It's a sentiment echoed often around the league: If owners are looking for someone to blame for their financial problems, they should take a peek in the mirror. Last summer owners authorized $2.5 billion in new salary. The biggest names (LeBron James, Joe Johnson, et al.) got the biggest dollars, but the free spending trickled down, leading to some outlandish contracts for second- and third-tier talent. Take New Jersey's Travis Outlaw. Shunned by the marquee free agents, the Nets gave Outlaw—who had never been a regular starter and had averaged 9.5 points per game in his seven-year career—a five-year, $35 million deal. The return: As a starter Outlaw is averaging 9.6 points, and his field goal percentage (37.7%) is the worst among forwards who log at least 30 minutes a game. "The rules aren't hurting the owners," says one prominent agent. "They are doing it to themselves."
Indeed, Outlaw's wasn't the only bad contract given out last summer. Others who were overpaid:
Jermaine O'Neal, Boston (two years, $12 million)
After a season in which he stayed healthy enough to start 70 games for the Heat, O'Neal was penciled in by the Celtics as their starting center. But O'Neal, who has missed at least 30 games in three of the last six seasons, has reverted to form. He's played in just 17 games (averaging only 5.2 points) and on Feb. 4 underwent left knee surgery that is expected to keep him out until early April. "They say he will be back in time to help in the playoffs," says one scout. "Try and find someone who believes that's going to happen."
Al Harrington, Denver (five years, $34 million)
The size-starved Nuggets had to shell out big money to fortify their frontcourt. Harrington's scoring (11.5 points) is down 6.2 points from last year while his field goal percentage (41.4%) is the lowest since his rookie season. The Nuggets are already trying to cut their losses: Rival executives say Denver is asking teams to take Harrington in any deal for Carmelo Anthony.
Brendan Haywood, Dallas (six years, $55 million)
The Mavericks thought they solidified the center position when they signed Haywood. But he lost the starting job to Tyson Chandler in training camp and has struggled as a reserve, averaging career lows in points (3.9), rebounds (4.6) and minutes (17.3). Recently, his status as Chandler's backup has been in jeopardy: In two of Dallas's last four games, Haywood didn't get off the bench, as Ian Mahinmi played more than 20 minutes in each.
Josh Childress, Phoenix (five years, $33 million)
After two successful seasons in Greece, Childress was lured back stateside by Suns president Lon Babby—who happens to be Childress's former agent. The versatile Childress (5.2 points in 17.1 minutes per game) was originally slotted into a sixth-man role, but after battling a broken finger in the preseason, he lost his spot in the rotation in December and has played in just one of Phoenix's last eight games.