March 28, 2007
The 25 worst contracts in the NBA
By John Hollinger
ESPN Insider Archive
For about 20 of the NBA's teams, this is the time of year when things get really exciting. They're either pushing for a playoff spot, or already have one sewn up and are gearing up for their postseason run. Either way, the focus is entirely on the here and now.
For the league's bottom-feeders, however, summer can't come soon enough. And inevitably, talk of summer produces talk of free agency. So with visions of offseason glory starting to dance in the heads of the league's lesser lights, it's time to drag out a cautionary tale.
Remember, signing a player to a big-money deal isn't necessarily a good thing -- in fact, sometimes it can be downright disastrous. And until I started researching this story, I didn't realize just how bad it could get.
My task was to come up with the worst contracts in the NBA, and man, there are some doozies out there. Since the season is nearly complete, I'm approaching this task with a particular spin -- those players who gave the least for their team's money in 2006-07.
Amazingly, even though I extended it to include 25 players, it took a jaw-dropping lack of productivity to crack this list. Being merely overpaid wouldn't get you close -- "dead weight" is more what we're looking for here.
As it turns out, there are four different varieties of bad contracts. Thus, I've separated them by group and counted the worst in each category. The envelopes, please:
CATEGORY I: ALREADY WAIVED
These players are still getting paid by their former teams, even though a couple of them haven't suited up in ages. A few others are double dipping, cashing checks from both a former team and a current one.
1. Michael Finley, Mavericks ($16.1 million)
Contrary to what you might think, the worst-case contract scenario isn't paying a lot of money to a guy who can't play. It's shelling out for a guy who can play and then waiving him, allowing him to sign a below-market contract with your closest rival for the championship. That's the case for the Mavs, who are paying Finley superstar money to try to beat them as a Spur. Blame the luxury tax amnesty rule, which offered the Mavs so much savings that they couldn't afford not to cut Finley.
2. Brian Grant, Lakers ($14.8 million) and Celtics ($1.9 million)
Grant is getting paid by two different teams to sit at home and watch his dreadlocks grow. What a country. Chronic knee problems forced him to retire after delivering mighty little as a free agent in Phoenix a year ago (in fact, although the Celtics are cutting the checks, the Suns are the ones paying his salary), but that's a pittance compared to what he's getting from the Lakers.
L.A. made him a luxury tax amnesty cut in 2005 after his salary was included as ballast in the Shaquille O'Neal deal; the outlandish contract to pry him from Portland was originally cut by Pat Riley during his "let's wildly overpay for veteran role players" phase. Speaking of which …
3. Eddie Jones, Grizzlies ($14.9 million)
Riley made the Jones mistake the same summer he picked up Grant, but he's rebounded nicely -- Grant was converted into Shaq, of course, while Jones went to Memphis in the brilliant multiteam deal that netted Jason Williams and Antoine Walker.
Now Jones is back with the Heat while the Grizzlies are stuck with the tab.
4. Chris Webber, 76ers ($17.6 million)
They'll be paying C-Webb next season, too, after reaching a buyout agreement with him earlier this year. Worse yet, Webber miraculously healed as soon as he landed in Detroit.
But as a Sixer, he gave very little -- just 38.7 percent shooting and matador D in 18 contests.
5. Derek Anderson, Blazers ($9.7 million)
Anderson's body started to quit on him almost immediately after he joined Portland on a six-year, $48 million contract in a sign-and-trade with San Antonio. The Spurs got a pair of sharpshooting Steves who went on to announcing careers (Kerr and Smith), and best of all they didn't get stuck with the bitter pill of the final few years on this deal. Anderson ended up being an amnesty cut in 2005 and "won" a ring from the sidelines as a member of last year's Heat.
6. Vin Baker, Celtics ($5.2 million)
I almost hit the floor when I read this, but Baker -- whom Boston released in February of 2004 -- is still getting paychecks from the C's. He's due $5.2 million this year from the leftovers of his behemoth contract, which the Celtics tried to void in 2004 when they released him. The original contract was supposed to expire in 2006, but the two sides agreed to pay out a reduced amount over a longer time period.
Baker also had the privilege of being cut a second time, as the Celtics made him a luxury tax amnesty subtraction in 2005, even though he'd been gone more than a year. Nonetheless, his Boston money will supplement whatever pittance he collected in three appearances in November for Minnesota.
7. Aaron McKie, 76ers ($5.6 million) and Lakers ($2.5 million)
McKie was a luxury tax amnesty cut by the 76ers in 2005, but this didn't deter the Lakers from immediately giving him a two-year, $5 million deal. Unfortunately, this would have been one of those rare times where trusting Billy King's judgment would have been prudent, as McKie has been hobbled and all but worthless for L.A. Between the two bad contracts, he's collecting $8.1 million this year while appearing in 10 games.
