NBA Free Agency 2014: Early Winners and Losers
It hasn't been long since the start of the NBA's latest silly season, and...well, not much has happened thus far.
At least, nothing of any concrete and/or earth-shattering importance. Meetings have been taken and rounds have been made, but so far most of the marquee names in free agency are still either mulling their options or waiting for said options to materialize.
If only because everyone's waiting with bated breath to see what LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony do.
For now, those of us craving the thrill of actual news will have to settle for the interminable rumors and innuendo from sources with agendas—and the speculation that bubbles up thereabouts. As long as we're all waiting for something to actually happen, let's have a look at which teams, players and miscellaneous actors have thus far designated themselves as either winners or losers this summer.
Winner: Toronto Raptors
Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri has been one busy bee this offseason. Since shocking the world by taking unknown Brazilian Bruno Caboclo with the No. 20 pick in the 2014 NBA draft, Ujiri has traded for Lou Williams and rookie Lucas "Bebe" Nogueira, unloaded Steve Novak's salary on the Utah Jazz and (most importantly) reached an agreement with two of his team's own free agents to comfortable contracts.
Kyle Lowry obviously takes the cake for newsworthiness in this regard. The Raptors and Lowry agreed to a reasonable four-year, $48 million deal with an early termination option following year three, per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski.
As the Toronto Star's Doug Smith noted, retaining Lowry was important to the Raptors for more reasons than just keeping together a team that set a franchise record for regular-season wins (48) in 2013-14:
But the biggest point, the most important point, the one that a lot of people around the league will notice is that Lowry stayed.
We’ve all heard the whispers that no one wants to come to Toronto, that it’s a franchise mired in mediocrity and it will be forever thus.
And that’s why it was imperative the Ujiri get Lowry to come back, for the optics as much as for his play.
Those optics may not matter much this offseason, per se. Toronto could soon exhaust its financial flexibility due to deals already struck with Patrick Patterson (three years, $18 million) and soon to be struck with Greivis Vasquez, not to mention the money doled out to Lowry.
But as a squad striving toward "powerhouse" status, the Raptors did well to show that they too can convince All-Star-caliber players of the opportunities for success just north of the border. The Raptors can only hope that Lowry's words to Yahoo Sports—"Toronto is just the right place for me"—will ring true for many more high-profile free agents in the years to come.
Loser: Miami Heat
The waiting is the hardest part for everyone, but especially for the Miami Heat.
LeBron James' vacation plans have left team president Pat Riley in limbo, without the means or the magnetism to attract roster reinforcements to South Beach. Few second-tier free agents are willing to leave money on the table to play for the Heat, even less so when James' max-contract return is far from a done deal.
That leaves Riles in a bit of a Catch-22: James might not be inclined to stay in Miami without a souped-up supporting cast, but Riley would be hard-pressed to meet LeBron's demands without a commitment from the King himself first. Signing Josh McRoberts to the mid-level exception and Danny Granger to the bi-annual exception (per ESPN's Marc Stein) is a decent start, but the Heat will need more than those two to entice the Big Three to run it back.
The longer this situation drags on, the fewer and less enticing the Heat's options for additions will be and the more likely the breakup of the Big Three will become.
Loser: Dwyane Wade
This whole experience must be particularly humbling for Dwyane Wade. He seems to have become an afterthought in Miami amid all the uncertainty surrounding LeBron James, Chris Bosh and whatever tricks Pat Riley has up his sleeve.
Wade's name has hardly been mentioned in connection with any club other than the Heat. At this point, it would seem a foregone conclusion that, after opting out of his contract prior to free agency, he'll return to the only NBA team he's ever known, and that he'll take a pay cut to do so.
Compare that to James' insistence on signing a max contract, per Wojnarowski, and the max-salary interest Bosh has drawn from the Houston Rockets, per ESPN's Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne, and it's clear that Wade has dropped to the bottom of Miami's superstar totem pole.
As if there were any ambiguity in that regard after the 32-year-old Wade's flameout in the 2014 NBA Finals.
Winner: Doc Rivers
The Donald Sterling silliness aside, Doc Rivers and the Los Angeles Clippers have enjoyed a rather productive offseason thus far. Since essentially promoting himself to team president, Rivers has locked in Jamal Crawford's salary for next season and reached agreements with Jordan Farmar and Spencer Hawes to below-market deals.
Granted, none of those moves is going to change the league's landscape in any meaningful way on its own. The Clips weren't about to cut Crawford's contract after the Sixth Man of the Year campaign that he put together on their behalf. Crawford was always going to be retained, either for his own services or as a trade chip to be dealt elsewhere.
L.A. will pay slightly more for Farmar (two years, $4.2 million per The Los Angeles Times' Brad Turner) than it did for Darren Collison, though Farmar is arguably an upgrade over his former UCLA teammate.
And, well, Farmar's new contract is considerably cheaper than the three-year, $16 million cap-killer to which the Sacramento Kings signed Collison.
As for Hawes, the fact that Rivers was able to strike a deal with a 7-footer with three-point range to the mid-level exception in the prime of his career speaks volumes as to where the Clippers currently stand in the collective conscience of free agents and the role that Rivers has played in that transformation.
