With most of the big names having already settled their summertime business, let’s take a look back at what transpired in a wild first week of July and crown some winners and losers of NBA free agency, starting with …
WINNER: LOS ANGELES LAKERS
After five years of botched pitches, high-profile whiffs and failures to even get meetings with top free-agent talent, the Lakers finally secured a new franchise-tentpole superstar — a new heir to an immortal legacy passed down through the reigns of Mikan, Wilt, West, Kareem, Magic, Shaq and Kobe. In their place, now, the King takes the throne.
LeBron James will wear forum blue and gold next season, a fact that instantly returns a young, potentially fun and almost certainly weird team to playoff contention for the first time in a half-decade, and restores one of the NBA’s prestige brands to immediate on-court relevance. More importantly, he will wear a Laker uniform for at least the next three seasons, agreeing to a four-year deal with a player option for 2021-22. That commitment creates a new world of possibility, giving president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka the time they need to go about building a championship-level roster around James while he remains the sport’s best player and during the start of a decline that surely has to start at some point, right?
There’s still plenty to figure out. The Lakers roster, as presently constituted, does not look strong or deep enough to seriously challenge the Golden State Warriors’ dominance atop the Western Conference. (It also doesn’t look like an especially good fit for LeBron’s talents, though that’s apparently a choice rather than a mistake.) And while Lakers brass entered this summer hoping to land two superstars, they’ve yet to find James’ running buddy; the search could continue into next summer, when L.A. is positioned to be one Luol Deng stretch-or-trade away from enough cap space to land a max-contract-worthy veteran at a time when Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Love, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, Al Horford, Kemba Walker, Paul Millsap, Marc Gasol and Khris Middleton, among others, could all hit unrestricted free agency. Until that other shoe drops, it’s tough to consider the Lakers a bona fide championship threat.
For years, though, they were only a theoretical threat — a sleeping giant that stayed snoozing because the world’s best players just didn’t seem to find all that history and all that Hollywood all that compelling when it comes to winning games and championships in the here-and-now. Landing LeBron weaponizes every other prospective advantage, reinvigorating the Lakers not only as a competitive flagship franchise, but also as the deep-pocketed, globally-recognized recruitment boogeyman that’s coming for your stars and won’t rest until there’s a new superteam on South Figueroa.
LOSER: CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
And then, there’s the guys who lost LeBron. Dan Gilbert acquitted himself better this time out, at least, but the Cavaliers are still poised to nose-dive off their perch atop the East.
A starting five of Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson up front, with Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith on the wing and the combination of George Hill and lottery pick Collin Sexton on the ball could be kind of interesting, especially if you still harbor any belief that Love can be an All-NBA-caliber No. 1 offensive option after four years of fitting in/out. In the glass-half-full view, maybe that roster (plus a bench led by the irrepressibly energetic trio of Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and Cedi Osman) puts the Cavs in the mix for a lower-tier playoff berth in a shuffled-up East.
The problem there: the Cavs owe the Atlanta Hawks a top-10 protected first-round draft pick next summer, as part of the deal that sent Korver to Cleveland a couple of years back. In a post-LeBron environment, Cleveland needs to once again start stockpiling young talent — hence last summer’s forward-looking Kyrie-for-IT trade, which imported the unprotected Brooklyn Nets first-round pick, which became Sexton — which means it’d pay for the Cavs to be about as bad as they can this year and next. (The pick’s top-10 protected through 2020; after that, it converts to second-round choices in 2021 and 2022.)
The decks are cleared for a near-total rebuild, with only Sexton, Osman and rising sophomore center Ante Zizic on the books past the end of the 2019-20 season. (A possible extension for Nance Jr. would change that, but still leave Cleveland with plenty of flexibility in two years’ time.) If the organization decides to abandon any pretense of postseason contention, the Cavs should look to auction off Love — a tricky trade piece, given his injury history and the chance that, with a player option for the 2019-20 season, he’d be a one-year rental — for whatever they could net in draft capital or young talent. As the year winds on, GM Koby Altman could also look to find takers for the likes of Hill, Smith and Korver, all of whom have only partial guarantees for the 2019-20 season and whose soon-to-be-expiring contracts could help suitors clear money off their books.
