Free-agency winners and losers

ByZach Lowe ESPN logo
Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Kevin Durant aftershocks are quieting, so it's time to take an early look at winners and losers from another NBA free-agency whirlwind -- with a focus on teams we haven't covered since the shenanigans started July 1.

WINNER: Golden State Warriors

Duh. The potential lack of rim protection and bulk is troubling, but concerns over depth are overblown. Golden State held on to its two bench mainstays, and you don't need a ton of quality backups if you can keep two stars on the floor at all times.

Bench units typically struggle because they don't have an offensive fulcrum to create shots, draw help and bend defenses away from teammates. Against the best playoff opponents, Steve Kerr can stagger minutes so that either Stephen Curry or Durant is on court. They revive dead possessions with one dribble and gift anonymous bench dudes open jumpers.

The NBA has never seen a ready-made super team this dangerous.

LOSERS: The NBA, players' union and fans

The Warriors will not be bad for basketball. They will be sublime to watch, and people will watch them in record numbers. Adversity will test them at some point, and though it's likely they pass any such test, it will be fascinating to see how they problem solve. Sports media job-hoppers are the last people who should begrudge Durant choosing to work with new colleagues in a new city.

But it's OK to be sad Durant left Oklahoma City, and worried he created an unbeatable juggernaut in doing so. He strengthened a 73-win team and gutted possibly the only long-term threat to its hegemony in the Western Conference. Rivalries and suspense make sports. The NBA has rarely felt so low on both.

The NBA locked out the players in 2011 mostly to seize money. They cloaked the cash grab under a soft halo of "competitive balance," though some on the league's side, including now-commissioner Adam Silver, truly believed it was possible to engineer greater parity. They settled on a number of measures, including a punitive luxury tax, that would make it harder for teams to cluster stars.

They never imagined tripling their national TV revenue, and how the new flood of money would create a one-time-only $24 million spike in the salary cap that left a championship-level team with an easy path to add talent. Once the league spied the threat, it proposed having the cap hop in smaller increments over several seasons. The union rejected the idea. When fans and owners complain of a new super team, the NBA has a convenient scapegoat: "Blame the union. We tried."

Perhaps the union should have thought harder. The cap leap distorted salaries and favored players who hit free agency over the past two summers. Guys who signed long-term deals in the summer and fall of 2014 will have to wait years to reap the fruit of the cap jump. Whatever you think of the Morris twins, it's preposterous that Marcus and Markieff barely make as much combined as Solomon Hill. Anthony Davis' five-year max extension is worth $30 million more than Kyrie Irving's deal only because Davis happened to be drafted one year later.

But the league bears some responsibility, too. It submitted one smoothing proposal and essentially told the union to take it or leave it, according to several sources familiar with the talks. The league appears to have resisted any attempts to swap cap smoothing in exchange for something else -- such as an increase in rookie scale contracts or the mid-level exception.(For its part, the league would contend the union snuffed talks before they could get that far).

It may not have mattered. Player agents liked the idea of one or two chaotic summers, and the union in 2014 was still scarred from the lockout. It viewed every proposal from Silver's office with suspicion. It's not clear that the single megaspike was "worse" for the league than a series of minispikes that might have benefited other teams and other players.

It just feels like everyone rushed headlong into the unknown without studying it adequately, and the unknown has produced a super team poised to rule the league.

WINNERS: Fans of restricted-free-agency drama

The Blazers played the big-man market perfectly. They sniffed around Dwight Howard, recoiled at the price and waited out the spending spree. The market was overcrowded with big men, and Portland knew a few good ones would be left when the rush subsided. The Blazers nabbed Festus Ezeli on a two-year, $15 million deal with a team option in Year 2, and re-signed Meyers Leonard to almost the same contract Leonard turned down in the fall. Portland probably could have squeezed Leonard, but general manager Neil Olshey understands the value of sowing goodwill.

Still waiting for theirs: Tyler Zeller, Donatas Motiejunas, Miles Plumlee and, among wings, the once and future imperator of Waiters Island. The teams with eight figures of remaining cap room have no urgent need for big men. The Rockets and Bucks want Motiejunas and Plumlee back, respectively, and they have some incentive to preserve friendly vibes with those guys -- especially since Houston already tried to deal Motiejunas. The Celtics tired of Jared Sullinger's poor conditioning, and a guy who once sought a max deal settled for the Drakes' mid-level exception.

