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NBA Free Agency Winners and Losers

With the bulk of transactions behind us, let’s look at the winners and losers in free agency.

Jesse Blancarte

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The bulk of this offseason’s free agency moves are now behind us, so we can take a look at which teams did the best and worst job.

Winners:

Golden State Warriors

When a franchise that just won 73 regular season games in a single season, that was within arm’s reach of winning the championship after winning it the previous season, that features a roster with the reigning league MVP, two other all-NBA caliber players, an elite wing-defender, plenty of rotation depth and a top-notch head coach adds Kevin Durant in free agency, without question that franchise falls into the winner’s category.

There isn’t a ton to dissect here. The Warriors already had Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala on the roster and add a generational talent in Durant. They had to let players like Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli, Leoandro Barbosa and Marresse Speights go, but replaced them with some solid veterans like Zaza Pachulia and David West.

This isn’t just a collection of raw talent either. The Warriors play some of the most cohesive, inclusive basketball of any team in the NBA. Durant steps right in and fills the gap that Barnes left behind. While Durant has made a living in isolation over his career, he should benefit from the pass-happy, screen-heavy, free-flowing style of play that Coach Steve Kerr runs. This team was already crazy good and it just got even better. Oh, and by stealing Durant away, the Warriors simultaneously gutted their biggest challengers in the Western Conference. Talk about icing on the cake.

Utah Jazz

There isn’t a single team that can match the Warriors’ talent on paper. But, if you had to pick a team that could give the Warriors some problems based on personnel, the Jazz is a pretty good bet.

This offseason, the Jazz traded the rights to Taurean Prince (the 12th overall pick in this year’s Draft) to the Atlanta Hawks for George Hill from Indiana Pacers (who received Jeff Teague from the Hawks), traded the rights to Olivier Hanlan (41st overall pick in the 2015 Draft) to the San Antonio Spurs for Boris Diaw and a 2022 second-rounder and signed Joe Johnson to a two-year, $21.5 million contract.

In making these moves, the Jazz have added a strong defender and veteran at the point guard position in George, a versatile forward in Diaw and a veteran wing who can still score from anywhere on the court in Johnson. Add these veterans to a team that features a dominant defensive duo in the front court in Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, along with a star-wing in Gordon Hayward, and the Jazz suddenly have a versatile roster that can go big and punish teams for playing small-ball.

Our Ben Dowsett broke down Utah’s bolstered roster versatility earlier this month. This is part of what he said about the Jazz’s new flexibility:

The Jazz can run space-heavy offensive units with the length to switch a ton on defense – think Hill-Hood-Hayward-Johnson-Gobert/Favors – just as easily as they can strangle teams with groups featuring Hill and/or Exum (a borderline elite defender as a rookie), one or two of the bigger wings and the towering Favors-Gobert duo. The Jazz now have four relatively like-sized perimeter players who create gravity from deep (Hill, Hood, Hayward, Johnson), two playmaking bigs in Lyles and Diaw, and two rolling, rebounding and rim protecting giants up front. They have the length to go “small” without actually playing smaller guys, and the shooting to put as much combined size on the floor as the league has seen in recent years. One can’t ask for much more flexibility.

To be clear, the Jazz, just like every other team, does not have the level of collective talent that Golden State does. However, with a versatile roster, they should have a decent shot at giving the Warriors some problems in their matchups.

Boston Celtics

The Celtics were one of the most ambitious teams this offseason. General manager Danny Ainge has a treasure chest of tradable assets and was looking to trade for or sign star players like Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant and Al Horford. Ainge ultimately missed out on Butler and Durant, but adds a top-notch two-way big man in Horford.

Horford, age 30, fills a big hole in the Celtics’ roster. Kelly Olynyk and Amir Johnson are fine players, but neither is a top-level big men. Horford can plug in at starting center while adding rim protection, the versatility to guard mobile big man, as well as an effective assortment of shooting and post-moves on offense.

Horford probably doesn’t vault the Celtics into the NBA’s elite-tier of teams, but he does move the needle significantly. The Celtics now have a stud at center and plenty of assets and flexibility to use moving forward. Adding Durant and Horford would have been a grand slam, but hitting a homerun is perfectly fine too.

Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets entered the offseason with a lot of decisions to make. In the end, the Hornets let Courtney Lee, Al Jefferson and Jeremy Lin go to other teams while retaining Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams. They also added Ramon Sessions, Roy Hibbert and Brian Roberts.

