NBA free agency: Winners and losers
Brace yourself for this one: Thanks to a massive spike in the salary cap, NBA teams combined to hand out more than $3 billion in contracts over the first week of free agency. Three. Billion. Dollars. Even more remarkable than the total amount, however, is how few organizations actually improved their chances of winning the 2017 title. The Warriors did, for sure. But who else? The Cavaliers? Not really. The Celtics? Maybe. The Spurs, Thunder and Raptors? Not at all.
The NBA’s “haves” made out like bandits. Golden State (by adding Kevin Durant) and Cleveland (by maintaining its talent edge in the East) exit the free agency moratorium looking destined for a three-match in the 2017 Finals. Meanwhile, the “Have nots” had a rough week: the gap between the NBA’s top two teams and its second-tier has gotten wider than it’s been in some time, a fact that could very well color labor talks over the next 12 months.
Before we start worrying too much about competitive imbalance and a possible lockout, let’s savor a wild first week of free agency by running down the biggest winners and losers.
The Warriors followed up a 73-win regular season with the equivalent of an 81-1 offseason. Maybe Golden State’s summer wasn’t quite perfect—they had to shed two starters and their top two centers in the process of landing Kevin Durant—but it came as close as humanly possible. After a gut-wrenching collapse in the Finals, the Warriors responded by building a Superteam—with the emphasis on team.
Unlike the “Big Three” in Miami, which brought together three alpha scorers into a mix that raised all sorts of questions about pecking order and ego, the addition of Durant looks like a seamless assimilation of A-list talent for the Warriors. By replacing the outgoing Harrison Barnes at small forward, Steve Kerr upgrades from a tricycle to a Ferrari at the small forward position, adding a lethal scorer, strong shooter, underrated rebounder, mobile defender and lights-out competitor in place of his weakest link.
With Durant, Golden State’s big lineups will be significantly better, their small lineups will be significantly better (and probably unstoppable), and their super-small lineups (with Durant at center) could become a thing too. With Durant, the Warriors can play as up-tempo as they want, they can keep the ball moving as much as they want, they can switch it up and run inside-out isolation offense with Durant surrounded by shooters if they want, and they can use Draymond Green or Andre Iguodala as point forwards with three of the league’s best shooters surrounding them. There’s always an adjustment period when a team adds a player as multi-talented as Durant, but the Warriors won’t need to reinvent themselves to make this work. They should hit the ground running, if not sprinting.
Golden State’s best-case scenario is nothing short of a dynasty that features the most beautiful and entertaining basketball of the modern era. Durant, of course, also gives Golden State the extra playmaker, shot-maker and foul-drawer that it was so desperately missing down the stretch of the Finals against the Cavaliers. If the Warriors could have plucked any player in the NBA to face LeBron James and the Cavaliers in Game 7, it would have been Durant. Now, against all odds and conventional wisdom, they’ve actually plucked him, tilting the balance in the hypothetical 2017 Finals matchup back in their favor. If all of that wasn’t enough, the last week also saw the dismantling of their biggest threat in the West—the Thunder—and a landscape where a number of second-tier contenders in both conferences (Spurs, Clippers, Raptors, Heat, Hawks, Blazers) either lost ground or treaded water.
Simply put, the NBA’s most ludicrously rich team just got even richer.
When Durant was sidelined for much of the 2014-15 season, Russell Westbrook stepped forward in spectacular fashion, posting obscene stats and leading the Thunder on an unsuccessful but tremendously exhilarating playoff push.
By the end of the season, it was abundantly clear that Westbrook was suited to the leadership position but that the Thunder badly, badly missed the stability that Durant brought to the table. Their defense fell apart. Their offense turned into chaos. The whole show depended on whether Westbrook could single-handedly overwhelm the opposition, and when his shooting numbers were off things got ugly pretty quickly. This was good enough for a valiant playoff push, but not for long-term sustainability. Surely GM Sam Presti, who is always obsessing over the big picture, can see that even through his disappointment at losing Durant.
This week saw Oklahoma City fall from contender to also-ran and it saw Westbrook turn into a stranded superstar, a mega talent in a small market who will be an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career next summer. Given how they looked in Durant’s absence and how difficult it would be for the Thunder to lose their two A-listers in back-to-back summers without compensation, Oklahoma City should think long and hard about trading Westbrook to the highest bidder as soon as possible. Durant is gone, Serge Ibaka was traded to the Magic before the draft and Westbrook is now the centerpiece of a roster that doesn’t complement him all that very well (weak spacing, poor wing talent, questionable auxiliary scoring options, shaky interior defense outside of Steven Adams). Moving Westbrook would absolutely qualify as another gut punch, but why should the Thunder wait to get on to the next chapter given the clear risks?
