The Overwhelming Sound and Fury of Day 1 of NBA Free AgencyAl Bello/Getty Images
Well, holy freaking crap. The NBA has never, ever seen a day like July 1, 2015. LeBron James drew in more intense tractor beams of interest with his two prolonged free-agency stripteases, but there has never been a start like this, with so many transactions at all salary levels packed into a single 24-hour window.
It’s hard to zoom out above the frantic roster crisscrossing, but two bigger themes appear to have emerged from the wreckage:
1. Players Crave Security
Several agents cautioned me in the weeks leading up to free agency that fewer players than expected would take one- and two-year deals with player options — the LeBron-style short-term contracts designed to get them right back into free agency for the coming cap spike.
Deals got a little shorter, with players agitating for options at the back end, but guys mostly gravitated toward guaranteed cash over higher risk-reward choices. Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragic, and Kawhi Leonard all took five-year contracts with player options after Year 4. Kevin Love, a superstar in his prime, signed a full five-year deal with a player option in the final year of the deal. Khris Middleton signed back with the Bucks for the longest possible tenure (albeit with a possible opt-out after Year 4), and both Danny Green and DeMarre Carroll inked four-year deals. Hell, even Kyle Singler strapped himself into a five-year deal that comes in below the midlevel exception — and keeps him out of free agency for the entirety of both his prime and the cap spike.
A lot of fans mocked that deal, but Singler can be a helpful 3-and-D-ish wing, and that contract is going to be a drop in the bucket in the very near future.
And in the night’s first and most eye-popping deal, Anthony Davis, the league’s next generational star, grabbed a five-year, $145 million supermax from the Pelicans — with a player option in the final season. The Pelicans have to be thanking the basketball gods for the “Derrick Rose rule,” which allows teams to offer a bumped-up max deal to any first-round pick who meets a certain criterion1 over his first four seasons. Davis hasn’t hit the benchmarks yet, but barring injury, he’ll do it next season, and the Rose rule helped New Orleans offer Davis more money over five years than he could have gotten in any other way — even with the cap spike. Good for them.
There will be some brave souls who gamble on getting back into the free-agency bonanza for 2016 and 2017, but the player pool in those years may not end up quite as deep as everyone anticipated. On the flip side, the longer-term deals agreed to today drained some of the available cap room for those coming summer bonanzas. They will still be bonanzas, but the dynamics appear to have shifted at least a bit.
Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko took two-year deals in Boston (that sound you hear is Simmons weeping),2 and LaMarcus Aldridge, as I wrote Tuesday, could earn something like $35 million more over the next five years if he starts off on a two-year deal now and double-dips. Paul Millsap passed up a four-year max deal to sign a three-year max-level contract with a player option in Year 3 — a deal that gives him a shot at the new cap money at age 32. Greg Monroe seems eager to press his luck again, DeAndre Jordan has already expressed his intention to sign a four-year deal with a player option in the final year, and there are still a hail of big men out there.
But July 1 reinforced the notion that it is really, really hard to turn down enormous sums of guaranteed money when they are thrust directly under your nose. Sure, the difference between $100 million over five years and $130 million is huge, but you’re set for life either way, and you’re screwed if you tear your Achilles or rip your knee apart holding out for the fattest cash. Fears of a lockout after the 2016-17 season may have played into this, but players have always behaved this way, and the coming cap spike didn’t change that as much as some feared.
2. Franchises Know Who They Are
Teams outside the glamour free-agency destinations showed a good understanding of their place in the changing marketplace, and of the increased value of 3-and-D wings. The Bucks wasted zero seconds locking up Middleton to a $14 million–per-year deal that would have seemed insane six months ago. The agreement came so fast that other teams didn’t even get a real chance to speak with Middleton, per several league sources. That deal will account for only 13 percent of the team salary cap in two years, and the Bucks understand how hard it will be to nab star free agents when nearly the entire league is set to have max-level cap room next summer. They couldn’t get meetings with Jordan or Tyson Chandler, the latter now heading to the Suns in a mild shocker, though they’re still potentially in the running for Robin Lopez and Monroe, sources say.
Portland tossed a four-year, $30 million offer at Al-Farouq Aminu — a deal that looks like a nutty overpay for a tweener who can barely dribble and has never shot above 32 percent from deep. But the Blazers are in a nebulous hybrid asset-acquisition mode while Aldridge decides, and they had to outbid over-the-cap teams who would have nabbed Aminu at the midlevel exception — which pays just south of $6 million per season. Aminu is an ace rebounder, he can defend three positions well, and he has shown signs of developing at least a decent corner 3-pointer. Defenders who can toggle between power forwards and wings — and Aminu is probably best as a small-ball power forward — are becoming more valuable. Amid a rising cap, this is a defensible bet.
