NBA Free-Agency Roundup: Isaiah Thomas Signing Comes with No Risk, High Reward
Feel free to stop and take a breath, especially now that another domino has fallen.
As reported by ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski, Isaiah Thomas has agreed to a one-year minimum contract with the Denver Nuggets, for whom he'll attempt to rebound from his disappointing 2017-18 campaign before hitting 2019's free-agency period in better standing. The diminutive point guard couldn't get anything going with either the Cleveland Cavaliers or Los Angeles Lakers after the surprise trade centered around Kyrie Irving moved him outside his established comfort zone with the Boston Celtics, but he's now landing in a situation that represents the perfect balance of risk and reward.
Though the early portion of the 2018 NBA offseason featured fast-and-furious action as LeBron James donned a Los Angeles Lakers uniform, DeMarcus Cousins joined the Golden State Warriors and so many other big-name players decided on their immediate futures, the rumor mill had slowed down considerably prior to the Thomas news. But that's largely due to a lack of money, not a talent void on what remains of the open market.
So journey with us as we first break down the Thomas signing, then, based on some combination of informed speculation, external reports and that good-old gut feeling, help tell you where the top five remaining free agents will end up when the dust firmly settles.
Unwrapping the Isaiah Thomas Deal
Every quality signing blends together risk and reward in sterling fashion, and this one is no different.
If Thomas is unable to rekindle the magic that made him one of the league's most devastating offensive threats in 2016-17, the Nuggets can cut ties with him for only a minimal cost, instead turning to up-and-comers such as Monte Morris while attempting to plug the gap behind Jamal Murray on the projected depth chart. Thomas, meanwhile, would just be back where he started—searching for a long-term home and attempting to prove his hip injury isn't going to wreck what was once such a promising career.
But what if it does work?
The Nuggets have prided themselves on their offensive prowess for a few years running, to the point that head coach Mike Malone has entirely switched philosophies. Though he entered Colorado as a signal-caller who focused first and foremost on defense, he's now embraced the high-scoring habits and attempted to maximize the team's production around the promising young core comprised of Murray, Will Barton, Gary Harris and Nikola Jokic.
Thomas only adds to that identity.
In peak form, he can settle in as a high-scoring sixth man functioning as a change of pace whenever he enters the proceedings. That he has chemistry with Malone from their mutual time with the Sacramento Kings only adds to the upside, since it should presumably take him less time to build a synergistic relationship with both the coaching staff and his new teammates. His potential in the Mile High City may still be capped by his role—he's not displacing the Murray/Harris backcourt anytime soon—but small-ball lineups do allow for even more opportunities.
This is a shot at redemption for Thomas, who can prove quite a bit by accepting the aforementioned role off the pine and excelling in it. It's a sad continuation of his fall from grace, as he went from valiantly leading Boston into the playoffs as an All-NBA point guard who expected a Brinks truck to carry his inevitable free-agency payday, to accepting a minimum contract and a bench role. But above all else, it's a strong landing spot with a playoff-hungry organization that had a serious void to fill in the second unit.
Thomas could view this conclusion to his free-agency saga negatively. If he embraces the situation, though, he could channel that old Mr. Irrelevant mindset and add "underpaid in free agency" to a list of qualifications that already includes "overlooked on draft night."
5. Dirk Nowitzki
Team: Dallas Mavericks
Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.0 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.6 blocks
We won't spend much time here.
The Dallas Mavericks declined Dirk Nowitzki's team option for $5 million earlier this offseason, as reported by Marc Stein of the New York Times. But that's hardly an indication that the franchise icon will be spending 2018-19 in a different uniform.
Some players have spent so much time racking up accolades in the same threads that you can't picture them wearing another jersey. Kobe Bryant. Dwyane Wade. Manu Ginobili. Tim Duncan. Nowitzki. They mean so much to the organization that parting would be too sweet a sorrow.
Don't expect Nowitzki to go anywhere else. Period. End of story. His name won't be stricken through anytime soon.
Or ever, for that matter.
