NBA free agency grades: Analyzing the biggest deals
NBA free agency wasted little time setting off fireworks. SI.com is grading every move of the 2016 off–season. Scroll down to read our analysis of every new deal and keep up with all the latest news with our free agent tracker.
Grades: Warriors outdo themselves with Kevin Durant blockbuster deal
An organization that has consistently set records and pushed boundaries over the last two years just outdid itself again.
The Warriors have agreed to sign unrestricted free agent forward Kevin Durant to a two-year contract worth $54 million, with a player option on the second season. Durant, 27, averaged 28.2 PPG, 8.2 RPG and 5 APG while earning All-NBA Second Team honors in Oklahoma City last season. The 2014 MVP and seven-time All-Star departs the Thunder after nine seasons with the franchise with which he made four trips to the Western Conference finals and one Finals trip.
This isn’t just a signing, this is a league-shaking coup. Fresh off a 2015 title and a record-setting 73 wins in 2016, Golden State has set itself up for five or six solid years as title contenders by adding Durant to an in-their-prime core that already consisted of All-NBA selections Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
In Curry and Durant, the Warriors can claim the NBA’s two most efficient volume scorers. In Curry, Thompson and Durant, the Warriors have the best shooting trio ever. And, with Curry, Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Durant and Green, the Warriors boast a five-man lineup that is lethal on offense, vicious on defense, and loaded with team-first pieces that are committed to the greater good. No one, not the champion Cavaliers or the Spurs or anyone else, can match that quintet’s talent, versatility and two-way balance on paper. Last year’s Warriors averaged 114.9 PPG, the most the NBA had seen since 1992. Throw in Durant, a four-time scoring champion with no holes in his offensive game, and 116 PPG, or 118 PPG, or 120 PPG feels possible.
The Warriors’ “Death Lineup” posted absurd efficiency differentials over the last two seasons, but it faltered late in the 2016 Finals for two major reasons: Curry and Thompson couldn’t generate consistent offense off the dribble, and Harrison Barnes couldn’t make the Cavaliers pay for leaving him open. Durant beautifully fixes both those problems, as he’s spent his entire career creating offense in tight spaces and he certainly isn’t going to shy from the moment like Barnes.
Defensively, Durant proved in the Western Conference finals that he can be a force on that end, too. He’s longer, more aggressive and better at rebounding than Barnes and, like Green, he’s capable of grabbing a defensive rebound and immediately initiating a transition opportunity. If you thought teams struggled to keep the Warriors’ fast break attack in check this season, imagine what will happen when Durant joins the push-the-pace party.
This is self-evident, but also true and worth repeating now that it’s actually a reality: Durant is significantly better than Barnes in every way that truly matters, and his addition should make the Warriors’ ultra-efficient five-man group climb to unprecedented heights.
Adding Durant solidifies the Warriors’ status as 2017 title favorites, no question about it, in part because the Thunder went from being perhaps their biggest hypothetical challenger in the West to no longer in the picture. With the Spurs potentially losing Tim Duncan to retirement and the Cavaliers losing Timofey Mozgov and Matthew Dellavedova to free agency without making any major roster additions (yet), the Warriors stand as the free agency period’s biggest winners by far.
Creating the necessary cap room for Durant will require multiple moves: Barnes will reportedly sign with the Mavericks, starting center Andrew Bogut will reportedly be traded to the Mavericks in a salary dump, and back-up center Festus Ezeli will enter free agency. While those moves do create a hole in the middle, Bogut and Ezeli battled injuries during the season and both faltered during the Finals. The Warriors will want to add a cheap big body (or two) as injury insurance protection, but there’s little question that they will want to play smaller and with more versatility when push comes to shove in next year’s postseason. When you think about it, Golden State didn’t need to sacrifice all that much of its “strength in numbers” to add a player who will very likely retire as one the NBA’s top 10 all-time scorers.
The Warriors have done nothing short of constructing a superteam, and they deserve full credit for the execution of their successful recruiting pitch, which reportedly included owner Joe Lacob, the team’s star players, and even a phone call from Hall of Famer Jerry West. As a result of landing Durant, Golden State’s roster now represents 25% of USA Basketball’s Olympic team and it features two MVPs, two scoring champs, four All-Stars, and four All-NBA selections (all of whom are 28 or younger). The Warriors’ fourth-best player once scored 37 points in a single quarter and their fifth-best player was named Finals MVP. Give me a break.
With all of that in mind, the best-case scenario for this experiment is a word not often spoken in the modern NBA: Dynasty.
Grades: Spurs add Gasol, wrestle with Duncan’s possible retirement
Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs are inextricable. The history of one is the history of the other, a tale of longevity and culture unlike any other in professional sports. Duncan was quietly the best player of his era and the Spurs have been the best-run organization in sports for that same term. What they’ve done in 19 years is rightly the envy of the league. Teams can only be so lucky as to draft a player as effective or a leader as reliable as Duncan. It was through the arc of his career that the Spurs became the Spurs. A franchise—and a perpetual contender—formed around him.
All of which makes it impossible to fully digest the fact that Duncan may have played his last NBA game. That prospect was present on the night of the Spurs’ postseason elimination. Duncan addressed it. Gregg Popovich was asked about it. Yet Duncan had pushed on for so long that one more season seemed wholly reasonable up until the moment that the reporting finally turned. According to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, Duncan is, at long last, “leaning strongly toward retirement.”
The extended eulogy for Duncan’s career will be saved for the moment it officially ends. Yet it was hard to see San Antonio’s activity, near simultaneous with the reporting of Duncan’s possible retirement, as unrelated. On Monday the Spurs agreed to the terms of a two-year deal with veteran big man Pau Gasol, provided they can clear the requisite cap room to actually sign him. Boris Diaw (owed $7 million this year) is being shopped for that very reason. Once San Antonio finds a taker, it should have all the room it needs to add Gasol and bring back a few contributors from last year’s team.
Gasol would seem to be just the kind of stable influence the Spurs would look to when Duncan does decide to go. His skill set is entirely different—geared toward offense in the way that Duncan’s is toward defense—but the two share a position. It wouldn’t be at all surprising were Gasol San Antonio’s opening night starter at the five, even if the Spurs might be the one franchise that Gasol would willingly come off the bench to play for. Read the tea leaves as you will. At the very least, San Antonio has conveniently added a smart, experienced player at the very position that Duncan might vacate. Rarely are the Spurs caught unaware.
In function, Gasol is a notably better version of Diaw—a playmaking big who can attack mismatches and create offense. San Antonio looked to be short just such a player when it flamed out against Oklahoma City in the playoffs. The Spurs fared well enough defensively, all things considered. They just couldn’t manufacture offense once the lines to shooters were cut off and the lane was clogged by an extra, lingering defender. Kawhi Leonard was stretched to his limits on offense and LaMarcus Aldridge faded into predictable post-up isolations over the course of the series.
Having Gasol on the floor in place of Duncan, Diaw or David West would have energized the offense in that context through more diverse post play, duck-in dunks when Gasol’s defender left to help on the ball, and another creative option if Gasol were stationed as a high-post passer. We can’t pretend as if all the Spurs’ problems were solved on the same day that the Warriors acquired Kevin Durant, but they at least began to address one of the glaring problems leading to their playoff exit.
Incorporating Gasol will require defensive concession. Even if Duncan returns next season, any of Gasol’s minutes will short San Antonio’s usual defensive standards. This was an all-time great defense last season with Duncan on the floor. Without him, San Antonio still held opponents to 98.4 points per 100 possessions—a mark that would have led the league. The 35-year-old Gasol doesn’t move his feet, contest shots, box out or mind his assignments well enough to maintain a defense at that level. Sacrificing a few points defensively is part of the deal; the Spurs have understandably wagered that they can trade D for O and come out as a more balanced team overall.
The hard truth, given Monday’s events, is that it may not matter. San Antonio is positioned to be the second-best team in the West no matter Duncan’s choice, but Golden State is in a distant lead. The Spurs’ specific matchup is no more encouraging; whatever advantage there is to be gained through Gasol posting smaller players is offset by Gasol’s trouble guarding any of the core Warriors and the necessary sacrifice of Diaw, one of San Antonio’s few switchable bigs. Theirs is a frustration shared by most every other team in the league.
All the Spurs can do is weather as best they can—in keeping up with the Warriors and managing the potential end of Duncan’s career. Gasol isn’t perfect, but he’s good help and a great organizational fit. It seemed only a matter of time before one Gasol or the other ended up a Spur, given their incredible admiration for the franchise from afar. Circumstances called for Pau first, though the void he aims to fill may be impossibly large.
Grades: Magic painting a new identity after landing Bismack Biyombo
The Magic have agreed to sign unrestricted free agent center Bismack Biyombo to a four-year contract worth $72 million, according to Yahoo Sports and ESPN.com. Biyombo, 23, averaged 5.5 PPG, 8 RPG and 1.6 BPG while earning $3 million for the Raptors last season. From a financial standpoint, the 2011 lottery pick is one of this summer’s biggest winners, as he opted out of a $3 million player option to accept a fully guaranteed contract with an average annual value of $18 million. Toronto, anticipating a strong market developing for Biyombo’s services, selected 7-footer Jakob Poeltl in the lottery as a potential replacement.
Orlando’s thinking, for once, is pretty clear: New coach Frank Vogel prioritized defense throughout his tenure in Indiana, and he needed better personnel if he was going to help the Magic improve from their No. 17 defensive ranking last season (which was up from No. 25 in 2014-15). This signing, coupled with a draft day trade for Serge Ibaka, gives Vogel two legitimate back-line rim-protectors to stabilize his defense.
The best part: Ibaka’s three-point shooting range and comfort on the perimeter on offense sets up the possibility of playing Ibaka and Biyombo together, giving Orlando an absurdly long and athletic duo that will surely wreak more than its fair share of havoc. After years spent struggling offensively, defensively and everywhere in between following the Dwight Howard trade, the Magic have seemingly landed on a new identity as an inside-out defensive squad. That’s good, because many of their young perimeter pieces need regular cover.
