2017 NBA Free-Agency Awards: Which Teams and Players Won the Offseason?
Let's get silly. And serious.
Though a few reasonable targets still populate the NBA's free-agency pool, most of the action is now behind us. It's time to gear up for training camp, preseason action and—gasp—the long-awaited beginning of the 2017-18 campaign. Sure, only about five weeks have passed since the Golden State Warriors won their second championship in three years, but time grinds to such a halt that it already feels long-awaited.
And thus, it's award season.
No, we're not handing out MVP trophies and rewarding the Sixth Man of the Offseason. Instead, we're doling out four zany awards and four serious ones meant to honor and shame the best, worst and most memorable portions of the free-agency period.
Clear some space on your mantle and let's get to it.
Top Do-Over: Gordon Hayward
Rarely do free agents join the same team twice in the same day.
But Gordon Hayward didn't want to follow popular convention as he decided whether to bolt from the Utah Jazz. A reunion with former Butler head coach Brad Stevens was apparently so enticing that he wanted to get the Boston Celtics' fanbase excited in the early and late afternoon.
ESPN.com's Chris Haynes first revealed the news that Hayward was leaving Salt Lake City for Beantown, and the report was subsequently confirmed by both Zach Lowe, also of ESPN.com, and USA Today's Sam Amick. But it wasn't actually official, because Hayward's agent, Mark Bartelstein, told ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski, "Gordon hasn't made a decision yet. We are still working through it."
Was this because Hayward really hadn't made up his mind? Was it because he wanted the announcement to come from the Players' Tribune? Was there some unknown reason nobody has parsed out yet?
Regardless, Jazz faithful got excited that the departure wasn't yet guaranteed.
Until it was.
"After seven years in Utah, I have decided to join the Boston Celtics," Hayward wrote in the sixth paragraph of his article on—you guessed it—the Players' Tribune. And then it was officially official, with The Vertical's Shams Charania releasing information that the All-Star forward was signing a four-year deal worth $128 million that contained a player option for the final season.
Maybe this wasn't quite on the same level as the 2015 DeAndre Jordan drama. But joining the same team twice in one day certainly deserves some sort of award.
Fingers Crossed Because There's Upside Award: Miami Heat
The Miami Heat's endeavors might backfire spectacularly.
They're now paying Dion Waiters $52 million over the next four years, Kelly Olynyk $50 million during the same stretch and James Johnson an eye-popping $60 million through 2020-21. Throw in Tyler Johnson's ballooning contract, which escalates to $18.9 million in 2018-19, and the South Beach calculus swells even further.
That's a ton of money to pay to a group of non-stars, and there's no guarantee they can all coexist around Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic and Miami's young, intriguing players (Justise Winslow and Bam Adebayo chief among them) well enough to compete for anything that matters. The Heat could have doomed themselves throughout the foreseeable future if even two recent signees don't pan out properly, since they'll have so little cap room to flex in upcoming free-agency periods.
But what if everything works?
Individually, none of these gambles are too problematic. It's only the totality of the offseason decisions that pushes Miami into riskier territory.
Is it unreasonable to think Waiters could become a legitimate stud at the 2? After head coach Erik Spoelstra installed a drive-and-kick offense and the team began its 13-game winning streak on Jan. 17, the rising star averaged 18.4 points, 3.6 rebounds and 4.8 assists while shooting 46.7 percent from the field and a scorching—get it, because Heat?—44.5 percent from beyond the arc.
Is it that unlikely Olynyk develops into a starting-caliber big man? He's shown flashes of excellence (see: Game 7 against the Washington Wizards), plays better defense than his reputation might indicate and is capable of spacing the court with an impressive three-point stroke. For his career, Olynyk has connected from downtown at a 36.8 percent clip.
Is it impossible for James Johnson to continue his delayed development? Though he'll be 31 years old in February, he's coming off a career season that stemmed, in large part, from Spoelstra's two-way trust and willingness to thrust him into a featured role. According to NBA Math's total points added (TPA), only Dragic added more value on the Miami roster in 2016-17, and Johnson finished No. 38 throughout the league.
Maybe, just maybe, these signings could all work and propel the Heat back toward the top of the Eastern Conference.
Ugh This Isn't Fair Award: Golden State Warriors
The 2016-17 Golden State Warriors were, objectively speaking, one of the greatest teams in basketball history. When I took a crack at some numbers-based rankings as part of the NBA Metrics 101 series, they occupied the bronze-medal podium, trailing only the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls and 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks.
Now, they might be better.
Sure, they could suffer a few unfortunate injuries or watch as Father Time saps some effectiveness from key contributors, but the roster—on paper, at least—is even more talented than its ever been. It's on a level the record-setting 2015-16 bunch and last year's championship-winning troops couldn't quite touch.
Just think back on all of Golden State's offseason moves, and remember that a deal with JaVale McGee to complete the roster could still be coming.