Prediction: One-year, $5 million with Dallas Mavericks
4. Montrezl Harrell
Team: Los Angeles Clippers
Type of Free Agency: Restricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.7 blocks
Though Montrezl Harrell's game may not translate into a 30-minutes-per-night role, the intensity with which he plays—and his emerging abilities on both ends of the floor—allows for his growth into a per-minute standout worthy of a substantial paycheck.
The 24-year-old big man averaged 14.6 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.5 steals and 0.6 blocks after the All-Star break while playing only 20.1 minutes per contest and shooting 65.8 percent from the field. His energy never slipped as he flitted around the half-court set on defense, and his 1.4 points per rolling possession allowed him to rank in the 95th percentile. All that is praiseworthy, and it got the Los Angeles Clippers to extend him a qualifying offer that initially signaled an inevitable return to Staples Center.
Except that's no longer certain. Not after radio silence during the initial portion of free agency while the team added Luc Mbah a Moute, Mike Scott and Marcin Gortat to a frontcourt already featuring Tobias Harris and Boban Marjanovic. A crowd is forming, and Harrell may not be able to carve out enough minutes to justify another roster spot spent on a big man—nor should he covet a return to a location where he couldn't strut his stuff frequently enough.
Harrell isn't going to cash in elsewhere. The money simply isn't out there, especially from squads looking to take a chance on an emerging contributor. But he should still be able to find some opportunity from an organization such as the San Antonio Spurs, one that can count on franchise mystique and player-development history while in search of a high-upside big.
Prediction: One year, $2.7 million with San Antonio Spurs (mid-level exception)
3. Jabari Parker
Team: Milwaukee Bucks
Type of Free Agency: Restricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.6 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.3 blocks
Maybe it's the lack of remaining money scattered throughout the NBA's 30 organizations—a carryover effect from the 2016 spending bonanza. Perhaps teams are that scared of Jabari Parker's injury history, which includes multiple ACL tears, and struggles for the Milwaukee Bucks after he returned to the floor following his latest malady.
But this Duke product's short- and long-term scoring upside should still have someone buying in.
Parker didn't excel in a smaller role during the 2017-18 season and left a bitter taste after his shooting woes in the first-round exit at the hands of the Boston Celtics. He's still only 23 years old and just one year removed from his 2016-17 efforts: 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists while slashing 49.0/36.5/74.3. He was actually even better from beyond the rainbow this past go-round, connecting on 38.3 percent of those three-point hoists.
And yet, no deals are emerging. Social-media hijinks also fail to foretell a reunion with the Bucks, and it's hard to see a player this young and talented being forced to play for the qualifying offer before hitting unrestricted free agency next summer. Then again, general manager Jon Horst is singing a different story.
"We qualified him because we value him and we want to have the ability to keep him and work through that with him and his agent," he said on a July 8 NBA TV broadcast, as transcribed by TheSportsDaily.com's Brandon Molleur. "We've had great conversations. We're in contact with him every day. I think the market will dictate some of it, but we'll continue to work on it and see how it turns out."
Parker's hometown Chicago Bulls could swoop in and offer him around $12 million annually to join their roster. The Brooklyn Nets could make a similar play. The Atlanta Hawks still have money. But is anyone willing to gamble heavily enough that the Bucks won't match?
For now, the best bet remains the qualifying offer—Parker essentially betting on himself and counting on better luck with the injury imp from this point forward.
Prediction: One year, $7.4 million with Milwaukee Bucks (qualifying offer)
2. Marcus Smart
Team: Boston Celtics
Type of Free Agency: Restricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 10.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.4 blocks
In the last few days, we've heard plenty about Marcus Smart and his potential return to the Boston Celtics.
Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald reported "Smart, according to source, would 'consider' the four-year extension offer Celtics made last October, which was worth more annually than the three-year, $33 million deal just signed by Dante Exum."
But that offer isn't necessarily available, considering colleague Steve Bulpett revealed the following in the aftermath:
"Sources indicate this may drag on for quite a while. Smart determined his worth to be more than what is out there in this summer's market, and the Celts are in no rush to bid against themselves. It's unclear now even if the club is willing to revisit their extension offer from last fall reported in the Herald last week (four years at more than $12 million per) whether that would even work for Smart now."
