A week of free agency is in the books. As the league holds its breath in anticipation of possible trades for Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard, and Ben Simmons, our staff highlights the best and the worst of the many transactions that have come across the wire so far.
1. Who’s the biggest winner of the offseason so far?
Paolo Uggetti: Russell Westbrook. Hear me out: Westbrook just went from putting up empty-ish stats on a team that couldn’t make it past the first round to returning to his hometown, playing next to the best player of his generation, and having a real shot at winning a title. The One Who Stayed is now the one joining a superteam of his own, and he won’t get nearly as much flak for it as Kevin Durant did when he left OKC. Whether this Lakers experiment works is another matter, but for now, Westbrook has hit the basketball jackpot.
Justin Verrier: The Heat. Miami, Dallas, and Toronto utilized the 2020 offseason to open up pathways to pursue Giannis this offseason. That obviously didn’t go so well, but the Heat were the only suitor to fill their All-Star void by signing the best gettable player on the market in Kyle Lowry. (The Raps, in fairness, have pivoted to a mini-youth movement. The Mavs, meanwhile … yikes.) The later years on some of the big-money contracts Miami gave out to a bunch of old dogs may limit their runway, but the Heat also improved their title odds for next season more than any other team.
Wosny Lambre: DeMar DeRozan. His style of play—high usage, low-volume 3-point shooting—is becoming increasingly obsolete, yet he locked in a deal commensurate to that of an All-Star. Amazing work by him and his representatives.
Chris Ryan: How about the competitive spirit of the NBA? Is that too Pollyannaish? Call it the Suns Burn: It seems like the majority of GMs in the league looked at the drastic change of fortune in Phoenix and thought, why not us? Great teams stayed great (Lakers, Nets, Suns, Bucks), recently great teams did what they had to do to get back to where they were (Warriors, Heat), some mediocre teams made some really interesting moves to give their fans something new to cheer for when they (hopefully) return to live hoops next season (Washington, Chicago), and some of the younger rebuilding teams took strides to take the scaffolding off (Hornets, Magic, and Pistons).
Seerat Sohi: The Bulls. They landed two of the biggest options on the free-agency market—DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball—and stole Alex Caruso from the Lakers with a team- and trade-friendly contract. The Bulls aren’t championship contenders, but you have to start somewhere. Arturas Karnisovas helped the Nuggets turn into a contender with savvy moves and smart draft picks. I could see him doing the same thing in Chicago. It was a wonderful offseason, and that’s a hopeful omen for the future for a franchise that’s been stuck in the mud since Derrick Rose tore his ACL a decade ago.
Rob Mahoney: Jimmy Butler. The man got a four-year, $184 million extension to stay in Miami, lead a revamped team on a renewed title chase, and run alongside one of his closest friends in the league in Kyle Lowry. If that’s not winning, we may need to adjust the definition.
Logan Murdock: The Lakers. OK, hear me out: They re-signed their best young player (Talen Horton-Tucker), got rid of their most inconsistent player (Kyle Kuzma), moved on from Andre Drummond, and (so far) haven’t caved to Dennis Schröder’s contract demands. Yes, I know the additions of Trevor Ariza, Carmelo Anthony, and Russell Westbrook look like a free-agency haul from 2011, but Melo and Ariza are coming off of solid seasons in reduced roles, and I just have faith that Russ will figure it out at 33. Oh yeah, and they have LeBron and AD. I could be trippin’ but I don’t think I am. Holla at me in April.
Kevin O’Connor: Bradley Beal isn’t necessarily the biggest winner, but since my coworkers covered most of the other candidates, it feels important to at least mention him. The Wizards have chosen a direction. Westbrook is gone. Spencer Dinwiddie, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, and Corey Kispert are now in Washington. Sure, Beal doesn’t have an All-Star teammate for the first time in his career. But he has clarity about who the Wizards are trying to be, which can aid him in his decision whether to stay or go in the summer of 2022. The Wizards have a deep team with a number of high-upside young players—namely, Deni Avdija and Rui Hachimura. Will one of them blossom? Will Beal turn into a recruiter instead of the recruited? This roster is one huge trade away from looking like a contender. Maybe that never materializes and Beal ends up leaving anyway, but at least he has a clearer idea of what he’d be leaving.