"Even taking a little less money, this opportunity was too exciting to pass up," Hawes told Wojnarowski:
I've had a taste of the playoffs before, but being a part of this team will be just incredible. You get to a point where you really realize what's important, and I was thinking: 'What would my 12-year-old self have done? What would he prioritize?' It was this opportunity and what they're building with the Clippers.
All Rivers needs to do now is find a way to bring Paul Pierce, his old protege, to L.A., and he'll have had about as perfect a summer as he could've wanted.
Winner: Jodie Meeks
As someone who suffered through the misery of the Los Angeles Lakers' 2013-14 season, I can tell you that Jodie Meeks was one of the few bright spots on a squad that went 27-55.
He always played hard, despite (because of?) his limitations. He shot well: 46.3 percent from the field, 40.1 percent from three, 85.7 percent from the line. All told, he took full advantage of the opportunity he was afforded by Mike D'Antoni, scoring a career-high 15.7 points per game, including a 42-point performance to propel L.A. to a shocking win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in March.
That doesn't mean that Meeks was or will actually be worth the $19.5 million he'll pocket from the Detroit Pistons over the next three years. If anything, the Pistons overpaid for the sort of shooter they've been so desperately seeking.
But while some folks in Motown might not be so enthused about Stan Van Gundy's first free-agency move as the Pistons' president/coach, those of us in the City of Angels can't help but applaud the 26-year-old Meeks for making the money he so richly deserves after making the Lakers' most recent campaign more bearable, even if only slightly so.
Loser: All-Star-Caliber Wing Players Not Named LeBron or Carmelo
In some ways, Meeks is lucky that he's no more than a mid-tier, role-player type. Otherwise, he'd probably still be waiting for the market to move, which it won't until LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony put pen to paper in one city or another.
At present, there's a veritable logjam of quality wing players for whom contract offers have been slow to trickle in—if they've trickled in at all. Luol Deng, Lance Stephenson, Chandler Parsons, Paul Pierce, Trevor Ariza and Gordon Hayward will all have to bide their time until the conclusions of the LeBron and Melo sweepstakes reveal which teams actually have the requisite combination of cap space and interest to meet their respective demands.
Chances are they'll all get their money at some point. Hayward, in particular, will probably have to wait a while if he's to get anything close to a max contract, thanks to his restricted free agency and the Utah Jazz's intent to match any offer that comes his way.
Still, there's a danger for each of these guys in having to stand in line behind James and Anthony. Their lists of suitors—and, in turn, their prospects for big paydays—will dwindle over time, as teams continue to fill up their cap space. The longer this all drags out, the more likely it is that someone like Stephenson will have to settle for the five years and $44 million offer from the Indiana Pacers, per The Indianapolis Star's Candace Buckner, or that Parsons will suffer similarly short shrift in Houston.
Loser: Indiana Pacers
That being said, there's still a good chance that Lance Stephenson will find an offer that's more to his liking this summer. According to ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard, the Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks have both shown interest in Stephenson, though neither figures to move a meaningful muscle in that direction until LeBron and Melo have flinched. Those two teams should see a slew of others join the fray for Stephenson's services once more dominos start to fall.
Which can't be good news for the Indiana Pacers. Their incumbency still counts for plenty. Stephenson moved his family to Indianapolis when the Pacers drafted him, and it's under the auspices of Larry Bird and Frank Vogel that Lance has grown from a knucklehead instigator to a knucklehead instigator who also happens to be a really good NBA player.
All before the age of 24, no less.
As far as actual basketball is concerned, the Pacers can ill afford to lose Stephenson if they're to remain among the elite in the Eastern Conference. He and David West were the only Pacers who brought it every night this past season, and Stephenson's contributions as a ball-handler, creator and tremendous rebounder for his position arguably outweigh West's attributes therein.
Money-wise, though, Indy might not be able to afford to keep him. As Grantland's Zach Lowe noted:
The Pacers just gave C.J. Miles more than $4 million per season...They also signed Damjan Rudez, a Croatian shooting big man, to a starting salary of $1.1 million next season, per multiple sources familiar with his contract. Toss in the raise Paul George got for making All-NBA, and Indiana is up to about $72 million in committed salary for next season before re-signing Mr. Ear Blow. The tax line is projected at $77 million, and Larry Bird has said repeatedly the Pacers will not exceed it. Do the math.
Winner: LeBron James
If there's anything we've learned from free agency thus far, it's that the NBA is LeBron James' league, and that everyone else is just renting from him right now.
Who else but James could stir up a veritable frenzy stateside while he's on vacation with his family? All the hoopla surrounding LeBron's apparent slow-play of the market is merely reaction to the plan he's had in place all along, as ESPN's Brian Windhorst recently explained.
Wherever James winds up—whether it's back in Miami or somewhere else around the Association—he'll more than likely have a max contract and a spot on an instant title contender waiting for him. He's one of the lucky few who will, in essence, get to choose how much he makes and with whom he makes it.
That's the benefit of being the best basketball player on the planet. Any team with whom he signs will be among the favorites to take home the Larry O'Brien Trophy. It's no wonder, then, that teams have already been clamoring for meetings with James' agent, Rich Paul, and will be scrambling even more frantically for face-to-face meetings with LeBron himself this week. Any squad that interests James and can clear the requisite cap space to bring him aboard would be stupid not to try.
As such, James' power is not in his ability to basically move heaven and earth, but to get others to do it for him at the drop of a hat.
All of which serves as just another reminder that, yes, it's good to be the King.
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