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NBA Daily: Early Winners and Losers of NBA Free Agency

Shane Rhodes looks at winners and losers so far in the NBA’s free agency process.

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The NBA offseason continues to intrigue. From an active draft, the league quickly moved into a free agency period that started with a bang. LeBron James made the move to Los Angeles, the Golden State Warriors managed to improve the best roster in basketball and over $1 billion in contracts have been signed.

There are still plenty of free agents left on the board. But who are the winners so far? The losers? Let’s take a look.

Winners:

Los Angeles Lakers

When you land the biggest fish in the pond, of course you are going to come away a winner. The Los Angeles Lakers did just that when they snagged the biggest name on the market, LeBron James.

Not only did they get him, but the Lakers got a long-term commitment from the King — three seasons and a fourth player-option — and, while they were quickly upstaged by another squad (more on that later), they instantly transformed their roster into a contender. While another year with just the kids would certainly have made the Lakers an interesting team, James’ arrival vaults them into the upper echelon of teams, even in the brutal Western Conference.

With James in the fold, not only will the LakeShow find its way back to the postseason, but they are now primed to attract numerous big-name players in the summer of 2019; Jimmy Bulter, Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving are just a few of the names that could find themselves on the open market. Outside of James, the Lakers have maintained their financial flexibility this offseason, signing numerous players to one-year deals, and they should easily be able to carve out another max-contract roster spot alongside him.

DeMarcus Cousins and the Golden State Warriors

If the Lakers won the first day of free agency, the Warriors were definitely the day two victors.

Coming off back-to-back titles and three in four seasons, the Warriors didn’t need to do anything to their roster, outside of retaining some of their own free agents (which they also did). With a foursome of Stephen Curry, Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green, they likely would have walked their way back to the Western Conference Finals.

But complacency can often lead to an undesirable outcome.

And so the Warriors front office, being the forward-thinking group that they are, went out and signed the best center in basketball, DeMarcus Cousins.

For just taxpayer midlevel exception, this is a no-brainer for Golden State. While Cousins is coming off a torn Achilles, the Warriors are more than equipped to deal with his injury as well as his volatile personality and he represents a low risk, very high upside reward for the team. If he can return to even 60 percent of the player he was pre-injury, he is an upgrade, something that should scare every team trying to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

If things don’t work out, Cousins can easily be moved off the roster and the team will still dominate.

Likewise, this is a smart move for Cousins. The big-man can take all the time in the world on his rehab. Cousins can rebuild his value and look to cash in big next offseason all while winning a ring for his troubles. It’s a win-win.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Last offseason the Oklahoma City Thunder made a gamble, trading two still-developing, promising players in Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to the Indiana Pacers for a potential one-year rental of Paul George. Sam Presti and Co. bet on themselves, on the culture they had built in Oklahoma City, that they could do enough to keep George around long term.

And they did.

One year later, and George and the Thunder have agreed to a long-term commitment, keeping him in Oklahoma City for at least the next three seasons (four with a player-option).

Had George left, the Thunder would have been left in an awkward position. With Russell Westbrook as their lone star they could remain competitive. But, as we saw two seasons ago, they wouldn’t be much to reckon with come playoff time. With George sticking around, the Thunder can compete now and could look to attract more talent to pair with their dynamic duo, both now and in the future.

And, while Oklahoma City has a massive tax bill staring them in the face, that is something that can be dealt with (and already is, according to Adrian Wojnarowski and Royce Young of ESPN). And, if they could do it over, the Thunder would likely foot the bill again if it meant keeping George long term.

Boston Celtics

The Boston Celtics have done nothing of note during the free agent period, yet they still managed to come away winners.

With James off to LaLa Land, the Eastern Conference is Boston’s for the taking. After coming minutes from an NBA Finals berth, they will return All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to the starting lineup. The market for restricted free agent Marcus Smart has all but dried up, effectively deflating the value of his next contract and keeping him more affordable for a team with its back up against the salary cap.

While injuries often seemed like they were derailing Boston’s promise last season, things, for now, appear to be breaking in their favor this time around.

Losers:

Washington Wizards

The Washington Wizards are not in a great place.

The roster has been topped out, the majority of their cap tied into John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. While James’ reign over the Eastern Conference is over, is that trio good enough to reach the NBA Finals? Good enough to challenge the likes of the Celtics, the Philadelphia 76ers, or even the Toronto Raptors?

Probably not.

While they were able to move Marcin Gortat off the roster, his replacement, Dwight Howard, isn’t exactly the BEST lockerroom presence. And, while he impressed last season — Howard averaged 16.6 points and 12.5 rebounds, both his best since the 2013-14 season — he isn’t the type of player that he used to be. He certainly doesn’t put the Wizards over the top.

With few means to improve their team outside of short-term, low-cost contracts, the Wizards look the part of a team that won’t make much noise come playoff time. Short of some major roster manipulation, expect a season similar to their 2017-18.

Houston Rockets

The Houston Rockets made the move they needed to make and retained Chris Paul.

And that’s about all they’ve done.

After a franchise-best 65 wins a season ago, the Rockets appear to be resting on their laurels. While keeping Paul was of paramount importance, it is hard to see them improving on the team they ran out on the court last season.

Houston has already lost a steady contributor in Trevor Ariza and they continue to play around with restricted free agent Clint Capela. In the meantime, their main competition, Golden State, has improved while another team, the Lakers, has risen up to challenge them for Western Conference supremacy.

Cousins, if right, can cause major problems for Houston defensively. James and the problems he poses are evident. And the Lakers are now another team the Rockets will have to fight back before facing off with Golden State.

Unless something changes between now and the beginning of the season, it’s looking more and more like the Rockets could struggle to push the Warriors as much as they did last season.

New Orleans Pelicans

The New Orleans Pelicans find themselves in a poor, yet familiar, position.

With Cousins and Rajon Rondo gone, the Pelicans are missing two key contributors from last season’s squad. While they added Elfrid Payton and Julius Randle, they are, at best, in the same spot they were last season. And, with much of the Western Conference improving this offseason, that doesn’t bode well for their playoff chances.

And that doesn’t bode well for their relationship with Anthony Davis.

While the chatter around the All-NBA forward had quieted down in recent months due to the Pelicans success last year, that could all come flooding back should they falter next season. And while Davis has affirmed and reaffirmed his commitment to New Orleans time and time again, at some point a player has to stop and think about what is best for them and their future.

If the Pelicans continue along this path, Davis’ future may no longer be in New Orleans. A free agent in 2021, Davis could look to take that future into his own hands.

LeBron James

James is a winner because he is where he and his family are happy and where they want to be.

In terms of basketball, however? James is a loser.

The Lakers seem content to burn a year of James and have made a series of head-scratching moves. While they have maintained their cap flexibility for next offseason, they have signed or retained numerous non-shooters; Rondo, JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. James has proven that a team that surrounds him with shooters can dominate, so they aren’t exactly the best fits.

They also have failed to pair James with a second superstar. And while James, going on 34 years old, can still carry the team to the postseason, he is no match for the Warriors alone. There are intriguing talents on the roster — Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, etc. — but none of them are on the same level as Kawhi Leonard and stars the Lakers could potentially go after.

James can only be at the peak of his powers for so long. And the Lakers waiving the white flag before the season even starts probably isn’t the best feeling for the King.

Not everyone can have a successful offseason — things out of a team’s control can have adverse effects on their future success. Still, with plenty of offseason left to go, many of these teams and or players could find themselves in a different position, good or bad, come October. Either way, the 2018-19 NBA season is shaping up to be one of the most fun in recent memory.

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