2. Who’s the biggest loser of the offseason so far?
Lambre: The Mavericks. They missed out on Kyle Lowry and any kind of playmaking support for Luka Doncic in the final offseason of Luka’s rookie deal. It’s going to be tricky to make any major upgrades to this roster going forward.
O’Connor: It’s great that Norman Powell is back in Portland, but the only veterans the Trail Blazers added this summer were Cody Zeller, Tony Snell, and Ben McLemore. That’s all they got to convince Damian Lillard to stay. It could be argued the new additions are upgrades over Enes Kanter and Carmelo Anthony, but let’s be honest here: Zeller is fine; Snell is fine; McLemore is fine. The Blazers need to do better than fine. So, what’s the big move that hasn’t happened yet? Or will running it back actually work?
Ryan: Any team that puts its eggs in the Disgruntled Superstar basket. Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal both found themselves at the center of rumors and speculation, but neither publicly pressed the trade-me button, leaving their would-be suitors in the awkward position of being all dressed up with no All-NBA players to trade for.
Mahoney: Dennis Schröder. What other way could there be to describe a player who turned down an $84 million extension with a perennial contender only to be one of the last players standing near the end of free agency? At this point, the cap space and sign-and-trade possibilities Schröder had been relying on has all but dried up. His best option may be to find the right role at a considerable discount, play out the year, and hope for a more welcoming marketplace in 2022. Betting on yourself can have lucrative ends in the NBA, but for every Fred VanVleet, there’s also a Schröder—a player who gave up the certainty of an extension or an offer sheet to chase a bigger number that was never really there.
Uggetti: The Clippers. Not only have they likely lost Kawhi Leonard to a knee injury for most (all?) of next season, but he made them sweat out a few days before he (reportedly) agreed to come back. Even with Kawhi and Reggie Jackson back, there’s not a significant move to be made (not even trading Paul George) that will turn them into legit contenders for this upcoming season.
Murdock: Tampering. The NBA recently began probes into whether the deals for Ball and Lowry were agreed to before the free agency moratorium started. If you followed NBA news leading up to Monday, the answer is a big DUH. But tampering is so ingrained in the NBA. Tampering produced Kevin Durant to the Warriors. Tampering built the Miami Heat dynasty. Tampering gave us LeBron and Kevin Love on the same team. The only L here is seeing the league pick and choose when it cares.
Verrier: The Pelicans. The Zion clock is ticking. Yet after clearing all that cap space, and after all of those conveniently timed leaks about their pursuits of Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry, New Orleans is … pretty much in the same place it was in last season. Devonte’ Graham is a good shooter on a fair contract, but they could’ve saved themselves a first-round pick by simply matching the Bulls’ offer sheet for Ball. And Jonas Valanciunas is certainly a more dependable center than Steven Adams, but not one who appreciably changes the team’s ceiling. David Griffin has made a lot of noise about bringing “sustainable success” to New Orleans, but in his third offseason, he’s so far given up assets—two firsts, moving down seven spots in the draft—to spin the hamster wheel yet again.
Sohi: Schröder. You can see why he wanted to bet on himself. There was a time when he was everything the Lakers needed him to be: a microwave scorer who can attack mismatches and hound opposing point guards. But then LeBron and Anthony Davis got hurt, and the Lakers demanded an offensive consistency that Schröder has never shown. Worse yet, the Suns spotlighted just how ugly his drives can look when he can’t find a slower defender to attack. On the bright side for Schröder, he could still sign a short-term deal with a team like the Celtics or the Warriors and have the season he thought he was going to have last year.