The Cavs are in better rebuilding position than they were the last time LeBron left town, thanks to the clean future cap sheet, the presence of Sexton and, if they’re bad enough the next two years, a full complement of future first-round picks at their disposal. Still: pain and losses are coming to Cleveland again. At least they’ll always have 2016.
WINNER: GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
They kept Kevin Durant. They signed DeMarcus Cousins for the taxpayer midlevel exception in a deal that left the entire sport slackjawed. They’re bringing back center Kevon Looney, who came on late in the season and in the playoffs, for the minimum; they’re bringing in Jonas Jerebko, a smart, tough and versatile stretch big man, for the same. None of LeBron, James Harden, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook or Paul George added a new superstar teammate to elevate the ceiling of their would-be competing squads; the gap is wider now.
The caveats: It remains to be seen just how helpful Cousins will be coming off an Achilles tendon rupture that could sideline him for half the season. Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston are a year older; if the Warriors don’t retain restricted free agent Patrick McCaw, and if rookie Jacob Evans isn’t an immediate plug-and-play rotation contributor, they might be a little thin on the wing. Even typing out those potential shortcomings feels ridiculous, though. The NBA’s dominant dynasty tightened its grip on the league, flexing the muscles of its culture and consistency to ensure that 29 other teams will enter next season forced to fight the persistent belief that no matter what they do, they’re playing for second.
LOSER: HOUSTON ROCKETS
In fairness, this is perhaps more an incomplete than a solid L; there’s still plenty of summer left, and GM Daryl Morey’s nothing if not inventive when it comes to pursuing paths to improving. At the moment, though, the combination of the Warriors’ reloading and Houston’s own in-house uncertainty seem to have dropped the Rockets down a step.
Retaining CP3 alongside reigning MVP Harden ensures that the Rockets will continue to boast the game’s premier playmaking tandem and remain one of the league’s elite offenses for at least the next couple of years. Doing so at the cost of $160 million over the next four years, though, carries with it the awfully scary proposition of paying an injury-plagued 6-foot point guard an estimated $85.6 million for his age-35 and -36 seasons. It is a risk the Rockets had to take to continue taking their shot at the title during Harden’s prime; it is still a risk, and one that figures to significantly hamper their ability to build a contender after the next two years, when Paul and Harden alone will be in line to make more than $82 million. (One imagines that tight financial future might be playing a role in the reportedly slow-going negotiations between the Rockets and incumbent starting center/restricted free agent Clint Capela.)
Losing Trevor Ariza, a vital multi-positional defender and 3-point shooter tailor-made for the way the Rockets wanted to play Golden State, to a big-money one-year deal with Phoenix hurts. A lot. Having done nothing to meaningfully fill his minutes besides bringing back Gerald Green (a super useful reserve, but I’d be wary of expecting much more in a larger role) and bringing in defense-first (and perhaps only) backup point guard Michael Carter-Williams hurts, too. And if the big answer at the three is a bought-out Carmelo Anthony … well, whether that swap would make Houston meaningfully better, considering both ends of the floor, is very much an open question.
With Paul back in the fold, if the Rockets bring back Capela (and, ideally, Luc Mbah a Moute for the minimum), they likely enter the season favored to finish second in the West. (UPDATE: Mbah a Moute’s not coming back; he’s heading to the Clippers on a one-year, $4.3 million deal, and I am starting to have grave concerns about the Rockets’ defense.) But in May, they were eye-to-eye with the eventual champs, pushing Golden State to seven games, losing double-digit leads in Games 6 and 7, and missing a historic number of 3-pointers in the deciding game to come up one win shy of the Finals. Now, it feels like they’re back to looking up at the Warriors, even if they’re still a bit closer than everyone else.
WINNERS: OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
When Sam Presti traded for Paul George, the former Indiana Pacers star really did want to wind up with the Lakers, as he’d been representing for ages. But L.A. didn’t go get him, OKC did, and George evidently saw enough he liked in his new digs to decide to re-up on a four-year, $137 million contract to keep the core of a top-four seed intact. That might not seem like a lot, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the alternative.
