By Brian Spencer
Right now you’re reading about what might happen with Gilbert Arenas’ monster contract now that he’s been suspended indefinitely. As the NBA trade deadline approaches, you’re going to hear more about salary dumps, expiring contracts, and the fine line that general managers around the league must walk when it comes to gaining and shedding payroll. Once the summer rolls around and all these marquee free agents hit the market, you’re going to see a lot of guys signed to astronomical contracts; some of them will prove to be worth it, many of them will not. GMs can be an overzealous lot, and within their circles, cases of buyer’s remorse, admitted or not, run rampant.
With all of this in mind, a look at eight of the current deals in the NBA that are looking a little dubious at this point. I’m basically looking at longish-term contracts, not ones that expire this year or next, and these are in no particular order.
Gilbert Arenas, G, “Washington Wizards”
Throwing $100+ million at Arenas and severely handcuffing the franchise’s flexibility to improve their top-heavy roster was a colossal mistake even before the recent incident. The funny thing is that at the time this deal was signed–a 6-year, $111 million drop in the bucket in July ’08–the Wizards praised Arenas for actually accepting less than they offered him, reported to be between $125 – $127 million, so that they could have more wiggle room to sign other players. Generous guy, that Agent Zero.
It just boggles the mind that the Wiz were willing to mortgage their present and future, especially since Arenas was coming off a major knee injury that limited him to 13 games the previous season. Sure, you pay your marquee player and hope the injury was a freak thing, but you don’t try to pay him like a Kobe Bryant or a LeBron James. Arenas basically missed the entire 2008-09 season, and after suiting up for just 32 games this year looks to have played his last game in a Wizards uniform. For years Wizards brass has been trying to convince itself that they will eventually win with the core of Arenas, Caron Butler, and Antawn Jamison, but that thinking has been a fool’s errand all along.
This looks to be headed towards a buyout, which means Arenas will be paid something silly–say, $50 million–for doing absolutely nothing for the franchise other than to drive it into the ground, both on and off the court. Yay sports!
Elton Brand, F, Philadelphia 76ers
Thought to be the final missing piece in the 76ers’ renaissance, Brand was signed to a 5-year, $80 million deal in the summer of ’08 with the intention of making him the franchise cornerstone, along with Andre Iguodala, for the next half decade. Brand had enjoyed one of the most consistently productive careers of anybody in the NBA during his first eight seasons (two with Chicago and six with the LA Clippers), but suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in his ninth season that limited him to just 8 games.
The Sixers were undeterred in their optimism that Brand was the answer, but unfortunately, he’s become more of a headache than a solution. Brand played in only 29 games during his first season with the Sixers due to various injuries, and though he’s only missed 4 so far this year, he’s struggled to find his role and has been bumped from the starting lineup. He’s not pleased, the Sixers aren’t pleased, it’s an unhappy marriage that’s probably headed for a divorce. Easier said than done, however, given Brand’s injury risk, dovetailing stats, and the $51 million he’ll make through the 2012-13 season.
Richard Hamilton, G, Detroit Pistons
When the Pistons signed Hamilton to a 3-year, $35 million extension to his existing deal back in November of ’08, the team was still riding high off 6 years of Eastern Conference domination and, with Chauncey Billups also locked up through the 2011-12 season, looked to have its All-Star backcourt wearing Pistons’ blue and red all the way through their respective golden years. Then Billups was suddenly traded, the team shifted gears towards rebuild mode, and Hamilton was left in the lurch, to some degree, as the stalwart veteran used to winning who now had to deal with inexperienced head coaches (Michael Curry and now John Kuester), a young, in-flux roster, and mounting losses.
After the team signed Ben Gordon to a semi-lucrative free-agent deal last summer, Hamilton became largely expendable… and may have already been traded if not for that extension. Few teams are willing to add payroll this year, and though Rip’s production has slipped a little and he’s been battling injuries almost all season long, at 31 years old there’s still plenty left in the tank. No, it’s that $35 million pricetag, once thought to be reasonable, that’s the main obstacle standing in the way of GM Joe Dumars finding a new home for his starting SG who no longer fits the long-term direction the team is moving in. And that’s what makes this contract so cumbersome for Detroit.
