NBA roster construction contains multitudes, often as much a science as it is an art, gambling as it is calculating.
At their roots, every draft pick, trade and free agent signing is — on some level, at least — guesswork. How a player performed in one environment doesn’t guarantee how they’ll play in a new one. Age waits for no one and performance decline can happen at any unexpected time.
All of that makes any transaction at least a little risky, and some moves carry more variance than others. Sometimes, though, embracing that risk re-defines what’s possible for a franchise — look no further than the 2019 NBA champion Toronto Raptors for proof of that.
This free agency class boasts names that will force teams to make similar risk-reward calculations.
Here are four options that come with red flags…
Age as of free agency: 30
Previous team: Golden State Warriors
Previous salary: $30 million
2018-19 stats: GP: 78 │ PPG: 26 │ REB: 6.4 │ AST: 5.9 │ FG%: 52.1 │ FG3%: 35.3
Red flag: Ruptured Achilles’ tendon.
Begin with the obvious. Durant’s 12 minutes of action in a must-win Game 5 against the Toronto Raptors showcased his capacity to be a singular basketball force. Then he crumbled to the floor, grabbing the back of his ankle, and wouldn’t play another minute in the NBA Finals — and now, perhaps a full year as he recovers from a ruptured Achilles’ tendon.
Going through the list of notable NBA players who have undergone similar surgery doesn’t inspire much confidence: Dominique Wilkins (injured at age 21), Isiah Thomas (age 35), Patrick Ewing (age 36), Voshon Lenard (age 30), Mehmet Okur (age 30), Kobe Bryant (age 34), Wesley Matthews (age 28), Rudy Gay (age 30), DeMarcus Cousins (age 27).
No. 1 on that list of NBA players who have returned and played at their previous level of play post-Achilles’ rupture is Wilkins, based on a value over replacement player comparison done by Neil Pane of 538. No. 2 is no one — so far.
Is 90 per cent of 2019 Durant enough to justify max-money? Of course. But 80 per cent? 70? Some team will surely roll the dice regardless, but it’s a cost-value equation that’s in flux, and will continue to be in flux throughout his year-long recovery and beyond.
Age as of free agency: 28
Previous team: Golden State Warriors
Previous salary: $5.37 million
2018-19 stats: GP: 30 │ PPG: 16.3 │ REB: 8.2 │ AST: 3.6 │ FG%: 48 │ FG3%: 27.4
Red flag: Recovery from injury, price.
Before an answer could be gleaned as to who Cousins is post-Achilles’ injury, he sustained a torn left-quadriceps muscle. At the time, the injury was thought to be season-ending. It wasn’t and he returned for the NBA Finals, but the questions endured.
For stretches against Toronto, like when he changed the tenor of Game 2 with 11 points, six assists and 10 rebounds, he appeared capable of being a difference-maker. But then there were performances like Game 3 where he shot 1-for-7 and had as many turnovers (three) as rebounds.
The calculus here echoes Durant’s. How close are you getting to all-NBA level Cousins by signing him? But it also carries wrinkles that Durant’s don’t.
Throughout his gap-year rehab-stint with the Warriors, Cousins could find himself as a player again in the background as the fourth or fifth scoring option. What happens when he returns to a starring role? What is market-value for a player coming off two devastating injuries?
Age as of free agency: 31
Previous team: Milwaukee Bucks
Previous salary: $3.38 million
2018-19 stats: GP: 81 │ PPG: 12.5 │ REB: 4.9 │ AST: 1.2 │ FG%: 45.2 │ FG3%: 36.5
Red flag: Was last year’s success due to the Bucks?
The least-flashy name on this list, Lopez is emblematic of the risk run when pursuing free agents coming off strong years with new teams.
Lopez led the league in contested shots per game and held opponents to just 51 per cent shooting at the rim. Offensively, he connected on a respectable 36.5 per cent of his shots from beyond the arc, but what mattered as much — if not more — was his willingness to shoot them. Lopez ranked in the 93rd percentile among big men, with 61 per cent of his shots being long-range attempts.
The question teams will have to ask themselves is how much of that was Lopez improving versus how much was the Bucks’ system. Playing with Giannis Antetokounmpo enabled Lopez to sit back on defence and focus solely on protecting the paint, while on offence, the attention the 2019 MVP drew inside the paint let Lopez spot up for threes.
Given how much salary cap space is open around the entire league — about $474 million — it’s easy to imagine Lopez wanting to lock-in one last reasonably lucrative contract for his career. If he’s inserted into a non-Bucks system, though, is he worth it?
Age as of free agency: 27
Previous team: Boston Celtics
Previous salary: $20 million
2018-19 stats: GP: 67 │ PPG: 23.8 │ REB: 5 │ AST: 6.9 │ FG%: 48.7 │ FG3%: 40.1
Red flag: Price-tag, chemistry risk.
There are, at most, five or six NBA players who have proven they can be the best player on a championship-winning team. When Irving broke up with LeBron James and went to Boston, it signalled his desire to prove he belonged on that list.
Irving is an all-world level talent, a mesmerizing ball-handler who has proven capable of making the biggest shots under the brightest lights. But following a post-mortem of the Celtics’s Eastern Conference semifinal loss at the hands of Milwaukee and how he factored into their slow-burn season-long implosion, it’s fair to question if he’s one of those five or six.
More than maybe any other free agent, Irving’s value and the risks posed in signing him to the max-contract he’ll seek is tough to divorce from his rumoured destination in Brooklyn — especially given how few teams currently have both max-money and a need at point guard.
Irving is better than D’Angelo Russell, who he would be replacing on the Nets. Irving is also worth every dollar of a max if he were to come with a healthy Durant, as was rumoured could be the case before Durant’s injury.
But is Irving alone though enough of an upgrade to justify paying him $5-10 million more than Russell — or another, comparably priced option for other teams — given the chemistry experiment he brings with him?