It takes two to tango in an NBA trade. Meanwhile, months of scouting, a surplus of rankings and more big boards than anyone can count mean the NBA draft is often an exercise in groupthink.
Free agency, the third player-acquisition avenue, is different.
Teams are at liberty to pay as much as they're able to for a player they believe can solve their problems. So when it goes wrong, NBA organizations have no one to blame but themselves. Sure, the market has some say here. Free agents often command competing offers that give some idea of what they're worth.
But the decision to hand a massive, multi-year deal to a particular free agent is still ultimately controlled by a team's risk tolerance, in-house scouting and the strictures of the salary cap. If you've got the resources, you can do whatever you want with them.
The players featured here should cause teams to take extra care in their evaluations. They're risky, likely to cost a ton and come with serious questions about their ability to deliver on the hype surrounding them.
James Harden, Player Option
James Harden's first full year with the Philadelphia 76ers proved that even without the downhill burst and individual shot creation that defined his prime, he could still succeed as a scaled-back facilitator. A league-leading 10.7 assists per game and a 60.7 true shooting percentage easily could have earned Harden an 11th career All-Star nod, even with the lowest usage rate since he was a reserve for the 2011-12 Oklahoma City Thunder.
There's no doubt Harden still has legitimate value, but it's almost impossible to imagine him producing at a level that would justify the massive contract he's likely to receive in free agency.
Harden will have to decline his $35.6 million player option for 2023-24 to hit free agency in the first place, but that feels like a given in light of him opting out of $47.3 million last offseason. Even if he makes the common veteran move of exchanging dollars for years and seeks a longer contract at a reduced annual rate, Harden is still highly likely to be overpaid. Remember, as solid as he was offensively this year, he was essentially a second option whose defense continued to lag. That's not a $30 million-per-year profile, especially with the process of decline already underway.
Plus, Harden might be wise to drive a harder bargain than he did a year ago. He knows the 76ers don't have the resources to replace him if he leaves, and the Houston Rockets are shaping up as a deep-pocketed suitor capable of turbo-charging the bidding war.
Harden faces long odds to reproduce 2022-23's level next year at age 34. Last season saw him hit nine-year lows in both drives per game and field-goal percentage when attacking the rim. He also averaged his fewest free-throw attempts per game since he left OKC.
With his extreme mileage and injury history (average of 55 games played over the last three years), the career cliff's edge is approaching. Someone is going to pay Harden as if it's 2017, and that will be a mistake.
Kyrie Irving, Unrestricted
We all know the risks.
Kyrie Irving has a long history of missing games, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes because of injury. He hasn't cracked the 60-game mark in any of the last four seasons. Add to that a miles-long list of all the other *stuff*—unpredictable moodiness, suspensions, reneged pledges of loyalty—and Irving's unreliability is more than a pattern.
It's a defining characteristic, along with a broad refusal of accountability, which we saw clearly in his initial decision not to apologize and denounce antisemitism after promoting an antisemitic film on social media early this past season.
And yet, because Irving's scoring prowess and offensive skill are as hard to ignore as his misguided self-assessments, the 31-year-old is a good bet to ink a deal that pays him like a superstar.
Most likely, the pot-stuck Dallas Mavericks will cut the check. Jalen Brunson got away for nothing in 2022. If Irving were to follow him out the door this summer, Luka Dončić would be within his rights to march into the C-suite and demand a trade.
A sign-and-trade scenario isn't out of the question for Irving and the Mavs, but that would require another organization agreeing to pay Irving's market rate while also surrendering assets for the privilege. The Los Angeles Lakers will loom as a threat to strip the roster and sign Irving until he officially lands elsewhere, and a Los Angeles Clippers team desperate to accomplish something with the Kawhi Leonard-Paul George combo may also enter the chat.
Whether the Mavericks or some other organization grits its teeth and pays Irving the big bucks his numbers suggest he's worth, that contract will only be a ticket to ride a terrifying roller coaster that hasn't passed a safety inspection in years.
Jerami Grant, Unrestricted
Jerami Grant was theoretically a perfect fit with the Portland Trail Blazers this season—an athletic and versatile forward who could defend capably, create his own shot when necessary and provide off-ball value next to Damian Lillard. The 29-year-old put up 20.5 points per game and drilled 40.1 percent of his long-range shots, a career high.
