Free agency isn’t over, with big names like Greg Monroe, Eric Bledsoe, and Lance Stephenson untouched in the market, and a heap of minimum-level guys waiting to fill out rosters.
The last 100 or so hours have been absolute madness, starting with LeBron James’s jolting departure to Cleveland followed by the Heat’s frantic reaction in snatching Chris Bosh away from Houston and other suitors. Team executives, half of whom brought major cap space to this offseason, spent more than a year modeling how free agency might play out under a rising cap. The first batch of evidence is in, and it will work as an instruction manual as the cap level rockets upward.
Sussing out winners and losers this early is always dicey, but the first round of free agency at least offers some clues.
Winner: Cleveland Cavaliers
Breaking news: Signing the world’s greatest player to a maximum contract that underpays him is a good thing, doubly so when it rips apart the team that has won your conference four years in a row.
The Cavs paid a price to snare the flexibility required for James’s contract, and they have some mundane issues to sort out now: the dilemma of possibly dealing Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love on what is effectively an expiring deal; shifting Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters toward hybrid roles that involve more time off the ball; and, perhaps most pressing, the intertwined challenges of building a competent defense and a workable front-line rotation without a top rim protector. That challenge gets more interesting now that LeBron is comfortable playing power forward, something he almost never did in his first stint with the Cavs.
But mundane challenges are nice after four years of shaky draft returns, free-agency misses, management turnover, and foolish trades in which the Cavs flung away valuable assets in desperate low-percentage plays for the postseason. Cleveland lucked into the LeBron sequel, but it’s well positioned now to challenge Chicago and Indiana in the East — even without Love.
The Cavs won’t have much cap flexibility going forward, especially if Rich Paul, agent for both LeBron and Tristan Thompson, squeezes out an insane overpay for Thompson as a sort of LeBron tax. But you hoard flexibility to snag guys like LeBron and Irving, and the Cavs have them already. It’s all smiles in Cleveland.
Loser: Houston Rockets
Your disaster downside is limited when you have two max-level stars already on the roster, but Houston’s offseason could only have gone worse had it panicked in the wake of the Bosh rejection and overpaid for a non-star talent.
Trace this back a year, when Chandler Parsons suddenly hired Dwight Howard’s agent, the Rockets lured Howard away from Kobe Bryant’s dungeon, and the rumblings began that Houston would allow Parsons into free agency one year earlier than necessary. The Rockets could have kept Parsons on the books next season for less than $1 million, but they declined that option in order to walk him into restricted free agency a year early.
There were rational justifications, including that making Parsons a restricted free agent now1 gave Houston matching rights, and thus control over Parsons’s fate. But that control apparently had a price ceiling, since Dallas snagged Parsons away with a three-year, $46 million offer sheet that came with booby traps — a player option on Year 3, and a trade kicker that could have a massive impact on Parsons’s tradability if the cap rises as fast as everyone expects.
Parsons would have been plenty tradable in 2014-15 on an expiring $1 million deal, since a team acquiring him would have also acquired his Bird Rights — and the ability to pay Parsons more than any other suitor in free agency next July.
No one directly involved with the Parsons negotiations will confirm it, but it is widely suspected around the league that Dan Fegan, the lead agent representing Parsons and Howard, made it clear that accelerating Parsons’s payday was an unofficial part of the Howard contract. The Wizards splurged on Martell Webster last summer in part because Fegan represents both Webster and John Wall, per several league sources. This is not an uncommon thing; the Cavaliers may soon experience it with Thompson.
Both Parsons and Daryl Morey, Houston’s GM, have told me that Parsons had asked if it were possible to get an immediate raise over the last two years of his contract, so he was clearly frustrated working on perhaps the best bang-for-the-buck contract in the NBA.
The Rockets would have happily matched on Parsons had they signed Bosh, and Houston in those crazy moments after LeBron’s announcement believed they had him. But Bosh never made a hard commitment, according to multiple sources familiar with the process. There was no guarantee of signing him when Houston made what is now a catastrophic trade with the Lakers, forking over Jeremy Lin and a first-round pick to clear space for Bosh.