Biyombo’s arrival does muddy the picture a bit in Orlando’s frontcourt given the presence of incumbent starter Nikola Vucevic. After backing up Jonas Valanciunas last year in Toronto and pulling in this mega-offer, Biyombo has every reason to believe he should start. The same can be said for Vucevic, who quietly plugged through some lean rebuilding years with the Magic, posting dozens of double-doubles along the way.
The Magic have at least three options: 1.) they can start Biyombo and shift Vucevic into a lead scoring option off the bench, a la Enes Kanter in Oklahoma City, or 2) they can start games with Vucevic and close games with Biyombo, a la Toronto last season with Valanciunas, or 3) they can trade Vucevic and fully commit to the Ibaka/Biyombo combination while opening up more time for Gordon at the four. There’s no doubt that this is a positional logjam, but the real question is how much urgency the Magic will feel to clear it up after four straight lottery trips.
While Biyombo’s strong postseason—highlighted by a 26-rebound performance and some spectacular blocks in the East finals against Cleveland—certainly inflated the terms on this deal, his contract nevertheless compares favorably with other centers on the market. Given his age and positive impact for a solid and much-improved Raptors defense, Biyombo’s $72 million looks like a far better investment than Joakim Noah ($72 million) and Timofey Mozgov ($64 million), and he’s a preferable option at their prices than Ian Mahinmi ($64 million) too.
Orlando’s busy summer has been filled with moves both sensible and questionable, and there’s no strong evidence that all the action has produced a significantly better team. Nevertheless, Biyombo is a piece who works with the coach’s vision, who should make an immediate impact next season, and who should deliver value on his deal for its duration. Something probably has to give in the Magic’s frontcourt, but that’s a better problem to have than, “We can’t protect the paint so we are doomed to fail.”
Grades: Anderson and Gordon don't solve Rockets' defensive issues
For a team that dedicated a greater percentage of its offense to three-point attempts than any other in the league, the Houston Rockets had shockingly few consistent long-range options. That changes this summer with the additions of former Pelicans Ryan Anderson (four years, $80 million) and Eric Gordon (four years, $53 million)—quality options at long range that should give James Harden all the room he needs to operate. Their arrival fulfills the vision of a Mike D'Antoni team: a dominant driver and playmaker, a bouncy pick-and-roll big (up-and-comer Clint Capela), and support shooting across multiple positions. This is poised to be one of the most explosive scoring teams in the league.
Both, however, manage to complicate the defensive prospects of a team that ranked 21st in the league in points allowed per possession and let its best defensive player (Dwight Howard) walk in free agency. Capela has the potential to clean up some of the mess—his pairing with Anderson, in particular, makes a ton of sense for all involved—but shouldn't be expected to fully carry lineups with several problematic defenders involved. Harden's issues on that end are well documented. Anderson's, too, are real and rooted in iffy instincts and lacking lateral mobility. Gordon is more solid in relative terms but by no means a solution. Guarding effectively on the perimeter generally requires either quickness, length, or incredible precision. None are Gordon hallmarks—and that's when he's able to stay on the floor to begin with.
In Anderson and Gordon, Houston also adds two quality players not exactly known for their physical durability. Gordon is especially snakebit; the 27-year-old shooting guard has played 65+ games just once in his eight-year career and has seen his game taxed by recurring injury. We have every reason to expect that Gordon will miss a third of the season (or more) in most cases. All Houston can really hope is that their latest investment is healthy when it matters—an endeavor they should be proactive in making a reality. Anderson's injury history is split between freak incidents and gradual wear. In total, a variety of ailments complicated the bulk of his stint in New Orleans.
Neither needs to play a full 82 for their signing to be a success—only live up to the prospect of what their games could add to a D'Antoni offense. Houston has looked to acquire or develop a forward as stretchy as Anderson for years. Gordon is at his best when playing alongside a full-time creator and running to the arc off the break. This could be a best-case landing spot for both players in terms of a marriage between style and skill, even while the imbalances of their respective games hold the Rockets from high-level contention. Consider it incremental change for a team very much in need of a refresh.
Ryan Anderson grade: C+
Eric Gordon grade: C+
Grades: Celtics finally get their star in ex-Hawks cornerstone Al Horford
The so-called “team without a star” just landed a big one.
The Celtics have agreed to sign unrestricted free agent center Al Horford to a four-year, $113 million maximum contract, according to Yahoo Sports and USA Today Sports. Horford, 30, averaged 15.2 PPG, 7.3 RPG and 3.2 APG while earning his fourth career All-Star nod with the Hawks last season. After spending the entirety of his nine-year career in Atlanta, where he made the playoffs every season, Horford joins a Celtics team that’s on the rise and flush with future draft assets.
News of the agreement comes one day after the Hawks agreed to sign center Dwight Howard to a three-year, $71 million contract. Howard will now fill the hole created by Horford’s departure.
This is a strong marriage of team and player, one that could help vault Boston out of the East’s packed middle and into the conference’s upper echelon. The on-the-rise Celtics were ready to take the next step toward contention while Horford needed a spot from which to compete during the tail end of his prime years and a franchise that has proven it can get over the hump from being “very good” to “great.” Together, Horford and the Celtics could become the East’s top threats to LeBron James and the Cavaliers as soon as next season.
Aside from Kevin Durant (and LeBron James, if you count him), Horford was the best player in this year’s free agent class, a versatile two-way big who can function effectively as a power forward or a center. An unselfish team player who is nevertheless capable of scoring from the rim to the three-point line, Horford represents a significant talent upgrade over Boston’s incumbent bigs.
After playing all 82 games for the East’s top defense last season, Horford will join a fifth-ranked Celtics group that is loaded with impact perimeter defenders. His interior presence will allow Boston’s guards to play as aggressively as they like on the perimeter, and he’s an ideal backline option if the Celtics decide to lean more heavily on smaller lineups.
Although Horford is 30, Boston should feel comfortable extending a max offer without hesitation. First, this contract is only four years, and Horford has missed just six combined games over the last two seasons after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in 2013–14. Second, players of his caliber rarely change teams in free agency, and his arrival allows the Celtics to continue exploring trade scenarios with all of their young players and surplus of draft picks in search of a second star to pair with Horford.
As it turns out, Celtics fans who grew frustrated with president Danny Ainge’s inability to land a star in a draft day move simply needed to exercise patience for an additional 10 days or so. Adding Horford should be comparable to the Spurs’ 2015 signing of LaMarcus Aldridge in terms of impact, and it should open up a path to contention that should last for the duration of the deal.
Grades: Mike Conley's historic deal worth every penny for Grizzlies
All along, the Memphis Grizzlies could offer Mike Conley things that no other suitor could: more money and security through a five-year deal; the chance to build on a career-long investment in Memphis; friendships and equity throughout the Grizzlies organization; and a competitive atmosphere enriched by both the familiar and the potential for growth. The intersection of those factors made a return to Memphis likely but an agreement on the opening day of free agency confirmed the premise. Conley will continue his career with the Grizzlies on a five-year, $153 million deal—a true max for his experience bracket and the richest overall contract in NBA history.
The specifics of Conley’s contract are understandably shocking. Conley is a few tiers removed from the best players at his position and otherwise bears little resemblance to a conventional superstar. Yet he’ll be compensated above and beyond any of the league’s greats due to the intersection of his free agency and the NBA’s greatest financial boom. Do not see that as a reason to punish him or take his deal, in itself, as some indictment. Prized free agents can only be paid what their market allows. Conley just happened to step into the richest, most uninhibited market the NBA has ever seen at a time when his game warranted the investment of a max contract.
Memphis was ultimately the team to pay it but not the only team to offer. Dallas, for example, very much wanted Conley but didn’t have enough to motivate his signing. Other teams, San Antonio among them, looked into what it might take to add Conley and just how interested he might be in moving. Nothing that Conley heard in his meetings with other teams or through his representation was enough to sway him. Memphis began as the frontrunner and ended as a closer.
Conley’s return cements this as the biggest and most expensive off-season in Grizzlies history. Chandler Parsons will join Conley in Memphis on another, smaller max deal—the third max that this notoriously cost-conscious organization has agreed to in the past year or so. Memphis will still need to figure out how to invigorate its offense and activate its dormant defense while learning how to operate under a new coaching staff, though the fact that players like Conley and Parsons will be a central part of those efforts is reason for optimism. Change is a function of capability. Conley’s return preserves much of it and enticed Parsons to add more, reinvigorating a franchise that was at risk of drifting from the league’s more competitive ranks.
Paying to keep Conley was both an act of preservation and a very necessary move for a franchise without much reasonable alternative. Just last summer Conley helped entice Marc Gasol to return, as their partnership had become the functional centerpiece of Grizzlies basketball. For Memphis to turn around a year later and short Conley in a competitive market would compromise that foundational arrangement.
It’s natural to worry about the final years of Conley’s deal, in which he’ll make upwards of $30 million as a 31-, 32-, and 33-year-old. It’s understandable to worry about what Conley’s recent injury history (a combination of freak accidents and more concerning ailments) might mean for this team as he ages and his salary climbs, all alongside two other highly-paid teammates who have missed time of late. Yet we can’t pretend as if the Grizzlies could opt for half-measure replacements or a refusal of Conley’s contract on principle without it amounting to a franchise reset.
That’s how much even a sub-superstar guard can mean in the right context. The clever, jitterbug improvisations of Conley’s off-the-dribble work make the most of even simple basketball actions. Few can match the diversity of his in-between game. Defensively, Conley walks the fine line between pestering opponents and keeping good guarding position. Never does Conley need to be prompted to give up the ball, nor is he reluctant to shoot when the opportunity calls for it. Some aspects of Conley’s game will fade with age, as happens with all players and smaller guards in particular. Yet as much as anything, the Grizzlies are paying for Conley as a leader, an intelligent operator on the floor, and a franchise institution.
Grades: Knicks likely to regret massive deal for Joakim Noah
The Knicks have agreed to sign unrestricted free agent center Joakim Noah to a four-year contract worth $72 million, according to ESPN.com and the New York Daily News. Noah, 31, averaged a career-low 4.3 PPG and 8.8 RPG while making just 29 appearances for the Bulls last season. The two-time All-Star center suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in January, bringing to end a memorable nine-year tenure in Chicago.