Keeping Batum is a big deal considering his age, versatility and still improving game. Batum may not be a superstar, but he’s the kind of player who makes a team better in more ways than can easily be quantified. Add in the fact that we still don’t know how good he and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist can be together and there’s a lot of reason to like the roster the Hornets are developing. In fact, let’s all take a moment to get excited about Kidd-Gilchrist’s eventual return to NBA action. He is a tenacious defender, improving offensive player and should be a dynamic complement to Batum on the wing.

Williams shot over 40 percent from three last year and has found his niche as a valuable stretch-four. Hibbert has fallen off the map, but has a chance to rebuild his image as a defensive stalwart under Steve Clifford. The Hornets may not have had the best overall offseason, but they took care of their main priorities without losing sight of their long-term outlook.

Losers:

Oklahoma City Thunder

It’s hard to not feel bad for the Oklahoma City Thunder and its fans. Seriously, this team was finally scratching the surface of how good it could be last postseason after years of fans and critics criticizing their inability to consistently extract optimal output from their talented roster.

Klay Thompson’s three-point barrage (11-of-18) helped the Warriors force a Game 7 against the Thunder, who ultimately lost after being up in the series 3-1. Thompson’s performance, in part, led to Durant’s decision to leave the Thunder and team up with the star-studded Warriors. Again, it’s hard to not feel bad for the Thunder.

However, Thunder general manager Sam Presti did bring in some nice talent by trading Serge Ibaka to the Orlando Magic for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and the rights to Donatas Sabonis (11th overall pick in this year’s Draft). Getting a player like Oladipo, who will be under team control for several years, as well as Ilyasova and Sabonis is a pretty nice haul for a player who is on an expiring deal and whose defensive impact had steadily waned in recent seasons. Though they will likely lose Dion Waiters to another team after Oklahoma City rescinded their qualifying offer, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent.

Losing Durant is a major blow (to say the least) for the Thunder and could lead to Russell Westbrook leaving town after this upcoming season as an unrestricted free agent. If any front office could successfully navigate a situation like this, the Thunder’s can.

Los Angeles Lakers

Not so long ago, the Lakers were the league’s most desirable franchise. However, after putting together some historically bad seasons, missing out on major free agents, dealing with internal strife in the front office and saying farewell to Kobe Bryant, this once proud franchise has been knocked down a peg or two.

Proof of this is the fact that Durant declined the invitation to meet with the Lakers to discuss the possibility of joining them as a free agent. It’s one thing to meet with a superstar and to be told ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ It’s another thing to not even be given the opportunity to meet and discuss the possibility of making a deal.

Instead of getting a star player like Durant or a rising talent like Hassan Whiteside, the Lakers threw down big money on Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov. Deng and Mozgov are still both decently productive players and nice veterans to add to the locker room. However, $136,000,000 is a lot of money to commit to Deng and Mozgov over four years. Yes, the cap spiked and that changes the way we assess the value of contracts these days. It doesn’t matter—that’s still a lot of money. Even signing Tarik Black to a two-year, partially-guaranteed $12.8 million contract is a pretty hefty investment when guys like Hibbert, Speights and Ezeli are earning only slighter more, or less per year.

Having said all of that, adding Luke Walton on as coach, re-signing Jordan Clarkson to a four-year, $50 million contract and drafting Brandon Ingram are nice moves that help the rebuilding process in L.A. With a good core of young talent and a bright head coach, the Lakers are slowly but surely heading toward a better future. But again, $136,000,000 is a lot of money for two aging veterans whose best days are likely behind them.

Chicago Bulls

Asserting that the Bulls are losers in free agency may draw some ire considering they added Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo as free agents. Wade is one of the greatest shooting guards of all-time and Rondo is one of the best passers in the league. However, Wade’s past his prime and has a less than ideal injury history and Rondo has struggled in recent seasons and is always a concern in the locker room.

These issues are exacerbated by the fact that Wade and Rondo would form arguably the worst shooting backcourt in the entire NBA considering Wade and Rondo have shot below 30 percent from three-point range in their respective careers. Additionally, Wade and Rondo are ball-dominant guards, which may be a problem considering star forward Jimmy Butler also needs the ball in his hands. Each of these three players has strong personalities and will have to set their respective egos aside to make this dynamic work.

Fortunately for Chicago they do have a nice crop of young talent on the team in players like Bobby Portis, Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott, Jerian Grant, Cristiano Felicio and Denzel Valentine, and added a good center in Robin Lopez in the Derrick Rose trade. Additionally, adding Wade and Rondo doesn’t jeopardize the team’s future flexibility. Nevertheless, the Bulls have added two strong personalities to a team that suffered issues in the locker room last season. One way or another, this will be an interesting season in Chicago.

