NBA Teams Who Are Already Killing It in Free Agency

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJuly 7, 2018

NBA Teams Who Are Already Killing It in Free Agency

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    NBA free agency is not yet beyond its initial stage. New contracts are still waiting on the ink to dry. A robust selection of players continues to look for work. The offseason has plenty of news left to break.

    And yet, less than one week into the official start of the Association's silly season, certain teams are already owning the summer—not merely doing well but also stealing the show.

    Many of the biggest winners are smack-you-in-the-face obvious. The Los Angeles Lakers poached the greatest basketball player alive. The Golden State Warriors have incited no fewer than six quadrillion "I'm done...this league is rigged...sim the next 15 seasons" temper tantrums. 

    Other kings of the offseason aren't so brazenly apparent. (This is not to be confused with the Sacramento Kings, who are neither Kings-ing nor summertime kings.) They've reigned over free agency by default or without as much glitz and glam. 

    Who are these picnic-day heroes?

    We're so glad that (we're allowed to assume) you care.

Los Angeles Lakers

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    As a general rule, if you've signed the only player who has ever inspired Michael Jordan takedowns at or near the height of his powers, you're killing it.

    But dammit if the Lakers aren't trying to establish themselves as an inexcusable, inexplicable exception with their post-LeBron James ventures.

    Expectations had to be adjusted once Paul George signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder. And the Lakers shouldn't be penalized for not letting the San Antonio Spurs work them over in Kawhi Leonard trade talks (yet).

    Still, Los Angeles is abusing the leeway and patience afforded by James' three-year commitment (player option in Year 4, per ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst). Even when tethering himself to a kiddie factory, he needs the right mix of veteran help. JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson ain't it.

    As Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes so eloquently put it:

    "You really can't lose an offseason when you sign LeBron. But the Lakers are trying their best. In this cap environment, [Rajon] Rondo and Lance [Stephenson] are bad signings at anything above the minimum for any team. For the Lakers, who need shooting around LeBron, and who SHOULD be able to get value with their cheap roster slots, this is insanity."

    That the Lakers have only doled out one-year deals is their saving grace. Throwing Klutch Sports Group another bone with the Kentavious Caldwell-Pope contract (one year, $12 million) is a calculated goodwill play. Team president Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka have structured the ledger to maximize flexibility for 2019, and a Leonard trade remains in play.

    Mostly, though, the Lakers have LeBron James. LeBron. Freaking. James. Eight consecutive NBA Finals appearances later, he is a dynasty unto himself. He alone doesn't vault them into the Warriors' stratosphere, but he does give them an outside hope of entering it within the next few years.

Golden State Warriors

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    Signing DeMarcus Cousins to a one-year deal for the taxpayer's mid-level exception, per ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski, is only one aspect of Golden State's airtight case.

    Make no mistake—his arrival typifies the unfair. The Warriors' eventual starting five now has more All-NBA selections between them over the past four seasons (13) than the combined total of every current Eastern Conference player (11). Even if this marriage doesn't pan out, the mere opportunity to roll the dice is a victory on its own.

    Coming off a torn Achilles, though, Cousins will be fortunate to join the rotation before 2019. And he'll be even luckier if he's playing 25-plus minutes and closing games by the playoffs. His addition could be more pomp than promise. 

    Melt in that potential inconsequence, and, well, the Warriors are making a mockery of free agency anyway.

    Kevin Durant is returning on another one-plus-one deal that opened the door for Cousins' agreement in the first place. After logging some effective time at the 5 in the postseason, complete with reliable defense in space, Kevon Looney agreed to sign a one-year contract worth less than his $2.2 million club option Golden State declined in October, according to ESPN.com's Chris Haynes.

    And because the Warriors don't lead a charmed enough existence, the Phoenix Suns have to some degree neutralized their biggest roadblock, the Houston Rockets, by signing Trevor Ariza.

    Tack on LeBron's addition to a Lakers squad that won't be more than a top-five blip on the Western Conference radar, and Golden State should feel free to pop champagne now. The road to a three-peat and its fourth title in five years is more inviting formality than exacting challenge.

Indiana Pacers

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    Noticeably upgrading the roster without jeopardizing future flexibility is difficult. The after-LeBron Lakers are proof.

    They've surrounded James with a suboptimal supporting cast, apparently as part of some weirdo plot to de-emphasize shooting and accentuate playmaking and defense, according to ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne and Windhorst. They're now in line for serious cap space next summer, but that wiggle room has come at the expense meaningful additions beyond their crown jewel. 

    The Indiana Pacers have done a better job on the margins. Granted, they didn't land a GOAT candidate. And they don't have to plan around Luol Deng's salary dreck. But they picked up Doug McDermott at a tidy price (three years, $22 million) and are paying Tyreke Evans above-market money ($12 million) to re-enter free agency next summer.

    Signing both will make a difference. So too will Kyle O'Quinn, per Marc Berman of the New York Post. The Pacers offense lazed through a post-All-Star slump, placing 23rd in points scored per 100 possessions—a far cry from their top-six showing over the first leg of the season and the symptom of a larger problem: shot selection.

