How did vaunted free-agent class do?

BY foxsports • April 7, 2011

The summer of 2010 will long be remembered for “The Decision’’ and one of the greatest classes of free agents in NBA history.

As we’re coming to the end of the regular season, it’s time to rate how the 2010 free agents have performed. Who has been a surprise? Who’s been a flop? Who won’t be judged until the playoffs start? Who stole money? Who’s been worth every penny?

Here’s our scouting report:

Facing the playoff pressure

Well, guess who tops the list.

LeBron James.


Whether he likes it or not and acknowledges it or not, James’ legacy is Game 5 last spring, when he quit against the Boston Celtics.

“A lot of eyes will be on him, especially to see how he will respond with a new team,’’ Dwyane Wade said earlier this week before the Miami Heat won in Newark against the New Jersey Nets.

“A lot of people feel like he left Cleveland to go somewhere and win a championship. So he’s expected to do that. I think LeBron understands that in the last two years he has had the best record in the league. But, despite winning the MVP award (the last two years), he hasn’t gotten out of second round, last year, and the year before he didn’t make it to the Finals. So I think he wants more. I think we’ll see a focused, better LeBron.’’

He might not win his third straight MVP, but, other than failing to deliver in the clutch in a few instances, James has not been a slouch in the regular season. After a rough start adjusting to Wade, he has been posting his usual gaudy numbers — 26.6 points per game on 51 percent shooting, 7.5 rebounds and seven assists per game — and Miami could finish as high as second in the East. While some experts projected a 70-win season, the Heat’s lack of size and depth pretty much put the kibosh on that. But when the playoffs start, James is expected to get the Heat to the Finals.

2. Joe Johnson is 0-8 in second-round playoff games, and this year he has the weight of a contract in excess of $120 million on his broad shoulders. “He’s been anything but a superstar this season,’’ said one Eastern Conference scout, “especially with how they paid him.” The Atlanta Hawks overpaid to keep their top player, as they feared he would run to New York. He’s had a solid season — 18.6 ppg on 44 percent shooting, with 4.1 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game — and has been an excellent defender at multiple spots. But for the kind of money the financially struggling Hawks shelled out to keep him, they really need Johnson to deliver this spring.

3. Carlos Boozer has the luxury of playing with Derrick Rose, the favorite to win the MVP. After missing the first month with a busted hand, Boozer averaged 17.8 ppg on 52 percent shooting, providing the frontcourt scoring punch the Chicago Bulls were looking for when they paid him $80 million. He has been a big reason Chicago has regained the top spot in the East for the first time since the days of Michael Jordan. But Boozer had his struggles in the playoffs against taller frontcourt players when he played in Utah. This spring, he needs to prove he can produce against big front lines.

4. For reasons only known to Danny Ainge, the Boston Celtics really took a gamble when they sent Kendrick Perkins, their menacing presence in the paint, to the Oklahoma City Thunder at the trade deadline. They rolled the dice, thinking that Shaquille O’Neal could step in and give them a defensive presence, especially if they meet the Orlando Magic and the Los Angeles Lakers. But Shaq, who turned 39 last month, has been beset by an assortment of injuries, the latest coming when he was attempting to return from an Achilles' problem that kept him out for more than a month. “I wish I was younger,’’ Shaq said recently. By the time the playoffs are over, Ainge might be saying the same thing.

5. Because of injuries and inconsistent play, Miami’s Mike Miller had a bad first season for the Heat. After getting $25 million last summer, he was expected to supply the critical perimeter shooting. He needs to step up his play and make big shots in the postseason to show that his signing was not a mistake.

Major disappointments

1. The Golden State Warriors shelled out $80 million to David Lee, but the former New York Knicks big man has been unable to help turn Golden State into a winner. For all the double-doubles he produced during his time in New York, Lee was the classic “stat player’’ who looks good in the box score but rarely makes an impact on the standings. The Warriors have also discovered how soft Lee is.

2. The Milwaukee Bucks’ signings of Drew Gooden and John Salmons, along with their loss of Luke Ridnour, are some of the reasons they’re not going to make the playoffs. Gooden was one of the first players off the free-agent board, getting a surprising $32 million. But the journeyman power forward was hurt for most of the season, giving Scott Skiles only 11 points and 6.7 rebounds per outing. The Bucks re-signed Salmons, but he followed up a strong season with his worst shooting since 2005, making only 40 percent from the field. When the Bucks allowed Ridnour, their top perimeter shooter, to walk to the Minnesota Timberwolves, they put the onus on Brandon Jennings, Keyon Dooling and Earl Boykins, none of whom has delivered on a consistent basis.

3. The Lakers gave Steve Blake $16 million, expecting him to step in and provide accurate 3-point shooting. But after five straight seasons in which he made at least 40 percent of his shots, Blake is shooting only 36 percent. And his 3-point shooting has fallen off from 40 percent last season, with the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers, to 37 percent. He’ll come off this list if he makes some big shots in the playoffs, as the Lakers go for their three-peat.

4. Lots of eyebrows were raised when the Dallas Mavericks signed center Brendan Haywood to a $55 million deal, an exorbitant contract for a journeyman. Skeptics were right, as Haywood has averaged only four points and five rebounds in 18 minutes per game. If Tyson Chandler didn’t give the Mavs a strong presence in the lane, Mark Cuban would really be taking a lot of flak for the Haywood signing.