There’s no real defending that move. It was a gamble that failed, and it cost Houston picks and a valuable piece of its depth. Houston now has just one point guard with any real NBA experience. Had it not gotten a future first-rounder from New Orleans in the Omer Asik space-clearer, this free-agency experience would go down as an all-time cautionary tale.
The Lakers clearly had a hard deadline for Houston using their cap space, since L.A. followed the Lin deal by piling money atop Jordan Hill and Nick Young. Other teams with space to absorb Lin — Philly, Utah, Orlando — either weren’t interested in paying him $15 million next season, or demanded more future picks as the cost of doing so.
Houston rebounded well by signing Trevor Ariza on a four-year, $32 million deal that declines over time and working a funky sign-and-trade that created an $8.5 million trade exception with which Houston might add a player.2
Ariza isn’t an off-the-bounce creator on Parsons’s level, but he’s a better 3-point shooter and in a different stratosphere as a defender. He is the wing stopper Houston lacked last season as James Harden stood around doing nothing and Damian Lillard escaped Parsons to nail the most wide-open series-clinching buzzer-beater in the recorded history of videotape and oral storytelling.
Depending on the cap level for 2015-16, Houston could have about $14 million in cap space next summer, with the ability to open max-level space by trading Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, and other young guys. Those players remain on the roster for now as potential Love trade bait, but Parsons on a $1 million deal would have been the most appealing centerpiece of any such trade. And any cap flexibility will vanish should Houston use the midlevel exception now or trade for a guy on a multiyear contract.
Houston will still be a strong playoff team, but it’s worse (for now) than it was last season, and that counts as a crusher. One last word on Bosh: He was intrigued by Houston, but he’s 30, he’s super-smart, and he just spent four years playing with two like-minded stars on an older roster for an organization that takes basketball craft seriously. The Rockets do, too, but there is an undercurrent around the league that Harden and Howard don’t represent the most appealing duo of teammates for any star who has lived within ultraserious professionalism.
Howard was great last year, but the jokiness and free-agent dithering hurt his image. The viral videos of Harden’s defense damaged his reputation. It wouldn’t shock me if Bosh at least considered some of that in his decision.
Winner: Midlevel Veterans
Agents and union reps worried that the new CBA might hurt the middle class of veteran players — that the harsh luxury tax would have teams spending with more care, reserving big-money paydays for stars at the expense of everyone else.
Teams have been more careful in their spending, but that creates an even more powerful ripple effect: Everyone has gobs of cap space, and they’re going to spend it like an investment banker blowing his bonus on cocaine and strippers. Jordan Hill gets $9 million? Why the hell not? I mean, he cracked 20 minutes per game last season, so it makes total sense to pay him like an above-average starter!
Marvin Williams wants $7 million? Sounds about right! Ben Gordon pouted his way out of Charlotte, to the degree that the Hornets waived him after the deadline by which he could sign with a playoff team, just to be jerks? GIVE HIM $4.5 MILLION! Caron Butler will be paid $5 million, but his little “call me” phone gesture is worth at least $2 million on its own.
With the exception of the Lakers’ decision to swag out for four seasons, by which time Young will be 33, most of these are short-term deals that do no real damage to a team’s cap sheet. That was among the goals of the new CBA, which reduced the maximum length of nearly every type of contract. It’s harder for teams to commit self-sabotage with long-term albatross contracts, and it’s more painful than ever to move the long-term duds that do exist without finding a sucker team that rhymes with the word “kicks.” Getting off dead money costs more than ever.
Teams are avoiding risky long-term deals at all costs. It’s very hard to sign a bad two-year contract, though the Lakers managed to do it in the Kobe extension. Shorter deals also give teams more certainty about what they are acquiring. A two-year deal on a veteran player is not a wager on that player improving within your team context; it’s payment for a known commodity.
That will allow smart teams to redistribute risk where it should go: bold long-term plays for younger guys, with Charlotte’s max offer sheet to Gordon Hayward the best example so far this summer. Utah matched that offer, and that has been by far the most common outcome when restricted free agents coming off rookie contracts sign offer sheets. Very few first-round picks have changed teams that way. Many more second-round picks have done so, with Landry Fields and now Parsons as recent examples.
