NBA free agency began in earnest Monday, with dozens of contracts being handed out within the first few hours of the “legal tampering period” or whatever the league is calling the few days before the contracts become official. Let’s run through some winners and losers from Day 1.
As a Lonzo Ball believer, I’m a big fan of what Chicago did on Monday. Ball should slot in nicely next to Zach LaVine as a table setter and spot-up shooter. Lonzo has been over 37% on threes in back-to-back seasons now, and in 2021 he took 8.3 threes a night. Couple this signing with the four-year deal for Alex Caruso, and the Bulls also added two really valuable defenders who should have their best years ahead of them. Chicago may not be in a perfect spot—the front office still needs to figure out a LaVine extension, and there are still some questions in the frontcourt. But the additions of Ball and Caruso should pay immediate dividends.
Loser: People Tired of Heat Culture
The people who reflexively eye roll every time they hear the phrase “Heat Culture” were pounding the table in anger Monday after Miami acquired Kyle Lowry in a sign-and-trade from the Raptors, then scooped P.J. Tucker with a two-year deal. The Heat’s Day 1 coup was a double whammy, strengthening their own roster while weakening two foes in their conference. And for good measure, Duncan Robinson is also staying put on a five-year deal. Is Miami actually a title contender now? I wouldn’t go that far. Lowry and Tucker are both on the wrong side of 35, so predicting their future performance for even next season is a little tricky. And because they are hard-capped, the Heat need to be incredibly deliberate in how they add depth to their bench. Ultimately, Miami made significant improvements to a team that made the Finals less than a year ago. Acquiring the best point guard on the market and a respected veteran like Tucker were no-brainers.
Winner: James Jones
The Suns GM retained Chris Paul and Cam Payne and picked up JaVale McGee on a one-year deal to start free agency. Though the Paul contract is massive and seemingly a big gamble on the efficacy of plant-based diets, it’s a good sign for Jones that ownership signed off on such an expensive deal. It appears, at least for now, Robert Sarver is willing to pay to keep the core of his title contender together. That makes Jones’s job much easier, especially when extensions start to kick in for younger players like Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, and Cam Johnson. Oh, and the McGee signing was one of Monday’s sneaky best moves. Phoenix was thin at center during the playoffs, relying on Ayton for huge minutes by the end of the Finals. McGee has championship experience and has acquitted himself well on veteran teams in his career. Pair him with Phoenix’s aggressive guards and he should be really effective in the Valley.
Loser: Cap Space
Outside of Chicago, none of the teams with big cap space were able to do anything particularly special on Day 1. The Mavs, while adding some wing depth, are still looking for a running mate to help ease the ball-handling burden on Luka. The Spurs’ big splash was bringing in the oft-injured Zach Collins. The Pelicans rather controversially signed Devonte’ Graham in the midst of the point guard carousel. And the new, patient version of the Knicks gave out a big deal to … Evan Fournier?
There is still time for each of these teams to tinker with their rosters. There weren’t tons of big names on the market. And New Orleans and San Antonio certainly haven’t been traditional free-agent destinations. But it has to be frustrating for all of these teams not to make some bigger moves after positioning themselves to be in the mix for some of the better talents available.
Winner: Brooklyn Nets
The Nets continue to have a wonderful offseason based mostly off what their competitors are doing. The Bucks appear to be the same team at best, and perhaps slightly worse after losing Tucker and Bryn Forbes. The Sixers still can’t find a trade partner for Ben Simmons. The Lakers are making baffling decisions. The Warriors are having some trouble adding vets. You can keep going down the list of contenders; essentially the Nets are going to be favorites next season if they can stay healthy. And based on the draft and now Day 1 of free agency, even with its own depth issues, Brooklyn has to be thrilled about how it stacks up against its biggest competition.
Loser: The Backbone of the Lakers’ Success
...which has been their defense for two years in a row. This has been a high-risk offseason for the Lakers, and on paper, Rob Pelinka’s maneuvering is a little puzzling. Going in on the messy fit of Russell Westbrook as opposed to Buddy Hield was already a divisive decision, and that’s before you factor in the higher cost to acquire Westbrook. Meanwhile, letting Caruso walk made no sense. The Lakers had his Bird rights, which meant they could have paid whatever to keep Caruso on the team. Instead, a young player goes out the door and one-dimensional and/or limited vets like Dwight Howard, Wayne Ellington, Trevor Ariza and Kent Bazemore come in. Those aren’t bad pickups, but there’s no reason L.A. couldn’t have had Caruso in addition to the other signings.
With Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope now gone, the Lakers have lost valuable defenders from the last two seasons. With Westbrook’s affinity for freelancing on that end of the floor, the burden on LeBron James and Anthony Davis is going to be much higher when it comes to slowing down opponents. Were all of these changes even necessary after how good the Lakers looked before injuries hit last season? LeBron and AD are talented enough to work around awkward fits and also whip a defense into shape. With James nearing 40 though, L.A. can’t afford to have an offseason filled with significant misses. That hasn’t stopped the front office from taking big swings.
More NBA Coverage:
• Grading Kyle Lowry's Deal With the Heat
• NBA Free Agency Roundtable: Best Moves, Worst Deals
• Grading Lonzo Ball's $85M Deal With the Bulls
• 2021 NBA Free Agency: Ranking the Top 50 Players