NBA Free Agency: The Crop From Day 1

A roundup of the most interesting early deals:

Wizards Re-sign Marcin Gortat (five years, $60 million)

Here’s a basic fact that is freaking the hell out of teams with free agents they’d really like to keep: There are at least 14 teams that could easily work their way to at least $10 million in cap space, and if the Heat stars have agreed to stay in Miami, that would leave Carmelo Anthony as the only max-level superstar navigating that hungry spending environment.

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That could be a boon for players one tier down, a group that includes Gortat, a legitimate two-way center coming off perhaps the best season of his career for a franchise that just won its second playoff series since 1982. This is how you end up forking over a fourth and fifth season to a 30-year-old who will probably never make an All-Star team, not even in the East. Gortat is now on the books through 2018-19, when he’ll be 35 and the NBA might be coming off its second work stoppage in less than a decade.

The salary cap should keep rising over that time after three years of staying flat, meaning Gortat’s deal will chomp up proportionally less space as it goes. And though Washington could in theory have carved out max-level cap room this summer, going that route was a low-percentage play that wouldn’t have been worth it just for Melo. Washington gave Phoenix a first-round pick for Gortat, and the team’s owner, Ted Leonsis, is not willing to take a temporary step back next season in order to keep more options open down the road. Gortat and Trevor Ariza were always coming back, likely on overpays.

The Wizards were fearful they would have to fight off rival suitors in doling out those overpays — especially once all those hungry cap-room teams come up empty on Melo and other stars. Better to act now.

Just tossing out the “14 teams” figure exaggerates the amount of cap room truly floating around. Some of those 14 teams have no desire to spend on 30-year-old centers — Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Orlando, Utah. Two of them, Houston and Chicago, have to execute big moves in order to seize double-digit cap space, and they’re both having expensive meals with Anthony. Detroit has a center; the Spurs won’t really have cap room once they take care of their own free agents; Boston has basically zero cap flexibility after agreeing on a bigger-than-expected four-year, $32 million deal with Avery Bradley this morning; and Gortat wouldn’t appear to fit the all-shooting, all-the-time project under construction in Atlanta.

Phoenix already had Gortat, and there’s no indication it wanted him back. Dallas got its center last week in the Tyson Chandler deal, removing the Gortat destination the Wiz feared most.

There were other teams out there, and it’s an NBA front-office cliché that “it only takes one asshole” to screw up the market for any particular player. Cleveland has cap room, and with the league bizarrely getting into a slap fight over Spencer Hawes, it might need a center. Charlotte kicked the tires on Brook Lopez and Omer Asik over the last two years, but it’s overcrowded with bigs after drafting Noah Vonleh, and the lane would be mighty cramped with Gortat and Al Jefferson in an old-school jostle-off for space.

Washington had to at least consider those teams, plus the threat of Miami opening up $10 million in space and tempting Gortat with rings and beaches. The league regards a Lakers team with cap room like a rabid raccoon.

Still: Washington was the only team that could offer Gortat a five-year deal, and that gave it leverage. You really want $12 million a year over the full five? OK. How about you take $11 million per year, a declining average annual salary, and a partial guarantee in the last season? At least make yourself tradable down the road, you delightful towel-ripping scamp.

It’s easy to say this from the outside. Gortat was an unrestricted free agent, and he’s an ornery sort. Annoy him on July 1, and he may give you the cold shoulder out of sheer spite. But this is big business, and GMs and agents are paid large salaries to annoy each other. Washington should have been able to do better on the back end of this deal.

This is the team now, assuming the Wiz strike a deal with Ariza. Washington is set to be capped out through at least 2017, and perhaps longer, depending on a few factors — Ariza’s contract, Bradley Beal’s extension that would start in the 2016-17 season, and whether the Wiz use the full midlevel exception every summer going forward.

And it’s a nice team. Gortat is an ace pick-and-roll guy and has developed beautiful chemistry with John Wall. He has soft hands, he can catch tough passes on the move, and he has an array of nifty finishes he can execute both lefty and righty. He’s a killer screen-setter, one of the few NBA bigs capable of setting picks that are both brutal and tricky. Gortat will lay a dude out chest-to-chest, but he’ll also disguise the direction of his pick until the very last second, then flip the direction of that pick, or do a 180-degree turn and set a second pick going the other way.

That stuff is gold for both Wall and Beal, who made progress as a secondary ball handler in the postseason. Gortat’s hard rolls down the gut open up spot-up shooters, and Wall might be the very best in the league at finding corner marksmen. Gortat can score from the post in the right matchups, especially when he catches and goes without dillydallying, and he and Nene are heady players with good passing/cutting/spacing chemistry.

