The first full day of the 2022 NBA free agency period wasn’t quite as seismic or frenetic as its Thursday evening premiere, but it still packed plenty of intrigue. Here’s a look at some of the biggest story lines that emerged on Day 2, starting with a blockbuster in the Northwest division:
The Wolves Take a Big—and I Do Mean Big—Swing for Rudy Gobert
Minnesota made the playoffs last season for just the second time in the last 18 years on the strength of a Karl-Anthony Towns-led offense that comfortably ranked as the league’s best after the calendar flipped to 2022. The Wolves needed every single ounce of that offensive efficiency, though, to prop up a defense that tried to make up for Towns’s shortcomings as a rim protector with hyperactivity, aimed at forcing turnovers at a league-high rate.
It worked, on balance—Minnesota finished above league average in points allowed per possession for the first time since 2014—but smart, patient opponents (like its first-round opponent, the Grizzlies) could still exploit them, spreading the Wolves out, exposing the soft underbelly of the coverage, and hammering the offensive glass. (I think Brandon Clarke just got another putback. Like, right as I was typing that sentence.) New Wolves president Tim Connelly knew he had to find some way to straighten the defensive spine of a team that finished 22nd in opponent field goal percentage at the rim, 25th in second-chance points conceded per game, tied for 28th in defensive rebounding rate, and 29th in giving up corner 3-pointers.
On the second day of free agency, Connelly found a way. But man, did he pay a lot for it.
After making some noise about deploying Towns more as a power forward next season, Connelly went out and traded for perhaps the most center-ass center in the game, landing Rudy Gobert from the Jazz in exchange for a haul best viewed in bullet points on a notes app. Utah gets Minnesota’s unprotected first-round picks in 2023, 2025, and 2027; its 2029 first-rounder, top-five protected; the right to swap first-round picks in 2026; its last two first-round picks, Leandro Bolmaro (2020) and Walker Kessler (2022); and three rotation players from last year’s Wolves: starters Patrick Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt, and reserve swingman Malik Beasley.
IS IT EVEN POSSIBLE TO TRADE AWAY THAT MANY FIRSTS I THOUGHT THE OLD BULLETS OWNER MADE A RULE ABOUT THIS OR SOMETHING— Punch-Drunk Wolves (@PDWolves) July 1, 2022
That is a hell of a lot to pay for any one player. (That sound you just heard was Sean Marks jacking his Kevin Durant asking price into the thermosphere.) Connelly forked it over, though, believing that if it buys an elite defense—Utah finished in the top 10 in defensive efficiency six times in seven years with Gobert as a full-time starter—to pair with the offensive firepower of Towns, Anthony Edwards, and D’Angelo Russell (perhaps more likely to stick around now that he has an elite dive man/lob threat to work with), then the Wolves could make the leap from flirting with the sixth seed to flirting with contention.
A three-time Defensive Player of the Year and six-time All-Defensive First Team selection, Gobert’s ability to lock down the lane by himself and clean up messes on the interior emboldens the perimeter defenders in front of him to press up tight on their marks. He is the reason Utah barely ever gave up shots at the rim or on corner 3s or put opponents on the foul line; he is the reason the Jazz were a top-10 defensive rebounding team for the last seven years. He is a drop-coverage ecosystem and shot-smothering superstructure unto himself—a one-pot recipe for regular-season defensive success.
The Jazz fell apart in the last few springs not because Gobert can’t hold up in the playoffs, but because a near-total lack of dependable perimeter defenders (outside of Royce O’Neale, now the newest Net) left Utah susceptible to five-out small-ball offenses, because Gobert can’t rotate over to protect the rim and stay attached to a shooter in the corner. Connelly’s challenge: use what resources he has left to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to Minnesota in a conference where so many opponents can downsize, play five-out, and punish drop coverage.
