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The Five Most Interesting Teams of NBA Free Agency So Far

What happens when you squeeze the draft and free agency into the same chaos? The league looks drastically different a few days later. Here are five teams that dared to dream big for 2021.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If the state of the NBA economy is in dire straits, you sure as hell wouldn’t know it from the first few days of free agency. Finally allowed to conduct business again, albeit without nearly as much cap space available around the league as last offseason, many teams acted as they always do, spending freely and swinging big to try to improve their rosters—some more successfully than others.

With the bulk of the big names (for this class, at least) already off the board and relatively few roster spots still free for the taking, let’s take a look at the five most interesting teams (to me!) of the 2020 free agency period so far, starting in … wait, it says “Detroit” here. That can’t be right, can it?

Detroit Pistons

You’re damn right it can! In the space of about 96 hours, new general manager Troy Weaver detonated what was one of the league’s most nondescript rosters with a series of draft picks, trades, and signings. He also did it in a halt-and-reverse-field fashion—starting by using Detroit’s cap space to absorb other teams’ unwanted contracts in exchange for draft picks, before shifting into cap-space-creation mode to fit in a high-priced free agent—that left me asking, “OK, so what the hell are the Pistons right now, and what do they think they are?”

The best player on the roster, Blake Griffin, missed most of the 2019-20 season with knee problems that eventually required surgery. Two years ago, he made the All-NBA third team. Now, Griffin seems almost like an afterthought in Detroit, a frustrating remainder of an unbalanced equation. The Pistons evidently promised Jerami Grant a significant offensive role; that, and $60 million, got him to leave Denver for Detroit, and it very much remains to be seen how that expanded version of Grant will mesh with a reportedly healthy and TikTok-dancing Griffin, the clear no. 1 option before his injury and before Grant’s arrival.

How much sense does a high-usage, 31-year-old, max-salaried star make for a Pistons team suddenly flush with young players and that appears to be closer to the start of a rebuilding project than to the end of one? And how likely is it that Weaver could find a taker for the $36.8 million that Griffin’s owed next season, let alone for the nearly $39 million player option he’s got in 2021-22? The answer to the latter is probably “not very,” which makes the answer to the former more or less immaterial; sensible or not, Blake may well be sticking around for a bit, so Grant and the rest of the new Pistons will have to learn how to play alongside him.

One positive post-draft-night revelation: The Pistons are not actually a Faygo Voltron comprised almost entirely ill-fitting centers. Two of the 5s that Weaver added last week have already moved on: Dewayne Dedmon joined wing Rodney McGruder in exiting with the stretch provision to clear the cap space to sign Grant, and Tony Bradley shipped out for Philadelphia in exchange for Sixers guard Zhaire Smith (who was also stretched to create more immediate financial flexibility). That leaves Mason Plumlee, imported from Denver for a cool $25 million over three years; Jahlil Okafor, who got a two-year minimum-salaried deal; and first-round pick Isaiah Stewart. That still doesn’t necessarily look great—especially with Christian Wood, arguably the most talented player of this bunch, now an ex-Piston after signing with the Rockets on a fairly reasonable deal—but at least they’re not going to be rolling with nothing but big men.

Plumlee offers Detroit’s new point guard, no. 7 draft pick Killian Hayes, a steady and efficient partner in the two-man game: He finished 22nd last season in screen assists per 36 minutes of floor time, and produced 1.34 points per possession finished in the pick-and-roll, eighth best among players to log at least 100 plays as a roll man, according to Synergy Sports’ tracking data. He’s also a really smart ball mover and playmaker at the 5, posting the third-highest assist percentage of any center last season, behind only Nuggets teammate Nikola Jokic and Heat All-Star Bam Adebayo.

Those skills should make Plumlee a vital release valve for Hayes, a talented 19-year-old who will have to navigate the warp-speed growth curve from the Basketball Bundesliga to the NBA. The Pistons’ hope for a consistently competitive future likely hinges on whether Hayes and fellow 19-year-old Sekou Doumbouya eventually reach their potential. Provided Plumlee stays healthy, signing him, as deeply unsexy and easy to dunk on as it is, feels tantamount to giving the kids a solid pair of training wheels to keep them from wobbling too much as they start pedaling.

