NBA Teams
Zach Lowe, ESPN Senior Writer 72d

Biggest winners and losers of NBA free agency

NBA

Now that the dust has settled, let's bounce around the league and figure out what in the hell just happened.

Winner: Oklahoma City Thunder

The most tired trope of the offseason: "Oh, the Thunder re-signed Paul George? How cute. Enjoy losing in the first round!"

What were they supposed to do? Let George walk because they aren't as good as the Warriors and Rockets, and re-enter single-star purgatory until the inevitable Russell Westbrook trade?

Those were the stakes. Retaining George through his prime is a massive organizational victory -- vindication of Sam Presti's gamble, of the strong culture that emboldened him to make it, and of the superstar who stayed. Turns out, there is a co-star cool with Westbrook jacking 43 shots in an elimination game.

Also: They have a chance to be really good. The Thunder hit a winter groove after a rocky start, and might have continued apace had Andre Roberson not ruptured his left patellar tendon. The Westbrook/George/Roberson/Steven Adams foursome was among the nastiest and best four-man groups in the league, per NBA.com. They get more time to gel now. They are short on shooting but that's not a new problem.

This core won't touch Golden State as long as all four incumbent Warriors stars stay healthy, but they can compete in the upper tier of the conference. Get there, and you are one big break away from something interesting.

George is a perfect fit next to Westbrook -- an apex second option who slithers around pindowns, spaces the floor, envelopes opposing scorers, and takes the reins when Westbrook rests. They overpaid Jerami Grant a hair, but he had a market in the $7 million-plus range as a dive-and-dunk small-ball center capable of switching across every position. If he develops a credible corner 3 -- a huge "if" -- he will unlock lineup versatility, and perform to his contract.

The team is capped out in perpetuity. The repeater tax bill is a problem even after the inevitable departure of Official Banana Boat Photographer Carmelo Anthony, but I don't really care about the money problems of billionaires who stole a team from Seattle. It might be a one- or two-year problem, anyway.

(By the way: How funny is it that the team that quibbled over maybe $8 million with James Harden is about to become one of the most prolific taxpayers in league history? It proves the Harden trade wasn't just about money, and maybe not even primarily about money. It was a little about money, of course; the Thunder feared the tax, and underestimated the coming leap in the salary cap. But my theory has always been that the Thunder had misgivings about Harden as a long-term cultural fit, and -- like a bunch of other teams who sniffed around -- did not understand how good he was.

It's also possible Harden wanted to spread his wings. One small caveat: When Scott Brooks started Harden twice in place of an injured Thabo Sefolosha in January 2012, Harden approached Brooks before and after both games requesting to move back into his bench role, Brooks says. Of course, Harden played a ton of minutes off the bench and got to run the offense. At some point, the ambition of solo superstardom would have struck. It's an interesting footnote, though.)

George taking a 3-plus-1 deal is strange, no matter how folks spin it. It might indicate some lack of faith among George's camp that he will be a max-level player in two or three seasons. After Year 2, George will have logged 10 seasons, making him eligible for the highest-level maximum contract -- 35 percent of the cap. By locking in for a third year, George delayed that windfall and forfeited at least $5 million in that season.

George can sign an extension with Oklahoma City after the second year of his new deal, but that would not kick in until after that locked-in, potentially under-market third season. If the cap jumps more than expected, that extension will pay short of the max.

George was searching for a middle ground between security and money maximization. Even so: This is a weird contract.

It's a boon for the Thunder.

Loser: The East

Congrats to the East on extending its record for consecutive losing offseasons! Please claim your vomit-brown participation ribbon at the bake sale table!

Assuming Milwaukee and Indiana build on last season's progress, and the Wizards don't murder each other by January, the race for the last two playoff spots -- behind those three and the Philadelphia/Boston/Toronto triptych -- has the potential to be among the saddest ever. League Pass Alert! The 30-35 Pistons are battling the 31-34 Hornets in a game with major playoff implications! Will Luke Kennard outplay a limping Nicolas Batum?

Meanwhile, the West might have as many as 13 legitimate playoff hopefuls depending on how the Kawhi Leonard stalemate resolves and your taste in the Mavericks. (Mine: We are overrating them as playoff contenders.)

The NBA needs to get out of here with this noise about air travel and imbalanced scheduling in batting away the idea of seeding teams 1-16 without regard to conference. I'm sympathetic to the rigors of time-zone change, but a few Western Conference teams already traverse multiple time zones in multiple series. The league believes the current system, with two separate playoff races, keeps more teams in the hunt longer. They might be right. But a 1-16 system would create exciting new pivot points we can't anticipate now.