It brought back Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant (on a bargain of a deal), Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, David West and Zaza Pachulia. It bought a second-round draft pick from the Chicago Bulls, used it on Jordan Bell (arguably one of the biggest steals in this class) and then watched as he posted a five-by-five in summer league. It signed Nick Young, who's a perfect fit for this roster's second unit. It stole Omri Casspi, who was one of the league's most underrated two-way contributors before the Sacramento Kings buried him on the depth chart and started his 2016-17 journey across the league.
The starting lineup remains intact, but the bench is deeper and more talented than ever before. Nothing about this is fair, and the cumulative effect of these moves should see the Dubs continuing to pull away from the rest of the league.
Go ahead and lock them in as the Western Conference's No. 1 seed.
Please Stop This Trend Award: Coach/GM Joint Roles
Functioning as an NBA coach is a monumentally difficult task. Ditto for trying to serve as the general manager for one of the Association's 30 franchises.
Trying to do both at the same time? That's nearly impossible.
And yet, it's been a recent trend as power-hungry coaches attempt to control all of an organization's efforts.
Mike Budenholzer was filling the dual role until stepping down as team president in May, and that leaves four men who fall into this category: Tom Thibodeau with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs (though R.C. Buford is so important we won't count the league's model organization), Stan Van Gundy with the Detroit Pistons and Doc Rivers with the Los Angeles Clippers.
"For a coach, having final say on all personnel matters is the perkiest of perks. It empowers them in the organization and lifts them above the resident star player, for the most part. The coach/GM has greater sense of authority and works without fear of someone going over his head," Shaun Powell wrote for NBA.com in January. "Just the same, there's no one to blame if something goes wrong."
After the 2017 offseason, can we just retire the trend already?
Thibodeau may have pulled off a big trade for Jimmy Butler that elevated his team up the Western Conference standings, but he compounded its biggest issue (spacing) by falling in love with the players he used to coach for the Chicago Bulls. He seemingly flirted with everyone from Taj Gibson (who he signed) to Derrick Rose, and his loyalty to those men might have prevented the 'Wolves from reaching their lofty ceiling.
And he was still the best of the bunch.
Rivers did a nice job recovering from losing Chris Paul, but we saw the same story hold true. He sent out overtures to former players from the Boston Celtics and has continued to show a bit of favoritism to a certain blood relative on the roster. As for Van Gundy, well, we'll cover his offseason soon enough.
Both coaching and managing are hard enough jobs on their own. Let's keep them separate. Even if Thibodeau and Rivers weren't disastrous—and, in the former's case, he was much better than that—it's not hard to imagine how their teams could've become even more talented in different situations. They still earned free-agency grades of "B" and "C+", respectively, from Bleacher Report's Dan Favale.
Oh, and the Pistons got a straight "D."
Worst Front Office: Detroit Pistons
Signing Langston Galloway wasn't disastrous.
Especially if his shooting and playmaking improvements with the Sacramento Kings were legitimate, rather than small-sample-size flukes, he could be well worth an average annual salary of $7 million. But problems still exist. He was a redundant acquisition with Ish Smith, Reggie Jackson and Luke Kennard in the fold, and he hard-capped the Detroit Pistons at a time when they were still pursuing then-restricted free agent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Trading for Avery Bradley made things disastrous.
In a vacuum, Bradley is a better player than Marcus Morris. Especially coming off a season in which he connected on 39 percent of his looks from downtown and continued to solidify his reputation as a defensive ace, he's a valuable piece for any squad. But bringing him in required renouncing Caldwell-Pope's rights, which guaranteed his exit and paved the way toward a one-year balloon deal with the Los Angeles Lakers.
And for what?
Bradley won't push the Pistons into playoff-lock status, and he may well have forced the team to eschew two starters for zero in the near future. Morris and Caldwell-Pope are officially gone, and Bradley is an expiring contract who could easily jet for greener pastures in the summer of 2018.
Perhaps the Pistons are looking ahead and setting the stage for a rebuild.
But if that's the case, why not move Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson as soon as possible, before their values continue to drop? And why bother acquiring Bradley at all when doing so eliminates the possibility of inking a potential core piece (Caldwell-Pope) to a lengthy deal? Cap space going forward isn't valuable enough to sacrifice that much.
Other than landing Kennard, who impressed in summer league, nothing about this offseason made sense.
Best Front Office: Oklahoma City Thunder
The Oklahoma City Thunder basically achieved perfection.
Trading Domantas Sabonis and Victor Oladipo for Paul George was a stroke of genius. General manager Sam Presti managed to acquire a top-20 player who should mesh perfectly with Russell Westbrook while giving up a young shooting guard on the books for $21 million each of the next four seasons and a sophomore big who struggled immensely during his initial campaign. He didn't even have to part with a single draft pick.
But he wasn't close to finished.