The rumored retirement of Tim Duncan is one of those franchise-altering developments that can’t be quantified. Duncan obviously isn’t just a guy averaging 9 PPG and 7 PPG, he’s an institution, a backbone, and a living legend who still found ways to be an incredibly positive contributor last season at age 40. There’s no replacing him, on any level, and the Spurs, even with their strong talent base and exceptional coaching, will take a serious step back in 2016-17 without him if he exits stage left.
San Antonio’s big move of the summer—adding Pau Gasol—makes sense, but it doesn’t really help. The Spurs had a hard time keeping Duncan on the court when the Warriors went small last season, opting to bench him for long stretches, and Gasol will certainly face the same mismatch concerns. There’s no way Gasol can chase Draymond Green or Kevin Durant around on the perimeter, and he’s not a good enough finisher at this stage of his career to get it back on the other end. While Gasol’s playmaking and unselfishness will help keep San Antonio motoring through the regular season, it’s hard to see Gregg Popovich and company truly testing the Warriors in the playoffs.
Winner: Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey
Warriors aside, the Jazz enjoyed the West’s best off-season and it’s not particularly close. GM Dennis Lindsey has been methodical in his roster-building, but the slow-motion build-up will pay off in a big way in 2016-17. Utah’s summer was characterized by clean fits and great value: Lindsey addressed his three biggest needs by acquiring a starting point guard in George Hill, an experienced shooter in Joe Johnson, and a quality stretch four in Boris Diaw. Lindsey filled his biggest roster hole, he filled out his bench, he improved his roster versatility, he added years of playoff experience to a young team, and he did it all for $37 million (Hill will earn $8 million next season, Johnson was signed to a two-year, $22 million deal, and Diaw will earn $7 million). That’s less than Detroit paid to lock up Jon Leuer for the next four years, and Utah is in a position of flexibility where it evaluate its newcomers and then reward them next summer if they prove to be keepers.
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The best part is that the Jazz will also welcome back Dante Exum, Alec Burks and Rudy Gobert following injury-riddled seasons. Don’t be surprised if these guys win 50+ games and advance in the playoffs on the strength of a top-three defense.
Loser: Clippers boss Doc Rivers
The Clippers, perpetually struggling to get over the hump and out of their own way, slid back down the mountain again this week. After investing a first-round pick in Jeff Green at the deadline, Rivers watched the combo forward bolt to the Magic for $15 million. And after coaxing a career year from Cole Aldrich, Rivers watched as the budget-friendly backup center left for the Timberwolves, opening up a hole behind DeAndre Jordan yet again.
In addition to those departures, Rivers had to pay up to keep the rest of an uninspiring supporting cast. Wesley Johnson and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute received steep increases over their minimum salaries, while Austin Rivers ($35 million over three years) and Jamal Crawford ($42 million over three years) cashed in to an even greater degree because Rivers backed himself into a corner and had no other choice.
There is a silver lining for Rivers and the Clippers: By doing their best to hang tough, they may step forward in the West thanks to regression from the Thunder and Spurs. A trip to the 2017 Western Conference finals is in play if Chris Paul and Blake Griffin can bounce back to peak form..
All of the excitement over the Warriors shouldn’t overshadow the Celtics’ ability to land Al Horford. The fit between player and team is superb thanks to Horford’s versatile and complete game and Boston’s deep roster of contributors. Given the East’s other developments—Toronto losing Bismack Biyombo, Miami crumbling, Atlanta shifting gears from Horford to Dwight Howard, Charlotte paying up to keep its own players—Boston is in strong position to claim the East’s No. 2 seed.
Even better, though, is the manner by which Boston added Horford. By winning the Horford sweepstakes in free agency, Boston saved all of its best trade chips (the Nets’ 2017 pick, Jaylen Brown, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, a bazillion other picks) for the next stage of its roster-building process. The Celtics are now in position to spark (and win) a bidding war for in the event teams decide to dangle stars like Russell Westbrook and Blake Griffin before they become free agents next summer. With Horford in the fold and assets bulging out of their pockets, the Celtics can afford to overpay for premium talent without gutting its roster. This is no longer a “plucky team on the rise.” Boston seems headed for much more than that.
Houston surely felt the need to do something. After all, the Rockets just suffered a demoralizing season, Dwight Howard was headed out the door for nothing, and new coach Mike D’Antoni needed some weapons to make life a bit easier for James Harden. Unfortunately, Houston’s two big signings—Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon—came with the type of commitments that make you think, “Nah, I’m good.”
Would you like to commit $133 million on four-year contracts to two one-way players who have missed a combined 173 games over the last three seasons? Or, would you rather not? I’d rather not. The Rockets have firmly committed to doing their best to put a competitive product on the court rather than bottom out, but the price and length for both players given the clear injury risk factors and limited ceiling to their additions should have prompted a more hesitant approach.
