10 worst moves of the offseason, from Suns to Pacers
By John Hollinger
It's been a rough adjustment for Ben Wallace. Since signing a four-year, $60 million contract to bolt Detroit for Chicago, he's seen his numbers drop in nearly every important category (assists are the one exception), been benched for a headband flap and had all of Chicago wondering whether the team will have to eat the final two or three years of a near-max deal for a 32-year-old defensive specialist who seems to be on the decline.
You might think the Bulls made the biggest mistake of the offseason, but nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, it hasn't worked out as well as Chicago had hoped, but at least the Bulls are getting something out of it. Wallace's numbers have picked up quite a bit since a rough November, and the Bulls have recovered from a 3-8 start and are on pace to have their best record of the post-Jordan era. Moreover, by signing Wallace they mortally wounded one of their chief rivals for Eastern Conference supremacy, which may prove telling come June.
But the Wallace deal brings up an interesting question: If that wasn't the worst move of the offseason, what was? When viewed from the 30-game mark of the new campaign, it turns out at least 10 moves have been demonstrably worse than Wallace's contract, and today we're going to take a look at them.
Why now? Because it's a great time to evaluate the 2006 offseason. For starters, the trading deadline is just over a month away, so soon we'll be evaluating a whole new set of transactions (as well as about 100,000 hypothetical transactions). Additionally, most teams have seen enough early returns from their investments to know which side of the win-loss ledger the transaction belongs on.
Before we start, let's go over the ground rules: First, although we tend to view trades and free agency as one-team-wins-and-the-other-loses deals, keep in mind that an impact for one side of a transaction doesn't necessarily imply the opposite impact for the other party.
For instance, Rasho Nesterovic and Nazr Mohammed have both helped their new teams greatly; that doesn't mean the Spurs were idiots for letting them leave. On the contrary, San Antonio replaced them with less expensive players and hardly skipped a beat. Likewise, just because trading for Steve Blake has worked out badly for Milwaukee doesn't mean things turned out any better on Portland's end of the deal (Jamaal Magloire). We evaluate each deal on its own merits for the team that made it, and leave it at that.
Second, we have to respect the possibility that things can change. A move that looks awful right now might not seem so bad in two years, or vice versa, depending on players' career paths. For instance, the wisdom of signing Antoine Walker to a six-year, $54 million deal looks a lot different now than it did in June.
With that in mind, here's one man's list of the 10 moves that have worked out the worst:
1. Phoenix signs Marcus Banks
To be No. 1, you have to do something really special. In this case, it's not just that Banks has played worse than anyone expected -- but that the deal has had so many ancillary negative impacts. The Suns signed Banks because they thought he could help them get more rest for Steve Nash and keep him fresh for the postseason, but because Banks hasn't been able to get the job done, Nash is averaging a career-high 36.0 minutes per game.
They signed him instead of using their first-round pick to get a developing point guard (say, Rajon Rondo or Marcus Williams or Kyle Lowry) because they wanted somebody who could provide immediate help. But Banks is out of the rotation and has slim prospects of returning anytime soon, and I'm guessing Rondo could do pregame drills and cheer from the bench just as well as Banks does.
And because the Suns gave Banks a five-year, $21 million deal rather than inking a younger player to a rookie contract, they're looking at some tricky financial sledding. When extensions for Boris Diaw and Leandro Barbosa kick in next year, the Suns will be way over the luxury tax threshold unless they can work out a trade for one of their big men (Diaw, Kurt Thomas, Amare Stoudemire or Shawn Marion). Thus, the signing of Banks may indirectly cost the Suns the services of a vastly superior player next season.
Adding insult to injury, it turns out the backup point guard solution was in-house the entire time. Barbosa has taken to the spot much better than in the past and established himself as Nash's primary backup. So the Suns spent all that money for a player they didn't even need. It's a credit to the other moves they've made in recent years that they might win the title anyway.
2. Knicks waive Ime Udoka, sign Jared Jeffries
Isiah Thomas has an unusual fondness for dumping his full midlevel exception on mediocrities with "J.J." for initials, particularly when there's a better player already sitting on his roster. A year after ignoring the presence of Jackie Butler and giving Jerome James his full midlevel exception, Thomas repeated the effort by waiving Udoka after the season and then signing Jeffries for the full midlevel exception as a free agent.
Udoka would have provided exactly what the Knicks need: a defensive stopper on the perimeter who doesn't need the ball but can hit 3-pointers from the corner. Instead, he's doing it for Portland and helping the Trail Blazers to a surprisingly competent start … and doing it while making the minimum.
As for Jeffries, he has some value in the right system but he is much more effective in trapping, pressing defenses like the one he left in Washington, where his length could create deflections and shorten the floor. Plus, Jeffries can't stretch defenses like Udoka can -- other than rebounding, his primary offensive weapon seems to be the missed layup.