The Parsons example is instructive: Teams can find the right circumstances and build the right contract to win an offer-sheet battle royal. Dallas took on some risk; it was one Houston signature away from losing out on Parsons, Ariza, and Luol Deng as the 72-hour clock on Houston’s matching time ticked down.
But Dallas comes out a winner now. Parsons boosts the Mavs’ overall shooting, a need after trading Jose Calderon, and he brings more secondary playmaking than the departed Vince Carter. Parsons is a minus defender, and depending on what happens with Shawn Marion, Dallas has to be concerned about leaning too much on Tyson Chandler to create a league-average defense. But the Mavs are deeper in quality players, they had the league’s best offense after the All-Star break last season, and they are going to be a problem in a conference that damn near had another superteam on its hands in Houston.
Dallas is overpaying Parsons, but Dirk Nowitzki’s hometown discount should leave the Mavericks with some flexibility. Chandler is a free agent after next season, and Monta Ellis should be a lock to turn down his player option for 2015-16 after watching the market go berserk this summer.
Short-term deals can help players, too. The league projects the cap to jump from $63 million next season to about $68 million for 2015-16, and that may end up underselling the leap if the league rakes in another bonanza of revenue. At least a few teams have internal projections showing the cap rising by as much as 30 percent over the next two seasons, meaning that it might sit near $85 million going into the 2016-17 season.
Teams disagree on how much of that jump might happen before the league inks its new national TV deal for 2016-17, but guys who signed deals before this summer or agreed to shorter ones this week should absolutely opt out as soon as they can. The list of guys with player options includes Ellis, LeBron, Deng, Love, Goran Dragic, Danny Granger, Brook Lopez, Roy Hibbert, and many others. The potential for another lockout in 2017 (kill me now) adds more urgency for players to lock in money today, before any unfriendly changes to the CBA.
Free agency next season is going to be madness. Speaking of which …
Winner: The NBA
Congratulations, Adam Silver. Short contracts make July the most interesting time in the NBA calendar, and between the new basketball World Cup in late August and the possibility of the NBA moving the draft into July, none of us will ever be able to take a vacation again.
Winner, for Now: Veteran Backups
The thorny question in paying midtier veterans comes when signing and re-signing guys you know are going to be reserves. This is one of the loudest debates in the league right now. Toronto forked over nearly $13 million for Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez, two guys locked into bench roles. Portland paid Chris Kaman nearly $5 million for next season to work as a third big, even though he was out of shape last season and jacked bad midrange jumpers nearly every chance he got.3
The Clippers gave Spencer Hawes the full midlevel exception, and the Spurs and Bulls launched $7 million or so apiece at Boris Diaw and Pau Gasol.
Bench guys by definition have a minutes ceiling; there are folks around the league who believe the ideal roster construction would be five starters making at least $10 million apiece, a couple of rookie deals, and a batch of minimum contracts.
Not every situation is equivalent. The Spurs just won the championship with Diaw working as a de facto sixth starter,4 their stars make much less than the max, and Diaw was their own free agent — meaning they could re-sign him and still use the midlevel on someone else. When you’re a title contender under the tax, you should generally throw spending concerns out the window to keep a guy with a proven track record in your system.
Patterson and Vasquez are also carryovers who fill key needs for a solid Toronto team, though splurging on both left the Raptors with only a little scratch for wing depth — cash they used on James Johnson, who can’t shoot, but can defend, pass, rebound, block 3-pointers, kick your ass, create chaos, and play some small-ball power forward.
Vasquez is tall for a point guard and logged heavy time alongside Kyle Lowry, so he’s almost an honorary starter. Patterson can play with both Jonas Valanciunas and Amir Johnson, and the Patterson/Johnson front line was surprisingly potent for the Drakes last season. Both guys would have gotten this money on the open market, with Milwaukee a sneaky potential Vasquez suitor. But market value is not the same thing as value to a particular team.