Even with Sullinger and Leonard gone, we could get some Eric Bledsoe/Nikola Pekovic-level drama that lingers into August. Drama is fun!

LOSERS: Los Angeles Lakers

They, umm, did not read the big man market correctly. Timofey Mozgov is about to turn 30, coming off knee surgery that ruined his season, and the Lakers rushed out of the gates drooling with an offer that nearly equaled or trumped deals for Ian Mahinmi, Ezeli, Bismack Biyombo and any number of big men who fit their timetable better than Mozgov.

Meanwhile, Durant ignored them. Everyone knew the Lakers, in this ragged state, would have a hard time convincing stars to join. No one envisioned a day when stars would cold-shoulder requests for a courtesy meeting in the league's offseason capital.

With A-listers blowing you off, you can't worry about hoarding cap space for two max contracts in 2017 -- especially when any team can magic up cap space in a pinch. The Lakers need to rebuild their culture and find veteran mentors. Luol Deng checks both boxes. Mozgov might, too, but the Lakers could have found a younger and more intriguing center at the same price.

LOSERS: San Antonio Spurs

San Antonio countering the Durant event by signing a loping, ground-bound Pau Gasol might end up the perfect final symbol for the transition of power in the Western Conference. Remember: Golden State never feared the Spurs. Even after losing in San Antonio in March, Golden State's players chatted in the locker room about how the Spurs posed no threat to them in a seven-game series, according to several team sources.

San Antonio has never been able to score against these Warriors, and Gasol's silky but slow post game just doesn't feel like a potent enough answer. Tony Parker is 34, and the Spurs couldn't find another off-the-bounce threat to ease his burden.

The Spurs set the template for defending Golden State, but they might not be able to hold off the deluge without the thinking man's excellence of Timothy Theodore Duncan.

The Spurs probably know they can't beat the Warriors without some injury luck. They tried to get Durant, after all. A nucleus of Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Danny Green is a ridiculous starting point, but it feels like San Antonio needs a placeholder season to figure out what to do next. At least the Thunder are gone.

WINNERS: Utah Jazz

It is time for Utah to rise up into the power vacuum. The Jazz wanted to flip their first-round pick in 2015 for a George Hill type with multiple seasons left on his deal, but getting Hill now, in the final season of his contract, is a fine compromise -- especially since Utah still has cap room to offer him a contract extension. He is perfect fit. He can defend opposing point guards, spot up around Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood, run the show when called upon and bridge Utah to the Dante Exum era.

You want a team young, big and confident enough to see Golden State as a proving grounds instead of some invincible boss? This is it. Utah took Golden State to the wire in their first matchup last season, and they have been itching ever since to show their shot-swatting, rebound-munching size can trouble the Warriors. "We almost beat them," Rudy Gobert told me in March. "Just like they made a threat of small ball, we have to make a threat of playing two big men. They have to box me out. They have guard Derrick [Favors] in the post."

Joe Johnson provides a seasoned crunch-time option for a team that quaked in the clutch, and he can swing to power forward in smaller, switchier groups. Boris Diaw can work the post as Trey Lylesinsurance. The Jazz can go huge without sacrificing much shooting, and amp up their shooting without sacrificing much size.

This is a versatile, mammoth team that should win 50 games next season. Seriously, predicting 50 wins for the Jazz is not bold. They are that good.

They do have some money drama coming. Hayward is set to be a free agent next summer, and given the thin wing crop, he might be the most sought-after target after Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin and other super-duper stars who might become available. The Jazz cannot legally extend him before next July.

They could extend Favors as of October, but he has little incentive to redo his deal now unless he is petrified of a new collective bargaining deal. After this season, he will become eligible for a larger max contract reserved for players with at least seven years in the league. He could play the year out, renegotiate next July up to that higher max, and lock in more years.

Gobert is up for an extension now, and his reps could hold out for something around $20 million per year. Add in Alec Burks, and the Jazz are looking at a $125 million payroll (at least) before second contracts even kick in for Hood, Exum and Lyles. That might prove untenable. (The Blazers are facing a similar dilemma, but we'll have more on them in the near future.)

For now, this team is stacked -- and hungry.

LOSER ON THE SURFACE ONLY: 2017 free agency

Teams spent more than expected, and as a result, the league lowered its projection for the 2017-18 cap from $107 million to $102 million, according to a memo obtained by The average player salary should leap from $6 million last season to about $8 million in 2016-17, per league sources.