If that's not enough, Celtics general manager Danny Ainge told reporters in Las Vegas that re-signing Smart remains a priority. But Yahoo Sports' Jordan Schultz relayed a dearth of communication between the two, while several teams, including the Memphis Grizzlies and Brooklyn Nets, have inquired about sign-and-trade possibilities. The conflicting information never ends in a situation that seems destined to twist and turn for a while longer.
Still, it's hard to envision Smart in a different uniform. Boston knows how important he is to the team's success even without a working jumper (see: relentless hustle, passing, defensive acumen, rebounding and plenty more), and that could help the sides agree to a multiyear deal even while he has no leverage. Ask him to run it back on the qualifying offer, and you risk long-standing animosity that prevents the relationship from lasting beyond 2018-19.
Prediction: Three years, $36 million with Boston Celtics
1. Clint Capela
Team: Houston Rockets
Type of Free Agency: Restricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.9 points, 10.8 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.9 blocks
As Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes detailed, Clint Capela is well within his rights to hold out for a better offer, based on his skill set and deals signed by lesser centers:
"At 24, Capela is coming off a season in which he averaged 13.9 points, 10.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks while leading the league in field-goal percentage. His defensive versatility—you won't find many bigs better equipped to defend guards on switches and protect the rim—made him an integral component to Houston's sixth-ranked defense. When factoring in how Capela fits into (and perhaps enables) Houston's scheme, he's worth even more to the Rockets than he would be to the rest of the market."
But Hughes goes on to detail the dried-up market, and that makes this conversation so much more difficult.
Why should the Houston Rockets hand this 24-year-old center the max contract he's worth when no one has the money and desire for a center necessary to provide him with leverage? Why should he accept anything less than the max when he can play on the qualifying offer and cash in next summer? What's the point of a compromise when Houston might still pay more than the market would dictate and Capela could be frustrated by the relatively lacking financial compensation?
"Beyond hoping that some miraculous proposition from, say, the Atlanta Hawks arrives, he can either take the Rockets' slightly insulting deal [five years and $85 million, per the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen] or accept his one-year qualifying offer and pray he doesn't land on his Achilles the wrong way at any point next season," Colin McGowan wrote for RealGM. "It's a less than optimal situation."
Timing is his biggest flaw. He has the misfortune of paying for prior mistakes of past regimes, all of which have come together to create this year's wonky market. No matter how much he excels in the pick-and-roll game or on defense, he's a casualty of reckless spending.
But the Rockets could change that by veering away from their calculating identity under general manager Daryl Morey. They have to understand the emotional aspect of free agency and how committing to Capela could make him work even harder. Maybe he doesn't get that coveted max, but that realization would at least allow the sides to agree on more palatable terms.
Prediction: Five years, $110 million with Houston Rockets
Other Thursday Free-Agency News
More Jimmy Butler Drama?
What would an NBA offseason be without drama manufactured by social media habits that may be A) alleged hacks, B) oversized fingers having trouble on regulation keyboards, C) legitimate expressions of personal thoughts or D) passive-aggressive actions meant to elicit some unknown outcome?
Here we go again. This time, as Cycle's Thomas Duffy shared, Jimmy Butler liked an Instagram comment that advocated for him and Kyrie Irving to use 2019 free agency to join the New York Knicks.
Does it mean anything? Probably not. But it is the latest in a long line of signals indicating Butler is dissatisfied with his spot on the Minnesota Timberwolves.
"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 earlier this offseason.
That came after Sporting News' Sean Deveney revealed Butler, who can opt out of his contract after 2018-19, was dissatisfied with playing alongside Andrew Wiggins and before he liked multiple Instagram comments that encouraged him to join the San Antonio Spurs.
This could be a case of ongoing trolling. But where there's smoke, fire typically exists.
