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The Six Biggest Takeaways From NBA Free Agency’s Opening Night

Montrezl Harrell on the Lakers? Danilo Gallinari in Atlanta? Eighty million dollars to Davis Bertans?! We sort out the chaos and the slew of early deals as free agency gets under way.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 2020 NBA free agency period opened up at 6 p.m. ET on Friday, and while there aren’t nearly as many marquee names on the market this year as there were the last time the NBA opened up for business, there was still a flurry of movement as the league began its annual game of musical chairs. Let’s run through some of the most notable developments of free agency’s opening night, starting, as all things go, with the champs:

The Lakers are loading up as Anthony Davis mulls things over

The biggest name on the market isn’t coming off the market anytime soon. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported hours before free agency tipped that Davis, fresh off capping a phenomenal first season in Los Angeles with a title, “plans to wait at least through Thanksgiving as he considers his options on the length and structure of maximum contract deals” to stay with the Lakers. Everyone still expects him to return to L.A.; he’s just got to figure out how long he wants to commit, and just how much money he wants to lock in.

While they wait for AD and Rich Paul to decide, the Lakers continued their on-the-fly reload. After shipping out Danny Green for Dennis Schröder before the draft, general manager Rob Pelinka found a ready replacement at the two-guard, adding veteran swingman Wesley Matthews on a one-year, $3.6 million deal—nearly $12 million less than Green was on the books for, and will now be making in Philadelphia.

At 6-foot-4 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan and 220 pounds, Matthews gives the Lakers another stout wing defender—only Jrue Holiday and Dorian Finney Smith spent more time on opponents’ no. 1 and 2 options last season, according to defensive metrics compiled by Krishna Narsu and Andrew Patton of The BBall Index—who can also stroke 3s, knocking down 36.4 percent of the 4.4 triples he took per game last season. Matthews can be especially dangerous spotting up; he’s shot 39.3 percent on catch-and-shoot looks over the past seven seasons, a sample of more than 2,300 shots set up by a wide variety of playmakers. Something tells me that playing with LeBron James, fresh off leading the league in assists and creating more 3s than any player in the league besides Luka Doncic, will work out quite nicely for Wes.

Pelinka and Co. followed up the Matthews addition—which had been rumored for a bit—with a move that I’m not sure anyone really saw coming, luring Clippers big man Montrezl Harrell across Staples Center on a two-year, $19 million contract. That bag’s quite a bit smaller than the one the reigning Sixth Man of the Year looked to be on the way to securing before the coronavirus halted the season; it does, however, come attached to the chance to rampage to the rim after screening for James and Schröder, who might not be quite as perfect a pick-and-roll partner for Trezz as Lou Williams, but is pretty damn close.

Friday’s news didn’t appear to sit well with at least one member of Harrell’s now-former team ...

… and you can imagine that it might not sit too well with some Lakers fans, who watched the undersized Harrell get exposed on defense in the bubble, and struggle to make much of an offensive impact for the Clippers against elite competition. L.A.’s betting that playing with LeBron and AD can cover up some of those weaknesses, and that the offensive punch he and Schröder can provide off the bench will be worth any defensive woes. It remains to be seen whether that was the best use of the midlevel exception for a Lakers team that looks like it could still use another wing—especially as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s negotiation lingers—and that might do well to find another more traditional big man to replace what Markieff Morris and Dwight Howard gave the Lakers last season. (We’ll get to Dwight in a bit.) For now, though, the Lakers look poised to bring an even more potent offense into next season’s bid for a repeat, which has one very notable onlooker publicly singing Pelinka’s praises:

What a difference a year and a championship make.

The Heat are running it back, and setting themselves up

Miami entered the offseason with a half-dozen players hitting unrestricted free agency, and the defending Eastern Conference champions wasted little time bringing them back. I mean that literally: At 6:01 p.m. ET, Goran Dragic made it clear he wasn’t going anywhere ...

… and three minutes later, Meyers Leonard did the same:

(Udonis Haslem’s going to return for an 18th season, too; this might not have much on-court impact for the Heat, but given how much UD has meant to the franchise and the city of Miami writ large, it’s pretty awesome all the same.)

The two veterans each received pretty heavy paydays to stick around: a two-year, $37.4 million deal for Dragic, and a two-year deal worth “nearly $20 million” for Leonard, which likely means he got the Heat’s non-taxpayer midlevel exception. Miami is now about $17.5 million below the luxury tax line with a couple of roster spots still left to fill, according to salary cap guru Albert Nahmad.

