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Who’s Winning NBA Free Agency? Who’s Losing?

The Rockets have fulfilled their superteam promise, and the Pacers’ trade is still baffling, nearly two weeks later. Here are five teams making the right offseason decisions, and five teams that are making a mess.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

With all the major players in the NBA’s free-agency period settled in, let’s take a look at the teams doing everything right in their offseason, and the poor teams doing everything wrong.

The Five Biggest Offseason Winners

1. Houston Rockets

Summer in a Nutshell: Bravo, Daryl Morey.
Summer League Player to Watch:
Zhou Qi

Houston is having an offseason to remember. The Rockets successfully manipulated the salary cap to acquire Chris Paul before free agency, the first of their series of moves that’ll help close the gap on the Warriors. In a pick-and-roll heavy offense, there should be plenty of ball to go around for both Paul and James Harden. Paul will likely take the primary point guard reins, since Harden proved in Oklahoma City how effective he can be slashing off the ball and spotting up.

The Paul acquisition was later complemented by the re-signing of Nene and the signing of P.J. Tucker, two smart, hard-nosed defenders; the latter’s ability to cover multiple positions will be useful in a possible playoff series against the Warriors. Also, don’t underestimate Chinese center Zhou Qi as a rookie contributor; while leading his team to a CBA championship, Zhou won Defensive Player of the Year, extended his shooting range, and improved his body. Zhou could end up an important player on the Rockets sooner than you’d imagine.

Rumors are swirling that Carmelo Anthony could be headed to Houston. If Melo is acquired, expect his role to change and his efficiency to skyrocket, much like it does in international competition when he’s playing for Team USA. Anthony would give Houston a third high-level scoring presence who can either heat up and score in bunches or simply space the floor as a knockdown, spot-up shooter, (41.8 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s last season). The Rockets haven’t forgotten about the back end of their roster, either. They signed two of the top undrafted free agents in forward L.J. Peak and big Cameron Oliver, and took a flyer on a raw, but talented point guard in George De Paula.

The Rockets are loaded. They’re deep. They’re built to sustain success for many years after extending Harden through the 2023 season. They’re still a notch below the Warriors, but they’re closer now than they were just a few months ago. Adding Melo at a reasonable price would only make a spectacular offseason even better.

2. Boston Celtics

Summer in a Nutshell: Brad Stevens and Gordon Hayward are back together again.
Summer League Player to Watch: Jayson Tatum

It’s a sad truth: The Celtics aren’t fading away from the trade conversation anytime soon. After missing out on Paul George, the Celtics still have all their high-value assets, waiting to be unloaded by Danny Ainge. They’ll be there at the trade deadline, or at the 2018 draft, or for next year’s free agency, once another star is available. They have contract fillers they can use, another incoming Nets pick, and a collection of talented young players.

While adding George after signing Gordon Hayward would’ve turned them into legitimate Finals contenders this season, it could be a blessing in disguise that they didn’t get George. While conventional wisdom would suggest that making a deep playoff run with a new team — like he could’ve in Boston, or like he might in Oklahoma City — might give him enough reason to stay, there’s still a strong sense that he’s destined for the Lakers. With LeBron James also possibly heading to Los Angeles, the pull of the Hollywood lights could be too strong to resist.

Boston signed Al Horford to a max contract in 2016, then Hayward in 2017. Maybe 2018 will be the year Ainge finally unloads his assets to land the final piece of the superstar puzzle that they need.

3. Atlanta Hawks

Summer in a Nutshell: The front office has a plan for the future, and it involved letting Paul Millsap walk.
Summer League Player to Watch: DeAndre’ Bembry

New Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk isn’t here to mess around. "We have 11 picks coming up in the next few drafts, which is great and gives us a lot of flexibility," Schlenk said on NBA TV in early June. "We want to continue to develop our assets, gain more assets, and when the opportunity comes where we can strike to go get that superstar, we’ll going to be positioned to do that." Good plan, but actions speak, so I was excited to see what Atlanta would do this summer. So far, Schlenk, who previously spent 12 years with the Warriors, has impressed.

Atlanta’s Dwight Howard trade initially seemed like an odd one since they gave up the more valuable pick (no. 31 for no. 41), and acquired Marco Belinelli and Miles Plumlee, who has one more year left on his deal (expires in 2020) than Howard (expires in 2019). But the trade freed up $11.3 million in guaranteed salary. Plumlee might have one extra year on his deal, but a $12.5 million salary is a lot easier to move in any potential trade than Howard’s $23.8 million deal. Under the new salary cap environment, having salary fillers for trades could once again be important.

