8 NBA Players Under Most Pressure to Perform After Free Agency

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistAugust 12, 2014

8 NBA Players Under Most Pressure to Perform After Free Agency

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    Contracts don't just buy talent. They purchase expectations, they set standards.

    They spawn pressure.

    Such is the essence of NBA free agency, where players enjoying freedom and the prospect of oft-lucrative paydays have but a moment to bask in their offseason glory before reality crashes the party.

    Not all contracts create overbearing circumstances. Most don't, in fact. But certain deals signed with certain teams pin players to pressure-packed posts. 

    These aren't overpaid talents, though they can be. These are players assuming more responsibility and power, and—most importantly—the heightened accountability this comes with.

    Collective and individual expectations soar. Different, more challenging standards are set. 

    Pressure mounts, and it doesn't stop. It mounts and mounts and mounts until said players follow up their offseason happenings with the necessary performances and results or wilt under the nature of their employment.

Avery Bradley, Boston Celtics

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    Age: 23

    2013-14 Stats: 14.9 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.1 steals, 43.8 percent shooting, 12.7 PER

    Contract: Four years, $32 million

    One season of offensive potency on a 25-win Boston Celtics team was enough to land Avery Bradley a big-money contract.

    Bradley is a solid defender and occasional maker of three-pointers, but the Celtics are paying him like a second-tier cornerstone. Can he be that player for them? That consistently active and healthy player? 

    The Celtics think so. Or rather, they're hoping so.

    Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald said at least one other team was prepared to offer Bradley more, which essentially forced the Celtics' hand. Defensive specialists aren't paid at least $7.2 million in each of the next four years. That pay grade is reserved for players who can do more, who can make two-way impacts every night.

    Next season is about Bradley revealing himself to be worth every penny as a legitimate building block, or seeing how the Celtics react to investing $32 million into a question mark.

Ed Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Age: 25

    2013-14 Stats: 5.7 points, 4.1 rebounds, 0.4 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.7 blocks, 53.4 percent shooting, 15.9 PER

    Contract: Two years, $2 million

    What a steal for the Los Angeles Lakers.

    What a turning point for Ed Davis.

    This isn't a significant contract; it's insignificant. It's the type of deal benchwarmers sign when joining pressure-free environments. It does not imply expectations or responsibility. 

    But Davis' situation is different. He's 25 and theoretically in his prime. He stood to make nearly $4.4 million next year if the Memphis Grizzlies extended him a qualifying offer, which they didn't. He probably could have signed a more lucrative deal elsewhere, but he didn't.

    Instead of seeking financial security, the per-36 minute super stud is betting on himself—betting that the Lakers can give him enough playing time for his stock to rebound and his earning potential to skyrocket by summer 2015, when he has the option of entering free agency once again.

    Good move? Bad move? We don't know. The Lakers also play home to Julius Randle, Carlos Boozer and Jordan Hill, so Davis will have to fight for minutes.

    Whatever minutes he gets, he'll have to make the most of; otherwise a career brimming with potential regresses into one redemption-seeking jaunt after another, replete with more bargain-bin, slag-valued contracts like this.

Chris Bosh, Miami Heat

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    Age: 30

    2013-14 Stats: 16.2 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.0 blocks, 51.6 percent shooting, 19.0 PER

    Contract: Five years, $118.7 million

    Chris Bosh will be $118.7 million richer over the next five years...after averaging career lows in minutes and rebounds, and after posting the second-worst per-game scoring marks of his NBA tenure.

    The Miami Heat are waging a huge gamble here. They're banking on Bosh being the No. 1 option following four years of No. 3 duty, and they're counting on him to headline the contender unlike he did while with the Toronto Raptors.

    Prevailing sentiments attribute Bosh's decline in status to matters of necessity. He had to play third fiddle behind LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. He had to make sacrifices. He had to become this glorified complementary big man who relied on others to create open shots for him.

    And, subsequently, the Sun-Sentinel's Ira Winderman says the Heat had to overpay him:

    The reality is that in the NBA you overpay at times. This, amid the devastation of the departure of LeBron James, is one of those times there is a benefit to overpaying. The signing of Bosh stabilized the Heat's situation. And the one thing about Chris since his Heat arrival is that when given the opportunity, he has seized it. His play these past four years inspires confidence. And the sense is there is a newfound motivation.

    Newfound motivation better be enough for Bosh to reclaim his superstar name tag. He's being paid like one, and the Heat will ask him to shoulder the offensive and leadership responsibilities of one. And they believe he can.

    They have nearly 119 reasons to believe, to hope he can.

Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz

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    Age: 24

    2013-14 Stats: 16.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.4 steals, 41.3 percent shooting, 16.2 PER

    Contract: Four years, $63 million

    Don't listen to Gordon Hayward.

    "For me, I don’t think I have to live up to anything now," he said, per The Salt Lake Tribune's Kurt Kragthorpe. "They paid me what they wanted to pay me, and let’s go from there."

    I repeat: Don't listen to Gordon Hayward.

    First of all, the Utah Jazz didn't technically pay him what they wanted to. They paid Hayward what the Charlotte Hornets wanted to pay him. That's how restricted free agency works, you see. The Jazz matched a competing offer. If Hayward were on their definition of an "optimal deal," an agreement would have been hammered out before last October. 

    Tangential rant (temporarily) over.

    Hayward most definitely has something to live up to. A whole lot of somethings, actually. 

