NBA general managers are smarter than ever, and they still couldn’t help themselves when gifted a ballooning salary cap last summer, spending like Montgomery Brewster (timely references, here). The Los Angeles Lakers saddled themselves with Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng, the Portland Trail Blazers threw $70 million at Evan Turner, and the Memphis Grizzlies figured Chandler Parsons for $94 million in an annual tradition that will only seem more ridiculous as the salary cap continues to climb.
These five guys will cash in soon, so maybe this list will soften the blow when the news comes down.
JRUE HOLIDAY, New Orleans Pelicans (unrestricted)
Let me start by saying I’m a big fan of Holiday. I like his effort on both ends of the floor, and I love his hustle off it. He’s 27 years old, enjoyed arguably his best season since his 2013 All-Star campaign — averaging 15.4 points (53.2 true shooting percentage), 7.3 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game — and did it all despite missing the start of the season to tend to his wife as she recovered from brain surgery.
But he is not a max-contract player. And he will in all likelihood receive a max deal from the Pelicans, if only because they have no other choice. Pairing DeMarcus Cousins with Anthony Davis at the trade deadline meant New Orleans was entering the summer with a win-now ultimatum and no cap space.
If Holiday walks in unrestricted free agency, the Pelicans have nobody to deliver the ball to their two stud bigs, no way of paying somebody else of his caliber, and no assets to trade for an adequate replacement, because they owe Solomon Hill, Omer Asik and E’Twaun Moore a combined $85 million.
So, when another team makes a big play for Holiday — and the Dallas Mavericks were among those rumored to be making a sweetheart offer that included the chance to play with Justin — the Pelicans have no other option but to top it. And that will get expensive. Like, $30 million a year expensive.
TIM HARDAWAY JR., Atlanta Hawks (restricted)
The New York Knicks’ No. 24 pick in 2013, Hardaway was dealt to Atlanta for another non-lottery pick two years into his career, averaged just six points on below-average shooting in 17 minutes per game during his first season on the Hawks, and then salvaged his career in the final year of his rookie deal.
A top-10 finisher in this year’s Most Improved Player voting, Hardaway submitted career-highs of 14.5 points per game and 56.8 percent true shooting this season. With more minutes and responsibility following the trade of Kyle Korver, the Basketball Hall of Famer’s son increased his output and efficiency, and Atlanta’s offensive rating rose 8.5 points per 100 possessions with him in the lineup.
I’m practically talking myself into offering him four years and $70 million this summer — the same offer teammates Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder received in restricted free agency last year. Show any general manager game tape of his 23 points in the fourth quarter against the Houston Rockets, and that offer might even climb to $20 million annually. The guy is still only 25 years old.
But what if I told you Reggie Jackson gave the Detroit Pistons the same numbers last season? You’d say he was overpaid at $15 million. Hardaway is a useful player, but his inconsistent production can be approximated by any number of players, and I’d be shocked if he’s ever a starting shooting guard on a contender. If that’s the case, he should get closer to $10 million than $20 million. Which won’t happen, because he is exactly the type of player whose best nights enthrall GMs enough to throw cash at him.
KENTAVIOUS CALDWELL-POPE, Detroit Pistons (restricted)
Caldwell produced comparable offensive numbers to Hardaway (14 points per game on 35 percent shooting from 3-point range), while serving as an above-average wing defender (he even picked up an All-Defensive Second Team vote). That’s somebody you want on your roster, especially at age 24.
But the Brooklyn Nets, with a plethora of cap space, are reportedly prepared to offer Caldwell-Pope a max contract, which would mean a start salary around $25 million for the former No. 8 overall pick.
What’s more, the Pistons have their hands tied into matching it, because they are without cap space this year and next, and cannot possibly replicate a Caldwell-Pope with the mid-level exception. He was arguably the Pistons’ most important player in 2015-16, whatever that means for a 37-win team.
So, Detroit would technically be paying market value for Caldwell-Pope, but only because another bad team is desperate enough to overpay for anyone better than Joe Harris. Outside of trading one of several other cumbersome contracts, the Pistons would then be locked into a core of Caldwell-Pope, Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson and Tobias Harris for the next two years — with another $75 million or so due to the first three in 2019-20. That’s the same team that finished 10th in the East this year.
