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Head to Head: Riskiest 2016 Free Agents

Which 2015-16 free agents carry the most risk? Alex Kennedy, Tommy Beer and Jesse Blancarte discuss.

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With the salary cap set to rise as a result of the NBA’s new television deal coming into effect next offseason, there is sure to be a lot of action next summer when free agency starts up. Whether it is because of age, decline or having a history of being a disruptive presence, some of the upcoming free agents carry more risk than others. On today’s Head to Head, Tommy Beer, Alex Kennedy and Jesse Blancarte discuss which free agents they think carry the most risk for teams in free agency.

Rajon Rondo

Before the Boston Celtics traded Rajon Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks last December, Boston had been having internal discussions for years about whether they should trade away Rondo or re-sign him to a big contract and rebuild around him. Eventually Danny Ainge decided to part ways with Rondo before he hit free agency, opting to make sure Boston received assets in return for the point guard instead of taking the chance that they would lose him for nothing. The Celtics ended up sending Rondo to Dallas in exchange for Brandan Wright, Jae Crowder, Jameer Nelson, two draft picks and a trade exception.

Rondo won a championship with the Celtics in 2008, when he was just 22 years old. His game continued to blossom as he took more control of the reins in the years following Boston’s championship run. He led the league in steals in 2009-10 and then led the NBA in assists in back-to-back seasons (2011-12 and 2012-13). However, a string of serious injuries limited him to 53 games or fewer in three straight seasons.

Worse yet, the 2014-15 season was an absolute train wreck for Rondo. He struggled mightily in Dallas. The Mavericks were hoping that Rondo would be the piece that made the Mavs legit contenders. Instead, Rondo played poorly and fell out of favor with head coach Rick Carlisle. He averaged fewer than 10 points per game for the first time since his rookie season, and fewer than eight assists per game for the first time since 2007-08. In the process, Rajon also 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 season. Eventually, Rondo found himself locked in Carlisle’s doghouse and Dallas actually sent him home in the middle of their playoff series versus the Houston Rockets.

As a result of his disappointing play and issues both on and off the court, the big payday Rondo was hoping for vanished. He was forced to settle on a one-year deal from Sacramento.

However, Rondo has exceeded all expectations during his first two months with the Kings. He currently leads the league in assists by a wide margin, averaging 11.3 assists per contest. He is also shooting a solid 45.8 percent from the floor and a respectable 35.5 percent from three-point territory. His Kings teammates (specifically DeMarcus Cousins) have already started pressing the Sacramento front office to lock him up long-term.

Still, signing Rondo certainly carries plenty of risk. Yes, he’s playing well right now, but will that continue once he locks up a long-term contract? We have already seen his immaturity lead to a suspension earlier this season after he directed a derogatory and offensive term toward an official.

And, although his assist numbers are impressive, his defensive inadequacies are troublesome. Consider this: the Kings allow opponents to score 109.5 points per 100 possessions when Rondo is on the floor. They allow only 102.9 points per 100 possessions when he is off the court. In addition, Sacramento is only slightly more efficient offensively when Rondo is playing (105.1 vs. 104.8). Thus, his net rating is -6.2, which is a major issue.

It’s also worth noting that Rondo will be 30 years old in February, so some teams may be hesitant to give him a lucrative long-term deal.

When Rondo once again hits free agency this summer, he will have plenty of interested suitors. However, when you factor in the potential downside versus the considerable cost, Rondo is likely not worth the hefty investment it will take to secure his services.

 – Tommy Beer

Deron Williams

When Deron Williams became a free agent last offseason, it was a no-brainer for the Dallas Mavericks to sign the veteran point guard to a bargain deal. They were desperately trying to add impact players after a disappointing summer and they managed to land Williams on a $5,378,974 contract (with a player option for the second season).

While Williams had shown signs of decline in recent years, he has actually exceeded expectations in Dallas. Through 26 games, he has averaged 14.8 points, 5.8 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.2 steals. Those numbers are still down from his prime years, but he has been a pleasant surprise and helped Dallas climb to the fifth seed in the Western Conference.

Because he is winning and playing pretty well, expect Williams to opt out of his contract after this season and try to sign one more lucrative contract before he retires. Oftentimes, players who sign a two-year deal with a player option in the second year are planning all along to opt out and only have the player option in case they get injured.

The problem is that Williams will likely be looking for a significant raise when he hits the market this summer, and I’d be extremely hesitant to give him that pay day. Keep in mind, he’ll be a 32-year-old in July and he has a lot of wear and tear on his body (which is why he has struggled in recent seasons).

Williams has shown that he struggles if he’s asked to do too much for a team (just ask the Brooklyn Nets). He also has a reputation for being a very difficult personality, and he’s not known as a leader.

Throw in the fact that he should continue to get worse each year as he gets older, and it’s very risky to give him a multi-year deal – especially since he’ll want far more than the $5,378,974 he is earning this season due to the increased salary cap. If I was an NBA general manager, I would look elsewhere because I don’t believe Williams can sustain his production over the course of a long-term deal and he’s not the kind of veteran I’d want in my locker room.

-Alex Kennedy

Joakim Noah

Since being drafted ninth overall in the 2007 NBA Draft by Chicago, Joakim Noah has been a two-time NBA All-Star (2012-13 and 2013-14), Defensive Player of the Year (2014) and the emotional leader and defensive anchor for the Bulls. The combination of his size, mobility, intelligence, passion and determination made him one of the best all-around centers in the NBA over the last eight seasons.

Despite all of that, I would be very hesitant about signing him to a significant contract this upcoming offseason. At age 30, Noah is not a particularly old player. However, he has a lot of miles on his body and has shown signs of physical decline. Under new head coach Fred Hoiberg, Noah is playing just 22.3 minutes per game this season and has dipped in production in just about every single statistical category. In addition, Noah recently suffered a slight tear in his left shoulder that will keep him sidelined for a few weeks.

While Noah is still capable of producing valuable minutes at center, he looks to have slowed down significantly over the last season and a half. Nagging injuries and playing under Tom Thibodeau for the last several seasons seems to have taken its toll on Noah, who no longer looks like the spry defensive ace he once was. Couple in the fact that he doesn’t really have a post game to lean on moving forward and he has never had much range, and it seems clear that offering Noah a significant contract could be risky.

To clarify, if I were a general manager, I would be happy to have Noah on my team at a reasonable price . He plays hard, leads by example and is a highly experienced veteran. But considering how much free agent money there will be with the NBA’s new television deal coming into effect, and how much centers are paid, I expect Noah to be paid well above what he is producing at this point in his career.

It could be the case that Noah bounces back physically and comes close to his old self on the court, which would warrant a major contract. But at his age, with his wear and tear and the significant dip in production, I would be hesitant to offer Noah a long-term contract, despite all of his notable accomplishments.

 – Jesse Blancarte

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