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The East Just Became a Kaiju Royal Rumble

After one of the most chaotic days in the history of NBA free agency, as many as six Eastern Conference teams emerged with the firepower to challenge the Raptors for conference supremacy

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does the NBA. This time last year, LeBron James’s westward migration created a golden opportunity for enterprising Eastern teams to take aim at the conference throne he’d occupied for nearly a decade. Several teams went all in, and one, the Raptors, wound up winning the whole goddamn thing. Now, with the Warriors dynasty devastated and Toronto title-deliverer Kawhi Leonard weighing his options, there’s no dragon to slay, no Goliath to fell; more than any season in years, the 2020 NBA championship looks to be up for grabs for any team with the talent and the brass to go get it. And if the first evening of free agency is any indication, a lot of teams in the Eastern Conference think their time could be now.

The NBA exploded on Sunday, with reports of agreements between players and teams starting well before the official 3 p.m. PT opening bell for the summer’s free-agency period, and the biggest shake-ups came in the East. Brooklyn set off the day’s loudest and brightest fireworks, landing its pair of maximum-salaried superstars by confirming four-year, nine-figure contracts for Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. The Nets also added a pair of veteran role players for good measure, bringing in swingman Garrett Temple for $10 million over two years (pretty good deal!) and DeAndre Jordan for $40 million over four (um, holy shit?), with Durant and Irving reportedly taking less than their maximum salaries to make space for the veteran center.

That a Nets franchise mired in misery as recently as three seasons ago has resurrected its reputation to the point that two of the top three free agents on the market chose to set up shop at Barclays Center is stunning—a testament to the quality and quickness of a stem-to-stern rebuilding effort shepherded by general manager Sean Marks and head coach Kenny Atkinson. How much better the Nets will be this season, though, remains to be seen. Irving steps in for departing All-Star point guard D’Angelo Russell, who got maxed out and traded to Golden State just before midnight East Coast time—sure, why not, I’ll have another hit of nitrous, thanks—and will have to prove that he left the chemistry concerns that dogged him in Boston at the Massachusetts border. Durant won’t be there to help out for a while, as he’ll likely miss the season rehabbing his surgically repaired Achilles tendon, meaning a lot will depend on how Irving meshes with the likes of Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie, and what fellow recent addition Taurean Prince can provide at the 3 and 4 spots. And giving Jordan, whose defensive effectiveness dropped off precipitously last season, $10 million a year when you’ve already got Jarrett Allen starting at the 5 on a rookie deal seems … curious. But those questions are the cost of doing big business. After a surprising rise to 42 wins and a playoff berth last season, the Nets announced in no uncertain terms on Sunday that they intend to be a force to be reckoned with in the East—both when Durant returns and while they await his arrival.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Nets owning free agency, though: As Brooklyn made its big summertime splash, the whole damn conference took a running start and cannonballed into the pool, too.

As Irving made his way to New York, his former team, the Celtics, welcomed his replacement, agreeing to a four-year, $141 million maximum contract with All-Star point guard Kemba Walker, an electric pick-and-roll playmaker and long-range shooter who might not be Irving’s equal when it comes to making magic with the ball in his hands, but who might prove a more comfortable fit in Boston’s locker room. But despite working to structure the Walker deal in a fashion that would create enough flexibility to also bring back Al Horford, Boston watched its two-way linchpin choose to pull up stakes and head to—of all places!—Philadelphia. No more tormenting Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons for Horford; instead, he’ll make a whopping $109 million over four years (though $12 million apparently depends on winning championships) to augment the 76ers’ two young All-Stars rather than find ways to tear them down. Danny Ainge now has to go back to the drawing board in search of a replacement for arguably Boston’s most important player these past few seasons.

