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Team-building in the NBA is hard. No one shoots 100 percent from that field. Even the best front offices in the league make the occasional mistake. Some can’t seem to stay out of their own way, and those mistakes can be costly.
For almost every team in the NBA, such missteps have led to contracts that can make the already difficult process even harder. How do you construct a winner when around a third of your cap space is taken up by someone who may not help you win?
Age, injuries or just a miscalculation on a player’s potential or abilities can lead to these burdensome deals.
Before taking a closer look at the contracts that fit that mold, though, let’s talk about some teams that just may not have any bad deals.
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Jerami Grant is the only borderline option here, but even his contract ($20 million in 2021-22 and just shy of $21 million in 2022-23) is probably right around market value.
The only other player on the roster set to make eight figures next season is Cory Joseph, but only $2.4 million of his 2021-22 salary is guaranteed.
The Indiana Pacers, meanwhile, have four players (Malcolm Brogdon, Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner and Caris LeVert) right around that Grant-level salary. It’d be hard to argue any of them are overpaid. In fact, they might all be a bit below market value.
That’s almost certainly true of T.J. Warren, who’s set to make just $12.9 million next season.
Indiana has plenty of quality players on affordable and movable deals.
Cap sheets don’t get much cleaner than that of the up-and-coming Memphis Grizzlies. They have nine or 10 quality rotation-level players and a couple of potential stars, but their highest-paid player is Jonas Valanciunas (who’s making a way-below-market $14 million in a contract year in 2021-22).
The only possible candidate for inclusion here is Justise Winslow, who has been borderline disastrous since he arrived in Memphis, but the Grizzlies hold a team option on his $13 million for next season.
Jimmy Butler’s mileage may be a bit of a concern, but $36 million for someone who looked like a top 5-10 player last season is just fine. It’d also be tough to argue that the Bam Adebayo extension that’s about to kick in is a problem.
Other than those two, Miami can pretty much wipe the slate clean this summer. Goran Dragic and Andre Iguodala are both on team options for 2021-22, and there’s less than a combined $10 million guaranteed to the rest of the roster.
Portland Trail Blazers
One might argue that the Portland Trail Blazers belong on the “Close Calls” slide you’re about to scroll to, with CJ McCollum set to make $30-plus million in each of the next three seasons. As good as Damian Lillard is, $54.3 million in 2024-25 (when he’ll be 34) may be cause for slight concern too.
But Lillard is one of those 10-15 guys who can truly change a franchise. And McCollum has been an integral part of consistent regular-season success. Every other deal on the books is more than manageable.
San Antonio Spurs
After so many years of total dominance, it’s a strange sight to see the Spurs’ roster devoid of star power.
Dejounte Murray and Derrick White are both good, but perhaps not great, and they’re about to be paid as such. Each will earn around $15 million next season, and no other Spur is on the books for more than $10 million per year.
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Prior to this season, it might have been fairly easy to plug Tobias Harris into this spot for the Philadelphia 76ers.
There’s still a chance his deal ages poorly (he’s owed nearly $41 million in 2023-24), but it’s hard to knock the contract of a player who averaged 19.5 points with nearly 50/40/90 shooting splits.
On a team in dire need of shooting when its two biggest stars are on the floor, Harris’ contributions are plenty valuable.
When Rudy Gobert signed his $205 million extension this past offseason, the takes suggesting it was an overpay were rampant (check out the replies to this Bleacher Report tweet).
The reaction certainly has something to do with the game continuing to trend positionless. As teams play five out with interchangeable, wing-sized players who can do a little bit of everything, Gobert may have to spend more time on the perimeter than he’d like. His limited post game makes it difficult for the Jazz to punish those smaller lineups inside too.
Most of the hand-wringing simply comes from misunderstanding Gobert’s impact, though. If a big man scaring an action away from ever happening got as many views as a step-back three on Twitter or YouTube, Gobert would be more appreciated. The number of actions he prevents from taking place altogether is incalculable, but his on-off splits at least approximate what he brings to the Utah Jazz.
Over the last five seasons, Utah is plus-9.1 points per 100 possessions with Gobert on the floor and minus-1.6 with him off. Over the same span, he’s second in total plus-minus, trailing only Stephen Curry.
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After a slow start to an injury-riddled season, Danilo Gallinari had another strong offensive campaign. After the All-Star break, he averaged 14.7 points while shooting 46.6 percent from the field, 42.1 percent from three and 91.8 percent from the line.
