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  • Which free agents should teams think twice about shelling out big dollars to this July? Here’s our buyer beware list for the 2018 NBA off-season.
By Rohan Nadkarni
June 27, 2018

Wow, did you see that Austin Rivers trade Tuesday night? That can only mean one thing—someone turned the flame under the free agency pot on high! In all seriousness, the NBA’s silly season is more or less upon us, as teams for the second straight summer try to undo all the terrible signings they made in 2016. The league is a little more cap-strapped than usual this year, so there may not be a completely unhinged free-agent binge this July. That doesn’t mean there aren’t still some intriguing names on the market. But we’re not here to talk about those guys today. We’re here to talk about the names that could get your general manager in trouble. Let’s play a little game of BUYER BEWARE. (Read Rob Mahoney's top 50 free agents available).

Marcus Smart

How in the world do you assess Marcus Smart’s value? More likely than not, someone on your team already hates him. The Celtics’ offense and defense were better with Smart on the court, both during the regular season and the playoffs. But Smart is a career 36% shooter from the field, and an even more concerning 29.3% shooter from three, where he still launches over four shots per-game.

Beyond all of that, Smart has played his entire career for the Bhagwan, Brad Stevens, whose cult-leader-like powers allow him to wring every last drop of utility out of every player on his roster. Here’s what it comes down to with Smart: He is a good player! His combination of defense, effort, and, uh, creativity have been a positive for the Celtics.

The risk is bringing him, placing him in a bigger role and asking for more production. It’s not a given that Smart would fail at something like that. But it is ultimately risky to pay someone who can’t quite shoot a huge sum of money in the modern NBA. I would also be terrified of basically taking anyone short of a star out of Boston, because that seemingly always seems to work out in Stevens’ favor. Smart has good value, it will be imperative that the team who eventually signs him doesn’t ask him to do too much.

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Chris Paul (Re-signed with Rockets on July 1)

As the American poet Young Thug once said, “I’m ballin’ on you like I’m Chris Paul.” CP3 is a free agent this summer after playing last season on his opt-in. Paul was extremely valuable when he was healthy for the Rockets, running the offense seamlessly whenever he was ceded control.

The issues here are health and age. Paul will turn 34 next year, and he missed 24 games during the regular season before sitting out the final two games of the West Finals with a hamstring injury. The only realistic buyer for Paul’s services seem to be the Rockets, barring an 11th-hour swoop by a LeBron-led Lakers. So my advice for Daryl Morey is….good luck! Because I have no clue how I’d handle this!

On one hand, Paul deserves max money, and one would have to assume Houston gave him some assurances when he agreed to play on a one-year deal last summer. On the other hand, how many years do you give Paul? Giving him a full max over five seasons could cripple the back-half of James Harden’s prime.

Offering Paul a two-year deal could make him want to explore other options, or create a tight championship window for this current iteration of the Rockets. Look, Paul was spectacular last season and perhaps his aging curve shouldn’t be judged against point guards of the past. But CP3 also has a bit of an injury history, and even with James Harden as a running mate, Paul carries a pretty big load in Houston.

I’m not saying the Rockets shouldn’t bring him back. I’m saying reports of tension between the two sides here isn’t all too surprising, because Houston needs to play this situation pretty delicately. It’s unfortunate that Harden and Paul are in such different stages of their careers.

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Jusuf Nurkic

You can put almost any center in Nurkic’s place and ask the same questions, the biggest one being, what’s the value of a center who can’t really stretch the floor in 2018? Nurkic is the type of center who gets played off the floor in the playoffs. The Blazers know this first hand, as they watched lineups with Anthony Davis at center run roughshod over them in the first round. (Portland’s defensive rating with Nurkic on the floor against the Pelicans in the postseason was a pull-the-blanket-over-your-eyes 122.3.)

Stretching the floor doesn’t only mean shooting threes anymore. It also means being able to guard perimeter players on switches for a good chunk of the shot clock. It also means being able to chase around bigs who would have been playing small forward ten years ago. Nurkic isn’t a bad player.

He was a big part of Portland’s top-ten defense during the regular season, thanks largely to his ability as a rim protector. He’s also a willing pick-and-roll partner and can bully smaller players in the post. But if you fashion yourself a contender—and Portland seemingly does—how much can you pay someone who you’ll likely have to take off the floor in your season’s most important minutes?

The center market is going to be rough for players this summer, and someone like Nurkic could end up being one of the biggest victims. Maybe someone like Dallas will offer him a contract to strengthen its frontline, but I don’t see any top-tier teams going after a Nurkic type.

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Isaiah Thomas 

The Isaiah story is so frustrating for fans of his game, it’s hard to imagine what he must be going through. Last year, Thomas was coming off an MVP-caliber season that ended with him playing through a serious hip injury after the tragic death of his sister. He was then expected to be an integral part of the Cavs’ run to a fourth straight Finals.

Instead, Thomas took a while to get healthy, couldn’t mesh with Cleveland on the fly, and ended his season in relative obscurity for the Lakers. A summer ago, Thomas was looking at a potentially huge payday this July. Instead, teams will be forced to wonder if he’ll ever return to his peak form physically, and if his one spectacular season was another Brad Stevens-led mirage.

Again, signing Thomas outright is not a terrible idea. He had flashed potential before his stint with the Celtics. Maybe not MVP potential, but certainly quality NBA player. Like so many other risky free agents, with Thomas it comes down to type of contract. I think whoever signs him will ultimately get him on a one-year deal for big money. Basically, Thomas needs another chance to prove he can be a top player, and then re-enter the market as he intended to, not damaged goods, but a star.

Rajon Rondo

For the second straight season, Rondo came alive in the playoffs, flashing the ability that made him one of the more exciting players in the league back in his Boston heyday. It’s not long ago that Rondo looked like he was on his way out of the league. He was basically asked to stay away from the team in Dallas. He then played an unmemorable season in Sacramento. Then he was benched by the Bulls before being resurrected to brief postseason success that was cut short by injury.

Last year, the Pelicans were better with Rondo off the court during the regular season, but were much better with him playing during the playoffs. Rondo is an enigma. He really does seem to be the kind of player who saves it for big games. It’s when he’s most challenged that Rondo’s genius starts to sneak out.

Do you pay him, though? Rondo is still not quite a trustworthy shooter, and he’ll turn 33 next year. It’s unclear how amenable he would be to a bench role, and if a bad team offers him big money it’s possible he’ll take it and simply not try on defense. There is definitely talent and high basketball IQ here. But figuring out the exact right ecosystem for Rondo to thrive could ultimately make his signing more costly than initially intended.

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