Friday 19th January 2018,
The Hoop Doctors

5 Worst NBA Free Agent Signings of All-time

Free Agents

July 21, 2009 – Ryan Desmarais

Ryan Desmarais is a senior at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester, where he will receive his BA in English in December 2009. Ryan is also a writer at The Bleacher Report. He currently resides in Manchester, NH.

As the NBA off-season continues to change the landscape of the league, team executives need to be warned.

Choose your investments wisely.

Free agency has turned the NBA into a revolving door and has created plenty of parity over the years. Teams that were perennial bottom dwellers have turned themselves into instant contenders from signing a star player or two during the free agency period. The bidding wars over players that are perceived as “can’t-miss” start to become both as competitive and entertaining as the games played in the arenas.

But the signings don’t always turn out as nice as teams would hope.

Teams will start throwing exorbitant amounts of cash at guys because they’re desperate to fill a need, the market’s thin, or all the big-named players are gone. Other teams overpay players because they had impressive ends to their contract seasons or because of the dreaded P-word: potential.

I do not count a free agent signing as bad because a solid player worthy of the money got injured in the middle of a contract (see Allan Houston). There’s not much teams can do about that. The list contains players that didn’t do much before getting the nice contract and did even less after getting it. With that cleared up, here are the five worst free agent signings ever.

5. Austin Croshere

Croshere was drafted in 1997 by Indiana with the 12th pick and had two unproductive seasons before showing some potential in the ’99-’00 season, averaging 10.3 points and 6.4 boards a game. But it wasn’t until the 2000 Finals against the Lakers that he had his “coming-out party.” Croshere came off the bench during the series and averaged over 15 points and 6 rebounds a game as the Pacers fell to the Lakers in six games. Indiana felt that Croshere’s efforts garnered giving him a 7-year $51 million deal. He lived up to the contract by averaging double digits in points only once, the season after the contract when he averaged 10.1 point a game. Croshere was dealt to Dallas during the final year of his contract and has bounced around the league ever since, playing for three teams in three seasons.

4. Travis Knight

Rick Pitino did a lot of stupid things when he was the President of the Boston Celtics during the late ‘90’s, but this one takes the cake. Knight played the ’96-’97 season with the Lakers and averaged 4.8 points and 4.5 rebounds in just over 16 minutes a game. Apparently, these are numbers that a team just can’t live without and Pitino needed to bring the seven-footer to Boston by any means possible. Knight signed a 7-year deal worth $22 million in 1997 and followed it up by averaging 6.5 points and 4.9 rebounds. He spent one season in Boston and was sent back to L.A. before finishing his illustrious career in New York. Knight ended his career averaging 3.4 points and 1.9 boards, not quite living up to Pitino’s expectations.

3. Jim McIlvaine

Here’s a shocker. The Seattle Supersonics made a dumb financial decision. The team was coming off an NBA Finals appearance in which they were taken out by the record-setting ’96 Chicago Bulls. In serious need of a big man, the team decided to go after McIlvaine, a second-year player who averaged 2.3 points and 2.9 rebounds the season before as Gheorghe Muresan’s backup. No problem there, right? Not until you see the 7-year $33.6 million contract that Seattle offered him. This deal upset Shawn Kemp, Seattle’s star player who had been asking the team for a contract extension. Kemp was traded to Cleveland after the ’96-’97 season, a year that saw McIlvaine put up career number of 3.8 points and 4 rebounds. McIlvaine spent one more season in Seattle before finishing his career in New Jersey, where he never averaged over 2.4 points a game in a season.

2. Jerome James

Wherever there’s a bad contract, the Knicks are usually somewhere in the picture. And whenever Isiah was involved, things just got downright ugly. But this might be Isiah’s worst of the worst. James played 16 games for Sacramento during ’98-’99 season before disappearing from the NBA radar for two years. He reappeared in 2001 with Seattle and never averaged more than 5.4 points a game over four seasons in the Pacific Northwest. However, in true contract year form, James showed up for the Sonics during the playoffs and averaged 12.5 points and 6.8 boards in 11 games. Isiah and the Knicks signed James to a 5-year $30 million during that off-season and after getting paid, James returned to form. He never averaged over 3 points a game during his time in New York and has played a grand total of four games in the last two seasons. On the bright side, James ended the ’07-’08 season with a perfect shooting percentage, going 1-1 from the field and 2-2 from the foul line. Looks like money well spent.

1. Jon Koncak

You know how you can tell that some players are stiffs just because of their name? Koncak might be the poster boy for that. A decent role player off the bench, Koncak had been hovering around 5 points and 6 rebounds a game from 1986 to 1989. But, once again, in true contract year form, Koncak showed up for the playoff run. In five games, he averaged almost 13 points and 10 boards. This apparently was enough of a sample for Atlanta to give Koncak a 6-year deal worth $13 million. This might not seem like a huge amount of money, but this deal paid him more than Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird. “Jon Contract” didn’t quite live up to his end of the bargain, never averaging more than 4 points and 5 rebounds a game for the rest of his career while those other three guys had pretty decent careers, I guess you could say. The Hawks had to eat the money and Koncak became the catalyst for terrible free agent contracts.