Adding Plumlee, Grant—a 6-foot-9, 210-pound forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan who credibly guarded LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Donovan Mitchell, and Paul George last postseason—and 6-foot-5 combo guard Delon Wright gives Detroit an injection of size, athleticism, and versatility on the defensive end. That could help the Pistons reverse the slide that saw them drop from 12th in points allowed per possession in 2018-19 to 24th last season, and help head coach Dwane Casey establish the kind of physical defensive culture he built in Toronto.

In addition to having stabilizing-agent vets like Plumlee, Grant, and Wright, Weaver also took a low-risk, high-reward flyer on Josh Jackson, who washed out in Phoenix but showed flashes of putting it together in Memphis last season. Maybe Jackson won’t pan out for the Pistons, but when you’re looking to bolster a middling talent base, as Weaver was when he took the reins in Detroit, there are worse lottery tickets to scratch than a 23-year-old whose size, length, and hops made him a top-four pick four years ago.

You can question whether going after Grant was worth stretching Dedmon, McGruder, and Smith, putting several million dollars in unmovable dead cap charges on the books for each of the next five years, and whether paying Plumlee $25 million and drafting Stewart 16th is the best use of resources in a league where you can typically find decent-enough centers on the cheap; in time, Weaver and Co. may come to rue those early decisions. For now, though, the Pistons have a half-dozen under-25 prospects of varying levels of intrigue, a bunch of high-motor guys likely to play their asses off on a nightly basis, a high-scoring sixth man (Derrick Rose) on a sub-midlevel contract who could return more rebuilding materials at the trade deadline, and Griffin, who, if he can return to his All-NBA pre-injury form, could open up a host of trade options for the new front office. There’s something to keep an eye on here; with a little luck, it might be something pretty fun to watch, too.

Dallas Mavericks

Entering the draft, I thought the main thing the Mavericks needed was “a big wing defender who can limit the West’s high-scoring perimeter creators.” And since Wednesday’s draft and the first few days of free agency, Dallas has added:

  • Josh Green, a 6-foot-6, 210-pound swingman out of Arizona with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, who defends with energy on and off the ball and whose two-way game could play up in the pros
  • Josh Richardson, a 6-foot-5, 200-pound guard with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, who has been a very good perimeter defender throughout his five NBA seasons
  • James Johnson, a 6-foot-7, 240-pound forward with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, who’s not going to back down from big, physical wing scorers—and, in fact, might just roundhouse kick them if they get too familiar
  • Wes Iwundu, a 6-foot-6, 195-pound swingman with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, who earned his way into Steve Clifford’s rotation in Orlando with his defensive work on the perimeter

… so, y’know, clearly Donnie Nelson agreed with my assessment.

While the Mavs were getting bigger, more talented, and more physical on the perimeter, they also made moves to give Rick Carlisle even more weapons to deploy as he seeks to improve on what was statistically the most efficient offense in the history of the friggin’ league.

Trey Burke, who is coming back on a three-year deal worth less than $10 million, is precisely the sort of waterbug pick-and-roll point guard who tends to flourish in Carlisle’s well-spaced, shooting-heavy offenses. Snagging Stanford standout Tyrell Terry early in the second round of the draft serves as something of a ready-made replacement for Seth Curry, who was shipped out in the Richardson deal. And evidently, Willie Cauley-Stein opting out of the restart didn’t sour Dallas on him—they’re bringing him back on a two-year, $8.2 million deal to screen, roll, run the floor, flush lobs from Luka Doncic, and protect the rim, a reasonably priced stopgap option to help fill the shoes of Dwight Powell, still rehabilitating from a ruptured Achilles tendon, and Kristaps Porzingis, who’s slated to miss the start of the season as he rehabs his torn meniscus.

Doncic is one of the most remarkable young players in the league, a playmaking savant who lifts the talent around him and a ready-made MVP candidate just two years into his NBA career; he’s ready to compete for great big trophies right now. The challenge facing the Mavericks, though, was finding a way to more effectively do that now while not compromising their ability to take the sort of big swings that could make them top-tier contenders in the years to come. Here’s where we note that sending Wright to Detroit and Curry to Philly removed a little over $16.7 million in guaranteed salary from the books for the 2021-22 season, and that Johnson’s in the final year of his deal, giving Dallas a $16 million expiring contract to either use in trade or allow to fall off the balance sheet at year’s end.

