Thursday NBA Free-Agency Roundup: The Costliest Whiffs of Free Agency So Far

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 6, 2018

Thursday NBA Free-Agency Roundup: The Costliest Whiffs of Free Agency So Far

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    Not everyone can win the NBA's free-agency period. It's a zero-sum game, after all. 

    When the Golden State Warriors poached DeMarcus Cousins away from the other 29 organizations populating the Association, they won that move while the rest of the league lost. Ditto for the Los Angeles Lakers after LeBron James chose to grace the Purple and Gold with his Father Time-defying presence. Each of these moves benefits the chosen team, while the remaining ones engage in a whiff forceful enough to lower the air temperature. 

    But some of these misfires impact one organization even more directly. 

    Take the New Orleans Pelicans, who were building a compelling squad around Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. Not only was the team thriving before Cousins went down with a ruptured Achilles—if anyone tells you the bayou residents are definitively better without Boogie, please check to see if they reside in Bomont and are utterly opposed to players with dance-related nicknames—but also it benefited tremendously from the inspired postseason play of Rajon Rondo. 

    Both those players are now gone, departed to the Warriors and Lakers, respectively. For New Orleans, that's not one, but two whiffs. 

    If it gives the Pelicans any comfort, at least they're not alone. 

       

The Costliest Whiffs

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    Minnesota Complacency

    If you need one symbolic signing that represents the Minnesota Timberwolves' futility this offseason, that's a simple request. Adding Anthony Tolliver on a one-year deal worth $5 million, as first reported by Yahoo Sports' Shams Charania, is a justifiable move that fills a need (floor spacing from the second-unit frontcourt), but the deal came so early in the free-agency period and hard-capped the organization, essentially preventing it from making any other splashes. 

    Given how quickly money is drying up in the current market, that's a bit troubling—reminiscent of the Detroit Pistons hard-capping themselves last offseason to sign Langston Galloway during free agency's opening salvo. And that's not good news if the franchise is trying to win over a potentially disgruntled Jimmy Butler. 

    "A league source said Butler, who has been frustrated with the nonchalant attitudes of younger teammates—specifically Karl-Anthony Towns—does not intend to sign an extension with the Timberwolves," Joe Cowley reported for the Chicago Sun-Times

    A potentially malcontent star? Essentially swapping a 30-year-old Nemanja Bjelica (who's now making less money) for a 33-year-old Tolliver in a move that won't disprove front-office nonchalance? That sounds like a whiff. 

      

    Philadelphia Luring Stars

    The Philadelphia 76ers have done just fine making low-level moves. Absorbing Wilson Chandler into their cap space is a positive, especially because they picked up a second-round pick in the process. JJ Redick is coming back, and Nemanja Bjelica (more on him shortly) could be a savvy addition to the second unit. 

    But the Sixers are still whiffing on their top priority. 

    Blessed with plentiful cap space and a roster brimming with young, prodigious talents, this squad was in prime position to pair an established star with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. It was supposed to be a contender in the LeBron James chase (nope). It was supposed to have a shot at Paul George, who was a perfect fit alongside the incumbent standouts (nope). It was supposed to be capable of putting together a convincing package for Kawhi Leonard (nope...for now, at least). 

    Upgrading marginally is better than nothing, but this wasn't the original play in the City of Brotherly Love. 

       

    Anthony Davis Losing His Kentucky Friends

    This one is legitimately troubling, and not just because the New Orleans Pelicans' upside is capped in 2018-19 without the returns of a recovering DeMarcus Cousins and a motivated Rajon Rondo. They've covered their bases deftly with a buy-low flier on Elfrid Payton, but that's just not the same. 

    This would be true in a talent-driven vacuum, but it's especially relevant because Anthony Davis' happiness is of paramount importance. If you thought he was a mainstay in trade rumors during prior go-rounds, just wait and see what happens if the Pelicans aren't already functioning as playoff locks when calendars flip over to 2019.  

    "Sources close to Anthony Davis have confirmed to me that he was neither aware nor consulted on the progress or deteriation [sic] of contract talks between the Pelicans and Rajon Rondo and that he wasn't pleased," CrescentCitySports.com's David M. Grubb revealed in the aftermath of Rondo's departure to the Los Angeles Lakers. "How this impacts his relationship with management remains to be seen."

    Maybe this becomes a nonstory. But the tiniest hint of a communication breakdown can morph from a molehill to a mountain in no time, and the Pelicans can't afford to upset their franchise cornerstone in the slightest. 

       

    Houston Missing Out on Key Pieces

    Perhaps the Houston Rockets could've taken down the Warriors if Chris Paul's hamstring hadn't betrayed him during the tail end of the Western Conference Finals. But as we've seen time and time again throughout NBA history, franchises often only get one legitimate shot at overthrowing a dynastic force.