As I wrote in the wake of the agreement, by re-signing George, “Oklahoma City has steered away from a doomsday scenario — losing George without the financial wherewithal to replace his contributions, staring down the luxury tax anyway, and possibly having to think about detonating everything by shopping [Russell] Westbrook — and remained on track for consistent contention.” That alone doesn’t guarantee anything; as tidy as the salary and luxury-tax savings will be, neither will finding a means of parting with Anthony and his $27.9 million contract. (As awkward as the fit was at times last year, the Thunder’s Melo-full starting lineups still blew opponents’ doors off.)
But by locking up the Westbrook-George-Steven Adams core, bringing back forward Jerami Grant on a three-year, $27 million deal, and taking a flyer on distressed-asset center Nerlens Noel, Presti doubled down on a defined identity for OKC — athleticism, length and size everywhere, with everything built off the shot creation of his two All-Stars and a swarming, physical defense led by a once-again-healthy Andre Roberson. We’ll find out whether that’s a strong enough foundation to get back to conference-finals level contention, and how long ownership will be willing to write luxury-tax checks if it’s not. For now, though, Oklahoma City knows it can build around two stars again, rather than just one. That’s not nothing.
LOSER: ISAIAH THOMAS
Sixteen months ago, Thomas was a freaking star, averaging a shade under 30 points and six assists per game for a Boston Celtics team vying with LeBron’s Cavs for the No. 1 spot in the Eastern Conference. He was an All-Star thunderbolt of a scorer; he made no bones about his belief that, when he finally hit unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2018, prospective suitors would “know they’ve got to bring the Brinks truck out.”
And then he collided with Karl-Anthony Towns, and he kept playing, and his sister died in a tragic car accident, and he kept playing, and his hip never got right. And then Kyrie Irving wanted out of Cleveland, and the Cavs wanted an in-case-of-emergency lottery pick in return, and Danny Ainge wasn’t so sure about that hip.
So Isaiah was off to Ohio, where everything that could go wrong did. So Isaiah was off to L.A., where he showed flashes of his former productivity, but mostly continued to struggle to find his shot, his burst and his rhythm before finally getting the hip surgery he’d hoped he wouldn’t need, dumping him out onto the market as an undersized about-to-turn-30 point guard who needs to dominate the ball to be effective, who needs to score in bunches to be worth a big deal, and who needs to be protected on the defensive end — a complicated piece to fit into the structures of most teams.
Word was that Thomas had begun to gain some traction as a potential stop-gap answer for an Orlando Magic team stocked with big men but light in the backcourt. But that was before this weekend’s three-team deal that landed Jerian Grant in Central Florida to back up D.J. Augustin, which apparently indicated an end to any interest they might have had in IT’s services. And now … I mean …
Man … where the hell is Isaiah Thomas going to wind up? https://t.co/WmYh3X9xSV
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) July 8, 2018
Return engagements with any of his previous five teams would seem unlikely. Among teams with cap space still available, Atlanta has Trae Young and Dennis Schroder, Chicago seems committed to Kris Dunn and Cameron Payne (or, at least, not committed to spending on a potential upgrade), and Dallas has Dennis Smith Jr., Luka Doncic, J.J. Barea and maybe restricted free agent Yogi Ferrell. Maybe some team that’s yet to use its midlevel exception decides to take a flyer on Thomas to see if he can return to what he was just a season ago. But it’s all but impossible to see him landing a multi-year, lucrative deal at this point, and as July wears on, if even those midlevel offers aren’t coming, you wonder whether Thomas might consider rebooting by heading overseas for a year to re-establish his value before attempting a comeback.
This, again, would have seemed unthinkable even a year ago. But when things start to fall apart, they can crumble quickly, leaving even hard-charging folk heroes wondering what hit them and how to get back on their feet.
WINNERS: INDIANA PACERS
While everyone else was losing their minds about LeBron heading west, PG not heading west, what’s going on with Kawhi Leonard and how a just basketball God would allow the Warriors to keep getting away with it!, Kevin Pritchard just sort of quietly and in a matter-of-fact fashion went about making last year’s most pleasantly surprising team better.
