2018 NBA Free Agency Roundup: Major Questions That Already Got Answered

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 3, 2018

2018 NBA Free Agency Roundup: Major Questions That Already Got Answered

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    Speculation is the main appeal of NBA free agency, but we've seen an unusual amount of early action sweep away many of the biggest prospective uncertainties.

    We know where LeBron James will play next year. Same for Paul George, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, DeAndre Jordan and several other potentially landscape-altering names. It took mere hours for the vast majority of free-agent speculation to disappear.

    With so much coming together so fast, it's important to keep track of what we've learned from all this action.

    What trends are emerging? What's the fallout of the biggest signings? Which teams spent wisely, and which didn't? Just as critically, which organizations are now positioned to pick up the leftovers at a major discount?

    If you're looking to get a grip on a free-agency picture that coalesced far faster than usual, here's what we know so far.

Is the Money Gone?

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    Pretty much, yeah.

    When free agency began, there were eight teams capable of carving out at least $15 million in cap space without renouncing key incumbents or otherwise gutting their rosters: the Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns, Indiana Pacers, Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, Sacramento Kings, Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers

    Dallas, Phoenix and Indy have all used up chunks of their space. The Hawks, Bulls and Kings aren't at places in their developmental arcs where paying quality, established vets makes any sense. They're rebuilding, and the more robust 2019 market seems to be nudging them toward frugality for now. What's more, players interested in winning are less inclined to sign with those organizations anyway. The Lakers added a big free agent, as you may have heard, and the Sixers re-upped with JJ Redick.

    So if you're a free agent in search of more than the mid-level exception from a competitive team, your options are almost entirely exhausted.

    We all knew this might happen at some point in free agency, but seeing the money dry up on the first day was jarring.

Are Huge Value Buys Coming?

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    Since so much money disappeared so fast, contenders and patient members of the league's middle class can now expect to extract ridiculous value from the heap of players still unclaimed.

    The full mid-level exception of around $8.6 million is practically the ceiling of what most clubs can offer now. Several only have the reduced taxpayer MLE of $5.3 million. This is rotten news for players who could have expected annual salaries of $15 million in the spending frenzy of 2016. Sometimes, timing is just unfair.

    Restricted free agents figure to be victims as well. Aaron Gordon got what seemed like a hefty four-year, $84 million deal from the Orlando Magic. But that contract came in nearly $30 million below his max, and Gordon is easily the RFA with the greatest star potential. In any other summer, he would have done better on the market.

    The rest—Marcus Smart, Jabari Parker, Zach LaVine, et al.—must now continue negotiating with their current teams knowing they've lost what little leverage they had. If nobody has money to put forth a market-rate offer sheet, teams owning restricted rights can low-ball their own free agents. The only real tool at the RFA's disposal is accepting the qualifying offer for 2018-19 and entering unrestricted free agency a year from now. Leaving multiyear money on the table is a huge risk, though. We should expect many restricted free agents to stick with their teams on deals that would seem shockingly cheap by normal standards.

    Meanwhile, the rich are about to get richer. If you're a quality free agent choosing between several teams' MLE or minimum-salary slots, don't you want to get your checks from a club that gives you a chance to win? All things being equal, competing teams' money is always going to go further.

Can We Ever Be Sure of Anything Again?

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    Paul George will not play for the Los Angeles Lakers in 2018-19, which means the most iron-clad, stone-cold lock of free agency didn't come to pass.

    He agreed to stick with the Oklahoma City Thunder on a four-year, $137 million deal, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

    It's difficult to overstate how stunning this is, and the shock of it all gets amplified by the fact that George made his decision to stay with the Oklahoma City Thunder so quickly, without even taking a meeting with the Lakers.

    George, who forced his way off the Indiana Pacers because he intended to sign with L.A. in 2018 (which is now), who was seemingly no more than a rental in OKC, whose past contact with the Lakers incurred a $500,000 tampering fine from the league, who would have fit perfectly alongside LeBron James and whatever other big fish L.A. can land, is locked in with the Thunder for another three years. Barring a trade, PG will never play for the Lakers in his prime.

    Instead, he'll remain with a tax-crippled team occupying a spot at least two tiers short of serious contention—and that's if Russell Westbrook's athleticism doesn't diminish when he turns 30 in November.