The Heat will hold team options for the second seasons of both players’ contracts, so Pat Riley and Co. brought back two rotation pieces without committing a single dollar in salary past the end of next season. That means Miami remains on track to have enough cap space to sign a maximum-salaried free agent in the 2021 offseason. It also gives the Heat more contracts that they could conceivably use, whether individually or packaged together, in trades aimed at cementing themselves at the top of the East—although, thanks to a quirk in the collective bargaining agreement, Dragic and Leonard would have to sign off on any trade before this season’s deadline.

But while the deals help maintain some roster management flexibility, that’s not why Miami signed them. Leonard, 28, is a legitimate stretch-5—39.2 percent from 3-point range on more than 800 attempts over the past six seasons—who started 59 games last season and didn’t pout when Spoelstra put him on the bench in the bubble to slide Adebayo to center. And even at age 34, Dragic helps: He ranked in the 74th percentile in the league in points produced per possession used as a pick-and-roll ball handler, according to Synergy Sports game charting data, and the Heat scored 3.5 more points per 100 possessions with him in the game, per Cleaning the Glass.

Dragic has become a favorite son in South Beach—an All-Star, a playoff starter, and a stalwart soldier across six seasons. He bounced back from an injury-plagued 2018-19 campaign to establish himself as one of the league’s best sixth men last season. Then, with Kendrick Nunn sidelined by COVID-19 ahead of the NBA’s restart, Dragic re-entered the starting lineup and played brilliantly, averaging 19.1 points, 4.4 assists, and 4.1 rebounds in 32.5 minutes per game and serving as a vital source of offense as the Heat made their run to the Finals. Dragic tearing the plantar fascia in his left foot in the first half of the first Finals game of his 12-year NBA career was heartbreaking; his willingness to endure what must have been searing pain to come back to try to help his team for Game 6 was inspiring. It’s cool to see the Heat take care of him on the back end.

Miami’s work isn’t done; they could use another defensive wing after Derrick Jones Jr. landed a two-year midlevel deal with Portland, and Jae Crowder’s still considering his options. But their stated desire to run it back is off to a strong start, and their implied desire to go big-game hunting in a year’s time is still on course.

Gallo gets the bag, and the Hawks get frisky

OK, so, as it turns out, Danilo Gallinari’s priorities weren’t completely set in stone last month:

And, honestly, can you blame him?

I expected the sharpshooting 32-year-old forward to be popular in free agency. I did not, however, expect him to be “$20 million per year” popular. But the Hawks had a league-leading $44 million in cap space to burn, and Gallinari—who averaged 18.7 points and 5.2 rebounds per game in Oklahoma City last season and shot 40.5 percent from deep on 7.1 attempts a night—has precisely the sort of offensive skill set that might help All-Star point guard Trae Young jump-start an offense that ranked in the bottom five last season in offensive efficiency, team effective field goal percentage, and overall 3-point accuracy.

The Hawks have more moves to make; they’ve still got about $26 million in cap space; some reported interest in restricted free agent swingman Bogdan Bogdanovic and veteran point guard Rajon Rondo; and a crowded frontcourt to sort out, with Gallinari (a far better fit at power forward than small forward these days) joining recent trade acquisition Clint Capela, no. 6 draft pick Onyeka Okongwu, and incumbent 4 John Collins (who reportedly wants a big extension of his rookie scale contract). We’ll have to wait to see what else GM Travis Schlenk might have cooking, but if nothing else, swinging for Gallinari makes it crystal clear that the Hawks think they’re ready to make a playoff push, and are willing to spend big to turn their playoff dreams into reality.

De’Aaron Fox got paaaaaaaaaaaaaaaid

Two nights after scoring big in the draft with the smooth and savvy Iowa State guard Tyrese Haliburton, the Kings leapt at the chance to lock up the player he’ll be lining up behind and alongside for the next few years. Fox, a 22-year-old speed demon drafted fifth overall by Sacramento in 2017, snagged the first maximum-salaried contract extension of the 2020 offseason—a five-year deal that could pay him up to $196 million if he explodes into superstardom and earns an All-NBA First Team selection.

That seems unlikely—there’s a ton of good guards in this league—but maybe we shouldn’t be putting a ceiling on a player who’s made significant year-over-year improvements as a scorer, facilitator, finisher, and free-throw generator. Over his final 35 appearances last season, Fox averaged 23 points, 6.9 assists, 3.8 rebounds, and 1.6 steals in 33.1 minutes per game, using 30.6 percent of Sacramento’s offensive possessions, posting a .561 true shooting percentage, and assisting on 33.8 percent of his teammates’ baskets. Only 10 dudes have produced like that over the course of a full season: LeBron, Michael Jordan, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Dwyane Wade, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Devin Booker, Luka Doncic, and Trae Young. That’s damn good company, and while it might be overly optimistic to expect Fox to firmly establish himself in that sort of company, it seems worth it—especially for a franchise like the Kings—to pay up to find out if the optimism is warranted.

