The Biggest Contract Fails in NBA History

(Biggest Contract Fails) The 2020 NBA Draft is over and the period for cutting deals and negotiating trades has begun. There is a frenzy of activity as trades and free-agency signings are constantly being made and finalized.  

Player contracts keep getting bigger every year. NBA franchises are willing to spend as much as they can to strengthen their rosters for the coming season. Recently, James Harden turned down a contract extension offer that would’ve made him the NBA’s first $50 million per-season earner. 

However, player acquisition is always a gamble. There’s no telling how a player will perform no matter how impressively he played in college, another league or for a different NBA team. 

Poor chemistry with coaches and teammates, the pressures of playing in the NBA and injuries can lead to disappointing outcomes. Needless to say, there have been an abundance of contracts that have proved disastrous for many franchises. 

Here are just some of the biggest contract fails in NBA history: 

Todd MacCulloch ($34M deal)

The New Jersey Nets acquired Todd MacCulloch from the Philadelphia 76ers for six years and $34 million in 2001. He started in 61 games with an average of 9.7 points and 6.1 rebounds a game; and in 2002, the Nets reached the NBA Finals where the Los Angeles Lakers swept them 4-0. 

Shortly thereafter, MacCulloch was diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a genetic neuromuscular disorder that affects the hands and feet. The diagnosis ended his career in New Jersey, having played only one season of his six-year contract with the Nets. The 96 total games he played for New Jersey amounts to more than $350,000 per game. 

The Nets traded MacCulloch back to the 76ers for the 2002-2003 season. After a few games, they placed him on the injured reserve list in mid-season. He retired in 2004. 

MacCulloch spent some of his basketball earnings to buy over 80 pinball machines and a Slurpee machine for his home. He’s a nationally ranked player and has competed in pinball tournaments in the United States and overseas. 

Penny Hardaway ($86.7M contract)

Penny Hardaway was a bonafide superstar. Early in his career, many touted him as Michael Jordan’s “air apparent” for his hangtime and spectacular plays. In his sophomore year in the NBA, Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal led the Orlando Magic to the 1995 NBA Finals. Unfortunately, the more experienced Houston Rockets swept the Magic 4-0. Nevertheless, Hardaway made his mark by averaging 25.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 8 assists in the series. 

But by the time the Phoenix Suns signed him in 1999, he was a broken player. A severe left knee injury in 1997 that would ultimately require multiple surgeries deteriorated his potent athletic skills. Still, the Suns gave a maximum deal worth $86.7 million for seven years to Hardaway.  

The move to Phoenix teamed Hardaway with Jason Kidd, which the Suns hyped as their “Backcourt 2000.” This was not to be as Hardaway’s past injuries with Orlando continued to bother him and reduce his playing time. Two microfracture surgeries on his left knee compelled Hardaway to play only four games in the 2000-2001 season. Recurring injuries caused him to play lesser minutes or miss entire games altogether. 

In total, Hardaway played in only half of the games stipulated in his contract, earning nearly $420,000 per game. He played for the New York Knicks and the Miami Heat before retiring in 2007. He’s currently the head coach for his alma mater University of Memphis’ men’s basketball team, the Memphis Tigers. 

Jim McIlvaine ($33.6M deal)

Center Jim McIlvaine started his career in Washington. He tallied 2.3 points and 2.9 rebounds in 15 minutes per game for two seasons with the Bullets. 

It dismayed Seattle fans when the  SuperSonics signed McIlvaine to a seven-year deal for $33.6 million in 1996. Many thought the contract was too much for a player with dreadfully mediocre credentials. McIlvaine had a larger contract than Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, and teammate Shawn Kemp. 

Knowing that someone like McIlvaine was earning more than he enraged Kemp. After all, Kemp was the SuperSonics’ franchise player. With Kemp, along with Gary Payton, the SuperSonics were consistent contenders in the Western Conference. Kemp led Seattle to the 1996 NBA Finals against the Chicago Bulls, where the Sonics lost in a 4-2 series.  

By 1997, Kemp was demanding to be traded, and the SuperSonics management obliged. They traded Kemp to the Cleveland Cavaliers, ushering the start of a long and costly rebuilding program for the SuperSonics. 

In his first season in Seattle, McIlvaine played in 82 games, averaging 3.8 points and 4 rebounds in 18 minutes. In his second year, he played in 78 games with an average of 3.2 points and 3.3 rebounds in 15.5 minutes. He never played a third season with the Supersonics as they traded him to the New Jersey Nets in 1998. 

Joakim Noah ($72M contract)

Joakim Noah was a two-time All-Star (2013, 2014) and NBA Defensive Player of the Year (2014) as a Chicago Bull. But after nine seasons with the Bulls, which drafted him in 2007, Joakim Noah was worn-down and washed-up. 