Five more cases of NBA buyer’s remorse after the break…
Shawn Marion, F, Dallas Mavericks
It’s hard to believe that after this season, his 11th, Marion still has 4 years and roughly $33 million left on his contract; he’ll be 36 years old. Once known as “The Matrix” because of his insane athleticism and ability to guard anybody and do just about anything on the court, Marion’s production has been on a steady decline ever since he was traded to the Miami Heat midway through the 2007-08 season.
It’s the length of this deal that stands out more than the actual compensation; he’s played for four teams in the past 3 years, and you have to assume Dallas won’t be his last stop either. Through his first 37 games with the Mavericks, Marion is averaging 11.4 points, 6.4 boards, 1.5 assists, 0.9 steals, and 1 block in 31:30 minutes a night–all are right around career lows.
Rashard Lewis, F, Orlando Magic
The 6-year, $110 million whopper the Magic laid on Lewis a few years ago was roundly criticized, mostly because the team probably could have had him at a much more reasonable number; they were bidding against themselves. I’ve always felt, though, that if a highly paid player leads his team to a NBA title, the cost would probably be justified, regardless of how ridiculous his compensation was. Lewis and the Magic came this close last year to doing just that and winning it all, but ultimately fell short.
Now, with the team in desperate win-now mode and taking on even more salary (Vince Carter, Marcin Gortat), the pressure mounts on Lewis to excel in his one-dimensional role as the sharpshooter who stretches the floor and opens up space in the middle for Dwight Howard. Unfortunately, the 30-year-old is in the midst of one of his worst seasons in the last decade, so far averaging just 14.3 points (42% FG), 4.7 boards, 1.5 assists, 1 steal, and 2.4 triples per. He’s unhappy with his role, he’s taking more than half of his field-goal attempts from behind the arc, and after collecting $18.8 million this year (9th most in the NBA), the Magic will still be on the hook for another $66 odd million over the next 3 years. You pay elite superstars $20+ million a season, not role players.
Hedo Turkoglu, GF, Toronto Raptors
Kudos, I guess, to Turkoglu, who turns 31 years old in March, for parlaying his clutch performances during the Orlando Magic’s run to the NBA Finals a year ago into a generous 5-year, $53 million deal with the Raptors. Ballsy move by the Raptors, though, and one that’s been panned as a desperate attempt to show impending free agent Chris Bosh that they’re serious about winning. If they were, they might have been better served saving that money and spending it elsewhere.
Turkoglu, like almost all the players on this list, has done some impressive things on a NBA court. At 6-10 and capable of playing both point guard and power forward in a pinch, he’s a versatile inside-outside threat that can present serious matchup problems. Still, he’s not a guy who should be paid over $10 million a season when he’s in his mid-30s, especially when you cut out his recent big-game successes with the Magic, truly admirable as they were, and look at the bottom line: in 10 NBA seasons, Turkoglu averages 12.4 points (42% FG), 4.2 boards, 2.8 assists, 1.3 three-pointers (on 38%), 79% from the free-throw line, and 0.8 steals per.
Emeka Okafor, C, New Orleans Hornets
The second-overall pick of the 2004 NBA Draft is what he is: a strong post player whom the Hornets can pencil in for somewhere around 12 points, 10 boards, and a blocked shot or two a night. Fine. I’m guessing most teams want an Okafor on their roster… but they probably wouldn’t want him at this price and on their books through the 2013-14 season, the final year of a 6-year, $72 million deal the Charlotte Bobcats signed him to in ’08. It was the most lucrative contract the franchise ever gave, which means Okafor also became its most expensive player they’ve ever traded. Again, Okafor is a fine player, but there’s no upside here.
Luke Walton, F, Los Angeles Lakers
It’s not that Walton’s salary is that ridiculous: he’ll make just under $22 million for the next four seasons, all of which are guaranteed. It’s that after 6 1/2 NBA seasons, Walton has thoroughly mediocre career per-game averages of 5.6 points and 3.2 rebounds and has steadily regressed in each of the past three seasons. He’s been rather handsomely rewarded for a few hustle plays here and there, as well as for being Bill Walton’s son. Well done, Luke. I can think of 10 D-Leaguers who can do what Walton does, and do it better, at a fraction of the cost. Crazy that he’s guaranteed a spot in this league until at least 2013, when he’ll be 33.