This is a bet that Fox’s playmaking craft, ability to change speeds, and 3-point stroke all develop with time and reps, blending with his phenomenal athleticism and quickness to make him one of the toughest covers in the league. It’s also a bet that Fox can carry the weight of being the cornerstone of a franchise seemingly in perpetual rebuild, and become the sort of force multiplier who can change their identity. Moribund franchises don’t tend to just climb out of the gutter on their own; they need someone to push them out, and to propel them to something better.

Davis Bertans and Joe Harris remind us that it’s good to be a shooter

The Wizards and Nets both backed up the Brinks trunk to bring back their respective marksmen.

Harris—a former second-round pick who thought his career might be over before it ever really got started—got a four-year, $75 million contract from the Nets, who know that a team built around Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving needs players to space the floor, run like hell, and produce without dominating the ball. Bertans—a former second-round pick who tore the ACL in his right knee twice before ever appearing in an NBA game—got a five-year, $80 million contract from the Wizards, who briefly had one of the best offenses in the league last season thanks in large part to the strain the Latvian forward’s constant strafing put on opposing defenses.

Both players got paid because they’re obscenely good at what they do: Harris has shot 43 percent from deep on just under nine attempts per 100 possessions over four seasons in Brooklyn, while Bertans is at 41.1 percent on nearly 12 attempts-per-100 since entering the league in 2016. They got paid because their skill set—big shooter with a quick release who bombs from all over the place—plays all over the league, resulting in a handful of teams reportedly bidding for their services.

Just as crucially: They got paid because their incumbent teams really couldn’t afford to let them leave. Both Brooklyn and Washington are over the cap, thanks to massive deals for their top-line stars, and wouldn’t truly be able to find like-for-like replacements on the open market given their financial constraints. (The Nets swung a draft-night deal that brought in Landry Shamet, who seemed like he might be insurance against Harris leaving; then again, the nice part about being owned by a guy worth $10 billion is that you can afford two dudes who fly around off screens and drain jumpers.) That combination of specialization and scarcity resulted in a pair of the best shooters in the NBA staying precisely where they started out, and getting paid handsomely—like, shockingly handsomely—to do it.

The Rockets finally get a big man

The most intriguing player in this free-agent class goes to a team in desperate need of some positive intrigue right about now. After days of wheeling and dealing seemingly aimed at paring down payroll and replenishing draft pick coffers, new Rockets GM Rafael Stone went ahead and spent some of Tilman Fertitta’s money, turning Wednesday’s draft night deal with Detroit—which sent Trevor Ariza and a pick to the Pistons—into a sign-and-trade that brought back 25-year-old Christian Wood on a three-year, $41 million deal. (It was initially reported as a three-year, $27 million deal, which would’ve been for Houston’s non-taxpayer midlevel exception; evidently, Wood’s reps were able to convince the Rockets to lift up the couch cushions to find an extra $14 million.)

Wood represents something of a bridge between the Rockets’ recent past and its hoped-for future. He gives Houston a legitimate big man—6-foot-10 and 214 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, averaging 10.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per 36 minutes of floor time in his young career—who can also step out to the arc and shoot the 3, theoretically allowing the Rockets to play more traditionally sized lineups and maintain four- or five-out spacing whenever he’s on the court. He should be able to space the floor for James Harden and Russell Westbrook or serve as a screen-and-dive man, rolling to the rim for lobs or drawing a defender that gives the Rockets’ star guards an easier foray to the cup. (Provided, y’know, they stick around.) He’s also got enough shake in his game to be able to create some of his own offense off the bounce, potentially lifting some of the offensive burden from Harden and Westbrook’s shoulders. (Provided, y’know, they want it lifted.)

In theory, Wood’s a perfect fit—a prototypical modern big man who can help Houston bounce back from a dismal past couple of months and get the Rockets pointed back toward the sky again. In practice, there is the nettlesome matter of Houston committing eight figures a year to a player who—while inarguably productive on a per-minute basis in the G League and in limited stints with several other teams—has really only had one notable season, and just 12 starts as a legitimate focal point. In that sense, shelling out to lock Wood down for the next three years is a bit of a gamble. Given how much the Rockets might soon be in flux, though, ensuring they’ve got one prime-age player with these sorts of tools seems to be well worth the risk.