KELLY OLYNYK, Boston Celtics (restricted)
I’m not sure how much money Olynyk earned with his 26-point performance to beat the Washington Wizards in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, but it was a lot. Millions, most likely. His next two games, in which he finished with two points and couldn’t stay on the floor against the Cleveland Cavaliers, will be ignored, because that’s what GMs do. They’re an optimistic bunch, for the most part.
They will see Olynyk as a prototypical stretch big well-suited for today’s NBA — a 7-footer who can stretch the floor. He even shot 40.5 percent from 3-point range two seasons ago. They will ignore the fact he is an awkwardly plodding brute inside the arc, accidentally ripping people’s arms out of their sockets and elbowing his screen victims in the face, who doesn’t rebound or defend all that well.
They will not see him for what he is — a serviceable backup big. Somebody will throw more than $15 million per season at Olynyk for the same reason the Chicago Bulls drafted Lauri Markkanen with the No. 7 overall pick last week. They think he’s a perfect fit for the pace-and-space era, forgetting about the pace part, and the Celtics will let him walk, because they know better after four years of him.
NERLENS NOEL, Dallas Mavericks (restricted)
I like Nerlens. I like all the players on this list. Gregg Popovich could probably finish .500 with them. But to pay Noel max money — as much as $140 million over the next five years — is one heck of a risk for a 7-footer whose knees (plural) have cost him a total of 135 games over his first four NBA seasons.
And reports indicate there are multiple teams willing to pay the max for Noel, because he is a 23-year-old rim-protecting, rim-running athletic freak who is capable of stuff like this, over Draymond Green:
The Mavs have reportedly made re-signing Noel their top priority this offseason, and they can match any offer in order to keep him part of a core that now includes Harrison Barnes, Seth Curry and Dennis Smith. Noel might even be worth that money if he stays healthy. But big men with multiple ACL surgeries in their recent past aren’t a safe bet. Not at an average annual rate of $28 million until 2022.
You’re also paying 25 percent of the salary cap to a guy who can’t shoot beyond eight feet in a league that’s increasingly requiring its big men to space the floor. This sounds contradictory to also having Olynyk on this list, but it’s really the same argument: You’re paying in full for half a complete player. Even on the lottery-bound Mavs and Philadelphia 76ers, Noel only managed 20 minutes per game.
I hope he succeeds. I really do. I hope they all do. I just wouldn’t bet on them. Or these guys, either …
Serge Ibaka, Toronto Raptors (unrestricted): After trading Terrence Ross and a first-round pick for Ibaka, the Raptors seemed intent on keeping him long-term. If Kyle Lowry returns, the Raps’ only option to stay in the East hunt will be to outbid Ibaka’s suitors. If Lowry goes, and Ibaka follows suit, the dearth of free-agent big men with Ibaka’s range and rim-protection means someone will still pay up for him, even if he’s a third or fourth option who couldn’t get Toronto out of the second round.
Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz (restricted): Once one of the league’s most underrated players, too many people started to notice, and now a team will ruin it by making the 30-year-old Australian overrated.
James Johnson, Miami Heat (unrestricted): The 30-year-old posted career-highs across the board as a super-sub, but we have seven more years of evidence he won’t be worth the deal he’ll get as a result.
Patty Mills, San Antonio Spurs (unrestricted): Projecting production in San Antonio over more minutes elsewhere is always a difficult proposition, but with several teams in need of help at the point guard position, someone is sure to be conceived they can get even more out of Mills than Popovich did.
Nikola Mirotic, Chicago Bulls (restricted): Olynyk, only better, and more expensive. So, Olynyk.
Mason Plumlee, Denver Nuggets (restricted): There’s a rule that a Plumlee always has to be on this list.
Otto Porter Jr., Washington Wizards (restricted): Similarly to Holiday and Caldwell-Pope, in that high-paying suitors will drive up his price tag, knowing the Wizards can’t afford to lose him.
Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City Thunder (restricted): If OKC matches Roberson’s best offer, it’ll cross the luxury-tax line, and that’s nowhere for a small-market team to be. On the other hand, if Roberson goes, the Thunder will be even shallower on the wing. So, the bidding could get fierce for the All-Defensive Second Teamer, and the final offer will seem like a lot for a guy who teams dare to shoot.
Tony Snell, Milwaukee Bucks (restricted): He’s 3-and-D, without the D, but NBA teams sure love the 3.
Dion Waiters, Miami Heat (unrestricted): I figured Waiters for an overpay last summer, when he turned out to be a bargain at $2.9 million, and the market overcorrection should come after his career year.
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