8. Calvin Booth, Bucks ($6.6 million)
Booth's still getting the Bucks' bucks after they made him a luxury tax amnesty cut in 2005 -- just months after the Mavs had dumped Booth on Milwaukee in the Keith Van Horn trade.
He's also collecting checks from the Wizards as a third-string center, but he makes only the minimum in D.C.
CATEGORY II: KNICKS
Despite a bevy of buyouts, the league's official dumping ground for bad contracts still has plenty of inventory:
1. Steve Francis, Knicks ($15.1 million this year; two years remaining after this one)
He can still be an impact player when he feels like it, but he's not exactly wowing his latest employers with his effort level.
A quick anecdote: Watching the Orlando-New York game on Monday night, I saw Orlando's J.J. Redick drift out to the 3-point line, catch the ball and calmly drain a triple with no pressure. Stunned, I hit rewind. My eyes didn't deceive me -- there was no screen for Redick, nor any kind of deceptive move or cut off the ball whatsoever. The man allegedly guarding him -- Francis -- just stood there and watched Redick walk out to the perimeter and shoot it.
On the next trip Francis stood like a statue on the weak side while Darko Milicic went down the middle for a screen-and-roll dunk. As I thought to myself, "If I was coaching right now, I'd call timeout just to yank the guy," Knicks coach Isiah Thomas did just that, inserting unheralded rookie Mardy Collins.
Quoth Thomas after the game, in his glass-half-full way, "I just felt [Mardy Collins would] give us more defensively." Um, yes, that's one way to look at it. Zeke just as easily could have said, "I felt a traffic cone would give us more defensively." Methinks there's another buyout in the Knicks' future.
2. Stephon Marbury, Knicks ($17.2 million this year; two years remaining)
He's a rarity on this list in that he still has a pulse, but Marbury's deal is so gargantuan and his reputation around the league so tattered that his deal is still radioactive. Besides, his numbers have dipped the past two years -- he's testing his career lows in scoring and shooting this season -- and they don't figure to get better over the final two years of his contract as he gets into his 30s.
3. Jerome James, Knicks ($5.4 million this year; three years remaining)
A spectacular bust even by the standard of recent midlevel exceptions, almost all of whom have been busts. James did have six points and two rebounds on Monday, but fantasy players shouldn't pick him up thinking he can provide the coveted 6-and-2 combo every night -- it was only the fifth time he's done it this season.
4. Malik Rose, Knicks ($7.5 million this year; two years remaining)
While Rose is still marginally useful as a fifth big man, he's a 6-7 frontcourt player who turns 33 in November, and he's shot 37.4 percent and 38.6 percent the past two seasons. Rose is the one truly bad contract the Spurs have inked in the past decade.
They unloaded their mistake, but it came at a price -- one of the draft picks from the Rose trade became David Lee.
CATEGORY III: ALREADY-WAIVED KNICKS
Amazingly, there's enough overlap between the first two categories to produce a third one. The New Yorkers are paying nearly an entire salary cap to guys who haven't played a game for them this season, and that's without adding Francis to the list.
1. Jalen Rose, Suns ($14.6 million)
In a bizarre move, the Knicks bought out Rose less than a year after trading for him, granting the Raptors enough cap space to rebuild their Euro-roster and coming away with only a first-round pick that became Renaldo Balkman.
Had New York hung on to Rose's expiring deal, it might have been able to pry Pau Gasol from Memphis at the trade deadline. Now we'll never know.
2. Maurice Taylor, last seen with Sacramento ($7.5 million)
The veteran big man was well past his prime when Houston unloaded him on the Knicks in a baggage swap -- the Rockets got Vin Baker and Moochie Norris. Let's just say that trade left the league's balance of power unaffected. Like Rose, Taylor was bought out before the season and played 12 games in Sacramento before being waived in January; one presumes that was his last NBA stop.
3. Shandon Anderson, MIA ($7.2 million)
No, that's not a Miami abbreviation, that's "MIA" as in, "We can't prove that he's still alive." Nonetheless, he's collecting $7.2 million from the Knicks this year to do whatever it is he's doing right now.
But he better save up -- his contract expires this year, more than two years after his departure.
4. Jerome Williams, Madison Square Garden Network ($7.0 million)
At least the Knicks are getting something out of him -- he's working as a TV commentator. Also, Junkyard Dog was a luxury tax amnesty cut.
The other players on this list actually cost the Knicks double their contract amounts because of the league's dollar-for-dollar tax on high-payroll teams, which as you've probably guessed is a club the Knicks will belong to for some time.
