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NBA Saturday: Worst-Ever Free Agency Contracts

Rashard Lewis was given one of the largest contracts in league history, but even his isn’t the worst ever.

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Worst-Ever Free Agency Contracts

As good as players like Gordon Hayward and Chandler Parsons are, there have been a lot of complaints about them getting contracts in the $14-15 million-per-year range. It’s understandable considering their relative lack of superstar production over the course of their career, but they’re still young enough and have enough potential to at least have the opportunity to earn that money. There have certainly been cases in NBA history where that has not been the case, which is the point of the following list.

Before we dig into this, though, know that there have been a whole lot of bad deals in the recent history of the NBA, so narrowing this down was rather challenging and some notable albatrosses were inevitably left off the list. If you’re interested in adding some of these omitted names, by all means, please do so in the comments section or continue the conversation on Twitter.

Also, to make these hard decisions, I had to put some criteria in place, and in this case I cut GMs some slack if the player had proven themselves to be consistently good before signing the deal, even if they massively underperformed after the fact. Giving a guy money who, at the time, clearly deserves it, is not a boneheaded thing to do. Did anyone think the Orlando Magic were doing the wrong thing when they signed Grant Hill, for example?

Of course not, because those weren’t bad deals; that’s just bad luck. The worst kinds of contracts are the ones given to people who didn’t deserve them. There have been players that had done almost nothing to warrant big money, yet got it anyway. There have also been players who were good, but who got paid as though they were great even though the rest of the league thought they were crazy for doing so.

All that said, here are the five nastiest contracts in NBA history:

#5 – Brian Cardinal, Memphis Grizzlies, 6 years, $37 million – The Grizzlies once had big dreams for Cardinal, who turned a great season in Golden State into a $6+ million-per-season deal. But after his first year with the team in which he scored nine points a game, his output pretty much settled back to reality, and he’d never score more than 4.5 PPG a season again. He finished out his contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves, appearing in only 29 games and scoring a total of 48 points all year long.

#4 – Jerome James, New York Knicks, 5 years, $30 million – The year before signing this contract with Isiah Thomas’ Knicks, James averaged a paltry 4.9 points and 3.5 rebounds per night. How that translates into $6 million a year for half a decade is beyond the understanding of pretty much every intelligent basketball mind on the planet. Few players have ever done so little for so much money.

#3 – Eddy Curry, New York Knicks, 6 years, $60 million – To be fair to Curry, his first season with the Knicks was a good one in which he averaged 19.5 PPG and 8.1 RPG, but he only appeared in 59 games the next season, and a grand total of 10 in the following three seasons combined. Perhaps the worst part of that particular sign-and-trade was the fact that New York gave up two first-round picks for Curry, one of which turned into New York native Joakim Noah, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and All-NBA First-Teamer.

#2 – Raef LaFrentz, Dallas Mavericks, 7 years, $70 million – In 2002, the Mavs took a gamble and traded for LaFrentz, but the following summer they signed him to a pretty embarrassing contract. It took them only one season to unload him onto Boston, where he immediately experienced an injury-prone season. By years five and six of the deal he was in Portland and barely playing, averaging only 1.7 PPG and 1.7 RPG in his final season before retirement. In that final season, the Blazers paid him $100,000 for every point he scored.

#1 – Jim McIlvaine, Seattle SuperSonics, 7 years, $35 million – While $5 million per season for a promising young big man doesn’t sound like much by today’s standards, by 1996′s standards it was quite a bit of money. Considering that McIlvaine’s best year before the contract was a 2.3 PPG, 2.9 RPG season with Washington, it’s hard to imagine him getting two years at that money, let alone seven. He’d only get the opportunity to play out five of them, though, and his best remaining season was the first after he signed the deal, where he put up career-high numbers of 3.8 PPG and 4.0 RPG.

