Roughly 90 percent of NBA roster spots are filled, and few consequential free agents remain on the open market. Just three days into the frenzy, we can safely declare big winners and losers of 2020 free agency.
Here goes ...
WINNER: Klutch Sports
Magic Johnson was among those lauding his former underling Rob Pelinka for Executive of the Year honors hours into free agency on Friday night, but the real winner here is the culture agent Rich Paul has created on his Klutch Sports roster. Anthony Davis orchestrated his way to playing with LeBron James on the Los Angeles Lakers in July 2019, uniting Paul’s two biggest clients, and that partnership produced a championship in its first year together.
Who has come to join them but Montrezl Harrell, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year and the best Klutch client on the market. It came as a surprise to his Los Angeles Clippers teammates, but maybe they should have seen this coming. Harrell took the midlevel exception, which seems to be the going rate for bigs who do not space the floor, and the Lakers added a fifth Klutch client to the roster (with more on hold for now).
It was a foregone conclusion that Kentavious Caldwell-Pope would re-sign with the Lakers. Pelinka has been taking care of him ever since the Lakers began laying the groundwork for a Klutch pipeline. Caldwell-Pope’s three-year, $40 million deal also falls in line with the market. Paul is taking care of his mid-tier clients and doing so in a way that benefits his top-echelon clients. It is a win-win for everyone, especially James, whose odds of winning a fifth ring have increased as his friend employs Klutch Sports as a recruiting tool.
Do not read this the wrong way. Paul is getting all his clients paid. Jordan Clarkson got $52 million over four years from the Utah Jazz, even more than Caldwell-Pope secured. Tristan Thompson got the same deal as Harrell to fill a role with the Boston Celtics that — should he perform — will get him paid again in two years. But to ignore Klutch’s centralization of power in L.A. is to be blinded to Paul’s influence across the league.
LOSER: Other Western Conference contenders
Pelinka does deserve credit for further upgrading a team that required only 21 games to win the title.
The trade for Dennis Schroder, who finished second to Harrell in Sixth Man of the Year voting, was a masterstroke that made Rajon Rondo expendable. Same goes for Wesley Matthews, who replaces the outgoing Danny Green for a quarter of the cost. And the Lakers edged the Clippers, Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors for Marc Gasol, who represents another significant upgrade over Dwight Howard.
The combined 2019-20 numbers for those trios per 36 minutes:
Rondo-Green-Howard: 38.2 PTS (56.3 TS%), 23.7 REB, 10.2 AST, 7.3 STL/BLK
Schroder-Matthews-Gasol: 54.4 PTS (56.4 TS%), 17.9 REB, 13.3 AST, 4.5 STL/BLK
And the 2020-21 salaries for those trios:
Rondo-Green-Howard: $25.3 million
Schroder-Matthews-Gasol: $21.7 million
Meanwhile, a handful of teams chasing the Lakers in the West either took a hit or moved laterally.
The Western Conference finalist Denver Nuggets lost three members of their playoff rotation to free agency. Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee got $85 million over three years from the Detroit Pistons (more on that later), and Torrey Craig left for the Milwaukee Bucks. Denver did swipe JaMychal Green from the Clippers, but he alone is a downgrade from Grant. Expect a lot of Michael Porter Jr. in 2021, for better or worse.
In addition to Green, the Clippers lost the aforementioned Harrell. The signing of veteran big man Serge Ibaka as a replacement should actually be a schematic improvement, but the needle was not moved much.
The Warriors experienced a downgrade through no fault of their own. Left scrambling in the wake of Klay Thompson’s season-ending Achilles injury, Golden State dealt for Kelly Oubre Jr. and signed Kent Bazemore. It was a quick fix, but the Warriors’ championship chances relied heavily on the Splash Brothers.
The Dallas Mavericks whiffed in free agency, and the Houston Rockets have spent the offseason imploding. All in all, the chess moves have been lining up in the Lakers’ favor ever since Davis joined James in L.A.
WINNER: Gordon Hayward
You knew Priority Sports founder Mark Bartelstein had an ace up his sleeve when his client Gordon Hayward opted out of $34.2 million guaranteed from a Boston Celtics team with championship aspirations. Sure enough, that ace was Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan, who shelled out $120 million over four years for a 30-year-old four years and one career-altering injury removed from his last All-Star appearance.
Bartelstein thread a needle to secure a contract nobody else foresaw, most likely including the Celtics. There was always the chance the New York Knicks would throw their cap space at Hayward, but by all accounts even they were not willing to commit four years to him. The Indiana Pacers predictably entered the fray for a reported $100 million over four years, and Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge thought he had them over a barrel in a sign-and-trade scenario that could recover some assets.
Then, Jordan blew other reported offers out of the water. The Hornets will have to stretch the $27 million left on Nicolas Batum’s contract in order to create enough cap space for Hayward’s near-max contract and avoid a similar sign-and-trade situation. That translates to a $40 million cap hit for Hayward in the 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons, a stunning commitment for a player who maybe makes Charlotte an eighth seed.