But unlike Utah, Gobert is not on an island in Minnesota. The presence of rising 3-and-D ace Jaden McDaniels (whom the Jazz missed on drafting in 2017, and reportedly coveted here), Edwards (a 6-foot-6 mega-athlete who made serious strides as an on-ball defender in Year 2), Russell (who played the best defense of his career last season), ball-pressuring pest Jordan McLaughlin, re-signed combo forward Taurean Prince, and just-added ex-Spurs and Grizzlies forward Kyle Anderson should all help. And if Minnesota needs more perimeter stoppers, Connelly has a track record of finding helpful defensive grinders—Vanderbilt, Torrey Craig, P.J. Dozier, Davon Reed, et al.—in the second round and on the scrap heap. The glass-half-empty take: Connelly will have to find more helpers there, because he just sent about a decade’s worth of Minnesota’s future down to Salt Lake City for the privilege of paying more than $340 million to a pair of big men for the next four seasons.
But then there’s the glass-half-full view: Minnesota’s future is what the 26-year-old Towns and the 20-year-old Edwards make of it, and Connelly just got them a bodyguard—one who all but guarantees a playoff floor, and who might, in a league suddenly coming back around to the notion that size matters, provide a vaulted championship-contending ceiling. Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez hired Connelly to dream big, think big, and swing big. It doesn’t get much bigger than this.
The Jazz Are Danny Ainge’s Team Now
You. I saw you. You mocked Brian Windhorst as he followed in Stephen A. Smith’s footsteps by apparently auditioning for a role on General Hospital as a detective (my working character name: Det. Atlas “Deal” Zone) during a Friday appearance on ESPN’s First Take:
Brian Windhorst just ran the First Take desk in circles. They were hanging on his every word for 2+ minutes . Absolute masterclass. pic.twitter.com/Q1vn6mD9iz— Commissioner Cheah (@StevenCheah) July 1, 2022
While Windhorst’s discussion of the Jazz was akin to jazz itself—the magic’s in the rests between the questions and the exaggerated finger-points—the point of his inquiry wound up being 1,000 percent bang-on: Trading O’Neale to Brooklyn for a first-round pick did augur something big shaking in Utah, the tremor presaging the earthquake of the Gobert move. (“Deal” Zone always gets to the bottom of the mystery!)
You can quibble over when, precisely, it all ended for the Jazz. Maybe it was when they lost games 5 and 6 to the Kawhi Leonard-less Clippers in 2021, or when they barfed up a 36-point first half in Game 5 of a tied series with the Mavericks in April. Maybe it was when Quin Snyder decided he’d had enough; hell, maybe it was all the way back at the start of the pandemic. Whatever point in the timeline you pick, Friday was its terminus—the death knell for the best era in Jazz basketball since Stockton and Malone, and perhaps what’s tied for the second-longest active playoff streak in the NBA. What will come next remains unclear … save for the crystal reality that, six and a half months after taking the reins as Utah’s CEO, whatever it is will represent the manifestation of Danny Ainge’s vision for the future.
After the initial news-break, Tony Jones of The Athletic and Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN both used the same framing: that the Jazz are “retooling, not rebuilding,” with a plan to reconstruct the roster on the fly around Donovan Mitchell, the younger and eminently more marketable All-Star guard with whom Gobert frequently clashed. That ultimately remains to be seen: The rumblings about Mitchell’s wandering eye are legion, and Andy Larsen of The Salt Lake Tribune reports “some pushback” to the notion that the Jazz will hang on to Mitchell, who could net “a massive haul to jump-start a rebuild” in addition to the six first-rounders, movable vets, and young players that Ainge already added this week.
Besides, it wouldn’t be the first time that Ainge, feeling like he was drawing dead, folded his hand and drew a new one.