Raymond Felton is a perfectly adequate backup point guard. Patrick Patterson's deal (three years and $16.4 million) is inarguably one of the summer's best, given his ability to plug so many holes while rarely making mistakes. The power forward might not produce glamorous per-game stats, but he's an analytical marvel coming off a year in which he placed No. 9 among 4s in ESPN.com's real plus/minus.
And even still, he wasn't the team's best signing. That honor belongs to Andre Roberson, who was brought back for a meager $30 million over the next three seasons.
The swingman still can't shoot, and he's a limited contributor in virtually every facet of the offensive game. But he's also a fringe Defensive Player of the Year candidate who's using his film-watching obsession and long arms to become one of the Association's most impactful defensive stoppers.
Don't worry, we have a stat to back up that claim. Using the methodology employed by NBA Math here and digging into NBA.com's play-type data, we can show that Roberson added more value than Kawhi Leonard in each of the seven defensive categories during the 2016-17 campaign. He's that good.
The Thunder entered the offseason with Roberson hitting free agency and a prospective starting five comprised of Westbrook, Oladipo, Doug McDermott, Enes Kanter/Sabonis and Steven Adams. Now, they're prepared to begin 2017-18 with Westbrook, Roberson, George, Patterson and Adams.
That's just unreal work by one of the league's savviest general managers.
Worst Signing: Tim Hardaway Jr.
When such a plethora of negative storylines surround a signing that you don't even know where to begin, that deal was probably bad. Such is the case for Tim Hardaway Jr. and the four-year, $71 million offer sheet that the Atlanta Hawks were obviously never going to match.
Let's begin with how we arrived at this point.
Hardaway played for the Knicks during the first two seasons of his career and struggled to do more than score inefficiently. So in 2015, New York engaged in a draft-night trade with the Hawks that essentially swapped him for Jerian Grant. Fast-forward beyond Grant's rookie season, and he was dealt to the Chicago Bulls as part of a package to acquire Justin Holiday, Derrick Rose and a second-round pick.
Yes, that's the same Rose the Knicks parted with this summer to clear space for Hardaway's ridiculous contract, thus completing the cycle of ineptitude that can plague teams without quality leadership. This didn't even happen under Phil Jackson's supervision, which is even more damning.
But how about looking at the market?
The Miami Heat gave Dion Waiters $19 million less over the next four years. The Milwaukee Bucks handed Tony Snell $25 million less. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope received roughly the same average annual value for the Los Angeles Lakers, but that came on a one-year deal. Per ESPN.com's Zach Lowe, the Hawks had no interest in paying anything more than $48 million to retain Hardaway's services.
Nothing about this contract makes sense.
Well, that's not quite true. The move did come from the one franchise for which this level of short-sighted thinking has become commonplace in recent years.
Best Signing: Paul Millsap
Maybe this is a strange award to give out to a three-year, $90 million commitment attached to a 32-year-old power forward. But everything about the contract makes perfect sense for Paul Millsap and the Denver Nuggets, especially since it contains a team option for the third year that could help the Mile High City stave off burdensome expenditures if its shiny new acquisition quickly declines.
Finances simply aren't a concern here. Not for the next two years while Nikola Jokic and Denver's up-and-comers are still operating on rookie-scale deals and bargain-bin salaries, which thrusts the evaluation toward the on-court fit.
And that's just about flawless, as Rob Mahoney so eloquently described when grading the deal (an "A") for Sports Illustrated:
"What a get. Millsap is the rare sort of player who improves on what the Nuggets did well and did poorly. Need to sharpen the teeth of the defense? Add an intuitive big with some of the best hands in the league. Turn the ball over a bit too often? Land a secondary playmaker whose movement creates both open looks and helpful diversions. Trouble maintaining consistent coverage on the perimeter? Pick up one of the most switchable bigs—and most reliable help defenders—out there. Millsap became a star when the Hawks leaned into his flexibility. Now the Nuggets have paid a premium for it, understanding full well what Millsap’s rising tide does for every damn boat at harbor. It’s not only Jokic that benefits. It’s every player coordinating with Millsap in a pick-and-roll, every point guard whose burden just lessened, and every shooter who might benefit from one of his passes."
If you could draw up a player in a laboratory, intending to find an ideal fit next to Jokic, he would look an awful lot like Millsap. The former Atlanta Hawk will likely fit in seamlessly and should immediately propel the Nuggets into safer territory for the uber-competitive Western Conference playoff race, and that's not even where his impact ends.
Denver has flirted with big-name free agents for a long time, but it's always come up short. Dwyane Wade decided to go with the Chicago Bulls last year after receiving Nuggets overtures. Chris Paul didn't follow through with a meeting because he became infatuated with James Harden and the Houston Rockets this summer. The list goes on, well back into the distant past.
But the Nuggets finally identified and landed a star, and the acquisition should give them legitimacy as they lean upon a malleable cap situation to further their improvements next summer.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.