By Rob Mahoney
On Tuesday, we rolled out a list of the best value contracts in the NBA, and today we examine the other end of the spectrum. The term "overpaid" is used too often as a scarlet letter, affixed to a player to inspire scorn and ridicule as if it were his fault to be paid so much. But in reality, players are worth whatever the market (or at least some freewheeling general manager) will pay them. With that in mind, we've assembled a list of the most problematic contracts in the NBA -- not the biggest and not the worst, per se, but those that give their respective teams the most trouble. (Contract lengths and values include the 2012-13 season in its entirety.)
Joe Johnson (Brooklyn Nets): Four years, $89.3 million
Gerald Wallace (Brooklyn Nets): Four years, $40 million
Brooklyn's whirlwind offseason forged a playoff team overnight but also locked the Nets in to a limited core for the next half-decade. Such was the cost of even attempting to re-sign Deron Williams. In making Brooklyn the most attractive option available, general manager Billy King liquidated most every remotely decent asset available to acquire the comically compensated Johnson. He also signed Wallace to a large, long-term deal that created immediate cause for concern.
As useful as Wallace was in Charlotte and Portland, the relationship between his age (he was 30 at the time of re-signing) and playing style (at his best, he relies on athleticism and abandon) practically ensured that the last two seasons or so of that contract would be painful for Brooklyn to bear. But Wallace bucked that preliminary projection by flailing almost immediately. There's just not much room for him to help as a range-less wing alongside two interior big men, though both Avery Johnson and now-interim coach P.J. Carlesimo have insisted on playing him in such a capacity. According to NBA.com, the Nets perform slightly better offensively with Wallace out of the lineup -- a sobering thought in that he's only likely to decline further as the seasons wear on.
Johnson has been slightly better, but he also hasn't seen his efficiency rise in the way that many expected. Playing alongside Williams, Wallace and Brook Lopez was supposed to free up Johnson for more open shots and more unencumbered production. Instead, his effective field goal percentage (52.1) is lower than it was throughout much of his Atlanta tenure, his shooting frequency has decreased and his turnover rate has remained more or less the same. He's still a solid player and incredibly useful to Brooklyn's glacial half-court offense, but the quality of his play does little to validate the short-sightedness of his acquisition.
Planning to re-sign Williams -- who was, at the time, a justifiable max free agent -- and Lopez, the Nets' most promising young player, made good basketball sense, but in the aggregate those signings also contribute to the problem. Brooklyn is already projected to pay the luxury tax for four consecutive seasons beginning with this one, and that's before factoring in the incoming salary in a potential trade involving Kris Humphries and MarShon Brooks and the deals that could be added via the taxpayer mid-level exception. It's not an exaggeration to say that this team has almost completely capped out, as the mounting salary and acquisition of tough-to-move contracts has left the Nets with precious little mobility.
See above, though replace Johnson, Wallace, Williams and Lopez with Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler. One might be tempted to think that the Knicks have more pieces to fiddle with than the Nets, considering that New York has a handful of manageable sub-mid-level deals on the books. But I doubt that teams are lining up to take on the long-term deals of Steve Novak (four years, $15 million), Raymond Felton (four years, $14.9 million), Marcus Camby (two years at $10 million, with a nonguaranteed third year) or Jason Kidd (three years, $9.3 million). That leaves the Knicks more or less stuck with their two best players and a pricey third in Stoudemire, whom almost no team will take back in a potential deal because of his massive, uninsured contract.
Boozer has become an easy target as far as his contract goes, but he's also a very solid player who has played a huge role in keeping the Bulls afloat this season. In a vacuum, he's a great asset. But he's also somewhat inessential when Derrick Rose is in the lineup, and his contract presents a one-man tax burden.
For that reason, Boozer will remain a fixture in trade rumors and is a possible amnesty candidate, if only because his contract is the only one significant and dispensable enough for the Bulls to consider shedding. The amnesty option, in particular, would be far more difficult (and fruitless) than many think. Not only would such a decision require the Bulls to eat a massive amount of salary, but Chicago is hardly capable of managing the departure of Boozer without any productive return. Even if they opted to amnesty Boozer, the Bulls wouldn't have any cap space until Luol Deng's contract expires in 2014, leaving Chicago to fill a void in the rotation and the scoring column without all that many resources to do so. A possible trade would help offset some of that on-court loss, but it likely wouldn't solve Chicago's tax problem. Hence, the problem. Boozer is at the center of the Bulls' financial concerns but likely can't be liquidated without making them a significantly worse offensive team.
This is just a disastrous coincidence of contract expiration and potential season-ending injury. The Sixers rolled the dice last August to acquire the injury-prone, free-agent-to-be Bynum, giving up their best player (Andre Iguodala) and three first-round picks (including Nikola Vucevic and Moe Harkless). It was a worthy gamble at the time, but Bynum hasn't played a single game because of a knee injury and suffered a setback in his first day back at full-speed practice. I've already discussed the quandary facing the Sixers regarding Bynum's free agency, and suffice to say it's a complete mess. As it stands, they'll have to choose between doubling down on a player who could miss an entire season on their dime (with more possible recovery still to come) and folding on a costly acquisition.