3. What was the best move?
Mahoney: The Nets getting Kevin Durant’s commitment on a four-year, $198 million extension. Sometimes these things are incredibly simple. Durant is either the best basketball player in the world or one of the very few, and Brooklyn—which otherwise would have been fretting the possibility of his early opt-out in 2022—managed to secure Durant’s place on the team and thus the Nets’ in the league over a much longer term. Money is no object. Durant made clear in the playoffs, and then again on the Olympic stage, that even after his Achilles tear, he impacts the game in a way that is almost impossible to match or foil.
Lambre: The Suns bringing back Chris Paul. It’s hard to put a numerical value on what Paul has added to an organization that hadn’t enjoyed much in the way of postseason success for a decade prior to Paul’s arrival. So even though it cost $120 million to retain Paul, 36, locking him in allows the Suns to maintain continuity.
Verrier: Kemba Walker to the Knicks. Walker may not change New York’s ceiling much given his recurrent knee issues, but Leon Rose’s mission is as much about removing the stench of two decades of Jim Dolan’s mistakes as it is about improving the on-court product, and bringing back a hometown kid with a 100 percent approval rating is as big of a vibes boost as you could get. If Walker has even one Cardiac Kemba moment at the Garden, the reported $8 million to $9 million deal will be worth it.
Ryan: Otto Porter Jr. to the Warriors, more for what it represents than what it will reap. Many Warriors fans wanted to see a combo of Andrew Wiggins, James Wiseman, and Golden State’s two first-round picks get shipped out for an All-NBA player to join forces with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. Maybe I’m just high on this whippet Joe Lacob just handed me, but I like the moves they did make. Porter has real bounce-back potential, and Andre Iguodala—washed or not—is a good return. These veteran adds should make for a much smoother NBA education for Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga, and Moses Moody.
Murdock: Lowry, if only because we get to see him smile on a contender again. Miami doubling down once again on veterans and never tearing down its roster has a certain charm to it, even if it inevitably ends with a loss in the second round.
O’Connor: Malik Monk going to the Lakers could end up being the best decision of his life. If he’s able to continue shooting the lights out this season, he’s going to have chances to put up big numbers in a limited, defined role playing with L.A.’s superstars. Once he hits free agency again, his market could be significant. After all, he’s only 23.
Uggetti: Patty Mills to the Nets. This might be a niche choice, but the fit is so perfect that I can’t help but rave about it. Mills gives the Nets a perfect bench piece and a much-needed additional ball handler. He’s nothing like James Harden or Kyrie Irving, but his tempo is a nice contrast to a team full of probing isolation scorers. And it sure doesn’t hurt that they reportedly swiped him from the Lakers, either.
Sohi: The Nets just locked in the best player in basketball for another four years. Nothing else comes close.
4. What was the worst move?
Sohi: Bad moves, in a league that’s getting smarter and smarter, are often a consequence of the situation more than pure decision-making. Lonzo Ball didn’t want to be a Pelican, so he won’t be a Pelican. It still hurts that Zion lost his favorite lob buddy, and that a team that should be trying to run opponents out of the gym lost a transition-fueler.
Mahoney: Milwaukee letting P.J. Tucker go. There’s always a possibility that Tucker had planned on making a beeline for a warm-weather city, or a destination market, or Miami in particular. But absent that possibility, I remain shocked that the Bucks let their go-to stopper sign with another team on a modest two-year, $14 million contract. For Milwaukee, defending the title means preparing for the likelihood of seeing Kevin Durant again in the playoffs—the same Durant who gave them one of the best playoff performances of all time in the second round and came within a half shoe size of eliminating them from the playoffs in Game 7. Is it not worth just paying the man to have the peace of mind that Tucker will be there, in lockstep with Durant and with a hand in his face, if and when those moments come again?
Uggetti: The Lakers failed to keep Caruso, which goes hand in hand with the Bucks failing to retain Tucker. Let’s set aside the fact that they were both fan favorites who helped their teams win a title. Caruso’s defense alone should have been enough to compel the Lakers to at least try to re-sign him, but reports suggest that they didn’t even counter the Bulls’ offer. Tucker was similarly integral to the Bucks’ championship run, and while they had his Bird rights, it appears the Bucks cheapened out on what it would take to keep him.