In June 2003, Ainge took over a Boston team that had made consecutive playoff runs under head coach Jim O’Brien, but had just gotten swept in the second round. Within six months, he’d shipped out four starters from that team, including 26-year-old three-time All-Star Antoine Walker, to strip everything down to the studs around the one blue chipper he believed in: Paul Pierce. After the 2003-04 season, Ainge hired Doc Rivers to take over as coach, used the three first-round picks he’d pulled together on Al Jefferson, Delonte West, and Tony Allen, and set into motion a multi-year plan of perpetual tinkering and roster-churning that eventually resulted in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen—effectively the equivalent of turning one red paperclip into the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
A half-dozen years later, after the Pierce-Garnett-Allen-Rajon Rondo core had run its course, Ainge again hit the reset button. Out went Rivers, seeking greener pastures with the Clippers— man, are those some famous last words—and in came Brad Stevens, the golden boy out of Butler, with a six-year deal to coach a team that, again, was about to be torn down to the studs. The trade’s legend, now: Garnett, Pierce, Jason Terry, D.J. White, and a couple of draft picks to the Nets in exchange for a package headlined by three first-round picks and the right to swap a fourth. That bounty of draft equity turned into Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and (for a spell) Kyrie Irving; the deal also helped Boston be terrible in 2013-14, resulting in the sixth overall pick, which turned into Marcus Smart.
An awful lot of deals, near-deals, frustrating negotiations, missed draft picks, and overall chaos transpired between those moments. The throughline, though? Ainge taking stock of a situation, then moving decisively to tear down with an eye toward the future, and fashioning a contending core marked by perimeter scoring backed by a versatile meat-grinder defense. Maybe Mitchell’s the Pierce of this scenario, destined to keep Utah respectable in the here and now while serving as the lone holdover/standard-bearer for the franchise as it moves in a more fluid, modern direction. Maybe he’s the vehicle to even more optionality—a cache of picks, swaps, and young talent to rival the war chest in Oklahoma City—as Trader Danny works the phones and the margins to build yet another team in his own image.
Whichever path he chooses, all we know for sure is that the Jazz aren’t done. On the contrary: Ainge is just getting started.
Zion Gets the Max, but the Devil May Be in the Details
In an April media session to wrap up a season in which he didn’t log a single second of game action, Zion Williamson told New Orleans reporters that if the Pelicans offered him an extension this summer, he “wouldn’t be able to sign it fast enough.” Sure enough, as the NBA began to rise (and, most assuredly, grind) on the second day of free agency, Shams Charania of The Athletic reported that the Pelicans were nearing an agreement with the former no. 1 pick on a five-year, maximum-salaried rookie extension. The pact would make Williamson the second member of the 2019 draft class to score a max re-up, after the Grizzlies handed no. 2 pick Ja Morant the full five-year boat just after midnight on Friday.
Like Morant, Williamson’s reportedly in line for the “designated rookie” extension, a special kind of rookie-scale max that allows a team to give one player coming to the end of his rookie deal a fifth season. Given current projections, a five-year max paying Zion 25 percent of the 2023-24 salary cap (with the maximum 8 percent raise from Year 1 to Year 2) would pay him just under $193 million through the end of the 2027-28 season. And, like Morant, Williamson’s deal will reportedly include the “Derrick Rose Rule” escalator clause, which allows young players who meet certain performance criteria to increase that starting salary from 25 percent of the cap to 30 percent—an increase that would send the value of his deal skyrocketing to a projected $231.4 million over five years.
Williamson can get that bump by winning MVP (kind of a tall ask) or Defensive Player of the Year (um, ditto) this season. He can also reach it, though, by making one of the three All-NBA teams. That sounds far-fetched, given that we haven’t seen him play in 14 months. When last we saw him healthy, though, Zion was an absolute force of nature: He averaged 27 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game on 61.1 percent shooting during the 2020-21 season, and wound up on the All-NBA ballots of 31 voters (including mine):
Perhaps the most important detail, though, is what winds up in Williamson’s deal that isn’t in Morant’s. Charania reported that the contract is “expected to include protections that both sides were sorting through overnight and will finalize.” Considering Williamson just missed an entire season due to foot injuries, and has missed far more games in three seasons (141) than he’s actually appeared in for the Pelicans (85), you’d presume New Orleans is insisting on protections similar to the ones that appeared in Joel Embiid’s rookie extension to limit the franchise’s financial liability in case of ongoing unavailability. As executive vice president David Griffin told The Ringer’s Ryen Russillo during a recent interview, it’s “significant” for the small-market Pelicans “to indemnify” themselves should Zion continue to miss large swaths of time due to specific injuries; it remains to be seen what kind of compromise the two sides reached.