The Raptors trumped the Middleton deal by lavishing a four-year, $60 million monster on DeMarre Carroll, and let’s just move on to the rest of the day’s chaos, starting with the most riveting: the Spurs-Hawks nexus of activity.
• When news broke that the Spurs had traded Tiago Splitter and agreed to a four-year, $45 million deal with Danny Green, things were moving so fast that I could only muster this text to a prominent agent: “Holy fuck, the Spurs.”
Green is one of the league’s premier 3-and-D players. He can’t create off the dribble, but he’s a bargain at this price — especially considering what Middleton, Carroll, and others got. The Spurs’ cap situation is hard to read at this point, but they are positioning themselves to lure Aldridge and retain most of their core — including Green. If Tim Duncan comes back for $6 million and Manu Ginobili takes the room exception of $2.8 million, the Spurs as of this second would have about $49.9 million on the books. That figure includes the lower cap holds for Green and Leonard, not their freshly minted salaries; the Spurs can save those deals for last to maintain as much cap space as possible.
That leaves almost exactly enough space to fit Aldridge at the max, especially if the cap inches up from the projected $67 million to $69 million, as Ken Berger of CBS Sports reported Tuesday night that it might. Several league sources confirmed that little nudge to be likely, though teams have received no formal notification from the league and may not know for sure until the moratorium ends on July 9.
It’s bonkers, by the way, that teams and players start negotiating deals without knowing the precise cap figure. That $2 million is massively important. It could represent the difference between the Spurs keeping Patty Mills or having to offload him in a salary dump. For harried moments during today’s madness, it could have determined whether Atlanta and Toronto had enough room to keep Carroll and Johnson, respectively. And after agreeing to terms with Millsap late today, it could dictate whether the Hawks have to deal someone — Mike Scott or Kent Bazemore — to sneak under the cap.
In any case, the Spurs are going to be a goddamned terror if they pull all this off, even if they have to sacrifice Mills. Aldridge can mimic Splitter’s size-and-speed versatility on defense, space the floor, and log some time as the backup center. And when a playoff game grinds down late, Aldridge post-ups are another place they can go to just get buckets.
Aldridge can be a bit of a ball-stopper on offense, and that doesn’t fly in San Antonio. But he’s a skilled passer and mover, and he should be able to adapt. He should also keep shooting 3s. Boris Diaw is coming off a down season, but his passing and shooting open the offense in a way no other Spurs big can manage; he’s a rare bird, and given that Aldridge at peak mobility can match Splitter’s defense, there are good basketball reasons — beyond Diaw’s slightly lower salary — that the Spurs chose to keep him. Now, if he could show up to camp in shape …
There is risk here. Aldridge is about to turn 30 and could decline on the back end of any long-term deal. At least two other teams, Phoenix and Portland, are still in contention to sign him. There are a ton of moving parts, and teams that juggle too many of them can end up losing an asset for nothing — just as Houston did in flipping a pick to the Lakers last July to clear cap space for a star who never came.
But the Spurs can sign Aldridge for only four seasons, his game should age well, and this is the organization’s way of doing right by Duncan. They were a contender with Splitter, but they don’t trust Splitter’s health, and they could be special with Aldridge.
• The Suns end of this is really interesting. It’s hard to nail down any team’s cap situation as so many deals hang in the air, but they would appear to be out of cap room after agreeing to a four-year, $52 million deal with Chandler and re-signing Brandon Knight — even if they save Knight’s contract for last. That leaves a sign-and-trade as the most realistic way to land Aldridge.
Blazers GM Neil Olshey drafted Eric Bledsoe, but the Suns aren’t interested in dealing Bledsoe, per several league sources, and the Bledsoe–Damian Lillard pairing might leave both players frustrated. But Phoenix has plenty of picks and young players, including two interesting pieces — Alex Len and Markieff Morris — who play the same positions as Chandler and Aldridge. Trading for one Morris means acquiring the other, and given that they are facing assault charges, it’s unclear how appetizing the Morris platter is to Portland.