    Houston may have squandered its lone shot. It may get another one. Which of those hypotheticals becomes reality remains to be seen, but this offseason isn't helping the franchise stay within sniffing distance of the defending champions—the defending champions who are only continuing to improve, no less. 

    Losing Trevor Ariza to the Phoenix Suns is a big deal, considering his importance to the Rockets on both ends of the floor. Luc Mbah a Moute is still bouncing around the open market and has been linked to the Washington Wizards, per Candace Buckner of the Washington Post. Adding Michael Carter-Williams—and potentially Nick Young, if reports from USA Today's Kelly Iko come to fruition—won't make up for those departures. 

    Any slippage from the Warriors' primary challenger has to be considered a whiff, and we haven't even touched on the still unsigned Clint Capela. The big man could be brought back on a max contract and can't reasonably escape Houston because of his restricted status, but retaining him would represent stagnation rather than the needed upgrade.

    And given the lack of momentum on this front, even that's not guaranteed. 

       

    Orlando Needs Guards Badly

    Kudos to the Orlando Magic for bringing back Aaron Gordon (though I must admit, I'm still not entirely sold on him being worthy of a four-year, $84 million contract). That leaves this organization boasting plenty of intriguing talent in the frontcourt, given the enduring presences of Gordon and Jonathan Isaac while Mo Bamba prepares to make his NBA debut. 

    But point guard remains a glaring hole, and the Magic haven't made any progress on that front. Not only did they fail to add anyone at the position during the draft, but they couldn't land any agreements during the opening portion of free agency. Now, that process gets even tougher because money is scarce and most floor generals worth rostering will likely want to enjoy better shots at the postseason. 

    This isn't a joke. At the moment, D.J. Augustin is Orlando's only point guard. Seriously. 

    Perhaps you don't think that's too troubling because the Magic are still in the rebuilding process and don't need to have a keeper at every position. But if that's your thought process, keep in mind that the development of forwards and bigs is often predicated upon the play of the 1-guards who are tasked with getting them the rock and setting them up for success. 

Nemanja Bjelica Joining the 76ers

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    The Philadelphia 76ers aren't retroactively getting their paws on LeBron James or Paul George. They haven't (yet) made any inroads in the pursuit of Kawhi Leonard, which would basically end their chances of acquiring an established star to pair with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. 

    But after landing Wilson Chandler in a trade with the Denver Nuggets, they're continuing to build up their depth with the signing of Nemanja Bjelica. As reported by Sports Illustrated's Jake Fischer, the Sixers are acquiring the sharp-shooting power forward with their room mid-level exception, which means he'll be making $4.4 million in 2018-19 before hitting the open market again next offseason. 

    Expect him to immediately slot into the role previously filled by the now-departed Ersan Ilyasova. Bjelica struggles to hold his own on the boards and doesn't ever resemble a point-preventing ace, particularly when he's tasked with serving as the last line of defense on the interior. He's not much of a passer and rarely puts the ball on the floor to create his own looks. 

    But this 30-year-old power forward can stroke the basketball. 

    During the final go-round of his three-year stint with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Bjelica took 2.7 triples per game and connected at a 41.5 percent clip—numbers matched or exceeded by only 19 qualified players. That's exactly what the Sixers need while looking to provide spacing for the basket assaults embarked upon by Simmons, or when trying to draw defenders away from Embiid as he looks to attack from the blocks. The second unit needs spacers for the drives of Markelle Fultz, as well. 

    This isn't a glamorous signing, but it's a good one all the same. 

LeBron Trusting the Process?

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    No, this doesn't mean LeBron James is backtracking on his four-year deal with the Los Angeles Lakers and instead deciding to join the Philadelphia 76ers. Sorry! 

    But the four-time MVP still seems content to sit back and accept everything that's happening around him as Magic Johnson endeavors to build a competitive, albeit unorthodox, roster for the Los Angeles Lakers. The signings of Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and JaVale McGee remain questionable (even if you look at the silver linings and focus on the defensive upside and maintained cap flexibility for 2019), but they apparently represent the actual plan in Tinseltown. 

    As Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst reported for ESPN.com, these moves were planned from the onset of free agency: 

    "Here is the answer: exactly what James and Lakers president Magic Johnson planned when they met for more than three hours on the first night of free agency. According to multiple sources within the Lakers and close to James, this is the rollout of a plan Johnson outlined for James the night of June 30 at James' home. The subsequent deals, which sources say James has consulted on but have been executed at Johnson and Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka's direction, follow this vision.

    "It may seem like an unconventional plan, considering current trends. It may be a plan that takes time to come together, especially early in the season, when new habits will be tested. It may, in fact, be a plan that ultimately fails.