Those specifics aside, Williamson returning to the fold represents a massive win for a Pelicans franchise that went from one of the league’s most dire stories to one of its most celebratory last season, bouncing back from Zion’s injury and a 3-16 start to make the play-in tournament. With Brandon Ingram blossoming, and CJ McCollum, Jonas Valanciunas, and Larry Nance Jr. serving as perfect veteran complements to the emerging young core of Herb Jones, Trey Murphy III, Jose Alvarado, and rookie Dyson Daniels, New Orleans has the look of a team that might be one major piece away from making some real noise in the crowded Western Conference. A healthy and motivated Zion—one, say, who’s got nearly $39 million riding on an All-NBA berth—just might be it.
The Celtics Might Have Found Their Missing Piece
Why did Boston lose the Finals to Golden State in six games? Well, that Stephen Curry guy had a lot to do with it, but—as head coach Ime Udoka said time and time and time again throughout the postseason—the Celtics’ biggest weakness was their inability to consistently generate quality possessions against a locked-in defense. Boston scored just 92.1 points per 100 half-court plays against Golden State, according to Cleaning the Glass, which would’ve ranked 25th in the NBA during the regular season, and turned the ball over on 18.5 percent of its offensive possessions in the Finals, which would’ve ranked dead last.
Finding a metronome-steady facilitator to take some of the late-game weight off Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown, and finding another frontcourt shooter to help make defenses pay for swarming ball handlers and packing the paint, were atop the team’s dream list heading into the summer. But where would they find that help with no cap space, no 2022 first-round pick to trade, and just a few salary cap exceptions at their disposal? The answer, evidently: Indianapolis (and, to a lesser extent, Italy, if the traded-to-San-Antonio-and-waived Danilo Gallinari really is headed to the North End as reported).
Once the Pacers landed Tyrese Haliburton from Sacramento at February’s trade deadline, incumbent point guard Malcolm Brogdon became surplus for rebuilding Indiana. After a pair of moves at the start of free agency—the Knicks shelling out $104 million for Jalen Brunson, the Wizards swinging a deal for Denver’s Monte Morris—removed a pair of point-guard-needy teams from Brogdon’s potential trade market, the Celtics swooped in on Friday, snaring Brogdon for a package headlined by a 2023 first-round pick, 2020 first-rounder Aaron Nesmith, veteran big man Daniel Theis, and minimum-salaried make-weights Nik Stauskas, Malik Fitts, and Juwan Morgan—an awfully reasonable price tag for a player who seems like a perfect fit for Boston’s needs.
Brogdon has averaged a shade under 18 points on 46/37/88 shooting splits, 5.5 assists, and 5.0 rebounds per game since becoming a full-time starter four seasons ago in Milwaukee. During his three seasons as a Pacer, the only players to post as high a usage rate, as high an assist rate, and as low a turnover percentage as Brogdon were Damian Lillard, Jimmy Butler, and Kyrie Irving; he immediately becomes the surest set of hands in Boston’s rotation. He could also be a vital source of north-south burst for a Celtics team that finished the regular season 22nd in its share of shot attempts at the rim. In spite of Udoka’s repeated entreaties to play the drive-and-kick game to generate offense, Boston ranked 13th in the league in drives, points scored, and assists dished off of drives per game; Brogdon ranked fourth, ninth, and tied for third among all NBA players in those categories last season.
Add all that to a familiarity and comfort playing off the ball—Brogdon entered the NBA spotting up opposite Giannis Antetokounmpo, and has shot 41.7 percent on nearly 800 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers during his career—and put it all in a 6-foot-5, 230-pound package that fits seamlessly into Boston’s organizational mandate to field gigantic, versatile defenders at every position, and Brogdon looks like a phenomenal addition. He’ll fit next to Smart, Tatum, Brown, Derrick White, or Payton Pritchard in whatever perimeter alignment Udoka prefers; he didn’t cost the Celtics a single member of their playoff rotation (fret not, Grant Williams stans); and the first-round pick the Celtics sent Indiana will come next season rather than far off in the future (meaning, if Boston’s as awesome as it seems like it should be, the pick will land deep in the 20s).
