While it is ultimately an entertainment product, the NBA is a business for players. And, like any business, there is an element of risk involved. Players have to be able to maximize their career earnings while putting themselves in the best position for playoff success. There are plenty of examples of guys who succeed in balancing these goals, but often times, they end up betting on themselves and losing, costing themselves money and chances at success in the process.
This season has been no different, with multiple players underperforming (or getting injured) at the worst time. Here are just a few:
5. Nerlens Noel
Once viewed as one of the NBA’s top young big men, Nerlens Noel is almost inexplicably wasting away on the Dallas Mavericks’ bench. Drafted sixth overall in 2013, Noel quickly established himself as a defensive stalwart for the Philadelphia 76ers, averaging 8.1 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game in his rookie season, making the All-Rookie team.
The next year, he continued to play excellent defense and improved his scoring from 9.9 to 11.1 points per game. But in 2016-2017, Noel’s minutes were cut by one third, down to around 20 per game. He was overshadowed by fellow big men Jahlil Okafor, Dario Saric, and Joel Embiid. Simply put, the 76ers had a logjam, and they needed to get rid of at least one of their centers. Noel was the first to go, traded to the Mavericks in exchange for Andrew Bogut, Justin Anderson, and a first-round pick.
Noel’s playing time and performance improved slightly in Dallas, and the team expressed great interest in signing him to a long-term deal after the season. The Mavericks offered him a four-year contract worth $70 million, an average of $17.5 million per year. That was a fairly generous offer, but Noel and his agent declined, instead opting to play as a restricted free-agent on a one-year, $4.1 million qualifying offer.
At the time, Noel was chastised for not signing the contract. In hindsight, it was a devastating mistake. A combination of injuries and attitude problems have limited Noel to just 30 games this season, and only six were starts. He is averaging 15.7 minutes per game, the fewest in his career, along with 4.4 points and 5.6 rebounds, also career-lows. Noel is still a talented player, and athletic, defensive-minded centers are in high demand in today’s NBA. He is still just 24, so he will garner interest in the offseason. Still, it is unlikely that he will receive a contract offer similar to what Dallas proposed last offseason.
Noel bet on himself and lost badly.
4. Isaiah Thomas
As the 2016-2017 NBA playoffs began, few players had a more upward trajectory than Isaiah Thomas. He had just led the Boston Celtics to the first seed in the Eastern Conference and finished fifth in MVP voting. He averaged 28.9 points and 5.7 assists on 46% shooting.
Then, during the playoffs, Thomas suffered a hip injury which caused him to miss the last three games of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. During the offseason, Thomas was traded along with Ante Zizic, Jae Crowder, and the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 first round pick to the Cavs for Kyrie Irving. Once Cleveland doctors examined Thomas’s hip, the Cavs re-negotiated the terms of the deal, gaining an extra second-round pick. This was a harbinger of things to come.
After rehabbing his hip, Thomas did not make his Cavaliers debut until January. He played just 15 games for Cleveland and looked like a shell of his former self. He averaged 14.7 points and 4.5 assists per game while shooting 36% from the field and just 25% from three-point range.
The Cavs had seen enough of Thomas, and sent him, along with Channing Frye and a first-round pick, to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Larry Nance. Jr. and Jordan Clarkson, a deal that has paid off for Cleveland.
In LA, Thomas was better, but still not good. He averaged 15.6 points 5.0 assists on 38% shooting and 33% from deep. After 17 games, Thomas underwent surgery on his hip and is out for the remainder of the season.
Even in Boston, Thomas was a defensive liability due to his 5’9″ frame. But, his offensive domination made him a likely max contract candidate. However, his injury has almost completely sapped him of his ability, at least so far. He won’t get anywhere near $20 million per year, and his market will be limited. A short-term “prove it” deal is his best chance at recouping some of his lost value.
3. DeMarcus Cousins
Cousins is different from the other members of this list because he will still get a max contract this offseason, and his performance did not take a nosedive this year.
Despite tearing his Achilles tendon after 48 games, Cousins remains one of the NBA’s most dominant centers. He averaged 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 blocks, and 1.6 steals while shooting 47% from the field and 35% from three-point range. Those numbers are comparable to his stats from the past three seasons and are all the more impressive when you account for the fact that he shared touches with superstar forward Anthony Davis.
The New Orleans Pelicans would certainly like to keep Davis and Cousins together, but Cousins will be one of the most sought-after free agents available in 2018, even with his injury.
2. Jahlil Okafor
The second former 76er center on this list, Okafor’s fall from grace is similar to Noel’s. Philadelphia selected Okafor with the third pick in the 2015 draft and he immediately made an impact, averaging 17.5 points and 7.0 rebounds in 30 minutes per game. The next year, however, both his minutes and performance dropped, as he scored 11.8 points in 22.7 minutes. He started 13 fewer games than the season before, so the writing was on the wall for his future in Philly.
In early December of 2017, Okafor was traded, along with Nik Stauskas and a second-round pick, to the Brooklyn Nets for Trevor Booker. Okafor had a chance at a fresh start, a new opportunity to prove his worth to the rest of the NBA.
Unfortunately, his stint with the Nets has gone even worse than when he was with the 76ers. He has played in 26 games for Brooklyn without starting one. He has averaged 6.4 points and 2.9 rebounds in just 12.6 minutes per game. Before trading him, the 76ers declined his team option for the 2018-2019 season, so he will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
The Nets are unlikely to bring him back, as Jarrett Allen is younger and a better fit. Okafor is not a bad player, quite the opposite; his efficiency numbers in his limited playing time are solid. He is a very talented scorer who makes post work look effortless, but that’s also his fatal flaw; the NBA just isn’t built for traditional centers like Okafor, much less ones who play minimal defense.
It’s a shame Okafor is not longer a good fit, because he can still be a team’s number one offensive option. It will be interesting to see if a team decides to give him that chance this summer.
1. Greg Monroe
Monroe suffers from the same problem that Okafor does, except it is compounded because he is not as talented a scorer. Monroe is a 6’11” center whose strengths do not lie in rebounding or protecting the rim. He can score inside well, but that’s about all he does effectively.
Prior to the 2015-2016 season, Monroe signed a three-year, $51 million contract extension with the Milwaukee Bucks. Shortly after the beginning of the 2017-2018 season, the Bucks traded Monroe to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for disgruntled point guard Eric Bledsoe.
Monroe was not in the Suns’ future plans and the two sides agreed to a buyout. Monroe then signed with the Boston Celtics, where he has carved out a nice bench role, averaging 10.0 points and 6.4 rebounds in 18.9 minutes per game. He should have a decent market in the offseason, but will not receive anything near the $17 million per year he got with his last multi-year deal.
Contract negotiations in professional sports are a risky endeavor, and each year there are examples of players winning and losing the game. In a free agency year that includes superstars such as LeBron James and Paul George, it will be interesting to see how these five players make out after their situations this season.