Winners and Losers from Wild Start to 2022 NBA Free Agency

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured Columnist IVJuly 4, 2022

Winners and Losers from Wild Start to 2022 NBA Free Agency

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    Remember when we had to wait till July 8 for LeBron James' "The Decision" in 2010?

    Just a few days into this summer's free-agency period, over $1.5 billion in contracts have been handed out to players around the league. Several big trades have been made. And we're still waiting to hear where Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant will wind up.

    Even in an offseason when cap space was limited to just a few teams, player movement was inevitable.

    And in the wake of all of it, there are some definite winners and losers.

    For purposes of this slideshow, we're only looking at deals that took place after free agency officially tipped off on June 30 at 6 p.m. ET. That means the Dejounte Murray trade to the Atlanta Hawks is out, but everything since that date and time is fair game.

Winners: The Max Players

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    Beyond the obvious point that these players just signed contracts that will pay them a boatload of money in less time than it took Breaking Bad to go from pilot to finale, there's an element of timing here that doesn't always exist.

    With very few teams (and really no good ones) having cap space this summer, the incumbents had little competition to re-sign their stars.

    And those incumbents being over the cap helped the stars too. For (a wildly unrealistic) example, if the Denver Nuggets had allowed Nikola Jokic to walk, they would've had no room, and therefore no way to replace him.

    The same could be said of several of these situations. And as a result, the following monster deals were handed out:

    • Bradley Beal: Five years, $251 million
    • Nikola Jokic: Five years, $264 million
    • Devin Booker: Four years, $214 million
    • Karl-Anthony Towns: Four years, $224 million
    • Ja Morant: Five years, $231 million
    • Zach LaVine: Five years, $215.2 million
    • Zion Williamson: Five years, $193 million
    • Darius Garland: Five years, $193 million

    Time will tell whether any of the above hamstring teams a year or two down the road. For now, it's fair to declare the players getting paid big winners.

Loser: Warriors

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    The Golden State Warriors reacquiring Kevin Durant would certainly change the perception of this offseason—and, uh, yes, that's apparently on the table—but free agency hasn't been kind to them so far.

    In the regular season, Gary Payton II and Otto Porter Jr. were tied with Draymond Green for second on the team in value over replacement player. In the playoffs, Payton's quick return from a broken elbow seemingly flipped the Finals. Porter started the last three games of the postseason.

    Now, both are on other teams (Payton with the Portland Trail Blazers and Porter with the Toronto Raptors).

    The luxury tax implications of signing both would've been huge, and the Warriors may have plenty of confidence in younger players like Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody (and, dare we way, James Wiseman?).

    But at the very least, the optics of letting key cogs walk immediately after winning a title aren't great.

    sam esfandiari @samesfandiari

    It’s hard to reconcile bragging about how much money you print and letting a key (and popular) rotations player walk. 🤷🏽‍♂️

    Again, the offseason isn't over. Signing Donte DiVincenzo may have eased the pain a bit. A mega trade might help too. It's just not great at the moment.

Winner: Celtics

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    Golden State's opponent in the Finals, the Boston Celtics, have undoubtedly gotten better since free agency started.

    Most notably, they acquired Malcolm Brogdon for one first-round pick and without surrendering a single surefire rotation player.

    He's exactly the kind of player Boston appeared to need in the Finals: a steady playmaker who's big enough to operate in the Celtics' switch-heavy defensive scheme.

    His injury history is concerning, but at the price Boston paid for him, this is a no-brainer.

    That move alone would've been good enough to declare the Celtics winners, but they weren't done there.

    After a buyout from the San Antonio Spurs (who'd acquired him from the Atlanta Hawks in the Murray trade), Danilo Gallinari signed in Boston.

    He's past his prime, but he's still a moneyball offensive player who'll be able to swing games as a reserve.

    Adding those two to a rotation that already made it to the Finals feels like a steal.

    Justin Termine @TermineRadio

    Gallinari + Brogdan without giving up one rotation player for a team that just went to a Finals.<br><br>24 hours into free-agency, &amp; hard to find a team who's done a better job than Boston.

