Winners & Losers of NBA Free Agency
With the season less than a month away already (yes, really) and the dust from a wild few weeks of draft picks and trades beginning to settle, it’s time to take a look at the biggest winners and losers of this year’s NBA Free Agency.
Back to Back
Like adding a shake to any Chick-fil-A order, the best just got better. Your 2019-20 NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers have managed to upgrade what many considered to be an odd fit around the league’s best duo in LeBron James and Anthony Davis, further emphasizing their position as favorites to repeat this season.
Let’s start with whom they brought back. Markieff Morris, a mid-season addition last year, is a stretch 4 who can space the floor for LeBron and AD while providing shooting depth from behind the arc. KCP, despite being maligned by the Lakers’ “faithful” for much of the year, was arguably the third-best player in purple and gold throughout the bubble. These two guys showed their value in Los Angeles last season and earned the chance to defend their title.
Now let’s talk about whom they added. What they lost in veteran leadership and passing IQ in Rajon Rondo, they replaced with ball handling, playmaking, and scoring in Dennis Schroder. What they lost in size in Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee, they gained in scoring and intensity in Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell. And what they lost in a traditional three-and-D shooter in Danny Green, they replaced with a player with a nearly identical stat line for $12M cheaper in Wesley Matthews.
I’m not making the same mistake I made last year by picking against the Lakers to win it all. My money is on the Lake Show to run it back this year and defend the title.
Making the Playoffs
In a year filled with uncertainty, surprise, and tumult, the one nice thing about 2020 is that it has forced us to reflect upon the things that matter most to us – Family, friends, Chick-fil-A (the theme of this article is actually that Chick-fil-A is really good). Apparently, the same is true for basketball franchises. After years of teams “trusting the process,” it appears teams have taken Herm Edwards’ advice and started playing to win games again. And perhaps no two teams better embody this spirit than the Phoenix Suns and the Atlanta Hawks
After years of representing the Valley of Death for NBA careers, Phoenix is finally looking like it might have the foundations of a respectable franchise again. In case the 8-0 bright future Suns didn’t show you enough in the Bubble last season, they made sure to signal their intentions to compete this year when they traded for 36-year-old future Hall-of-Famer Chris Paul, absorbing his massive $85M contract over the next two seasons in the process. Phoenix then proceeded to add three-and-D specialist Jae Crowder and pick up Langston Galloway while re-signing Dario Šarić to add depth on the wing. While the team is now one poorly-timed Chris Paul injury away from disaster, it’s promising to see the Suns looking to make the most out of their rising star in Devin Booker.
And speaking of a team with a rising star, the Atlanta Hawks are looking to accelerate their rebuilding process to create a winning culture around Trae Young. Whether you agree with the decision to make a run at the playoffs this year rather than sticking to a longer-term vision or not, one thing we can all agree on is that the Hawks are going to be entertaining to watch. Additions like Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanović are rightfully going to grab the headlines for their scoring prowess, but some of their less flashy moves deserve attention too.
While Rajon Rondo will likely continue his trend of using the regular season as a warm-up for the games that matter, he will undoubtedly provide invaluable playmaking guidance to the franchise’s score-first gunslinger in Trae Young. And though he hasn’t taken the offensive leap many hoped he would, Kris Dunn is another valuable asset to this young Hawks team, as he’ll provide some much needed defensive help in the backcourt, with Trae Young still looking more lost than a young Macauley Culkin on that side of the ball.
These two teams are going to be must-watch this season, but that doesn’t mean I think either of them are going to be competing for a title any time soon. They’ll both be frisky playoff teams, but the only thing that’s going to be a PROBLEM for these squads is getting out of the first round.
The 2017 Draft Class’ Wallets
There’s no better day than pay day. Just ask the phenoms at the top of the increasingly talented 2017 draft class. This offseason has seen the likes of Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, Bam Adebayo, and De’Aaron Fox all cash out for max deals worth $716 million between the four of them, and that’s not including the incentives in some of the contracts that could see that sum rise even higher. That’s a lot of money. Add in Brandon Ingram’s $158 million deal and now we’re really talking, though he technically was a member of the 2016 draft class.