A three-team, double sign-and-trade sending Brandan Wright to Dallas for Chandler was theoretically possible, several sources told me, but Memphis swooped in and stole Wright for the full midlevel exception. That is fantastic value for Wright. The midlevel has been just about the going rate for a heavy-minutes third big, and the Grizz need their third big to play more as Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph age. Wright should be able to play with both Randolph and Gasol; double-center lineups featuring Gasol and Kosta Koufos were hit-and-miss on offense, but they were good overall, and Gasol’s elbow game should mesh with Wright’s pick-and-roll diving.
The deal takes the Grizz payroll within $1 million of the tax, but the roster is about full, and they could use the stretch provision on Vince Carter if they need some breathing room.
Wright would have been a great fallback for the Mavs if Jordan spurns them, and perhaps Koufos could fill that role now. If Jordan bolts for Dallas, I’m honestly not sure where the Clippers go for help. They don’t have the workable cap space to find a replacement, the much-hyped Chandler-Jordan double sign-and-trade is off the table, and they don’t have a lot of appealing chips in the event some other sign-and-trade pops up. Things change fast in the NBA. Ask the Blazers and Pacers. The Clippers have to be crossing their fingers they didn’t just blow their best chance at a title in the Chris Paul–Blake Griffin era.
They’ll work the phones on Jamal Crawford and pray some workable center takes the midlevel exception. Considering Alexis Ajinca almost got the equivalent of the midlevel from the Pellies (after sniffing out smaller offers from the Grizzlies and other teams), that will be a hard ask. The Clips may be out of luck, though at least we’ll get to see more of Blake Griffin at center in smaller lineups that could explore what the Warriors did with Draymond Green. Roping in Paul Pierce on a cheap three-year deal3 gives Doc Rivers more variations on that type of lineup, and in the worst-case scenario that Jordan leaves, the Clips would have cap space to play with next summer. And if Jordan comes back, the Clips can be as good as anyone. Three years is a lot for an NBA grandpa, but the money is nothing going forward, and the Clippers can slice him away pretty harmlessly with the stretch provision if things go badly.
Dallas is in a bad spot if Jordan returns to L.A., but at least it has cap room to snag a leftover center. You can be sure the Pacers, dangling Roy Hibbert, are monitoring the Dallas situation. The Pacers are in talks to use all their cap space on Monta Ellis, and they still need a power forward to replace David West.
• I’ve been shocked by how many executives have characterized Splitter’s contract as dead money the Spurs would pay to unload. He’s due just $19.3 million over the next two seasons, and he’s a useful two-way player when healthy. The Hawks didn’t quite get him for free, since Splitter soaks up cap space they could have used on Carroll,4 but other teams with cap space and a need for functional bigs — hi, Knicks and Lakers! — should have looked at Splitter.
He’ll fit in nicely with the Hawks, even with Millsap rejecting Orlando’s four-year max offer to return to Atlanta on a three-year deal. God, I love Millsap’s weirdo approach to free agency. He signed a borderline inexplicable two-year, $19 million contract with the Hawks last time around, and while everyone else is clubbing with Mark Cuban and the Lakers, Millsap pops down to freaking Orlando.
With Millsap back, Splitter becomes a killer third big who can play alongside both starters — a massive upgrade over Pero Antic and Scott. (Farewell, Antic’s pump fake. I’ll miss you. May the shorter FIBA 3-point line make you even more persuasive.) He doesn’t fit Mike Budenholzer’s all-shooting, all-the-time ideal, but he’s obviously familiar with the San Antonio system, he can ease the workload on both Al Horford and Millsap as they age together, and he gives the Hawks more defensive oomph at the rim.
Carroll is a big loss — a 3-and-D monster who is always moving and provides a jolt of unpredictability sneaking around for layups and offensive rebounds. Atlanta can still fill out a bit on the fringes, but they are betting big on Kyle Korver, Tim Hardaway Jr., Kent Bazemore, and especially Thabo Sefolosha. Sefolosha came on after a slow start, but he’s not the sort of quick-trigger 3-point shooter that makes Atlanta hum. Let’s see who Budenholzer and Wes Wilcox, the team’s new GM, unearth on the cheap.
Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images
• Orlando going hard after Millsap was fun. He could have spotted up around Nikola Vucevic post-ups and pick-and-rolls, created offense for himself, and worked his handsy magic on defense for a team that needs a lot of help on that end. Orlando’s perimeter shooting is poo-poo, but they would have been hard to guard with elite shooters at both big-man positions in Millsap and Vooch.
There is a lot of positional overlap among Millsap, Channing Frye, Aaron Gordon, and Tobias Harris, but Frye works well as a backup center, and I don’t really see a problem with Orlando stockpiling players with ambiguous positions. Did anyone watch the Finals? Regardless: Orlando is smart to reach for talent now, while its cap room really means something.
