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The 2019 NBA Free Agency Exit Survey

Kawhi Leonard’s groundbreaking move to Los Angeles effectively marks the end of the wildest free agency in league history. Who made all the right moves? Who only made things worse? We name the winners, losers, and sneaky-good deals of the offseason, and look ahead to the early title favorites and big questions to come.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This year’s free agency period operated at a Seven Seconds or Less pace—blink and you may have missed Ed Davis changing teams again. But outside the inevitable trade of Russell Westbrook, only low-level signings stand between the league and a much-needed breather. In the meantime, our staff evaluated the past week-plus of action, and what’s to come from here as a result.


1. Who’s the biggest winner of the offseason?

Dan Devine: At the risk of going chalk, I think you have to say it’s Kawhi Leonard. This time last year, he’d just missed 73 games with a mystery leg injury that had the entire league wondering whether he’d ever be an elite player again. Now, having proved that he can still tilt the game on the court, he’s reached the even more rarefied air reserved for the precious few players who can shake the NBA off it. Three franchises sat still and silent amid the feeding frenzy of the opening days of free agency because they had to wait for Kawhi, and when he was ready, he pulled off one of the more stunning power plays in recent history, choosing an All-NBA running mate nobody knew was available to establish the Clippers as a bona fide championship contender. He moved in silence at his own pace, surveyed the board, saw his move, and took exactly what he wanted. That sounds about right, and it also sounds like a level of king-making control that no other player in the sport—not even LeBron—was able to replicate this summer.

Jonathan Tjarks: The Clippers. How could it be anyone else? The Clippers added the reigning Finals MVP (Leonard) and the perfect second option next to him (Paul George) without sacrificing any of their depth. They are now set up to have a run like the Steph-KD Warriors and the LeBron-Wade Heat. Kawhi and the Clippers were one step ahead of the rest of the league.

Zach Kram: Harrison Barnes. Five months after being traded to Sacramento, Barnes declined his 2019-20 player option to negotiate a four-year extension with his new team. So at just 27 years old, the former no. 1 college recruit already has the following career credits: an NBA title, an Olympic gold medal, and more than $165 million in past or guaranteed future earnings, plus the chance at another decent payday when he hits the market at 31. Pretty good for a player who might never make an All-Star team or average 20 points per game.

Danny Chau: Kawhi, who revealed himself to be a power broker of the highest order. Leonard’s 2019 postseason run with the Raptors was iconic, and certainly put him in the conversation for best player in the NBA. But what unfolded the night of July 5 was a new and brazen display of player agency. Kawhi, as a free agent, chose a running mate who wasn’t even on the market and forced three different parties (the Clippers, the Thunder, and Paul George) to bend to his grand vision. That’s an outrageous amount of influence from someone who has been radio silent during the entire proceedings. His stoicism only amplified the shock.

Haley O’Shaughnessy: Easily the Jazz. Utah transformed into a title contender one day into free agency, and it did so without signing any of the top-tier names available. Earlier in the offseason, the Jazz traded with the Grizzlies for Mike Conley, giving Donovan Mitchell necessary veteran leadership and scoring support. Then, within the first day of free agency, the front office signed Bojan Bogdanovic and Ed Davis, making a team that’s played big in the frontcourt for years more modern. A lineup with Conley, Mitchell, Bogdanovic, and Joe Ingles gives the Jazz four shooters and four playmakers to surround Rudy Gobert, who, by the way, will enjoy the rest a backup like Davis will allow. With Davis on the court, one of the NBA’s elite defenses won’t crumble when the two-time Defensive Player of the Year checks out.

Justin Verrier: Big-market franchises that do the work like small-market franchises. The exceptionalism was thick around the time Anthony Davis finally forced his way to the Lakers and it looked like Kawhi would join him. But when Leonard chose the other NBA franchise in Los Angeles, it was a historic moment—for the Clippers specifically, but also for teams that can match market muscle with a well-run front office. The Lakers still bought their way near the front of the line next season with the AD trade, but their long-term prospects pale in comparison with the Nets and Clippers, who had credible supporting casts acquired from years of shrewd decisions ready and waiting to surround their new superstar duos. In the end, the Nets and Clippers landed the two best players in one of the greatest free agency classes by not being the Knicks and Lakers. The story of this offseason is being born on third base isn’t enough to take you all the way.