While we have seen some suspect contracts handed out this offseason (we’ll get to you later, Gordon Hayward), it’s genuinely refreshing to see a handful of guys get what they deserve. Since the shadow of Kyrie Irving was lifted from Jayson Tatum’s team, the 22-year-old has regained his footing and began the ascent to superstardom that he flashed in his rookie season. Donovan Mitchell showed his value to the world during his out-of-body experience against Jamal Murray in the playoffs last year. Bam Adebayo’s value skyrocketed this season as he emerged as a versatile all-star who could serve as the cornerstone of an NBA Finals team. And De’Aaron Fox, well, he’s been the only consistent bright spot on a franchise that’s had very little to be excited about since they last made the playoffs thirteen years ago. If you were to re-draft this class, you’d find these four at the top, likely in the order I laid them out above. These guys earned their bag fair and square.
As the saying goes, “More money, more problems,” but the only problem these young phenoms will have is holding up their pants with those thick wallets in their pockets.
Before I get into this, let me be very clear here – If I never see LaVar Ball in the news again, it will still be too soon. With that said, the Ball family accomplished something truly historic this offseason, becoming the first family to have two brothers drafted in the first five picks of an NBA Draft. As insufferable as LaVar has been, this is a truly impressive feat that deserves every bit of the recognition it has been given.
Lonzo’s stock is down now after a pretty tragic bubble performance, but there are plenty of people around the league who still believe in his potential. And speaking of potential, LaMelo has plenty of it. I could see him becoming the best player in this draft with off-the-charts basketball IQ, or I could see him becoming a guy who fails to adapt his playing style to the needs of his team, bouncing around the league from team to team as front offices convince themselves he’s worth a chance. Either way, I’m going to be tuning into Charlotte Hornets games this season, something I most definitely haven’t said in the past. Shout out to the Ball family, this is impressive.
And no, I absolutely do not want to watch MJ embarrass LaVar in a one-on-one matchup destined for the elderly home Hall of Fame. With that, I am done talking about LaVar Ball, hopefully forever.
This list wouldn’t be complete without giving recognition to the two warriors who have been grinding day in and day out to blow up our Twitter notifications with the latest and greatest NBA news. Adrian Wojnarowski and Shams Charania aren’t the heroes we deserve, but they’re the heroes we need.
Woj used to have the breaking news market cornered, but the emergence of Shams nothing short of spectacular. Now, the two seem to be battling it out for the NBA notifications crown, somehow making the frenzy of the offseason even more exciting. I’m not sure it’s worth the lack of sleep or the constant trolls in their mentions, but we appreciate these two more than they know. Long live Woj and Shams.
Houston, We Have a Problem
Any time your team’s head coach chooses to leave to take an assistant role elsewhere and your GM steps down to move to another organization, you know you’re in for a rough offseason. Add in trade requests from your two star players, and now you’re really in for a ride to the moon. It’s tough to be a Rockets fan right now. From the near constant trade rumors, to the whisperings of institutional instability stemming from team owner’s political leanings, there’s very little to be happy about entering this upcoming season.
But, for the tormented Rockets fans out there, I’ll leave you on a positive. Ignoring the obvious issues surrounding the franchise, the team as it is currently constructed still has the foundations of a playoff team in the West. No, this isn’t going to be the same team that nearly upset the Warriors before an untimely Chris Paul injury, but with the additions of NBA Twitter’s favorite new big man, Christian Wood, and a potential boom or bust candidate in DeMarcus Cousins, the Rockets have quickly been able to size back up away from the small-ball style they adopted last season. We’ll see what this team looks like in a few months, but I’d be shocked if they remain as they’re currently constructed for long.
Playing Chess, not Checkers
The Detroit Pistons have either gone full Galaxy Brain on us, or they’re putting way more faith in the game sizing up than most teams. Within the first few days of free agency, the Pistons had brought in FIVE big men, drafting one (ahead of his projected draft position, it should be noted) and signing four others, including the former Denver Nugget, Mason Plumlee. They then followed up on their roster reconstruction by adding Jerami Grant, another former Denver Nugget, for $60M over 3 years. And I’ll go ahead and ask the question that’s on everyone’s mind right now – why?