The imbalanced schedule, with teams playing 52 of 82 games inside their conference, might be intractable as long as "82" remains sacrosanct. It need not be an obstacle to change.

The league purports to fear a scenario under a 1-to-16 system in which one team with a weaker schedule squeaks into the playoffs over a rival with a stronger schedule. Guess what? That is already happening every time a crappy East team makes the playoffs over a superior team from the West -- something that happens almost every season. The imbalanced schedule makes the gap between East and West appear smaller than it is; East teams slap-fight one another 52 times apiece.

Building an optimal system is hard. But keeping the current schedule and seeding 1-16 is fairer than what happens now. Why can't we at least discuss that until we figure out something better?

Oh, not enough East owners will vote for any such proposal? Be better owners, or go own something that is less of a public trust. You'll get lottery picks instead of watching a 47-win Western Conference team enter the drawing -- with an increased chance starting this season of moving up.

Winner, kind of: The Lakers

Oh, man, was there a lot of eye-rolling around the league about how the Lakers don't "deserve" LeBron -- even though deserve's got nothing to do with it.

You can understand. After the Chris Paul veto and the collapse of the Dwight Howard-Steve Nash gambit, the Lakers mostly embarrassed themselves. They made maybe a half-dozen savvy moves in as many years, and two of them -- the D'Angelo Russell/Timofey Mozgov trade, and last season's deadline deal with Cleveland -- amounted to mulligans. With Julius Randle in New Orleans, the Lakers have now ditched all five players they drafted in 2014 and 2015 -- classes that were once a source of pride within their scouting department. (They mostly nailed the next two drafts, to be fair.)

They botched free agency pitch meetings until Kevin Durant refused to schedule one, and rebounded with ludicrous overpays for Mozgov and Luol Deng.

Almost nothing they've done since signing LeBron suggests they have any coherent vision, or have followed the NBA since 2011 -- the last time Rajon Rondo was the plus defender they will surely tout him as.

It's fine that LeBron wants to scale back his ballhandling load, as Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst reported in explaining the signings of Rondo and Lance Stephenson. The price for Stephenson was fair. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope fits, though using $12 million in room on him carries an opportunity cost.

We've heard for years that LeBron wants to run and cede some playmaking duties. This roster -- including Lonzo Ball -- fits that vision. But LeBron always defaults into a slow half-court style in which he controls everything and craves maximum shooting around him. I'll believe he's ready for something different when I see it. I'm relatively bullish on Ball, and heartened by murmurs that LeBron thinks they can fit. I am skeptical of that fit playing out as well as hoped.

The Lakers got LeBron because they are the Lakers. That's it. That is Lakers exceptionalism. They are banking on that same appeal in free agency next summer. It won't be enough on its own, and the Lakers know it. The foursome of Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, and Ball provides hope for sustainability -- either as trade chips for Leonard, or long-term pieces.

Loser: Cleveland

You have some wonderful restaurants, Cleveland. I will miss them.

Winner: Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto

DE-FAULT! The two sweetest words in the English language! LeBron is gone!

Boston was ready to topple LeBron, and profiles as perhaps the second-best team in the league next season. Philadelphia isn't far behind. Toronto's schoolyard bully moved to a different neighborhood.

P.S.: The more conflicting information I hear from people one or two steps away about what Leonard does/doesn't want, the more I think some team -- maybe one of these three -- should be more aggressive gambling on a rental and selling Leonard on its culture. The Sixers haven't offered Markelle Fultz, sources say, and it's unclear if the Spurs want him. We know what Boston has. I pitched (among others) a Toronto swap centered on DeMar DeRozan last week.

The healthy version of Leonard is good enough that Toronto could avoid rebuilding once Kyle Lowry fades. DeRozan isn't. If Leonard walks, the cost might not be so severe; DeRozan can be a free agent next summer, and none of their young guys look like future stars.

Such a deal improves Toronto's chances at making the Finals. The real question: Does it give them enough of a shot against Golden State to justify whatever cost San Antonio demands in young players and picks?

Winner: Free agency 2019

Loser, again: The cap spike of 2016

It would be hard to conjure any more perfect coda to the league-warping cap spike of 2016 than Mozgov and Bismack Biyombo -- recipients of perhaps the nuttiest contracts from that orgiastic summer -- being traded for each other in what appears to have been an actual talent play for Biyombo. (Stop laughing.)