Another ripple effect of shorter contracts is that reserves on these types of deals are tradable in a snap. The Spurs are a lesson in the importance of depth, and any team whose best player makes just $12 million (Lowry’s new salary) can afford to spend more on depth.
The Hawes situation is a little different. The Clippers used their only free-agency tool, the midlevel, to sign an outside free agent who will have massive problems defending while sharing the floor with DeAndre Jordan.5 Hawes’s 3-point shooting and snazzy passing will fit nicely around Blake Griffin’s bulldozer inside game, and Hawes fills an obvious need for a team that had no reliable third big. The Clips envision Hawes as a pseudo-starter capable of playing nearly 30 minutes per game alongside either starting big, but it’s unclear if he can really do that.
Hawes is a poor defender, he turns the ball over a lot for a big, and using the full midlevel meant punting the chance to split it on a couple of guys. Still: This is an easily defensible deal in a market where guys like Gordon and Kaman got nearly the full midlevel.
There are no easy answers in paying reserves; every team approaches the issue from a different place. It will be fascinating to see how the market for bench guys evolves.
Winner: The Game of Chicken That Is Restricted Free Agency
Guys entering their fourth seasons, eligible for contract extensions now, could look at this market and play hardball with their current teams: “Give me the max, or I’m hitting free agency next summer to get my Hayward/Parsons deal.” Teams with good fourth-year guys — Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Kenneth Faried, Nikola Vucevic, Reggie Jackson, et al. — are scared they’ve lost a bit of leverage in trying to coax them into early extensions outside of free agency.
Perhaps it depends what position you play. The league is loaded at point guard and power forward, and no one has made a run yet at Bledsoe and Monroe. Both wing positions are thin, which partly explains why there was so much interest in Hayward and Parsons.
You could interpret the signs in different directions. Restricted free agency remains a tricky dance.
Tentative Winner: Chicago Bulls
If Chicago ends up having to use the amnesty provision on Carlos Boozer, it will have paid a heavy price to sign another aging subpar defender to a three-year, $22 million contract.
That’s a better deal than most folks around the league expected Chicago to get, and Gasol is a clear upgrade over Boozer. Both were turnstiles on defense last season, but Gasol should perk up playing for a good team under a new coach, and he’s better than Boozer on that end simply by being three inches taller — and by not being Boozer.
Gasol had a bit of a bounce-back last season while Boozer suffered through the worst year of his career. Gasol can do everything better on offense, and he’s a natural fit in a Chicago system that has incorporated more high-post passing during Derrick Rose’s absence. He’s a decent midrange shooter, but he won’t provide the Bulls with a meaningful uptick in spacing on his own.
Good news: Nikola Mirotic will, and sharing the floor with Mirotic would allow Gasol to more easily defend centers — the only position he can really defend game-to-game at this point. The Gasol-Mirotic combo might be dreadful defensively, but Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson are both quick enough to guard power forwards when paired with Gasol.
Gasol isn’t the home run Chicago targeted, and the team is adamant it could have opened max-level cap space for Carmelo Anthony had he committed there. It will be years before we can evaluate the draft-day trade for Doug McDermott, a bet that got even bigger yesterday, when the Bulls sent Orlando two second-round picks to dump Anthony Randolph. (Nice move, Magic!) The Bulls could still use some help on the wing.
You can’t anoint Chicago the favorites in the East given Rose’s uncertain health. But if Rose rediscovers his peak form, the Bulls will earn that status.
Winner: The Line-Drawers in Washington and Phoenix
The Wiz didn’t have Paul Pierce in the bag when they drew a line in the sand on Ariza, but they had intel that Pierce would be amenable to moving after the Jason Kidd fiasco, per sources familiar with the situation. They put on the full-court press, sending Sam Cassell, a former teammate in Boston, to visit Pierce in Vegas, and having Marcin Gortat, John Wall, and others pepper him with texts and calls.
Washington got its Ariza replacement on an affordable two-year deal, one that will have the Wiz payroll lean enough in the summer of 2016 to chase Kevin Durant. Pierce may not be spry enough to play the wing full-time anymore, but he defended opposing wings well last season when Brooklyn gave him that job,6 and he can slide to power forward more when Webster returns.