While the Lakers’ success in last year’s playoffs clearly has motivated teams to size-up this offseason, these moves have the rest of the league shaking their heads in bewilderment. Why sign Jahlil Okafor and 30-year-old Mason Plumlee, two backup options at center, when you could have kept Christian Wood, who many see as a promising starting center? Why spend $20M a year on Jerami Grant, a player who has primarily been used as a spot-up shooter for the Nuggets, when you had Luke Kennard?
Factor in the team’s first-round draft choice in point guard Killian Hayes, and these moves make even less sense. It’s not going to be quite as bad as what the Knicks put their rookie point guard RJ Barrett through last season with all 10,000 of their power forwards, but the spacing on this Pistons team could be a mess for young Hayes if their big men aren’t able to shoot serviceably. The only thing I can say with certainty about this Detroit Pistons team right now is that they are nowhere near ready to compete in the East in the next few years.
Winning, But at What Cost…?
Michael Jordan’s Charlotte Hornets are paying Gordon Hayward, a very good player *when healthy,* $120M over the next four years. We could get into Hayward’s injury history or the Hornets’ tragic past with overpaying players, but, honestly, this one speaks for itself.
Trevor Ariza’s travel agent
This guy has been BUSY. On November 21st, 2020, Trevor Ariza set a league record after being traded for the 10th time in his career. Last week alone, the once highly coveted Ariza found himself bouncing around the walls of a pinball machine after he landed on his fourth in the span of 6 days. Beginning the offseason in Portland, Ariza now finds himself in Oklahoma City after Woj and Marc Stein misreported that he was headed to the Dallas Mavericks. What. A. Week.
And given Sam Presti’s Baby Yoda-like obsession with first-round draft picks, I’d find it highly unlikely that Ariza finds himself on the Thunder’s payroll for very long. Mr. Travel Agent, keep your options open, I don’t think you’re done moving Trevor Ariza around quite yet.
Contenders Not Named the Lakers
While there’s an argument to be made that a few teams marginally improved by adding a pickle or two to their sandwiches, for the most part, it feels like the Lakers’ biggest threats took a half-step back. It’s not like they decided not to order waffle fries, but it feels like they left without asking for Chick-fil-A sauce and didn’t realize until they got home. It’s not the end of the world, but your order definitely doesn’t quite hit the same without it.
Next season, the Warriors, Blazers, Nets, and 76ers will all be healthier than they were a year ago, making them significantly more competitive right off the bat. But as of now, we haven’t seen what type of player Kevin Durant will be for the Nets, and we don’t know what we’re going to see from a Doc Rivers led 76ers. The Warriors looked like they had something brewing, but without Klay Thompson, they’re not seen as serious title contenders any longer. The Blazers will be a force in the West with the addition of Robert Covington, but they don’t feel like serious threats to the Lakers quite yet. Maybe that will change when we see the season kick off, but for now, they’re still a step below the reigning champs in my book. The extra pickles will be nice, but until they can step up and show they’re ready for the shake, these teams are a level below the Lakers in my eyes.
That leaves us with the Clippers, Celtics, Heat, Raptors, Heat, Thunder, Rockets, and Nuggets. The Rockets are currently playing in anti-gravity mode and the Thunder are electrifying the league with all of their trades for first-round picks, so those two aren’t going to be making a run at the title. The remaining contenders found themselves in similar positions, seeing valuable role-players leave while welcoming new role-players to fill their places. It’s not like any of these teams had a particularly bad offseason (with the exception of the Nuggets, they seemed to swing and miss in free agency), but they also didn’t seem to do enough to catch up to the defending champs.
This is a serious question – do you know a single person who doesn’t like Klay Thompson? If you answer yes to this question, please re-evaluate the people you are spending your time with because Klay is a national…no… INTERNATIONAL icon.
It’s truly unfortunate to see anyone go down with injury, but when it’s someone so universally beloved, it makes it that much tougher. But despite this massive blow to NBA fans everywhere, let’s do our best to enjoy what is guaranteed to be an absolute thrill of a season. After all, like the wise Klay Thompson himself once said, “This will be in the past, like a ponytail.”