2. Who’s the biggest loser of the offseason?

O’Shaughnessy: It’s almost cliché to pity the Knicks at this point, but their summer is unignorable. Once again, New York missed out on top free agents after clearing the necessary cap space to sign them. This time, they’re not only forced to share a conference with the team that stole Durant and Irving away, they’ll be sharing a city. With Brooklyn right in the backyard, the Nets’ successes will sting twice as much.

Devine: The Hornets. Charlotte spent eight years watching Kemba Walker grow from a jitterbug with a janky jumper into an All-NBA point guard, and then watched him walk away in free agency, in an act of staggering organizational malfeasance. The Hornets then rebounded from losing the best player in recent franchise history—and Jeremy Lamb, their second-best player last season, who got an exceedingly reasonable three-year deal in Indiana—by paying Terry Rozier, who has still yet to make more than 40 percent of his shots over a full NBA season in four tries, a shade under $19 million a year. If Malik Monk and Miles Bridges don’t pop, it’s going to be an awfully long season in North Carolina.

Tjarks: The Raptors are the first team since the 2011 Mavs who will not get a chance to defend their championship. Their goal without Kawhi should probably be to win one playoff series. That’s not a bad position to be in after losing the best player in the world, but the odds of ever getting another player as good as Kawhi again aren’t great.

Kram: I understand the contrarian impulse to claim that the Knicks’ free agency fallout wasn’t a disaster—the idea that the Knicks have a young core and flexibility with contracts and future chances to add a star who won’t miss a full season with a devastating leg injury. But I also see plenty of problems with this framing. First, their ostensibly talented young core wouldn’t look special if it were in any other city; maybe half the league has a better foundation of under-25 players. (Before RJ Barrett this year, their last two first-round picks were Kevin Knox, who rated as the worst player in the NBA last year by some advanced stats, and Frank Ntilikina, who’s being run out of town.) Second, the fact that Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving chose not just any other team, but the Knicks’ closest neighbor, has to sting beyond purely logical basketball reasons. And third, because of the lackluster 2020 free agent class, they now have to placate fans for two more years before the potential of winning basketball returns to MSG, after the last two years of tanking, and after two decades of unintentional if effective tanking before that. A two-year wait might undersell the team’s time frame, given how unlikely a, say, Giannis Antetokounmpo signing seems. Sometimes the obvious answer is the right one; in this case, yes, the Knicks lost the offseason.

Verrier: The Knicks are taking the stretch-4 trend a little too far. After striking out on all the superstar free agents, New York responded by signing every above-average power forward on the market—three in total (Julius Randle, Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson), and maybe one more on the way. Just try to play more than one small forward against them! They dare you! Almost all the deals have just one guaranteed year, and as we’ve seen recently, you need movable contracts to make the math work on trades for stars. But that’s a hope, not a plan. More likely, the veterans they brought in will pilfer minutes from the young talent that will make up their actual future. Bagging on the Knicks is low-hanging fruit, but they haven’t earned the benefit of the doubt.

Chau: The Knicks. Did they technically do the right thing by maintaining cap and roster flexibility after their KD-and-Kyrie dreams were sunk? Yes; they have pivoted to a new dream in which they land Giannis in the summer of 2021. But the failures of the Knicks brass over the past week to make any significant moves was just the latest landfill dump in what has been a garbage year for the franchise. They’ve got a clear horizon, but that doesn’t completely make up for the disappointment.

3. What was the best under-the-radar move of the summer?

Verrier: When the Pelicans traded two second-round picks for Derrick Favors. Zion Williamson, like Anthony Davis before him, will likely be best utilized at center, but he will still need some emergency heft, especially as he comes of age. The previous Pelicans front office gave up a first-round pick to pair Davis with Omer Asik and then signed the big galoot to a rich new deal; the new Pelicans front office got Zion one of the most underrated centers in the game on a reasonable and expiring contract. Without Gobert next to him last season, Favors averaged 21.2 points, 13.8 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes, and led the Jazz to a 102.1 defensive rating—slightly worse than its number when the two-time Defensive Player of the Year was on the floor with Favors (100.6) but still good enough to lead the league. Favors may block New Orleans’s other lottery pick, Jaxson Hayes, some, but buying low on the 28-year-old-to-be and giving him the paint all to himself could pay major dividends.

