Is there anything more entertaining in sports than the first 24 hours of NBA free agency? After witnessing yesterday’s explosion of big-time signings and unexpected trades, it’s a fair question to ask.
And as we wait for the Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes to come to a close, let’s break down the early winners and losers from the first day of NBA free agency.
WINNER: Brooklyn Nets GM Sean Marks
Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant did team up in New York — it just wasn’t with the Knicks.
The duo decided to join forces for the up-and-coming Nets, and Marks, who diligently built up assets to rebuild the team after Brooklyn’s disastrous trade involving Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, deserves credit for landing the stars. It’s early, but he’s already in the running for the NBA Executive of the Year Award.
By combining Durant and Irving with a budding roster that features young talent like Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen, the Nets can build on their 42-win season from last year. Brooklyn likely won’t have Durant on the court next season, but the Nets should soon become a legitimate contender in the East.
LOSER: Indiana Pacers
Indiana made the move to acquire Malcolm Brogdon to pair with Victor Oladipo, but the price point is questionable. The Pacers sent Milwaukee a first-round draft pick and two second-round picks to get Brogdon on a four-year, $85 million deal. That is a hefty price to pay for a player who is incredibly efficient, but unlikely to deliver star performances.
Brogdon joined the 50-40-90 club last season — becoming the 10th player in NBA history to do so — while recording career numbers (15.6 points and 4.5 rebounds per game), but he’s struggled to stay healthy during his NBA career. That’s why it’s confusing to learn that Indiana committed that much money to a player who hasn’t proven that he’s capable of starring for a championship contender.
The Pacers also threw a three-year, $31.5 million deal at Jeremy Lamb, who is a career 33.9 percent 3-point shooter. Indiana had to add perimeter players after losing Bojan Bogdanovic, Wes Matthews and Darren Collison, but Lamb’s offensive production might not live up to his price tag. Ultimately, the Pacers compromised future flexibility for players unlikely to move the needle.
WINNER: Jimmy Butler
After three organizations balked on giving Butler a long-term contract with big money, the star forward finally landed a monster deal with the Heat. Butler reportedly inked a four-year, $142 million contract as part of a sign-and-trade deal with the 76ers, who received Josh Richardson in return. The Clippers and Trail Blazers also got in on the deal with Los Angeles landing a future first-round pick & Maurice Harkless, and Portland adding Hassan Whiteside.
Only 10 players last season averaged at least 18 points, five rebounds and four assists per game while shooting at least 46 percent from the floor and 34 percent from deep — Butler was one of those 10. Factor in his playoff performance and he was absolutely worth the contract. Miami has its next star in Butler, who finally found his home after stints with the Bulls, Timberwolves and 76ers. The rest of Miami’s roster needs work, but Butler’s ready to prove that he’s one of the NBA’s true superstars.
LOSER: Charlotte Hornets
Kemba Walker publicly stated that he was willing to take less money to stay with the Hornets, and Charlotte took that a little too literally, low-balling Walker on a max contract during negotiations, according to Stadium NBA Insider Shams Charania. This prompted the guard to join the Boston Celtics in free agency.
In failing to re-sign Walker, the Hornets lost out on an All-Star, and when you’re a small-market team like Charlotte, those types of players don’t exactly grow on trees. To make matters worse, the franchise likely lost serious goodwill among future players after deciding to lowball one of the team’s all-time greats.
Things are about to get ugly in North Carolina.
WINNER: Utah Jazz
In light of Klay Thompson’s injury and Kevin Durant’s departure from the Warriors, the Western Conference is suddenly wide open. Enter the Jazz, who decided to go all-in after three-straight playoff berths.
Utah swung a deal for Grizzlies guard Mike Conley before the NBA Draft, added wing scorer Bojan Bogdanovic in free agency and acquired frontcourt depth by signing Ed Davis. Mix these players in with Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, and Utah is suddenly a title contender. With the talented Quin Snyder calling the shots on the sideline, the new-look Jazz have instantly become one of the favorites to win the West.
LOSER: New York Knicks
This franchise is the gift that keeps on giving.
New York was widely considered the favorite to land KD and Kyrie Irving for much of last season, and when the team landed the third overall pick in the 2019 draft, it seemed that they could trade for the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis in an attempt to form a “Big Three” in the Big Apple.
Instead, Davis got shipped to the Lakers, and Durant and Irving ended up in Brooklyn. That forced the Knicks to turn to Plan B, which is apparently a strategy that includes kicking the free agency “can” down the road to 2020 and 2021 — new Knicks players Julius Randle, Reggie Bullock, Taj Gibson and Bobby Portis all have team options on their contracts.
While New York has promising young players in Dennis Smith, RJ Barrett, Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson, the Knicks will have to balance its development of the youngsters while keeping the veterans happy with their playing time.
That’s not an easy line to navigate, especially for a franchise that has consistently underwhelmed.
WINNER: Kawhi Leonard
With Leonard still unsigned, the NBA landscape is set to change, again. The reigning NBA Finals MVP is taking his time, spreading out his meetings across multiple days. The Lakers, Clippers and Raptors are his reported suitors — with the defending champions having the last opportunity to make a pitch.
The potential to form an All-Star trio with LeBron James and Anthony Davis is surely tantalizing for Leonard. The opportunity to build a contender with the Clippers presents a new challenge, but LA’s less storied franchise has more depth and less disarray than its glitzy counterpart. As for the Raptors, Toronto can sell familiarity and their championship pedigree to Leonard, although it’s unclear whether he prefers living in Toronto to Southern California.
Leonard’s decision will add at least one more winner and loser to this list, but in a way he’s already won. Like James in 2014, all eyes in the league are now on Leonard, who holds the balance of power in the NBA in his “klaws.”