    This is proof that the NBA refuses to be predictable and that no matter how much we think we know, free agency always finds a way to warp reality, making certainty a total illusion.

    Just something to keep in mind next time we start pegging a major move (say, Anthony Davis to the Boston Celtics) as a foregone conclusion.

Are the Nuggets Done for the Summer?

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    The Denver Nuggets will retain franchise center Nikola Jokic on a five-year, $148 million contract, per Wojnarowski, and agreed to terms with free agent Will Barton on a four-year, $54 million pact, as reported by Chris Haynes of ESPN.

    You'd think Denver was finished with its offseason work, but all that spending means the real labor is just beginning.

    Locking in a core at this cost has the Nuggets projected for nearly $60 million in luxury tax payments. On top of payroll, that means a club that didn't make the postseason in 2017-18 (and just watched the Lakers vault over it in the conference hierarchy) is slated to spend almost $200 million on its roster.

    We should now expect the Nuggets to shed bad moneyKenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur, Wilson Chandler and Mason Plumlee come to mind—however possible. The lack of teams with cap space to burn will complicate matters. Denver will almost certainly have to attach draft picks to move its unwanted contracts, but there aren't many teams with space to absorb them in the first place.

    The Nuggets can expect internal improvement from Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris. Paul Millsap should be healthier this year. Michael Porter Jr. is an intriguing lottery ticket.

    But Denver is going to get worse on the margins in the short term by paring its payroll, and the effort will seriously damage its future asset pool. This is a big bet on a core that hasn't proved anything yet.

Are the Dallas Mavericks Trying to Have It Both Ways?

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    Dennis Smith Jr. and Luka Doncic give the Dallas Mavericks a promising tandem for the future, but agreeing to terms with DeAndre Jordan means the Mavs aren't remotely ready to abandon the present.

    Jordan's deal, reported by Marc Stein of the New York Times to be for one year at a figure right in line with the $24.1 million he opted out of with the Los Angeles Clippers, is logical in one sense: It's not a long-term commitment to a conventional center who's nearing his 30s. But there's an opportunity cost to consider, as Dallas could have easily spread that money around to several other pieces, many of whom could have been closer to the Smith-Doncic age band.

    Adding Jordan telegraphs Dallas' intention to be relevant in 2018-19, which is only fair to Dirk Nowitzki, who deserves to play semi-competitive basketball as long as he can.

    But what if the Mavs had thrown an offer sheet at Aaron Gordon instead? What if they'd trimmed a bit more salary and gone for Clint Capela? If youth wasn't the play, what if they'd divvied up Jordan's money and spent some on Derrick Favors and/or Avery Bradley? Grabbing guys of that ilk, who'd profile as perfectly fine starters or awesome bench options, would have locked in depth without preventing the Mavs from chasing major free agents going forward.

    Credit Dallas for remaining flexible and not committing to DJ on a multiyear deal, but make sure to set aside a little concern, too. It's hard to play for now and later at the same time, and that's what the Mavs are doing.

Is Shooting Still King?

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    The Pacers spent some of their precious cap space on Doug McDermott, agreeing on a three-year, $22 million deal early in free agency, per Wojnarowski. Maybe Indiana knew it wasn't going to get any of the bigger restricted options (Gordon, again, would have been nice here), but devoting a big chunk of space to a player who's joining his fifth team in five years says everything about the continued premium on shooting.

    McDermott can knock down a trey, as evidenced by his 40.3 percent career conversion rate, and that was enough for the Pacers.

    Marco Belinelli, an aging, defense-averse guard, got $12 million over two years from the San Antonio Spurs. Joe Harris agreed on a two-year, $16 million pact to stay with the Brooklyn Nets. JJ Redick is back in Philly on a one-year contract worth $12-13 million.

    Redick is the best of this bunch, but he's a role-filler at age 34. And he still got substantially more than the mid-level.

    Even in a tight market, shooting is still the hottest commodity.

Will We See a Weirder Signing Than Trevor Ariza to Phoenix?

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    Everything about the Phoenix Suns' agreement with Trevor Ariza on a one-year, $15 million deal made perfect sense...except that the Suns are involved.

