NBA free agency winners
The chalk: The Warriors signed All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins, coming off an Achilles tendon injury and looking to revamp his free-agent value before hitting the market again next summer. Other than that, the chief benefit to the defending champs’ three-peat hopes came from the failure to do anything significant by their top rivals. Houston, in fact, lost Trevor Ariza, throwing the Rockets’ depth further into question and making Golden State’s path through the West all the easier.
The Celtics, too, thrived by not doing much outside of signing free-agent guard Brad Wanamaker, and you should feel no shame in needing to Google “Brad Wanamaker” before being able to speak about him intelligently. Boston saw James leave the conference, saw Philadelphia miss on the hoped-for, big-time free agent (though the team did well to improve its wing depth) and watched Toronto do nothing of significance.
Golden State and Boston entered the summer the prohibitive favorites to reach the Finals, and will come out of free agency in the same position.
Sam Presti: There is much to be determined in Oklahoma City, including whether there is wisdom in pairing Paul George with Russell Westbrook at all — the team produced only 48 wins last season, after all, and was eliminated by Utah in the first round of the playoffs. The wisdom of an astronomical luxury tax bill ($150 million) for such a middling club is open to question, too.
But a year together should make the Thunder better this time around, and the simple fact is that we all knew Presti was gambling when he traded for George last year. He won that gamble, and he deserves credit for it.
Magic Johnson: Well, he won’t have to resign. Johnson staked his brief career as a team executive on his ability to change the Lakers’ moribund recent free-agent luck, and said he’d quit if he couldn’t do so in the next two years. He delivered by pulling in the biggest fish of all, LeBron James, and by doing so without needing to restructure the roster to James’ liking.
LA has amassed a flotilla of weird and talented players on one-year deals, keeping the Lakers in the mix for other top free-agents going forward.
The trade market: Money was tight in the NBA, and the drama of free agency has fallen off pretty quickly relative to most years. But don’t think we won’t have anything to talk about in the coming weeks.
Now, the trade market will heat up, and there will be top-tier players certainly popping up (Kawhi Leonard, Kemba Walker, Dennis Schroeder, Hassan Whiteside) and some intriguing options only maybe showing up (the Gasol brothers, Kevin Love, Damian Lillard/CJ McCollum, Tobias Harris). But expect there to be plenty of business discussed.
Pacers: Indiana was the No. 5 seed in the East least year, with 48 wins, and took Cleveland to seven games in the first round — same as Boston, and three more than the Raptors. They haven’t made headline-grabbing signings, but they addressed weaknesses by signing shooter Doug McDermott and wing Tyreke Evans, plus adding point-guard depth with Aaron Holiday in the draft.
They did all this while maintaining flexibility in the short and long terms, making for a nice Pacers summer so far.
Dirk Nowitzki: We could be bracing for the final season of Dirk Nowitzki, NBA star. He will be back in Dallas next year, and credit to the Mavericks for seeing to it that he won’t exit the league the way Kobe Bryant did, with a miserable, 17-win group of misfits. The Mavs are lined up for a playoff push.
Dallas buried the hatchet with big man DeAndre Jordan and signed him in free agency. The Mavs did so without completely fudging their cap space for years to come, as Jordan agreed to a one-year deal. Dallas, with a promising backcourt of Dennis Smith Jr. and Luka Doncic, could have a nearly blank slate for its salary structure next season should Harrison Barnes opt out, allowing the team to entirely revamp its roster around the young guys once Nowitzki leaves (assuming he hangs it up next summer, which is not definite).
NBA free agency losers
Adam Silver: This is not what Silver had in mind when he was deputy commissioner helping David Stern institute a much heftier luxury tax and a system that was intended to promote parity. Instead, the league got another season of expected Warriors dominance, and its biggest star bolting the Lake Erie shore for the Lakers.
The math of the collective bargaining agreement says that small markets should be able to compete in the NBA. But outside factors — quirks in the salary cap rules, plus plain old human decision-making, like Cousins choosing Golden State, James choosing LA, Leonard choosing to force a Spurs exit — keep torpedoing the league’s parity paradigm.
Anthony Davis: He went into free agency with Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins as teammates, and came out with Elfrid Payton and Julius Randle. Not all is lost, but the team did not add the depth it thought it was adding with the two new guys. Instead, Payton and Randle could well be the starters next season, with Rondo joining the Lakers and Cousins in Golden State.
The Pels made such tremendous progress last year, earning a playoff spot with 48 wins (even with the Achilles injury to Cousins) and disposing of the Trail Blazers in a first-round sweep. Now, New Orleans will have to sweat out making the playoffs at all again next year, and that won’t register well with Davis, who, remember, is a free agent in 2020.
Rockets: This was not a deep bunch to begin with. Now, with Trevor Ariza off to Phoenix (of all places), Houston is scraping up a pretty thin roster. In case you’re wondering how the Rockets can fill Ariza’s shoes, consider that Gerald Green was his primary backup in the playoffs.
Not much has happened to Houston, outside of the team giving Chris Paul an enormous, four-year, $160 million contract, a bit of a risk considering his age (33) and recent injury struggles. The Rockets’ 3-2 lead in the Western Conference finals this past season now feels like an extraordinary blown opportunity that won’t come again.
Restricted free agents: It was widely predicted that this would be a nuclear summer for those free agents bearing the restricted tag like a scarlet R. Those predictions have been borne out. A few — Aaron Gordon, Fred VanVleet, Julius Randle and Nemanja Bjelica (whose qualifying offers were first withdrawn) among them — got deals, but players like Clint Capela, Zach LaVine, Jabari Parker, Marcus Smart, Jusuf Nurkic and Rodney Hood are still awaiting offers.
Players entering the fifth year of their rookie contracts are given one-year qualifying offers in order to remain restricted, and have the option of accepting those qualifying offers in order to become unrestricted free agents the following summer. Expect a record number of players to accept QOs.
Ty Lue: Lue went from being the coach LeBron wanted promoted after the firing of David Blatt to now overseeing a Kevin Love-led team that also features George Hill, possibly Rodney Hood, Cedi Osman and newcomer Collin Sexton. Oh, and JR Smith. There’s still JR.
It’ll be a much different year for the Cleveland coach, who will immediately be on the hot seat.
Isaiah Thomas: Two summers ago, Thomas said he would need a Brinks truck to handle all the money he would be making when he hit free agency here in 2018. Instead, after a nasty hip injury and a waste of a 2017-18 season, Thomas — still unsigned — should be more concerned about the steamroller heading toward his NBA career.