To justify the size and scope of this signing, the Knicks don’t merely need a bounce-back year from Noah, they need a full-on resurgence. Noah endured an atrocious 2015-16 campaign even before he was lost to the shoulder injury: he lost his starting job under new coach Fred Hoiberg, he shot just 38.3% from the field, he posted a career-low 14.1 Player Efficiency Rating, he struggled to finish shots in the basket area (he shot a career-low 43.9% from within three feet), and he took a major step back as an interior defender (allowing 52.4% shooting at the rim). Making matters worse, this was the second straight season in which Noah’s play and numbers declined, raising questions about whether he will be able to reclaim and sustain his fiercely competitive and energetic style of play now that he’s advanced into his 30s.
Noah is a tough player to fit into the NBA’s evolving approach to offense. He’s not a great finisher around the hoop, he lacks range on his jumper, and his best attribute is his play-making for others from the high post. His reluctance to shoot and his lack of range has made him an easy player to defend, as opponents have increasingly taken to ignoring him in favor of clogging up the paint and passing lanes.
New Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek will need to work around these flaws, as Noah plugs into the depth chart as the starting center, replacing Robin Lopez, who was moved in a pre-draft trade for Derrick Rose. While the frenetic Noah was named Defensive Player of the Year just two seasons ago and posted a solid 99.3 defensive rating last season, he must prove that he’s still capable of leading a defense over an 82-game season, as the Knicks desperately needs a reliable anchor to compensate for a rotation that will feature multiple weak defensive pieces, including Rose. Remember, Noah has missed at least 15 games in five of the last seven seasons, and New York simply doesn’t have the depth to withstand an extended absence.
The questions posed by his durability, decline and limited offense are bad enough, but Noah also makes for a strange pairing with 2015 lottery pick Kristaps Porzingis. There were two logical ways to approach Porzingis’s development: 1) play him at the four and pair him with a low-post monster or, 2) play him at the five, play Carmelo Anthony at the four and embrace small ball. Here, the Knicks have opted for a third plan by more or less abandoning the basket area with Noah to set up a possible high/low combination with Noah that will require Porzingis to develop quickly as an interior scorer. If he’s not quite up to the task yet, New York’s offense will likely find itself running out of real estate and bogging down.
It’s important to note that Knicks president Phil Jackson isn’t taking a “flier” on Noah. No, he’s paying starter-plus money on a full four-year contract that will carry Noah past his 35th birthday. While the Rose/Noah pairing will generate some initial excitement, given their name recognition, this money would have been better spent on a younger center like Bismack Biyombo or Festus Ezeli who could work as a Porzingis complement for years.
It’s hard to see how, even in a best-case scenario with perfect health, that the Rose/Noah acquisitions take New York to anything better than a swift first-round exit. And, if Noah’s wheels do fall off in the early stages of this contract, the Knicks have left themselves exposed to ruin without anything resembling a back-up plan.
Grades: Lakers add veteran leadership by signing Luol Deng
L.A. has agreed to sign unrestricted free agent forward Luol Deng to a four-year, $72 million contract, according to ESPN.com and Yahoo Sports. Deng, 31, averaged 12.3 PPG, 6 RPG and 1.9 APG while earning $10.2 million for the Heat last season. The two-time All-Star has won both the NBA’s Sportsmanship Award and its Citizenship Award during a 12-year career that has seen him appear in 62 playoff games and make multiple deep postseason runs in Chicago and Miami.
Unlike the Lakers’ signing of center Timofey Mozgov, which came at a steep price and raised major stylistic and fit questions, it’s easy to see where the Lakers are going with this one. L.A. was terrible on defense last season, it has major minutes to fill on the wings, and it needs a mentor for 2016 No. 2 overall pick Brandon Ingram. Deng is up to all three of those tasks, as he turned in a typically solid season in Miami (15 Player Efficiency Rating, +1.89 Real Plus Minus), can still play starter’s minutes, and shares a Duke pedigree with Ingram, who should develop into the face of the Lakers’ franchise.
From a fit perspective, Deng’s versatility is helpful: he should be able to find success regardless of how fast the young Lakers want to play under new coach Luke Walton and he is accustomed to playing off the ball as a complementary option, ensuring that Ingram, D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle get their fair share of opportunities to learn on the job. Defensively, he can take the Kevin Durants and Kawhi Leonards of the world, allowing Ingram to ease into his new life competing against the West’s A-listers.
The big concern clearly is giving four years worth of starter-plus money to a player who has 29,000+ minutes to his name and who will be 35 when the deal reaches its conclusion. But the Lakers have bigger concerns than giving an extra year or two on a slightly inflated number to a proven professional. Namely, they need to rebuild a winning culture, they need to ensure that Ingram reaches his full potential, and they need to fix a once-sterling reputation that has been damaged in recent years. Deng isn’t a miracle worker, but he’s a step in the right direction on all of those counts. Walton, for one, is surely pumping his fist about this addition.
Grades: Hawks get Dwight Howard in move that’ll benefit both parties
Twelve years after turning pro straight out of an Atlanta-area high school, Dwight Howard will return to his hometown and sign with the Hawks.
The Hawks have agreed to sign Howard, an unrestricted free agent, to a three-year, $71 million contract, according to Yahoo Sports and ESPN.com. The 30-year-old Howard averaged 13.7 PPG, 11.8 RPG and 1.6 BPG while earning $22.4 million for the Rockets last season. After Houston suffered through a lackluster season and a disappointing first-round exit, Howard turned down a $23.3 million player option to enter free agency. His new contract represents a modest per-year raise over his option number and is reportedly fully guaranteed with no options.
For Howard, this homecoming is the latest opportunity to reclaim a career that has largely failed to deliver on its early promise. With injuries complicating his stops with the Lakers and Rockets, Howard will return to the calmer waters of the Eastern Conference, where he stands a good chance of making his first All-Star team since 2014. In Atlanta, Howard will join a Hawks team that has made the playoffs for nine straight years and possesses a strong frontcourt anchor in Paul Millsap.
In light of the recent Jeff Teague trade and the uncertain future of free agents Al Horford and Kent Bazemore, Howard is joining a squad that could look very different from last season, when it won 48 games and advanced to the second round of the playoffs. If Horford re-signs, the Howard/Horford/Millsap frontline would instantly become one of the NBA’s biggest and most talented frontline trios. If Horford departs, Howard and Millsap would make for a natural inside/outside tandem. While Howard is five years removed from his peak production years in Orlando, he’s still a reliable double-double producer who should see his numbers bump up in Atlanta against the East’s weaker competition.
Ultimately, Howard’s success in Atlanta will come down to his ability to find an offensive role that’s large enough to keep him happy without being too big to cut into his team’s flow and efficiency. The Hawks have constructed an unselfish, pass-heavy attack in recent years, and Howard will need to fit into that framework without devolving too often into post-up opportunities that fail to produce points. The good news for Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer is that Howard is coming off a season in which he attempted just 8.5 shots per game and took a major backseat to James Harden. Finding more touches and looks for Howard shouldn’t be all that difficult.
On the defensive end, Howard is still capable of being an impact-making backline presence, at least when he’s motivated and engaged. He made his presence felt throughout the 2014 and 2015 playoffs, helping Houston make a surprising trip to the Western Conference finals, and he’s still capable of overpowering smaller opponents on the glass and in the paint.
Although Howard missed half of the 2014–15 season with knee issues, he returned to play 71 games while playing 32-plus minutes per game last season. The Rockets battled chemistry issues all season long, the Harden/Howard pairing never meshed perfectly from a basketball or personality standpoint and a change of scenery was desperately needed. That new scenery just happens to be home.
Critics will point to Howard’s easygoing personality and injury concerns as red flags when it comes to assessing this deal. Those critiques have merit, but this was nevertheless a move worth pursuing for the Hawks, who scored a notable victory by keeping the term length to three years. That’s true whether Howard’s arrival coincides with Horford’s departure. If Horford does leaves, Howard helps keep the franchise afloat in the short-term and neatly fills what would have been a massive positional hole. If Horford stays, the Hawks will sport an overloaded frontline that should be capable of playing elite team defense while posing matchup problems for teams that want to go small. For a Hawks franchise that has been stuck in the “good but not great” category for years, taking a three-year chance on Howard doesn’t really feel all that risky.
Grade: A- if Horford stays and B+ if Horford leaves
Grades: After maxing Beal, Wizards' franchise hopes lie in their backcourt
The Wizards agreed to re-sign restricted free agent shooting guard Bradley Beal to a five-year, $128 million maximum contract, according to Yahoo Sports and CBSSports.com. Beal, 23, averaged a career-high 17.4 PPG, 3.4 RPG and 2.9 APG for the Wizards last season, although he only played in 55 games due to injury. While the 2012 lottery pick is a career 39.7% three-point shooter with All-Star potential, he has dealt with health issues throughout his four-year career.
This agreement comes with a little more anxiety than one typically sees on a max rookie extension. The reason, of course, is Beal’s long list of leg injuries. Beal has already missed 85 games, which equates to roughly 25% of Washington’s games, and his extended absence last season was a major factor in the Wizards’ disappointing fall back into the lottery. The fear in some quarters could be that Beal winds up as the next Eric Gordon, a talented scorer who bursts onto the NBA scene early, earn a max extension, and then fade from the forefront in a non-stop cycle of injury absences.
Washington’s problem, though, is that it had no leverage to protect itself from these risks. Beal has been viewed as a foundational player since he was drafted, he’s been used as a full-time starter since day one, he logged extraordinarily high minutes under former coach Randy Wittman despite the injury issues, and he was forced to wait on an extension until this summer as the Wizards’ front office constructed its (failed) dream to pursue Kevin Durant. The Wizards couldn’t afford to lose him under any scenario and they pushed off his pay day, so the natural result was a contract agreement that involved little to no negotiation and included the extra fifth year. Beal gets the whole boat and the Wizards get down on their knees and pray that he can move past his leg injuries to reach his considerable potential.
