Day 1 of NBA free agency opened with a bang, with supermax extensions and midlevel exceptions being handed out so quickly, it was almost as if they had been negotiated well in advance. Which reported contracts caught our attention? Excluding the KD trade chase and Jalen Brunson’s decision, here are our staff’s picks for the most intriguing deals from Thursday.
Daryl Morey Gets the Band Back Together
Seerat Sohi: For years, conventional wisdom has suggested that teams with championship aspirations need not worry about depth. Why waste time and money building up a solid bench rotation when, in the postseason, rotations shrink and stars determine games? But the road to the Finals is long, and recently, injuries have had an influence on the journey. In this year’s Eastern Conference finals, the Heat and Celtics were forced to reshuffle their lineups with Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro, Marcus Smart, and Robert Williams III missing time.
The 76ers watched from home, in part because they were caught with their pants down when Joel Embiid missed games 1 and 2 vs. Miami. Philly’s starters with Embiid had a 6.4 net rating against the Heat; when DeAndre Jordan replaced him, that figure took a catastrophic drop to minus-48.8. Smaller lineups featuring Georges Niang, Paul Millsap, and Paul Reed at the 5 had more success, but they were easy pickings for Bam Adebayo, and got destroyed on the boards. Plugging Matisse Thybulle in for defense killed their spacing.
The solution they needed was wearing a Heat uniform: P.J. Tucker, the small-ball 5 locking up James Harden, shooting 44 percent from 3, and sneaking under the baseline for rebounds. The Sixers landed the 37-year-old former Rocket with a three-year, $33.2 million contract, including a fully guaranteed third year that might hurt later. (Morey also brought aboard Danuel House, another familiar face from Houston, on Thursday, and traded for Rockets draftee De’Anthony Melton on draft night.) But you’ll take it, because Tucker could be the key to unlocking the urgent present, bringing frontcourt depth, lineup versatility, and perimeter defense to a team desperate for it.
In Klutch the Lakers Trust
Logan Murdock: Last offseason, the Lakers trotted out the league’s oldest roster, adding the likes of DeAndre Jordan, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, and Trevor Ariza in a failed attempt to build around the suddenly brittle superstar duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
This offseason, they may have overcorrected. On Thursday, the Lakers signed several springy wings and athletic frontcourt players, headlined by Lonnie Walker IV for the taxpayer midlevel exception. They also agreed to deals with newly minted champ Juan Toscano-Anderson, Troy Brown Jr., and center Damian Jones, who was solid in a forgotten season in Sacramento.
Another commonality among the new signees, aside from their young legs? Three (Walker, Brown, and Toscano-Anderson) are clients of Klutch Sports, the agency that represents James, AD, Talen Horton-Tucker, and Kendrick Nunn. Seven of the 12 players currently on the Lakers roster are represented by Klutch.
The Lakers’ partnership with Klutch has so far yielded one title, two missed postseasons, and an increasingly uncertain future as James heads into his 20th season. The Lakers aren’t opposed to catering to their best players, but the extra benefits are usually followed by championships. Time is ticking for the Klutch Mafia to hold up its end of the bargain.
Malik Monk Spurns the Lakers to Become a King
Tyler Parker: Malik Monk said bring me my crown. The Bums Buss low-balled him and now he’s a King, agreeing to a two-year, $19 million deal with Sacramento on Thursday. Monk got his groove back last season as one of the few bright spots in an otherwise abysmal campaign for the Los Angeles Klutchers. Hit 39 percent from 3 on almost six attempts per game, 59.7 true shooting percentage, showed a little off the bounce, got on the rim a bit. Good times were had. Gave Kevin Harlan at least one orgasm.
Michelangelo would blush. Monk leaves Southern California and Arkansan brother Austin Reaves and heads north to reunite with an old college chum. It’s not often I use the word chum and I’m not sure how I feel about it. Monk and Sacramento point guard De’Aaron Fox were the starting backcourt for the 2016-17 Kentucky Wildcats. Along with Bam Adebayo, they led an electric UK team to an SEC title and Elite Eight appearance, lost by two in the South Regional final to Luke “Sex” Maye and eventual champion North Carolina. No shame, Big Blue. The beard was strong with that one.
Monk brings much-needed juice to a Kangz roster largely devoid of shooting. He also brings with him fun. This is a win for a franchise that has been the opposite of that for the better part of a decade and a half. They have famously not made the playoffs since 2005-06, Rick Adelman’s final year at the helm. Current Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman replaced Pretty Ricky ahead of 2006-07 and the postseason has eluded them since. It has eluded them the way light eludes dark. Now, by order of Lord Vivek, Kings general manager Monte McNair and new head coach Mike Brown are under a strict make-the-play-in-or-else mandate. Monk doesn’t guarantee entry, but he gets them closer.
All Maxes Aren’t Created Equal
Justin Verrier: It’s not enough these days to pay your star players as much as possible under NBA bylaws. The best way to show your no. 1 guys how much you care is by arranging for your favorite reporter to announce their max agreements as soon as free agency begins.
Up first on Thursday was Nikola Jokic, whose new five-year, $264 million deal with the Nuggets was reported as soon as the clock struck 3 p.m. PT. Devin Booker’s four-year, $214 million extension with the Suns came mere seconds later. Then, there was the five-year, $251 million supermax that’ll keep Bradley Beal in Washington for the foreseeable future, reported a whole minute into the official offseason. A supermax for Karl-Anthony Towns (four years, $224M) and a rookie max for Ja Morant (five years, $193M) followed, curiously, later in the evening.