The fifth year on Gortat’s escalating contract is a hard swallow, but it will taste better if the cap jumps even faster. Skilled centers get paid big, period.
Channing Frye was a crucial part of Phoenix’s go-go fun last season, but the Suns correctly concluded he’d be hard to move on a four-year, $32 million contract — especially given his age and health issues. Both Morris twins can play a rangy power forward, and P.J. Tucker can slide there in quicker lineups.
Paying Tucker more than $5 million per year over three seasons7 was a bit much, especially after declining to pay Frye a bit more; Tucker can’t dribble, he can really only shoot 3s from the corners, and he’s merely a good defender. But he’s the heart of the team, he can play multiple positions, and Tucker’s deal is easier to move than Frye’s.
Phoenix straight stole Isaiah Thomas on a four-year, $27 million contract, and it’s probably best to pump the brakes on the idea that they have too many point guards now — assuming they match any offer for Bledsoe. Phoenix starts two of them, which is unusual and requires elite depth at the position, and the Thomas signing gives them leverage navigating Bledsoe’s free agency now and Dragic’s next summer. Tyler Ennis, one of the team’s first-round draft picks, will likely spend a lot of time in the D-League.
All of these guys are trade chips, and the Suns still have their eye on Love — and any other prime star who might become available. The bottom line is that the Suns got a really good player at a really good price, and that’s a smart thing.
Winner: Teams in the Sweet Spot
Teams over the cap but well under the tax watched the market explode and sighed in relief that they weren’t a big part of it. The Nuggets’ roster is nearly full, meaning they could be choosy in bargain-shopping for another wing; Quincy Miller will likely get the ax if Denver indeed acquires another player.
People raised their eyebrows when the Grizzlies took on Courtney Lee’s deal, which pays him about $5.6 million per season through 2015-16, but they have to be giddy having a two-way shooter at that price after seeing deals for Gordon, Jodie Meeks, and others. Having Lee locked in freed Memphis to take a tiny risk on a three-year deal for Carter, but the price is right, and Carter is another two-way guy with the best pick-and-roll skills among all Grizz wings. Toss in a cheap deal for Beno Udrih, and you’ve got a tidy offseason.
Loser: Miami Heat
The Heat could have punted next season after losing LeBron and nearly losing Bosh, and owing a protected first-round pick to Cleveland added a little incentive to tank.8 But they chose to reload instead, tempting Bosh with a massive five-year max contract, signing Deng, bringing back Mario Chalmers and Chris Andersen, and setting up for the inevitable splurge on Dwyane Wade.
Bosh and Wade won’t be able to bring star-level production at the back end of their contracts, but the Heat are justified in at least hoping Bosh will remain valuable as a $20 million–plus player while the cap rises every season. Getting everyone else on one- or two-year deals could allow Miami to maintain enough flexibility to chase a star at some point, though it may have to wait until the summer of 2016.
Miami will remain a strong team, and if it overachieves without LeBron, it’ll draw at least a sniff of interest from the big free agents. Perhaps it’ll become Dallas East, a good team that refuses to rebuild and bides its time before finally winning free agency.
Loser: Atlanta Hawks
No one will take Atlanta’s money, despite a good core of players, a very good coaching staff, and an innovative style of play Mike Budenholzer has only just begun installing. Some stars won’t even meet with them. I almost wanted to hug Budenholzer when I saw him in Vegas. The most common theory among insiders for Atlanta’s lack of appeal is that players see the Hawks as a dull franchise with a dead crowd and a limited postseason history that almost always involves NBA TV.
That will turn around at some point, but just about everyone Atlanta has approached so far rebuffed the Hawks’ invitation to get in on the ground floor.
The Second Annual “Milwaukee Bucks WTF Are They Doing?” Award
This award was born one year ago, when the most common question I heard in chats with NBA executives in the stands at Summer League was some variation of “Man, I can’t figure out what Milwaukee is up to. Can you?”