The spike enabled Golden State to sign Durant in 2016 without sacrificing one or both of Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston -- in addition to Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut. Detritus from that summer clogs cap sheets everywhere, freezing even contending teams aching to go bold (i.e., Houston), and creating the sort of chilly market in which the Warriors could sign DeMarcus Cousins on the cheap.

Adam Silver can say whatever he wants at the podium. The league is concerned about the congestion of talent in Golden State, and the perception that the 2018-19 season is over.

The NBA can (and does) at least blame the union, which rejected the league's proposal to smooth the cap increase over multiple seasons.

The union understandably felt queasy denying 2016 free agents an enormous payday, as Michele Roberts, its executive director, explained again this week to The New York Times. After all, that class comprised a large portion of its membership. Union officials surely hoped contracts signed that summer would become measuring sticks in future negotiations.

(This appears to have been what Roberts was getting at when she and I discussed the issue on a 2014 podcast. She insisted smoothing could cost players money. I asked how that was possible since players are guaranteed 51 percent of all basketball-related income, and the league would fork over the difference if salaries didn't reach that amount due to smoothing. The conversation got stuck in a loop.)

Roberts is right that this summer's cap environment -- a half-dozen teams with major room -- is historically normal, and more player friendly than many summers that preceded the cap jump.

But the flood of national TV money was always going to obliterate old notions of normal. The new normal could have been either a predetermined series of mini-spikes, or one mega-spike. The union chose the latter, and still haven't really offered any substantive reason aside from a vague suspicion of any proposal from the league office. Even Roberts by the end of that Times story falls back on the "Don't blame us for GMs spending like morons in 2016" line.

Roberts is correct to note middle-class players are still getting paid. The system safeguards that to some degree via Bird Rights -- the ability of teams to go over the cap in re-signing their own players. Players who signed deals under the old, pre-spike cap have since inked richer new ones -- catching up to their peers, or overtaking them.

But in the end, one class of free agents benefited above all others. Their windfall has not spread to their peers as much as they hoped, and its indirect effect on the league's competitive balance was enormous.

As I've written before, I don't think the league fought as hard as it could have for smoothing. It could have back-loaded the national TV deal, as Kevin Pelton pointed out; proffered follow-up proposals; or offered the union a carrot in exchange for smoothing. When the NBA wants to fight, it knows how. Maybe the league thought it was fruitless.

The only potential good news: A bunch of quality players saw this coming, and took one-year deals that will vault them back into free agency next summer -- when a lot of those grotesque 2016 contracts expire. Almost half of the league's total player pool will enter free agency in a year.

We already knew about the stars: Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, perhaps a few restricted studs. The market will be teeming with good secondary players, too. Those players have almost unwittingly created a less severe supply/demand issue than they faced this time around: There won't be enough room for all of them.

P.S.: I get why folks mock the notion that Durant would consider the Knicks as long as James Dolan is slouching over the franchise, but you're kidding yourselves if you don't think New York will try. People who have spent years around Durant can't say for sure what he wants from the game. It's unclear if he knows. Some of those people predict, if you force them, that he will one day leave Golden State for a team that can be truly his.

I have no idea. I do know that Rich Kleiman, Durant's business manager, is from New York. Scott Perry, New York's GM, was an executive with the Seattle SuperSonics when they drafted Durant and remains close with him.

New York will obviously have company pitching Durant, if he hears pitches. (Golden State's new arena doesn't open until the 2019-20 season; who could blame Durant for wanting to play in it?) Those suitors will bring track records of basic competency the Dolan-era Knicks have rarely achieved.

But New York will try.

Next summer is going to be a whirlwind. Rest up.

Winner: Wings and rational markets

When Detroit offered Glenn Robinson III -- coming off a severe injury, with a limited track record -- a two-year, $8.3 million deal, it was clear this was going to a good summer for wings at the expense of big men.

Given the league's stylistic evolution, that makes sense. The Bucks on Sunday stole Brook Lopez on a one-year, $3.4 million deal to be Mike Budenholzer's new Pero Antic.