LOSER: Milwaukee Bucks
The momentum entering the NBA draft seemed barreling toward Giannis Antetokounmpo signing his supermax extension and the Bucks securing the franchise’s future for years to come. Word spread of pre-draft trades for Jrue Holiday and Bogdan Bogdanovic that would have addressed Milwaukee’s biggest needs and improved a team that held a 70-win pace for much of last season. Then, the record scratched.
Nobody bothered to clear a premature sign-and-trade deal with Bogdanovic, who instead signed a four-year, $72 million offer sheet from the Atlanta Hawks. The Bucks still landed Holiday — albeit in an overpay that cost them Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, three first-round picks and two pick swaps — but Bogdanovic’s help as another playmaker on the wing was the piece that would have sweetened the return package.
Instead, the Bucks added Bryn Forbes, Torrey Craig, D.J. Augustin and Bobby Portis, decent players all, but none the impact player Bogdanovic would have been. The collective harshes the feel-good vibes that came with the reported pre-draft coup. The question now is how this sits with Antetokounmpo. He may well still sign his supermax extension, but he will be doing so to a team that failed (in part) to deliver on its offseason promise and sacrificed draft assets through 2027 that hinder its ability to make future upgrades.
WINNER: The 2017 draft class
Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell and De’Aaron Fox all secured maximum rookie extensions in the first few days of free agency. They will each be owed between $163 and $196 million through 2026, depending on the 2021 salary cap and their All-NBA status this coming season. Fellow draft class of 2017 alum Bam Adebayo should eventually sign the same deal, but cap mechanics complicate the timing of his contract.
John Collins is the last member of the 2017 draft class who could sign a hefty extension before this free-agency window closes. That none of the five players was drafted in the top two, and three of them were taken in the teens is a helpful reminder that projections following Wednesday’s draft are entirely premature.
LOSER: Detroit Pistons
For as well as new Detroit Pistons general manager Troy Weaver did to land three top-20 picks in Wednesday’s draft, his strategy in free agency was head-scratching to say the least. His three-year, $25 million commitment to Mason Plumlee was among the NBA’s first deals reached on Friday night, giving it a wide berth to be mocked. The announcement of Jahlil Okafor’s deal soon afterwards only led to more jokes.
Why was a team that just spent a first-round pick on Isaiah Stewart crowding its frontcourt with more big men who do not space the floor for incoming rookie point guard Killian Hayes? It is a question still unanswered days later and complicated by the reality that Detroit’s own floor-spacing free-agent big man, Christian Wood, signed with the Houston Rockets for an affordable $13.7 million average annual value.
The Pistons saved some face by signing Jerami Grant, albeit for a $60 million contract that forced Weaver to stretch Dewayne Dedmon’s dead-money deal against the salary cap for the next five seasons. They also added Josh Jackson and Zhaire Smith, a pair of recent high draft picks who still carry considerable upside. Those low-cost signings — and not Plumlee — are wise investments for a rebuilding team on a steep uphill.
WINNER: Atlanta Hawks (tentatively)
The Hawks are still inside the 48-hour window in which the Sacramento Kings could match Bogdanovic’s four-year, $72 million offer sheet, but for now Atlanta has secured commitments from two of the 10 best free agents on the market. Danilo Gallinari is also headed to Atlanta on a three-year, $61.5 million contract.
Those are fair deals for a pair of playmakers in a market that featured few others, especially for a team that has long struggled to lure frontline free agents. Both Bogdanovic and Gallinari should ease All-Star point guard Trae Young’s workload. They should also take pressure off Atlanta’s still-developing wings and space the floor for John Collins, Clint Capela and first-round pick Onyeka Okungwu to operate around the rim.
Hawks GM Travis Schlenk made two more under-the-radar signings who should help a playoff push. Rajon Rondo signed a two-year deal worth $15 million to serve as a veteran mentor and backup to Young. Former lottery pick Kris Dunn is one of the league’s best on-ball defenders, despite his offensive shortcomings, and that is well worth $10 million over two years when Young makes your team inherently defense-challenged.
LOSER: Trevor Ariza
Veteran wing Trevor Ariza started last week as a potential starter for the Portland Trail Blazers. He ended it on an Oklahoma City Thunder team that has shedded every veteran contributor to last season’s playoff run.
In between, Ariza’s expiring $12.8 million contract made stops on the Houston Rockets and Detroit Pistons. Both the Blazers and Rockets had to tie first-round picks around packages that included Ariza, as if being discarded by three teams in a week was not enough of a blow to the ego. In the span of a week, Ariza was a pawn whose movement helped land Grant in Detroit, Wood in Houston and Robert Covington in Portland.
The eighth, ninth and 10th trades of Ariza’s career set an NBA record, so at least he has that going for him. And do not expect this to be the last of Ariza’s 2020-21 transactions. The likelihood he finishes this season in Oklahoma City is low. At the very least, the Thunder could help him land on a contender, considering he sacrificed more than $1 million and a playoff share with the Blazers to spend time with his 12-year-old son.
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