O’Shaughnessy: Signing DeMarcus Cousins to a one-year, $3.5 million deal might not be “under-the-radar” as much as it is an overt steal, but the Lakers still managed to grab one of the best bigs available … for next to nothing … one week into free agency. Cousins’s stock has been down since he tore his Achilles tendon two winters ago, and a stint with the Warriors last season wasn’t enough to raise it back up; the first postseason appearance of his career was also abbreviated by another, less serious leg injury. L.A., though, presents a different opportunity for Boogie: He has had more time to recover from the Achilles rupture, and will be leaned on far more often than he was in Golden State.

2019 NBA Finals - Game Six Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Kram: Is it so wrong to prefer Josh Richardson at $10.1 million next season over Jimmy Butler at $30-something million? The erstwhile Heat wing is a capable defender and career 37 percent 3-point shooter who will help fill the holes in Philadelphia left by both Butler’s and JJ Redick’s summer departures. He can even help initiate the offense, after pairing a career-high assist rate with a career-low turnover rate last season. The 76ers might not have retained the splashiest player in their sign-and-trade with Miami, but they did well to add Richardson in lieu of losing Butler for nothing.

Tjarks: Denver’s trade for Jerami Grant. The Nuggets took advantage of Oklahoma City blowing up its team by trading a 2020 first-rounder for Grant. That is a small price to pay for a 25-year-old on a reasonable contract who fits in perfectly with Nikola Jokic. At 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds, Grant is exactly the kind of long and athletic forward that Jokic needs to protect him on defense. He has also grown as an offensive player in the past few years, and he should be even better now that he’s playing next to one of the best passing big men of all time. Grant could be the long-term replacement for Paul Millsap in Denver.

Chau: Bogdanovic gives the Jazz a staggering collection of creators across several positions. Utah had already vaulted up the Western ladder last month after acquiring Conley, but in adding the 6-foot-8 Croatian wing, they’ve added a versatile scorer who proved last season in Indiana that he can take on as much or as little offensive slack as his team needs. A lineup of Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Bogdanovic, and Rudy Gobert could run some interesting pick-and-roll combinations. Defense has always been front and center with Utah, but the team now has leveled up its offensive firepower in a big way.

Devine: I really liked the Jazz getting Ed Davis for two years and $10 million—a perfect defense-rebounding-pick-and-roll replacement for the outgoing Favors to back up Gobert. Davis was a valuable part of playoff rotations in Portland and Brooklyn, and he’s going to help a reloaded Utah team with a real chance to contend in the West.

Also, shouts out to the Bulls, who signed two of my top non-marquee free-agent targets (Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky) and added ex-Knick Luke Kornet, an intriguing 7-footer who was one of just three players last season to shoot better than 36 percent from deep and block more than 4.5 percent of opponents’ 2-point shots, joining Brook Lopez and Myles Turner. Minutes might be tough to come by in a crowded frontcourt featuring Young, Lauri Markkanen, and Wendell Carter Jr., but floor-spacing rim protectors are tough to come by, and Chicago might have just added one on the cheap.

4. What was the most confounding move?

Kram: In re-signing Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross and adding Al-Farouq Aminu for a combined $183 million, the Magic secured the core of a .500 team for the next couple of seasons. Congratulations! They’re above the cap for next season, they have $112 million already committed for 2020-21, and they have $71 million already locked up in just five players—who have combined for one career All-Star appearance—for 2021-22. The entire Eastern Conference might look different in three seasons, but not in Orlando, where the Magic will still be fighting for the 7-seed, at best, for years to come.

Verrier: In the midst of jettisoning failed lottery picks, the Suns gave Ricky Rubio $51 million. Let’s set aside the irony of a franchise once flush with point guards needing to shell out $17 million a year for a point guard and focus on the fit issue here. The Suns have empowered Devin Booker to run the offense as their outlet-store version of James Harden; though the jury is still out on whether the approach benefits anyone except Booker, it’s an intriguing idea nonetheless. But then their big move is to overpay a 32 percent career 3-point shooter who just got run out of Utah for his inability to play off a ball-dominant backcourt-mate? Phoenix is once again operating as if it’s one move away from being a contender when it’s realistically probably the worst team in the NBA.

Tjarks: Milwaukee’s decision to let Malcolm Brogdon walk. The Bucks will be fine without him in the regular season, and it would be a huge surprise if they didn’t at least make it to the Eastern Conference finals. But they could really miss Brogdon once they get to that point. The margins for error are extremely thin at that level, and Brogdon is exactly the type of two-way wing that every team needs in the playoffs. He was expensive (four years, $85 million) but you have to be willing to spend money to win an NBA championship. The Bucks have a two-year window before Antetokounmpo hits free agency in the summer of 2021. This is no time to be pinching pennies.