Verrier: The Westbrook trade. The Lakers acquitted themselves with what they unearthed from the bargain bin, but figuring out lineups that maximize the skills of their new Big Three will still be complicated at best—especially in the playoffs. If healthy, Westbrook should be able to buy LeBron some much-needed time in chill mode in his 19th regular season, but will Westbrook’s enigmatic, fast-paced, freelancing style fit in with LeBron’s meticulous and measured approach when they share the floor? Are there two dependable 3-and-D players among the team’s 3-or-D signings? Will Davis be reengaged (and healthy) after falling flat in what was supposed to be the Year of AD? The 2020 title run showed that two locked-in top-10 players can solve most anything, but the Russ deal still created more questions than answers.
Lambre: The Pelicans letting Ball walk away for what looks like a very fair deal. Ball has improved his game every year. In his past two seasons, he’s even developed into a reliable long-range shooter at respectable volume—which was his biggest question mark coming into the NBA. The Pelicans letting him walk is baffling, especially considering Ball’s timeline aligns with their two most important players, Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram.
O’Connor: There were no egregiously horrible decisions this offseason, but there were some questionable ones. You could argue the Pelicans trading a first-round pick for Devonte’ Graham was a bad move, but don’t underrate the potential of the $17 million trade exception that New Orleans created in the Valanciunas deal. Or maybe the answer to this question is the Spurs signing Zach Collins for three years, $22 million despite Collins never doing anything in the NBA. But at least the Spurs are committing to the youth movement and Collins has theoretical upside. Or it could be the Knicks signing Evan Fournier and Derrick Rose to big money. But if New York ever acquires a star in a trade, it’ll need salary to make a deal work. If bigger plans don’t work out for these teams, these moves could end up being major mistakes.
Murdock: Something about the $100 million deal for Jarrett Allen doesn’t sit right with me. This is no shade to Allen (get ya bread, King), but it seems like a very Cavalier move. I’m just perplexed.
Ryan: I really hate the “let the competitive avatar of our team walk and join one of our bigger rivals” move, so I’m giving this to the Bucks for losing Tucker to the Heat.
5. What’s the biggest question you have going forward?
Ryan: What is Ben Simmons’s value? When making exploratory calls, Sixers president Daryl Morey reportedly asked for everything but the office furniture in return for his damaged goods. So now what? Can Simmons be the main piece in a trade for a Lillard- or Beal-level player? Or do the Sixers need to either reset their expectations or rehabilitate Simmons?
Murdock: What will the Warriors be? Sure, Golden State may have drafted some intriguing young’uns, but are they ready to help win a title? They got Andre Iguodala back, but is he still gonna be effective at 37? Klay Thompson is expected back, but is he gonna be the same after missing two seasons? Steph Curry signed another extension, but will the team be good enough to get him another chip in his prime? The Dubs could be the most dangerous squad in the West or out of the postseason entirely. Either way, they’ll be interesting.
Verrier: Is the NBA serious with these CSI: Tampering investigations? It’s one thing if a small-market star got swiped by a big market with nothing to show for it. (That’s a bigger issue, though one that will need to be addressed in the next CBA, not through forensics and phone-tapping.) But both the Pelicans and Raptors participated in sign-and-trades for Ball and Lowry, meaning they were involved in whatever early contact went down. So … who is the victim here?
Uggetti: What will happen with Ben Simmons? With both Bradley Beal and Damian Lillard staying put (for now), the only medium-sized domino left to fall this offseason is Simmons. It feels like only a matter of time before the Sixers have to pull the trigger on a trade before things get worse (or at least before any more offseason workout videos of him make their way onto our timelines). Sure, Simmons could boost his value a bit if he played in Philly for the first half of next season, but he could also tank it even further.
O’Connor: What does Schröder do? He turned down $84 million from the Lakers because he thought he could get between $100 million and $120 million on the market. But he still hasn’t signed with anyone. First of all: Ouch. Second of all: What’s the plan? Maybe a one-year deal would provide him a chance to restore his value. Even though he screwed himself by refusing such a lucrative extension, it’s not like he’s a bad player. There could be more money out there for him next summer.