While Beal’s mediocre 15.5 Player Efficiency Rating and rough -2.24 Real Plus Minus hardly suggest a star in the making, he’ displayed the potential for big-time play in both the 2014 and 2015 playoffs. A natural shooter blessed with a smooth motion, Beal is still young enough to make a series of leaps: to a 20 PPG scorer, to All-Star status, to a true two-way impact-maker and one of the best players at his position. Getting there will require a continued commitment to better shot selection—he did well to cut back on his long twos last season—and more savvy when it comes to getting to the line. With the proper developments and good health, Beal and point guard John Wall should be in the “NBA’s Best Backcourt” for the duration of this contract.
However, Washington has already gotten a taste of the potential downside, and it’s been pretty sour. Beal’s absence at the start of last season killed a lot of the positive momentum generated by the 2015 playoff push. It was hard to make the “championship contender” case to Durant when Beal was out for a month straight and the Wizards were fading quickly back from the pack in the weaker East.
By tabbing him for the max, Washington has committed itself to riding the Beal rollercoaster, and his availability may be the single biggest factor in determining the franchise’s success going forward. As with Gordon in New Orleans, if Beal can’t stay on the court and produce like a max guy, the rest of the team’s plans, no matter how carefully laid, don’t matter all that much.
Grades: Jazz add proven veteran Joe Johnson to bolster young roster
The Jazz have agreed to sign unrestricted free agent small forward Joe Johnson to a two-year contract worth $22 million, according to Yahoo Sports and NBA.com. Johnson, 35, averaged 12.2 PPG, 3.6 RPG and 3.9 RPG for the Nets and the Heat last season. The seven-time All-Star brings significant playoff experience and a reputation for big shot-making to a young Jazz team hoping to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
Free agency just opened, but it’s already time to put Utah into the “Offseason Winners” category. Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey entered the summer with a strong young core and a few major needs: a capable starting point guard, an extra wing shooter, and whatever veteran experience he could muster. Thanks to Lindsey’s trade for George Hill and his signing of Johnson, all three of those missions have now been accomplished.
Johnson languished with the dead-end Nets last season, but his midseason move to the Heat showed that he still can still be an effective contributor in a complementary role. Last season, Utah found its initiators—Gordon Hayward, Rodney Hood and Alec Burks (when healthy)—struggling to work in cramped quarters and lacking in kick-out options. With the additions of Hill and now Johnson, the Jazz’s offense should be better spaced and more aesthetically pleasing overall. Jazz coach Quin Snyder suddenly has a ton of interesting lineup options: He could go ultra big and long with Hood, Hayward, Johnson, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, he could use Johnson as a small ball four alongside three playmakers against stretch teams, and he could load up on experience by playing both Hill and Johnson in late-game possession-by-possession scenarios.
Depth was a serious weakness for the injury-ravaged Jazz last season; look for Johnson to help turn that negative into a positive in 2016-17. As with the “Best 5 guys” lineups mentioned above, this signing gives Snyder a pretty impressive second-unit perimeter trio of Dante Exum, Burks and Johnson. That trio would give Utah good size and athleticism overall, promising on-ball defense from Exum, off-the-dribble explosiveness from Burks, and reliable spacing from Johnson. The days of praying for Trey Burke to do something positive and asking Joe Ingles to do more than is healthy should be over.
This deal’s terms help mitigate the biggest concerns around Johnson: that he’s 35, that his best days are far behind him, and that he’s moving from the East to the superior West. Utah is extending a reasonable per-year figure, it didn’t over-commit in terms of years, and it will ask Johnson to fit into a defined, auxiliary role rather than expect him to carry a heavy burden.
The rising Jazz have been steadily pushing towards the West’s playoff picture for the last two years under Snyder, falling short because of inexperience, injury issues and an imbalanced roster. Lindsey, ever deliberate, has addressed each of those issues in turn this summer and, as a result, a big breakthrough seems eminently possible.
Grades: Chandler Parsons’s max deal a worthwhile investment for Grizzlies
The Memphis Grizzlies have been a playoff upstart, a small-market success story and a veteran team defiant even in decline. Now they’re a hand-picked landing spot for a free agent of note. Chandler Parsons, after leaving the Mavericks and entertaining an offer from the Blazers, signed a four-year deal with the Grizzlies worth almost $95 million. This in itself is a success story. Some franchises are able to import credibility with key hires or maximized draft selection. Memphis made its name incrementally over the course of the grit-and-grind era and defended it on the floor every night.
One could draw lengthy lists of the Grizzlies’ mistakes, oversights and organizational idiosyncrasies. Still the franchise managed to groom its talent and cultivate an identity to the point that a player like Parsons would hear out its offer and jump at the chance to join the team. How far Memphis has come almost matters more than where it'll eventually go; through force of will and demonstrable patience, the Grizzlies have made the second-smallest market in the league an attractive home for a talented, night-life-loving forward.
In doing so, Memphis took its largest step yet in bringing back free agent forward Mike Conley. Parsons and Conley have discussed playing together in Memphis, specifically, according to Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas, and the Grizzlies will follow through on the prospect by offering Conley a five-year max offer. Conley’s re-signing always seemed likely; a close friendship with Marc Gasol, a meaningful bond with the city of Memphis and the potential for the best possible contract offer triangulated Conley’s return as the most probable outcome. Parsons’s addition, too, fulfills Conley’s request that the Grizzlies upgrade their roster in a meaningful way—an improvement also somewhat engineered so that Parsons could play with Conley in the first place. Free agency can sometimes be a place of circular, symbiotic logic.
Here it serves Memphis well. A perimeter trio of Conley, Parsons and Tony Allen makes for a healthy basketball blend. Among them there’s enough shooting, playmaking, perimeter defense and cutting to bring a lineup to balance all while leaving plenty of room for variation. Allen could be replaced as some other Grizzly proves capable (a healthy Jordan Adams? A free agent to be named?) or the entire lineup could shift small while Parsons fills in at power forward. For the first time in its franchise history, Memphis has options more closely in line with basketball modernity. Gasol and Zach Randolph are still important members of the team. Players like Parsons, though, can pivot the Grizzlies rotation out of its low-post comforts whenever the situation allows.
The fit was comfortable enough for Parsons to turn down a chance to work within Portland’s emerging core. The Blazers and Grizzlies are playoff-worthy clubs. The latter, however, is structured in such a way that Parsons will need to function as a secondary ball handler. Memphis will need Parsons to initiate offense for stretches in a way that Portland would not; Conley is a world of usage away from Damian Lillard while no Grizzly much approximates the role of a scorer like C.J. McCollum. Youth and cachet matter. So, too, does the creative investment of a veteran team.
Memphis needed a player like Parsons and pitched him as such. But Parsons needs the Grizzlies, too, as an outfit capable of covering for him defensively and helping to rebuild his reputation after his last two seasons ended in knee injuries. The risk on the Memphis side is not inconsequential. Neither Gasol nor Conley has had much luck staying healthy over the last few seasons. Parsons, just a year removed from a “minor hybrid” microfracture surgery and a few months removed from a meniscus repair, joins them in their physical frustrations. All are quality players (to varying degrees) when healthy. To unite them, on three max salaries no less, tempts the basketball gods a bit.
Still it’s a worthwhile venture. Those offensive possessions that seemed to go nowhere for the Grizzlies will take different, more interesting routes with Parsons involved. Most Memphis wing regulars don’t shoot as well as Parsons (39.5% from three over the past two seasons) or have the same capacity to improvise. Adding both qualities with one player makes for much broader capability overall; an offense’s structure and orientation can only be shifted around so long as the talent allows it. Parsons gives new Grizzlies coach David Fizdale more to work with and the talent in place to play off of.
As for the price, Parsons was paid what the market demanded. This is what it takes now to sign a playmaking wing who can shoot and swing between positions, even one who struggles defensively and missed 37 combined games over the past two seasons. Very few bargains will be found in the fallout of the salary cap boom. Parsons comes at a cost (over $22 million in his first season alone) not at all insignificant for a franchise that minds its finances closely. In return, he fills Conley’s prescription in a way that meaningfully moves the franchise forward. Memphis is alive, and that’s worth paying for.
NBA free agency grades: Rounding up under–the–radar deals
Head still spinning from after the crazy start to 2016 NBA free agency? Ours too. With so many new contracts being handed out, it's easy to miss some of the player movement this off–season. Here's a roundup of grades for under–the–radar moves in free agency so far.
Kent Bazemore: 4 years, $70 million with the Hawks
Over the past six months, Bazemore has acted as a bellwether for the NBA’s free agent explosion. A capable, athletic, 27-year-old role player without the slightest glimmer of stardom makes for an interesting benchmark; team officials and media types speculated for months what Bazemore might be earn in this market in part so they could better understand new, league-wide pay scales. The definitive answer to that season-long parlor game: $70 million over four years, after Bazemore turned down other suitors to return to the Hawks.
At that rate, Bazemore’s deal might have actually come in more reasonable than expected. It’s hard to find a wing who can contribute on both sides of the ball without doubling as some kind of liability. Bazemore has worked hard to bridge those gaps to his game. The anxious energy that made him a problem for a half-court offense has been quieted. His jumper, a sticking point from the start of his NBA career, is now effective enough to keep an opposing defense honest. From all his length and energy came a dependable sort of balance. It behooves Atlanta to bring back that sort of player, if only to have one less concern in figuring out how the next iteration of this team (with Dwight Howard stepping in for Al Horford) might operate. – Rob Mahoney
Ian Mahinmi: 4 years, $64 million with the Wizards
Few players in the league last season did as much to improve their free agent stock as Mahinmi. Everything in his career up to that point indicated he was a solid reserve center: good for energy and defense, but too limited and too foul-prone to be relied on for heavy minutes. A starting position for the Pacers gave Mahinmi the opportunity he needed to disprove that premise; not only did he play more minutes than ever before, but he made impressive passes on the move, finished in ways he hadn’t before and anchored a top-three defense over the course of a full season.