On the surface, that's beyond solid work for a third option (Anfernee Simons joined Lillard among Blazers regulars to top Grant in usage rate), and yet Portland fell out of contention for a play-in spot, tanked down the stretch and will select in the high lottery again, just like last year. The repeat underperformance came with Lillard turning in an All-NBA campaign, which made it even more dispiriting.
For all of his apparent contributions, Grant couldn't meaningfully affect his team's bottom line.
The solution isn't scaling up, as Grant's highest-usage season came as a first-option for a 2020-21 Detroit Pistons team that went 20-52. And any further reduction of his scoring and playmaking responsibilities would have to come with a similarly downsized salary. Considering Grant hasn't signed a four-year, $112 million offer that has been on the table for months, the latter possibility isn't in the cards. Logically, Grant must view that contract as an absolute floor.
That leaves the Blazers in the difficult position of upping their outlay for a player who couldn't help them make the playoffs while earning $21 million per year. Either that, or they can let another team pay him somewhere around $30 million per season. With the organization still seemingly committed to surrounding Lillard with the talent necessary to make a playoff run, the odds of Grant being overpaid to stay are high.
Kristaps Porziņģis, Player Option
Maybe the Washington Wizards' president and general manager who replaces the recently removed Tommy Sheppard will be less inclined to back up the Brinks truck for in-house talent. Then again, the Wizards still have the same ownership group that green-lit the $251 million contract Bradley Beal signed last summer.
That sound you hear is a delighted Kristaps Porziņģis rubbing his very large palms together in anticipation of a payday.
Coming off a career season and capable of entering free agency by declining his $36 million player option for 2023-24, KP is primed to be the next beneficiary of Washington's mediocrity-chasing largesse. This past season was the best of Porziņģis' career, marked by 23.2 points, 8.4 boards and 1.5 blocks per game with a 38.5 percent knockdown rate from long range.
A 7'3" 27-year-old who can put up those numbers deserves to get paid, but only if he can sustain them over a large enough sample. History says the odds are stacked against Porziņģis producing another such season-long performance, let alone the three or four it would take to justify a deal worth at least $30 million annually.
The 65 games Porziņģis played last year were his most since 2016-17.
The original unicorn has been plagued by injuries throughout his career. He logged only 48 contests in 2017-18, suffered a torn ACL in February of that season that sidelined him for all of the following year, and then returned to average just 50 games across 2019-20 and 2020-21. In addition to the torn ACL in his left knee, he's also dealt with a torn meniscus in his right, plus issues with his back, ankles, heel, toe and groin.
When on the floor and healthy, Porziņģis is a star. It's just that those instances have been too rare to justify the size of the contract Washington seems certain to give him.
D'Angelo Russell, Unrestricted
D'Angelo Russell has the draft pedigree, All-Star nod, signature celebration and broad recognition that comes from having two tours of duty with the Los Angeles Lakers on his resume. It also doesn't hurt that he just put up the best postseason game of his life in a close-out win over the Memphis Grizzlies on April 28.
In a free-agent market woefully short on starting-caliber point guards, you can already hear the cash register cha-chinging for the 27-year-old.
Still, teams should take a step back before lining up to lavish big contracts on D-Lo.
Prior to his 31-point eruption on 12-of-17 shooting to eliminate Memphis, Russell hit under 50.0 percent of his attempts in 16 straight playoff games. He's still well below 40.0 percent for his postseason career—nowhere near good enough for a relatively high-usage player with a negative Defensive Estimated Plus/Minus in seven of his eight seasons.
Russell can provide value as a scoring spark on the right nights, and his patience operating as a pick-and-roll facilitator allows him to help even when his shot isn't falling. But if anyone comes close to paying him the $29 million he averaged over the last four years, it will be a serious misallocation of resources. That's way too much for a player who ranked 19th among point guards in EPM and has put at least as many instances of listless, non-competitive play as dagger threes on his film reel.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass unless otherwise indicated. Accurate through games played Monday, May 1, 2023. Salary info via Spotrac.
Grant Hughes covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@gt_hughes), and subscribe to the Hardwood Knocks podcast, where he appears with Bleacher Report's Dan Favale.