Noah’s battles as a Chicago Bull had taken a tremendous toll on his body. In his final two years with the bulls, injuries plagued the 6 ft 11 in (2.11 m) center. He played in only 29 games in his last season in Chicago, with 4.3 points and 8.8 rebounds per game.  

That didn’t stop the New York Knicks from signing him to a four-year contract worth $72 million in 2016. Phil Jackson, then the Knicks’ President of Basketball Operations, decided to take a chance on Noah. It turned out to be a very expensive wager. 

In the first season of his contract, Noah played in only 46 games, averaging 5.0 points and 8.8 rebounds. He missed the rest of the games because of knee surgery and a 20-game drug suspension. He played in only seven games in the 2017-2018 season, posting 1.7 points and 2 rebounds. The 40 total minutes he played for that season adds up to around $450,000 per minute.  

Noah ended up playing just 53 games in two seasons with the Knicks. His scoring production for 53 games cost the Knicks over $100,000 per point. To this day, New York fans refer to Noah’s contract as one of the worst signings in franchise history. 

Gilbert Arenas ($111M deal)

Point guard Gilbert Arenas was certainly one of the best players in the league during the mid-2000s. From 2005-2007, he posted over 25 points and 5 assists per game with the Washington Wizards. In the 2006-2007 season, he averaged 28.4 points, 6 assists, and 4.6 rebounds. Unfortunately, a torn MCL forced him to appear in only 13 games for the Wizards’ 2007-2008 campaign.  

In 2008, after negotiations with Golden State fell through, Arenas signed a 6-year extension with the Wizards worth $111 million. 

Arenas underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee and played in only 6 games during the 2008-2009 season. He saw very limited action in the following two seasons, playing in just 53 games. 

Arenas also figured in an armed standoff with teammate Javaris Crittenton inside the Wizards’ locker room. It was later learned that the incident arose from a gambling debt over a card game aboard the team plane. Arenas and Crittenton were suspended for the rest of the 2009-2010 season. Arenas also received a conviction for gun possession and sentenced to two years’ probation, and 30 days in a halfway house. 

On the whole, Arenas received a payment of more than a million dollars for every game he played. 

The Wizards traded Arenas to the Orlando Magic, where he played one season. He signed with the Memphis Grizzlies for the 2011-2012 season, appearing in only 24 games before retiring from the NBA.  

Bryant Reeves ($61.8M contract)

Before playing in the NBA, Bryant “Big Country” Reeves was a standout center for Oklahoma State University. The baby-faced Reeves led the OSU Cowboys to the NCAA Final Four while smashing backboards along the way. 

In 1995, the expansion team Vancouver Grizzlies selected Reeves for its first-ever pick in the NBA Draft. Reeves’ gentle giant demeanor and folksy appeal quickly endeared him to NBA fans. 

After posting solid numbers in his first two seasons, the Grizzlies rewarded Reeves with a 6-year, 61.8 million contract extension. 

He registered a career high 16.3 points in the first season of his contract extension. During the following 1998-1999 season, Reeves developed crippling back pain that would hound him for the rest of his career. He played in only 25 games that season, averaging 10.8 points and 5.5 rebounds in 28.1 minutes. His scoring dipped to 8.9 points in the 1999-2000 season and fell further to 8.3 points in the 2000-2001 season. 

Aside from his back problems, Reeves was clearly out of shape in his last three seasons in Vancouver. He never had an inclination for off-season conditioning. He preferred to eat cheeseburgers, chug soda and chew tobacco. At one point, he weighed as much as 315 pounds (142 kg). He told the Grizzlies’ management that his hometown of Gans, Oklahoma (population: 300) didn’t have a gym. 

The Grizzlies placed Reeves on the injured list when they relocated to Memphis for the 2001-2002 season. “Big Country” never got to play a regular season game for the Memphis Grizzlies. He retired midway through the season. 

Vin Baker ($86M deal)

Following a college career as a prolific scorer for the University of Hartford, Vin Baker was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks in 1993. He made his presence felt immediately by showcasing his scoring and rebounding skills. As a Milwaukee Buck, Baker was named an All-Star in 1995, 1996, and 1997. 

Despite his strong performance, the Bucks traded Baker to the Seattle SuperSonics in 1997 as part of a three-team trade. Yet, he still averaged 19.2 points and 8 rebounds in his first season in Seattle. He was also named an All-Star for the fourth consecutive year.  

While his averages dropped to 13.8 points and 6.2 rebounds the next season, Seattle offered him an extension prior to the 1999-2000 season. The contract was worth $86 million for seven years. 

Baker had his last good season during the initial year of his contract. After that, everything went downhill as his personal life began to unravel and his numbers plunged to their lowest ever. He began to miss games due to foot and shoulder injuries. Weight problems which made him sluggish on the court also became a struggle.  