This is why he’ll be paid $64 million over four years to man the middle for the Wizards, no matter the awkward fit. Mahinmi and incumbent Wizards center Marcin Gortat can’t really play alongside each other. Yet with the free agent options dwindling after Washington struck out with Al Horford and Ryan Anderson, Mahinmi became a priority based on available room and overall value. Add quality talent at affordable rates now, sort out the rest when the trade market allows. – Rob Mahoney
Tarik Black: 2 years, $13 million with the Lakers
Black emerged as a useful enough role player the last couple years, and the Lakers retain him short-term and maintain some roster continuity. This won’t move the needle either direction for L.A., but the 24-year-old has been productive in spot minutes and brings energy and rebounding off the bench. They’re paying him the most he can earn under the Early Bird provision, so this is a sign of commitment from the front office. He’ll back up Timofey Mozgov next season. — Jeremy Woo
Matt Barnes: 2 years, $12 million with the Kings
While Barnes can be notoriously hot-headed, bringing him in to watch Boogie Cousins’s back and reunite with Dave Joerger could be a great pairing. He provides some necessary competitive edge off the bench, one that Sacramento has managed to fill out effectively through free agency after taking long-term swings through the draft. It’s a very reasonable deal for a consistent, if not spectacular veteran who ups the toughness quotient. If Rudy Gay is indeed on his way out, Barnes should passably fill out some of those minutes, although he is now 36 years old. Sometimes, insanity loves company. — Jeremy Woo
Tomas Satoransky: 3 years, $9 million with the Wizards
The Wizards didn’t own a pick in this year’s draft, and didn’t bother trading in, either. Part of that likely had to do with the knowledge they could bring over Satoransky, the 32nd overall pick in 2012, from Barcelona. The 24-year-old Czech swingman shot 38.9% from three across competitions last season, averaging 9.6 points and 4.2 assists per game and should be an immediate rotation piece on a more-than-affordable contract. He’s a good athlete and two-way combo guard at 6’7”. For the money, that’s well worth taking a shot here. — Jeremy Woo
Garrett Temple: 3 years, $24 million with the Kings
Here’s another shrewd move from the Kings, who have sensibly filled out their roster with veterans that should, in theory, help hit reset on weird locker room stuff and understand the value of keeping DeMarcus Cousins happy. Temple’s a streaky shooter, but brings perimeter defense and energy. Sacramento might be paying him slightly more than his production would suggest and gave him a player option for year three, but they addressed a definite need and reportedly beat out some teams much closer to the playoffs for his services. All in all, this is fine. — Jeremy Woo
Cole Aldrich: 3 years, $23 million with the Timberwolves
A Minnesota native, Aldrich comes home on a fine contract and will help fill out the Wolves’ rotation while adding some experience to a youthful roster. He was highly productive on a per-minute basis behind DeAndre Jordan last season, and whether or not his role expands, if he keeps that up he’ll be worth the money. He doesn’t directly address a positional need, but it’s a solid enough bargain. At 27 years old, Aldrich should still be relevant by the time the Wolves are a playoff team, which might be sooner than later. — Jeremy Woo
Tyler Johnson: 4 years, $50 million with the Nets
Brooklyn inked Heat guard Johnson to a poison-pill offer sheet that pays him reasonably for two years, then spikes to the $18–19 million range for two more (the last of which reportedly has a player option). It would appear to be a lot for a somewhat-unproven player who missed a large chunk of last season with a shoulder injury, but this is also the type of deal that could be advantageous for the Nets in the long term.
Once an undrafted rookie, Johnson has a well-rounded skill set and legitimate upside as a combo guard. Brooklyn’s so strapped for draft picks right now that taking big swings on young guys like this is somewhat sensible as a rebuild strategy. It’s difficult to see Johnson ever producing like a player worth $18 million a year, but if he winds up somewhere in the middle, it’s not the worst roll of the dice given the Nets’ situation. The unique contract structure is boom or bust, but that’s the reality of what it took to sign Johnson away. Miami will likely have to pass on keeping him. – Rob Mahoney
Andrew Nicholson: 4 years, $26 million with the Wizards
The 26-year-old Nicholson is a decent bench player at a fair price who should slot in behind Markieff Morris and bolster the frontcourt. It’s a reasonable deal for a player with some untapped upside who should be a solid fit for what the Wizards want to do. Washington’s chances of returning to the playoffs still lie with their backcourt, but they’ve done well to get them some help. — Jeremy Woo
James Ennis: 2 years, $6 million with the Grizzlies
The Grizzlies have had an outstanding off-season and round out their bench with a nice upside play in Ennis, who had a brief stint with the team last season. He ended the year on a very good nine-game stretch with the Pelicans, and for a team that’s always seemed to lack for wing shooting, you could do a whole lot worse. It’s a good price for a player who could certainly outperform his deal, and his familiarity with David Fizdale from their Miami days can’t hurt either. — Jeremy Woo
Wesley Johnson: 3 years, $18 million with the Clippers
The Clippers retain a passable rotation piece in Johnson, who can do a bit of everything and will sign a reasonable-looking contract. With Jeff Green departing, Johnson may be asked to do a bit more off the bench, and he’s a reliable enough two-way option. But as better role players continue to fly off the board and L.A. prioritizes keeping a so-so bench group together, the team’s pursuit of Durant looks more and more like a regrettable pipe dream. — Jeremy Woo
Austin Rivers: 3 years, $35 million with the Clippers
For better or worse, Doc Rivers has aimed to keep his bench in place as the Clippers retreat from the KD sweepstakes. The nepotism jokes are a little tired, but this is a bit of a generous offer, even if Austin is still just 23. He’s making just slightly less to come off the Clippers’ bench than Jeremy Lin will get to start in Brooklyn, and gets a player option on top of it. He did post a career high 8.9 points per game last year, improved defensively and showed some toughness in the playoffs, but he’s also a one-dimensional offensive player who struggles from the foul line. Rivers has to make a huge leap to justify this deal. It looks all the worse given reports that L.A. made a poor contract offer to Jamal Crawford. — Jeremy Woo
Anthony Tolliver: 2 years, $16 million with the Kings
The Kings have been chasing a stretch forward to add to their crowded frontcourt, and after whiffing on Ryan Anderson, they walk away with a watered-down facsimile, from a skill standpoint. Tolliver is not the answer to their shooting woes, but the deal is reasonable and is structured similarly to Arron Afflalo’s contract, with just $2 million guaranteed for the second season. As a 35% career three-point shooter, at the very least, he’s a more sensible fit next to Sacramento’s glut of bigs than Quincy Acy ever was. — Jeremy Woo
Trevor Booker: 2 years, $18 million with the Nets
This is another thrifty move from Brooklyn’s new front office, bringing in a reliable vet at a position of major need. The 28-year old Booker was a helpful reserve in Utah, but marginalized by Trey Lyles’s emergence. His leadership and interior toughness should benefit the Nets and fit in with their rebuilt rotation, and there’s no long-term commitment. It’s a fine move, but isn’t pulling the Nets out of the basement. — Jeremy Woo
Arron Afflalo: 2 years, $25 million with the Kings
A starting-caliber two guard on a team-friendly deal? The Kings? Too sensible to be true. Afflalo’s contract reportedly guarantees just $1.5 million for the second year, which gives the Kings added flexibility and looks somewhat puzzling from the player’s perspective. The Kings were in pursuit of shooting and gain some actual stability on the perimeter with this move. With the team also adding Garrett Temple and drafting Malachi Richardson, this could signal the end for Ben McLemore in Sacramento. — Jeremy Woo
Marvin Williams: 4 years, $54.5M with the Hornets
Two forwards critical to the Hornets' success last season hit the open market this week as coveted, unrestricted free agents. Both turned down more lucrative offers to return. The latest is Marvin Williams, who after playing the best basketball of his career in Charlotte last season has agreed to a four-year, $55 million contract to continue his work there. It's because Williams took to playing power forward as well as he did that the Hornets evolved; perimeter shooting (40.2% from three-point range), sound defense, and hard-earned attempts at dynamism made Williams a transformational piece.
For as much as that quality was valued elsewhere, Williams prioritized a known fit. Some NBA players spend their entire careers looking for a big payday and a working environment they find comfortable. Williams, already 30, now has both. There was no need to sell him on a system he had already thrived in, a coaching staff he now knows well, or the virtues of the competitive roster already in place. Williams knew what leaving Charlotte might mean and, just as importantly, knew what he was looking for. The result was a relative bargain for the kind of player who would have proven difficult to replace. — Rob Mahoney
Courtney Lee: 4 years, $48M with the Knicks
There are definite red flags in the body of New York's offseason work thus far but Lee makes perfect sense under the circumstances. The Knicks have signaled their interest in the immediate by the players they've chosen to target: first Derrick Rose, then Joakim Noah, and now the 30-year-old Lee. Each makes varying degrees of sense for New York but the thought process is on the table, regardless. Team president Phil Jackson does not intend to wait until Kristaps Porzingis takes the next step before building something.
Whether that something really has the structural integrity to support a winning season remains to be seen. Lee should help the cause; even if Rose or Noah were to be bothered by further injuries, Lee helps matters as a low-maintenance wing who can contribute on both ends of the floor. That's the kind of wing that Carmelo Anthony needs to play alongside, not to mention one of value to Rose and Noah given all that Lee contributes without the ball. Any healthy offense relies on cutting, shooting, and intuitive positioning. These are Lee's strongest suits—along with competitive perimeter defense well beyond what the Knicks could manage last season. Take issue with New York's dwelling in the present if you wish, but adding Lee (at a relative bargain, no less) is a smart indulgence of that direction. — Rob Mahoney
Matthew Dellavedova: 4 years, $38M with the Bucks
Cavs general manager LeBron James may have given away the team’s position on retaining their restricted free agent point guard. Assume Dellavedova will be priced out for Cleveland, given their heavy luxury tax situation and LeBron's farewell. He wasn’t impactful in the Finals and while steady, he was far and away their most replaceable rotation piece.