    "But the Lakers are indeed attempting to chart a new course for James' Lakers future, one that is vastly different from the style of basketball he played with the Cleveland Cavaliers."

    That's...interesting. And it's important to note that successful execution of a plan does not mean the plan was logical in and of itself. But here we are, and there's no going back as the Lakers attempt to maximize the next year of James' extended prime.  

    Also worth noting? The league's best player doesn't seem intent on forcing the title window open with the acquisition of a celestial sidekick. Cue ESPN.com's Zach Lowe

    "LeBron is a Laker, and he is not pressuring L.A. to acquire a second star now, per sources familiar with his thinking. His decision to come alone for three guaranteed seasons speaks for itself. He knows Ingram has at least borderline All-Star potential, and that the 2019 free-agency class is loaded beyond Leonard. He has faith in the combined powers of his supernova talent and the Lakers brand.

    "His patience will have limits. But reading between the lines, the Lakers probably have the next calendar year before LeBron applies urgent pressure."

    If you've been hoping against hope that the current Los Angeles depth chart was only a placeholder before the Lakers acquire more established talents and avoid wasting a year of peak James, it's time to start accepting reality.

    Yes, it's probably a painful process. 

Players off the Table in Kawhi Leonard Talks

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    The Kawhi Leonard saga continues to drag on, and it features strange new developments at every turn. The newest one may not be surprising, but that doesn't prevent it from looking off-the-wall and more than a little hilarious. 

    "There was a point during [Kawhi's] rehab process in New York that some of the Spurs brass went out to see him in New York," ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright explained on the Back To Back podcast (h/t NBC Sports' Kurt Helin). "As soon as those guys arrived to the building, Kawhi's people grabbed him and sequestered him to another part of the building. And so the Spurs' people couldn't even see him."

    Add it to the former Defensive Player of the Year's laundry list of talents. 

    He's a legitimate perimeter stopper. He's capable of exploding for 30 points on any night—to the extent that he's become the rare player capable of altering the tried-and-true offensive system deployed by San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. Apparently, he's also a hide-and-seek master. 

    But the growing catalog of skills isn't preventing other teams from holding onto their marquee trade assets. 

    "They've [Lakers] been willing to offer what they consider to be a fair package, but they've made it very clear to San Antonio that Kyle Kuzma is off limits…they're not letting go of Kuzma," Stephen A. Smith claimed, per ESPN Los Angeles. Meanwhile, ESPN.com's Zach Lowe reported the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics are unwilling to include Markelle Fultz and Jaylen Brown, respectively, in any packages. 

    Unfortunately, we're nowhere close to clarity on this front. 

    Every piece of news makes it clearer that the relationship between Leonard and the Spurs organization is fractured beyond repair. But if San Antonio and the franchises willing to trade for the injured small forward are unable to find common ground, what's going to happen?

Dennis Schroder to the New Orleans Pelicans?

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    According to WDSU's Fletcher Mackel, the New Orleans Pelicans might have interest in a disgruntled point guard who's under contract with the Atlanta Hawks: "NBA source tells me #Pelicans have 'had discussions' about acquiring Atlanta Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder in trade. Unsure how far talks got. I'm told NOLA likes his talent, potential fit on court...but has major concerns about his pending legal issues (felony assault)."

    To be clear, felony charges were recommended in Schroder's case, which stems from a September fight, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Michael Cunningham.    

    Everything hinges on what the Pelicans offer. 

    Atlanta owes Schroder $15.5 million during each of the next three seasons, and he isn't its point guard of the future after the draft-day addition of Trae Young. But would it be enough for New Orleans to send over Solomon Hill and a heavily protected first-round pick that would likely convert into a second-round selection down the road? 

    That's the most realistic package between these teams, and it should appease both sides. Hill isn't essential to the Pelicans' plans, and getting anything for a floor general who has expressed interest in joining a different organization has to please the Hawks. That Hill's contract expires a year sooner than Schroder's is only gravy. 

    But why is New Orleans interested? 

    It already has Jrue Holiday and Frank Jackson, and Elfrid Payton is heading back to his hometown squad on a one-year deal. Point guard isn't a primary need for a team that's still struggling to surround Holiday and Anthony Davis with high-caliber wings. 

    Perhaps the Pelicans are convinced Schroder's upside is worth the investment, so long as Atlanta's asking price doesn't rise too high. Maybe this was nothing more than a perfunctory display of interest as New Orleans does its due diligence. But if it's something more, the Hawks have to be overjoyed they might have found a buyer. 