Two things make matters worse. First, Jeffries hurt his wrist and missed most of the early part of the season (not to mention his four-game suspension for his part in the brawl); since coming back he's underperformed offensively even by his modest standards. Secondly, because the Knicks are over the luxury tax he costs them twice as much, making this a $60 million mistake rather than a $30 million one.
3. Hornets sign Peja Stojakovic
As longtime readers know, I hated this one right from the start. The Hornets wildly overpaid Stojakovic on a five-year, $60 million deal that pretty much required Peja to play at an All-Star level to justify the contract. But he hadn't played at that level since 2003-04 and was having increasing problems with leg injuries the past two seasons.
Already we can see the $60 million starting its whirlpool motion as it heads toward the septic tank. Stojakovic was en route to posting his lowest player efficiency rating of the new century, as well as his lowest marks since 1999-2000 in points, rebounds, assists, steals, field-goal percentage and free-throw percentage. Then he had to undergo back surgery that likely will keep him out for the rest of the season. In Year 1 of their investment, the Hornets got 13 games of slightly above-average play and a lot of medical bills. With Stojakovic hitting 30 this summer and coming off back surgery, those returns don't figure to improve much in the final four years of the deal.
4. Sixers re-sign Willie Green
A few of the teams on this list are good organizations that just made a mistake, such as the Suns above. Hey, it happens. The Sixers, on the other hand, are a terrible organization, and this move was one of the most baffling in a years-long series of head-scratching moves by the Billy King regime.
The Sixers tried to sign Green to a five-year, $17 million deal during the Summer of Insanity in 2005, which also featured a $60 million contract for Sam Dalembert and a $27 million deal for Kyle Korver, but Green tore up his knee before inking the deal and everything was put on ice.
Even then, the Sixers were massively overvaluing Green, a shoot-first guard with a shaky jumper and not enough jets to get to the rim consistently -- he was coming off a year in which he shot 36.7 percent and had a 9.67 PER. Plus, he's undersized for his position, so this looked like a bad idea from the get-go. But coming off a major knee injury, it was positively nuts. The Sixers were basically bidding against themselves, and what's more they were bidding for a player who wouldn't even help them. But that didn't stop them from making the same five-year, $17 million offer this summer.
You know how the rest turned out. Green is shooting 38.4 percent from the field, is near the bottom of the league in true shooting percentage (though that hasn't slowed down his trigger finger any) and has an 8.89 PER. What makes it worse is that the Sixers could have signed any number of more effective guards of this variety in free agency -- undersized shooting guards almost always come cheap, even the ones that can actually play. Instead it's another bad deal to add to Philly's collection.
5. Nuggets re-sign Nene
Speaking of $60 million deals that looked questionable at the time and worse today … Nene's deal is cut from the same cloth as those given to Dalembert, Tyson Chandler, Erick Dampier and Chris Kaman in recent seasons. All are middling centers who were paid like stars, and all of their teams have come to regret the decisions.
In Nene's case, it's been compounded by a continuing inability to stay healthy. He's played only 14 games while he rehabs from a knee injury that wiped out his 2005-06 campaign, and when he does play, the bad wheel tends to limit him to short stretches. He's still one of the quickest big men in the league and one of the fastest end-to-end, but like his overpaid counterparts with unique skills that had scouts salivating over their potential, he's had trouble converting that talent into more than a midlevel exception quality player, and he doesn't seem apt to turn the corner soon either -- he put up league-average PERs before the injury and is on pace for a similar mark this year.
6. Hawks sign Speedy Claxton
Those of you who read my recent piece on Steve Nash know that the type of point guard most likely to age well is the one who shoots well, passes well and is tall for the position. Which brings up another question: What type of point guard tends to age particularly poorly? Logically, the ones at the other end of the spectrum. So if you're a 5-foot-11, shoot-first guard with a shaky outside shot, the odds probably aren't in your favor.
The beginning of Claxton's season illustrates why: He tried to play through knee problems, but with his quickness compromised and no jumper to fall back on, he was essentially showing up for battle unarmed. As a result, he's shooting a ghastly 32.3 percent and setting a career high for turnovers.
Claxton's four-year, $25 million deal, which pays him until he's nearly 32, would rank higher but for one factor: redeemability. He's played well of late now that his knees are back in working order, and will probably produce for as long as they stay that way. So the Hawks are likely to get a better return than they've seen so far, and might be able to trade their way out of it during one of his healthy stretches.
7. Magic extend Tony Battie
I'm a big fan of the quick progress Orlando has made in the post-Weisbrod era, but I still don't get the four-year, $22 million extension they gave Battie last spring. (Although this technically happened during the 2005-06 season, it was late enough in the year that I consider it a 2006 offseason move).
