The NBA’s Two Biggest Free-Agent Busts of the Season Play for the Same Team

Ben Gordon

Ben Gordon Photo Credit: Icon SMI

By Brian Spencer

Not good, Joe Dumars, not good at all.

As far as leashes on NBA GMs go, Dumars has had as long a one as any executive in the league, and deservedly so. He was the man behind the curtain of the franchise’s dominance during the ‘00s, gifting Piston fans with one stroke of genius after the other and helping keep them in serious title contention for six straight seasons. Drafting Tayshaun Prince, turning Chauncey Billups from vagabond to All-Star, trading for Rip Hamilton, Ben Wallace, and Rasheed Wallace for relative nickels on the dime. There were missteps along the way, to be sure—let’s not beat this horse today—but nobody’s perfect.

But, then, he tried to pull off a magic trick that didn’t go as scripted: Iverson was a spectacular failure as a Detroit Piston, and while the team did sneak into last year’s playoffs, it was expeditiously dismissed in four games by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Meanwhile, a rejuvenated Billups damn near guided the Denver Nuggets to the promised land. If we know anything about the world of professional sports, it’s that athletes are overpaid and the fans have a short memory. It would have been off with Dumars’ head if not for the net cap space gained by the Billups trade.

Oh, that glorious cap space! The possibilities! In Joe We Trust!

Er, uh, yeah… about that cap space. It’s gone. Poof. No redos, no backsies, it’s been spent, what’s done is done. And how was it spent? On the two biggest busts of last year’s free-agent class: Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva. Two guys coming off career seasons, two guys in the midst of following up with career-worst seasons.

Gordon, brought to Detroit on a generous 5-year, $55 million deal, has been dreadful. We all tend to sometimes underestimate the impact injuries can have on performance, even after they’ve “healed,” and in Gordon’s defense, his timing was probably thrown all sorts of off after suffering an ankle injury that kept him out of 19 games and limited him in many others.

But, really, he’s reasonably healthy at this point and still laying bricks at a ridiculously high rate while contributing little else in the way of defense (big surprise there). Signed in part to shore up Detroit’s game from behind the arc, Gordon is shooting a career-low 30% from three-point land; ladies and gentlemen, that’s a full 10 points below his previous low mark, set as a rookie back in 2004-05. 10 points! All in all, through 42 games he’s averaging a paltry 14 points (42% FG), 2.4 assists, 1.9 boards, and 0.7 steals… and he’s coming off the bench.

Charlie V is a backup, too, but the difference is he’s not playing behind a former All-Star (Hamilton) like Gordon is. No, Villanueva has been soundly outplayed by new fan-favorite Jonas Jerebko, the Swedish rookie destined for All-NBA Rookie First Team honors next month. He’s also arguably been outplayed by Jason Maxiell, sometimes even Chris Wilcox. That’s not supposed to happen.

Inked to a 5-year, $35 million deal after a strong season with the Milwaukee Bucks, Villanueva has been soft like a soggy, wet french fry. He’s enjoyed the occasional offensive explosion, but inconsistency has always plagued his career and nothing’s changed so far in Detroit. He’s still defensively challenged upstairs, still passive to a fault, still infatuated with the triple when he could be dominating in the post.

And while Villanueva has performed (far) below expectations on a whole, his play has been particularly abominable as of late: in 12 February games, he shot 39% from the field in averaging a dismal 6.2 points, 3.8 boards, and little else. He’s been even worse so far in March (35% FG, 6.5 points, 2 boards).

So there you have it: Gordon and Villanueva are your biggest free-agent busts of 2009. Which of them deserves honors as the biggest bust? After the break our friends from HOOPSWORLD, Lester’s Legends, and Give Me The Rock weigh in….

Patrick Madden, Give Me The Rock:

The Pistons have two of the most disappointing free agent signings from the summer of 09 in Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva. Choosing which one has been more disappointing this year is like choosing which one of your children is a bigger failure at life. That being said, Gordon did have slightly higher expectations going into this season (he was drafted at 60.3 in the average ESPN fantasy league compared to 79.6 for Villanueva) and is getting paid $20 million more than Charlie V. So Ben Gordon it is.