San Antonio Spurs

After 19 years in the NBA, Tim Duncan decided to call it a career. Losing Duncan is a sad thing for NBA fans and even tougher for those in and around the Spurs organization. While the Spurs did manage to land Pau Gasol to offset the loss of Duncan, at age 36, it’s hard to see how Gasol helps the Spurs get past the Warriors in the Western Conference.

The issue for San Antonio is that by failing to land Durant, losing Duncan and not bringing in a significant boost in talent, they remain more than a step behind the Warriors in the Western Conference with an aging roster. The same logic can be applied to the Los Angeles Clippers, who also missed out on Durant and had to settle for re-signing their own free agents while adding depth on the fringes of their roster. However, in the Clippers’ case, they kept most of their key pieces and got value signings in Brandon Bass and Speights. Unfortunately for both of these teams, not being able to take a step forward in free agency constitutes a loss considering how much better the rival Warriors became by signing Durant.

This Spurs roster has nice pieces in LaMarcus Aldridge, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. But players like Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Gasol are in their mid-30s and it’s hard to see how they can match against the prime-year athletes in the Bay. However, if there is any coach that could find out a way to maximize his roster’s talent and the formula for stopping the Warriors, it’s Gregg Popovich.

Washington Wizards

The Wizards spent the last two seasons or so preparing to make a strong run at Durant in free agency. Despite their careful planning, the Wizards didn’t even get a meeting with Durant.

Instead, the Wizards brought in some decent big men in Ian Mahinmi (four-year, $62 million), Andrew Nicholson (four-year, $26 million contract, player option in final season) and Jason Smith (three-year, $15.7 million contract, player option in final season). They also reportedly agreed to re-sign Bradley Beal to a five-year, $127.2 million contract.

The Wizards still have a good crop of young talent to build this team around and a new coach in Scott Brooks to lead the way. But failing to get a meeting from Durant, who grew up in Washington D.C., is a punch to the gut for a team that had the talent (John Wall, Bradley Beal) and flexibility to make a viable pitch. It also doesn’t help that Durant seemed to take a less than veiled swipe at the team in his letter on The Players’ Tribune announcing his decision to join Warriors: “I’m from Washington, D.C. originally, but Oklahoma City truly raised me. It taught me so much about family as well as what it means to be a man.”

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Young, Western Conference Bubble

The race for the West’s final playoff spot may seem crowded, but the last two months make it clear that two teams are already ahead of the pack.

Douglas Farmer

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We all jump to conclusions too quickly, this space and this scribe most certainly included. Three months ago, five weeks into the NBA season, the Western Conference playoff bubble looked like it would be a race between the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves. That has assuredly not become the reality.

While the Kings and Suns can claim to still be in the playoff race, they would have to not only make up five-game deficits, but they would also each have to jump over four other teams to reach the postseason. The Timberwolves would delight at such challenges as they initiate a not-so-subtle tank with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined for at least a few weeks with a fractured wrist.

Instead, the race to be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers has come down to a pair of up-and-comers, a perpetual deep threat and the NBA’s most consistent organization. Of all of them, it is the youngsters who are both currently playing the best and have the most control of their playoff hopes relative to their competition.

Between the current No. 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trail Blazers (3 games back), New Orleans Pelicans (3.5) and San Antonio Spurs (4), the next six weeks will feature eight key games. Five of those will include either the Grizzlies or the Pelicans or, in two instances, both.

That pair of matchups is still a month out, but they warrant circling already, nonetheless. Memphis and New Orleans have been playing at a high level for two-plus months now, and by the time they play two games within four nights in late March — when the basketball world is largely distracted by the NCAA Tournament — the two inexperienced teams may have completely separated from Portland and San Antonio.

After starting 1-5, 5-13 and then 10-19, the Grizzlies have gone 18-9 since Dec. 21. The Pelicans have matched that record exactly, down to the date, since starting even worse than Memphis did, bottoming out at 7-23 before finding an uptick long before Zion Williamson found the court. Winning two-thirds of your games for two months is a stretch with a sample size large enough to make it clear: Neither Memphis nor New Orleans should be dismissed in this playoff chase.

Their early-season profiles were examples of young teams sliding right back into the lottery — and there was absolutely no indication a surge was coming.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 106.4 – No. 23 106.8 – No. 21
Defensive Rating 111.7 – No. 23 113.5 – No. 27

Through Dec. 20; via nba.com.

Then, for whatever reason, things changed. They changed in every way and in ways so drastically that one cannot help but wonder what could come next for the teams led by the top-two picks from last summer’s draft.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 111.9 – No. 15 115.1 – No. 4
Defensive Rating 109.3 – No. 11 110.3 – No. 13

Since Dec. 21, through Feb. 23; via nba.com.