The Mavericks, then, checked exactly the boxes they needed to check to augment this year’s roster, one that, if Luka continues his ascent, could be considered a dark-horse title team as soon as this season—and better positioned to be a major player for a max-level superstar in free agency next offseason should one hit the market. (Say, a Greek one.)

Utah Jazz

It’s easy to forget now—we’ve had kind of a lot going lately—but the Jazz had a pretty weird freaking year. They rode the roller coaster of trying to get Mike Conley acclimated to a new setting. They became the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in American professional sports. They saw the sometimes strained relationship between their two tentpole stars get put under the brightest spotlight imaginable. And they watched Donovan Mitchell reach a higher plane of consciousness in the bubble, only to come within one ridiculous final possession of making the second round, and then had to watch a Nuggets team they almost beat make a run to the conference finals.

Zoom out, and you can understand why the Jazz, owners of the conference’s fifth-best point differential last season behind a starting lineup that blitzed opponents by 10.6 points per 100 possessions, might feel like in a slightly less crazy season they’d be just a break or two away from the final four themselves—and why they opened up new billionaire owner Ryan Smith’s checkbook to try to get themselves there.

After clearing out about $8.5 million in guaranteed money by dealing away centers Ed Davis and Tony Bradley, the Jazz brought back Clarkson on a four-year, $52 million contract, locking up the vital microwave scorer who completely turned around Utah’s reserve corps after his arrival last season. They gave Derrick Favors three years and $27 million to come back to Salt Lake City after spending last season in New Orleans, giving Utah a dependable backup center behind Gobert and the option to return to bigger looks against opponents that typically feature monster frontcourts (like, say, the defending champion Lakers).

In theory, Favors primarily comes off the bench to shore things up whenever Gobert rests: The Jazz outscored opponents by 6.4 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions with the two-time Defensive Player of the Year on the court last season, and got outscored by 6.2 points-per-100 whenever he sat, according to Cleaning the Glass. Time will tell whether the 29-year-old is quite the same player as he was before his year in Louisiana; while Favors posted the best on-off splits of any Pelican last season, he looked pretty creaky in the bubble, and Mason Ginsberg of Pelicans blog Bourbon Street Shots notes that he rolled up a lot of those impressive on-court numbers against some pretty underwhelming competition.

With the second unit secure, Utah went all in on its cornerstone, agreeing with Mitchell on a full-freight five-year maximum-salaried extension of his rookie contract. That the Jazz maxed out their 24-year-old offensive engine fresh off a 36.3 points per game postseason was expected. It was a bit of a surprise, though, that Mitchell got a deal that both allows him to reach the 30 percent “Rose rule” criterion that would pay him up to $195 million by making any All-NBA team next season—as opposed to needing to make the first team, like De’Aaron Fox—and includes a player option for the final season, allowing him to opt out and enter the unrestricted market as a 27-year-old in line for an even richer payday.

That structure—maximum money plus maximum flexibility—was evidently the cost of doing business for a franchise that wanted to affirm its unmistakable commitment to its rising star. (Jayson Tatum got the same all-the-trimmings extension from the Celtics.) It also confirms both a timeline—if Utah’s not a legit title contender in the next couple of seasons, all eyes will turn to Mitchell’s unrestricted free agency in 2025—and a hierarchy: The Jazz will, now and into the future, be built around Mitchell.

The Jazz definitely want to reach a reasonable (read: non-supermax) extension to keep Gobert around through the rest of his prime. He’ll have to content himself with money and praise for all those screen assists, though, because Mitchell is the dyed-in-the-wool face of the franchise. Every move Utah makes will aim to maximize Mitchell’s potential as the kind of high-usage primary creator who carries a team to deep playoff runs. Whether that’s a viable path to a championship is anybody’s guess, but if nothing else, it’ll be interesting to see the Jazz try to build around the other end of the floor for the first time in a while.