    The Milwaukee Bucks figure to contend again. The Philadelphia 76ers improved this offseason (in large part to the pre-free-agency acquisition of De'Anthony Melton). And the Miami Heat probably aren't going away.

    But Boston has clearly strengthened its shot at winning the East again.

Loser: Mavericks

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    If you simply go by 2021-22 estimated wins (Dunks and Threes' cumulative metric), the Dallas Mavericks have actually added more than they lost.

    But that has a lot to do with the Christian Wood trade that preceded free agency. And it doesn't account for JaVale McGee's age (34) or fit alongside Wood (McGee reportedly expects to start).

    And of course, both of those moves would've looked even better if last season's starting backcourt mate for Luka Doncic had chosen to return.

    Over the last three years, the Mavericks' net rating has been slightly better when Luka plays with Jalen Brunson than it is without him. The diminutive guard's ability to run individual possessions without really needing to made him a great fit with Luka, who so often accounts for actions A through Z on the offense.

    Spencer Dinwiddie should be able to fill in some of the gaps, but giving him more minutes with Luka could diminish the bench.

    As was said in the max players slide, it's not as simple as just snagging some other free agent to replace Brunson's production. All the Mavericks have available are cap exceptions and minimums, and they haven't used either on a guard to date.

Winner: Knicks

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    Dallas' loss is the New York Knicks' gain. And while four years and $104 million might sound like a lot for a player with a career average of 11.9 points, it's not far from the going rate for a starting point guard. Plus, the salary cap figures to keep inflating.

    If Jalen Brunson's trajectory continues as it has over the last couple of seasons, this contract will age fine. And there's reason to believe his role with the Mavericks prevented us from seeing the best he has to offer.

    Over the last two seasons, when Brunson played without Luka, he averaged 22.3 points and 7.5 assists per 75 possessions.

    But the addition of Brunson isn't the only thing that makes New York a winner.

    On top of re-signing Mitchell Robinson, the Knicks landed one of the most intriguing bigs on the market in Isaiah Hartenstein.

    Last season, Hartenstein was in the top 20 in box plus/minus and averaged 17.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 2.3 blocks and 1.5 steals per 75 possessions.

Winner and Loser: Nuggets

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    One of the earliest reported deals of free agency was also one of the most confusing.

    The Denver Nuggets have arguably the best player in the world in back-to-back reigning MVP Nikola Jokic. In theory, looking for a backup center for him is fine. Jokic's skill and durability even allow you to look at minimum contracts for that role.

    But there were (and probably are) plenty of options that made more sense than DeAndre Jordan.

    He's lost athleticism (and seemingly interest) over the last half decade and hasn't been a plus player for any of the six teams he's played for in that span. Over the last five regular and postseasons, Jordan's total plus-minus of minus-607 ranks 972nd (out of 1,004).

    Winning minutes while he's on the floor has proved borderline impossible for a fifth of the league since 2017-18.

    Denver rebounded on Day 2, though, when it came to terms with Bruce Brown on a two-year, $13 million deal.

    Brown was one of the most intriguing young wings on the market this summer.

    The 25-year old started his career as a guard and averaged 4.0 assists in his second season. With the Brooklyn Nets, Steve Nash cleverly used him as a rim runner on offense, where his float and finish game took big strides. In 2021-22, he shot 40.4 percent from three. And all along, he's been a solid wing defender.

    If he puts it all together for the Nuggets, he'll be an excellent fit. And with one of the best playmakers in the world around to feed him, there's reason to believe he will.

Winner: Clippers

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    Assuming health, the Los Angeles Clippers were already set to return one of the deepest, most talented and versatile rotations in the league.

    Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Norman Powell, Marcus Morris Sr., Luke Kennard, Robert Covington, Reggie Jackson, Nicolas Batum and Ivica Zubac will all be back.

    Without adding anyone, they would've been a title contender. Getting John Wall as a flier on the taxpayer's midlevel exception is a steal.

    Wall has only averaged 22.6 appearances per season over the last five seasons, but he put up 7.7 assists per 36 minutes as recently as 2020-21. He's top 10 all time in career assist average.