Nene is always hurt, and finding a durable big man who can really play is crucial for the Wiz. Gortat’s not a super-threatening rim protector, but he’s big and mobile, and he tries hard on defense. He might be 30, but he barely played in Orlando, and last season was the first in which he logged 2,500 minutes.

The Wiz starting lineup of Ariza, Beal, Gortat, Nene and Wall outscored opponents by 10.5 points per 100 possessions last season, an elite number, and if this team upgrades its bench, there’s no reason it can’t make a run toward the conference finals every season in the crapola East, even if Derrick Rose returns to health and the Bulls load up around him. Washington is a nice team, and that has real financial and spiritual value for a franchise that has been so bad and is projected to lose $13 million over the 2013-14 fiscal year, per a confidential league memo Grantland has reviewed and verified. Continuity matters, and this team will get better as it grows.

Warriors Sign Shaun Livingston (three years, $16 million)

The Dubs gave Livingston the full midlevel exception over three years, though the third season is only about 50 percent guaranteed, per sources familiar with the matter. That’s huge. Livingston on that deal is easily movable if it comes to that.

The midlevel amount is a key benchmark. It represents the most teams over the cap can offer to any outside free agent, meaning that teams with cap room have to hedge against the midlevel in luring outside free agents into their space. (See the deal below this one.) This feels like too much for Livingston, who has never logged 2,000 minutes in a season and is a dreadful perimeter shooter — like, almost Tony Allen–level bad.

You don’t feel that weakness as much in the regular season, when teams are plowing through 82 games in a haze. But get into the playoffs, and tuned-up defenses will take an extra step or two off Livingston to muck up your offense. There will be postseason games in which Steve Kerr will have to sweat over playing Livingston much at all; there’s a reason Jason Kidd benched him in favor of Alan Anderson during the team’s first-round series against Toronto.

Livingston is like Dwyane Wade this way, though clearly he’s not the sort of explosive scorer Wade is. He hangs out along the baseline, like a big man, dragging an extra defender down there with him. And like Wade, he’s learned to make himself a threat by cutting into open spaces and working a pinpoint midrange post-up game; Livingston led all players in the entire stinking league in points per possession on post-up tries, per Synergy Sports.

That skill could prove especially useful in Golden State. Livingston wasn’t Brooklyn’s primary defender against opposing point guards last season, but he did the job a lot, especially when Deron Williams hit the bench, and the Warriors need someone to take that assignment so they can hide Stephen Curry elsewhere.

Klay Thompson is the incumbent in that role, and he’s probably a hair better at it than Livingston. Livingston is at a quickness disadvantage against opposing point guards, and he can occasionally get hung up going around and under screens against the pick-and-roll. But he’s a smart defender who knows opponent tendencies, and he’s even longer than Thompson, meaning he can bother opposing point guards from behind.

And if he’s defending point guards, there will be possessions on the other end when those point guards get stuck defending Livingston — when they can’t switch assignments in semi-transition. That’s when Livingston can feast on the block.

He probably can’t defend point guards for an entire game like Thompson can, but he can do it for stretches. And by the way: Of course this deal has an impact on Golden State’s ongoing Kevin Love trade talks. Thompson is the swing piece in those talks, and any acquisition that nudges the equation just a bit in the “trade Klay” direction matters. Livingston doesn’t flip the whole discussion, and the Dubs would still prefer to keep Thompson. But every change in the conversation affects the math. Livingston won’t start — he’ll take over the backup point guard role that was such a disaster last season — but he’ll play minutes in starter-heavy groups, including with Curry, and Livingston’s lack of shooting is much less troublesome if the Warriors end up swapping Lee for Love.

Livingston can also defend wings, and he emerged as Brooklyn’s preferred answer to LeBron James until Kidd switched back to Paul Pierce midway through the conference semifinals. You can never have enough wing guys. Draymond Green is going to play a lot of stretch power forward, battling against brutes down low. Harrison Barnes was bad last season. Andre Iguodala is getting older, and he battled constant lower-body injuries in Year 1 as a Warrior; the Dubs have to prepare for a reality in which Iguodala is always a bit banged up.

A point guard by upbringing, Livingston will add a much-needed dash of ballhandling. Opposing teams have to put two defenders on Curry during pick-and-rolls anywhere within 30 feet of the basket, meaning Curry often has to pass early in possessions. That’s not a bad thing; the Warriors passed-and-cut their way to a very good offensive number against the Clippers’ super-aggressive traps in the first round, and there are heady passers all over this roster.

It helps to have a second outlet guy who can keep the machine moving with both the dribble and the pass, and Livingston may supplant Iguodala as the team’s second-best ball handler after Curry. He’s also a smart facilitator from the elbows and the high post, areas Kerr wants to use.