Delly did shoot 41% from three and average 4.4 assists last season, but will find himself surrounded by less talent in Milwaukee and likely with less space to operate. He fills a need off the bench, and should be a slightly positive addition assuming the Bucks get back to their high-pressure defensive ways. But meanwhile, it stings a bit to see former Buck Jerryd Bayless walk to Philly at a similar price and for one less year. The Bucks have pried a useful part away from a division rival, but at a steep price. — Jeremy Woo
E’Twaun Moore: 4 years, $35M with the Pelicans
It feels like E’Twaun Moore has been around forever, but he’s only 27. The Pelicans have an unstable backcourt situation with Eric Gordon gone and Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans hitting the market a year from now. It won’t move the needle significantly, but it doesn’t hurt to add a guy who can shoot (45% from three) and take care of the ball and ably defend both guard spots. Moore comes off a career-best season and had interest from teams in more competitive positions than New Orleans. It makes enough sense. — Jeremy Woo
Jared Dudley: 3 years, $30M with the Suns
Dudley, known as one of the NBA’s better locker-room guys, returns home after spending five seasons in Phoenix early in his career. Back then, he was a serviceable three-point shooting swingman, and he’s since reinvented himself as a useful stretch forward. For the Suns, who are retooling with lottery talent and looking to steady their ship for the long-term, having Dudley in their rotation and around their young players is a win on multiple levels. He’s not shifting the win column much by himself, but should slide into Mirza Teletovic’s role (at the same price his precursor got in Milwaukee) and be a useful part of this rebuild. — Jeremy Woo
Justin Hamilton: 2 years, $6M with the Nets
The Nets need players, and they get a very cheap one with a bit of room to grow here. At 26, Hamilton has bounced around the league a bit and been serviceable in small sample sizes. He had a few nice games for the Wolves down the stretch last season, and given a consistent role it’s fair to think he’ll give you workable minutes. As the Nets patch together their roster, saving some cap room with a low-risk move like this—even if the upside isn’t great—looks sensible. — Jeremy Woo
Solomon Hill: 4 years, $54M with the Pelicans
While Hill isn’t exactly the sort of name Pelicans fans dream about flanking Anthony Davis, he came on during the playoffs for the Pacers and arrives at a relatively good sticker price. Still just 25, the former first rounder fits with New Orleans’s competitive timeframe and gives them some options with his ability to play both forward spots and hit a jump shot (though not an elite shooter, a 57.9% clip from three in the playoffs likely helped his long-term case). With Ryan Anderson headed to Houston, Hill can be a stretch four when Davis shifts to center and slide up to the three if the Pelicans continue to deploy plodding 7-footers. A lot of pieces are up in the air on this roster, both this off-season and next, so adding one with a little extra upside is a win. — Jeremy Woo
Darrell Arthur: 3 years, $23M with the Nuggets
Denver brings back a steady, serviceable player at a strong price while maintaining some roster continuity for a team that skews young. Giving Arthur—one of their veteran leaders coming off one of his most productive seasonsa nice pay bump is a good start to free agency for a team unlikely to make a huge splash. The Nuggets have gathered a lot of developmental assets and aren’t in position to take a huge swing yet. Retaining an experienced vet who could have likely made more elsewhere should work out just fine. — Jeremy Woo
Ish Smith: 3 years, $18 million with the Pistons
The Pistons have shuffled the deck nicely so far this off-season and make a solid addition in Smith, who played well with the Sixers last season (14.7 points, 7 assists per game) and can now settle into a more suitable reserve role behind Reggie Jackson. After bouncing from team to team, Smith nets some deserved financial stability and will be a useful piece in a rotation that should thankfully run deeper this season. When you look at what other reserve-type guards are getting early in free agency, this is very strong value. — Jeremy Woo
Mirza Teletovic: 3 years, $30 million with the Bucks
Teletovic is a nice player and useful veteran shooter, so this isn’t a bad value at all, but it’s not totally clear what the Bucks are doing with their frontcourt. Thon Maker likely won't be a big contributor this year, and even if you treat Giannis like a guard, there’s still Greg Monroe, John Henson and Jabari Parker occupying the nominal four and five positions. So, it appears the stretchy, super-sized lineups we dreamed about in Milwaukee are edging closer and closer to reality. Teletovic (like Maker) is a Jeff Schwartz client, so him settling for a reasonable deal with Jason Kidd’s team makes sense, but the actual personnel fit is a bit iffy. There may be more shuffling to come with the Bucks’ big men. — Jeremy Woo
Jerryd Bayless: 3 years, $27 million with the 76ers
The Sixers stayed ahead of the veteran guard market here and closed quickly on Bayless, who is now the oldest player on their roster. He’s been a useful reserve for the Bucks the last couple years and can play both guard spots. He’s the type of player that makes sense both as a floor spacer and matching up defensively if you’re playing Ben Simmons as your lead ballhandler. The deal offers Philly flexibility going forward and moves them closer to the salary floor. This helps steady the endless revolving door of Sixers guards and adds veteran savvy to an otherwise college-like locker room. It’s a start. — Jeremy Woo
D.J. Augustin: 4 years, $29 million with Magic
Augustin reunites with Frank Vogel and should provide helpful depth and perimeter shooting (40.5% from three last season) at point guard. The Magic have been proactive in filling out their roster and now have a glut of backcourt parts to mix and match, including Elfrid Payton, newly re-signed Evan Fournier, promising Mario Hezonja, recently-acquired Jodie Meeks, C.J. Watson and Shabazz Napier. It’s not yet clear how this rotation will look, but Augustin is a serviceable player on a reasonable contract that offers Orlando flexibility going forward. — Jeremy Woo
Grades: Magic continue odd makeover with iffy spending spree
There is one team in every NBA off-season that distinguishes itself by operating in a way that is impossible to understand. The Orlando Magic have made an early run at the honor by:
• Trading Victor Oladipo, the No. 12 pick, and Ersan Ilyasova to Oklahoma City for Serge Ibaka
• Absorbing Jodie Meeks, who missed 96% of last season's games due to injury, into cap space
• Signing backup point guard D.J. Augustin for four years, $29 million
• Re-signing Evan Fournier to a surprising five-year, $85 million deal
• Signing Jeff Green for year at $15 million (into the cap space cleared by trading away Tobias Harris for placeholders)
Certain elements of that list are striking—even complementary to the existing Magic roster. Not only is Ibaka a better overall player than Oladipo, he makes more sense working alongside Nikola Vucevic and Elfrid Payton. Fournier was brought back on a deal that came in around $40 million cheaper than Washington's five-year agreement with Bradley Beal and some $50 million cheaper than Toronto's agreement with DeMar DeRozan. Incomplete though Fournier's game may be, the distinction in salary is notable for a talented, 23-year-old scorer. Every free agent wing to fly off the market thus far suggests that Fournier could have signed a bigger deal; the one he agreed to allows Orlando to build around a relative value.
What's been done with that space, however, muddles the entire composition. This isn't a disaster-in-waiting on par with Sacramento's work last summer; it's not as if Orlando traded away pick swaps meaninglessly or brought together combustible elements near an open flame. Instead, the Magic have attempted to accelerate their competitive timeline in the most underwhelming fashion possible. Signing Green for one year at $15 million is a wild swing at the concept of competitiveness. Green is not the answer. He is a perpetual non-starter (meant in the less literal sense) and another body to stand between Aaron Gordon and the developmental opportunities he needs. Nothing about the way Green plays—even at 30—suggests he would offer much help to a team looking to leap.
Teams around the league churn through their rosters to create cap space and opportunity all the time. Rarely has it seemed so pointless as when Orlando re-signed Harris to a long-term deal after it had acquired him only to then ship him off to Detroit for the ability to sign an older, lesser player in Green. Whatever there was to be said in defense of carving out cap space was shouted down to nothing by the opening rage of the free agent market. Almost every team has room under the cap or the means to create it. That left Orlando to trade for a shooter who might not be able to play at an NBA level anymore, sign a backup at a position it already had covered, and work for the right to forsake the cap room they had cleared.
Deals like Green's aren't so much destructive as instructive. A year from now the Magic will move on without Green's $15 million on the books without much issue. Yet Orlando is an organization that, for whatever its reasons, has looked to move forward by pairing its developing prospects (Payton, Gordon) with a less reliable sort of veteran. These are professionals in approach but basketball players who, beyond Ibaka, don't actually much serve the purpose Orlando seems to be after.
There is nothing inherently wrong with a basketball team ramping up its efforts to contend for a playoff spot. Every organization is free to decide for itself what matters and when. There's nothing wrong, either, with signing a player like Green in abstract. What's murky is why such a signing would make sense for the Magic given all that came before and all they would hope to accomplish in the season to come.
Orlando isn't doomed—it's just odd. It has good enough players (Fournier included), enough potential for internal development, and a smart enough coach in Frank Vogel to avoid most routes to disaster. The path to improvement simply never had to be so convoluted as this. Even a well-meaning trajectory could be challenged by scattered movement.
Evan Fournier grade: B
D.J. Augustin grade: C
Jeff Green grade: ???
Grades: Hassan Whiteside's max deal doesn't come without risks
The minimum-salary contract that broke open Hassan Whiteside’s career was little more than a lark for the Miami Heat. With it the team could more closely appraise Whiteside, a mobile giant at bare minimum, at no real cost; even if Whiteside were to have flamed out spectacularly, Miami was never bound financially to appease him or even keep him on the roster. Their stakes were exceedingly low while Whiteside’s motivation for model NBA citizenship was incredibly high.
Starting today, that gambit changes irrevocably. The Heat took the plunge with Whiteside on the first official day of free agency, sealing an agreement in principle that would pay Whiteside a reported $98 million over four years. This is a functional max contract given Whiteside’s years of NBA experience and lack of Bird rights, a mechanism that would have otherwise allowed him larger year-to-year raises. Miami gave Whiteside, who had soured on the interest of eight teams around the world before landing in Miami, the kind of security that affords a player his occupational freedom. Whiteside got paid. The Heat, in the process, have wagered almost $100 million on the hope that the entitlements of a massive new contract won’t get in the way of their working relationship.
It’s an uneasy arrangement born of Miami’s ongoing transition. Whether Dwyane Wade actually follows through on his implied interest to sign with another team in free agency this summer or not, Miami is looking to find the ground to support its next contender. Whiteside isn’t stable enough for him to actually play that role, though what he contributes as a shot-blocker and rebounder might be attractive enough to help entice a foundational star or help trade for one. Don’t mistake Miami’s investment as a complete vote of confidence. This franchise understands better than any the ways in which trusting in Whiteside can be trying. They also know better than to let a shot-blocker of his exceptional ability slip away for fear of his contract when the market around the league runs wild.