Teams and league officials anticipate much less league-wide cap space next summer for a much better free-agent class. Whoops.

On the bright side, teams will have to maneuver in order to open the room they might need, and that could mean more trades. Trades are fun!

DON'T GIVE UP AWARD: Los Angeles Clippers

Of course the Clippers brought back the same old gang that always comes up a round or two short -- minus Jeff Green, for whom they flipped a first-round pick in a desperate win-now move that predictably turned rotten. Doc Rivers now leads the league in growing tired of Jeff Green. In related news, for the millionth straight season, the Clippers have zero players with even a prayer of defending Durant.

But L.A. didn't have the flexibility to do much but stand pat, and these guys generally played the pre-Durant Warriors well -- even in dispiriting losses. The Blake Griffin-DeAndre Jordan combination stands as one of the few front-line tandems that can put the hurt on Golden State. Imagine the version of Griffin who tore apart San Antonio in the 2015 playoffs going balls-to-the-wall on both ends against Golden State in May -- switching onto Curry, posting up every smaller Warrior (Draymond Green has mostly stone-walled him, alas), leading fast breaks and flying everywhere?

The Clippers don't have enough oomph on the perimeter to topple a healthy Golden State bunch, but they could at least make it fun.

WINNER: Boston Celtics

Al Horford won't vault Boston to 60 wins, but the Celtics made themselves qualitatively better across the board by adding one of the league's finest two-way big men. (A team can win about the same number of games as the season before and still be clearly better. One example: the Clippers under Rivers.) Horford is miles better than any frontcourt guy on Boston's roster -- a pick-and-pop ace who can guard both big man positions, protect the rim and work his canny passing-and-screening game in Brad Stevens' motion-heavy offense.

He can adapt his game to play alongside Amir Johnson, Kelly Olynyk and Jae Crowder in smaller groups. He's a beloved NBA teammate; Durant has long had Horford on his short list, and Horford will make Boston a more appealing destination for the next group of stud free agents.

Boston couldn't pull its dream triple of trading for Jimmy Butler, signing Horford, and attracting Durant in a Big Three Redux. But when you have never signed a huge free agent, you have to start somewhere. Boston might be the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, and it still has all its trade assets to deploy.

WINNER: Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets would indisputably be in a better spot had they grabbed Boston's offer of four first-rounders, including what turned out to be the No. 3 pick in June's draft, instead of using the No. 9 pick last year on Frank Kaminsky. They flipped the No. 22 pick for Marco Belinelli because they knew another team's offer would blow away Courtney Lee, and wanted a replacement locked into a cost-controlled deal. I'd still rather have the No. 22 pick.

But the Hornets did as well as they could with five important outgoing free agents, and built on their growing reputation as a place guys want to play. They prioritized the right two free agents, Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams, and convinced both to take less than they could have gotten (on a per-year basis, in Batum's case) elsewhere. Coaxing Williams back on his early Bird number was a coup that preserved cap room for Ramon Sessions and Roy Hibbert.

Hibbert should resuscitate his career in Steve Clifford's conservative defense. A one-year deal makes sense for both parties, and if Hibbert likes Charlotte, he might come back on another team-friendly deal. Creating that sort of appealing environment matters. Not every team can chase Durant and Westbrook.

Charlotte's path out of the middle remains murky, but the Hornets had a nice summer. Kemba Walker's once-controversial deal looks fantastic, and they get Michael Kidd-Gilchrist back.

LOSERS: Washington Wizards

The Wizards crafted every team-building decision over two years around the idea of pitching Durant, their hometown star, and they didn't even get a meeting with him. That is an embarrassment. They kept their powder dry in 2014 and 2015 to preserve cap flexibility for what turned out to be a pipe dream.

(The Wiz nailed some bargain signings in those summers, including a creative deal for Jared Dudley, but the bargain bin in the NBA is hit-or-miss -- especially when you target so many guys coming off injuries.)

Washington rebounded well enough by inking a bunch of skilled big men, and it will use the leftover room exception at some point to fill out the wing. Durant's snub at least let the Wizards move on to Plan B quickly.But their big free-agent prize, Mahinmi, can't realistically play alongside Marcin Gortat, and the Wiz (for now) are capped out next summer.