Top Remaining Free Agents

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    The free-agency wheels are still turning—but at a molasses-like pace. Thursday's "biggest" agreements included those between international sharpshooter Ryan Broekhoff and the Dallas Mavericks (per Yahoo Sports' Shams Charania), and Nik Stauskas and the Portland Trail Blazers (per an NBA.com release), but those aren't headline-grabbers. Fortunately, plenty of intriguing names are still scattered throughout the open market, led by these five from our original big board:

                           

    1. Clint Capela, C, Restricted

    Age: 24

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.9 points, 10.8 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.9 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 24.5 PER2.14 RPM124.08 TPA

    One of the league's most talented roll men as well as an emerging defender capable of impacting the proceedings like a full-fledged star, Clint Capela is a virtual lock to return to the Houston Rockets. He's a restricted free agent, so the Rockets could just exercise their rights of first refusal and bring him back if he somehow convinced another organization to hand him a max offer sheet in this money-starved environment. 

    Or he could go a different route. As he's been unable to parlay his talents and youth into an offer at this early stage of free agency, that might be an emerging possibility. 

    "From what I understand, [Capela's] initial meeting with the Rockets didn't go as he was expecting it to. There's not a big long-term offer, I hear, that he's comfortable signing right now," ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne revealed, per Blazers Edge's Sagar Trika. She also indicated he could settle for the qualifying offer and hit unrestricted free agency next summer. 

                  

    2. Marcus Smart, PG, Restricted

    Age: 24

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 10.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.4 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 10.8 PER0.96 RPMminus-16.14 TPA

    All is quiet on this front. No true rumors have emerged linking Marcus Smart to any other organizations.

    However, Smart is losing leverage every day. Precious little money is available for restricted free agents this year, and it's unlikely he'll be able to parlay his defensive talent and relentless hustle into anything more than the mid-level exception from another front office. A cheap reunion with Beantown is likely still in the cards, which would allow head coach Brad Stevens to continue maximizing Smart's unique talents. 

    That said, some cracks are emerging between interested parties. Per Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald, the two sides haven't spoken since the start of free agency, and some quotes from an anonymous source are rather damning: 

    "He would have thought there would have been some kind of three- to four-year deal from them to show they're interested. But the qualifying offer is the only one he has received, and there's been no talk since free agency opened. He's most disappointed that there has been no reaching out from their end.

    "He's just hurt and frustrated that Danny [Ainge] hasn't reached out. That's the most discouraging part of this whole thing. The last contact was a few days before free agency started."

    Stay tuned.

            

    3. Isaiah Thomas, PG, Unrestricted

    Age: 29

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 15.2 points, 2.1 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.1 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 12.6 PERminus-4.32 RPMminus-91.9 TPA

    "Isaiah Thomas and the Orlando Magic are negotiating a possible deal, according to league sources. Nothing has been agreed to yet, but it seems both sides want to get this done," Alex Kennedy reported for HoopsHype. 

    So long as the price doesn't escalate (and it likely won't rise any higher than the mid-level exception), that's an agreement that could make sense for both sides. Orlando, as evidenced by its placement on our earlier list of whiffers, desperately needs a point guard. Thomas could use a home that will let him start and take control of an offense. 

    But Kennedy's report came two days ago, and we haven't heard anything since. Could this be nothing more than smoke and mirrors for a player whose stock plunged throughout the 2017-18 campaign?

            

    4. Jabari Parker, PF, Restricted

    Age: 23

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.6 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.3 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 17.1 PERminus-2.88 RPMminus-26.83 TPA

    As Bleacher Report's Dan Favale wrote in a free-agency roundup earlier this week, "Aaron Gordon received a four-year, $84 million contract from the Magic. Julius Randle is getting two years and $18 million from the New Orleans Pelicans. Where does this leave Jabari Parker, a fellow restricted free-agent power forward? Good luck figuring that out."

    No reports have emerged to help us find the answer.

    Perhaps the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls or Sacramento Kings are waiting for money to continue drying up before signing him to an exorbitant offer sheet. No one else should have the combination of cap space and interest necessary to make a play for him. Failing that, he could sign an extended contract that would reunite him with the Milwaukee Bucks or just accept the qualifying offer and hit unrestricted free agency next summer. 

    The possibilities might be limited, but at least he still has options.

                

    5. Kyle Anderson, SF/PF, Restricted

    Age: 24

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 7.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.8 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 15.9 PER3.12 RPM156.6 TPA

    Though the San Antonio Spurs haven't yet figured out how to maximize Kyle Anderson's talents and glued him to the bench in important playoff situations because of his shooting struggles, he remains an intriguing forward who can play multiple positions and excel defensively. For whatever reason, it remains unfathomable to picture this slow-footed 24-year-old wearing any other threads. 

    Maybe that's why we're not hearing anything that links him with other organizations...or the Spurs, for that matter.  

              

    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com. News of agreed-upon deals via NBA.com's free-agent tracker unless otherwise noted.

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