The Horford contract was just one deal in a day full of stunners for the Sixers, who got within four heartbreaking bounces of a chance at the East finals, and faced widespread uncertainty with three-fifths of their starting lineup hitting the market. By nightfall, Philly looked … different. Tobias Harris will be back on the wing, re-upping on a five-year, $180 million deal that cements him as a major piece of Philadelphia’s puzzle. JJ Redick, however, won’t. The veteran sharpshooter agreed to a two-year, $26.5 million deal to space the floor for Zion Williamson and the Pelicans, who seem to be getting closer to potential postseason viability with every passing second.

Joining Redick on his way out the door: Jimmy Butler, the combustible element who pushed his way out of Minnesota, kicked up dust in Philadelphia, and wound up being the Sixers’ most reliable offensive initiator and performer in the Round 2 matchup against Toronto. It took nearly nine months, but the four-time All-Star wing is finally on his way to Miami, getting Philly to agree to a fascinating sign-and-trade that will net Butler a four-year, $142 million maximum-salaried contract—and would also net the Sixers a brand-new wing in Josh Richardson. (At least, it would if the proposed deal actually goes through as constructed. More on that in a second.) The 25-year-old took a big step forward last season on the offensive end while remaining one of the most versatile and skilled young perimeter defenders in the league, and he’s on the books for less total money over the next three seasons than Butler will make in Year 1 of his new max. There’s a chance he’ll be a more valuable player overall than Butler by the end of their respective deals; there’s a higher chance, though, that he’ll represent a step down as a pick-and-roll facilitator and one-on-one creator late in tight games in the postseason, the crucial area in which Butler excelled for Philly.

The Sixers will remain huge—a starting five of Embiid, Horford, Simmons, Harris, and Richardson is freaking gigantic—and could be a candidate for a return to the top five in defensive efficiency after a drop-off last season. That offense will be a work in progress, though. Horford adds shooting, passing, and screening acumen that could help create more space for Embiid and Simmons to operate, and maybe the exits of Butler and Redick will enable Harris to take a more central role in Philly’s offense rather than being relegated to spot-up duty. But with so many moving parts, you get the sense that Brett Brown will have his work cut out for him. (At least he’ll still have Mike Scott to work with.)

So, too, will a Miami team that remains kind of confusing, even with Butler’s arrival as a no. 1 option, bona fide star, and organizing principle. Lacking the cap space to sign Butler outright, the Heat had to ship out enough salary to be able to absorb his new deal, which led them to send Kelly Olynyk and Derrick Jones Jr., with more financial ballast reportedly still needed, to Dallas, one of only a few teams with cap space for rent. They did not, however, ship out Goran Dragic, who battled injuries throughout last season but whom Heat president Pat Riley still views as the team’s starting point guard. (At least, it looks like they didn’t trade Dragic. A “glitch” in negotiations has the specific framework of the deal on unsteady footing as of late Sunday night.)

How would that work for Justise Winslow, who emerged as Miami’s lead guard when Dragic got hurt last season? Or for Butler, who largely took the reins of the Philadelphia offense from Simmons in the playoffs, and who’s now firmly entrenched as The Man in Miami? How does Hassan Whiteside and his $27.1 million contract for next season factor into Miami’s decision-making—especially with third-year big man Bam Adebayo looking ready for a larger role? Is James Johnson ready for a bounce-back season as a playmaking power forward after an injury-plagued 2018-19, or will the arrival of Butler as a prime offensive force limit his opportunities and effectiveness? The Heat without Butler won just 39 games last season and missed the playoffs—just how high in the Eastern hierarchy can he push them?

The team that topped that hierarchy last season, the 60-win Milwaukee Bucks, had as much business to do as anybody on Sunday, with three of their top five players and a key postseason piece all on the market. They went 3-for-4, agreeing to new deals with All-Star forward Khris Middleton (five years, $178 million), mission-critical stretch-5 Brook Lopez (four years, $52 million), and reserve guard George Hill (three years, $29 million). They also added Brook’s twin brother, the eternally stalwart and hirsute Robin Lopez, to provide depth up front and grist for the online NBA comedy content mill. Their one loss, though, could hurt quite a bit.