New Orleans Pelicans

It took a few days and a couple more teams to complete the deal, but by the time David Griffin had finally traded former franchise linchpin Jrue Holiday to Milwaukee, he’d racked up a pretty decent haul: two new starters in Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe, the Bucks’ unprotected first-round picks in 2025 and 2027, and the right to swap first-round selections with Milwaukee in 2024 and 2026. That’s par for the course for Griffin, in line with the approach he took when sending Anthony Davis to the Lakers last offseason: Stack assets for tomorrow, while also doing your damnedest to compete right now.

It’ll be interesting to see how a new starting lineup—presumably featuring Adams and Bledsoe bookending Zion Williamson, Lonzo Ball, and Brandon Ingram (whose representation might be haggling over the same sort of Rose rule language and player option that Mitchell and Tatum got)—stacks up to last season’s starting five, which, again, posted a monster net rating but largely beat up on bad opposition.

Bledsoe has understandably become a punching bag for his annual playoff disappearances in Milwaukee. The numbers match what your lyin’ eyes saw: Over the last three years, Bledsoe transformed from a tenacious near All-Star in the regular season into a trembling leaf when the postseason began, struggling to provide even replacement-level play.

Bled Out—Eric Bledsoe Statistics

Regular Season (213 gms) 16.3 4.4 5.3 1.5 29.3 0.478 0.339 0.780 19.0 7.2
Playoffs (31 gms) 13.1 3.9 4.6 1.1 29.5 0.411 0.254 0.732 13.4 0.3

That said, a “tenacious near All-Star in the regular season” holds plenty of value for a Pelicans franchise that’s landed in the lottery seven of the last 10 seasons. Bledsoe’s not quite as good a defender as Holiday—a couple of inches shorter, a bit more stout and compact, not as well equipped to take on assignments against bigger wings. He’s still really good, though, a deserved two-time All-Defensive Team selection with a shutdown corner’s build and mentality, adept at fighting through screens, sticking to ball handlers’ hips, and blowing up actions with his 6-foot-8 wingspan and active hands.

Bledsoe should fit fairly neatly into Holiday’s slot on the other end, too. He’s neither as good a shooter nor as crafty a creator, but he gets to the rim and the line more often, and converts better from both spots. His average number of touches and time of possession have been lower than Jrue’s over the past few seasons, thanks to consistently playing alongside superior offensive talent in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, but they’ve posted similar assist and turnover percentages, and identical usage rates, since 2017. Put him alongside a pair of dynamic young frontcourt options like Zion and Ingram, and he should fit in just fine as a third creator. If he can do that through the regular season well enough to help the Pelicans crack the West’s top eight, Stan Van Gundy and Co. will cross the playoff-demons bridge when they come to it.

Given the seven-year age difference and his lack of shooting, Adams isn’t the partner for Zion that you’d design in a lab. (This makes it at least somewhat curious that Griffin has reportedly given Adams a two-year, $35 million contract extension without getting so much as a look at how the two fit together.) He should still help, though, even after years of sacrificing his body and his stats in Oklahoma City. To wit: Adams outperformed Favors last season in points scored per possession as a roll man, field goal percentage allowed at the rim, box outs, screen assists, contested shots per game, and assist, steal, and block rate.

He doesn’t space the floor, but he’s an absolute mauler on the offensive glass, finishing in the top five in the league in offensive rebounding rate in each of the last three seasons; even if New Orleans takes a step back from its 2019-20 finishes in 2-point (12th) and 3-point (seventh) accuracy, Adams and Zion, who ranked fourth last season in second-chance points per game, could extend enough possessions to keep the Pelicans offense afloat by themselves. (And while the 6-foot-11, 265-pound Kiwi is a bruiser, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll bog down a Pelicans team that ranked fourth in pace last season; he’s a heck of an outlet passer in the transition game.)