    Although he was one of only five players—Michael Carter-Williams, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and James—to average at least 15 points, five rebounds, five assists and one steal per game last season, he's not a superstar. His efficiency reached new lows last season, he can be sloppy with the ball and he's yet to prove he can thrive as a No. 1 option.

    Don't even touch his turbulent three-point shooting.

    Oh, and while you're at it, don't listen to Hayward, either. That rule is still in effect. 

    There is plenty for him to live up to, starting with his ability to prevent Jazz fans from retroactively pining after Jabari Parker.

LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Age: 29

    2013-14 Stats: 27.1 points, 6.9 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.6 steals, 56.7 percent shooting, 29.3 PER

    Contract: Two years, $42.2 million


    Pressure is James' bedfellow, no matter where he plays. But expectations are rapidly rising now that he's calling the shots for the Cleveland Cavaliers. 

    Kevin Love is on the way, a trade venture James was very much a part of, according to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarwoski. With Love—and Kyrie Irving—comes towering expectations, like CBS Sports' Gregg Doyel conceives

    The overwhelming hatred is gone, but the overwhelming pressure is back. And LeBron did this to himself...

    All of that was true before the Love trade, and it's true now. But still, even with a young team and a new coach, the Cleveland Cavaliers of 2014-15 have to reach the NBA Finals. That's a minimum in the East. And once they're in the Finals, well, LeBron's the best player on the planet. Shouldn't he find a way to get it done?

    That's what we're going to say now that he has Kevin Love.

    Everything that happens in Cleveland is now on James. He not-so-coincidentally excluded Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett from his heartfelt return essay. He's backing the acquisition of Love, a soon-to-be free agent, at the expense of Cleveland's future prospects.

    He's wasting little time in leaving his mark on the Cavaliers once again. And because he's opted to accelerate the team's rebuilding process, winning is the standard.

    Not contending, not approaching contention, not marked progression.


    Immediate winning.

Chandler Parsons, Dallas Mavericks

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    Age: 25

    2013-14 Stats: 16.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.2 steals, 47.2 percent shooting, 15.9 PER

    Contract: Three years, $46 million

    No one can fault Chandler Parsons for the way he handled restricted free agency. The Dallas Mavericks dangled $46 million in front of his face, and he took it. 

    Rightfully so, too. The Houston Rockets hardly handled his free agency with tact or the least bit of deference. Leaving—even though Houston had the power to keep him—was Parsons' right. 

    Now it's time to deliver on a contract the Parsons of today doesn't deserve. 

    Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas offers additional perspective on the matter:

    The Dallas Mavericks paid a premium rate for Chandler Parsons’ potential. ...

    But based purely on Parsons’ production so far in his career, he’ll be significantly overpaid while making $46 million over the next three seasons. The Mavs aren’t paying Parsons for his production in Houston, though. They bid big based on the belief that Parsons will blossom in Dallas.

    Parsons will earn $14.7 million next year. That's about the same as former teammate James Harden. That's more than Dirk Nowitzki. That's more than Monta Ellis.

    That's almost as much as Nowitzki and Ellis will make combined (roughly $16.3 million).

    Evolution is the only option for Parsons now if he has any of hope living up to his wildly priced pact. The Mavs need to see him reach a different level—one in which he doesn't succeed as the third or fourth option, but as a focal point. 

    As a properly priced, worthy-of-eight-figures-annually focal point.

Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

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    Age: 28

    2013-14 Stats: 17.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.5 steals, 42.3 percent shooting, 20.1 PER

    Contract: Four years, $48 million

    First-round playoff exits aren't something Kyle Lowry can hang his hat on forever.

    Ending Toronto's half-decade-long playoff drought while excelling individually amid trade rumors is no doubt the finest accomplishment of Lowry's career. But the crazy train cannot stop there.

    Lowry has yet to put together two consecutive seasons of brilliant basketball. He's been routinely criticized for his weight, effort and interest over the last eight years, and while he appears to have turned a corner with the Raptors, they need to see more.

    Much more.

    They need to see that he was worth $48 million. That last season wasn't a contract-year anomaly. That Lowry is every bit as committed to the franchise as he says he is. That he's the one to lead them back to the playoffs and beyond.

    That he can be, or flirt with being, the Eastern Conference's best point guard regularly. 

    "I'm not done," Lowry said in July, via Raptors Republic. "I got bigger plans. I'm only 28. I've got plenty of years left in the tank. This is just the start."

    The start of something both Lowry and the Raptors need to be $48 million worth of awesome.

Lance Stephenson, Charlotte Hornets

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    Age: 23

    2013-14 Stats: 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 0.7 steals, 49.1 percent shooting, 14.7 PER

    Contract: Three years, $27 million

    Lance Stephenson, much like Ed Davis, is betting on himself.

    Only more so. 

    The Indiana Pacers came at Stephenson with five years and $44 million, but he declined, instead opting for a shorter deal that pays him less than $1.4 million more through its first two years. And why? Because he wants to reach free agency sooner, per NBA.com's Adam Zagoria.

    Now Stephenson begins a years-long process in which he's not only tasked with infusing offense, playoff experience and energy into the Hornets' lineup, but also charged with making a name for himself outside Indiana.

    Starting off strong is key. It would set the tone for his time in Charlotte as an accurate harbinger of what's to come. 

    As for what will come, that much is up to Stephenson.

    Either he rolls the dice on himself and wins, or his time in Charlotte, from the jump, suggests he'll suffer the worst beat of all: misjudging himself.


    *Salary information via ShamSports unless otherwise cited.