The rush delivery of the news is intended to suggest that the contracts were no-brainers for the teams in question. (This guy? We love this guy!) But two of the maxes don’t look like clear-cut decisions, or even easy wins.
Booker took a leap last season, earning a spot on the All-NBA first team while leading the Suns to a franchise-best 64 wins, and with Chris Paul creaking his way into his age-37 season, it’s no surprise that the Suns would want to lock up the 25-year-old. But isn’t it a bit odd that Phoenix plunked down the longest, most lucrative raise possible for Booker, four years after doing the exact same thing, while making Deandre Ayton sing for his super-supper this season? GMing is a daily mukbang of bowls of shit, and Booker’s representatives likely didn’t make things easy on James Jones, but prioritizing keeping one star happy over keeping another altogether is a curious choice.
As for Beal? Woof. The 29-year-old has led the Wizards to the playoffs just once in the past four seasons, via the play-in, yet is now set to make more next season than every player in the league other than Steph Curry. Kudos to the Wiz for trying, desperately, to remain relevant, but this deal seems destined to wind up as yet another in D.C.’s long history of cap albatrosses.
The Bucks Keep a Good Thing Going
Zach Kram: The Bucks are running it back, with good reason: The entire core of their 2020-21 championship roster is still intact, and it might have repeated if not for Khris Middleton’s untimely injury this spring. So the Bucks wasted no time Thursday agreeing to re-sign Jevon Carter and Wesley Matthews for guard depth and Bobby Portis for frontcourt continuity after the fan favorite posted career highs in points (14.6 per game) and rebounds (9.1 per game) last season.
In a more surprising move—and perhaps the best, next to Portis’s big raise—Milwaukee added Joe Ingles on a one-year deal. After tearing his ACL in January, Ingles won’t be ready at the start of this season, and it’s unclear how much oomph he’ll provide after he returns; the former Jazz man already looked a step slower last season, even before his injury.
But the Bucks don’t need Ingles in the regular season. He’s a pure playoff move, with the hope that against the league’s top defenses, he can give a sometimes shallow Milwaukee roster another creator beyond the Big Three. Ingles-Giannis pick-and-rolls could be dynamite, and he’s a career 41 percent 3-point shooter. Most of all, he’s another wing who can potentially play in Giannis-at-center lineups, and he and Portis together can help provide coach Mike Budenholzer the rotation flexibility to play small or big around the two-time MVP.
Anfernee Simons Gets What’s Coming to Him
Rob Mahoney: The most reliable way to get paid in the NBA—as in most any industry—is to make yourself indispensable. Some players manage that by becoming undeniable superstars. Others, like Anfernee Simons, engineer it by putting themselves in the perfect place at the perfect time. It’s no real surprise that Simons got paid to the tune of $100 million over four years, particularly after the Blazers spent months backing themselves into that particular corner. Portland’s commitment to Damian Lillard (in concept, and perhaps soon with a contract extension) made Simons more valuable, seeing as Portland wouldn’t be able to mount a very convincing playoff push without the young guard’s scoring help. Trading away CJ McCollum back in February only exaggerated that need—and solidified Simons’s leverage in the process.
Simons isn’t a perfect player or even a perfect fit next to Lillard. He’s simply too productive for a shorthanded team to give up, which gave him the straightest possible path to a nine-figure contract. Portland didn’t trade a first-round pick for Jerami Grant only to let one of the best supporting players on the roster walk for nothing. Simons did the hard work of grinding, over four seasons, to turn himself into the kind of shot creator no one could deny. The kind of player that wouldn’t be easy to replace. Now he profits from the fruits of that labor, and from a Blazers team that left itself without much recourse.
Lu Dort Cashes In
Parker: It didn’t seem like it was going to happen. As recently as this past Saturday, Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti was on record saying the Thunder would most likely exercise Lu Dort’s $1.9M team option for next season.
“I would just plan on that happening unless something changed,” Presti said.
But you know how things love to change. They’re head over heels for the stuff. And change they did. On Wednesday, Oklahoma City swerved in the 11th hour and declined Dort’s option. But a day later, the 6-foot-3 master lock agreed to a five-year, $87.5 million deal to remain with the Thunder for his foreseeable future.
[Steps into spotlight. Grabs mic. Sings with whole heart.]
There’s a note on my phone from May 6, 2021, at 7:23 p.m. that says Every Dort layup is the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen. This is, of course, a lie, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be true every so often, because, well ... [rips shirt off, roars like bear, gestures wildly]
Dort is a tireless worker who has added to his bag each offseason and hoops like his hair is on fire. He’s still not winning any marksmanship awards on the offensive end, but to go from a guy teams prayed would shoot to hitting 44 percent of his corner 3s the past two seasons is remarkable. On defense, every possession is a battle, every bucket a slight. He throws his body around like a fullback. The number of lightning-quick lead guards has grown every year. They’re flooding the league. Any great defense must be super sturdy at the point of attack. The Poutine Dream is made of fire and steel. His on-ball defense is an action movie. He is there to bring resistance and pain.
Some will call it an overpay and it might be a small one—depends on the new CBA and whether or not the shot continues to evolve—but all of those words are boring. I have another note in my phone that says Dort is synonymous with wall. I deleted it before I could write down the date. I think another time I called him a flying boulder of love. It was either love or funk. In any event, this man went from undrafted to [throws brick at passing car] just south of $90 mil. The hemming and hawing is for another day. The world is not full of stories like this. Let’s take some time to enjoy it.