The very presence of a player like Whiteside forces opponents to make more difficult moves. What might be a layup becomes a floater. What could be a straight-line drive requires hesitations and changes in direction. Little comes simply for an opposing offense so long as he’s around to stall some intended first option and buy his teammates time to recover. Some of that value is spatially confined. Whiteside has neither the interest nor aptitude to step out to the perimeter in containment, stopping instead around the elbow with his arms down as he waits for a ball handler to come to him.
That invisible wall between Whiteside and the perimeter is strategically restrictive. Offenses geared toward pull-up jumpers or pick-and-pop play find open looks when Whiteside plays on his heels and create even better ones when he decides to leap wildly to contest their shot from a distance. Whiteside is just tall and long enough for that flail to work on occasion, and just stubborn enough to see those results as reason to keep trying. Any full view of Whiteside’s defense is complicated for this reason: so much of what he he offers as a rim protector, rebounder, and space eater is offset by a characteristic lack of diligence.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra never seemed to fully trust Whiteside for that reason among others, even as he racked up huge box score totals and swatted shots into the third row. The way Whiteside plays is unquestionably impressive. It’s also flighty enough when it comes to fundamentals to irk his teammates and coaches. Most will grin and bear it due to the fact that Whiteside’s complete collection of skills—as an interior defender who can finish, rebound, and even post up on occasion—is so rare. A front office, too, will shell out a max deal (or a near-max, in the event that Miami can sell Kevin Durant) for such a player despite all their qualms about his approach and infamy within the basketball equivalent of human resources. Miami is extremely picky when it comes to the people it brings into its organization. Whiteside exists far outside the franchise’s typical parameters, but the context of his free agency and the particulars of his game create room for a sort of exception.
Miami never had the financial resources to do much improving upon last year’s roster. The short-term deals of Whiteside and Luol Deng, the purgatory of Chris Bosh’s health scare, and Dwyane Wade’s giant cap hold limited the Heat’s ability to go beyond the salary cap to retain its talent while adding more. Deng is surely gone. Wade would likely have to take a significant pay cut to make room for a Durant-level max and would be unlikely, for fair reason, to sacrifice otherwise. A Whiteside max isn’t without its many complications. Yet it serves as a reasonable bridge between the team the Heat were last season and the eventual contender they hope to be.
Grades: DeMar DeRozan's textbook contract year ends with $139M deal
DeMar DeRozan’s textbook contract year is officially complete.
The Raptors have agreed to re-sign unrestricted free agent DeRozan to a five-year, $139 million contract, according to USA Today Sports and Yahoo Sports. The two-time All-Star shooting guard averaged a career-high 23.5 PPG, 4.5 RPG and 4 APG last season while helping guide Toronto to a franchise-best 56 wins and its first trip to the Eastern Conference finals.
Although DeRozan, 26, has enough serious shortcomings—perimeter shooting, playmaking for others, defensive consistency—to be kept firmly out of the “superstar” conversation, his timing and value maximization proved to be flawless this season. Let DeRozan’s 2015–16 season stand as a blueprint for all aspiring max candidates: good health + huge minutes + career-highs in scoring, Player Efficiency Rating and free throw attempts + All-Star selection + strong relationship with fan base + prime years + team success + exciting (and long-awaited) postseason run = buckets and buckets of cash as soon as free agency opens. It’s a simple formula, really.
Raptors GM Masai Ujiri stopped short of giving DeRozan a full max (around $152 million), but he did utilize his ability to offer DeRozan a fifth year, something outside suitors couldn’t. The result is a fairly clean win/win for a franchise that felt it couldn’t lose a player who has grown with the organization over the course of seven years: Ujiri got roughly $13 million in savings while DeRozan received $26 million more total than he could from outside suitors that were limited to four-year offers.
In a vacuum, these contract terms are enough to make one swallow and squirm. The average annual value of DeRozan’s new deal ($27.8M) is roughly triple that of his previous contract, and it’s difficult to imagine that he surpasses his 2015–16 production by a meaningful amount at any time over the next half-decade.
There are, however, a few reasonable justifications for Ujiri’s expenditure:
One: DeRozan will return to a defined role on a deep and balanced roster so this isn’t a case of a flawed player being forced to do more than he can handle to live up to his cap figure.
Two: Toronto has waited 20+ years for this type of success and losing DeRozan, a central player, at this peak would be crushing.
Three: The East’s landscape is unlikely to radically change this summer, a fact that reinforces the idea that Toronto should keep the band together and make the most of its current window.
Four: The five-year term, while the longest currently allowed by league rules, only carries DeRozan to age 31, so he should be a contributing player throughout the deal’s duration.
Five: Ujiri has shown a knack for moving big-salaried, polarizing players in the past and DeRozan’s contract should be a liquid piece if Toronto’s window happens to close abruptly in a year or two.
Add that all up, and this looks like a classic “They had to do it” agreement. On the bright side, DeRozan largely earned his money, even though he struggled mightily at times during the postseason, and he certainly could have used his leverage to push harder for a full max. On the downside, DeRozan is set to become one of the league’s highest-paid players just a few months after he shot below 41% in 10 of his first 11 playoff games and during an era in which his most glaring weakness, three-point shooting, gets more glaring by the year.
From Toronto’s perspective, this deal is worthy of relief, but not really celebration. DeRozan, meanwhile, can get on with the bottle popping.
Grades: Trail Blazers add Evan Turner as $70 million back-up plan
This is one pricey back-up plan.
The Blazers have agreed to sign unrestricted free agent guard Evan Turner to a four-year contract worth $70 million, according to Yahoo Sports and ESPN. Turner, 27, averaged 10.5 PPG, 4.9 RPG and 4.4 APG while earning $3.4 million in Boston last season.
Two major conditions influenced Portland’s decision to spend big on Turner, a 24.1% three-point shooter who was used off the bench last season by the Celtics and who has never posted an above-average Player Efficiency Rating during his six-year career.
First, Portland needed to quickly spend its available cap space before turning its attention to its three major restricted free agents (Allen Crabbe, Moe Harkless and Meyer Leonard). Second, Blazers GM Neil Olshey appeared to strike out on numerous other targets, including highly-coveted centers like Hassan Whiteside and Dwight Howard as well as small forward Chandler Parsons. The Blazers needed to give someone their money, opting for Turner, a former No. 2 overall pick who does a little bit of everything but nothing great.
After capping a surprisingly successful season by upsetting the injury-ravaged Clippers and advancing to the second round, the Blazers found themselves with two weaknesses to address: the center position and perimeter defense. Turner’s size relative to Portland’s small backcourt tandem of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum should help to a degree on the second front, but he’s hardly a cure-all on that end, especially if Portland’s defensive hole in the middle goes unfilled. What’s more, his weak outside shooting, deliberate style and desire to have the ball in his hands makes him a questionable fit alongside the ball-dominant Lillard and McCollum.
To make this work, Blazers coach Terry Stotts will likely need to get creative with his minutes staggering, giving Turner opportunities to work on the ball against second units. Such an approach could make life easier on Lillard and McCollum, who are both effective scorers whether on or off the ball.
In Olshey’s defense, whiffing completely in free agency would have made the Blazers a prime regression candidate. Portland’s key players enjoyed good health last season, many enjoyed career years, and injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin helped boost them past the first round. Without some kind of talent infusion, a backslide for the Blazers was more likely than not. Turner’s arrival also helps hedge against the possible departure of either Harkless or Crabbe, should their asking prices balloon, and the contract doesn’t extend too far into possible decline.
For a signing of this magnitude, though, a franchise should want to feel like its biggest weakness was resolved. That didn’t happen here, likely forcing the Blazers to continue to rely on Mason Plumlee in the middle. Similarly, one would hope that $70 million, even in this climate, would land an above-average starter. It’s not clear that Turner qualifies on that front, either.
If Turner can’t settle into the right complementary role on offense and if his outside shooting struggles continue in a system that relies heavily on the three, this move, which rightfully raised eyebrows on Friday, has serious backfire potential.
Grades: Jeremy Lin signing brings 'Linsanity' to Nets
The Big Apple’s second taste of” Linsanity” will take place across the Brooklyn Bridge.
The Nets agreed to sign unrestricted free agent guard Jeremy Lin to a three-year deal worth $36 million, according to ESPN.com and Yahoo Sports. The deal reportedly includes a player option on the final season. Lin, 27, averaged 11.7 PPG, 3.2 RPG and 3 APG while earning $2.1 million for the Hornets last season. Brooklyn will be the sixth team in Lin’s seven-year career and the fourth since 2014.
In the four years since he burst onto the global stage as a member of the Knicks, Lin has shifted between starting and reserve roles as he moved from the Rockets to the Lakers and on to the Hornets. For a contender, Lin would fit best as a third guard, where he could use his pick-and-roll comfort and attack mentality to provide a punch off the bench without being exposed too badly defensively.
The Nets, of course, might very well be a decade away from contention, so Lin pencils in as a budget starter who should give the franchise’s relevance a bump. Kenny Atkinson, Brooklyn’s first-year coach, was a Knicks assistant during the “Linsanity” period, and he will have no choice but to lean heavily on Lin for offense initiation and playmaking. Earlier this week, Brooklyn released incumbent starting point guard Jarrett Jack, who suffered a season-ending torn ACL in January, clearing a massive opportunity for Lin in an incredibly barren backcourt.
From an individual standpoint, Lin can’t ask for much more than this: He gets to play for a coach who knows his game, he gets a major role without any obvious competition for the ball, he gets a steep raise and a lucrative multi-year contract, and he faces zero pressure to win given the Nets’ ugly long-term outlook. After some lean years in Houston and L.A., Lin did well to rehabilitate his reputation in Charlotte and cash in with a career pay day.
While skeptics will rightfully wonder whether Lin is up to the task as a quality full-time starting point guard, given his shaky shooting, mediocre assist numbers and struggles defensively, Brooklyn filled an obvious need, it didn’t drastically overpay, it added a potential trade piece down the line, and it acquired a badly-needed spark to one of the league’s blandest rosters. Were the Nets going anywhere before the move? No. Are they going anywhere after the move? No. But atrocious teams with cap flexibility are prone to making big mistakes, and this wasn’t one.