Winner: Warriors owner Joe Lacob
Slow clap for Joe Lacob, who has emerged this week, by virtue of his own success, as the NBA’s top villain. Remember, it was Lacob who declared to the New York Times Magazine that the Warriors were “lights years ahead” of the rest of the NBA, only to watch his team blow a 3–1 Finals lead in an epic dose of karma from the basketball gods. His response: Going from the sand trap straight into the hole by overseeing the picture-perfect pitch that landed Durant. Even better, he doesn’t have to pay Harrison Barnes the max and his management quickly filled its hole at center with a bargain deal for Zaza Pachulia. Lacob didn’t just save face, he delivered on his bold trash talk in a manner many wrote off as inconceivable.
Loser: Heat president Pat Riley
This week has been an absolute mess for Pat Riley, one of the most respected architects in the league, who watched as franchise icon Dwyane Wade took his ball and went home to Chicago. ““SADDDDDDD!!!! SO saddddddd,” Riley moaned in a text message to the Miami Herald. “Bad, bad summer for us.” No kidding. The Heat’s 2016-17 season is over before it had a chance to begin.
The intense short-term pain could pay off though. With Wade out, Miami avoids a “Kobe Bryant twilight” era on South Beach and instantly moves close to the front of the pack when it comes to 2017 free agents. Miami was clinging to the past during the two years since LeBron James left, and Wade’s departure should help ensure that the future arrives more quickly.
Loser: Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg
From the desk of Gar Forman…
“Ok, Fred, we know that your offensive system looked like a total bust last season. We didn’t have the right pieces in place for it to work. We know that. We asked you to manage some big personalities, to make some tough decisions that didn’t go over well in the locker room, and to juggle lineups through injuries. We’re sorry about that and we appreciate your willingness to plug through that.
“As a reward for your sacrifice and flexibility, we’ve decided to move forward and let go three key players that didn’t seem to fit. We’re going to make life easier for you! We’re going to set you up for success!
“Now, here’s the plan. We’ve signed a point guard who gets ignored by smart defenses any time he stands outside 18 feet, who walked straight off the job during the middle of the 2015 playoffs, who profanely attacked a referee’s sexuality, and who butted heads all season long with his last coach, who unsurprisingly wound up fired.
“But that’s not all! We’ve also signed a shooting guard who also can’t shoot from outside, who is 34 years old, and who has missed an average of 17 games over the last four seasons, and who is best suited to a slow-down system. By the way, we’ve also got an All-Star shooting guard who expected to be the face of the franchise going forward who now must shift positions and find a way to generate offense on a court that’s sure to be cramped.
“No pressure but we’ve added enough ‘name’ talent here that we really expect to get back to the playoffs, at minimum. If you come up short…”
Winner: Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is an easy punching bag, but at least he’s a well-compensated punching bag who was fully rewarded for his self-belief. Last fall, Barnes drew some snickers for turning down a four-year, $64 million contract to remain with the Warriors. Despite missing an extended stretch of the season due to injury and shooting just 5-of-32 in the Warriors’ three straight losses to end the 2016 Finals, Barnes raked in a maximum four-year, $94 million offer from the Mavericks.
Although leaving the Warriors during this golden era is undoubtedly difficult, Barnes didn’t really have a choice in the matter. Once Durant wanted in, he was out. Instead of cashing a big check from a terrible team or scrambling to find a home after a rough postseason, Barnes landed on his feet with a stable organization that has a tradition of winning, one of the best coaches in the league, and plenty of minutes and shots to keep him happy. Not too shabby.
Losers: Slow Centers
The NBA’s shift towards small ball and “pace and space” played out in the market’s treatment of traditional big men, especially those with limited mobility. Al Jefferson (three years, $30 million), Nene (one year, $3 million) and Roy Hibbert (one year, $5 million) all took big hits, a fact that makes the Lakers’ big investment in Timofey Mozgov (four years, $64 million) look even more questionable.
Winner: NBA’s Christmas Day schedule
This week’s major moves set up the NBA schedule-makers perfectly for the annual Christmas holiday. Can you imagine LeBron James’s Cavaliers against Dwyane Wade’s Bulls followed by Russell Westbrook’s Thunder visiting Kevin Durant and the Warriors? Something tells me a few people might tune in for those star-driven match-ups.
The Single Biggest Loser: O.J. Mayo
Not to be overlooked in the spending spree is one player who didn’t—and can’t—earn an NBA dime: O.J. Mayo. The Bucks guard, who was once dubbed the “Next LeBron” during his prep career, was “dismissed and disqualified” from the NBA for violating the league’s drug policy. Mayo didn’t exactly have a dream contract year—playing in just 41 games and averaging 8 PPG and 3 APG—but he’s only 28 and he’s a living, breathing professional basketball player. He was bound to get paid. How much money did the (presumed) failed drug test cost him? Well, his former Milwaukee teammate and fellow combo guard Jerryd Bayless pulled in $27 million. Jeremy Lin, another combo guard, got $36 million. Undersized back-up guard DJ Augustin earned $29 million. The list goes on. Instead of signing what could have been the biggest contract of his career, Mayo must wait two years, until he’s 30, before he can apply to be reinstated to the NBA. This turned into a very expensive cautionary tale.