So many people rush to do their winners and losers within minutes of the first few crazy hours of free agency. But not me. I like to think I took a small breath before deciding who really won and who actually lost during the NBA’s wild-west, free-agent bonanza. We all know the Nets did a good thing by signing two great players. We all know the Knicks messed up for the millionth time. So with free agency now somewhere over 40 hours old—and with one Kawhi Leonard-sized caveat hanging over this exercise—let’s dig a little deeper to once and for all decide the victors and the vanquished.
Winner: Sean Marks
How many times have we seen NBA GMs make a series of elaborate maneuvers only to walk away empty-handed? Heck, that’s exactly what happened to the Knicks this summer. Sean Marks rebuilt the Nets in three years with none of his own first-round draft picks. (I’m trying to make that fact Marks’s own “platinum with no features.”) Brooklyn isn't guaranteed anything with Kyrie and KD, but Marks proved that a) tanking isn’t the only route to re-enter contention and b) you can sell players on culture over history. Even if Brooklyn never wins a title with Durant and Irving, signing them was on obvious decision. I expect Marks will be a coveted executive for a long time.
Loser: Capable Big Men
Why is Kevon Looney making only $5 million next season? Was there really no market for Enes Kanter? Is Boogie Cousins going to find a mid-level exception? The big-man market is weird, in that it helps to be smaller like Julius Randle or Bobby Portis, or you need to be a three-point marksman like Brook Lopez. I think Looney especially is going to be a steal. We may be entering something of a post-Warriors era in the NBA. That doesn’t just mean a new title favorite. It means contenders won’t be built with the specific purpose of beating Golden State. A large part of big men becoming obsolete was their difficulty in slowing down Stephen Curry and the Warriors’ death lineup. Now, as the Raptors just proved in the Finals with Marc Gasol, you can play big men and still be taken seriously as a championship hopeful. There are important centers on good teams all over the league. The market just hasn’t caught up yet.
Winner: Donovan Mitchell
Spida will go from carrying an absurd burden as a rookie and sophomore to playing for a well-balanced team practically overnight. With the Jazz adding capable floor spacers in Mike Conley and Bogdan Bogdanovic—and a bona fide second option in Conley—Mitchell should have his best season yet in Year 3. Utah could still use a sparkplug-y scorer off the bench, but the beauty of the Jazz’s moves this offseason is not only do they improve the team, it’s that they make life for Mitchell drastically easier. He was already the type of player who was going to come back next season with more added to his game. Now he’ll also have a much easier time doing whatever he wants.
Loser: Pat Standers
Two teams pretty much no one is talking about: The Rockets and Nuggets. Houston and Denver both lost in the second round in the postseason, though both had good cases for being the second-best team in the West. Neither have made splashy moves this summer. Both will almost assuredly run it back with their core largely intact, though the Rockets have been peeking around the trade market. While Houston and Denver are lacking in buzz, they can’t be counted out. The Rockets are now the last team who beat the Warriors when Durant and Klay Thompson were healthy. Denver was a regular-season juggernaut last year that now features playoff experience and a wild card in Michael Porter Jr. Don’t sleep on these two teams.
The NBA’s most recent CBA made it significantly harder to execute sign-and-trades, basically punishing teams who engage in them with complex salary rules and a “hard apron” they aren’t allowed to exceed. The apron scared most GMs off of sign-and-trades. The last one before this summer was in 2017. Now they are happening left and right. Jimmy Butler to Miami? Signed and traded, baby. Kemba Walker and Terry Rozier? Signed and traded for each other. Kevin Durant? The Warriors are literally trading him to the Nets. I’m very excited for the return of this quirk. Sign-and-trades open up free agency. That’s how a star like Butler can get to a Miami team that has absolutely no cap space. It also forces front offices to tackle some pretty complicated math scenarios, and at some point that is going to end in embarrassment for one of these teams. There are literally no downsides to sign-and-trades. Keep bringing them on.
Loser: Celtics Haters
There’s a very good chance Boston a) wins more games than the Nets next season and b) wins more games in 2020 than it did in 2019. The Celtics didn’t get better this summer, but Kemba will almost certainly be a better fit in the locker room than Kyrie. Boston’s center rotation is going to take some serious work—ending up with Kanter over Looney or Robin Lopez will create problems defensively. But the Celts rebounded nicely from losing Irving and Al Horford, and handing over the team to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown could end up being a blessing in disguise. Gordon Hayward getting closer to All-Star form would help quite a bit as well.
Winner: Brett Brown
The Sixers coach saw his roster get remade twice during last season, and then he was almost coaching for his job in the playoffs. I think Philly was smart not to fire Brown over literally a couple unlucky bounces. Now, not only is Brown returning to coach arguably the favorite in the East, he will actually get a full training camp with the latest version of the Sixers’ roster. I still don’t know if signing Horford was a better move than bringing back last year’s starting five. But the new group is undoubtedly talented, and giving Brown a full season with the same group (aside from moves on the margins) should benefit the entire organization.
Loser: Fans of Magic and the Dark Arts
What the hell are the Wizards doing? Oh, and speaking of magic, what the hell are the Magic doing accumulating big men like they’re stocking up for the apocalypse? Both of these teams are depressing.
Next season is going to be awesome, regardless of where Kawhi signs. (If it’s with the Lakers, that team will be closer to the 2010 Heat than the 2016 Warriors.) There are going to be a plethora of teams with championship aspirations—the Nuggets, Rockets, Blazers, Thunder, Lakers, Bucks, Sixers, and Raptors. Maybe the Clippers can get in there with Kawhi. Maybe the Nets make a leap with a healthy Kyrie. What if Klay comes back early and the Warriors flip D’Angelo Russell for a few pieces? The field is going to be the most open it’s been in a long time, and the biggest beneficiaries will be the League Pass-obsessed public.
I don’t want to end things on a down note, but Milwaukee is lame as hell for letting Malcolm Brogdon walk. The Bucks had no reason to do that other than trying to duck a larger payroll. I understand Milwaukee is in a tough spot, needing to lock in good players to keep a title contender afloat, but not committing huge money to everyone and being stuck with a team that’s not quite a championship contender as Giannis sneakily approaches free agency. But Brogdon, a guy who was a restricted free agent, is the kind of player you keep around. It deeply bothers me when owners of contending teams make moves to avoid the luxury tax or whatever. It should make all fans more angry.
Free agency coverage is always slanted toward the team. We hand out grades based on if a general manager was able to find a bargain. It’s kind of unfair to the players. Owners chase money over winning all the time—that’s what the Bucks did by letting Brogdon go—and rarely do they face the same criticism as players do for it. Milwaukee better hope keeping Eric Bledsoe proves to be worth it, because the Bucks will have only themselves to blame if things go poorly after they decided to get cheap.