Grades: Pacers continue overhaul, sign Al Jefferson in surprising move
The Pacers have agreed to sign unrestricted free agent center Al Jefferson to a three-year contract worth $30 million, according to ESPN.com and Yahoo Sports. Jefferson, 31, averaged 12 PPG and 6.4 RPG for the Hornets last season in the final year of a three-year, $41 million contract. The gifted low–post scorer missed 52 games over the last two seasons, and he’s one of the few players to agree to a deal that represents a pay cut over his previous contract so far during the 2016 free agency period.
This contract isn’t so much a win for the Pacers as it is a loss for Jefferson. Two years ago, the preps-to-pro big man averaged 20–10, earned All-NBA Third Team honors and looked poised to receive one final major payout once he hit the margin again. Instead, recurring injuries limited Jefferson’s effectiveness and forced coach Steve Clifford to deemphasize Jefferson’s role in the offense and shift him into a reserve role. With Charlotte’s offensive efficiency picking up considerably under its new spread style, Jefferson was no longer the franchise’s top priority. Rather than pound to an aging bruiser on the block, the Hornets shelled out the big money to Nicolas Batum, a younger and more versatile forward who is key to their new look on offense.
While the initial temptation to some observers might be to label Jefferson a steal, this deal is about right for a player who is clearly declining, has struggled to maintain good health and has enjoyed limited postseason success. Last season, Jefferson’s overall efficiency took a hit, he graded out as a clear minus defender, and he converted his post touches into points at a much lower rate than the top centers in this summer’s class.
In an ideal world, Jefferson will be used as a second-unit anchor, giving good minutes behind promising young center Myles Turner and power forward Thaddeus Young, an off–season trade acquisition. In that role, Jefferson’s tendency to slow down the offense and his weaknesses as a defender should be less glaring. From a style standpoint, though, new coach Nate McMillan will need to make some choices or find a way to strike a delicate balance. Indiana’s other major moves—trading for Jeff Teague and Young—seemed to signal a desire to play more fast and loose, but expecting Jefferson to keep up in that scenario is simply expecting too much.
The major takeaway here is that Jefferson hit the market with terrible timing. He’ll get the chance to play meaningful minutes on a team with serious postseason aspirations, but he’ll do so for far less than seemed possible in the not too distant past. While Indiana’s somewhat modest investment is defensible, this signing won’t prove to be a game-changer unless Jefferson can recapture the scoring prowess he displayed upon his arrival in Charlotte.
Grades: Lakers gamble on Timofey Mozgov with four–year, $64M deal
The Roy Hibbert era in L.A. has mercifully come to an end after just one season.
The Lakers have agreed to sign unrestricted free agent center Timofey Mozgov to a four–year contract worth $64 million, according to Yahoo Sports and the Los Angeles Times. Mozgov, 29, averaged 6.3 points and 4.4 rebounds for the Cavaliers last season as he shifted to a reserve role during the team’s championship run. The Russian big man earned $5 million in 2015-16.
After ranking 29th in offense and 30th in defense last season, there was little doubt that the rebuilding Lakers would pursue an upgrade over Hibbert with their significant cap space flexibility. Unfortunately, Mozgov is only a modest upgrade by most measures and he suffers from many of the same limitations that held back Hibbert. What’s more, Mozgov arrives on a four-year, above-market deal that will carry him well past his prime window. Even Hibbert arrived last summer as a low-risk, one-year rental.
The initial reaction from many observers will be that the Lakers went too far here in both dollars and years. That’s true, but the bigger concern is Mozgov’s fit with L.A.’s young core. The slow, physical Mozgov found his greatest success in Cleveland when the tempo slowed way down during the 2015 playoffs. In a half-court game, Mozgov was free to play off of LeBron James as a cutter and to use his size to finish in pick-and-roll scenarios.
When Cleveland opted for a smaller, faster style this season, Mozgov’s minutes were the first to go. During the regular season, the Cavaliers played meaningfully better on both offense and defense without Mozgov, and he wound up playing just 25 minutes total in the Finals against the Warriors.
With Luke Walton, the Lakers’ new coach, arriving from Golden State and looking to build around a young, athletic core featuring Brandon Ingram, D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle, Mozgov presents major fit questions. Can he keep up with the youngsters? Will his presence in the low post compromise Randle’s desire to attack the basket? Will he be able to find success as a roll man when the passes are coming from Russell, a second-year floor general who has vision but needs polish, instead of James? Will he be forced into an Andrew Bogut-like managed minutes role? If so, why pay him starter money?
The questions get bigger the further one zooms out. Is Mozgov a long-term solution given the age disparity between himself and the rest of the Lakers’ core? Will his age/contract combination prevent him from being be able to be moved for a better asset? Assuming the Lakers would rather play like the 2016 Cavaliers instead of the 2015 Cavaliers, given their young pieces, why exactly was Mozgov targeted at all?
L.A. is left hoping (praying?) that Mozgov can bounce back from a rocky 2015-16 season, as he ranked 75th out of 76 centers in Real Plus-Minus and posted a below-average 14.6 Player Efficiency Rating following offseason knee surgery. Even at full health, though, Mozgov will struggle to cover for his teammates’ many defensive deficiencies and he’ll need to completely adjust his expectations after going from a contender to one of the league’s worst teams.
Strangely, the center position was the only spot with true depth on this summer’s market, and yet the Lakers opted to reach an early agreement with a player who wasn’t one of the top 15 available options. There are only two explanations: The Lakers love Mozgov a lot more than the stats do, or they simply couldn’t get any of the better, more proven free agents to take their calls and/or money. If the former, outside observers have every reason to be skeptical given the miss rate on L.A.’s free agent moves in recent years (Nick Young, Lou Williams, etc.). If the latter, it’s time for everyone to start adjusting to a world where even the Hassan Whitesides and Bismack Biyombos of the world are no longer enthralled by the “Showtime” shine.
Grades: Hornets keep Nicolas Batum with five-year, $120M deal
Charlotte took a major step towards maintaining its new versatile identity, but it came at a steep price.
The Hornets agreed to re-sign unrestricted free agent forward Nicolas Batum to a five-year contract worth $120 million, according to Yahoo Sports and the Charlotte Observer. The deal reportedly includes a player option on the final season. Batum, 27, averaged a career–high 14.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.8 assists in Charlotte last season after arriving from Portland via trade. The French forward helped the Hornets win 48 games, 15 more than they won the previous season, and return to the playoffs for just the second time in the last six seasons.
With an average annual salary of $24 million which more than doubled his previous deal, Batum will be compensated as a star even though he’s struggled with consistency issues in recent years and would serve as a complementary offensive option on a championship contender. Charlotte GM Rich Cho will justify the signing by pointing to Batum’s ability to defend multiple positions, his ability to serve as an auxiliary playmaker and the fact that he helped Charlotte’s offensive efficiency improve from No. 28 in 2014-15 to No. 9 in 2015-16.
Indeed, Batum’s fit is solid in Charlotte, as he makes life easier for high-usage lead guard Kemba Walker and can theoretically team with (oft-injured) forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to form a long and imposing defensive duo on the perimeter. While Batum’s three-point shooting comes and goes, he qualifies as a floor-spacer. The Hornets, who transitioned towards a more free-flowing spread style last year, would have been up a creek trying to replace him. What’s more, they would have had some serious explaining to do if they let Batum walk just one year after parting with lottery pick Noah Vonleh to acquire him. Although it’s fair to wonder what Charlotte’s ceiling is with Batum back in the fold, there’s little doubt the floor would have fallen out if he had bounced this summer.
The final contract value comes in roughly $32 million shy of Batum’s full five-year max number and roughly $6 million more than Batum could have received on a four-year deal from outside suitors. Thanks to the player option, Batum gets the best of both worlds: he has a massive salary figure on the back-end in the event he declines sharply and he gets the ability to re-enter the market at age 31 if he so chooses.
Much like Toronto’s decision to re-sign DeMar DeRozan, Charlotte’s move to keep Batum gets filed under “grin and bear it.” Batum was one of the top “attainable” wings on this summer’s market, he’s a two-way contributor who can succeed on and off the ball, and there weren’t any obvious bargain candidates to replace him. With decisions still to come on Al Jefferson, Courtney Lee, and Marvin Williams, the Hornets should be glad they took care of their top priority quickly and at a price that should facilitate their next step too.
Grades: Lakers re-sign Clarkson to help build post-Kobe backcourt
The Lakers have agreed to re-sign restricted free agent guard Jordan Clarkson to a four-year contract worth $50 million, according to Yahoo Sports and USA Today Sports. Clarkson, 24, averaged 15.5 PPG, 4 RPG and 2.4 APG last season. The 2014 second-round pick started 79 games and did his best to contribute offensively during Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour.
While the Lakers’ last three years have been full of misadventures, plucking Clarkson at No. 46 was one of the franchise’s better recent moves. An attack-minded combo guard with good quickness, Clarkson projects long term as a third guard who can be used on or off the ball.
Judging Clarkson’s body of work in the NBA is difficult: He put up big numbers in his rookie year, with Bryant sidelined for much of the season, only to take a step back in year two with Bryant back on center stage. There are plenty of areas for improvement: he needs to finish better, he needs to get to the foul line more, he can develop a more consistent three-point shot and his defense drew public (and justifiable) criticism from former coach Byron Scott.
While L.A.’s decision to sign Timofey Mozgov raised fit and timeline questions, the signing of Clarkson makes more sense on both fronts. There’s little doubt that Clarkson should be able to perform better and more consistently without Bryant constantly commandeering the Lakers’ offense, and his athletic, occasionally explosive game should work well if new coach Luke Walton decides to push the pace and spread things out.
It’s never quite clear whether the Lakers have admitted to themselves that they are rebuilding or simply waiting around for the right quick-fix to come along, but retaining Clarkson strikes the right low risk/high reward balance for a team that’s at the bottom of the standings. If Clarkson blossoms in a larger role under a new coach and makes the necessary strides on defense, his deal could easily look like a steal next season. If he plateaus instead, at least the Lakers have only committed sub-starter dollars to him.
After three dismal losing seasons, the new-look, Kobe-less Lakers want to get better but they need to be more enjoyable to watch. A freed Clarkson, at the very least, should help with the fun factor.