CATEGORY IV: STILL STUCK
These players' teams are still stuck with their contracts, and in every case but one there are multiple years left on the deal. Good luck unloading them now.
1. Kenyon Martin, Nuggets ($12.1 million, four years left)
Here's what I imagine Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke asking for the next four years. "Is it 2011 yet? No? OK, how about now? No? Um, how about now?"
Martin, who as far as anyone knows is the first player to undergo microfracture surgery on both knees, was a stretch at this dollar amount even if fully healthy. Worse, he gave the Nuggets just one good season before he started breaking down. But he'll be on the books through 2011 thanks to a sign-and-trade deal with the Nets that also also cost the Nuggets three first-round draft picks -- two of which the Nets flipped to Toronto in the trade for Vince Carter. Moreover, the cost of his deal effectively doubles next year, when the Nuggets will be well over the luxury tax line.
2. Raef LaFrentz, Trail Blazers ($11.5 million, two years left)
The Mavs' decision to give LaFrentz a seven-year, $70 million deal in 2002 was generous, yes. But it didn't seem like too obscene a stretch at the time -- people forget now, but he nearly led the league in blocks and was deadly from outside. But what Dallas didn't know was that LaFrentz's knees were about to betray him. He's only 30 now, but it's 30-going-on-90 -- LaFrentz is shooting 23.7 percent in 17 games for Portland.
3. Theo Ratliff, Celtics ($11.7 million, one year left)
Ratliff and LaFrentz were traded for each other this summer as a sidebar to the Sebastian Telfair-Brandon Roy deal. Getting one less year of dead-weight contract was a key reason Boston did it (though I'm guessing the Celtics would take it back if they could).
Nonetheless, I would argue that Ratliff's three-year, $36 million extension from the Blazers was the single worst contract decision of the current decade. At the time he was 31 with a bad hip and was already in severe decline, as anyone in Atlanta could have told them. But he played well for his first few weeks as a Blazer and his giddy new owners overreacted. Hampered by injuries, Ratliff played only two games this season, and that might be two more than he gets in a year from now.
4. Adonal Foyle, Warriors ($8.1 million, three years left)
Chris Mullin has inked some bad contracts in his time as Warriors general manager, but this one takes the cake. Foyle is a prince of a guy, but he's 32, can't score and will soak up over $25 million over the next three years while he lies on the outer fringes of Golden State's rotation. He could be a decent backup center for a team that played a more traditional style, but who would trade for his contract?
5. Larry Hughes, Cavaliers ($13.4 million, three years left)
As with Marbury, Hughes hasn't been horrible -- he just hasn't come close to justifying the dollar figure on his contract. I thought he'd rebound from a disappointing first season in Cleveland, but instead he's been even worse this season. Not only are his numbers down across the board, but he's also forgotten how to make a foul shot (65.6 percent). One bright side: The brittle guard is on pace for 69 games, his most in five years and nearly double what he gave a season ago.
6. Speedy Claxton, Hawks ($6.9 million, three years left)
Despite some warning flags (he's small, injury-prone and can't shoot), Claxton played so well for the Hornets a season ago that the Hawks gave him a four-year, $25 million deal. Oops.
Hampered by bad knees that eliminated his one skill, Claxton's per-minute scoring rate is less than half of what it was last season and he's shooting a ghastly 32.7 percent from the floor.
7. Danny Fortson, Sonics ($6.6 million, expires this year)
Armed with a bad knee and a worse attitude, Fortson has rarely been available for the Sonics this season.
But if you do see him on the court, don't blink -- at the rate he fouls he won't be out there for long. He's averaging nearly a hack every four minutes, and he's a turnover machine because he gets tagged with illegal screen violations so often. But give him this: The dude can still rebound.
8. Austin Croshere, Mavericks ($7.3 million, expires this year)
Sample Size 101: Like a lot of guys on this list, Croshere was paid based off one strong stretch of play (the 2001 Finals), despite a much larger body of work that was far less impressive. Not surprisingly, he's disappointed since.
He's shooting 35.2 percent as a deep sub for the Mavs this season, though he did have one glorious night when he exploded for 34 on the Sonics. But he has only four other double-figure games this season.
9. Eric Snow, Cavaliers ($6.1 million, two years left)
The summer of 2003 is precisely when things started going severely downhill for the Sixers -- they signed Derrick Coleman and Kenny Thomas (a narrow miss on this list) and gave Snow a multiyear extension for no apparent reason.
Thanks to that last decision, he's still earning midlevel money even though he's been a minimum-salary player for about three years now -- in that time, he's averaged 7.0, 6.6 and 7.0 points per 40 minutes. Ecch.