The NBA draft was just two weeks ago and the free agency period hasn’t even been open for a full week, and yet the league’s competitive landscape has already been reworked in major ways. Chris Paul, Paul George and Jimmy Butler were all traded. Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague are the latest fresh faces in a loaded Western Conference. Gordon Hayward is ready to help the Celtics threaten the Cavaliers. Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka are back for more in Toronto. Blake Griffin is finally The Man for the Clippers, surrounded by an all-new supporting cast. And the Warriors have still somehow managed to have a better summer than anybody.
Who’s fared the best and worst amidst this tornado of activity? Great question. Here’s a rundown of the winners and losers from this week’s free agency period.
Winners: Golden State Warriors
Golden State has followed up a 16-1 postseason with an undefeated first week of free agency. Stephen Curry? Maxed out immediately. Kevin Durant? Re-signed to a preposterous discount. Andre Iguodala? Re-signed to a generous three-year deal that should solidify the “Hamptons 5” for at least two more deep postseason runs. Shaun Livingston and David West? Back on the cheap. Nick Young and Omri Casspi? Added to the bench for relative peanuts. Owner Joe Lacob, GM Bob Myers and company are just showing off.
So much of this summer’s movement, from superstar trades to high-profile free-agent signings, has been driven by second-tier contenders like Houston, Boston and Oklahoma City trying to close the gap with Golden State and Cleveland. And yet the Warriors have pushed out further than ever before, leaving the directionless and GM-less Cavaliers in their wake as they assemble a glitzy roster that may one day be composed entirely of future Hall of Famers and comical reclamation projects.
Could this latest incarnation of the Warriors, armed with another year of cohesiveness plus perfectly-fitting second-unit additions, win 74 games? Yes. Yes. Yes. Every major historical marker—wins, point differential, offensive rating, etc.—will be under siege. Once again, the operative questions will be, “Can they stay healthy?” and “Will they get bored?” rather than, “Can anyone stop them?”
The most intimidating part of Golden State’s off-season has been its orderliness. Lacob, Myers and company have methodically cranked out signing after signing with little to no drama, as if unfurling the front-office equivalent of the Warriors’ signature ball movement around the perimeter. On the court, Golden State leaves defenses scrambling with its quick decisions, breaking schemes by accumulating small timing advantages with pass after pass. It’s a similar phenomenon off the court, with the roster pieces taking their places right on cue, together towering over rivals. What good is a star duo like Chris Paul and James Harden, or Russell Westbrook and Paul George, when pitted against an assembly line of long, versatile shooters with unlimited range and freakishly athletic, multi-positional defenders?
Better start bracing now for another May and June featuring opposing players and coaches admitting that the Warriors are, yet again, “Better than last year.”
Winner: Kevin Durant, Warriors
Both Durant and Paul maneuvered themselves into more favorable situations by choosing to sacrifice or delay their individual earnings this summer. In Durant’s case, he signed a two-year, $53 million contract that actually amounts to a pay cut from his previous salary while also roughly $9 million shy of his max contract starting number. Paul, meanwhile, opted in to a $24 million option rather than electing to sign a five-year contract with the Clippers or a four-year contract with the Rockets or another outside suitor. By opting in, Paul facilitated an early trade to Houston that paired him with Harden and allowed Rockets GM Daryl Morey greater flexibility and extra time to fill out the rotation with the likes of P.J. Tucker and Nene.
Paul’s decision was a bet that the Clippers had run their course, that the Rockets represented greener pastures, and that his earning power will remain strong next summer. Durant’s giveback was essentially pure generosity, aiding Golden State’s ownership in its efforts to retain Iguodala and Livingston while also splurging on Young.
Predictably, there was some pushback to Durant’s decision, both from pro-labor and anti-Superteam voices. As if the Warriors’ owners weren’t rich enough, now they get the world’s second-best player at roughly 25% off? And, as if the Warriors weren’t unbeatable enough, now they get to fill out their bench because Durant decided to spread the love around?
Durant must answer only to his own conscience and wallet, and his giveback has at least two critical effects: 1) It preemptively inoculates him from guilt and criticism that might come his way if the Warriors eventually become too expensive to keep together, and 2) it applies subtle pressure to ownership to keep writing the monster luxury tax checks that are bound to pile up over the next few years.
If, let’s say, Golden State eventually decides to trade Klay Thompson, Durant can point back to this decision and persuasively argue that he did more than his fair share to avoid the realignment of the star core. And if, let’s say, Lacob eventually hesitates at sending as much as $200 million to the league in luxury taxes, Durant can reasonably counter with, “I sacrificed for the good of the organization, now it’s your turn.” In both scenarios, Durant’s pay cut could have repercussions, real and symbolic, that extend years into the future, helping Golden State maximize its title window.