Lambre: What will the Golden State Warriors look like with Thompson back in the fold? When we last saw the trio of Steph, Klay, and Draymond in the 2019 NBA Finals, they looked pretty damn formidable against a great Raptors team, albeit in defeat. So it will be fascinating to see how it all comes together after Thompson’s two-year absence.
Mahoney: How will the seemingly inevitable Ben Simmons trade go down? Forgive me for going basic, but this is still the most pertinent question related to the title race—seeing as how the Simmons saga shakes out will more or less decide whether the Sixers are really in a position to contend with teams like the Bucks and Nets. I still think there’s a world in which this entire ordeal drags on months into the season as Philly waits out its ideal trade return, though the longer Simmons remains on the roster, the greater the chance the whole thing boils over.
Sohi: What are the Lakers? Trading for Buddy Hield, a sniper from downtown, would have been the obvious move. Pairing LeBron with Westbrook, a ball-dominant point guard with no outside shot, is the opposite of obvious. It’s also way more interesting. The Lakers could go big and have Westbrook, LeBron, Davis, and Dwight Howard on the floor. They could also pair Malik Monk and another shooter with Westbrook, Davis, and James to try to run teams out of the gym. Can they do that without inflicting too much damage on their own tired legs? Can they rebound enough of their missed 3s to make up for the lack of spacing? Are they too old or are they experienced? What do they know? Do they know things? Let’s find out!
6. Who’s the 2021 title favorite at this very moment?
Murdock: The Nets. They have Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving on one team.
O’Connor: Hello, Brooklyn. After falling short to the Bucks by a tippy-toe, the Nets fired back this offseason by signing Mills (one of the league’s best sixth men), and drafting guard Cam Thomas and center Day’Ron Sharpe. Brooklyn lost Jeff Green, but it still has depth behind its Big Three. Another shortened offseason will necessitate going deep into the bench this season for many teams, so the Nets have the edge in the East—and in the entire league, given how much of a challenge it is to come out of the West.
Uggetti: The Nets, easily. Brooklyn was a half of a shoe size away from beating the Bucks and probably winning the title in their first season as a superteam. Now imagine what a second season of playing together will do for that kind of talent. By adding Mills and keeping Blake Griffin, the team’s depth is also well-situated for a title run that may be deterred only by injuries.
The residents of Malik Monk Island.
Lambre: The Nets employ three future Hall of Famers who are squarely in the prime of their careers. Nobody, not even the newly formed Big Three in Los Angeles, can claim this feat. Brooklyn is the overwhelming favorite.
Mahoney: The Nets. All the usual asterisks apply in terms of assuming reasonably good health for the Nets, but otherwise nothing has transpired this offseason that could or should oust the most talented team in the league from their spot as the presumptive favorite. If anything, they’ve actually managed to get a bit more dynamic around the edges by effectively giving Landry Shamet’s rotation spot to Patty Mills—creating yet another off-the-dribble shooting threat that defenses will have to account for while splitting their attention between Durant, Harden, and Irving.
Sohi: The Nets. The Bucks, who were built to meet last season’s attrition-defined moment, lost Tucker, who didn’t necessarily stop Durant, but played an instrumental role in exhausting him to the point that he didn’t have enough in the tank to hit iron on a series-ending shot. I expect Harden to be healthier next season and Steve Nash, who relied too heavily on his stars, to be another year wiser. More than anything else, expect the Nets—who were heavily impacted by COVID-19 last season—to be less tired.
Verrier: The Nets. They nearly made the conference finals without Kyrie and with James Harden so hobbled that he treated the painted area like lava, and now they’re even deeper. What seems like renewed parity could, health-willing, devolve into another Warriors-like run for one of the most offensively gifted rosters in NBA history.
An earlier version of this piece misstated how far Washington made it in the 2020-21 playoffs.