It’s possible that we come to look more favorably on Indy’s return in time, depending on who/what that pick turns into and whether the 22-year-old Nesmith—who barely cracked the rotation in Boston, but looked like an explosive high-volume shotmaker coming out of Vanderbilt and at times showed flashes as a Celtic—can make the most out of a steadier diet of opportunities out where they grow basketball. And if it doesn’t seem like the Pacers got a ton for a prime-aged point guard that a championship contender wanted … well, it’s probably because Brogdon didn’t play more than 57 games in any of his three campaigns in Indianapolis, and has $67.6 million coming his way over the next three seasons.
Paying that freight didn’t make a ton of sense for a rebuilding Pacers team—one that, by the way, now has enough cap space to add a maximum-salaried contract, which bears watching, considering Indiana’s long been rumored to be shopping center Myles Turner, and has likewise been tipped as a potential Deandre Ayton offer sheet candidate. Absorbing that cost (and the attendant luxury tax hit) will go down much more smoothly in Boston if, as Udoka and the rest of the Celtics felt after the Finals, fewer empty possessions really is the difference between regret and a championship.
If the Kings Go Down, They’re Gonna Go Down Shooting
For all that didn’t work in the early days of the De’Aaron Fox-Domantas Sabonis pairing—which, if you’re scoring at home, went 5-8 in 13 appearances and was outscored by 17 points in 360 minutes—it seemed like the offense, at least, was starting to click.
The Kings scored 116.2 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions with Fox and Sabonis on the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass—equivalent to a top-three offense over the course of the full season. More specifically, the quicksilver point guard and mauling screen-setter seemed to find a quick chemistry together: Possessions featuring a Fox-Sabonis pick-and-roll produced 1.129 points per chance, the sixth-highest mark out of 187 combinations to run at least 200 pick-and-rolls together, according to Second Spectrum.
The path forward for the Kings this offseason seemed, if not simple, then at least straightforward: Rely on your high-priced duo to serve as the engines of your offense, and devote whatever resources you have to surrounding them with complementary stoppers who can help vault what’s been one of the league’s four-worst defenses in each of the last two seasons up towards at least respectability. It seems, however, that GM Monte McNair’s offseason preparation has included grinding some Cobra Kai tape; Sacramento appears to have bought into the theory that the best defense … is more offense.
After letting Donte DiVencenzo walk, McNair filled out his wing rotation with a pair of under-25 swingmen who can shoot the lights out. Malik Monk, added on the first day of free agency, has shot 39.4 percent from 3-point land on nearly eight attempts per 36 minutes over the past two seasons. Kevin Huerter, arriving in a trade Friday for a lottery-protected 2024 first-round pick and the expiring contracts of Justin Holiday and Mo Harkless, has shot 37.9 percent from deep on 6.6 attempts per-36 in his four-year career. Monk and Huerter should provide immediate help for a Kings team that ranked 25th in 3-point makes per game and 24th in 3-point accuracy last season, helping stretch the floor, open up driving lanes for Fox, and decongest the paint for Sabonis’s post-ups and rumbles to the rim.
They’re also both capable of running a complementary pick-and-roll, and both are quick, long, and savvy enough to make themselves targets away from the play. Add in no. 4 draft pick Keegan Murray—who shot 39.8 percent from the college line during his sophomore season at Iowa and proved adept at finishing plays off of cuts too—and stalwart floor-spacing combo forward Harrison Barnes, and suddenly Sacramento has a whole bunch of live options to spot up around Fox-Sabonis pick-and-rolls, or pivot into second-side actions after one of the two stars has already bent the defense.
The questions, as always, come on the other end of the floor, where new head coach Mike Brown’s going to have his work cut out for him. But after adding Huerter and Monk to the existing group, just about any five-man unit from the Kings’ top eight—a group that includes former starting center Richaun Holmes and 2021 first-round pick Davion Mitchell—should be able to score in bunches. For a team looking to break the longest postseason drought in NBA history, that’s a start, at least.