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The Winners and Losers of NBA Free Agency

The Lakers-Clippers rivalry intensifies, the Bucks’ ceiling gets capped, and Fred VanVleet gets the bag. That and more from a whirlwind weekend of NBA free agency.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With a condensed break between the 2020 NBA Finals and the start of next season, the typically drawn out, rumor-filled offseason has become much more of a sprint. The last few days alone have brought enough widespread change to make us do some double takes (yes, Gordon Hayward is a Hornet now, and Kelly Oubre Jr. is a Warrior, if you can believe that) so here’s a look at the winners and losers of the first weekend of NBA free agency.

Winner: The Lakers-Clippers Rivalry

I still remember the scene: It was March 2019; the pre–Kawhi Leonard Clippers had just beaten LeBron James’s Lakers, and Patrick Beverley gave an expletive-filled interview where he declared the Clippers the best team in L.A. It wasn’t that long ago, but a lot has changed since. The Lakers won a title; the Clippers left the Orlando bubble in disarray; and they just watched Montrezl Harrell sign with the Lakers for two years and $19 million.

Now, the Lakers’ title defense is in full swing. So far this offseason, they’ve lost Dwight Howard (minimum deal to the Sixers), Rajon Rondo (two years, $15 million to the Hawks), and Danny Green (traded to OKC, then Philly), only to turn those vacancies into Dennis Schröder, Wesley Matthews, and Harrell. That’s an upgrade at every level. The icing on the cake came late Sunday night when they traded JaVale McGee to Cleveland, and then signed Marc Gasol. Those are the kinds of affordable moves you can pull off when you’re the defending champion and have a bedrock of LeBron and Anthony Davis. Just think of the level of passing we’ll see when both LeBron and Gasol are on the floor.

The Clippers, meanwhile, are trying to reestablish their chemistry. They started by adding Serge Ibaka, who is a perfect fit both in a locker room sense (remember this video?) and on the floor, where the Clippers needed to shore up their frontcourt depth and versatility. But they’re still playing catch-up. And while I’m having a tough time imagining Harrell in purple and gold, I also now need Lakers-Clippers matchups every week of this season.

Loser: The Bucks’ Ceiling

The Bogdan Bogdanovic debacle may be in the rearview mirror, but I will not forget how badly the Bucks botched what could have been a potentially deadly starting lineup. Bogdanovic undoubtedly would have raised Milwaukee’s ceiling and made a natural leap playing next to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday. But that’s history now, and the Bucks have been scrambling to fill out their roster ever since. Aside from the Pat Connaughton mishap—his three-year deal cost more than it needed to due to a botched cap issue—they have done a serviceable job this offseason. Milwaukee stole Torrey Craig, which is going to pay dividends immediately, and the team also deepened its backcourt by adding Bryn Forbes on a two-year deal, as well as DJ Augustin (three years, $21 million) and Bobby Portis.

Even though there’s nothing as exciting in those names as there was in the possibility of Bogdanovic, it still puts the Bucks right back where they were last season. The question is: Can they finally get over the top with this group, or will another disappointing exit point Giannis toward eventual departure? The Bucks’ front office gave it their best shot, but the pressure has not subsided.

Winner: Fred VanVleet’s and the Class of 2017’s Bank Accounts

No matter what the statistics say, the contracts speak for themselves: De’Aaron Fox, Donovan Mitchell, and Jayson Tatum are now officially max players, and the superstars the Kings, Jazz, and Celtics will build around. All three players—who were drafted in the 2017 lottery—signed five-year, $163 million max extensions with an ability to bump that up to $195 million should they make the All-NBA team or All-Star team twice, or win MVP.

Fox is a phenom, a speedster who can run a team if given the right pace and pieces. What’s still in flux is whether the Kings will set him up to do that. New GM Monte Mcnair inspires confidence, as does their first-round draft pick, Tyrese Haliburton, but plenty of questions—about ownership, about Marvin Bagley and Bogdanovic—remain. There’s potential in Sacramento, but in the West, where the playoff picture is packed, potential alone won’t cut it. Likewise in Utah. Mitchell has shown plenty of hints of superstar qualities, and the Jazz have proved to be a consistent playoff team. Their next evolution, though, might require more outside help. Boston, and most of the league, believes Tatum is on the brink of being a superstar, and now that Hayward has left and the Celtics added Tristan Thompson, the situation is primed for Tatum to prove that notion right.

In Toronto, the VanVleet character arc has finally reached its feel-good climax. Again. Winning the title was one thing, but for the formerly undrafted VanVleet, getting the bag—four years, $85 million—represents further validation. Toronto has already lost Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, but with VanVleet now cemented as a future centerpiece, Masai Ujiri has given himself the flexibility to hunt bigger fish (ahem, Giannis) next offseason.

Winner: The Heat’s Flexibility

Speaking of Giannis, the Heat also are putting themselves in position to go after him or any other big names that become available next offseason. They re-signed Goran Dragic and Meyers Leonard to shorter deals, but also added Avery Bradley (two years, $11.6 million) and Moe Harkless (one year, $3.6 million) to ensure they can once again compete in the East. There’s a general belief that the circumstances in the bubble favored the Heat and gave them the perfect path toward the Finals. But while the East is getting bigger and better, Miami is staying right in the thick of it while also looking forward to how they can build on the—forgive me—culture they’ve already established.