Striking out on Millsap makes Harris a higher priority, though I didn’t buy the noise that landing Millsap would have freed Orlando to let Harris walk. The Magic could have kept both, limboed under the tax, and hoarded plenty of room for next summer. It might have cost them intriguing bit players, including Kyle O’Quinn and Evan Fournier, and the Magic have more wiggle room to keep those guys now. But Harris is more important.
Harris is a flawed player, of course. He doesn’t pass and he has been lazy on defense for most of his career. But he perked up a bit on that end last season — contract-year alert! — and he’s good enough off the dribble to create easy passing lanes. Dude is 22, he can post up smaller guys and blow by bigger defenders off the bounce, and he hit 36 percent of his 3s last season while switching between both forward positions. Put him in the right system and nurture good habits and you could have a helluva player for the modern NBA. I’m buying, even if I have to approach the max.
• Good on the Dinos, who jumped the market on Carroll so dramatically that Carroll canceled meetings with the Pistons and Knicks, per several reports. Carroll is now Toronto’s highest-paid player. Repeat: DeMarre Carroll is the highest-paid player on an NBA team. Nonglamour teams have to overpay, but long-term deals at this level just won’t be damaging as the cap skyrockets. The Drakes still have about $10 million in cap space, and they can open up more in a pinch via trades; Terrence Ross would appear to be a semi-expendable backup now, with Carroll sliding into the starting lineup alongside DeMar DeRozan, but Masai Ujiri could move anyone for the right deal — DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, or even Jonas Valanciunas.
Carroll can log some time as a small-ball power forward, and the Raptors should still be flexible for each of the next two summers. His Hawks-y movement off the ball will enliven an uncreative Raps offense that too often grew stagnant.
• Mike Dunleavy Jr. is a bargain.
• Things are, umm, not going well for the Knicks and Lakers.
• Do the Sixers exist?
• The Nets remain boring. They had no real choice but to re-sign their own guys, since they can’t tank and had no means of gathering cap space to replace them. But they’re just kicking the can down the road another year, and they won’t be able to offer two mega-contracts next summer unless they deal Deron Williams — or waive him with the stretch provision.
• The Kings need to hit the chill button on Rajon Rondo. They appear to be bidding against no one with cap room, so at the very least, they need to limit their offer to something just above the midlevel exception that capped-out teams can dangle. Rondo is tarnished, but he can still help at the right price — and in the right role. He can fire off exquisite passes from impossible angles, crash the boards, and play feisty defense when he feels like it.
But it’s unclear if he’s still a starting-caliber point guard, and he’s certainly not the guy I’d pick to throw entry passes for DeMarcus Cousins and stand around Rudy Gay isolations. Those sorts of players require pristine spacing, and Rondo is the inverse of that.
Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images
• We’ll have more on this going forward, but the Heat will be among the league’s most compelling stories over the next few years. They know they have to re-sign Dwyane Wade; failing to honor Wade’s legacy would turn off the next wave of star free agents. But if Wade comes back at big money, the Heat will need to shed salary to duck this season’s tax — and the repeat penalties that could come with paying it again. Look for Miami to make a lot of calls on Mario Chalmers, Chris Andersen, Shabazz Napier, and even Josh McRoberts.
A big multiyear deal for Wade would complicate Miami’s pursuit of Kevin Durant and other star free agents next summer. If Wade earns “just” $16 million in 2016-17, the Heat as of now would have about $70 million on the books — $20 million below the cap, but not enough to fit Durant’s max contract. And Miami would have to dip into that space to re-sign Hassan Whiteside, since they will not have full Bird rights on him after next season.
Let’s pump the brakes. Whiteside still has to prove he can be a stable teammate for a full season, and if his production slips, the Heat should be willing to move away from him — or move someone else — in the event Durant indicates he’d like to sign there.
In the bigger picture, the Heat will have mammoth contracts committed to a 29-year-old jitterbug in Dragic, and two guys on the wrong side of 30 in Bosh and Wade. They are out three future first-round picks combined to Philadelphia and Phoenix. They mortgaged the future for short-term success without having seen their core lineups play even one second together. They look great on paper, but Whiteside is a wild card, and they played some dispiriting basketball last season. Bosh’s combination of spacing and defense can fill a lot of holes, but I’m more cautious about these guys than a lot of people seem to be.
We’ll see. There will be much more to talk about5 as the chaos continues into Day 2.
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