Indiana suffered losses down the rotation — Lance Stephenson to the new-look LeBrons, intriguing young wing Glenn Robinson III to Detroit, Al Jefferson to China — but brought back higher-priority options Thaddeus Young, Bojan Bogdanovic and Darren Collison. The Pacers then used their remaining financial flexibility to bring in three more potentially solid contributors: shooting forward Doug McDermott on a three-year deal, and ball-handling wing Tyreke Evans and reserve center Kyle O’Quinn each on one-year pacts.
After a rocky few seasons following his Rookie of the Year debut in Sacramento, Evans bounced back with a brilliant campaign in Memphis last season, stroking a career-best 39.9 percent of his threes while also turning in a career-low turnover rate as an efficient playmaker for the Grizzlies. He could be a central-casting backup to and sometimes partner for All-Star lead guard Victor Oladipo.
McDermott has struggled guarding either forward position in the pros and doesn’t offer much beyond shooting and floor-spacing, but he does offer that, drilling 40 percent of his 3-pointers over four NBA seasons. If Nate McMillan can find as much success in rounding out his game as he had with Bogdanovic last season, they could form a quietly quality one-two punch at the three spot.
O’Quinn can be foul-happy on the interior and a bit too audacious trying to make plays out of the high post, but in short doses, he’s a voracious rebounder, a dynamic facilitator and a quality rim protector who should slot in well behind (and perhaps, at times, alongside) incumbent bigs Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis.
As was the case last season, the Pacers will go as Oladipo goes, especially on offense. But if Turner can fulfill his promise as a stretch-five in the making, if rookie guard Aaron Holiday can earn a role in the backcourt, and if rising sophomore big man T.J. Leaf can take a step forward into the second-unit void, Indiana looks like the rare Eastern Conference team that’s just sort of pretty good everywhere. The names don’t blow your hair back, but the fits seem solid and the depth looks strong. In a remixed East, that could be enough for 50-plus wins and a nice long postseason run — not only this year, but for the next few, too.
LOSERS: PHILADELPHIA 76ers
This feels uncharitable, I’ll grant. Maybe even mean.
Coming off a 52-win season, one of the more energetic and invigorating runs of any resurrected team in recent memory behind the unabashed excellence of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the 76ers, if nothing else, held up. Yes, they lost the shooting of midstream veteran additions Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli, but they’ll go into next season with Nemanja Bjelica in place of the former (at a lower price tag) and Wilson Chandler in place of the latter (basically) while also bringing back starting shooting guard/integral floor spacer J.J. Redick and solid defensive backup center Amir Johnson. Philly didn’t hurt itself with these moves; nothing about what the Sixers did in the first week of July figures to impede their motion toward the upper echelon of Eastern Conference competition, provided Embiid and Simmons continue to improve at the core of Brett Brown’s roster, and provided refreshed 2017 No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz can find his way back to drilling jump shots.
It’s just … it does feel like sort of an underwhelming return for what many had projected as a potential make-or-break summer for the Sixers, doesn’t it? No Paul George meeting. No (actual) LeBron meeting. No significant motion on a Kawhi deal, as everyone keeps their powder dry to see how things shake out in San Antonio. Just basically running back last year’s team, albeit with a few more pieces added — first-round pick Zhaire Smith plus the 2021 first-rounder the Sixers got from Phoenix in exchange for Mikal Bridges on draft night; sharpshooting rookie guard Landry Shamet; Chandler’s immediately tradable expiring contract, should the need arise — for the war chest of assets to be managed by whoever winds up being Philadelphia’s next general manager.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and with plenty of cap space available for next summer, it certainly doesn’t preclude the Sixers from being involved in any conversation to be had about a disgruntled star looking for a new home or a free-agent-to-be looking to make a splash on the 2019 market. But with extensions for Embiid and Robert Covington kicking in this year, Dario Saric becoming extension-eligible next summer, and the option-year cap hits for former No. 1 picks Simmons and Fultz rising fast, the Sixers they won’t have a ton of financial flexibility forever.
Right now, this is just a bit of a swing-and-a-miss in Philly’s first crack at “star-hunting.” If they can’t find another way to land one before the year’s out, though, they could strike out on the pursuit all together.
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