Eastern Conference Finals - Milwaukee Bucks v Toronto Raptors
Malcolm Brodgon
Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

O’Shaughnessy: Is it fair game to say not trading Chris Paul? There’s still time for Houston to act, but the Rockets are out of the Jimmy Butler sweepstakes and already one week into free agency without a move of much consequence. Their inaction is beginning to seem less like patience and more like procrastination.

Chau: I’m still wrapping my head around Al Horford and the Sixers. The Sixers have the best possible Joel Embiid insurance, but might there be a limit to how many 6-foot-10 (and up) players can be optimized in a five-man lineup? Horford is the type of do-it-all player who makes his team better, so while I don’t doubt it will be a net positive for the team, it’s not as clean a fit as some of the other potential destinations, which might have been in greater need of his services.

Devine: I was really surprised that the Nets’ KD-and-Kyrie masterstroke included $40 million over the next four seasons for DeAndre Jordan. Yeah, he’s got All-NBA and All-Defensive hardware on his mantel, and he’s still a useful pick-and-roll dive man, defensive rebounder, and interior deterrent (33rd in field goal percentage allowed at the rim among 103 bigs to defend at least three up-close tries per game last season, according to NBA.com/Stats). But his at-rim finishing numbers have dipped, both the Mavs and the Knicks posted worse point differentials with Jordan on the floor than off it last season, and I think the Nets might already have a better player at the 5 in-house on a rookie contract. Even so, DeAndre’s along for the ride in Brooklyn. Who says you can’t mix friendship and business?

5. Clippers or Lakers—who ya got?

Chau: The Clippers. They’ve accomplished what I’ve longed to see a team try to pull off over the past decade: pair two versatile star wings in their prime and see what happens. There is overlap in position and skill with Leonard and George, but it’s a gift, not a curse. Building around two players who can play at least three different positions (and guard at least four) allows for unprecedented lineup flexibility. Plus, their two best players from last season—Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell—are still there to pick second units apart with their patented two-man game. The Lakers can’t match that depth.

Kram: The Lakers’ best defensive point guard at the moment is assistant coach Jason Kidd. Gimme the little brothers with a roster actually constructed for the modern NBA.

Tjarks: People are sleeping a little on just how good LeBron and Davis can be together, but I still have to give the edge to the Clippers. The difference between the supporting casts is huge. The Clippers might be the deepest team in the league. They have good NBA players at every position, and all of them can shoot 3s except their centers. It would require a historically great performance from both Davis and LeBron to beat this team. It will be fun to watch them try.

Devine: I like the Clippers to finish with more wins and a higher seed. Leonard and George fit together perfectly, and as D.J. Foster laid out, there’s quality depth everywhere you look, thanks to the team rounding out the roster by bringing back Patrick Beverley, Ivica Zubac, JaMychal Green, and Rodney McGruder, and adding Moe Harkless essentially for free. In a short series against a healthy LeBron and AD, though? I wouldn’t hate the Lakers’ chances.

Verrier: Both formed one of the best duos in recent history, but only one has a team to put around their two superstars. LeBron and Davis will need to be MVP candidates to make up for a supporting cast composed mostly of players who last season looked very much cooked—Cousins, Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Avery Bradley. The Clippers’ supporting cast, meanwhile, could probably win 40-something games without Kawhi and PG ever playing. I wouldn’t bet against the combination of Playoff AD and LeBron with two days’ rest in a series, but the Clippers might be the deepest contender built through star player movement in recent memory.

O’Shaughnessy: Even if the starting five consisted of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kyle Kuzma, and two Staples Center concession workers, the Lakers would have to be taken seriously in the West. So yes, the Lakers have one hell of a starting lineup. But the Clippers have two; their backcourt, wing, and ballhandling options are inexhaustible. The Clips also outmatch the Lakers on defense. The latter will have a tough time guarding the perimeter, whereas the former—specifically Beverley, Leonard, and George—will make the court their defensive playground.

