Re-Grading the Most Hyped NBA Free-Agent Signings of the Last 5 Years | News, Scores, Highlights, Stats, and Rumors

Re-Grading the Most Hyped NBA Free-Agent Signings of the Last 5 Years |  News, Scores, Highlights, Stats, and Rumors

0 of 8

    Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

    NBA free agency can be just as exciting as the Association’s games themselves.

    If not more so.

    It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of all the wheeling and dealing, and analysts attempt to stay on top of everything with real-time reactions to the landscape-altering movement.

    Of course, real-time reactions are based on perceptions and projections, meaning they react to what could happen not what surely will happen. Wait a year or two or five for those assessments, though, and the benefit of hindsight reveals exactly how these ballyhooed transactions shaped up.

    Using hindsight to our advantage, then, we have rounded up the most buzz-worthy signings from the past five years—the 2017 to 2021 offseasons, evaluating only signings in which a player changed teams—to re-grade them now that we’ve seen them in action.

1 of 8

    Will Newton/Getty Images

    Contract: Four years, $140.8 million

    The Miami Heat needed direction and star power back in 2019, and Butler scratched the itch for both.

    The contract length seemed a tad worrisome at the time, as he turned 30 before playing his first game on the pact and a ton of high-mileage minutes on his odometer. (Being the prized pupil of Tom Thibodeau can be exhausting.) It also wasn’t entirely clear whether Butler could serve as a top-shelf star.

    Three seasons later, Miami’s brass might still be doing victory lapses through South Beach. Butler has been everything the franchise could’ve hoped for and then some, delivering three playoff berths, five postseason series wins and an NBA Finals trip. He looks as spry as ever, too, closing out the last playoff run with 82 points, 18 rebounds, nine assists and five steals over his final two contests.

    Grade: A

2 of 8

    Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

    Contract: Three years, $85 million

    The Bulls took a big swing with DeRozan, and it wasn’t always entirely clear why. The pay rate felt bloated, since it happened late in free agency and there wasn’t much of a market left by that point. The years were (and still are) a touch risky for someone who turned 32 before the contract started. The fit was wonky on paper, as Chicago already had a roster that skewed toward the offensive end.

    Individually, though, it’d be hard to script a better first season for DeRozan in the Windy City. He improbably turned his age-32 season into a career campaign, tallying a personal-best 27.9 points per game and his second-highest player efficiency rating (23.1). He landed 10th in the MVP voting, which was only his second top-10 finish ever.

    For now, DeRozan has obliterated all realistic expectations, and his contract looks better than ever. However, hindsight doesn’t change a potential misreading of the market—it wasn’t (and still isn’t) clear who Chicago thought it was bidding against—and the defensive deficiencies of a DeRozan-Zach LaVine-Nikola Vucevic trio could make this core unsustainable.

    Grade: B

3 of 8

    Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

    Contract: Four years, $164.3 million

    The Brooklyn Nets knew they wouldn’t see an instant return on their investment, since Durant was merely a few works removed from tearing his Achilles when he signed the deal.

    What Brooklyn couldn’t have known, though, was all the twists and turns it would encounter upon his return. Like Durant playing just 90 games over the past two seasons combined. Gold requesting a trade and trying to force out coach Steve Nash and general manager Sean Marks.

    The ride has been all kinds of wild so far, yet when Durant is healthy enough to hit the hardwood, he’s still worth all of the effort. His average game with the Nets features 28.7 points on 52.5/40.9/90.0 shooting, 7.3 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 2.2 triples and 1.1 blocks.

    It hasn’t been smooth sailing for Brooklyn (to say the least), but if the franchise had a chance to redo the deal, it would extend the same offer 11 times out of 10.

    Grade: C+

4 of 8

    Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

    Contract: Four years, $128 million

    There was so much to like about Hayward’s decision to join the Boston Celtics in 2017. He not only reunited with his college coach, Brad Stevens, Hayward also offered missing-piece potential to a Shamrocks squad that had just finished three wins shy of an NBA Final trips.

    Just five minutes into his Celtics tenure, though, everything changed. He landed awkwardly on a botched alley-oop play and suffered a gruesome ankle injury that derailed his first season in Boston before it ever really started. He recovered to play 72 games the next season, but never really looked like himself. His numbers perked up in 2019-20 (17.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists), but he battled injuries in the regular season and playoffs.