4. Detroit: The Pistons chose the same route as the Lakers, only they already have at least one young star in Andre Drummond, and they spent much more conservatively on guys who fit actual needs in D.J. Augustin, Butler, and Meeks. The Lakers just threw random amounts of money at guys to fill a barren roster.
The Meeks contract is a puzzling overpay, but Stan Van Gundy wanted shooting, and he got it before the market could sink its fangs into Meeks. Van Gundy also has a record of turning subpar wing defenders into good system guys.
Detroit still has to figure out the Monroe situation, and Monroe’s camp is still making noise about possibly signing the one-year qualifying offer if Detroit doesn’t come with a max deal. But Detroit is still decently positioned going forward, and Van Gundy will have this team playing better this season.
3. Los Angeles Lakers: The Lin trade was a nice predatory move, but it’s unclear why they decided to toss so much money at Hill and Young instead of going hard for a young talent like Thomas, Stephenson, Lowry, or any number of restricted free agents. The Lakers are just filling the roster with short-term contracts until they land a star, and they couldn’t get any big names to bite this time around. If they don’t land Love next summer, who is the next realistic target?
The bright side: They have a shot at being bad enough to keep next year’s first-round draft pick, which they owe to Phoenix if it falls outside the top five.
2. Orlando: Mostly covered here. But I trust this front office over the long haul.
1. Sacramento: There will be more to come on this. No one outside the Kings’ brain trust can figure out what is up here.
Let’s fly through some of the teams we haven’t mentioned yet.
Inertia: Uncomfortable Division
• Brooklyn Nets. Inertia doesn’t apply to the team’s coaching situation, and the Nets are so horribly capped out that standing pat was almost inevitable. They swapped Jarrett Jack into Shaun Livingston’s hybrid guard spot, exchanging players with very different strengths and weakness, and they let Paul Pierce walk without a fight — or the means to replace him. Nabbing Sergey Karasev in the Jack deal was a nice touch for Team Russia.
Brook Lopez will be ready to go after various foot ailments, and the Nets are praying double ankle surgery will help Deron Williams play like a star on a consistent basis for the first time since 2011.
This team has to reinvent itself again after doing so halfway through last season, and the ceiling doesn’t appear all that high.
• New York Knicks. See here.
Inertia: Content Division
• Milwaukee. The franchise is happy to tank another season and explore the trade market for ways to off-load veteran money and/or rent out its cap space for picks. It wouldn’t shock if the Bucks tossed some last-minute cash at a young free agent — they reportedly had some interest in Bledsoe — but time is growing thin.
• Utah. See the first sentence of the Milwaukee entry and add a dash of Dante Exum intrigue!
• Philadelphia. Tank all day, tank all night, and tank some more.
• Oklahoma City. Anthony Morrow is better at shooting basketballs than Thabo Sefolosha is, and much, much worse at defending other people who are trying to shoot basketballs. But Morrow flashed a bit more off-the-bounce juice in New Orleans last season, he’s a stable locker-room veteran, and the Thunder hope Perry Jones (post-surgery), Andre Roberson, and other youngsters can pick up some of Sefolosha’s defensive responsibilities.
This team will be awesome as long as Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka are healthy. The rest is just trying to nail the fringe signings.
• Boston. The Avery Bradley deal is a bit of a gamble given his health history, but he’s a proven defender at both guard positions, and he hit 3s from all over the place last season. Boston was smart to leverage Cleveland’s desperation by nabbing yet another pick in the Marcus Thornton/Jarrett Jack deal, but everything here is still set up for something bigger.
• Golden State. Kevin Love remains available.
• Minnesota. Kevin Love remains available.
• New Orleans. There is a ton riding on this season.
• Indiana. Something is about to break here. Indy is only about $3 million under the tax, and Stephenson remains unsigned in a shrinking market. Every minute he sits out there lowers his return price and raises the possibility that some wild-card team just says, “Screw it, let’s see if we can just outbid Indiana or take a short-term flier on him.”
The Pacers can open up a bit more breathing room under the tax, and with the Heat blown apart, shaking up a proven core is riskier than it was a week ago. This is the biggest unsolved mystery left as free agency rolls on.