Paul Millsap claims the Hawks didn’t even offer him a new contract. If he’s telling the truth, then it’s a signal that Atlanta isn’t interested in just sneaking into the playoffs. My guess is the Hawks will be embracing player development and tanking the 2017–18 season, which is the right choice. If they do, they could end up with a top pick in a top-heavy draft, and have potentially two other 2018 first-rounders (via Houston and Minnesota) on top of valuable young players like Dennis Schröder, Taurean Prince, DeAndre’ Bembry, and John Collins. "We want to be flexible," Schlenk said. "We want to have guys, assets that we can move when the time comes that we can strike and maintain that flexibility."

They’ve quietly adjusted their primary objective from playoff contention to asset acquisition. The Hawks aren’t viewed as a potential destination for the next available superstar today, but they want to be ready to be one tomorrow.

4. Toronto Raptors

Summer in a Nutshell: It’s not time to blow it up (yet).
Summer League Player to Watch: Pascal Siakam

Masai Ujiri is having one hell of an offseason. They signed Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka for only three years, dumped DeMarre Carroll’s albatross contract, drafted a potential steal in OG Anunoby, and turned a redundant backup point guard in Cory Joseph into a necessary sharpshooter in C.J. Miles. There are good things happening in Toronto.

If their internal improvements add up the way the front office is betting, the Raptors could really make a leap. Norman Powell is too good to not be starting, Delon Wright seems ready to be a capable backup point guard, and Bruno Caboclo might just be ahead of schedule on his development and could become a contributor. Who knows: OG Anunoby could come out blazing as a shooter after he returns from the torn ACL that ended his college career. The Raptors reportedly want DeMar DeRozan shooting more 3s and less contested midrange jumpers. Per NBA.com/Stats, DeRozan shot 39.6 percent from 2-point range from 15 feet and out last season, which means he’d need to shoot only 26.3 percent from 3 for the same points-per-shot output. If he’s able to exceed that low number, the Raptors will benefit significantly. Ujiri should still consider blowing it up, but first, let’s see how these reloaded Raptors develop and perform.

5. Golden State Warriors

Summer in a Nutshell: The rich got richer.
Summer League Player to Watch: Pat McCaw

The Warriors have brought back almost the whole band (sans JaVale McGee) and added a whole lot more. On draft night, the Bulls inexplicably dealt the no. 38 pick, Jordan Bell, to the Warriors for $3.5 million. Bell is tailor-made for the NBA: His excellent lateral quickness enables him to slide against guards and wings, and his leaping ability makes him a shot-blocking presence in the paint. This month, they signed two lethal shooters in Nick Young and Omri Casspi thanks to Kevin Durant, who took a big pay cut to help make these moves happen.

The 2017 offseason could’ve been disastrous for the Warriors had Iguodala and other key role players left for greater paydays. But now, they’re looking even stronger than last season’s iteration. Their veterans have a full season of experience together, and the young players like Bell, McCaw, and Damian Jones have defined roles on the team, should they earn playing time. It almost doesn’t seem fair that everything they’ve done is well within the rules defined by the NBA.

The Five Biggest Offseason Losers

5. Cleveland Cavaliers

Summer in a Nutshell: LEBRON TO L.A.?!
Summer League Player to Watch: Andrew White

On the surface, Cleveland’s offseason has been quiet: They re-signed Kyle Korver and added Jeff Green and Jose Calderon. Snore. But a closer inspection reveals a shit show. David Griffin’s contract wasn’t reupped, and they still don’t have a permanent general manager. The Ringer’s report that LeBron James could leave in 2018 for the Lakers was soon followed by reports that LeBron was not recruiting other free agents.

Cleveland entered the summer needing to make a move to have a real shot of taking down the Dubs in the Finals, and they’ve done nothing and must now hope an opportunity pops up during the season. Golden State has found itself besting its Finals rival in the Cavaliers again when it comes to offseason performance. One NBA Finals team is ascending, while the other is descending and headed for a crash landing.

