Free agency has officially began, even if players won’t be able to sign new deals until July 9. It might be one of the most chaotic of such periods in league history because the new television deal the league recently signed will kick in next season, raising the cap significantly. For that reason, there will be huge incentive to spend now, when not everyone has cap space. The result of that urge could be teams targeting talented players that don’t fit what they are trying to build simply because they are available.
That could be a serious mistake.
To say that fit matters in free agency would be an understatement. Unlike what happens in the draft, teams are dealing with the finished product, not malleable raw talent most of the time. That’s what makes signing players that have only excelled at one place or playing one style such a risky proposition.
The best way to illustrate how the talent vs. fit dynamic works might be by using one of the more divisive players in the league as an example: Rajon Rondo. The Kings are reportedly interested in Rondo, a player that had his best years playing at a glacial pace in Boston and handling the ball most of the time. Rondo is definitely more talented than other free agent point guards like Patrick Beverley or Aaron Brooks but the fit in Sacramento is so poor that it doesn’t matter. The ball will be in DeMarcus Cousins’ hands most of the time and when Rondo has it there will be no shooters around, preventing him from being the best version of himself.
Rondo is an extreme example but there are plenty of other players that similarly need to be in the right environment to excel. Gerald Green has the usage of a star and the ability to score in isolation situations and on pull ups, which makes him a perfect sixth man for a scoring-starved team but a terrible fit for a squad looking for a spot up shooter. A typical 3-and-D wing like Alan Anderson, on the other hand, is not as sexy a name as the former dunk champion but will get the job done.
As obvious as it seems that it’s a bad idea to sign players who are not actually good at what a team needs them to do, every year a general manager falls in love with a recognizable brand or gaudy numbers and makes an addition that then proves to be a mistake. Chandler Parsons in Dallas might be the best example of this problem. Instead of bolstering their defense and shooting the Mavericks went for another scorer and ball-handler, which limited their upside and killed their cap flexibility.
The temptation to prioritize talent over fit is huge in free agency but there’s another, equally harming potential pitfall: equating team success to individual value or falling in love with outliers.
Every year a player from a team that went far in the playoffs or simply exceeded expectations will get a contract from a struggling squad hoping he can change their fortunes or improve their locker room. Spurs players are a common target, with Gary Neal as the latest example that just because someone excelled in San Antonio it doesn’t mean they will be anything other than completely mediocre in another system.
Two candidates to get severely overpaid this summer because of the team they played for are Neal’s replacement Marco Belinelli and Iman Shumpert. Belinelli has a championship ring but missed 20 games and shot a pedestrian 37 percent from outside last season. Shumpert, meanwhile, is a career 34 percent shooter from beyond the arc who is not close to being an elite defender yet. Both players had their best seasons sharing the court with elite teammates, yet there will be middling teams thinking they can replicate career performances in different circumstances.
Something similar happens with players coming off career years. The Clippers signed Spencer Hawes instead of a wing because they thought he would suddenly become a deadly outside threat after a single season shooting over 40 percent from outside. That situation might resemble Tristan Thompson’s this season. After shooting 47 percent from the field mostly in point blank shots in his first three years in the league, someone will see Thompson’s 55 percent from this past season and assume that will be the norm going forward.
Time and time again even smart front offices make these same shortsighted mistakes because the gambles are too enticing to pass up. Any general manager that lands the steal of free agency elevates his public profile and likely buys himself some time on the job. That’s why Al-Farouq Aminu will get $30 million over four years. If he pans out in Portland, Neil Olshey will look like a genius.
The good news is that while we might see more crazy contracts given to players that are obviously not a good fit for the team that signs them this year, the hit to team’s versatility will lessen as the new TV contract causes the cap to rise. So try to enjoy this free agency period, NBA fans, because during the next one the mistakes some front offices will inevitable make will surely be more costly.