    Indiana leaned on long mid-rangers more than any other team, according to Cleaning the Glass. Even with half the rotation lighting it up from awkward distances, that distribution is untenable when trying to crack the upper echelon of efficiency. Last year's Minnesota Timberwolves were the exception, and they're due to rediscover solid ground next season.

    Increasing three-point attempts helps neutralize that potential variance. But you need the requisite shooters. The Pacers didn't have high-volume snipers before now. Bojan Bogdanovic and Victor Oladipo were the only players who averaged more than five deep-ball looks per 36 minutes.

    Evans and McDermott marry quantity to efficiency. McDermott canned 42.6 percent of his treys on modest volume last season, and Evans connected on 39.9 percent of his outside shots while attempting more than six per 36 minutes.

    He will be particularly crucial to the Pacers climbing the Eastern Conference totem pole. They have secondary ball-handlers in Darren Collison and Cory Joseph, but he is something more.

    Evans bent defenses as the de facto primary with the Memphis Grizzlies, excelling more so as a central focus than an insurance policy. Curry, Durant and Kyrie Irving were the only other players to average at least 19 points and five assists per game while shooting 39 percent or better from beyond the arc.

    To gain so much value while maintaining access to around $50 million in space next summer, even after accounting for Myles Turner's restricted free-agency hold, is absurd. In doing so, the Pacers have struck the most delicate balance of all—especially for an overachiever like themselves. They've done a lot without doing too much.

Philadelphia 76ers

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    On its face, the Philadelphia 76ers' body of work is a disappointment. They signed neither James nor George. Leonard is still San Antonio. They missed out on contingency wings like Caldwell-Pope, Evans, Will Barton and Avery Bradley. Marco Belinelli (Spurs) and Ersan Ilyasova (Milwaukee Bucks) are gone.

    Absence of home run activity is not a failure, though. The Sixers have not done nothing. Much like the Pacers, they've dominated on the margins. 

    Absorbing Wilson Chandler from the Denver Nuggets is a good use of cap space. He gives them another switchable body at the 2 through 4 spots, and his so-so three-point clip (35.8 percent last season) should spike in four-out-plus-Ben-Simmons lineups. 

    Scooping up Nemanja Bjelica for one year at the room exception, per Jake Fischer of Sports Illustrated, is an equally shrewd move. (Nice job hard-capping yourself for Anthony Tolliver, a good player at a higher price point who doesn't fill a need, Minnesota.) He won't replicate Ilyasova's subtle rebounding, but he will rival his range and is better suited to defend in space. Philly can get minutes at the 5 from him as well. 

    Bringing back JJ Redick on a one-year deal is yet another play that cannot be undersold. Paying him $23 million last season and around $12 million now increases the likelihood that he views his tenure in the aggregate, as a dissociated multiyear deal.

    This matters. The Sixers are on track for around $35 million or more in space next summer if they renounce all their own free agents. They can carve out even more by declining one or more of their five team options. 

    Max money will come in handy during 2019 free agency. Stud wings Jimmy Butler (player option), Leonard (player option), Khris Middleton (player option) and Klay Thompson can hit the open market. And maybe Redick then signs for $5 million in 2019, making this a three-year, $40 million marriage, to facilitate Philly's flexibility before capitalizing on a full Bird rights deal in 2020.

    The Sixers are not worlds better after the moves they've made. They don't need to be. Their starkest improvements can come from the growth of Simmons, Joel Embiid, Markelle Fultz, Dario Saric and even 2018 first-rounder Zhaire Smith. 

    In essence, they've positioned themselves to match last season's 52-win effort without squandering the opportunity to accelerate their timeline via free agency and the trade market. Their small-scale moves qualify as a big-time victory.

Boston Celtics

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    Retaining Aron Baynes on a two-year agreement is not akin to firing a kill shot at the rest of the league. But the Boston Celtics never needed to do much of anything to emerge from free agency more powerful than before.

    They only needed to sit back, dot their T's, cross their I's and allow the landscape to shift in their favor.

    Mission accomplished.

    The Celtics are now the Eastern Conference's oligarch. While they're getting stronger from within, thanks to the eventual returns of Gordon Hayward and Irving, their most direct competitors are either running in place or weaker for wear.

    James hasn't just consigned the Cleveland Cavaliers to relative obscurity with his latest departure; he's assisted Boston's rise by vacating the East altogether.

    The Toronto Raptors have neither cut costs nor deepened their roster. The Bucks' biggest splash remains the addition of head coach Mike Budenholzer—an admirable hire, sure, but not a miracle-worker. 

    Dwight Howard and Austin Rivers do not make the Washington Wizards more than a tangential concern. The Pacers have leveled up their feel-good story, but they're not an imminent threat to the throne. 

    With Embiid and Simmons, the Sixers are in a class all their own—below the Celtics. They've whiffed on adding an A-lister thus far. Internal leaps from Embiid, Simmons, Saric and a fully operational Fultz only mean so much against a 55-win outfit preparing to welcome back two top-20 players.

    If Boston loses Marcus Smart to restricted free agency, its shine will fade some. Standing by as Philadelphia acquires Leonard from San Antonio would have the same effect.

    For now, the Celtics are sitting pretty without a fault to find.

                                    

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM. Unless otherwise noted, contract agreements via Spotrac.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.