NBA free agency winners and losers include the Lakers, Suns and even the OKC Thunder
NBA free agency produced a flurry of activity Friday and Saturday as expected and slowed Sunday and Monday after the bigger deals were finished.
One way or another, every team in the league reached agreements with players.
Some teams fared better than others. The champion Los Angeles Lakers improved their roster. Charlotte landed a surprise in Gordon Hayward, Fred VanVleet got paid, three players on rookie contracts received max extensions, and even though the salary cap remained flat, plenty of money was guaranteed to players in free agency.
We take a look at the winners and losers in free agency:
Los Angeles Lakers: The Lakers will remain championship contenders so long as LeBron James and Anthony Davis stay healthy. Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka just carved out an easier path for the team to defends its title. The Lakers upgraded their frontcourt (Montrezl Harrell, Marc Gasol). They received more dependable secondary scoring (Harrell, Dennis Schröder). And they maintained their wing depth (Wesley Matthews, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope). The Lakers had to give up a No. 28 draft pick as well as part ways with Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard, Avery Bradley and JaVale McGee. Overall, though, the Lakers maintained a mix of young and veteran players while adding more scoring punch and maintaining their defensive presence.
Fred VanVleet: Shortly after Fred VanVleet reached a four-year, $85 million deal to return to Toronto, he retweeted one of his four-year old tweets where he wrote “Bet on yourself.” VanVleet was an undrafted free agent from Wichita State four years ago, making the league minimum. He turned himself into a quality player, an NBA champion and one of the most valuable players for the Raptors. It’s a wonderful story.
Gordon Hayward: Who declines the final year of a deal that pays $34.1 million in 2020-21? Gordon Hayward. He pulled off the surprise of free agency, reaching a four-year, $120 million deal with Charlotte. While it looked Hayward might leave money on the table by not going back to Boston, he made up for it with a long-term guaranteed deal through 2023-24. Hayward also has a chance to jumpstart his career after injuries slowed what was possible with the Celtics.
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Atlanta Hawks: After spending the last three seasons drafting young talent (Trae Young, Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter) and collecting assets, Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk has assembled a playoff-caliber roster. Schlenk secured one of the NBA’s most dependable 3-point shooters (Danilo Gallinari), one of the league’s best perimeter defenders (Kris Dunn) and one of the league’s smartest point guards (Rajon Rondo). Schlenk also had enough cap room to land Bogdan Bogdanovic in restricted free agency from Sacramento. The Hawks will still need time to become an Eastern Conference contender, but But expect them to become a challenging first-round opponent.
Portland Trail Blazers: General manager Neil Olshey made moves that will give stars Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum reinforcements to make an extended playoff push. Portland also kept Carmelo Anthony, and Olshey also strengthened the team’s frontcourt (Enes Kanter, Robert Covington) and its wing depth (Rodney Hood, Derrick Jones. Jr, Harry Giles). Olshey used the blueprint on how to bolster a playoff roster without making splashy moves.
Phoenix Suns: Following an impressive and promising performance in the bubble, the Suns have had a fantastic offseason, acquiring Chris Paul, retaining Dario Saric, reaching deals with Jae Crowder, Jevon Carter and Damian Jones. Devin Booker is an All-Star who will now play alongside Paul, and DeAndre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson are key pieces to Phoenix’s revitalization effort under coach Monty Williams and general manager James Jones.
Rookie extensions: Boston’s Jayson Tatum, Utah’s Donovan Mitchell and Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox were first-round draft picks in 2017. That’s not the only thing they have in common. All three received five-year rookie max extensions that will pay each of them a minimum of $163 million and that amount could increase to $195 million if they reach certain criteria such as making first-, second- or third-team All-NBA or winning MVP.
3-point shooters: Everyone knows teams put a premium on shooting. Check out these deals for 3-point shooters: Davis Bertans back to Washington on a four-year, $80 million deal. Joe Harris back to Brooklyn on a four-year, $75 million deal. Danilo Gallinari to Atlanta on a three-year, $61.5 million deal. Bogdan Bogdanovic will get a four-year, $72 million deal from Atlanta. Lesson: Kids, perfect your 3-point shot.
Oklahoma City Thunder: The Thunder did not make any free-agent splashes this season. But they plan for the future. The Thunder have collected 18 first-round draft picks and 11 second-round draft picks through 2027, accumulating four first-round picks and six second-round picks in the past week. The Thunder will be among one of the worst teams next season. But OKC general manager Sam Presti has clearly set up the Thunder to become a contender again soon.
Miami Heat: The Heat retained most of their key free agents (Goran Dragic, Meyers Leonard, Udonis Haslem) and added depth (Avery Bradley, Maurice Harkless). The Heat have accomplished two things with these moves. One, the Heat can rely on its continuity and culture to remain an Eastern Conference threat. Two, the Heat have flexibility to make a major deal leading into the trade deadline or next offseason. Will that result in the Heat landing Giannis Antetokounmpo? Miami has positioned itself to be ready in case that opportunity emerges. In the meantime, the Heat have enough to return to the NBA Finals.
Denver Nuggets: For a team that rose in the Western Conference because of its continuity, the Nuggets lost their front-court identity. Both Mason Plumlee and Jerami Grant Jr. left the Nuggets for Detroit. The Nuggets rebounded, retaining Paul Millsap and plucking JaMychal Green from the L.A. Clippers. Denver still remains one of the West’s biggest threats because of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic. But the Nuggets’ roster worsened during the offseason.
Houston Rockets: Those in NBA circles express skepticism that the Rockets could land the right deal for either James Harden or Russell Westbrook. It seems clear that they cannot go far with Harden and Westbrook given they lost a key head coach (Mike D’Antoni) and general manager (Daryl Morey). But by acquiring Christian Wood and letting Robert Covington, Jeff Green and Austin Rivers to leave, the Rockets didn’t collect enough assets to convince Harden and Westbrook they are better off staying put.
Boston Celtics: The Celtics for the second consecutive season lost a top-level player in free agency. Last offseason, it was Kyrie Irving, who departed for Brooklyn, and over the weekend, Gordon Hayward ended his time with the Celtics by reaching a deal with Charlotte. Hayward wanted a change of scenery, and the Celtics will still be good without him. The max extension for Tatum softens Hayward’s loss, which stings even more that he is leaving Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who coached him at Butler.
Milwaukee Bucks: Before free agency began, it looked like the Bucks – after they traded for Jrue Holiday – were going to acquire shooter Bogdanovic from Sacramento in a sign-and-trade, a move that would help convince MVP Antetokounmpo to sign a long-term deal with Milwaukee. That Bogdanovic deal didn't come to fruition (more on that below). In the court of public opinion, the Bucks are taking a beating for how they handled free agency and structured deals. It looked a little sloppy. The Bucks still filled out their roster with role players. They just didn’t get the player they thought they were going to get.