Day 2 of 2020 NBA free agency had far fewer moves but much more intrigue. Here’s a look at the major story lines that emerged, starting with one of the biggest heat checks of Michael Jordan’s ownership tenure:
Gordon Hayward Gives Up What He Wanted for What He Once Had
In the 2017 Players Tribune article announcing his decision to sign with the Celtics, Gordon Hayward, after a lengthy closing salutation to the Jazz, listed his reasons for picking Boston as follows: a winning culture, the franchise’s “special history,” and Brad Stevens, his former college coach.
“And that unfinished business we had together, back in 2010, when I left Butler for the NBA … as far as I’m concerned, all of these years later, we still have it: And that’s to win a championship,” he concluded, with prose as agile as his lateral movement post-broken ankle.
Three years later, Hayward again entered free agency, but instead picked a team with exactly none of the qualities he once prioritized: The Hornets have three winning seasons since reemerging in Charlotte in 2004-05, they’ve never made it past the second round of the playoffs, and Hayward has no obvious ties to coach James Borrego. But they can give him a whole lot of money and an opportunity to be the star of a team again, and that was enough for Hayward to leave Boston for good.
Hayward declined his $34 million player option on Thursday, ostensibly in the hopes of trading annual value for more years on a new contract. Instead, he got both: By signing a reported four-year, $120 million deal, Hayward will make approximately $30 million annually. Toss in the fact that the Hornets will likely have to waive and stretch the final year of Nicolas Batum’s deal, putting $9 million of dead money on their cap for the next three years, and Charlotte could be paying almost $40 million for a 30-year-old who sat out almost as many games as he played over his past three regular seasons.
The deal is already the front-runner for the worst of free agency—with the $20 million per year the Pistons gave Jerami Grant to find a nonexistent higher ceiling amid a thicket of centers a distant second. If Hayward suffers another serious injury, it has a chance to be one of the worst in the league. But the Hayward of old is still in there, under all the gauze. He shot a career-high 56 percent effective field goal percentage last season and flashed the touch and ball skills that once made him a max player; LaMelo Ball could learn a lot from him, on the court and with a mustache trimmer. With solid recent draft picks Miles Bridges and P.J. Washington joining them, the Hornets will be moderately interesting again—which is its own kind of light-years upgrade from last season. The ambition will just be a bit more muted than Hayward is used to: As currently constituted, Charlotte still isn’t a lock to make the playoffs.
It’s no secret that Hayward was unhappy as a fourth option in Boston. But to get back what he once had, he’s giving up everything he said he once wanted.
The Clippers Pick the Right Big Man, Again
The Lakers’ signing of Montrezl Harrell seemed like karmic balance. The Clippers stole starting center Ivica Zubac away from an in-over-its-head Lakers front office two seasons ago for the mere price of half a season of Mike Muscala, so the Lakers plucked Harrell, a human energy drink and once the heart and soul of the Clippers, off their rival’s roster for the low price of two years, $19 million, with a player option in the second year. But the Clippers again won the big-man roulette game, agreeing to the same contract terms on Saturday with Serge Ibaka, a better fit than Harrell on both teams’ rosters.
Harrell has become the poster child for the Clippers’ 2020 postseason failures, but it wasn’t long ago that it seemed like he would earn double the salary he settled for. He’s a ferocious pick-and-roll finisher and rebounder who busts his ass and yells mean things at people. Dennis Schröder should pick up right where Lou Williams left off and form a devastating two-man game on the second unit with Harrell—one that maybe, just maybe, might allow LeBron James and Anthony Davis to sit every now and then. The question is whether Harrell will finish games; he’s hardly a center stopper (as the Clippers’ series against Denver showed) or a shooter, and the Lakers are at their best when Davis is the lone big man, no matter how many times the case for their two-big lineups is made.
Ibaka, on the other hand, is your favorite big man’s favorite frontcourt partner. He shot 38.5 percent from 3 last season, and he’s big enough to body with the ADs roaming the West and still athletic enough to play in space. He’s five years older than Harrell, and he curiously rated as Toronto’s worst regular on defense last season, but he should close a fair share of games in the middle of a nasty, switchy, shooting-heavy lineup alongside Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Patrick Beverley, and the recently re-signed Marcus Morris.