6. What’s the biggest question you have going forward?

Tjarks: Giannis won his first MVP award last season, but he can reach another level if he can become a better shooter. Kawhi swung the Eastern Conference finals by guarding Giannis and keeping him out of the paint. Giannis needs a counter if they face each other again. There is reason for optimism—Giannis isn’t Ben Simmons. He has steadily improved as a shooter throughout his career. He also turns 25 in December. Is he ready to take the final step, or does he still need a few more years before he can reach his ceiling?

Milwaukee Bucks v Toronto Raptors - Game Six
Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard
Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Devine: How will LeBron respond to his longest layoff in more than a decade? If he’s ready to once again pair MVP-level offensive work with consistent defensive effort, and capable of staying healthy in the process, I’m not sure there’s a team with the answers to deal with him and Davis in a playoff matchup. But if last year really was the start of a new phase in his career, even the introduction of AD might not be enough to make the Lakers a championship contender.

Chau: Where will Russell Westbrook land? He’s been a beacon for Oklahoma City fans for more than a decade, but as an impartial observer, I’m ready to see him in a different environment—hopefully one with the infrastructure to maximize his singular gifts.

O’Shaughnessy: How will the Warriors incorporate D’Angelo Russell when Klay Thompson returns? Or, better yet, how will they fit him to begin with? Russell and Steph Curry are both capable of switching off playmaking duties and playing off the ball, but both also need to be covered for on defense. Golden State lost the best forward in basketball last season, and replaced him with another guard. Russell will prevent the Warriors from plummeting too much post-Durant, but it’ll be interesting to see which holes Steve Kerr plans on using Russell to plug in the first place.

Kram: Is new Buck (and former Knick) Thanasis Antetokounmpo, who signed a two-year minimum deal with his better-known brother’s team, better or worse than former Knick Chris Smith, J.R.’s brother? And who is happier: Giannis with his brother as a teammate, or Durant and Irving with $40 million man DeAndre Jordan in tow?

Verrier: How will small-market owners respond to a summer when almost every available All-Star—including one who just re-signed with Oklahoma City last summer—ended up on the coasts? I’m not sure I buy the idea that it’s harder than ever for teams stationed outside the most glamorous market to build sustainable winners. The Thunder and Pelicans received historically robust trade packages, setting them up for brighter futures than they ever had with their disgruntled stars, and Utah, Denver, Portland, and Milwaukee figure to be right in the thick of the title race. But the number of stars moving to New York, Los Angeles, and Miami, along with George turning coat and undercutting OKC’s small-market success story, will provide the ammo for any owner (hi, Dan Gilbert) looking to make a stink about it.

7. Who’s your 2020 title favorite this very moment?

Devine: The Clippers. Call me a prisoner of the moment, but they’ve got the two best two-way perimeter players in the world, firepower up and down the roster, the versatility to play just about any style, a coach with a title in the trophy case, and a front office with the savvy and the stones to build a winner. Kawhi spent the spring and summer putting the league squarely in the palms of his massive hands. I wouldn’t bet on anyone taking it away from him just yet.

Kram: Milwaukee, for two key reasons. First, the Bucks are stacked, with a proven system, the reigning MVP, and most of Giannis’s support back on the 2019-20 roster. (Losing Brogdon hurts, though.) Second, the East looks much softer at the top than the West, with Leonard gone and the Nets, Celtics, and Pacers looking more likely to contend in 2020-21 than next season. That leaves the Bucks and Sixers in the East, but the Bucks start from a higher baseline—and, as quickly as situations change in the NBA, with a mandate to maximize their title window this season, before those other competitors rise and Giannis’s 2021 free agency overwhelms all conversation.

O’Shaughnessy: Clippers. Defense—er, Kawhi Leonard—wins championships, right?

Tjarks: The Clippers have all the pieces. They have arguably the best first (Kawhi) and second (George) options in the league, as well as the best supporting cast and a head coach (Doc Rivers) who has won an NBA championship before. The good thing for the rest of the league is that they aren’t as overwhelming a favorite as the Warriors were over the past few seasons.

Verrier: The Clippers, which feels weird to even type out. I remain convinced that the Rockets are a threat if they can just get their shit together, and that Anthony Davis could be the ultimate trump card if he had more than two good teammates. But the Clippers, with two of the best two-way wings in an era dictated by two-way wing play, may have the NBA’s best small-ball lineup, and the depth and roster flexibility to pick apart any other contender’s weakness.

Chau: The Clippers. Let that sink in. The Clippers! What a world we live in.

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