Loser: Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert
“The Diff” between the Warriors and Cavaliers has noticeably increased because the champs have improved their lot, as discussed above, and because the runners-up have bungled their off-season to date. In short, Gilbert’s Cavaliers sat out the draft, parted ways with respected GM David Griffin, failed to hire and allegedly low-balled top executive target Chauncey Billups, shopped guard Iman Shumpert in a potential cap-saving move, handed out a career pay day to 36-year-old forward Kyle Korver, signed 35-year-old point guard Jose Calderon, and agreed to bring back 37-year-old forward Richard Jefferson.
Don’t forget: Cleveland also missed out on its opportunity to add Paul George or Jimmy Butler, two complete wings who were available in trade and who would have aided Cleveland’s ability to match-up with Golden State in the 2018 Finals. So, aside from no GM, no refashioned “Big 3,” an aging bench and no big impact additions, everything has gone swell.
Even though free agency is just fairly young, Cleveland’s best realistic shot at this point is to pray that Carmelo Anthony gets bought out by New York, as the major available impact-makers have seemingly already moved. Adding Anthony on the cheap would generate loads of buzz, but it would do little to slow down the Warriors. Barring major injuries or other movements, the 2018 Finals is now looking bleaker than the entertaining but often one-sided 2017 Finals.
Gilbert’s gamble to move on from Griffin and the subsequent stalling have handed LeBron James the perfect cover story should he decide to leave in 2018. July should have been the time for Gilbert to pull out all the stops to appease James, not do everything in his power to push him away.
Winner: Celtics president Danny Ainge
That long, slow sigh of relief you hear from New England belongs to Celtics president Danny Ainge, who was dangling over a cliff and staring at life as the NBA’s biggest punchline while Gordon Hayward went through his free agency decision on July 4. Remember, Ainge sat out at the trade deadline back in February, a move that didn’t impede Boston from making the East finals but did undercut the Celtics’ chances at truly pushing the Cavaliers. Then, he traded away the rights to consensus top pick Markelle Fultz, missed out on trades for Paul George and Jimmy Butler, and then watched as the Clippers quickly re-signed Blake Griffin.
That series of events put all of Ainge’s summer eggs in the Hayward basket. If the All-Star forward had remained in Utah, Ainge would have been left to sell the virtues of No. 3 overall pick Jayson Tatum and to play the patience card yet again. That would have been a tough sell given that electric All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas is due a gigantic new contract next summer. Boston’s deep cache of future picks would have kept that from being a ruinous turn of events, but being left without a new star or Fultz to show for his years of meticulous planning and flexibility would have made Ainge an easy punching bag.
Instead, Ainge gets to chuckle at the excellent addition of Hayward and plot his next round of moves while surveying a shredded Eastern Conference landscape in which Cleveland, Toronto and Washington are all treading water and both Chicago and Indiana have taken big steps back. Who knows? If James really does bolt Cleveland next summer, the Thomas/Hayward Celtics could own the East as early as 2018–19.
Loser: Gordon Hayward, Celtics
Let’s get this straight up front: Hayward made the correct decision. In Boston, he will enjoy the tutelage of his trusted college coach Brad Stevens, he will enter an offensive scheme that should make the most of his talents without over-relying on him, he sheds Utah’s laundry list of injury issues, he has a much easier shot at All-Star and All-NBA recognition, he has a clearer path to the Finals, he’s playing in a larger city, and he should be significantly more famous next year than at any previous point during his career. No one should expect Hayward to turn down all of that in favor of slightly more money from the Jazz, loyalty to the team that drafted and groomed him, and the very real possibility of getting wiped out of the playoffs every year by the Warriors.
At the same time, this can’t be left unsaid: Hayward badly botched the announcement of his decision, completely undermining his clear desire to part with Jazz fans on good terms. July 4th was easily the biggest moment of Hayward’s NBA career, revolving around a decision that he had months, if not years, to think through. His plan, it seems, was to publish a detailed letter to Jazz fans on The Players’ Tribune in which he recounted his favorite memories and tried to let them down easily. That plan failed because his camp couldn’t keep a secret and because his agent responded to the leaked reports of his decision with a forceful pushback aimed at preserving the long-lost scoop.
After tortured Jazz fans waited for hours on a holiday, Hayward finally posted his announcement in a long-winded story entitled “Thank you, Utah.” That story buried the lede—his decision to leave for Boston—and did little to assuage the anger of those he had left behind. That’s how an All-Star chose to express his gratitude? Really? Instead of coming off like a conflicted man with good intentions, which he likely is, Hayward departs the Jazz after seven seasons looking like a jerk.