Rudy Gay (Toronto Raptors): Three years, $53.7 million (third-year player option)
Andrea Bargnani (Toronto Raptors): Three years, $32.2 million (third-year early-termination option)
DeMar DeRozan (Toronto Raptors): Five years, $41.3 million
Landry Fields (Toronto Raptors): Three years, $18.8 million
The acquisition of Gay is the most exaggerated example in the Raptors' recent run of adding counterproductive contracts, but Gay's cap hit is only so painful because of all that came before it. Lucrative extensions for the Bryan Colangelo-drafted Bargnani and DeRozan form the basis of the Raptors' cap problems, while two flubbed mid-level signings (Linas Kleiza and Fields) only serve to exacerbate the gloomy outlook. Add it all up and you're looking at a team that's over the projected cap line through 2015, may pay the luxury tax in 2014 and is far from a contender. We have yet to see what Colangelo might get in a potential deal centered on Bargnani, but even a financially beneficial deal would leave the Raptors in more or less the same place, with a potential new deal for Kyle Lowry looming in 2014.
Gay's contract alone would be tough for any team to handle, much less one so early in its team-building cycle. The Raptors didn't have all of their core pieces in place, and now they're left with that same, underwhelming foundation, a massive contract eating up much of their cap and hopes for the future pinned to Gay, DeRozan, raw big man Jonas Valanciunas and rookie wing Terrence Ross. There are worse places for a team to be, but that group -- and the Raptors' cap reality -- don't bode well for Toronto's upward mobility.
Green's contract was regrettable as soon as it was signed, and now serves as an albatross as Celtics president Danny Ainge continues to toy with the idea of turning over his roster. The passing of the trade deadline has tabled those discussions until the summer, but Boston is without Rajon Rondo, staring down the decline of Paul Pierce's and Kevin Garnett's careers and burdened with mid-level contracts. Trading those will be trickier than you might expect; Jason Terry, Brandon Bass and Courtney Lee might be useful to the right team, but getting a potential trade partner to part with young assets (or even good contracts) will prove difficult.
Green's deal is by far the worst of that mid-level bunch, as his inconsistent play and undefined contributions make him far less stable a player than his salary would suggest. Good on Green and his agent for convincing the Celtics that he had this much value, but this deal could stand between Boston and a clean slate.
Andris Biedrins (Golden State Warriors): Two years, $18 million (second-year player option)
Many up-and-coming teams are assumed to have the means to continue along their trajectory: young players who will improve over time; a coach who will learn to use his roster even more effectively; and the cap structure to add pieces to complete the picture. The Warriors, however, aren't so lucky.
Though Golden State certainly has young talent and an improving coach in Mark Jackson, it's also bumping up against the tax line for next season, and that's before taking into account possible new deals for valuable reserves Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry. The unproductive Jefferson and Biedrins (who are owed a combined $19.2 million this season and $20.1 million next year) account for much of that salary problem, clogging up the Warriors' cap through the end of next season. Golden State still has the kinds of assets that could be used to entice teams into a trade, but it's a shame that a senseless use of the amnesty provision -- the Warriors cut the $4.1 million expiring contract of Charlie Bell before the 2011-12 season -- has precluded the team from wiping away Biedrins' contract and creating some financial wiggle room.
Dirk Nowitzki (Dallas Mavericks): Two years, $43.6 million
The oddest inclusion on this list, in that Nowitzki is worth every penny of his deal. He willingly took a slight pay cut to lessen the Mavs' tax payments, and in the process facilitated the building of a championship roster. Parades were thrown, champagne was guzzled and the Mavs went home with their first title.
But those days are long gone, and Nowitzki's large contract now sits in the middle of a makeshift rebuilding plan. Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, Vince Carter, Jared Cunningham, Jae Crowder and Bernard James are the only Mavericks under contract beyond this season, and yet those six alone (only four to five of which are proven rotation players) will account for almost 70 percent of Dallas' room under the cap next season. A good chunk of that belongs to Nowitzki, making him both the most compelling reason that any free agent would want to come to Dallas and the biggest logistical reason why a max-level target won't fit neatly into the Mavs' cap room. Owner Mark Cuban and GM Donnie Nelson can keep their Dwight Howard hopes alive by trading Shawn Marion to a team with cap room, but even that option would leave Dallas to contend with a roster of Nowitzki, Howard (who would be voluntarily leaving money on the table and coming to a lesser team), Carter and spare parts.
Even the best-case scenario is a bit of a bleak picture. Nowitzki is still equipped to be a team's best offensive player and is ultimately paid a fair wage. But his current contract just doesn't jive well with this kind of rebuilding plan, making it incredibly difficult for the Mavs to rally from their current (and rare) slump.
Pau Gasol (Los Angeles Lakers): Two years, $38.3 million
Metta World Peace (Los Angeles Lakers): Two years, $15 million (second-year player option)
Steve Nash (Los Angeles Lakers): Three years, $27.9 million
Dwight Howard (Los Angeles Lakers): One year, $19.5 million I've already covered this salary logjam in detail, but the gist is this: Massive payroll, harsher luxury-tax penalties and new revenue-sharing costs will soon force the Lakers to pay out a sum larger than the GDP of some tiny countries.