    Phoenix isn't committing long-term money, which is good for a rebuilding team that should be aiming for young stars with its cap space. In theory, the Suns can flip Ariza to a contender at the deadline, hopefully bringing back another draft asset to add to the war chest.

    Maintaining Ariza's value for a future trade means playing him, though, which will require the Suns to siphon minutes away from Josh Jackson, Mikal Bridges and T.J. Warren—all of whom need time to develop. It's possible Phoenix will choose to play smaller and marginalize Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, but that's another unpalatable option. The Suns need to figure out if those two have a future with the team, and it's a lot harder to gather information about a player's development when he's not, you know, playing.

    If the Suns wanted mature veteran influence for a young roster, Jared Dudley is still on board, making $9.5 million this year.

    It's mildly surprising that Ariza couldn't find a multiyear deal on the market. He was vital to the Houston Rockets' excellent switching defense last season; you'd think a contender would have ponied up at least three years at the full MLE. At 33 and facing imminent age-related decline, Ariza's decision to re-enter free agency in a year is especially risky.

    Neither team nor player seems to make out well with this deal. I'm not sure we'll see a stranger one the rest of the way.

Are the Warriors Still Winning the Summer?

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    Though James' joining the Lakers and potentially creating another monster in the West should concern the Golden State Warriors, the defending champions answered Los Angeles with the second-biggest move of the offseason so far. 

    The Warriors and DeMarcus Cousins agreed to an astonishingly cheap one-year, $5.3 million deal. Adding Cousins to their already historically loaded roster makes them the unquestioned winners of the summer, despite James' move to Hollywood. 

    Even before landing Cousins, the Warriors were having a solid offseason. First, Ariza ditched the Rockets, leaving a perimeter void Houston will struggle to fill. Cap constraints limit the Rockets' options, and there's not a comparably useful three-and-D wing available even if they could pay market rates.

    Kevin Durant agreed to a one-plus-one deal, first reported by Haynes, taking a discount of around $5.7 million next season, according to The Athletic's Danny Leroux. Deep into the tax, that sacrifice by Durant will save the Warriors as much as $29.1 million in actual payroll costs. The Warriors subsequently made that money go a long, long way by agreeing to sign Cousins.

    Finally, though James is in Los Angeles, Paul George isn't there with him. While Kawhi Leonard or one of a handful of other dangerous options could wind up with the Lakers, Golden State can at least take solace in the fact that it won't see a James/Leonard/George lineup in a playoff series. That trio would have made Houston's excellent defensive performance in last year's conference finals look quaint by comparison.

    The Dubs added an All-Star talent for the mid-level exception, saw their chief rival get worse, saved money while retaining a superstar and dodged the PG-to-LA bullet.

    Oh, and they extended head coach Steve Kerr's deal, per Wojnarowski, which didn't cost a dime of free-agent cash.

    Yes, they're winning the summer. 

       

    *This slide was updated after DeMarcus Cousins agreed to sign with the Warriors. 

Can You Sign LeBron and Still Lose the Offseason?

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    The Lakers sure are trying their best to find out.

    In this cap environment, Lance Stephenson (one year, $4.4 million, per Charania) and Rajon Rondo (one year, $9 million, per Charania) would have been bad signings at anything above the minimum for any team. For the Lakers, who need shooting around James and should have been able to get value with their cheap roster slots, this is inexplicable.

    And that's before even getting to the fact that freeing up the money for Rondo required renouncing Julius Randle's rights to clear his cap hold, per Wojnarowski. Randle then quickly agreed to sign a two-year deal with the New Orleans Pelicans.

    L.A. still has flexibility for 2019. It could still swing a deal for Leonard. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope agreed to sign for what feels like a below-market rate (one year, $12 million, per Charania). All's not lost.

    But James is 33 and, despite heaps of evidence to the contrary, mortal. Surrounding him with players who'll cramp spacing, make his job harder and provide suspect defensive support means the Lakers aren't maximizing their first go-round with the King. It's fine to have long-term goals, but when players enter their mid-30s, no matter how great they are, the time to build a winning roster is now.

    The Lakers are doing everything in their power to offset the massive win of adding James.

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