It didn’t have to be that way. In all seriousness, he should have known better after DeAndre Jordan’s Twitter fiasco two years ago and Kevin Durant’s brief, tone-deaf letter to Oklahoma City fans on the Players’ Tribune last year. Instead of learning from those mistakes, though, Hayward somehow managed to surpass them.
Winner: Gordon Hayward, Celtics
Nevertheless, Hayward made the right choice for all of the reasons stated in the previous section. He also smartly swam against the current that saw Butler, George, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague and other notable players go from the East to the West.
It’s reasonable to imagine Hayward and the Celtics making the 2019 Finals. For all of their sound roster-building, clear identity and impressive collection of talent, the Jazz had a nearly-zero chance to make the Finals at any point during Hayward’s new four-year deal. In this case, he got lucky that his best shot at winning overlapped cleanly with a very strong pay day and a perfect relationship fit with Stevens. In the end, Hayward had to sacrifice very little to greatly improve his lot in NBA life.
Loser: Pelicans GM Dell Demps
Almost as soon as free agency opened, it became clear that the market was heading for some major corrections compared to 2016: money was tighter, deals were shorter and the head-slapping early contracts that set the tone for last summer didn’t really materialize. Now that we’re almost a week in, the contractual landscape looks like this: Five-year deal have been very rare, max deals have been given to a select few high-demand guys, and even proven All-Stars have had to settle for deals that run only two or three years in length.
There was one obvious outlier to these trends: Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday, who inked a five-year, $125 million contract that could be worth even more with incentives. As of Wednesday night, the only other players to receive five-year deals this summer are two-time MVP Stephen Curry and five-time All-Star Blake Griffin. Holiday, meanwhile, hasn’t made an All-Star Game since 2013 and has missed at least 15 games in each of the past four seasons. Yet he still pulled down a nine-figure deal that will run through 2021–22.
The terms on this deal represent years of poor decisions, bad evaluations and risky calls all coming home to roost for Pelicans executive Dell Demps, who clearly felt pressure to add another certified talent alongside Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. What happens if one of those three misses time early next season? New Orleans will almost certainly fall out of the West’s tightly-packed playoff chase, forcing Demps to weigh the possibility of trading Cousins at the deadline. What happens if Holiday’s recurring leg injuries resurface? New Orleans will be stuck with Holiday’s huge contract number on the books and G-League caliber guards on the court. That’s a tough spot to be in as Davis’s contract slowly ticks towards its end date.
This type of signing should have provided some level of relief given fears that Holiday might leave for nothing, but instead his return only crystallizes New Orleans’s dim long-term outlook.
Winner: Nuggets president Tim Connelly
Let’s be blunt: Besides a few intriguing draft choices, Nuggets president Tim Connelly entered free agency having done very little of consequence during his four years on the job. He had won a few minor victories with pick-related trades, re-signed a few vets to creative extensions, and made the right call to quickly ditch coach Brian Shaw in favor of Michael Malone. Otherwise, his free-agency track record was thin and headlined by his mystifying chase of Dwyane Wade last year.
Well, to borrow a CNN line, Monday was the day that Connelly finally became (Nuggets) president. The timing and circumstances were right for a big Denver strike: Connelly had carved out some flexibility, he had a nice young core of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris to pitch to free agents, and he could sell last season’s upward momentum and a shot at playoff contention. The 2017 Nuggets are in a much better place than, say, the 2015 Nuggets, and it was Connelly’s job to make that case and seal a deal.
By landing Paul Millsap on a three-year, $90 million contract (with a team option on the third year), Connelly acquired a perfect fit alongside Jokic, he didn’t have to part with Harris (as he might have in a possible trade for Kevin Love), and he didn’t have to pay the “small-market tax” by shelling out insane dollars or extra guaranteed years. Instead, he landed a nice bridge solution at a position of need, allowing him to move on from ill-fitting holdovers and plunge ahead with a playoff push. Well done.
Loser: Pacers president Kevin Pritchard
The most charitable view of Indiana’s return trade package for Paul George goes something like this: 1) Victor Oladipo is a hard-working and well-liked former Hoosier with untapped star potential, 2) Domantas Sabonis can become a starting-quality stretch four to pair with center Myles Turner, and 3) Both players are under team control for years into the future, helping to reshape an organizational culture that’s in transition following a bunch of roster turnover in recent years. Even that rosy-eyed pitch doesn’t sound good enough for a George rental, does it?
