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Head to Head: Pay These Free Agents At Your Own Risk

Which free agents should teams be cautious of this offseason? Basketball Insiders’ writers discuss.

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There are several notable players hitting the free agent market this summer. Some are clearly deserving of a max, or near-max, contract while others have some red flags. In today’s head to head, Tommy Beer, Alex Kennedy and Cody Taylor discuss which players teams should approach cautiously.

 Rajon Rondo

It was less than two years ago when Boston Celtics GM Danny Ainge traded Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for three future first-round draft picks. At that point, the only remaining core piece from the Celtics’ championship run was point guard Rajon Rondo. The debate in Boston was whether Ainge would also trade away Rajon Rondo or keep him, re-sign him, and build around him. At that time, it seemed to be all but a forgone conclusion that Rondo would have teams beating down his door to offer him a max contract if the Celtics allowed him to hit the open market.

However, Rondo’s stock, which was already dipping, bottomed out during a regrettable short stint in Dallas this past season. Ainge ended up trading Rondo to the Mavericks for Brandan Wright, Jameer Nelson, Jae Crowder and draft picks. At the time, the move was heralded as a coup for the Mavericks. Dallas fans were hoping that Rondo would be a final piece to the puzzle, making them a true contender out West. In actuality, Rondo never got along with his new coach and never fit. Nearly from the start, the results were disastrous.

After an uninspired effort in Game 2 of their playoffs series against the Houston Rockets, the Mavericks sent Rondo home. He never played another minute for the Mavericks. In fact, once they were eliminated, they refused to pay him a postseason share. Coach Rick Carlisle made it clear the Mavericks would not consider re-signing him this offseason.

Yet, will another team make a major offer to secure Rondo’s services? And, if a team does just that, will they be basing their decision off what Rondo will do going forward, or off the reputation he built early in his career?

While Rondo’s performance this past season was undeniably disappointing, the signs of regression were certainly evident to those examining closely. Not only is he injury prone (Rondo has missed at least 14 games each season this decade), his production, even when healthy, is no longer elite. Once a feared defender, Rondo is now merely average. And his offensive efficiency has gone from bad to worse. He’s a career 26 percent three-point shooter and last season he became the first player in NBA history shorter than 6’6 to shoot below 40 percent from the free-throw line over the course of a full NBA campaign. During the 2013-14 season, Rondo posted a pedestrian 15.3 Player Efficiency Rating. Last season, his PER dropped to just 13.5, well below the league average.

We know he won’t be back in Dallas, but where will he end up? And for how much? The Rondo situation is extremely interesting and largely unpredictable. If a team does pony up major money, they will likely end up regretting that decision sooner rather than later.

– Tommy Beer

Wesley Matthews

Wesley Matthews seemed poised for a big pay day this summer considering how well he had played for the Portland Trail Blazers in recent years. He’s been a huge part of the team’s success on both ends of the floor, and that was no different in the 2014-15 season. He finished the year averaging 15.9 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals while hitting 2.9 three-pointers per game at a 38.9 percent clip.

Matthews had emerged as one of the better two-way shooting guards in the league just as he was set to hit the market as an unrestricted free agent this offseason. He’s the kind of well-rounded, “3-and-D” player who should have been highly coveted on July 1.

Unfortunately, a horrible injury is going to impact Matthews’ summer.

The 28-year-old tore the Achilles tendon in his left leg on March 5, ending his season prematurely and forcing him to go under the knife. This was a huge blow to the Trail Blazers, who weren’t the same after losing their starting shooting guard, and it will likely affect Matthews’ contract negotiations as well.

A torn Achilles is an awful injury to have just before free agency, because many teams are scared of what it will do to a player long-term. Many players have had their career ruined by an Achilles tear.

Some players don’t play in the NBA again (Isiah Thomas, Jamie Feick, Jerome James, Laron Profit, etc.). Some players return, only to end their career shortly after because they struggle and can’t stay healthy (Chauncey Billups, Voshon Leonard, Mehmet Okur, DeSagana Diop, etc.). Some players continue playing, but never return to their same pre-injury level (Elton Brand, Laphonso Ellis, Christian Laettner, Maurice Taylor, etc.). Kobe Bryant is the latest player to be plagued by injuries after an Achilles tear.

Given just how many players have failed to bounce back from this injury, teams may be hesitant to offer Matthews a lucrative contract.

Matthews is a very talented player, who has a reputation for being a great teammate, a hard worker and an excellent glue guy in the locker room. However, all signs point to this injury greatly impacting his free agency. There may be a team that pounces on him and sees this injury as an opportunity to acquire a very good player who otherwise may not have been obtainable, but they’ll definitely be taking a risk.

– Alex Kennedy

Tobias Harris

Orlando Magic forward Tobias Harris has shown a lot of promise since landing in Central Florida two years ago. This is a player who was buried on the bench in Milwaukee, averaging just under five points in 11 minutes per game. A change of scenery was what Harris needed to flash his full potential. After the Magic acquired Harris at the trade deadline in 2013, he immediately began playing starters’ minutes and averaged 17.3 points in 36 minutes per game over the remainder of that season.

Harris has become one of the Magic’s go-to players in crunch time and often has the ball in his hands with the game on the line. He’s even knocked down some game-winning shots already in his short stint in Orlando. Given his transformation, Harris will become one of the top names in free agency this summer once the Magic offer him a qualifying offer of $4,433,683 to make him a restricted free agent. At that point, the ball will be in the Magic’s court as they’ll be able to match any offer for the 6’9 forward. The question then becomes, what price is too much on matching an offer?

There is no doubt around the team and among those who watch Harris play that he’s put in the necessary work to be where he is today. But on the flip side, how much is he realistically worth? Last season, Harris averaged 17.1 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game while shooting 36 percent from three-point range (an improvement from 25 percent the previous season). Harris’ 16.76 PER was the highest of his career and ninth among small forwards in the NBA, even slightly higher than Draymond Green’s 16.43 PER. The average PER in the NBA is 15, with the top forwards in the league well into the 20s. While Harris just posted the best season of his young career, there are still some concerns with his game. He’s not an elite defender. He’s gone through inconsistent stretches in Orlando, including averaging just 11.9 points per game in January on 37 percent shooting from the floor.

It’s unclear how other teams in the NBA value Harris. Could he be offered $10 million per season? How about $12 million? Would a team in desperate need of a rising player even offer him a max deal around $16.7 million? With the salary cap rising over the next several seasons, $16 million this season won’t be the same as $16 million two seasons from now. Equally, teams will need to spend more with a rising cap in order to meet the salary floor.

Harris turns 23 in July and will still be relatively young with plenty of time to improve even more. There’s no question that he can greatly help an NBA team win games, but at what cost? That’s the question that the Magic and other teams in need of help at the forward position will attempt to figure out.

– Cody Taylor

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