4. Detroit Pistons

Summer in a Nutshell: Stan Van Gundy is a front-office train wreck.
Summer League Player to Watch: Luke Kennard

Stan Van Gundy is a hell of a coach, but his general manager tenure with the Pistons has been a disaster. They’ve piled one mistake on top of another, which has put the team where it is now: with a subpar roster that, even in an exceedingly weak Eastern Conference, might still be only on the playoff bubble. This season, Detroit will pay $10.5 million to Jon Leuer, $7 million to Boban Marjanovic, and $6 million to Ish Smith, and the Pistons still owe $5.3 million for the next three years to a stretched Josh Smith. Detroit overpaid for Langston Galloway, signing him to three years, $21 million. Avery Bradley will help fix their perimeter defense and 3-point-shooting issues, but he could cost over $20 million annually once he hits free agency next summer. The cost for what might be a one-year rental in Bradley was one of their few team-friendly contracts in Marcus Morris, at $5 million.

Drafting Kennard, a sharpshooter who can run some point, is one move I like quite a lot from their offseason. But one right decision doesn’t erase the cluster of missteps that has piled up. The contracts Detroit has handed out are what you’d expect from a decision-maker who’s focused on the short term, not the long term, which is largely the paradox for all coach-GM hybrids like Van Gundy. The Clippers are already looking better with Jerry West taking some control from Doc Rivers. The Hawks will benefit from Schlenk taking over for Mike Budenholzer. Now the Pistons need some help for Van Gundy.

3. New York Knicks

Summer in a Nutshell: Goodbye, Phil Jackson.
Summer League Player to Watch: Damyean Dotson

Read Rodger Sherman’s horrifying timeline of every Phil Jackson decision and Jason Concepcion’s screed on Phil being "the worst kind of stupid." The sad thing is, not a whole lot has changed since his departure. The Knicks just signed Tim Hardaway Jr. for four years and $71 million. Unless the final two months of this past season are an indicator of the future, that’ll go down as another bad Knicks deal. Even Hardaway was surprised by the offer.

So, what’s next? David Griffin took his name out of consideration for the Knicks GM job because he wanted decision-making control (isn’t that what a GM should inherently have???) and now signals are strong that Carmelo Anthony will be in Houston, sooner rather than later (ESPN’s Ian Begley said Melo is "confident" a deal will get done, while Nene is posting pics of Anthony in a Rockets jersey). Moving Melo and cleaning the slate would be in New York’s best interest, but no matter the return, every decision made thus far this offseason cements them near the bottom of this list.

2. Chicago Bulls

Summer in a Nutshell: They traded Jimmy Butler for Kris Dunn, who looked like a rookie bust; Zach LaVine, who just tore his ACL; and Lauri Markkanen, a 7-footer who rebounds like he’s 5-foot-5.
Summer League Player to Watch: Markkanen

I don’t mean to pile on. I really don’t. But Bulls fans have to be feeling even worse about the Jimmy Butler trade after watching Lauri Markkanen get hoodwinked by Ryan Freaking Kelly:

Here’s Ryan Freaking Kelly, a worse version of Kelly Olynyk, zooming by and leaping over Markkanen like he’s an Olympian. Markkanen can stroke 3s, but the rest of his game has a long, long way to go when Ryan Freaking Kelly is dominating him. Markkanen is further proof that the Bulls are aimlessly floating in the league’s space.

1. Indiana Pacers

Summer in a Nutshell: The Pacers got what for Paul George?!
Summer League Player to Watch: Ben Moore

It’s been almost two weeks since the Pacers shocked the basketball world by trading Paul George for Victor Oladipo, who has four years and $84 million left on his contract, and Domantas Sabonis, a good-not-great young big. Front-office executives I’ve chatted with this week at the Las Vegas summer league are still in disbelief. The fact that Indiana didn’t get a draft pick still puzzles executives. The Pacers’ impatience only looks worse after Hayward chose the Celtics, who had made it known that adding Hayward and George was their ultimate plan. Had they waited just four days, Indiana would have likely been offered a significantly more appealing package than Oladipo and Sabonis.

In my eyes, the Pacers are the biggest losers of the summer. But not every franchise has the same objectives, and progress can’t always be graded on the same scale. Some owners care about chasing championships. They’ll do whatever it takes to get there, even if the best path involves tanking. They’ll make unpopular but forward-thinking decisions. They’ll build through the draft, even though it’ll take time for the fruit to bear. I’m grading on that kind of scale — how committed is a team to its championship road map? But that isn’t the scale by which all ownerships measure value. Some prioritize the bottom line, hoping only to stay afloat. The George trade gives an idea of which bucket the Pacers fall into.