In a further coincidence of records and timing, the Blazers and Spurs have both gone 13-16 since Dec. 21.

If all four teams in the thick of things out west continue at these two-month winning rates for another month, then Portland and San Antonio will have drifted out of the playoff conversation before Williamson and Ja Morant meet for a second time. Of course, those rates would keep New Orleans a few games back of Memphis; the latter has 14 games, compared to 12, before March 21, so the gap in the standings would actually expand to an even four games.

If the Pelicans can just pick up a game or two before then, though, they have already beaten the Grizzlies twice this season. Doing so twice more that week would just about send New Orleans into the playoffs – at which point, perhaps Williamson could steal a game from LeBron James to put a finishing coda on his rookie season.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southwest Division

David Yapkowitz finishes Basketball Insiders’ Stretch Run series with an overview of the Southwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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We’ve hit that point in the NBA season approaching the final stretch of games before the playoffs roll around in April. The trade deadline has come and gone, the buyout market is wearing thin and most teams have loaded up and made their final roster moves in anticipation of the postseason.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at each team — division by division– at what they need to do to get ready for the playoffs, or lack thereof. Looking at the Southwest Division, this was a division that used to be one of the toughest in the league.

It still is for the most part. The Texas triangle of the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs was no joke and hell for opposing teams on a road trip. Those are still a couple of formidable teams, but with the exception of the Rockets, it’s not quite near the level of yesteryear.

The Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans are a pair of young, up-and-coming teams that will give you 100 percent every night. While Memphis sits firmly in the eighth spot in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on the outside looking in. Here’s a look at how each team might fare in the stretch run.

The Houston Rockets have been the best team in the Southwest all season long, and all that remains for them is playoff positioning. They currently sit in fourth place in the West, giving them home-court advantage in the first round, but they could just as easily slip a bit with the Utah Jazz essentially tied with them record-wise in the standings and the Oklahoma City Thunder a mere two games back.

The Dallas Mavericks have taken a huge leap this season behind Luka Doncic, who is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the league. They currently sit in seventh place in the West and a return to the postseason is in the cards for the Mavericks.

The rest of the teams in the Southwest is where things get a little interesting. The Grizzlies have been one of the surprises of the season, as they’ve defied expectations and are firmly entrenched in the playoff race out West. They have a three-game lead on the Portland Trail Blazers and a four-game lead on the San Antonio Spurs.

Out of the Grizzlies’ final 26 games, 15 of them come against teams over .500, more than either the Blazers or the Spurs. 14 of those final 26 are also on the road, again, more than the Blazers or the Spurs. They also play both the Spurs and Blazers one more time this season. If the Grizzlies end up making the playoffs, it will be very well earned.

The Spurs are knocking on the door, and they have one more game against the Grizzlies which could prove to be very meaningful. This is a team that has been one of the standard-bearers in the league for success over the past decade. Their streak of playoff appearances is in serious jeopardy.

They’ve won two of their last three games, however, and out of their final 26 games, 15 of those are at home, where they are 14-12. Based on how the Grizzlies are playing though, a close to .500 record at home probably isn’t going to cut it. They’re going to need to pick it up a bit over the next month if they want to keep their playoff streak intact. A lot can happen between now and then, and the Grizzlies do have a tough remaining schedule, but it looks as if San Antonio will miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.

The final team in the Southwest is the Pelicans, boosted by the return of prized rookie and No.1 draft pick Zion Williamson. Prior to the start of the season, the Pelicans were looked at as a team that could possibly contend for the eighth seed in the West. Then Williamson got hurt and things changed.

But the team managed to stay afloat in his absence, and as it stands, they’re only three-and-a-half games back of the Grizzlies with 26 games left to play. Out of the bottom three teams in the division, it’s the Pelicans who have the easiest schedule.

Out of those 25 games, only seven of them come against teams over .500. They are, however, just about split with home and away games. New Orleans is 8-2 over their past 10 games, better than the Grizzlies and Spurs. If Memphis falters down the stretch due to its tough schedule, and the Pelicans start gaining a little bit of steam, things could get interesting in the final few weeks.

In all likelihood, the Pelicans probably won’t make the playoffs as not only do they have to catch up to the Grizzlies, but the Spurs and Blazers as well. But it certainly will be fun to watch them try.

There are some big storylines in the Southwest Division worth following as we begin the final run to the postseason. Can the young Grizzlies defy expectations and make a surprise return to the playoffs? Will the Spurs get their playoff streak snapped and finally look to hit the reset button after nearly two decades of excellence? Can the Pelicans, buoyed by Williamson’s return, make a strong final push?