Other than the first few weeks of the season when Rip Hamilton was hurt, not much has gone right for Gordon this season. He’s missed 19 games with ankle and groin injuries and has struggled to find both his shot and his role with the team since returning from injury. In last night’s game against the Celtics, for example, Gordon finished 2 of 8 from the floor with 8 points in 26 minutes and was taken out of the game after Nate Robinson torched him for 14 points in 15 minutes on the court.

There are a number of factors affecting Gordon’s game this season: the injuries of course, but also Coach John Kuester’s inconsistent rotations and Gordon’s own subpar defense. However, I think Gordon’s problems can basically be boiled down to this fact: the Pistons don’t need Ben Gordon as long as they have Rip Hamilton, who fills the same role as Gordon and is still a better player than him even at 32. As I read the other day, it is tough for Gordon to get involved in the Pistons’ offense when it consists of them running screens for Hamilton. Add in the fact that he plays alongside two scoring point guards and you have a situation where Gordon has the ball in his hands a lot less than he did in Chicago. And that’s when his defensive deficiencies begin to catch up with him.

What can Gordon do to turn things around? Well, maiming Rip Hamilton would be a start. Nothing serious, a pipe to the knee should be enough. But seriously, Ben Gordon’s future is directly influenced by Hamilton. The Pistons have made some rumblings about trading Rip this offseason and – if they were smart – that is exactly what they’d do. If Hamilton goes, then Ben Gordon is in for a bounce back season and should be on everyone’s sleeper lists come October. If not, then Gordon might be on track to become one of the great free agent busts of recent history.


Charlie Villanueva

I thought the biggest bust of last summer’s free agent class – accounting for the size of respective contracts – was Charlie Villanueva. Giving Charlie V $37.5 million, especially given the current state of the economy, was highly questionable. Look at the players who settled for the mid-level exception this past summer: Trevor Ariza, Ron Artest, Rasheed Wallace, etc. And the MLE starts at approximately $5.9 million. With that in mind, the Villanueva math just doesn’t add up. Is he really worth $7.5 million per season?

After being selected with the 7th overall pick in the 2005 draft, Villanueva was productive for stretches but has also been maddeningly inconsistent over his first four years in the league. Although he is a talented scorer, he has never been accused of being a spirited defender. However, last season he posted career-highs across the board – averaging 16.2 points and 6.7 rebounds in 27 minutes a game. But he also needed to take 14 shots a night to score those 16 points (He shot under 45% from the floor and got to the line just over three times per contest). And Villanueva’s occasionally lackadaisical play has drawn the ire of past coaches and landed him in a doghouse or two. Moreover, although it was mostly because they were looking to shed salary, it should be noted that Milwaukee chose to not make him a qualifying offer prior to the start of free agency.

All things considered, this was a very questionable decision by Dumars, who will have to rely heavily on Charlie V. to develop into a full-time starter and consistent contributor if he is going to earn his hefty paycheck.

Ryan Lester, Lester’s Legends

The biggest bust of last summer’s free-agent class is Ben Gordon. He signed a five-year $55 million contract to give the Pistons a scoring punch. The Pistons were 28th in the league with 94.2 ppg last year.

Gordon posted averages of 21.4, 18.6, and 20.7 of the Bulls the past three years. Logic would say adding a score of his magnitude would improve your offensive output. Unfortunately the Pistons slipped to 29th in the league with 92.4 ppg (as of March 1st).

Gordon has missed 19 games and is averaging a career low 14.3 points. Not only that, his field goal percentage, free throw percentage, steals, and assists are down. His three-pointers made, three-point percentage, and rebounds are also career lows.

So how is he going to turn things around next year? Getting healthy would help. Of course, that’s not really something a player can control. Gordon just needs to finish this year on a high note. Build some momentum and confidence. If he has something positive to focus on during the long offseason, it should help him prepare.

Also, having Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince healthy would help Gordon figure out his role. It’s hard, especially when you go to a new team, to really lock in when you don’t get to practice and play with your top guys for an extended period.

I do think Gordon will be better. He’s too good of a scorer not to.

Previous Roudtable Discussions:
Change is a Good Thing in Fantasy Hoops
Where will LeBron, Wade, and Bosh Play Next Season?
Which NBA Team is the Least Fantasy Friendly?
Iverson or McGrady in Fantasy Hoops?

Charlie Villanueva Photo Credit: Icon SMI

If you are having trouble beating the NBA odds this year then maybe it’s time to take a look at the NBA betting articles at BetFirms.


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