This looks like another clear win for the Clippers. Which, considering the losses of both Harrell and bench big JaMychal Green on Friday, and the whole historic collapse thing in the bubble, was much-needed.
The Giannis Chase May Be On?
Just four years after telling teams not to select him in the back end of the draft, in order to control his own NBA fate, Fred VanVleet earned the Bet On Yourself world championship belt by agreeing to a new $85 million deal with the Raptors. In doing so, he secured the most lucrative contract ever signed by an undrafted player.
But the fine print of his deal is perhaps more important: VanVleet’s salary will drop from Year 1 to Year 2, before rising again in the back half of the contract, according to Sportsnet’s Michael Grange. Which, barring any other major business this offseason, will leave Toronto with enough cap space next offseason to offer Giannis Antetokounmpo a max contract.
The Raptors aren’t the only team thinking ahead. The Mavericks have traded two long-term contracts—Seth Curry and Delon Wright—and not any players with guaranteed money beyond this upcoming season. And the Heat also loaded up on short-team deals, shelling out guaranteed money only in the 2020-21 season in agreements with Goran Dragic, Meyers Leonard, Avery Bradley, and Moe Harkless.
The Bucks’ lackluster rebound from the Bogdan Bogdanovic fiasco continued apace on Saturday, with Milwaukee agreeing to deals with free-agent riffraff—D.J. Augustin, Bobby Portis, and Pat Connaughton. Though the addition of Jrue Holiday likely makes Milwaukee better next season, if perhaps only marginally, it’s possible that Giannis will emerge from his recent generic-Instagramming binge and decide that it’s not good enough of an upgrade to commit to a supermax. Which would make things very interesting for the likes of the Raptors, and harrowing for anyone associated with the Bucks.
The Hawks Try Defense for a Change
Danilo Gallinari was an interesting pickup for the deep-pocketed Hawks, albeit one that’s a tad duplicative: Atlanta already has an all-offense 4-man on the roster in John Collins, and an increasingly crowded frontcourt, to boot. On Day 2, the Hawks at least attempted to beef up the other side of the ball for a change, signing Rajon Rondo to a two-year, $15 million deal and Kris Dunn for two years, $10 million.
The Hawks better hope they make the playoffs, because Rondo hasn’t shown up for the regular season in years, but the signing at least has a logic to it: Rondo proved this past postseason that, when engaged, he can still defend and playmake, either as the sole creator or playing next to another ball handler. He can be Trae Young’s primary backup and maybe close some games alongside him. More importantly, the bar was set so low last season in minutes wherein Young sat that it’ll be hard for Rondo to disappoint. It’s a lot of money for a 34-year-old, but for all of his crotchetiness, teammates seem to like Rondo; Young can certainly learn a thing or two from him, including, perhaps, restraint.
Dunn is the more intriguing catch of the day. He was one of the best defensive guards in basketball last season, a pit bull who ranked among the league’s best in steals and deflections. He can’t shoot—in fact, he somehow got worse from 3 last season, down to a paltry 26 percent. But Atlanta has so much offense already that it may be able to cover for him and turn him loose on the defensive end. The Hawks still have money to spend, and if the long-rumored interest in Bogdan Bogdanovic comes to fruition, the backcourt would suddenly get mighty crowded. But given the dearth of plus defenders up and down the roster, it’s hard to imagine any coach who doesn’t employ a punch clock not leaning on Dunn to set a tone.
The Trail Blazers Are Quietly Winning the Offseason
You know things are going well when the signing of Carmelo Anthony doesn’t automatically induce a gag reflex. After scrounging through the lost-and-found last season for any small forward who can both shoot or defend, the Blazers traded for Robert Covington, the patron saint of the 3-and-D wing. (Praise 3.) They got Derrick Jones Jr., a pogo stick that the Heat helped mold into a real player, and they brought back Rodney Hood (after nearly doubling his salary) and Enes Kanter, two cogs of the 2019 Western Conference finals team. And, yes, Melo—who, dare I say, may still be able to help at age 36, as long as he realizes he may rack up as many DNPs as appearances. Throw in the key figures from a miraculous bubble run, and the Blazers may have not only the most talented team since Damian Lillard stepped out of LaMarcus Aldridge’s shadow, but also the deepest, with young studs like Gary Trent Jr., Anfernee Simons, and Zach Collins still only scratching the surface of their potential.