The opportunity cost is interesting here, though. The Warriors’ big-man rotation currently consists of a trade bait guy who can’t play defense (David Lee); a center who is, sadly, always battling weird injuries (Andrew Bogut); a man without hands who missed all of last season (Festus Ezeli); a bench guy so frustrating he falls out of the rotation for parts of every season (Marreese Speights); a second-year guy who barely played as a rookie (Ognjen Kuzmic); and a feisty tweener type in Green.

That’s a bit nerve-racking. The Warriors could use an extra proven player there, especially if Jermaine O’Neal retires, and they made initial contact with Channing Frye — also a Love shooting fail-safe. The Livingston signing probably indicates Frye’s market is going to come in above the midlevel, and if that’s the case, Pau Gasol and Hawes are probably out of Golden State’s price range. Boris Diaw is a near lock to return to the Spurs.

Toss out those guys, and I’m not sure there’s any big man worth the full midlevel. The Dubs have about $71 million in committed salary now, and they used the biannual exception last season on O’Neal. They’re left to comb the minimum-salary bin or use some of the $9.8 million trade exception left over from the Iguodala deal, and the minimum may end up being the best way for this capped-out team to find an extra big body.

The Dubs will be capped out next summer as things stand now, but things could change, and they’ll still have plenty of room to toss out the full midlevel again a year from now.

Using the full midlevel on Livingston also triggers a hard cap on Golden State for this calendar year, but that shouldn’t hamper its ability to pull off a Love trade.

This deal is a risk, but a worthy one.

Pistons Sign Jodie Meeks (three years, $20 million)

The only justification for paying Meeks nearly $7 million per season is a paranoia that some contender over the cap needing a touch of extra shooting would have tossed Meeks the full midlevel. Perhaps. But if that turns out to be the case, you move on to other things.

The Pistons clearly designated Meeks a go-to target, and they’ve decided the abundance of cap space leaguewide means they have to chase any target aggressively and early. Stan Van Gundy needs shooting around Andre Drummond pick-and-rolls and (if he’s here) Greg Monroe post-ups and elbow touches, and Meeks can certainly shoot — 40 percent from deep last season on a bundle of attempts in Mike D’Antoni’s Seven Seconds Till Getting That Paper system.

Meeks also showed some new off-the-bounce verve, especially when he would come rocketing off corner screens:

MEEKS

He took only 22 shots off screens in 2012-13, per Synergy, and 13 were triples. He jacked 84 such shots last season, and 47 of them were 2-point shots. Meeks won’t ever be anything close to a lead ball handler, but he was much more adept last season at leveraging his shooting into off-the-dribble attacks.

He got to the rim more often, drew foul shots at a career-best rate, and showed an understanding of when the threat of his 3-pointer created seams in the defense. You can picture him spotting up around a Drummond pick-and-roll, catching a pass as his defender sinks in to bump Drummond’s roll, and then pumping-and-driving by that defender as he closes out.

The Pistons can’t replicate the freedom Meeks had working in D’Antoni’s go-go system on an awful Lakers team, a perfect storm of stat inflation, but Van Gundy wanted shooting around his new Dwight Howard, and he got it. That shooting unfortunately comes with stark limitations, especially on defense. Meeks is undersized against just about every wing player, and he doesn’t have the versatility to defend small forwards in a pinch. He is chronically vulnerable to back-cuts.

Van Gundy has a track record of turning bad defenders into solid ones. Meeks might be his new J.J. Redick — a guy who grows into a functional defender by working his ass off, internalizing Van Gundy’s principles, and following the rules to a T on every damn possession.

He’s still in his prime at 26, and the deal runs only three years during a span in which the cap will rocket upward. The harm here isn’t devastating, especially since Detroit can still carve out more than $8 million in cap space right now while Monroe’s cap hold stays on its books. Van Gundy will likely chase a shooting wing with more size, and the Pistons may get in the Ariza line behind Washington.

In a broader sense, the Pistons are doing interesting stuff. They’ve reportedly inquired about Isaiah Thomas, a bold move for a team that just locked up Brandon Jennings last summer. But Jennings was mostly bad, and creative front offices don’t just shrug and give up after allotting significant money to a guy at one position — especially when that contract only runs two more seasons.

Reading between the lines, a sign-and-trade involving Thomas and Josh Smith may be in the works, and multiple sources say Monroe’s camp has made it known Monroe will sign the one-year qualifying offer if Smith remains on the roster. Monroe’s camp denies that, and that kind of empty threat is not atypical from top restricted free agents. It’s really their only form of leverage.

The Meeks contract is a bit much, but Detroit is thinking creatively. Let’s see what it does next.

Filed Under: NBA, NBA Free Agency, Washingtong Wizards, Marcin Gortat, Detroit Pistons, Jodie Meeks, Shaun Livingston, Golden State Warriors, 2014 NBA Free Agency

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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