Missing 21 games in an age-32 season, especially for someone with a fairly robust injury history, is concerning, though. And on a team with no other players set to make over $20 million next season, it’s enough to earn the “worst contract” distinction.
As you’ll see, Gallinari’s deal, which pays him $20.5 million next season and up to $21.5 million in 2022-23 (though that one isn’t fully guaranteed), isn’t near as bad as some of the others around the league.
But if he continues to struggle with availability and the general decline in explosiveness that comes with age, devoting nearly a fifth of the cap to him might get a bit uncomfortable.
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Following his trade back to the Boston Celtics, there’s a temptation to bump Al Horford to the “Close Calls” slide. He’s two years older than when he last wore the Celtics green, but his game fits well with that roster, in theory.
With Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown in place, Horford won’t be asked to do a ton on offense. If he can simply knock down open catch-and-shoot opportunities and hit cutters from the elbows or top of the key, he should help.
There’s a world in which the remaining two years and $53.5 million on his deal is a problem, though. He has the kind of game that should age gracefully, but 35 is 35. And in the NBA, speed is becoming increasingly important for big men.
Simply having him in the way (potentially) of Robert Williams could be a problem too. The 23-year-old center looks ready for a more prominent role, and it may be difficult to bench a veteran making the kind of money Horford is.
Right now, it’s easy to see this going either way.
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Having superstar friends can pay off in the NBA. Two years ago, when the Brooklyn Nets superteam started to take shape, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving took slightly less than the max to allow for the signing of DeAndre Jordan.
“Did they? Those are great guys, man,” Jordan told Bleacher Report’s Leo Sepkowitz. “As far as money goes, I don’t know how they did that. I dropped out of college, so I don’t know.”
The good vibes may still exist between Jordan and his teammates, but his impact has fallen well shy of what you might expect from a veteran on a four-year, $40 million deal.
Over his two seasons in Brooklyn, the Nets are minus-1.0 points per 100 possessions when DJ plays and plus-3.9 when he doesn’t.
At this point, Jordan has fallen out of the rotation entirely (he hasn’t played since early May), and he’s only halfway through that contract.
His annual salary ($9.9 million this season, followed by $9.8 the next) isn’t overly burdensome, but that’s a decent chunk that could go to another role player who could stay on the floor in the modern NBA.
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When he was on the floor, Gordon Hayward looked like he might be exactly the kind of high-level gap-filler the Charlotte Hornets needed alongside guards LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier and Devonte’ Graham.
When he played with at least one of those three, Charlotte had a positive point differential. When any of them played without Hayward, the Hornets were minus-2.7 points per 100 possessions.
His 19.6 points, 41.5 three-point percentage, dash of playmaking and steady defense were exactly what was needed at one of the forward spots.
The problem, of course, is that Hayward struggled to stay healthy, missing 28 games. And over the last four seasons of his career, he’s only been available for 54.9 percent of his teams’ contests.
With three years and $91.5 million left on the deal he signed last offseason, that kind of history is concerning.
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It should come as no surprise that Al-Farouq Aminu intends to pick up his $10.2 million player option for the 2021-22 season.
He’ll turn 31 in September and is coming off back-to-back seasons in which he appeared in just 41 games, averaged 4.4 points and shot 34.1 percent from the field. Had he entered unrestricted free agency, there was a decent chance no one would sign him.
Instead, he’ll likely be an end-of-the-bench piece for a Chicago Bulls team that could surely use the extra $10 million-plus in cap space to build a competitive roster around Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic.
This isn’t a totally dire situation since Aminu’s deal comes off the books in 2022, but the Bulls are in a marquee basketball market and haven’t made the playoffs since Jimmy Butler left.
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This was one of the easier calls of this exercise.
Kevin Love has had a heck of a career. He’s 51st in NBA history in career box plus/minus (“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) and has a 73.5 percent chance of entering the Hall of Fame. He was also a crucial piece of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2016 title run.
But whew, it has been rough since LeBron James left.
Over the last three seasons, Love has played in fewer than half of the Cavs’ games. In the most recent campaign, he averaged 12.2 points and shot 40.9 percent from the field. Perhaps more concerning than the numbers, he’s had a few highly publicized letdowns or tantrums on the floor.
In April, a seemingly disgusted Love tapped the ball back to the opposing Toronto Raptors rather than inbounding it to a teammate. He seems to be going out of his way to show that he doesn’t want to be in Cleveland.