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  • Great list, but where is Tim Thomas signing with the Bucks for $67 million in ’99?? That has got to be at least one of the top 2 or 3 worst free agent signings ever!

  • dwhite10701

    Jim McIlvaine should be number one. Not only did they spend a ton of money on a completely unproductive player, but the signing directly resulted in their best player (Shawn Kemp) leaving town. Doesn’t get much worse than that.

  • I think you probably could have built this entire list out of Knicks contracts…but the one you left out was Allan Houston. Houston was signed to a max money deal of 120 million that left the Knicks totally inflexible from a payroll standpoint and he missed an incredible number of games over that span.

  • As a Kings fan, I’m partial to Kenny Thomas’ 6-year, $45 million deal as one of the worst of this decade (at the least). He hasn’t played a significant game for Sacramento in two seasons, yet he’s one of their top salaries. That’s a biased answer though…

  • What about signing allan houston to the Knicks. They actually made what was called the allan houston rule, that allowed the knicks to waive houston and pay him 40 million dollars for 2 years that he didn’t even play….. Stephon Marbury fits into this mold too. Pretty much anyone the Knicks sign or trade for is usually a mistake..

  • keith

    Yes, Jim McIlvaine was a horrible signing and it was one of many terrible moves that the Sonics made during their last decade in Seattle. But Kemp himself boxed himself into the circumstances that made his so unhappy. Two years before the McIlvaine signing, Kemp and his agent had negotiated a long term, top dollar contract. While negotiating that contract, Kemp had told the Sonics he wanted long term security as well as a pay grade that was comparable with the leagues other top tier power forwards – Charles Barkley’s and Karl Malone. The Sonics complied with his wished by offering what I believe was 8 years at about $3.5 million. This contract tied the Sonics’ and Kemp’s hands. According to the collective bargaining agreement, a player had to complete about 40% of a contract before either side could look at renegotiating. This was a clause that could not be waived by either side. Kemp was only entering the 3rd year of an 8 year contract. Had Kemp signed a shorter contract in the first place – say 5 years – he would have been eligible for renegotiations. But he and his agent, Tony Dutt wanted him to have that all important long term security, hence the 8 years. Yes, a year after Kemp signed his contract, salaries spiraled out of control at an unforseen rate. Blame that on the huge sum the Timberwolves decided to offer a very young and uproven Kevin Garnett based on his potential. That set a new precident. But that’s the risk Kemp and his agent took when they locked themselves into that long term contract. Barkley and Malone were in same boat but they both shrugged it off because they were not only well paid for their basketball services, both of them were also riding their NBA fame to enormous side incomes from promotional contracts. The same side income opportunities could have been there for Kemp had he not destroyed his image with his well documented substance abuse and other indiscretions. It’s ridiculous to blame Kemp’s growing substance abuse on his disenchantment with his contract . Even at a paltry $3.5 million a year, his income was still 100 times the national median. His youth, combined with relative wealth and the general party atmosphere of the NBA at the time guaranteed that he would be exposed to every temptation. People who are inclined toward subtance abuse will do so whether they are making $50,000 or $5,000,000. From the Sonic’s perspective, it’s a good thing the clause that prohibited an early renogotiation was in place. Given the team’s proclivity for bad personnel moves, the clause saved them from themselves. If allowed to, they probably would have caved and given Kemp what he wanted and locked themselves in for 10 more years. By then, even without the drugs and alcohol, Kemp would have been an aging veteran with diminished abilities: In other words, a huge salary cap liability. In hindsight, looking at how quickly his career spiraled downward due to his escalating use of alcohol and drugs, the Sonics were fortunate that they weren’t allowed to renegotiate or extend. So why did the Sonic’s sign McIlvaine? Again, Kemp played a role in his own unhappiness. The Sonics had lost a game to the Bullets late in the season prior to McIlvaine’s free agency. Big Jim came off the bench and blocked 7 shots in just 15 minutes. Kemp and teamate Gary Payton were so enamored with McIlvaine’s human eraser act, they lobbied Sonic’s management to go after the guy. This was truly an instance of “be careful what you wish for”. To get McIlvaine, the Sonic’s had to out bid other teams that were equally dazzeled by McIlvaine’s shot blocking and rebounding potential. The Sonics and other teams saw him as a potential Dikembe Mutombo type player able to block shots and sweep the boards. Sadly, the Sonics just kept on making bad moves: Calvin Booth, Jerome James, Billy Owens, Vernon Maxwell, Johan Petro, Robert Swift, Greg Foster …all high profile free agents or draft picks who contributed little to the team. They did salvage the Kemp situation by getting Vin Baker who did have an allstar/allpro season for the Sonics until he too succumbed to alcohol abuse. So in summary, don’t blame the signing of McIlvaine for destroying Kemp’s career. Kemp is the one who pushed for the long term that made rengotiation impossible, and he’s the one who chose to drink and do drugs.