Tune in to what should be fun final stretch in the Southwest.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southeast Division

With the All-Star Break behind us, the final stretch of NBA games has commenced. Quinn Davis takes a look at a few teams in the Southeast Division that have a chance at making the dance.

Quinn Davis

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Well, that was fast.

With the NBA All-Star break in the rearview, there are now fewer than 30 games to play for all 30 NBA teams. In other words, time is running out for certain teams to improve their seeding in the conference.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we will be looking at a certain subset of teams that are right on the border of making or missing the playoffs. In this edition, the focus will be on the Southeast Division.

The Southeast features three teams — the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards — operating in the lower-middle-class of the NBA. These three will be slugging it out over the next month-and-a-half for the right to meet the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

The two remaining teams are the Miami HEAT and Atlanta Hawks. As this is being written, the former is comfortably in the playoffs at 35-20, while the latter is comfortably gathering more ping pong balls at 16-41.

In this space, the focus will be on the three bubble teams. The Magic are currently frontrunners for the eighth seed, but the Wizards and Hornets are within striking distance if things were to go awry.

Led by head coach Steve Clifford, the Magic have ground their way to the eighth seed behind an eighth-ranked defense. Lanky wing Aaron Gordon is the standout, helping the Magic execute their scheme of walling off the paint. The Magic only allow 31.3 percent of opponent shots to come at the rim, putting them in 89th percentile in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.

Following a post-break loss to Dallas Mavericks, the Magic sit at 24-32 and three games up on the ninth-seeded Wizards. While a three-game margin doesn’t sound like much, that is a sizable cushion with only 26 games to play. Basketball-Reference gives the Magic a 97.4 percent chance to make the playoffs.

The Magic have the third-easiest remaining schedule out of Eastern Conference teams. They have very winnable games coming against the Bulls, Hornets, Cavaliers, Knicks and Pistons. They also have multiple games coming against the Brooklyn Nets, the team they trail by only 1.5 games for the seventh seed.

The Magic are prone, however, to dropping games against the league’s bottom-feeders. It can be difficult to string together wins with an offense this sluggish. The Markelle Fultz experiment has added some spark in that department, but his lack of an outside shot still leaves the floor cramped.

After a quick analysis of the schedule, the most likely scenario appears to be a 12-14 record over the last 26 games, putting the Magic at 36-46 come season’s end. A record like that should not be allowed anywhere near playoff basketball, but it would probably be enough to meet the Bucks in round one.

If the Magic go 12-14, that would leave the Wizards, fresh off a loss to J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cleveland Cavaliers, needing to go 17-11 over their last 28 games. They will need to finish one game ahead as the Magic hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The Wizards finishing that strong becomes even more farfetched when you consider their remaining schedule. They have the second-toughest slate from here on out, per Basketball-Reference.

The Wizards do have a trump card in Bradley Beal, who is the best player among the bubble teams in the East. He has now scored 25 points or more in 13 straight games and has been the driving force behind the Wizards staying in the race.

He has also picked up his defense a bit following his All-Star snub in an effort to silence his critics. The increased focus on that end is nice, but it would’ve been a little nicer if it had been a part of his game earlier in this season when the Wizards were by far the worst defense in the league.

Even if Beal goes bonkers, it is hard to see a path for this Wizards team to sneak in outside of a monumental collapse in Orlando. Looking at their schedule, it would take some big upsets to even get to 10 wins over their last 28. Their most likely record to finish the season is 8-20 if all games go to the likely favorites.

The Wizards’ offense has been impressive all season, but injuries and a porous defense have been too much to overcome.

The Hornets, meanwhile, trail the Wizards by 1.5 games and the Magic by 4.5 games. They have won their last three in a row to put themselves back in this race, but they still have an uphill climb.

The Hornets also may have raised the proverbial white flag by waiving two veterans in Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The goal coming into this season was never to make the playoffs, so they are likely more interested in developing young talent over these last 27 games.

If the Magic do play up to their usual levels and go 12-14, it would require the Hornets to go 18-9 to finish the season against the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the East.

Devonte’ Graham and his three-point shooting have been a bright spot for the Hornets, but it would take some otherworldly performances from him and Terry Rozier down the stretch to put together a record like that. Basketball-Reference gives this a 0.02 percent chance of happening (cue the Jim Carrey GIF).

Barring a miracle, the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are locked in place. The only questions remaining are how seeds 2-6 will play out, and whether the Magic can catch the Nets for the seventh spot.

The Wizards will fight to the end, but it is unlikely they make up any ground given the level of opponents they will see over the next six weeks. The Hornets, meanwhile, are more likely to fight for lottery odds.

At least the playoffs should be exciting.

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