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David Zalubowski/Associated Press
You can’t wildly overspend in free agency when you enter it with no usable cap space.
There were misfires, sure, and we’ll get to the biggest blunders at each position. But this was never going to be a wild spending spree like 2016, due in part to the fact that so much of those 2016 dollars are still bogging down financial books.
Now that we’ve established that context, let’s take a position-by-position look at where the free-agency spending went most wrong.
We’re not nearly as concerned with contract length as we are weighing salary against production. For example, while we’re worried about the way Chris Paul‘s four-year, $160 million deal is going to age, we’re also not rushing to judgment on last season’s real plus-minus (RPM) leader. Not when there are big-money free agents facing much more immediate concerns.
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Richard W. Rodriguez/Associated Press
The Contract: Three years, $28.8 million
The Numbers: 7.4 points, 2.7 assists, 43.2 field-goal percentage, 12.7 player efficiency rating (PER)
The Utah Jazz knew as well as anyone what they were getting when they signed up for another three years of the Dante Exum experience. The 2014 No. 5 pick occasionally flashes encouraging signs built around an intriguing mix of length-plus-athleticism and a pesky brand of perimeter defense.
But there’s often more frustration than anything, due to both inconsistency and injuries.
Before the campaign was two months old, he was hit with the dreaded DNP-CD (did not play, coach’s decision). Six of his appearances have ended in single-digit minutes. He’s been sidelined since early January by a sprained ankle and won’t be back before the All-Star break, per Eric Woodyard of the Deseret News.
He’s still just 23 years old, so time remains on his side. Then again, this is his fifth NBA season, and he’s yet to average more (or even as many) minutes as he did the previous campaign. It’s looking like he’ll never have a reliable three-ball, his close-range finishing has backtracked and the offense loses 3.8 points per 100 possessions when he plays.
“Bust” might be a harsh label for the year he’s having, but this was a curious contract when signed, and the first season of it hasn’t answered any lingering questions.
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John McCoy/Getty Images
The Contract: Two years, $25 million (partial guarantee for 2019-20)
The Numbers: 8.2 points, 2.0 assists, 38.3 field-goal percentage, 5.9 PER
At one point in the not-so-distant past, teams would’ve been scrambling to roster Avery Bradley for this kind of coin. He was a defensive menace to opposing ball-handlers and, at his peak, a 16-point scorer striping 46 percent of his field goals and 39 percent of his long-range looks.
But after an injury-riddled 2017-18 season, the 28-year-old suddenly seems to be aging in dog years.
While Doc Rivers favors Bradley enough to keep him in the opening group—his contributions are “un-statable,” according to Rivers, which we’re assuming means he’s better than his numbers—Bradley has been a drag on the Clippers every time steps on the hardwood. L.A. is not only 5.9 points better without him per 100 possessions, but the off-court improvements extend to both ends of the court.
He’s nowhere close to a shooting threat anymore, posting the third-worst effective field-goal percentage among all guards who’ve played 1,000 minutes. He never gets to the free-throw line, doesn’t set up his teammates, can’t finish around the basket (40.9 percent within 10 feet) and launches more than a quarter of his shots from the mid-range.
If the counter to these struggles is supposed to be that Bradley is a stopper, he’s not providing enough resistance to make that argument. His defensive rating is higher than ever, and players are shooting 2.0 points higher against him than they do on average.
Add the two-way woes together, and RPM says you have this season’s 466th-ranked player.
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Ron Hoskins/Getty Images
The Contract: One year, $12.4 million
The Numbers: 10.6 points, 2.4 assists, 38.9 field-goal percentage, 12.3 PER
So much for the return of the Rookie of the Year version of Tyreke Evans. The 29-year-old appears back to being a pumpkin again, struggling with injuries and offensive inefficiency as he has for most of his career.
Granted, no one expected Evans to be the same player for the Indiana Pacers (a 48-win team last season) as he was for the Memphis Grizzlies (a 60-game loser). But with pre-injury Victor Oladipo standing as Indy’s only tier-one scorer, Evans had at least a shot at being the No. 2 option. If nothing else, his efficiency looked likely to rise as defenses couldn’t pay nearly as much attention to him.
But his field-goal shooting has been the worst of his career, and he’s lost more than four percentage points from his three-point conversion rate (35.3). After a top-15 finish in offensive box plus/minus, he has nosedived to 347th.
A potential finishing piece for the Pacers (at least through the optimistic lens), Evans has flopped almost from the start. Tardiness cost him an October contest, anemic shooting has prevented him from taking on a bigger role, and he’s lost time to both knee and back injuries.
If Circle City fans need a silver lining, it’s that Evans has fared better since receiving a platelet-rich plasma injection in his right knee Dec. 21. But even then, Indy was hoping for more than 11.5 points on 44.2 percent shooting when it made the pricey investment.
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John McCoy/Getty Images
The Contract: Two years, $40 million (team option for 2019-20)
The Numbers: 14.3 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 14.7 PER
The script seemed so easy to follow—hometown hoops hero returns to his roots, puts himself and his city back on the map. But little has gone right in the first (and likely last) season of Jabari Parker’s pact with the Chicago Bulls.
The 2014 No. 2 pick had more shots (16) than points (15) during his Windy City debut, setting the stage for spotty efficiency from someone who has too many defensive faults for his offense to be anything short of brilliant. By mid-December, Parker’s rotation spot had vanished, buried behind NBA unknowns like Shaquille Harrison and Antonio Blakeney.
“It is a surprise because I did everything I could in the time I was given,” Parker said, per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune. “But it is what it is. You can’t pout. You just got to keep moving.”
It already seems like Parker and the Bulls are overdue for a divorce, but that’s tricky with the money owed to him. Even though he’s basically an expiring contract—who would pick up a $20 million option on RPM’s 459th-ranked player?—his super-sized salary is still difficult to match.
He has found his way back into the rotation (probably for a trade showcase) and has been hitting everything since the calendar flipped. But he’s a scoring specialist with a scary injury history, major defensive flaws and a spotty perimeter shot. In no way does that description match a $20 million player.
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Al Drago/Associated Press
The Contract: Two years, $10.9 million (player option for 2019-20)
The Numbers: 12.8 points, 9.2 rebounds, 0.4 blocks, 17.7 PER
Dwight Howard was never the most comfortable answer to John Wall‘s request for an athletic big. Athleticism isn’t typically cited as a 33-year-old’s strength, and age hadn’t treated Howard particularly well. Plus, the Washington Wizards’ chemistry was combustible, and Howard—the league’s closest thing to a walking fart joke—loomed as a possible lit match.
“It seems like every NBA player who has ever met Dwight Howard dislikes Dwight Howard,” Rodger Sherman wrote for The Ringer. “He’s gotten into on-court fights with teammates (here’s Steve Nash telling him to stop complaining and get open), former teammates (here’s Kobe Bryant calling him soft, among other mean things), and opponents (here is Kevin Durant calling him an extremely mean thing).”
Howard, though, hasn’t even had the opportunity to debunk (or justify) those concerns. He has suited up just nine times this season, sidelined first by back stiffness and then by back surgery, the second of his career.
His return is unknown at this point, other than the Wizards will re-evaluate him after the All-Star break, per Fred Katz of The Athletic. Washington’s season could be in shambles by then, and while the club has more pressing issues than Howard’s absence, it’s worth noting Wizards centers rank just 24th in net efficiency rating.
Even amid tempered expectations, Howard has been a huge letdown this season. A one-time aerial artist, Superman now appears permanently grounded.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.