He began to drink heavily, showing up for games hungover from the night before. Baker also drank before games, guzzling Listerine so he could be intoxicated without smelling of liquor. He would arrive drunk or hungover to practices and workouts if he showed up at all. The Supersonics management suspended him multiple times for drunkenness or for not complying with his alcoholism treatment program. Players around the league mockingly called him “Vin and Tonic” behind his back. 

Seattle traded him to the Boston Celtics in 2002 after playing a fraction of his seven-year contract. He averaged a total of 8.7 points and 4.7 rebounds for the span of his aborted contract. In essence, Baker received a payment of more than $40,000 for each point he scored. 

The Celtics voided his contract in 2004 because of his chronic alcoholism. He bounced from team to team (Knicks, Rockets, Clippers, Timberwolves) before finally calling it quits in 2006. He has since turned his life back around and is currently working as an assistant coach for the Milwaukee Bucks. 

Jon Koncak ($13.7M contract)

After more than 31 years, it’s still baffling how and why this contract ever pushed through. In 1989, the Atlanta Hawks signed Jon Koncak to a restricted free agent contract worth $13.7 million for 6 years. 

In those days, the amount was unheard of, especially for a reserve center with meager talents. Koncak’s contract was bigger than Michael Jordan’s, Magic Johnson’s or Larry Bird’s contracts at the time.  

The 7-foot, 250-pound Koncak was playing in his fifth year with the Hawks. He averaged a career-best 8.6 points per game in his rookie season. He would never average more than 5.7 points for the rest of his NBA career. During the 1988-1989 season prior to his megabucks contract, he registered 4.7 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. 

Jon Koncak’s deal was so awful that NBA fans started calling him “Jon Contract.”  

Shaquille O’Neal, then a high school basketball and football player, decided to focus solely on basketball upon learning of Koncak’s contract. 

The Atlanta Hawks’ investment yielded an average of 3.6 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 1 block in 430 games from Koncak. In an interview, he said, “Hey, I can’t justify what they offered me. But what was I supposed to do? Say no?” 

Chandler Parsons ($94M deal)

While signed to the Dallas Mavericks, Chandler Parsons had two surgeries on his right knee in less than ten months. In spite of this, the Memphis Grizzlies signed him to a four-year, $94 million deal. 

Even with his injuries, the Grizzlies were confident about their new 27-year-old small forward. Parsons had averaged 14.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 2.9 assists in five seasons with the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks.  

But in his first season with the Grizzlies, Parsons was diagnosed with a partial tear of the meniscus in his left knee. This forced him to miss most of the season, playing in only 34 games. The 2017-2018 season saw much of the same with Parsons appearing in just 36 games due to right knee soreness. He saw even less action in the 2018-2019 season, playing in no more than 25 games.  

In three seasons with the Grizzlies, Parsons played in 95 out of a possible 246 games. He averaged a total of 7.2 points, 2.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists per game with 39.1 percent field goal shooting. Altogether, Parsons received a payment of $940,000 for each game he played and earned over $200,000 for each point he scored. 

In July of 2019, the Grizzlies traded Parsons to the Atlanta Hawks. Early this year, he was involved in a car collision wherein he suffered a concussion and whiplash. The Hawks waived his contract shortly thereafter and is presently listed as a free agent. 

Jerome James ($30M contract)

Isiah Thomas’ tenure as the New York Knicks’ President of Basketball Operations from 2003-2008 produced many misguided signings. At one time during Thomas’s term, the Knicks had the highest payroll and the second-worst record in the NBA. 

Jerome James’ five-year, $30 million deal in 2005 ranks among the franchise’s most foolish contracts. While the price tag may be modest by league standards, James wasn’t worth anywhere near the amount.  

The Knicks management must’ve been awed by James’ playoff performance for the Seattle SuperSonics in the 2004-2005 playoffs. The 7-foot center posted a career-best 12.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 11 games.  

What the Knicks’ executives seem to have overlooked is the fact that James averaged just 4.9 points in the regular season. Plus, he never averaged more than 6 points in any of his 5 previous seasons in the league. James’ playoffs numbers were a fluke–a semi-flash of brilliance–from an obviously underwhelming, second-rate athlete. 

James was out of shape when he showed up at his first training camp. He displayed an insufficient work ethic during practices and workouts. He played in only 45 games at 9 minutes per game in his first season with the Knicks. During his second season, he appeared in just 41 games at 6.7 minutes per game. He played two games apiece for his third and fourth seasons.  

In 2009, the final year of his contract, the Knicks traded James to the Chicago Bulls, which waived him in 2010. His overall production of 2 ½ points per game for the ill-fated Knicks contract rewarded James with $175,000 per point made. 

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