Buyer Beware

The quality of the 2010 free agent class is well known, and has dominated discussion in South Florida for nearly three years. The “Summer of LeBron,” which kicks off in just over three weeks, is sure to change the landscape of professional basketball.

Free agency, this season more than any other in history, will turn the NBA into a revolving door. Teams that were underachievers will have a legitimate opportunity to transform themselves into instant contenders simply by signing a star player or two. The bidding wars for top performers are sure to be as competitive and entertaining as the games they will ultimately play in their new arenas.

But with more money available this off-season than players on which it can be wisely spent, teams are sure to throw exorbitant amounts of cash at guys that are otherwise undeserving.

General managers need be warned. Choose your investments wisely.

With that in mind, let us be reminded about the ugly side of free agency. In the second of my depressing and controversial two-part expose on the worsts in Heat history, let’s look at the worst free agent signing.

The winner of the first $100 million contract signed in league history is? Juwan Howard.

In the summer of 1996, Riley signed Howard to a seven-year, $100.8 million contract, making him the NBA’s first ever nine-figure player. Howard was slated to earn more than the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson.

Howard was, and still is, a quality basketball player. He averaged a very respectible18.4 points and 7.3 rebounds per game over the course of his next seven seasons. But $101 million for a player that went on to make only one All Star appearance in his career? To suggest the contract was a stretch would be a gross understatement.

But can you say it was the worst in team history, given it never cost the Heat a penny? Howard’s contract was voided by the league just eight days after it was executed, citing violations of the salary cap as the reason why. The Howard mistake went on to become the exclusive domain of the Washington Bullets for all of eternity.

Having squirmed out of the way of that disaster, Riley went on to offer another seven-year contract, this time worth $85 million, in the summer of 2000. The recipient of the worst contract in team history? Brian Grant.

Grant was selected by the Sacramento Kings with the eight overall pick in the first round of the 1994 NBA Draft. In his first two seasons in the league, he averaged 13.8 points and 7.2 rebounds.

He then tore his rotator cuff and underwent surgery, which caused him to miss 58 games in what was a disappointing third season for the Kings.

He opted out of the final season of his contract and signed with Portland, for whom he would play three injury-plagued seasons, averaging 10.2 points and 7.9 rebounds.

Now this is where things get crazy.

Grant again chose to opt out of his contract to become a free agent.

Despite coming off yet another miserable season, in which he averaged just 7.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, the Blazers offered Grant a new four-year contract worth $42 million to stay in Portland. Grant rejected.

The Blazers then offered the power forward a seven-year maximum contract worth $93 million, as part of a sign-and-trade which would have sent him to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for Shawn Kemp. Grant rejected.

The Blazers then offered Grant an offer worth more than $70 million over six seasons, one that would have kept him in Portland. Grant rejected.

How a player that averaged such mediocre numbers was generating such demand is beyond my imagination.

Miami’s own Pat Riley then stepped in. The result was a complex three-team trade involving the Blazers, Cavs and Heat. Sean Kemp was sent from the Cavs to the Blazers. Gary Grant was sent from the Blazers to the Cavs. Clarence Weatherspoon and Chris Gatling were sent from the Heat to the Cavs, along with its 2001 first round draft pick (later traded to Orlando, who selected Brendan Haywood). And a newly re-signed Brian Grant was sent from the Blazers to the Heat at a mere $12.1 million per season.

At the time, Riley called Grant the final piece to his championship puzzle – on a team that featured Tim Hardaway, Eddie Jones, Dan Majerle and Alonzo Mourning.

He had every reason to believe it to be true. The team had finished first in the Atlantic division each of the previous four seasons. With the addition of Grant, the Heat shelled out a whopping $73.4 million on payroll in the 2000/01 season, second most in franchise history, against a salary cap of just $35.5 million.

Things didn’t go as planned.

Grant had been acquired to be the team’s starting power forward, but was asked to step in as an undersized center for much of his stay following Mourning’s kidney illness.

The beloved Grant played admirably. In four years with the Heat, he averaged 11.0 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. He led by example, not flashy but always willing to give 100% for his team.

But the Heat went just 153-175 during his tenure, making the playoffs twice, reaching the second round once. The middle seasons of his tenure were some of the darkest in Heat history, with Riley having missed the playoffs for the first two times in his coaching career. In the summer of 2004, Grant was sent to the Lakers in the trade that landed Shaquille O’Neal in South Florida.

Two seasons later, after unsuccessful stints in Los Angeles and Phoenix, Grant left the game after lingering injuries had reduced his level of play for several seasons. The final year of his contract, worth $14.8 million, was paid out in retirement. He achieved lifetime earnings of $107 million across his 12 NBA seasons.

Despite his onerous salary, Grant remains one of the most popular players in Heat history. His character and his dedication to the team were second to none. He was a true class act.

Unfortunately for Brian, his story took a horrific turn after retiring from the sport. Less than a year later, he was diagnosed with early onset Parkinston’s disease.

Here’s an update:

4 Responses

  1. jmbflame21 says:

    Great blog! Read it all the time. Very indepth/knowledgeable posts! Thanks!

  2. AJ says:

    UD is the new Brian Grant. I didn’t realize it till this post. I’d rather have UD on my team though. Wonder if he hadn’t given the Heat the hometown discount or if he decides not to this summer (if we make an offer – prob the mle, right?) if he’ll get paid like Grant did.

    • Albert says:

      Grant’s first year salary was $8.8M in 2000.

      Haslem’s first year salary was $5.0M in 2005. If you believe his agent (who suggested at the time that Haslem was leaving $10M on the table), his first year salary would have been $6.7M.

      But consider the environments in which they were signed. In 2000, the MLE was $2.25M. In 2005, it was $5.0M.

      And consider the total contract values. Grant made $85M over 7 years. Haslem made $30M over 6 years; his agent felt he could make $40M.

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