It’s possible that the downgrade from Holiday to Bledsoe is pronounced enough to push the Pelicans further out of the playoff picture. It’s also possible that, with a healthy season from Williamson and continued improvement from 2020 All-Star Ingram, New Orleans now has the mix of steady hands and young legs it needs to make a push. Griffin might not be done dealing, either. Even after moving George Hill, that’s still a pretty crowded backcourt, and it still doesn’t feel like there’s enough shooting. That’s kind of the main thing about the Pelicans: possibility. They’re suddenly teeming with it—far into the future, yes, but maybe now, too.

Atlanta Hawks

In two weeks, it’ll have been a year since a high-ranking Hawks official was heard during “an emotional locker room scene involving star point guard Trae Young” saying that “the team would be getting him some help on the roster soon.” You might quibble with the definition of “soon,” but it’s tough to argue that the Hawks haven’t made good on that promise over the past 12 months—and especially over the past week, which saw GM Travis Schlenk trade in a slow-and-steady rookie-scale rebuild for a cash-splashing, vet-chasing attempt to join the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Before last week, the richest free agent contract that Schlenk had handed out since taking over in 2017 was a two-year, $14 million deal for Dewayne Dedmon. He’s surpassed that three times in this free agency period alone: a three-year, $61.5 million eye-opener for Danilo Gallinari, a sharpshooting forward to cash in on Trae’s kickout passes; a two-year, $15 million pact for Rajon Rondo, fresh off his integral role in the playoff rotation of the defending champion Lakers; and a four-year, $72 million offer sheet to restricted free agent shooting guard Bogdan Bogdanovic, one of the most intriguing players in this class, who looked to be on his way to play Pop-a-Shot with Giannis and Jrue before Shit Got Weird. (Sacramento has until 1 p.m. ET on Tuesday to decide whether or not to match the offer sheet; the Hawks did their level best to structure it in such a way that the Kings might not want to, even if it means losing the 28-year-old Serbian playmaker for nothing.)

Add in a two-year, $10 million agreement with former no. 5 overall pick Kris Dunn and the three years and $51.3 million left on the contract of Clint Capela, the shot-swatting rim runner for whom the Hawks traded back in February, and Schlenk has spent more than $200 million this year in pursuit of meaningful improvement—and to prove to Young, already an All-Star starter in just his second season, that the Hawks can surround him with enough talent to actually start winning some games. That raises a pretty big question, though: What about the in-house talent that Atlanta spent the last three years acquiring and developing?

Trading for Capela, signing Gallinari, and drafting USC standout Onyeka Okongwu sixth overall in the 2020 draft has led many around the league to wonder how long John Collins—one of the NBA’s most productive young big men, averaging 20.3 points and 9.9 rebounds per game over the last two seasons—will remain in Atlanta’s plans. The 23-year-old reportedly wants a max extension; all the new arrivals in the frontcourt might indicate that Schlenk would prefer not to give him one.

Then again, maybe it doesn’t; maybe the Hawks’ brain trust thinks the 32-year-old Gallinari can still play small forward, and thinks a Capela-Collins-Gallo trio provides enough size and versatility to give opponents problems. What, then, becomes of De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish—a pair of rangy second-year swingmen drafted specifically to complement Young who started for much of their rookie seasons? (Veteran 3-and-D man Tony Snell, recently acquired from Detroit in exchange for Dedmon, could also factor into the small-forward discussion.) Ditto for Kevin Huerter, a good high-volume 3-point shooter and complementary facilitator who would not only be bumped to the bench by the arrival of Bogdanovic, but who would also likely see his minutes and playmaking opportunities minimized by Rondo and Dunn. Might the Hawks’ sudden pedal-to-the-metal push impede the development of these players who were expected to be key parts of the future?

Maybe not! Maybe, after a couple of years of letting the kids cook and winning fewer than 30 games, there’s something to be said for bringing in legitimate veterans to raise the level of competition. Maybe all those former first-rounders are still in Atlanta’s plans, and the idea is to give head coach Lloyd Pierce a cupboard overflowing with quality options, allowing him to mix and match his lineups and rotations throughout the season.

It seems more likely, though, that Atlanta’s not going to head into the season intending to go 12 deep and just sort of see what happens. You don’t spend $200-plus million to “just sort of see what happens.” You spend it to make something happen, for your franchise and your franchise star, and I’d bet on Schlenk and Co. looking to make even more happen before the start of the season.