Big-money decisions in NBA free agency are supposed to be easy.
Sure, sticker shock can set in. Contract values are largesse as the salary cap continues to climb. But the market is the market. Most marquee signings are no-brainers. You're either pursuing a max-deal formality or someone close to it, or you're simply shelling out dollar amounts for a player who will get the same number of zeroes somewhere else if you don't.
And yet, this experience mostly describes NBA free agency of yore. You know, back when oh-so-obvious star-money candidates were hitting the open market rather than orchestrating their exits via trade or signing mega-extensions and figuring out what's next later (see: Durant, Kevin).
Decisions are tougher now. You still have the "How much do we pay incredibly talented vets aging into their twilight?" dilemmas. But you're also dealing with a generally smaller field of not-as-starry players. Suitors must strike a balance between competing with the market and not jeopardizing too much of their bigger picture.
Hence the reason why we're here: to identify the free agents most likely to incite these quandaries.
Making this list is not an insult. On the contrary, it is a testament to each player's market value. Every name here should sign deals worth looooads more than the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception ($12.2 million) for at least three guaranteed years. They have amassed that type of leaguewide intrigue and goodwill, which is good. But the likelihood they'll live up to the back ends of these agreements is nothing if not uncertain—which is not so good.
Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors (Player Option)
Investing star money in Draymond Green carries risks for any organization. It's especially perilous for teams outside the Bay Area.
Green is 33, has shot better than 33.7 percent from distance just once and has spent exactly zero seconds outside the Golden State Warriors system since entering the NBA. That latter factoid is potentially damning.
For as much as Green drove the Warriors dynasty, he remains an ultra-niche talent. His unparalleled defensive IQ, direction and mobility should translate to any situation. But how will his playmaking scale to an offensive ecosystem with less off-ball movement and, perhaps, spacing? What happens if he's on a team that actively needs him to look at the rim upon catching the ball?
Rolling the dice on his generational defense and, Jordan Poole facial-smashing aside, leadership is perfectly fine if he's costing around 15 percent of the salary cap ($20 millionish per year) or so. It's a different issue altogether, given his age and functional specificities, when that number mushrooms to $25 million or his player-option value ($27.6 million) over the longer term.
Golden State needn't concern itself with the burden of unfamiliarity. It knows Green. It has won titles with—and because of—him. But bringing him back at his player-option number leaves the Warriors on track to pony up nearly $500 million in salary and luxury taxes next year alone. Can they pay him top-ish dollar, past his prime, while fleshing out the roster amid harsher restrictions imposed by the new CBA?
James Harden, Philadelphia (Player Option)
Pinning down James Harden's potential market isn't difficult. It is eminently finite. There's the Philadelphia 76ers, and there's the Houston Rockets—who, despite their rebuilding timeline, remain real threats to poach him, as most recently confirmed by NBA Insider Marc Stein.
Other teams should be interested if Harden takes meetings. Just how many remains to be seen. Pretty much all cap-space squads are operating within gradual or semi-immediate windows that don't jibe with a soon-to-be 34-year-old. Any surprise admirers that emerge will likely be touting sign-and-trade possibilities.
That's not an issue. Harden needs only two teams to play against one another.
On one side, he has his current digs in Philadelphia. The Sixers cannot afford to replace him if he leaves, and his leverage is bolstered by the $15-plus million pay cut he accepted last summer to facilitate the arrivals of P.J. Tucker, Danuel House and De'Anthony Melton.
On the other side, he has his old stomping grounds in Houston. The Rockets are not on the fast track to title contention, but they do have a boatload cap space (almost $60 million) to burn, along with a ton of young talent and first-rounders they can dangle in trades for another star.
Whether either of these two teams will feel good about maxing out Harden ($46.9 million starting salary) is debatable. Maybe he takes less again. It really doesn't matter in the interim.
The back end of his next deal is a separate matter. He battled Achilles issues this year, after laboring through hamstring problems last season, and has already lost a step. There's no telling how well—or, perhaps, poorly—a multiyear contract anywhere near the max ages on his behalf.