Looking ahead, there are a few possible reckonings to consider. First, there will be plenty of second-guessing squawks if George hits the ground running in Oklahoma City. Second, there could be an even more intriguing moment of truth if the Russell Westbrook/George pairing just doesn’t work. In a worst-case scenario from Indiana’s perspective, Oklahoma City executive Sam Presti could find himself putting George back on the market as a late-season rental, providing another data point for the All-Star forward’s trade value by which to judge Pritchard’s return.
Houston and Boston would both still be interested in George come February, right? Is it inconceivable that Oklahoma City gets a better return for George at the deadline than Indiana did in July? That’s one more thing for Pacers fans to look forward to as they grimace through a 30-something win campaign.
Winner: Banana Boat truthers
The biggest hurdle standing in the way of a 2018 “Banana Boat” reunion for LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony was always Paul’s contract situation. If Paul had taken the traditional route of exercising his option this summer and cashing in for a massive new contract, that would have essentially forced his three amigos to join him on whichever team signed him. Otherwise, their reunion would have required Paul to be traded at age 33 just one year into a long-term, max-level contract, which would qualify as a serious complication. What would Paul’s incumbent team want back in a trade? How complicated would the the salary matching have gotten? How much cap space would the reunion team need to clear to facilitate the proper series of moves?
That hurdle has now been avoided entirely thanks to Paul’s decision to opt-in. He is now free to sign anywhere next summer after playing out 2017–18 as a test season in Houston. So is James. So is Dwyane Wade. Anthony is the only wild card now because he holds a $27.9 million option for 2018–19. If Anthony wants to get in on the fun, he can either decline that option, be bought out of his current deal, or (in the most complicated scenario) be traded to the reunion team after picking up that option. Instead of rallying to play on Paul’s team or trying to force Paul to be traded, the quartet can simply put their heads together and try to decide on an ideal destination that can welcome them all next July.
For Banana Boat truthers, it can’t get much simpler than this. If Wade and Anthony are willing to accept playing at a discount, the four friends should have every opportunity to join forces next summer. The dream has never been this realistic, even if their outlook to win a title in 2019 is far, far murkier than it would have been in the early 2010s.
Losers: Jazz, Blazers and Grizzlies
One of the biggest trends over the past two weeks has been West lottery teams making moves to crack the playoff picture. Minnesota traded for Jimmy Butler, signed Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson, and traded away Ricky Rubio. Denver added Millsap. New Orleans paid up to keep Holiday. The rebuilding Kings even invested in vets like George Hill and Zach Randolph. Throw in Oklahoma City’s addition of George, and the race for the bottom four spots in the West’s playoff bracket is going to be as fierce as ever.
In the face of all these upgrades, there are three clear losers among last year’s playoff teams: Utah (down Hayward), Portland (capped out beyond all recognition), and Memphis (aging and stuck in the muck). All hope is not lost. Utah could swing a sign-and-trade around Hayward, or look to reinvest the money it was going to pay their star on other free agents. The Blazers will welcome back a healthy Jusuf Nurkic next season and could still try to dump salary, which really should remain their top priority. The Grizzlies still have two All-Star caliber starters in Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, and together they have proven to be ultra-resilient over the last six years or so.
Still, all those extra horses being added to the race will come at someone’s expense. That old “If you’re standing still, you’re falling behind” adage certainly applies to the West’s playoff picture.
Winner: Raptors president Masai Ujiri
It’s hard to keep Raptors president Masai Ujiri off these “Winners” lists. His ultimate outcome—re-signing Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka and parting with role players P.J. Tucker and Patrick Person—winds up falling in the “Unsurprising” category. Ujiri has a long track record of taking care of his main guys, he correctly concluded that he shouldn’t be in a rush to break up his organization’s golden era, and he appeared to face light outside competition in his two major negotiations.
Ujiri walks away a winner here because he kept both Lowry and Ibaka to three-year contracts, rather than overcommitting to players whose play may very well fade over the next few years. By keeping these deals shorter, Ujiri will have more flexibility whenever his core group of Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Ibaka is no longer capable of consistently producing 50-win seasons.
Losers: Phoenix Suns
While the Suns still haven’t been relegated to the G-League and are still in desperate need of a serious talent infusion, you never would have guessed it given their radio silence. The sad part is that it’s easy to talk yourself into Phoenix’s inaction given GM Ryan McDonough’s track record of trade and free agency misses.
Regardless, the Suns’ deep cache of recent lottery picks—Devin Booker, Josh Jackson, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender—all deserve as many minutes as they can handle in 2017–18. But the youngsters—and Suns fans—also deserve some degree of hope that this rebuilding project is leading somewhere. Right now, that doesn’t exist.