5. Granted, nobody expected that much from the Heat’s two fading big men, Erick Dampier and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. But there have been times when they have brought nothing to the party. As it is, they’re combining for 7.3 points and 7.5 rebounds and less than two blocks in 32 minutes per game. Well, at least they’ve been taking up space.

Waste of money

1. The Nets look foolish for giving Travis Outlaw $35 million. Bound for the lottery, the Nets have gotten only nine ppg on 38 percent shooting (29 percent on 3s) from Outlaw, in nearly 30 minutes per game.

2. In what looked like a classic panic move after losing Chris Bosh, the Toronto Raptors overpaid Amir Johnson, giving him $35 million. He gives them all of 10 points and six boards a night.

3. The Timberwolves stunned the NBA with their signing of Darko Milicic to a $20 million deal. Milicic, who went No. 2 in the 2003 draft ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Wade and Bosh, has averaged nine points, five rebounds and two blocks in 25 minutes per game. Another bad move by general manager David Kahn.

Solid investments

1. Until his season ended with a shoulder injury, Rudy Gay showed he was well worth the $85 million the Memphis Grizzlies gave him.

2. The Celtics anted up $61 million for captain Paul Pierce, and it was a good move, even if Pierce is getting long in the tooth. He’s averaging 18.8 ppg on 50 percent shooting in 35 minutes per game and is primed to lead the Celtics on another long playoff run this spring.

3. Dirk Nowitzki got $80 million from the Mavs, despite starting to slow down last season. Through the first third of the season, the Mavs looked like geniuses, as Nowitzki led them to 10 wins over some of the top teams in the league, while performing at an MVP level. He hasn’t been quite as good since returning from a knee injury, but he’s still giving Rick Carlisle 23 points a night on 52 percent shooting.

Major surprises

1. In the first half of the season, Amar’e Stoudemire had a lot of dazzling nights as New York returned to the spotlight for the first time in a decade. The Knicks’ $100 million man gave Mike D’Antoni more leadership than anyone expected. And, for the first time in his career, he showed he could be an MVP-caliber player, having one stretch in which he scored at least 30 points in nine straight games, with the Knicks going 8-1. Since the Knicks traded for Anthony, Stoudemire has tried to put on a happy face, being relegated to No. 2 on the totem pole.

2. Did anybody know who Gary Neal was before the season? Neal, a friend of Anthony’s since childhood, played for the San Antonio Spurs’ summer league team after spending a few seasons in Europe. He made shots for the Spurs out in Las Vegas and was rewarded with a two-year deal worth $1.2 million. What a bargain. He has averaged 10 points and made 42 percent of his 3-point shots, helping the Spurs run off with the league’s top record.

3. Think the Utah Jazz wish they had matched Portland’s offer sheet to Wesley Matthews? You bet they do. After spending his rookie season in Utah, where he averaged nine ppg, Matthews has averaged 16 ppg on 45 percent shooting for the playoff-bound Blazers. He has been worth his $34 million deal.

4. Raymond Felton came to the Knicks solely to get them to free agency in 2012, when Chris Paul and Deron Williams are free and top the Knicks’ wish list. But after agreeing to a two-year, $15 million deal, the former Charlotte Bobcats point guard shocked everyone with his All-Star caliber play early in the season. While Felton’s play started declining after January, he still served a greater purpose: Going to the Denver Nuggets with three other Knicks in the Anthony deal.

5. We know Channing Frye was never going to replace Stoudemire, but until he went down with a shoulder injury, Frye had some big moments for the Phoenix Suns, while averaging 12.6 ppg on 43 percent shooting, along with 40 percent on 3s. Not a bad signing at $30 million.

Meeting expectations

1. Wade and Bosh have had the kind of seasons most expected after they decided to join forces with James. Wade put up his typical MVP-type numbers, even with James’ presence. You can argue that at $14 million for this season, he has been underpaid. When the Heat struggled to close out games against quality opponents, the rap fell on James, who failed to deliver in most of those instances. Bosh’s stats — 18.7 ppg on 49 percent shooting, with 8.3 rpg — wouldn’t fit the bill if he were still Toronto’s top player, but they’re just fine being Miami’s No. 3 option.

2. Chicago’s Kyle Korver has been a solid bench player for Tom Thibodeau. In 20 minutes per game, he has averaged 8.3 ppg on 44 percent shooting, including 43 percent on 3s. Most surprising: He has not been a liability at the defensive end. His three-year, $15 million deal doesn’t seem as lavish as it did when he signed.

3. The Lakers brought in Matt Barnes to give them a defender with an edge and he’s done that, even if he’s gone over the line at times. But they invested only $3.6 million in the journeyman forward.

4. Richard Jefferson had a bad year in San Antonio last season, failing to adjust to Gregg Popovich’s system. Then he looked foolish by opting out of his final season of his contract, at $15 million. But he re-signed for $27 million with the Spurs and has had his best season since he played with Jason Kidd in New Jersey, averaging 11 ppg on 48 percent shooting.

Mitch Lawrence covers the NBA for the New York Daily News.

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