We all suspected that Malcolm Brogdon would get a ton of money in restricted free agency; we just didn’t know which team would take the big swing. It wound up being the Pacers, who agreed to send Milwaukee a future first-round pick and two future seconds for the right to sign the former Rookie of the Year to a four-year, $85 million deal. In a vacuum, you can understand why Bucks brass would blanch at paying more than $20 million per season for Brogdon—a very good complementary player who stood tall in Milwaukee’s conference finals matchup against the Raptors, but a complementary player nonetheless, and one who has some injury concerns. That’s a steep price while also having to pony up for Middleton and Lopez, and having already inked Eric Bledsoe to a $70 million extension before the playoffs. (That one feels a little shaky right now.)

But the Bucks don’t play in a vacuum. They play in a context in which they employ the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, just won more regular-season games than any other team, just got within two wins of the NBA Finals, and just watched the league’s reigning dynasty fall. Barring a follow-up move for a replacement at Brogdon’s level or better, and at a lower number (perhaps via a trade exception created by the deal?), this looks like ownership choosing to limit luxury tax liability at the expense of maximizing the title chances of a team good enough to win it all right now. Maybe that’s the prudent move for the long haul, especially with Giannis Antetokounmpo in line for a supermax extension and Middleton about to become exorbitantly expensive; the repeater tax puts the fear of God into nearly every ownership group, no matter how deep-pocketed. At a time when so much about the league’s power structure seems to be in flux, though, you wouldn’t blame Bucks fans for finding that a bitter pill to swallow.

Things seem a little sunnier for Brogdon’s new team. Indiana suffered losses on Sunday, with starting forwards Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic finding new homes in Chicago and Utah, respectively. But the Pacers pivoted well from those defections, starting with a trade to land scoring combo forward T.J. Warren on draft night, and continuing Sunday with the signings of Brogdon and another versatile guard—former Hornets swingman Jeremy Lamb—for three years and $31.5 million.

Everything in Indiana starts with its top-flight defense, which should remain stingy with shot-swatting center Myles Turner patrolling the paint, and Brogdon and Lamb on hand to defend multiple positions on the perimeter. But with their moves, the Pacers have given themselves a chance to field a more complete and dangerous offensive team, too. Warren’s an excellent isolation creator up front who improved as a 3-point shooter last season. Brogdon’s a 50/40/90 shooter who can run the offense, make the right pass, attack the rim, and threaten defenses as an off-ball release valve. Lamb, too, can work as a complementary pick-and-roll playmaker or a spot-up shooter.

Indiana’s offense suffered from arrested development once All-Star shooting guard Victor Oladipo went down last January. Now, coach Nate McMillan’s got a few more players who can make something happen with the ball in their hands and knock down a shot off the catch to keep the Pacers afloat while Oladipo rehabs and to take pressure off him once he returns—which could be as soon as the beginning of 2020—which could make a team that was on track for a top-three seed last season before Oladipo’s injury an even tougher out come next postseason.

The sheer volume of moves on Sunday—the number of transactions; the literal billions of dollars spent; the ripple effects of the deals on rotations, lineups, development opportunities, etc.—is staggering, and it could result in a wholly different Eastern landscape. In fact, the only team in the East’s top flight that didn’t undergo some massive tectonic shift in the early hours of free agency is the one that just held a championship parade. The Raptors sat tight on Sunday, because they, like several other teams, are waiting for the man.

It feels weird that the entire conference has transmogrified into this odd new form without any involvement from the player who just dominated it; then again, it also feels perfectly on brand that, in the midst of league-wide cacophony, Kawhi Leonard kept quiet. He’ll speak soon enough, and when he does—when he decides whether to stay in Toronto, to join the Clippers (who are now essentially out of top-level running buddies to pair with Leonard), or to create a complicated new colossus in purple and gold—we’ll know the state of play in the East. Right now, there’s a defending champion there to topple, but it might wind up being only a shadow on the wall. After years of Western dominance, the East is loading up for war, turning that wide-open path to a championship into something more akin to Mad Max: Fury Road. Oh, what a day. What a lovely day.