(I'd have liked Washington to chase Lopez. He came cheaper than Dwight Howard, and it would be nice to see John Wall operate with more spacing. With Ersan Ilyasova and Lopez in Milwaukee, expect more lineups featuring four shooters around Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks overpaid Ilyasova on a three-year, $21 million deal, and probably hard-capped themselves in the process. They stand only about $15 million below that ceiling, and can wriggle their way to $18 million or so of breathing space by waiving non-guaranteed deals. If another team hits Jabari Parker with an offer sheet above that number, the Bucks will have to shed salary to match. Only three teams can do so: Atlanta, Chicago, and Sacramento.)

The wing market didn't go overboard, either. The rare teams with space -- or the full, $8.7 midlevel exception -- used their leverage to try and squeeze good players into three- and four-year deals.

Players and their agents responded correctly. The best wings (Tyreke Evans, Avery Bradley, JJ Redick, Trevor Ariza, a few others) signed one- or two-year deals. To lock players in longer, teams had to settle for second-tier wings (Kyle Anderson, Doug McDermott) or overpay their own free agents (Will Barton).

Anderson is an interesting fit in Memphis -- a sneaky cutter with experience skulking backdoor for Gasolian bounce passes. He can organize the offense from up top, allowing Mike Conley to work off the ball. He can slide to power forward.

Anderson's shaky outside shooting will always mute his impact unless the Grizzlies can construct lineups with four long-range threats around him. That's going to be hard. But I don't mind the signing at this price, and Memphis was right to chase years.

Barton is good enough to live up to this deal for Denver. He will face a size disadvantage on most nights, and will have to tone down the balls-to-the-wall nature of his game a bit to mesh with Denver's starters. Years cost a premium; Denver paid it.

Winner: Pacers

They splurged on McBuckets, but that was the price of years. They paid Evans enough -- $12 million -- that they should be able to re-sign him with the most limited version of Bird Rights next summer if need be. (By the way: Good job by Memphis failing to trade Evans at the deadline, and explaining it away by saying they hoped to re-sign him!) Kyle O'Quinn is an upgrade over Al Jefferson.

They still have a long-term question at power forward, and the connected dilemma of whether Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis can play together. They don't project as contenders in the East.

But they have more shooting and lineup options -- small-ball outfits with McDermott or Bojan Bogdanovic at power forward, and wing-heavy groups in which Victor Oladipo operates as point guard. They are deep. They built on last season's surprising success without microwaving the process, and sacrificing long-term assets.

TBD: Restricted free agents

It hasn't been as icy as expected -- proof again that the lack of smoothing didn't kill the market for everyone. Aaron Gordon didn't get his max, but $20 million per season is a fair deal -- one the Magic can move if they'd like. That might not go for Zach LaVine after the Kings forced Chicago's hand with a mammoth offer sheet.

LaVine should develop into a useful player. He's a better shooter than critics acknowledge; he hit 39 percent from deep over two seasons before tearing his ACL, suggesting he could crack 40 if he develops the faintest idea of what constitutes a good shot. (Also: The ability to hit "bad" 3-pointers off the dribble is an important skill.) LaVine was out of his depth during a brief Minnesota experiment at point guard, but his failure there should help him as a secondary playmaker.

But his defense has been so, so bad, and his judgment on offense so spotty, that there is a higher-than-usual chance for a big-name restricted free agent -- maybe 30 percent -- that LaVine just isn't good. There is a correspondingly small chance that he becomes an All-Star, and a whole lot of gray area in between. Paying almost $20 million per season to find out the end of that story is a shaky bet.

Portland faced no serious competition for Jusuf Nurkic before inking him to a four-year, $48 million deal -- with only $4 million guaranteed in Year 4, per league sources. On the surface, it resembles Denver bailing out Mason Plumlee with a three-year, $41 million deal when Plumlee had nowhere else to turn. Portland could have played hardball, and dared Nurkic to take the one-year qualifying offer -- a scenario in which he would have become an unrestricted free agent after the 2018-19 season.

Play well, and Nurkic's floor next summer -- when many more teams will have cap room -- might have been the full midlevel exception. Portland paid him slightly more than that as a tradeoff for locking in four seasons. The Blazers maintain good will with Nurkic (and agents around the league), and preserve a trade asset.

Nurkic is better than Plumlee, and will earn less per season as the cap jumps toward $110 million and then $120 million. Portland should eventually be able to trade Nurkic for at least neutral value. The Nuggets cannot trade Plumlee without attaching an asset.

Randle, McDermott, Slow-Mo, Davis Bertans, and Dante Exum signed contracts ranging from reasonable to above expectations. Unless something goes horribly wrong, the Rockets will eventually re-sign Clint Capela.