    Even if he's been robbed of some of his early-career explosiveness, he should still have the vision and passing ability that helped make him an All-Star. And in lineups with Kawhi and George, he'll almost certainly face less defensive attention than he did before the injuries.

Winner and Loser: Utah Jazz

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    A more thorough breakdown of the massive trade that sent Rudy Gobert to the Minnesota Timberwolves can be found here. For now, let's just settle on the idea that the Utah Jazz almost certainly got worse.

    Gobert became Utah's full-time starting 5 ahead of the 2015-16 season. Since then, the Jazz are plus-8.6 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor and minus-0.9 when he's off.

    He's won three Defensive Player of the Year awards and secured three All-Star nods. On top of being the game's premier one-man defense, he's also an elite rim runner and finisher.

    Barring some other dramatic moves this offseason or miraculous improvements from players still on the roster, Utah is going to be worse over the next couple of seasons.

    And if steering toward mediocrity gives Donovan Mitchell an excuse to ask for a trade to a bigger market, this deal could feel like even more of a loss.

    That's a hypothetical, though. And at a certain point, it's almost impossible to say no to certain trade offers.

    Gobert's 30 years old. He's under contract through 2025-26, when he has a $46.7 million player option. There's no guarantee he'll be the player he is now in four years. In fact, it's probably safe to bet he won't be.

    Getting out of that contract and adding a whopping four first-round picks (three of which are unprotected) and a promising young big like Walker Kessler has a heck of a shot at turning out to be a win.

Winner: Timberwolves

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    Having said all that, this is a good gamble by the Minnesota Timberwolves.

    They already have two No. 1 picks (Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards) and a No. 2 (D'Angelo Russell) all under the age of 27 on the roster. At a certain point, they needed to get off the hamster wheel that plenty of rebuilding teams often find themselves on.

    KAT and Edwards are talented enough to lead a team to something real. Adding more first-round picks to them isn't what's going to get them there. A three-time Defensive Player of the Year in the middle of his prime might.

    The fit with Towns and Gobert isn't perfect, but it's also not that hard to see how it could work.

    On offense, KAT already functioned like a 4 alongside Jarred Vanderbilt. He can continue to do that with Gobert, who'll demand a lot more attention in the paint and on rim runs than Vanderbilt did.

    More importantly, Gobert gives the Wolves the game's ultimate defensive safety net. So, even if Towns has a hard time staying in front of playmaking 4s, Gobert will be behind the play to clean things up.

    And if that wasn't enough, Minnesota also added Kyle Anderson, a 4 who can run pick-and-roll, pass and defend a variety of players.

    Lineups with him, Towns and Gobert at spots 3 through 5 may be slower than plenty of opponents, but the length of that group might make up for that disadvantage.

    Adding these two players in this particular moment is exactly how Minnesota should've played this offseason. It's time to cash in.

    Even if things go sour two or three years down the road and regret over the outgoing picks sets in, the Timberwolves should feel confident in the decision they're making right now.

Loser: Brooklyn Nets

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    When the Brooklyn Nets acquired Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in 2019, they could not have possibly foreseen things imploding this thoroughly within three years.

    Sure, Irving had brought more than his fair of drama to situations with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics. KD was seemingly unhappy in a borderline perfect basketball situation with the Golden State Warriors. There were red flags.

    But this?

    KD and Kyrie have only appeared in 44 games together. The Nets have one playoff series win in these three years. And even with four years left on his contract, Durant has reportedly demanded a trade. Kyrie might be a Los Angeles Laker soon.

    To dump Kenny Atkinson and the plucky culture Brooklyn had built ahead of 2019 for what amounted to a three-year meltdown is undoubtedly an L.

    It's not tattooed anywhere, though. Maybe the front office weathers this storm and gets everyone back on the same page, a la the Lakers who ignored Kobe Bryant's trade demand in 2007. Maybe the assets they get in return for Durant and Irving (mostly Durant) help to rebuild that culture.

    In the end, this era might just feel like a bad dream for Nets fans. But they're in the middle of the nightmare now, and that's tough.

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