Keep an eye on Tomas Satoransky, a heady, 6-foot-7 combo guard Washington drafted in 2012 and will finally bring over this season. He can run the second unit offense so that Trey Burke can spot up, and then defend wings on the other end.


The collective risk makes you queasy. It also throws into stark relief how difficult it is to transition from a good team of 30-ish guys without bottoming out. Marc Gasol is 31, coming off the sort of foot injury that can derail the careers of large men. Memphis retained Mike Conley, but it required the full five-year max -- a deal that will pay him $34.5 million at age 33.

No one is sure how Chandler Parsons' right knee will hold up after two surgeries and a heap of missed playoff games. The Mavs wanted no part of a Parsons max deal, despite his bro-ship with Mark Cuban. If he's healthy, Parsons is the do-it-all wing Memphis has never had around the three stars who own the middle of the floor -- a guy who can shoot 3-pointers, attack of the dribble, knife canny passes everywhere, and slide to power forward as a pseudo-successor to Zach Randolph. At full health, Parsons is the player team after team wishes Jeff Green could be.

He represents the kind of risk a small-market team like Memphis has to take at some point to sustain. Even though the extra year incumbent teams can offer means less than ever, it's still hard to lure away major free agents. The best young guys are restricted. The Grizzlies didn't want to wait for the Durant dilemma to go afterHarrison Barnes, and the Nets couldn't dislodge backup restricted free agents with blow-away offer sheets.At some point, a pseudo-contender that can't afford a rebuild has to gamble on an imperfect option like Parsons.

This is the sort of unknown the Spurs avoided by nailing their Kawhi Leonard bet. Leonard breathed life into a teetering contender, and laid the foundation that appealed to Aldridge.

The Grizzlies played the odds right in flipping a lottery-protected Clippers pick to Boston for two early second-rounders. They used the glut in cap space to pay one of them, Deyonta Davis, more guaranteed money than half the first-rounders -- cash they leveraged into a third guaranteed season on Davis' cheapo first contract.

If there's such a thing as a well-built house of cards, this is it.

WINNER: New Orleans Pelicans

After a spasm of deals gone bad, sometimes you just have to chill outside the frenzy, restock the draft pick cupboard and recalibrate with fringe signings that fit around a centerpiece superstar. The Pelicans executed quickie no-fault divorces with Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, two no-defense sunk costs racing for the exits. Their expert shooting fit well around Unibrow's rim runs, but injuries eroded the rest of Gordon's game, and Anderson gave everything back as an unhideable front-line sieve on defense.

E'Twaun Moore, Langston Galloway and Solomon Hill are backups on a good team, and as the Pelicans cleanse away three years' worth of moves, they will have time to build that team. They also got all three at backup prices in the new money landscape, even if at least one will open the season as a starter. Both Moore and Galloway bring more two-way value than several perimeter guys who received similar money, including Wayne Ellington, Jerryd Bayless and Austin Rivers. (It remains unclear why the Sixers, still mostly sitting out free agency after making noise about taking the next step, chased Bayless over a number of other options.)

If Hill improves his jumper -- he hit 44 percent on corner 3-pointers last season -- he could emerge as a spot-up option capable of defending three positions and unlocking interesting small groups around Anthony Davis. New York fans thirsting for positives probably overrated Galloway; he's a league-average 3-point shooter who has been awful inside the arc, and at 6-2 he's at a size disadvantage defending wings. His 6-8 wingspan helps, and Galloway is fearless in big moments. He's worth a shot at this price, especially since the limited version of Bird rights the Pellies will have on Galloway might be enough to keep him if he hits free agency again next summer.

Buddy Hield fills a plug-and-play need, and re-signing Tim Frazier on the cheap was a no-brainer after his strong finish last season.

Zoom out, and this is still a muddled roster with $40 million invested in a sweaty, slippery-handed question mark at center in Omer Asik. They have less than a year to decide if Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans, starry names once heralded as long-term cornerstones, really mesh with the long-term vision -- or want to be in New Orleans. If they don't, well, that requires another remodeling job.

If the Pelicans had to make their case today to keep Davis through his early 30s, they would probably lose him. This summer marked the starting point in making a better case later.