But with two years and $60.2 million left on his deal, it’s hard to come up with many (if any) teams that might be willing to take this deal off the Cavs’ hands.
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You may be starting to sense a theme here. By no fault of the players themselves, an inability to stay on the floor can sour a contract real quick. And Kristaps Porzingis’ remaining three years and $101.5 million could be a tough pill for the Dallas Mavericks when you consider that he’s appeared in fewer than half his teams’ games over the last four seasons.
Another issue here is potential on-court friction between the 7’3″ floor spacer and Dallas’ virtuoso playmaker Luka Doncic.
During their two campaigns together, the Mavs are plus-6.0 points per 100 possessions when Doncic plays without Porzingis and plus-2.0 when the two are together.
For now, Doncic appears to work better with rim-running bigs, and Porzingis often looks disengaged when he’s asked to do little other than stand at the three-point line and wait for a kickout.
With Dallas recently moving on from longtime general manager Donnie Nelson, there are sure to be plenty of Porzingis trade rumors this summer. It just might be tough to find takers for that remaining salary.
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The Denver Nuggets are another team that probably could’ve been slotted into the “Close Calls” slide.
It’s hard to gripe about the $30-plus million salaries of MVP Nikola Jokic and his dynamic co-star Jamal Murray, even if the latter is coming off a torn ACL. Aaron Gordon’s $16.4 million expiring contract will probably feel like a steal if he settles back into the limited offensive role he had before Murray went down.
And all but one other player is set to make less than $10 million annually.
That one other player is Will Barton, who has a $14.9 million player option for 2021-22. It too could look like solid value if Barton gets healthy and returns to his 2019-20 form, but durability has become a legitimate concern.
Over the last three seasons, Barton has appeared in 69.2 percent of Denver’s games.
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Dynasties are expensive, even after they cease to be dynasties.
Next season, the Golden State Warriors are set to pay Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins and Draymond Green a combined $139.4 million. The salaries of just four players take the team nearly $30 million over the projected cap.
And while he’s certainly been better as a supporting player in Golden State than he was with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Wiggins’ $65.2 million over the next two years could still be a burden.
If the Warriors could somehow lop his deal off the books (they almost certainly can’t, and that wouldn’t make sense basketball-wise), they’d be within shouting distance of dodging the luxury tax.
As things stand now, their estimated bill on that front is $120 million, which will be more than the total payrolls of multiple NBA teams in 2021-22.
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Unfortunately, John Wall is another inclusion based largely on a history of injuries.
He has a torn Achilles in his past, and over the last four seasons, he’s appeared in just 36.4 percent of his teams’ games.
That would be daunting for any player, but it’s especially troublesome for someone whose game is heavily reliant on explosiveness and end-to-end speed.
Prior to all the injury woes, he had a 2.6 box plus/minus. Since that all started, he’s at 1.3. And with his 31st birthday coming in September, Father Time is bound to get involved soon too.
Over the next two seasons (assuming he picks up a player option for 2022-23), Wall is set to make $91.7 million.
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The Los Angeles Clippers are another team that probably doesn’t have any terrible contracts. Paying Paul George $48.8 million in his age-35 season in 2024-25 could prove troublesome, but he was signed for the going rate for stars. And right now, he’s certainly still playing like one.
Kawhi Leonard is the other potential big-money player, but he’ll likely opt out and sign a longer-term deal this offseason. There’s no sense in addressing a hypothetical contract for him.
After that, the determination here comes down to Marcus Morris, Patrick Beverley and Luke Kennard.
Beverley is set to make $14.3 million next season, but his deal is expiring. Kennard’s annual salary won’t hit that level till 2023-24, and the Clippers have a team option on him the following season. Plus, he’s only 24 years old (soon to be 25).
That leaves Morris. Despite a heftily negative net rating swing in 2020-21, his $14.9 million salary was probably worth it. He averaged double figures and shot a ridiculous 47.3 percent from three.
What makes this contract a bit more worrisome than others on the Clippers’ books is the fact that it runs through 2023-24. That season, when Morris is 34 years old and almost certainly past his prime, L.A. will be on the hook for $17.1 million.
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The Los Angeles Lakers only have seven players under contract for next season, and there’s not much sense in analyzing the contracts of LeBron James and Anthony Davis (though health could be a concern for both soon, and LeBron will be 38 in the final year of his massive deal).
Marc Gasol and Alfonzo McKinnie are both going to make less than $3 million in 2021, so that really leaves just Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell to duke it out for this dubious distinction.
