The below has been excerpted from this week's Outlet Pass, to get caught up on everything else you need to know in the NBA this week read the rest of the column here.
Remember the amnesty provision? That hilariously cruel mulligan each NBA franchise was awarded by collective bargaining negotiations just after the turn of the decade? Back then, long before the salary cap spiked, the length of a contract had enough power to prevent an entire fanbase from knowing how “hope” or “joy” truly felt. But now “bad contract” is almost an oxymoron. They still have the power to restrict flexibility but none are definitively untradable. Not every team needs to shed someone from their books, though there are a few deals that already/will inevitably keep general managers up at night. Here are the five worst.
1. Andrew Wiggins - $146.6 million through 2023
Wiggins may still become a quality NBA player, but nobody should argue against him being first on this list. He turns 24 in February, is already in his fifth season, has never come close to making an All-Star team and doesn’t project to ever do so. If someone asked “what’s your favorite Andrew Wiggins moment?” could you even name one? He’s barely making 40 percent of his two-point shots and is ten percent less accurate at the rim than he was a year ago.
There has been no progress as a rebounder, defender, or playmaker, and aside from the uptick in threes and changing hairstyle, he’s the exact same person today that he was when Cleveland drafted him first overall. That player possesses unteachable athletic gifts and is not astonishingly terrible, but how many first-round picks would the Timberwolves need to attach if they wanted to get off it? Two? Good luck to whichever team is paying Wiggins the $33.3 million he's due in 2023.
Until then, the Timberwolves are an independent record label that bet the farm on an incoherent Soundcloud rapper who isn’t gregarious, seductive, or talented enough to infiltrate the mainstream. It’s a sunk cost, and an embarrassing one at that.
2. John Wall - $188.5 million through 2023—including a player option
While there’s a small chance Wiggins actually improves through the life of his current contract, the same can’t be said about Wall, who, while not close to bad, isn’t young or consistently healthy enough to transform his game for the better. Wall is 28 years old but turns 32 right before the $46.8 million player option on this contract transforms whichever city he’s living in to Pompeii circa 79 A.D.
While his numbers remain All-Star caliber and his speed off a high screen is too blurry to comprehend, Wall's outside shooting has regressed, and for the first time since his rookie year the Wizards are better on offense when he's not on the floor. To justify this contract, Wall either needs to be the best player on his team, or the side-kick to someone good enough to make the Wizards a title contender. Right now neither is true. That’s a pretty big problem that doesn’t even speak to Wall's penchant for taking plays off on the other end, impersonating a statue whenever a shot goes up as his man rushes by to tip in the miss or grab the rebound. (He averages a comical 0.3 box outs per game, while averaging just over 34 minutes a night. Yikes.)
There’s a reason trading this version of Wall is so difficult, and, to be frank, wouldn't be easy even if his contract weren't a grand piano dangling overhead by a strand of dental floss. He's a point guard in decline, with weaknesses that don't mesh with the league's most irreversible trends. I personally enjoy watching him play, but that's because I'm not a 12-year-old Wizards fan.
3. Dion Waiters - $36.3 million through 2021
So, like, is Dion Waiters ever going to play again? His most recent game was December 22, 2017, and there’s no timetable for his return from [checks notes] instability in the left ankle. The dollar amount on this one isn’t a cap crippler, but $36.3 million is a lot of money to pay someone not to play, and couldn't strike the fear of God into anyone when he was 100 percent healthy. I wonder if/when the Miami Heat stretch Waiters and move on.
4. Nicolas Batum - $76.6 million through 2022—including a player option
While Kemba Walker demolishes defenses with a late-career leap that’s comparable to those made recently by Steph Curry and Isaiah Thomas, the Charlotte Hornets are quietly good enough to ignore those all-too-frequent nights when Nicolas Batum doesn't show up. Last night he scored two points in 30 minutes and it didn't even feel like an outlier. His usage has plummeted and he's averaging nearly five fewer minutes than he has throughout the previous six seasons. Batum isn’t finishing at the rim or hitting above-the-break threes, either. This is a problem.
"That's my job, to help him take his offense to another level, become more of a playmaker, more usage. That will take our offense to another level," Hornets head coach James Borrego said when I asked him about Batum's dwindling production. "We've been pretty good offensively so far. Kemba's usage has been pretty high all season. We're trying to balance out the roster right now and how we're playing offensively."
It's not like Batum has been bad, but he just clearly isn't what the Hornets prayed he'd be when they signed him to this contract. His PER is a career low 11.9 and, despite being more efficient than previous years, is not even averaging nine points a night. He turns 30 tomorrow. There are so many red flags; nothing about Batum's season is particularly uplifting for a Charlotte organization that's smashing piggy banks to prepare for Walker's looming payday.
Instead of peaking, Batum turning into dust.
5. Chris Paul - $159.7 million through 2022
This take might accelerate global warming, but Paul's contract is already an anvil. He's a six-foot point guard who turns 34 in May. There's no historical precedent for this type of player being an All-Star, and there are still three more guaranteed years left the on deal. He's currently averaging the fewest points per shot in his entire career, and Houston's offense is just so-so when he's on the court. Bleh.
Paul can still skate to his signature spots and create enough space for himself from the mid-post. Every so often he'll drill a step-back three or dribble a defender out of their Nikes, but that's few and far between relative to how impressive Paul looked last year. He's banged up, and that's a reasonable excuse. But at this price point there are no asterisks; Paul needs to play at a superstar level, and his struggle equals doom for a Rockets organization that desperately needs him to shine.
It's unclear how Houston's new ownership would feel if Daryl Morey traded Paul, but that's one of two short-term options for a team that entered the season with championship expectations. How much longer can Paul’s post-prime last? What could they get for him if it became clear they wanted to move on? This is a little silly. Paul deserves the benefit of the doubt because he's an all-time legend. But if they regain health, don't turn things around, and either miss the playoffs or get bounced in the first round, major changes feel like they'll be right around the corner.
Honorable mentions: Chandler Parsons, Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love