WINNERS: The Weirdo Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks entered free agency with a fascinating vision: screw traditional point guards, sign a wing capable of defending them and go super-stretchy with Giannis Antetokounmpo playing the role on offense. They went hard after Kent Bazemore as their fifth starter, and settled for a reasonable deal on a smaller version of that player in Matthew Dellavedova. The price was rich, but if Delly hits about 40 percent from deep for one of the league's brickiest teams, the Bucks will be thrilled.

Mirza Teletovic is a gunner who loves Jason Kidd, and the Bucks nabbed him for less than other teams paid for Jon Leuer, Hill and other less-proven guys. They may have dodged a bullet when Dwyane Wade chose the Bulls; Wade is still good, but the young Bucks do not need an aging non-shooter who would take the ball from Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker and Khris Middleton.

Michael Carter-Williams and Greg Monroe probably aren't long for this team; the Bucks hunted deals for Monroe, but found nothing of interest.

TO BE DECIDED: Indiana Pacers, Houston Rockets

The Pacers want to sprint, and the Rockets needed shooting to punish defenses that scrunch in against James Harden's undeniable drive-and-dish game. In their fealty to those guiding principles, each team might have introduced viruses that could eat away at them from within: a lack of shooting for the Pacers, and soft defense in Houston. I can't wait to see how each copes.

If Harden plays passable defense, the Rockets might be better than people expect; the rest of their (possible) starting lineup includes three solid defenders in Trevor Ariza, Patrick Beverley and Clint Capela, and their offense should be as powerful as any unit outside Oakland.

YOUR WHAT THE &$#@ TEAMS OF THE SUMMER: Chicago and Orlando

Crafting a coherent identity -- deciding "This is how we play," and actually playing that way -- is almost a form of magic. Forcing it top-down doesn't work without the right players. Finding those players is hard, and contracts are so short now, teams barely have time to experiment with each brew.

Sometimes a star defines your identity. You get Tim Duncan, you play a certain style. Sometimes a secondary player reveals an identity a team never envisioned. The Magic splurged on Rashard Lewis, shifted him to power forward, and uncovered a lethal spread pick-and-roll system. Draymond Green is an accident.

Teams undermine the search by flinging themselves from one shiny object to another. The Magic since Dwight Howard's ugly departure have stood for hard work, then defense, then pace of play, then Scott Skiles' defense again. Victor Oladipo was the trumped-up tentpole for a lot of that, and now he's gone -- along with more than half the players who began last season in Orlando. The hiring of Frank Vogel makes four coaches in 18 months.

Serge Ibaka, Bismack Biyombo and Nikola Vucevic will battle Aaron Gordon for precious minutes up front. Jeff Green clutters up that crowd on a massive one-year deal in Tobias Harris' salary slot, for some reason.

There are a lot of interesting pieces here. Vogel is a great coach, and Evan Fournier's five-year, $85 million extension is a home run. But no one in the league has any idea what Orlando's vision is at this point.

Chicago's plan is a little more transparent: The Bulls barfed at signing role players to three- and four-year deals under the cap spike, but felt they had too much talent around Jimmy Butler to tear down. Remember, no team has ever bragged as loudly as Chicago about a streak of playoff appearances achieved in a league in which 16 of 30 teams make the postseason.

Rajon Rondo and Wade are here on short-term deals to start a new streak while Chicago figures out what in the hell it would like to do once the cap flattens. The Bulls hope their presence might check Butler's ego a bit.

Never mind that the signings make no sense. When the Bulls hired Fred Hoiberg, they trumpeted him as the missing piece -- an offensive genius whose pace-and-space system would nudge them one step further than grouchy ol' Tom Thibodeau could. A year later, they have supplied Hoiberg with a group of ball-pounders who form the league's worst shooting starting five outside Philly. Nikola Mirotic, the presumptive starting power forward, is going to look like Stephen Curry next to the other four.

The Bulls have talent. The frontcourt is well-stocked with good players, including Cristiano Felicio, a rugged and bouncy prospect the team adores. There just doesn't appear to be a real plan beyond buying time. Butler is off the market for now, per league sources, and it's tempting to read Chicago's all-in splash as an effort to maintain a winner around him.

Who in the hell knows? Perhaps if Wade plays well enough to keep them in the postseason race, the Bulls might feel comfortable flipping Butler for picks, triggering a rebuild that would only start in earnest once Wade and Rondo cycle out.

That's the fun of the NBA, though: Change is constant. Most of the bad done in the frenzied haze of July's delirium can be undone soon enough. The delirium never really stops anymore.

Related Video