Free agency can do funny things, like turn believers into revisionists. Take the Toronto Raptors, for example. Ten days ago, all that was guaranteed for team president Masai Ujiri was the rare wave of skepticism. The moves that had guided the Raptors to four consecutive playoff appearances were beginning to look questionable in retrospect. Ujiri was either going to force the team over the luxury tax threshold to keep together a core that, while solid, did not advance past the second round last year, or Toronto would be left with the gutted remains of a 3-seed. Neither happened.
P.J. Tucker decamped for Houston (though Ujiri had just drafted OG "P.J. Tucker clone" Anunoby), then Serge Ibaka re-signed shortly after. Kyle Lowry followed. The Raptors then dumped the remaining two years of DeMarre Carroll’s four-year, $58 million deal on the Nets along with two picks (a second-rounder regifted from either the Lakers or Magic, and a lottery-protected first that is Toronto’s own), became eligible for the midlevel exception ($8.4 million), acquired C.J. Miles in a sign-and-trade for Cory Joseph, ditched the burner phone, and walked away [cue explosion 50 feet in the background] under the luxury tax.
And just like that, the Raptors subtly improved, altogether keeping their star free agent, saving money, and making way new for talent. It was elite front-office play that, while no Paul Georges or Jimmy Butlers were acquired, keeps Toronto flexible. But Masai isn’t the only front-office chief catching his breath and waiting for finalizations. Ujiri’s moves are reflective of the biggest trend of the offseason: Not superteams, or players forcing trades, or teams taking on bad contracts in exchange for assets, but rather the obvious advantage some franchises tout over others by just having a skilled front office. Whether it’s convincing players to join the team (the Rockets luring Chris Paul away from the Clippers), knowing when to pounce (the Thunder snagging George), or knowing how to keep a secret (Boston trading down knowing full well that Jayson Tatum would be this guy), some executives have separated themselves during a frantic summer.
This was not the free-agency period for front offices to enjoy a summer vacation. Fever dreams of now-or-never superteams that can beat the Warriors are coming to life; either you’re building or you’ve already lost. Sam Presti took a franchise locked into overpaying for mediocrity — dishing out $85 million the next for years for an underwhelming Victor Oladipo, for example — to one destined for more than a bottom-rung playoff seed. Presti shed Dipo’s contract, beat out the other vultures circling the George lease, and gained more defense in adding Patrick Patterson and re-signing Andre Roberson. Just one season after losing his last superstar teammate, Russell Westbrook will have another, if only for a year.
When volume outside shooting wasn’t enough to beat the Kawhi-less Spurs, Daryl Morey exchanged some of his Kirkland Signature bench supply of 3-point shooters for a Point God. Danny Ainge traded down two picks just to select the player he wanted, anyway, and got Gordon "Shaky Hands" Hayward to ink a contract. Tom Thibodeau revived belief in the coach/front office hybrid after acquiring Jimmy Butler for cheap from the Bulls. Sean Marks took an existentially doomed Brooklyn franchise and pumped more hope into it than New York’s other team can claim at the moment.
Meanwhile, the Knicks’ summer has been the platonic ideal of an incompetent front office. So much so that the New York counterpart for Morey and Presti and Ujiri is still in an interview room somewhere. That is if Steve Mills doesn’t just decide himself to remove the "interim" label from his acting presidency. Last week, David Griffin fled from the position after New York couldn’t agree that he, as general manager, or president, or both, would be granted full basketball authority. It was a lowball offer, if not in terms of money, then power, and recognizable to Griffin after years of working under Dan Gilbert.
Gilbert also spent the bulk of free agency looking for a front-office replacement, seemingly unaware that this time is crucial for the capped-out Cavaliers. Though that’s not shocking, as he let go of Griffin the same day the GM was in talks to acquire Butler from the Bulls. Cleveland came out of a GM-less free agency relatively OK, but will pay a higher price to field basically the same roster that lost in the Finals this year, and that stagnation could wear down LeBron’s patience with Gilbert’s ownership.
New York stands to lose more, even with the big players in free agency already committed elsewhere. Mills, who offered restricted free agent Tim Hardaway Jr. a contract worth more than Hardaway Sr. earned in his entire career, will still be in command to negotiate Carmelo Anthony’s possible trade to Houston.
Nothing casts doubt on a front office’s ability to evaluate players more than paying Hardaway nearly $20 million more than anyone thought he’d get. To make room for Hardaway’s $71 million, Derrick Rose’s $29.7 million in cap space had to be renounced. Rose originally came to the Knicks in a trade for a package including Jerian Grant, who was selected 19th overall by New York with a pick received from Atlanta in a trade in which the Knicks dealt away … Hardaway Jr.
In a league where Presti can cut his losses with Oladipo after a year for a return of Paul George, and where Marks agreed to take on Timofey Mozgov’s contract so long as D’Angelo Russell came with it, overcommitting to a player like Hardaway Jr. isn’t necessarily undoable. But it’s another move leaving the team walking backward while a handful of better front offices sprint ahead.