Loser: Outside Help for the Nuggets

Prior to this offseason, Denver had turned itself into a contender from the inside out. The Nuggets are one of the more successful home-grown franchises in the league, and it’s been enough to put them within a series of the Finals. To get over the hump, though, they needed help via trades or free agency signings. This offseason was thought to be a time when they could do that, but once the Bucks paid top price for Jrue Holiday (a possible Nugs target), the chain reaction didn’t do Denver any favors.

Jerami Grant surprised the Nuggets by preferring Detroit’s three-year, $60 million deal (and the bigger role) over Denver’s identical offer. Torrey Craig ended up in Milwaukee, Mason Plumlee also bolted to Detroit, and though the Nuggets added JaMychal Green (two years, $15 million) and kept Paul Millsap (one year, $10 million), they didn’t really get any better. Once again, they’ll have to rely on their core—Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray—and the tantalizing potential of Michael Porter Jr., to propel them into the postseason.

Winner: The Hawks’ Playoff Chances

No non-playoff team, aside from maybe Phoenix, seems more hellbent on making the 2021 postseason than the Hawks. The perk of being in the East is that the bar is already low, but with such an exorbitant amount of cap space to work with, Atlanta doesn’t want to leave any room for doubt. In the span of a few days, the Hawks signed Rajon Rondo, Danilo Gallinari (three years, $61.5 million) and Kris Dunn (two years, $10 million), while also putting together a tricky four-year, $72 million offer sheet for Bogdan Bogdanovic.

It’s a pretty holistic haul for a team that badly needed help in multiple facets of the game. Rondo adds a veteran backcourt presence that will help take some of the load off Trae Young, while Dunn fills the role of defensive ball hawk. Gallinari, meanwhile, likely won’t get the ring he said he desperately desires, but he will bring the efficient wing scoring that could take the Hawks’ offense to another level. Gallo’s addition raises questions about what Atlanta will do with John Collins, since the team drafted Onyeka Okongwu. But regardless, if the Hawks don’t get into the playoff field this season, it won’t be for lack of trying.

Loser: Michael Jordan, the Closer

From closing NBA Finals games to closing free agency deals for … [checks notes] Gordon Hayward?

Winner: The Suns’ Culture Boost

Between the additions of Chris Paul (via trade) and Jae Crowder (three years, $30 million), the Suns have undeniably gotten tougher, louder, and straight-up edgier this offseason. Up until last season, the team had a reputation for being young and inexperienced. Booker’s ascent in the bubble and the team’s performance showed there was more fight there than we thought, but Paul and Crowder will add healthy helpings of that too—and that’s exactly what Phoenix needs. More specifically, it’s also exactly what Deandre Ayton needs. There’s no denying Ayton’s talent, but for him to reach his full potential, his talent and drive have to match. Paul helped the Thunder level up this last season, and he’ll have a similar challenge with the Suns. There are going to be a lot of loud directions headed Booker’s and Ayton’s way during practices and games, but it might be the perfect antidote for a team that hasn’t made the postseason in 10 years.

Loser: Trevor Ariza’s Peace of Mind

Someone please tell Ariza where he is going to play this season so he can settle down. I guess this is just the life of an expiring, affordable contract.

Winner: The Blazers’ Fringes

If the ship has sailed on splitting the Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum backcourt apart, then the only avenue Portland has to try and get better is free agency. Sanding the edges of this roster has been an ongoing project for the Blazers’ front office, and it’s not been for a lack of tinkering that they haven’t been able to make it work. This offseason, though, there have been glimmers of hope. The Blazers retained both Carmelo Anthony (one-year minimum deal) and Rodney Hood (two years, $21 million)—the former gave them valuable minutes after the latter got hurt—traded for Robert Covington, signed Harry Giles III (one-year minimum) and Derrick Jones Jr. (two years, $19 million), and brought back Enes Kanter. Covington is exactly the kind of 3-and-D wing the Blazers have been lacking this entire run, and though he may not make them into a title contender, he does boost them into the tier of teams just below the Lakers in the West.

Loser: The Pacers’ Need for Change

Much like the Celtics, the Pacers were linked to plenty of players over the last few days. After going through the roller coaster of Victor Oladipo wanting out and then wanting to stay, Indiana was rumored to be after Jrue Holiday, Hayward, and Bogdanovic. With Hayward specifically, there seemed to be a lot of smoke, but no fire. There were reportedly indications that Hayward preferred Indiana as his destination, but apparently no one anticipated Michael Jordan outbidding the field and Hayward taking the money. Now, the Pacers are left with questions about what to do with Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, an uncertain future with Oladipo, and no real additions to feel confident about. Well, besides the fact that they hired Nate Bjorkgren as a head coach. Maybe all they need is their own Nick Nurse.

Winner: Kelly Oubre Jr.’s Journey

About a week ago, Oubre was front and center as the Suns’ new Valley Boyz jerseys were promoted:

That would be the only time he’d get to wear it, because he was soon part of the Chris Paul trade and ended up in Oklahoma City. The Thunder, though, weren’t interested in housing Oubre and his bold fashion choices. That’s how Oubre ended up being part of another trade, this time to the Warriors, who needed to fill the void left vacant by Klay Thompson’s brutal season-ending Achilles injury. So, to recap, Oubre’s gone from the dysfunctional Wizards, to being a jersey model on a team that never made the playoffs, to thinking he’d have to be in Oklahoma City, to now being in San Francisco playing off Steph Curry. Not bad.

Loser: Kyrie Irving’s Excuses for Not Passing the Ball

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

Exhibit C: He’ll soon be playing with a healthy Kevin Durant.