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Four Takeaways From the First Few Waves of NBA Free Agency

LeBron James stayed put, at least for the night. But most of the big names came flying off the board as soon as July 1 hit. Here’s what we learned from a wild couple of hours.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The first hour of NBA free agency had enough activity to last a month. While LeBron James mulled over his next move, a large chunk of the other major stars on the market made their commitments posthaste. Here are the big takeaways to emerge from a wild first wave of agreements:

The Thunder Think They’re Contenders

Justin Verrier: It may not have been the one it wanted most, but Oklahoma City finally won over a superstar wing in unrestricted free agency. Three years after Kevin Durant bolted for Golden State, Paul George stood on stage, at whatever the hell a summer house hype party is, with Russell Westbrook by his side, and announced to a large crowd of people (and Nas) that he was “here to stay.” A year after forcing his way out of Indiana with the sole purpose of returning home to Los Angeles in this very moment, George not only didn’t give the Lakers a meeting, the 28-year-old also decided to stick with OKC for a large chunk of his prime. The final details, per ESPN: four years, $137 million, with a player option in the final year.

The commitment is an obvious boon for a franchise that (a) hasn’t been a player in free agency despite having some of the greatest individual players in the past decade, and (b) would’ve faced its fair share of issues no matter what George decided. And while keeping a high-upside player like Jerami Grant (three years, $27 million, per ESPN) will help wash down what could be a gargantuan luxury-tax bill fit for a King James team, the morning after may be a rough one in the OKC front office. The team staring back at them in the morning will be … the same one they finished the season with, warts and all. Continuity is a far better option than the nuclear one, and if you squint hard enough, you can see what OKC maybe does: They had a top-five defense when Andre Roberson was healthy, few star-studded teams put it all together in the first year, and maybe Melo — somehow, some way — lets Grant take his starting gig. But the same problems — namely, the ones generated by a Russ-centric worldview on offense — still exist. As important as this night was to the franchise as a whole, the front office’s work on fringes the rest of the summer to find the right players to ungunk the offense could wind up making the difference.

The Nuggets Are Paying a Price to Go for It

Haley O’Shaughnessy: One of an NBA fan’s worst anxieties comes immediately after an underrated player you stan for is given a drastically upgraded contract. (Thus bringing the risk of that player becoming overrated.) That was my experience with Denver re-signing Will Barton to a four-year, $54 million deal. Barton was unexpectedly handed a substantial role with the Nuggets this season. He was to Denver what Lou Williams was to L.A.: versatile enough to make an impact when injury struck. Barton was prepared to fill whatever gap the team needed that night, whether it was in the starting lineup (which he was included in for half the season), or as a reliable sixth man, a point guard, an off-guard, a small forward, a closer, a spot-up shooter, or the ball handler in the pick-and-roll. You can see why I proudly stan, right?

But by re-signing him, Denver is quickly running up a bill. The front office will reportedly sign Nikola Jokic to a five-year, $146.5 million max contract; add that to the $29 million Paul Millsap will make this season and $12.8 million for Wilson Chandler (who — wisely — opted in). The Nuggets are entering the same uneasy limbo as Minnesota, as both believe that their young core is on the brink of prominence, but hope it can happen while star veterans (Millsap and Jimmy Butler) are still around. Denver is certainly and literally buying into this roster — the franchise is now $21.2 million into the luxury tax, making for a [inhales deeply] $49.4 million tax bill, a total cost of [passes out] $194.26 million.

So yeah, the front office’s free agency is far from over. Now comes the part where they get desperate to dump other, not-so-crucial contracts, like Mason Plumlee’s and Kenneth Faried’s. It takes deep belief (and balls) to commit upfront to this degree.

Houston Kept a Star, but Lost a Piece of Its Identity

Verrier: Lost in all the hand-wringing over all of the second-round-pick aggregation and all of the losses in the nascent years of Sam Hinkie’s Process lies a pretty simple axiom shared by the entire league: Stars matter most. Sixers coach Brett Brown spoke to that after draft night when he pulled off the sort of trade for a juicy future pick that would make Hinkie smile: “We are star hunting or we are star developing, that’s how you win a championship,” he said.

In that regard, the first wave of Daryl Morey’s free-agency activity was a success. After helping to lift the Rockets to the most regular-season wins in franchise history and give their resident superstar the space he needed to win MVP, Paul decided to run it back, per ESPN. After mild speculation that the Point God may not net a full max, he ended up getting his money ($160 million) but for only four years rather than a possible five. The deal takes Paul through his age-36 season, when the injury issues that sprung up this season — he missed 24 regular-season games and those crucial two final playoff games — will likely only be harder to overcome. Still, for a team and a player with a clear title window, that feels like a win.

But like all superteams, the rot uses starts to show on the fringes, not in the core. The departure of Trevor Ariza, who agreed to a one-year, $15 million deal with the Suns, feels like the first sign of trouble for a team that (almost) had it all. Ariza may be 33 and limited offensively, but in many ways he embodies a lot of the key tenets that make the Rockets run. His average-to-above-average 3-point game affords Harden time to jab-step his heart out, and his defensive versatility allowed for Houston to go as small as it wants. In many ways, he was the skeleton key that unlocked one of the few lineup advantages it had against the Warriors.

With Paul back, Gerald Green joining him, and at least a meeting with Clint Capela on the horizon, the Rockets should have enough to threaten the champs’ reign yet again. But teams already work with a slim margin of error under Golden State’s shadow; as of Sunday morning, Houston’s feels just a bit slimmer.

No One Waited for LeBron

O’Shaughnessy: It was expected that the rest of the league would sit on their major free-agency decisions until LeBron James made his. The chips were supposed to fall around him, not before him. Yet Houston, a team expected to be in the LeBron sweepstakes a month ago, re-signed Chris Paul, who could have theoretically joined James elsewhere, to the max — a hefty four-year, $160 million deal that will be paying him $46.7 million in 2023, when Paul will be 37. (Really, the Rockets were out of the running for LBJ the moment he opted out of his contract with Cleveland on Friday.)

The Lakers, the current favorites to land LeBron, stayed quiet in the opening hours of free agency, as did Cleveland. But most of the other big names on the board came flying off it within the first hour or so.

Paul George re-signed with the Thunder, shaking up the year-long assumption that he would leave for his hometown Lakers. DeAndre Jordan committed to the Mavs, for real this time. The Nuggets spent big on Jokic and Barton. Bron Watch 2018 (a.k.a., when people started tracking LeBron after his plane touched down in the L.A. area) was the last time I thought about his decision all evening. Granted, there’s still a potential Kawhi Leonard trade, and DeMarcus Cousins remains on the market. But Sunday felt like watching the guy normally picked first in the gym finding that the game had started without him.