Marcus Smart and Parker remain in standoffs. The Kings, Hawks, and Bulls have to choose between signing one of them to an offer sheet and keeping their space open as a dumping ground for the hoard of teams facing tax issues. Those tax teams hope all three stay open, so they can play them off of one another.

Teams with room have absorbed huge amounts of dead or almost-dead money in exchange for single first-round picks over the past two years. The Hawks, Kings, and Bulls sought to reverse that by demanding a king's ransom. No one bit. The Sixers leapt into the void by renting their space for a good player on an expiring contract (Wilson Chandler), one second-rounder, and swap rights on another.

Beware of labeling as losers: Houston Rockets

Remember the last time we freaked out about Houston losing free agency? It was 2014: LeBron switched teams, Dallas hit Chandler Parsons with a fat offer sheet, and the Rockets let Parsons walk because they didn't think he was a star. In Daryl Morey's world, everyone but superstars is fungible.

They replaced Parsons with ... Trevor Ariza, at half the cost. Houston is usually a couple of steps ahead. The Rockets deserve some benefit of the doubt

Houston was never going to pay multiples in luxury tax payments for Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. Mbah a Moute was not the same after a late-season shoulder injury, and the Rockets might believe it will linger.

Role players might be fungible. Identities aren't. Houston has lost key ingredients in a gritty defense designed to ruffle the Warriors, and are rebounding by chasing the ghost of an all-offense ex-superstar in Anthony. It's not fair to paint this as a choice between Anthony and the Ariza/Mbah a Moute pairing; Phoenix bid Ariza out of any reasonable Houston price range. But the Rockets could have easily retained Mbah a Moute.

What is Houston's identity now? It had enough offense-defense balance last season to turn a two-game Warriors slump into a short series upset, even if it felt as if the healthy Warriors would go something like 13-7 over 20 games against the healthy Rockets. This revamped version doesn't. Houston would have no chance to defend Golden State with both Harden and Anthony on the floor, even with Paul, P.J. Tucker, P.J. Tucker's ass, and Capela buttressing them. Swap Eric Gordon into Anthony's spot, and Houston becomes too small.

You can bet Morey knows all this. Over the next year, Houston will do something unexpected to lift its chances. We just don't know what it is, or whether the Rockets will do it in time for the playoffs.

Winner now, loser later? New Orleans Pelicans

In a vacuum, exchanging Cousins coming off a catastrophic injury for Randle is fine. Ditto for replacing Rondo with Elfrid Payton. But re-signing Cousins provided a pathway to sustainability: either keep him, or trade him for long-term pieces. The two sides couldn't agree on the general parameters of a deal. Sign-and-trades proved unworkable. Cousins walked.

Randle can opt out his deal next summer. Since he's on a one-year contract, the Pelicans will be limited to offering Randle a starting salary of only $10.3 million unless they open cap space. If he has a good season, that might not be enough.

A whirlwind of win-now trades has left Anthony Davis as the only homegrown first-round pick on the roster; Frank Jackson and Cheick Diallo came early in the second round. Those guys are promising. Davis and Jrue Holiday represent a nice two-man core. One of Randle and Nikola Mirotic figures to be on the team beyond this season.

There just hasn't been any guiding vision over the past half-decade. How many teammates can Davis look at and think to himself: "That guy will help me compete for a title in two or three years?"

Loser: Charlotte Hornets

I suppose there is some art in turning Dwight Howard's expiring contract into Bismack Biyombo and four second-round picks. You know what is even more artful? Buying Howard out under the same terms Brooklyn coaxed, and not having Biyombo's hideous $16 million-per-year on your books through 2020.

The four seconds they received might not be all that good, anyway, and you know some will get churned into nothingness.

Charlotte now has $35 million invested in four guys who need to play some or all of their minutes at center: Biyombo, Cody Zeller, Frank Kaminsky, and Willy Hernangomez. The Hornets are hedging against Zeller's health issues. They might view Marvin Williams as their only "true" power forward, and consider Kaminsky or even Zeller backup options. (Kaminsky has played power forward a ton.)

But that would be a backward rationalization for hunting Biyombo -- especially since they should tiptoe into the 2010s and give Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Batum more time at power forward.

The Hornets spent themselves into cap-and-tax jail thanks in part to that 2016 cap spike, and they don't appear to have any creative escape plan.

Winner: The Warriors

They got better. Houston got worse. LeBron awaits help. Have a good summer!

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