Orlando has been fond of Battie's defense ever since he arrived in 2004, and a year ago the Magic could live with his offense because he shot 50.7 percent and scored just enough (11.7 points per 40 minutes) to keep defenses somewhat honest. This season, though, he's been a crushing disappointment. Battie is putting up a meager 8.7 points per 40 minutes, shooting 46.1 percent from the floor, and has a 8.32 PER. You can't say it's a fluke either, because he put up almost identical numbers two years ago. So the Magic are paying midlevel money for three more years to a soon-to-be 31-year-old center who can't find the basket and has a history of knee problems.
8. Clippers sign Tim Thomas
One of the hardest things for personnel people to do is avoid overreacting to things that happened right in front of their face. The Clippers are a prime example. Last season in the playoffs they saw Thomas drain one 3-pointer after another; he was arguably the Suns' most effective player in the seven-game series in which Phoenix beat the Clippers.
This is where a little distance from the situation can be really helpful. Those of us without emotional attachments saw Thomas for what he was: A perennial underachiever who was playing over his head for a few weeks, and would soon join the ranks of other overpaid playoff heroes (see James, Jerome). But the Clips couldn't get the sight of Thomas' burning them out of their heads, and wanted nothing more than to pry him away from their division rivals.
Thomas, of course, has been a major disappointment (though that hasn't prevented the Clips from starting him ahead of Corey Maggette -- go figure). Not that we should be expecting anything different -- Thomas' PER is almost exactly what it was the past two seasons, and I mean exactly -- say this for the guy, at least he's consistent with his mediocrity. The Clips inked Thomas to a four-year, $24 million deal thinking he was the guy they faced in the playoffs last season, but what they saw was a mirage.
9. Clippers extend Chris Kaman
Yes, I'm picking on L.A. again. In the spirit of the Nene deal, the Clippers' five-year, $53 million deal with Kaman looks equally questionable. It ranks lower on the list than Nene's for a few reasons. First, Kaman has actually stayed healthy, playing in 30 of the Clippers' 35 contests this season. Second, the Clips had no fallback position, whereas the Nuggets had several other big men capable of filling the void if Nene departed.
On the other hand, the Clips probably shouldn't have been so quick to take Kaman's 2005-06 season at face value. Players who make sudden one-year jumps in TSP usually have a tough time preserving those gains in subsequent seasons -- which is a nice way of saying that, in retrospect, Kaman's 52.3 percent shooting mark last season was probably a fluke. He's converting at a much lower rate this season, and has done nothing to curb the turnovers that have plagued him his entire career. As a result, his 11.85 PER is more what you'd expect from a backup center, making his contract a cap-eating waste.
10. Pacers trade Austin Croshere for Marquis Daniels
The Pacers traded Croshere's expiring contract to Dallas in the hopes that Daniels could energize what had been a fairly lethargic backcourt. It seemed like a decent gamble at the time, because when we last saw Daniels, he was one of the few Mavs attacking the Miami defense effectively in the final two games of the Finals.
Unfortunately, he hasn't carried any of that mojo to Indiana. Daniels is shooting a career-low 40.8 percent with a high turnover rate, and has all but fallen out of Rick Carlisle's guard rotation. If he can't get things turned around it will be an expensive mistake -- he makes $6 million a year for the next two seasons, while Croshere would have come off the books this summer. Actually, the swap would rank higher had Croshere's season in Dallas not been equally disastrous -- he's shooting a mere 26.9 percent for the Mavs.
Honorable mention: In addition to Wallace's deal with Chicago, a few others warrant mentioning. For starters, there's the Hornets' decision to give Kirk Snyder to division rival Houston for no apparent reason. The fact he hurt his wrist doesn't make it any smarter, especially in the wake of all the Nokes' injuries. …
Darius Songaila signed a five-year, $23 million deal with Washington and hasn't played a minute because of back problems. I thought it was a mistake at the time, but I want to see him on the court before I pan it completely. …
Vladimir Radmanovic got a five-year deal for the full midlevel, even though the Lakers already had a guy (Brian Cook) who did the same things better. …
Gary Payton cost Miami only the minimum, but the real expense was that the Heat ignored potential point guard solutions on the free-agent market. …
Greg Buckner's five-year, $19 million deal with Dallas isn't fully guaranteed, but his performance has been fully disappointing. …
Nick Collison's four-year, $26 million extension seemed like a good idea at the time. These days, not so much -- his shooting percentage has plummeted to 43.2 percent. …
Matt Harpring's four-year, $25 million deal with Utah is starting to look a bit rich given his drop in production. …
Cleveland's pickup of David Wesley (two years, $3.6 million) would have worked out great if it were 1997. …
Bonzi Wells didn't come to Houston to run marathons. Or, apparently, to play basketball. …
Flip Murray (two years, $3.5 million) has talked about opting out of the second year of his deal and seeking employment elsewhere. The Pistons should be so lucky. …
Mike James (four years, $23 million) seems like an uber-sized bust until you remember he's taking the place of Marcus Banks and makes similar money. …
Fred Jones (three years, $11 million) and Rasual Butler (four years, $14 million) didn't cost big bucks, but it turns out there was a reason for that.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.