    He opted for free agency instead of a $34.2 million player option and wound up ditching the Celtics for a four-year, $120 million pact from the Charlotte Hornets. He hasn’t played 50 games in a season since, and the Hornets have tried to offload his contract.

    Grade: D

5 of 8

    Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

    Contract: Four years, $136.5 million

    Evaluating Irving in a vacuum is tricky, since he and Kevin Durant—and, for some reason, DeAndre Jordan—arrived in Brooklyn as a package deal. Irving is a top talent on his own, but his connection to Durant is the reason the Nets’ moves reverberated across the basketball landscape that summer.

    It’s been a strange three seasons in Brooklyn ever since, and no one embodies that more than Irving. He has suited up just 103 times over that stretch—losing time to both injuries and personal decisions—and his name may have bounced around the rumor mill before he put himself on the block.

    And yet, when he hoops he’s awesome. He toys with defenders like he’s filming another Uncle Drew installment, and his stats are as efficient as they come: 27.1 points on 49.0/40.6/92.0 shooting and 6.0 assists against 2.5 turnovers. While the Nets would surely prefer to have the basketball brilliance without the baggage, they’d probably rather have both than neither, but it would be a lengthy debate.

    Grade: C-

6 of 8

    Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

    Contract: Four years, $153.3 million

    Prior to LeBron James’ arrival in 2018, the Los Angeles Lakers were trudging through their post-Kobe Bryant rebuild and enduring a five-year playoff drought. In James’ second season in Hollywood, the Purple and Gold became world champions.

    It almost doesn’t matter what else has gone down during James’ four seasons, since that title forever stamped this team as a juggernaut. Saying that, there have been more downs than ups, as James has battled some nagging ailments and the rest of the roster has struggled without him.

    Beyond that title, the Lakers have only one other playoff appearance and a pair of postseason victories. Still, it’s hard to attach any of those shortcomings to James, since he has delivered the 14th-most win shares (30.2) while playing the second-fewest games of anyone who ranks inside the top 20 (223).

    Grade: A

7 of 8

    Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

    Contract: Three years, $103.1 million

    Back in 2019, the Clippers were trying to plot their path away from the Lob City era, while Kawhi Leonard was riding high following his championship run with the Toronto Raptors. Leonard’s decision to chose LA over other suitors legitimized the franchise as a true destination team, and he even convinced fellow All-Star Paul George to make the trek with him.

    “They want to win. I want to win again,” Leonard told reporters at the time. “It’s an opportunity to just build our own. To make history. … That was something big and exciting for me to make my decision.”

    The Clippers haven’t quite crested yet, though they did make the 2021 Western Conference Finals. Unfortunately, Leonard suffered a knee injury in that playoff run that wound up costing him the entire 2021-22 campaign, which makes it tempting to tag this signing with an incomplete grade.

    Ultimately, though, LA added a player who factors prominently into the Association’s best-two-way player debate, and Leonard has lived up to the billing when healthy, averaging 26 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.0 assists while posting a 48.8/38.7/88.5 slash line across 109 contests with the Clippers.

    Grade: A-

8 of 8

    Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

    Contract: Four years, $141 million

    Kemba Walker’s star was soaring when he hit the open market in 2019. He had just made his third consecutive All-Star roster, but the Charlotte Hornets needed more help than he could provide. They lacked the supporting cast needed to justify showering the scoring guard with money, which forced him to look elsewhere and eventually settle on Boston.

    “It was difficult. I couldn’t see myself just being on another team,” he told The Athletic’s Shams Charania. “It was just hard. That’s all I’ve known was Charlotte. … I had a feeling that I wasn’t going to get the offer that I wanted, and maybe not close to it, because of cap space. I had to get my head wrapped around the feeling and picking another team.”

    The Celtics saw Walker as a stabilizing presence who could help them withstand the loss of Irving. For a time, Walker provided just that, averaging 20.4 points and 4.8 assists while helping Boston reach the Eastern Conference finals in his first campaign.

    However, a knee injury delayed the start of his second season, and he hasn’t been the same since. His production has plummeted over the past two seasons, and he was salary-dumped twice in just more than a calendar year: first traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder in June 2021, then later dealt to the Detroit Pistons in 2022.

    Grade: D

    Statistics and salary information used courtesy of Basketball Reference and

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.