Three-Team Trade Alert
As broken down by ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski, the Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets and Atlanta Hawks all wound up exchanging pieces such that the following franchises ended up with these new assets:
- Brooklyn: 2019 first-round pick from Denver (top-12 protected), future second-round pick from Atlanta, future second-round pick from Denver, Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur
- Denver: Isaiah Whitehead (subsequently waived)
- Atlanta: future second-round pick from Brooklyn, Jeremy Lin
Though this features plenty of moving pieces, the swap isn't a particularly complicated one. The motivations are rather obvious for each of the three organizations.
Brooklyn continues doing what general manager Sean Marks does best: absorbing overpaid contributors into cap space so the Nets can gain access to more draft picks and have increased opportunities to land impact players. This time, the process comes at the expense of a soon-to-be 30-year-old version of Lin who's attempting to bounce back from a patella tendon injury that limited him to a single appearance in 2017-18.
Denver is engaging in a pure salary dump and parting with multiple draft picks to clear the books of Faried and Arthur's salaries. According to Wojnarowski, doing so saves them $21 million in payouts as they look to get beneath the luxury-tax threshold.
The Hawks are the sneaky squad here, parting with only a second-round selection to get their hands on Lin's upside. He may be coming off a season-ending injury and preparing to enter his 30s, but his skills in the pick-and-roll game could still work nicely off the Atlanta bench while he mentors Dennis Schroder (if he's not moved in a later deal) and Trae Young.
Though no one emerges as a massive winner, it's hard to find losers in this particular sequence.
Wayne Ellington Back to the Miami Heat
Though 2017-18 was his age-30 season, Wayne Ellington still submitted what was arguably the best effort of his nine-year career.
Slashing 40.7/39.2/85.9 despite taking plenty of difficult, heavily contested looks, he averaged 11.2 points and 2.8 rebounds per game for the Miami Heat while providing the spacing the offense so sorely needed.
With him on the floor, the South Beach residents mustered an additional 3.9 points per 100 possessions without suffering on the less glamorous end—the latter more because of his teammates than the swingman's preventing prowess.
Now, he's ready to run it back. And we do mean "run," because that's all he does on the scoring side, moving until he can extricate himself from the opposition's clutches and hit a catch-and-shoot jumper that often comes in off-balance but successful fashion.
Ellington is returning to the Heat on a one-year deal worth $6.2 million, as ESPN.com's Chris Haynes reported. If he can replicate his efforts in 2018-19, he'll be worth every penny for an offense that depends on shooters to maximize its drive-and-kick strategems.
Rodney Stuckey Working Out for Teams
We've reached the stage of the offseason at which a Rodney Stuckey workout is among the day's biggest headlines.
According to Haynes, the veteran guard is eyeing a return to the Association and hoping to expedite the process by conducting private workouts in Las Vegas. International basketball reporter David Pick listed the Golden State Warriors, Brooklyn Nets, Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers as those sending representatives to the showcase at Impact Sports.
Now 32 years old, Stuckey hasn't suited up in the NBA (or in another professional league) since playing a limited role for the 2016-17 Pacers. He made only 39 appearances, averaging 7.2 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game while shooting 37.3 percent from the field, 31.7 percent from downtown and 74.8 percent at the stripe.
But if he spent the last year improving his shooting, perhaps he could find a home off a competitive bench. So long as he retained his quick first step, his shot-creating abilities will continue to be marginally valuable in the right system.
David Nwaba Goes from Restricted to Unrestricted
Per Yahoo Sports' Shams Charania, the Chicago Bulls have rescinded their qualifying offer for David Nwaba, making him an unrestricted free agent who can ink a new pact with any organization that has enough money to offer him, well, something.
This is a bit of a baffling move, considering the nature of Nwaba's cap hold. His qualifying offer was only for $1.8 million, per HoopsHype, and precious few free agents exist who would consider joining the Bulls and could do so without triggering their previous organization's rights to exercise first refusal. Now that he's totally available, someone is sure to scoop up the defense-first wing with a cap exception.
Nwaba didn't make the cut as one of my top 50 free agents at the beginning of the offseason, but he wasn't far from inclusion. His point-preventing talents are significant, and he showed some offensive growth during his 23 games in the Windy City.