Harrell’s struggled to stay on the floor in the playoffs in recent years, but he’s a productive regular-season player making the mid-level exception. If he picks up his option, he’ll also be expiring in 2021-22. No sweat there.
Kuzma, meanwhile, is 25 and set to make $13 million in each of the next three seasons (he too has a player option). That’s not a bad rate for a potential heat-check guy who’s improved on defense and still has a little room to grow.
That brings us to KCP, who had a decent 2020-21 and is set to make $27 million over the next two seasons (though only $4.9 million is fully guaranteed for 2022-23).
Those aren’t backbreaking numbers, and his deal may be tradable, but this postseason showed the Lakers might need another star to compete for titles going forward. If one or both of LeBron and AD goes down, things get dicey in a hurry. And KCP’s contract makes the path to a third star tricky.
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Despite how well they played this season, there are probably arguments for both Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday here.
Middleton will be 32 in the final year of his deal, when the Milwaukee Bucks are set to pay him $40.4 million (assuming he picks up his option). Holiday is set to make $36.9 million in his age-35 season (that too is a player option).
There’s always at least some worry that contracts of that size won’t age gracefully for players who sign them in or near the end of their primes.
There aren’t many indications that those particular players are breaking down physically, though, so consider this a dash of optimism for both deals.
Brook Lopez, meanwhile, is making far less than Middleton and Holiday, but the already slow-footed center will be 35 in the final year of his current deal, which has two years and $27.2 million left.
Keeping him on the floor in an increasingly positionless NBA could prove difficult, especially when Giannis Antetokounmpo may need more minutes at the 5 himself.
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D’Angelo Russell is only 25 years old. There’s certainly a chance he takes a leap and makes his current deal, which pays him $61.4 million over the next two years, worth it. But right now, that’s a bad contract.
Russell is a high-volume, shoot-first point guard who’s had a negative impact on his team’s point differential in all but one of his NBA campaigns. He’s never had an above-average effective field-goal percentage or true shooting percentage.
On the bright side, the Minnesota Timberwolves have been better when Karl-Anthony Towns plays with Russell (plus-1.3 points per 100 possessions) than they have when Towns is alone (minus-0.9), but it’s tough to imagine the team building a competent defense with lineups that feature those two.
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The Jrue Holiday trade was understandable when it was made. For many, it probably still is. Two first-round picks and two more pick swaps is a massive haul, even if it meant taking on the contracts of Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe.
There has to at least be a hint of trader’s remorse, though. With the level of impact Holiday had on the Bucks this season, it was tough to watch Bledsoe and the New Orleans Pelicans and think that Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Holiday wouldn’t have gotten to the playoffs.
Sure, those picks could very well yield something good in the future, but more wins in the present might’ve delayed the quagmire New Orleans now appears to be in.
“[The Pelicans] have been unable to put together the right elements to make rising star Zion Williamson and his family happy,” Shams Charania, Joe Vardon and William Guillory reported for The Athletic. “Certain family members want Williamson on another team.”
That’s a yikes-level report that came on the heels of news that coach Stan Van Gundy was fired. And with Adams and Bledsoe both under contract for the next two seasons (though Bledsoe’s only partially guaranteed in 2022-23), it’s tough to see a clear path to roster improvement.
With Adams, there was at least a slight point differential jump when he played. Bledsoe, on the other hand, was a disaster, with his lowest scoring average since 2012-13, his lowest effective field-goal percentage since 2016-17 and career lows in both assist percentage and box plus/minus.
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The New York Knicks are coming off a surprising run to home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and have some of the cleanest books in the league.
The 2021-22 season will be the last of Julius Randle’s current contract, and only $4 million of the $19.8 million he’s owed is guaranteed. After that, every single deal pays a salary under $10 million.
That might be good enough to bump the Knicks to the “Notable Omissions” slide, but there’s a world in which the $5.8 million owed to Kevin Knox next season is a burden.
Knox appeared in just 42 games last season, and he only played 11.0 minutes per game. Even if that is only taking up 4 or 5 percent of the cap, there may be more reliable role players to whom a suddenly competitive team could allocate that money.
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So-called “bad contracts” aren’t really an issue for the Oklahoma City Thunder. They’ve been on the hunt for them for the last few years. If a team is willing to attach a first-round pick, as Boston was, to the deal, OKC is interested.
However, the remaining two years and $73.7 million on Walker’s contract might make it difficult to move him again.