Kyrie Irving, Dallas Mavericks
Kyrie Irving is an unfathomably talented offensive player whose scoring acumen is rivaled only by his unpredictability. The Dallas Mavericks are his fourth team, and while his partial-season stay went off without a behind-the-scenes hitch, his track record suggests this is merely the temporary calm before a turbulent storm.
Each of his departures—first from Cleveland, then Boston, then finally Brooklyn—was messier and more public than the last. This past season, he received a suspension from the Nets for endorsing a film with antisemitic conspiracies on social media and then failing, repeatedly, to offer an actual apology.
This says nothing of his scattered injury history. Suspensions and vaccination policies have limited his availability in recent years, but he's missed fewer than 15 games just three times in his career—and only once since 2015-16.
His stat lines are inarguably mind-melting. He just averaged 27.1 points and 5.5 assists on 61.3 true shooting. But can the Mavs or his next team trust him to be regularly available entering his age-31 season and beyond?
Answering in the affirmative will be costly. A four-year max will run Dallas $210.1 million. A five-year max will be around $270 million. Outside teams can offer him up to four years and $201.7 million.
Granted, Irving could accept less than the max from, well, anyone. But unless he's taking a massive pay cut or putting pen to paper on a short-term deal or agreement packed with non-guarantees, the concern still stands.
Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks
Every non-superstar should strive to have Brook Lopez's career trajectory.
He went from a lumbering, inside-out big viewed as a defensive liability whose utility receded to the point he initially joined the Milwaukee Bucks on the $3.4 million bi-annual exception in 2018 to a still-lumbering, floor-spacing 5 who honed his on- and off-ball movement while providing enough value at the other end to finish second in Defensive Player of the Year voting for the 2022-23 campaign.
This is, in no uncertain terms, an iconic progression. Lopez was a key figurehead, on both sides of the ball, during the Bucks' 2021 championship run and remains mission critical to their title window right now.
His game is clearly going to age well. His functional about-face started in his early 30s and is crescendoing right now. Just this past season, he drilled 37.4 percent of his triples and limited opponents to 50.4 percent shooting at the rim—the third-stingiest mark among 269 players who challenged 100 or more looks around the basket.
Still, part of thriving into your mid-30s is, you know, being in your mid-30s. Lopez turned 35 in April and battled back issues during all of 2021-22. A three-year deal would take him through his age-37 season.
That registers as nothing more than a blip if he's getting around the mid-level. But he earned a demonstrative raise off this year's $13.9 million salary, and that's before factoring in his being a relative anomaly at his position. A hefty raise isn't out of the question, nor is it without serious back-end risk.
Kristaps Porziņģis, Washington Wizards (Player Option)
Entering this year, it looked like Kristaps Porziņģis would be better off exericising his $36 million player option for 2023-24.
And then he turned in the best season of his career.
During his first full year in Washington, Porziņģis averaged 23.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.5 blocks while downing 55.9 percent of his twos and 38.5 percent of his threes. He had everything going, almost wire-to-wire. He splashed spot-up triples and fallaway jumpers and hasn't looked so mobile on defense since, approximately, his sophomore season.
It would now be a shocker if Porziņģis doesn't decline his player option in favor of a new deal that guarantees him more money over the longer haul. How high should the Wizards or another team be willing to go? And for how long?
Those, quite literally, are questions worth tens of millions of dollars.
Porziņģis' max salary next year is $43.4 million. He's not getting that. Only two teams project to have that much cap space: Houston and Utah. Neither needs an expensive 5.
Sign-and-trade possibilities are on the table. Porziņģis could also just stay with the Wizards. The destination doesn't matter so much as the final number. He will be only 28 in August, but he has scores of lower-body injuries in his rear view and hasn't missed fewer than 15 games since his sophomore campaign. Even if he's on the books for $30 million or so, three- and four-year commitments are akin to stepping out on a limb.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass. Salary information via Spotrac.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and subscribe to the Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes.