is not for the risk-averse. Any contract can turn into an unsavory cap hit for the organization on a whim.
Injuries, unanticipated regression, reckless shopping and ill-fitting rosters can all butcher the desirability of recently minted deals. And no free agent is technically without risk. Even max-contract formalities or relative bargains can be turned upside down by a sudden derailment.
Certain investments, though, carry higher probabilities of failure or underwhelming returns than others.
Teams might throw too much money and/or years at a player past his prime. Or overpay for the potential of a younger player who never actualizes it. Or invest aggressively in someone coming off an injury only to get burned. Or funnel an illogical sum of money into a free agent because the team can’t afford to lose him.
Every player who populates our risky-business clique will fall into one of these buckets. And just so we’re clear: They are not here because they’re bad or because we’re predicting they will be bad.
On the contrary, they’re either so good or intriguing now that they project to have frothy markets—multiyear offers that, based on a confluence of factors, have a legitimate chance of aging poorly.
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Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
Lonzo Ball is not a risky investment in a vacuum. He is only 23, can defend either backcourt slot and has dispelled questions about the viability of his jumper by canning 37.6 percent of his triples over the past two seasons. He is a genuinely really good NBA player who, given his age, has room to get even better.
Different tunes would be sung if his opening-stretch slump this past year sustained and prompted the New Orleans Pelicans to hock him for pennies on the dollar at the March 25 trade deadline. It didn’t. He averaged 15.3 points and 6.0 assists while hitting 39.8 percent of his 8.6 three-point attempts per game after his name ambled into the early-season trade talk.
If anything, Lonzo increased his value ahead of restricted free agency. Malik Beasley and Stephen Curry were the only players to match his long-range efficiency and volume post-rut, and in a market devoid of gettable megastars, he looms as one of the glitziest options for bigger spenders.
Therein lies the risk: Between Lonzo’s play (for the most part), a bare-bones free-agency pool and the sense that the Pelicans may neither want nor be able to afford him, the stage is set for admirers to come after him fast and hard. Do not rule out his getting an offer sheet worth $20 million or more annually.
Paying him that much is akin to stepping out on a limb overlooking a thousand-foot drop. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the Pelicans or another team footing the bill. Spending that much money on a “point” guard implies an ability to comprehensively run an offense. That isn’t Lonzo’s modus operandi.
He continues to have limitations as a half-court creator. Defenses don’t yet have to meticulously plan against his off-the-dribble jumper, and he isn’t an aggressive downhill attacker. Among everyone who finished 200 drives this season, his 37.9 percent clip in those situations ranked 163rd.
New Orleans’ half-court offense was better with him on the floor, but that says more about the time he spent logging beside Point Zion Williamson. The Pelicans’ half-court efficiency plunged whenever Lonzo played without him.
Any team prepared to pay top dollar for his services must have a minimum of two other playmakers who can run the show outside of transition. And at that point, if your de facto floor general cannot consistently or effectively spearhead possessions against set defenses, is paying him $18 to $22 million—or more—per year really the best use of your cap?
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Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
Entering free agency remains a non-decision for Spencer Dinwiddie, even after he missed pretty much the entire season with a partially torn right ACL. His $12.3 million player is miles below market value for a starting-caliber point guard and, by Eastern Conference standards, fringe All-Star.
Dinwiddie’s raw efficiency can be a turnoff. He has shot lower than 34 percent from deep in each of the past four years and hit just 27.7 percent of his pull-up treys last season. That certainly matters, though it isn’t nearly as concerning if he keeps finding the net on 37-plus percent of his spot-up threebies.
Regardless, the direct, relentless pressure he puts on the basket is more paramount. He is not the most efficient finisher, but the wrath he wreaks upon the defense spurs trips to the line and higher-quality opportunities for those around him. And while he works with some changes in pace, his attacks are more streamlined than spectacle. He isn’t trying to dance with the ball and prowl for broken ankles; he’s unsettling the larger defensive picture, rather than just his man, and acting on it.
Translation: Some team will fork over a longer-term deal at a higher price point to nab his services—especially this summer, when the market is desperate for fringe, let alone actual, star power. What version of Dinwiddie that suitor will get verges on unknowable.
Torn ACLs are not the career-enders they once were, but he’s now undergone surgery on both, dating back to his time at the University of Colorado. Even for someone whose manipulation of defenses isn’t predicated upon preternatural explosion and who only just turned 28 in April, his injury history looms as uncomfortable if he’s receiving closer to $20 million than $15 million per year.
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David Zalubowski/Associated Press
That Chris Paul even ends up here is a testament to his overall ridiculousness. The idea of his turning down a $44.2 million player option ahead of his age-36 season once seemed ludicrous.
Now, though, Paul’s entry onto the open market feels inevitable. That’s what happens when you bind and gag Father Time for two consecutive seasons. Paul has missed a combined four games during this stretch and is currently co-headlining the Western Conference finalist Phoenix Suns. (Note: He entered the league’s health and safety protocols last week.)
His postseason performance has only emboldened the opt-out scenario. He’s averaging 15.7 points and 8.7 assists while draining 52.0 percent of his twos and 44.4 percent of his threes.
His right shoulder limited him for much of the first round and part of the Western Conference Semifinals, but he still churned out 1.29 points per shot from mid-range during Phoenix’s sweep of the Denver Nuggets—the equivalent of banging in 43.1 percent of your threes. Paul also wrapped that series dishing out 41 assists to five turnovers. (Aside: Holy friggin’ crap.)
Execs told Sports Illustrated‘s Chris Mannix they “peg” Paul as a three-year, $60 million guy. That is a gross underestimation. He’s not opting out to secure less than $17 million in extra guaranteed money. The contract length is probably spot-on; his team, be it the Suns or another landing spot, run into the over-38 rule and the logistical headache that is deferred compensation if they go any longer.
The average annual value, though? It will be more than $20 million per year. He just made second-team All-NBA. He is instrumental to what might be the present title favorite. Something around three years, $75 million feels more realistic—and like Paul’s minimum.
And that begets a dilemma: Whatever team signs Paul really, actually gets Chris freaking Paul…through, presumably, his age-38 season. Shelling out what could be—will be?—$25-plus million per year for someone sniffing 40 is wildly unsettling, no matter his credentials. Paul’s past two seasons of pristine availability are impressive, but they’re anomalies. He missed at least 21 games in each of his previous three years.
Father Time eventually comes for everyone, even if he has to break out of captivity to do it. Any multiyear commitment to an age-36, six-foot-nothing point guard with 40,000-plus playoff and regular season minutes under his belt registers as an extreme, albeit in this case tantalizing, risk.
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Marta Lavandier/Associated Press
Victor Oladipo’s risk level depends on the value and length of his next contract—both of which, at this stage, feel relatively unpredictable. He appeared in just four games after getting traded to the Miami Heat before requiring season-ending surgery on his right quad tendon.
This is the same right quad Oladipo ruptured back in January 2019, when he was one season removed from All-NBA and All-Defense appearances. Not only has he never been the same player since, but it also is possible his latest injury will sideline him for all of next year.
Missing the lion’s share of 2021-22 won’t preclude Oladipo from getting a contract. Teams remember the player he was in 2017-18 and for part of 2018-19. More than a handful of suitors will take a multiyear flier on him if it means having intimate knowledge of his recovery and bagging a fringe All-Star at a cut rate.
Good luck figuring out that rate—and that length. A one-year deal doesn’t make much sense if there’s a chance he won’t play during it. He needs to sign a two- or three-season pact for the low-risk theory to hold water, and it only pans out if he’s taking afterthought money.
Whether Oladipo values multiyear security and the chance to build a rapport with the same team over the chance to reenter free agency sooner is anyone’s guess. He turned down a two-year, $45.2 million extension from the Houston Rockets before they traded him. Leaving that much money on the table might compel him to angle for a shorter-term deal in hopes of rebooting his value and then signing a fatter, longer-term pact.
This all says nothing of Oladipo’s ceiling at full strength. Rupturing his quad fundamentally altered his play style. He doesn’t put as much pressure on the rim, and his off-the-dribble jumper isn’t as bankable. After ranking in the 84th percentile of points per shot attempt at his position during the 2017-18 campaign (for which he earned the Most Improved Player award), he has since failed to crack the 40th percentile.
That drop-off is part of Oladipo’s risk. It’s not merely about his latest recovery. It’s about whether the player from three seasons ago represented a possible normal or a flash in the pan.
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Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
Dennis Schroder’s decision to turn down a four-year, $84 million extension from the Los Angeles Lakers always amounted to a massive bet on himself. What he was gambling on isn’t quite clear. Either he believed that another team would throw him more than $21 million per season or that the Lakers’ inflexible cap sheet would allow him to name his price.
If he was playing the former angle: Yikes. He cost himself a ton of money in the postseason, failing to leave a meaningful dent in Los Angeles’ first-round loss to the Phoenix Suns and capping off his year by shooting 9-of-36 over his final three appearances.
In Schroder’s defense, he did miss most of the Lakers’ closing kick because of COVID-19 protocols. By the time he returned, he had just two regular-season games to ramp up before the playoffs.
Still, his overarching value was in question long before he entered the league’s healthy and safety protocols. The Lakers surrendered Danny Green and a first-round pick for him under the guise he could elevate the half-court offense during minutes with and without LeBron James and because he was coming off a 2019-20 crusade in which he shot a career high from just about every area of the floor.
The move did not work out as intended. The Lakers’ offensive rating placed in the 27th percentile when Schroder ran the show without LeBron, and his efficiency at the rim and from three-point range plummeted off their all-time highs.
Los Angeles’ confining cap sheet now seems to be his best and only hope at netting fringe-star money. The Lakers will enter the summer within $10 million of the luxury tax if Montrezl Harrell picks up his player option and blow past it when factoring in cap holds for Schroder, Alex Caruso and Talen Horton-Tucker (restricted).
Can they justify backing up the Brink’s truck to pay Schroder solely because they don’t have the wiggle room to replace him? And what does it actually mean if his contract demands drop? Because after the year he just pieced together, he qualifies as an ultra-risky expenditure at any eight-figure-per-year number, regardless of whether he’s re-signing with the Lakers or another team.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.