Walker clearly doesn’t fit the rebuilding Thunder’s timeline, and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski suggested they might be willing to work with him on his next destination.
Considering their current situation, in which they’re all-in on asset accumulation, it’s hard to see OKC being willing to attach a sweetener to move Walker. That’s exactly what Boston just had to do to unload him.
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The rebuilding Orlando Magic are another team with a relatively clean cap sheet.
If Jonathan Isaac gets back to 95 percent of what he was before the torn ACL, his $17.4 million annual salary will be a bargain. Markelle Fultz, the 2017 No. 1 overall pick, was worth a relatively inexpensive gamble. And Terrence Ross is barely making more than the mid-level exception.
The only other contract set to pay more than $10 million next season is Gary Harris, the former Nugget who’s owed $20.5 million next season.
The deal expires after 2021-22, so it won’t be too painful in the long run, but on a team that will likely prioritize developmental minutes, that much salary to someone who doesn’t figure to be part of the core is a burden.
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Two years ago, it was widely accepted that the Thunder might have to attach picks to Chris Paul’s contract to get a team to take it on.
After his stellar campaigns with OKC and the Phoenix Suns, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him decline his $44.2 million option for next season and sign another deal. He’s played himself about as far away from this discussion as he possibly could, despite being 36.
The only other big-money player on the books for next season is Devin Booker, and his deal is obviously fine. After that, you have Deandre Ayton’s rookie deal and a couple guys around the mid-level exception range.
Between Jae Crowder and Dario Saric, this unfriendly distinction probably falls to the latter.
He offers the Suns a nice wrinkle as a small-ball 5, but he just posted career lows in points (8.7) and assists (1.3) per game, as well as his lowest marks in box plus/minus and effective field-goal percentage since his rookie season.
At $18.7 million over the next two seasons, this isn’t a huge burden. And Phoenix could probably move Saric if it really needed to.
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You might think the Sacramento Kings would be one of the easier teams to peg in this exercise, but there was a fair bit of agony over the call here. Perhaps it’s because there are a few deals that could feel burdensome over the next couple seasons.
Buddy Hield’s annual salary declines over the life of his contract, but $20-plus million a year for someone who might not want to be there isn’t ideal. Harrison Barnes is a solid vet, but he hasn’t had an above-average box plus/minus since 2014-15 (though he came close this season). He too is in that $20 million range.
Both had positive impacts on Sacramento’s point differential this season, though. And when the two shared the floor with face of the franchise De’Aaron Fox, the typically woeful Kings were plus-1.3 points per 100 possessions.
We move then to another player who wants out of Sacramento: 2018 No. 2 pick Marvin Bagley III.
Since he’s still on his rookie contract, it isn’t overly restrictive. He’s set to make $11.3 million next season. But a young malcontent isn’t great for the locker room. And even on that relatively small deal, Bagley has so little trade value around the league that the Detroit Pistons flatly denied an offer for Saddiq Bey.
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Pascal Siakam is a good NBA player. There’s no doubt about that. But we may have seen the peak version of the Toronto Raptors forward in 2018-19, when he hovered around being the third or fourth option and posted a career-high box plus/minus.
When the opposition’s best defenders were worried about one or two other Raptors, Siakam could fill space as a cutter, attack closeouts and hit open catch-and-shoot opportunities.
Now, he’s the No. 1 option, and Toronto is paying him like one. Siakam is set to make $100.9 million over the next three seasons. In 2021-22, he’ll be the 28th-highest-paid player in the league (a ranking that’s sure to drop after free agency).
Since the start of the 2019-20 season, when he assumed the lead role, he’s 94th in box plus/minus.
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Russell Westbrook’s basic numbers are wild.
Over the last five seasons, he’s averaged 26.0 points, 10.3 rebounds and 10.1 assists (he’s just 0.1 rebounds shy of being able to say he averaged a triple-double for six seasons). After the 2020-21 All-Star break, he put up a mind-bending 23.6 points, 13.1 assists and 12.8 rebounds.
But scoring inefficiency and a high turnover rate have sent his box plus/minus tumbling since he won the MVP in 2016-17 (though it rebounded a bit this season).
And with his 33rd birthday coming up in November, an athletic decline may finally be around the corner. For someone who’s so dependent on physically dominating his matchup, that could mean trouble.
With his contract set to pay out $91.3 million over the next two seasons (assuming he picks up the option in 2022-23), retooling in the wake of such a decline would be difficult for the Washington Wizards.