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NBA Free Agency Steals and Head-Scratchers

The Magic signed who!? The Knicks did what!? Ricky Rubio went where?! Reactions to all the weird, inexplicable, costly, and occasionally super-smart smaller deals made on the first day of free agency.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Only hours into 2019 free agency, and the NBA landscape has already changed immeasurably. But not every contract agreement has the gravity of Kevin Durant’s decision. Here are a few early signings that have left us nodding along and scratching our heads.

Head-scratcher: The Knicks and Julius Randle, or the Knicks and Themselves

Paolo Uggetti: Let’s take a journey into the darkest timeline for the Knicks. The first step: miss out on Kevin Durant and allow him to decamp for New York’s other team. Check. Next, have it come out that ownership was not in fact prepared to offer him the full max because of questions about his ruptured Achilles, even though it was clear that the asking price hadn’t budged one bit since the injury. Check. And finally, the coup de grâce—sign Julius Randle to a three-year deal worth $63 million? Check. Reports indicate that the third year on Randle’s contract is a team option, which gives New York precisely the kind of flexibility for a 2021 run that it’ll soon sell its tortured fan base. But walking into free agency with hopes of getting both Durant and Kyrie Irving and coming out with Julius Randle is bleak. Randle is a winner here; he gets to play in New York and put up premium-grade empty stats. Randle could end up swinging a couple of games if the Knicks try to tank; at the same time, he’s not an ideal big to pair alongside RJ Barrett and his hopeful development. Will this affect Mitchell Robinson’s development too?

The fact that it’s a short-term deal is a plus, but a “plus” at this point is essentially your rent check going through but then having no money left for groceries. Don’t let this reasonable deal (or the slightly more embarrassing two-year, $20 million deal for Taj Gibson) distract you from the fact that the Knicks traded Kristaps Porzingis away for a pie-in-the-sky future and ended up empty-handed. I mean, this was so bad that Steve Mills needed to release a sad-looking statement:

No one could have foreseen Durant’s Achilles injury or how it would have changed the marketplace, but when you zoom out and look at how this ended up, it’s hard not to glare at the Knicks, channel LeBron, and say: “Be better tomorrow.” The problem for the Knicks is they will now have to wait a few more years to even try.

Steal: The Kings and Trevor Ariza and Dewayne Dedmon

Haley O’Shaughnessy: It’s a strange feeling, approving decisions made by the Kings’ front office. But it’s a feeling that began last season, with the 2017 Buddy Hield trade and De’Aaron Fox draft pick paying dividends, and it’s continuing this offseason. It’s obvious that Sacramento is trying to speed up its competitive timetable by signing three veterans while being (mostly) mindful of future ramifications should these additions not work out. The Kings signed Ariza to a two-year, $25 million deal with a partial guarantee on the second year, and Dedmon to a three-year, $40 million deal with a partial guarantee on the third year.

Sacramento also re-signed Harrison Barnes to a four-year, $85 million deal. It’s a much bigger commitment than their other acquisitions, but one that was made with the future in mind: Barnes’s new deal will be front-loaded, declining year by year; Sam Amick reported that it will account for just 14 percent of the cap in the fourth year. Barnes, who is just 27, shot the 3 ball well around the Kings’ surrounding cast, which aligns with their offensive mission, and added value on defense across a few positions.

Head-scratcher: The Hornets and Kemba Walker

Read all about it!

Steal: The Pacers and Malcolm Brogdon

Uggetti: Unless the Lasry family was willing to fork over some serious luxury tax, the Bucks were going to be able to pay only two players out of Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, and Brogdon. Milwaukee chose Lopez and Middleton, and I think they made a mistake. Brogdon, in my opinion, is the best player of the lot, or at least the most versatile piece—he’s fully worthy of the four-year, $85 million deal he’ll be getting in Indiana. There’s nothing flashy nor particularly exciting about his game, but there’s also nothing below average about his skill set either. Brogdon was a 50/40/90 guy last season, an excellent defender, and perhaps most importantly, a ball handler and playmaker who can also play without the rock. It’s that skill that I think the Bucks are going to miss the most, and the one that the Pacers are going to relish having. With Victor Oladipo coming back from injury, Brogdon will provide another scoring option on the perimeter and allow Oladipo to get easy baskets off the ball. Darren Collison filled that role this season, but Brodgon is a far better option that raises Indy’s ceiling.