Honorable Mention:

Austin Croshere, Indiana Pacers, 7 years, $51 million – Croshere simply cashed out at the perfect time in his career. Not only did he put up career numbers in points (10.3) and rebounds (6.4) the year before he became a free agent, but his Pacers also made it to the NBA Finals, where Croshere played a significant role. He turned that into $7.3 million a season for the better part of a decade. In the last year of that contract he was traded to Dallas, where he poured in 3.9 points a night while also pulling down 2.4 boards.

Vin Baker, Seattle SuperSonics, 7 years, $86 million – Once upon a time, Vin Baker was truly a force at power forward, even earning himself a quartet of All-Star appearances between 1995 and 1998. He only made the All-Star team once on his new contract with Seattle, however, and from there the numbers simply got mediocre, while a public bout with alcoholism made the huge payout from the Sonics that much more embarrassing.

Juwan Howard, Washington Bullets, 7 years, $105 million – We know that Howard had a long and relatively illustrious career, but at no point was he any more than a second fiddle (at best) earning first fiddle money. No way could anybody have ever guessed he’d be the league’s first $100 million man.

Brian Grant, Miami HEAT, 7 years, $86 million – Grant really did have a decent career, and he definitely earned more of his money than a lot of the other guys mentioned here. But what’s most confusing about his gigantic deal is the fact that it was given to him after a season in which he averaged only 7.3 points and 5.5 rebounds a night. That doesn’t exactly seem like the sort of guy that deserves $12.3 million a season.

Ben Wallace, Chicago Bulls, 4 years, $60 million – It was exciting at the time because Wallace was the highest-profile free agent of that particular summer, but as a Bull his rebound numbers immediately died as it became very clear very quickly that Big Ben’s better years were behind him. Having no other real aspect of his game, that $15 million per year deal got nothing but more painful for the Bulls, until they were able to deal him to Cleveland a couple years later.

Peja Stojakovic, New Orleans Hornets, 5 years, $64 million – Chris Paul needed a top-tier sidekick, and the Hornets thought Peja was it. While Stojakovic scored a ton of points before coming to Louisiana, his PPG averages dropped every year of his deal.

Darius Miles, Portland Trail Blazers, 6 years, $48 million – After being acquired from the Cleveland Cavaliers in the middle of the 2003-04 season, Miles showed quite a bit of progress just in time for his rookie scale contract to end. That was parlayed into a huge contract from Portland that only got played out half of the way through before knee injuries irreparably destroyed Miles career. The Blazers got a nice chunk of their money back because of that knee injury, but only temporarily; Miles played 34 games for Memphis in 2008-09, putting Portland back on the books for $18 million.

Rashard Lewis, Orlando Magic, 6 years, $118 million – One of the 10 largest contracts of all time, Lewis is the only player on that list who didn’t unequivocally deserve to be there. He was a perfectly fine player in Seattle leading up to his 2007 free agency, but when the Magic did ultimately max him out the rest of the league was left in shock. He did make one All-Star team in Orlando, but that’s hardly what one expects for nearly $20 million a year.

Bryant Reeves, Vancouver Grizzlies, 6 years, $65 million – After averaging 16 PPG and 9.8 RPG in the 1996-1997 season, Reeves cashed in by signing this goliath contract, which would be a lot for those numbers even in today’s economy. Even worse, Reeves would get knee surgery in 1999 and then face unending back injuries painful enough to force him into retirement in 2002. In other words, they didn’t even get three full seasons out of the deal, and the ones he did play didn’t place him on the curve Vancouver hoped he’d set for himself in 1997.

The trend here, obviously, is that teams tend to overpay for big guys. That’s no excuse, but it is an explanation. Talented centers are hard to come across, so when one shows some promise, team execs lose their minds and throw way more cash their way than would ever be necessary.

But organizations make mistakes—with trades, with the draft and with signings. The hope is always going to be that the good decisions outweigh the bad ones. Nobody’s perfect, after all, and the good news is that even the most imperfect of us are capable of getting paid millions of dollars as long as the market dictates we’re worth it. Capitalism is a beautiful thing, is it not?

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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