The Pacers also signed Jeremy Lamb to a three-year, $31.5 million deal and they traded for T.J. Warren at the draft. Indy may not have the top-end talent of other teams around the league, but adding Brogdon (who is still only 26!) and more depth on the wing is exactly what they needed.

Head-scratcher: The Suns and Ricky Rubio

O’Shaughnessy: There are few NBA players easier to cheer for than Rubio. That being said, Phoenix signing the 28-year-old to a three-year, $51 million deal before D’Angelo Russell is officially off the market is … aggressive. Yes, the Suns are desperate after spending the majority of last season without a point guard, but Rubio doesn’t quite fit the timeline of this young roster. Their three most important players are all under 23: Devin Booker is 22; Deandre Ayton is 20; and Mikal Bridges is 22.

What the Suns get in Rubio is a selfless guard who will set those aforementioned budding players up on offense—Booker’s numbers and Ayton’s chances inside will probably see a bump—and someone who will give his all defending the perimeter. But recent history suggests signings that seem like they happened simply because the organization had no other choices available are usually regrettable. And Rubio’s only two playoff appearances have come in the past two seasons with Utah: He isn’t exactly brimming with experience in taking teams to the next level.

Steal: The Jazz and Bojan Bogdanovic

Uggetti: With the Warriors now Durant-less and the Lakers unsure of what the rest of their roster is going to look like, the Jazz see a window and they’re going for it. Once free agency opened up, they waved goodbye to Ricky Rubio and made a power move to steal Bojan Bogdanovic from the Pacers with a four-year, $73 million deal. According to reports, the Jazz were targeting Nikola Mirotic, but when the former Buck decided to ditch the NBA and play in Barcelona, Indy shifted their attention to Bogdanovic. Talk about falling backward into good fortune. Bogdanovic was one of the more underrated free agents on the market, and comes off a season during which he averaged 18 points a game and shot 42.5 percent from deep. Bogdanovic also improved his defense and was a valuable piece for a Pacers team that outperformed expectations once Victor Oladipo went down. He’s going to fit seamlessly in Utah and give the Jazz exactly what they need from a score-first wing.

Pair Bogdanovic alongside Donovan Mitchell (whose career is going to get a real boost from these roster renovations) and new addition Mike Conley and you have the makings of a perfectly balanced offensive combination. Quin Snyder is probably salivating at all the possible combinations—and that’s without mentioning Joe Ingles, who goes from a crucial scoring option to a near-luxury. Place them all around Rudy Gobert, and that’s a legitimate threat in the West. With Gobert as a stonewall around the rim, the defense was always going to be staunch for the Jazz, but now with Conley and Bogdanovic in the fold, they are shoring up their offensive holes and looking like a well-rounded contender.

Head-scratcher: The Magic and Al-Farouq Aminu

O’Shaughnessy: One positive about Orlando coming to terms with Aminu on a three-year, $29 million deal is that it wasn’t Portland that did. In a free-agency summer that’s eerily like 2016, the Blazers aren’t the ones loading up on large contracts. Granted, part of that’s due to their cap space still being constricted from their 2016 splurge; Portland was likely hoping to use what little it had—like the taxpayer mid-level exception—to re-sign Aminu. (That exception can run up to three years.) But it’s also likely that the Magic will regret committing to Aminu for three years, and as the Blazers begin to break out of their restrictions in the next couple of seasons, Portland could actually come out on the better end of a deal.

Aminu showed his weaknesses during the 2019 postseason, enough to wonder whether he was worth the pay increase. He’s just shy of 29, and his 3-point shooting regressed closer to his all-time averages last season (34.3 percent) compared with his career-best percentage in 2017-18 (36.9 percent). Any team hoping to space the floor (which in 2019 is every team) can’t count on consistent shooting from him at forward. He also isn’t the player an offense would rely on to create. With those limitations, Aminu won’t really improve a team that finished 22nd in offensive rating last season. It’s the other end that was probably most appealing to the Magic: Aminu’s defensive reputation is solid. Still, there are a handful of players on the team who can already replicate his skill set while adding other talents to the table.

Quite honestly, any free agent interested in Orlando might be worth a slight overpay. Still, as ESPN’s Bobby Marks points out, after the front office signed Nikola Vucevic, Terrence Ross, and now Aminu, the Magic have a projected $131.97 million in salary, which is less than a million ($485,000) below the luxury tax. (They can still renounce Khem Birch’s $1.8 million cap hold.) That’s not much space remaining for not much offense.