NBA Teams Absolutely Killing It in 2019 Free Agency
We are several days into NBA free agency, and almost every major available player is accounted for—save, of course, Kawhi Leonard.
It's fair to say this week's transactions have altered the league's power structure.
In a world where the Golden State Warriors are no longer overwhelming title favorites, the West is up for grabs and the race for the NBA crown is wide open. Countless teams have attempted to solidify themselves for a title run over the last few days—some with better results than others.
Let's take a look at the winners from the first half-week of free agency.
Honorable Mention: Los Angeles Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers aren't quite winners yet, having signed no notable free agents. Still, they earn honorary recognition purely for staying alive in the Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes.
The Lakers, along with the Clippers and Raptors, are the only teams that remain in the running, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, and there have been multiple reports that Leonard wants to team up with fellow superstars. Woj and colleague Ramona Shelburne noted he talked about doing just that with Kevin Durant.
A Kawhi/Durant team-up is no longer feasible after KD agreed to sign with Brooklyn, but a Kawhi-Anthony Davis-LeBron James triumvirate would not only make for an instant title favorite, it would also be practical for Leonard. Considering Kawhi's injury trouble at the end of his San Antonio tenure in 2017-18 and now-famous strategy of load management that he employed merely to survive the 2018-19 regular season intact, having other comparable talents to share responsibilities should be quite compelling.
Seemingly out of nowhere and largely despite themselves, the Lakers have a chance to be this summer's ultimate winner. If they are, then a new era of the NBA will have begun.
Where else do you start?
Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving both agreed to sign with the Brooklyn Nets and are perennial All-Stars who will make a good team title-ready. The Nets are arguably a top-four squad in the Eastern Conference, even as Durant prepares to spend the next year rehabbing a ruptured Achilles.
But that's only part of why this week is so cathartic for Brooklyn.
The last half-decade of Nets basketball has been hopeless. Not only was the team bad, but the 2013 Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce deal—one of the most lopsided trades in sports history—had also robbed it of a future while gifting a division rival an exceedingly promising one.
The Celtics landed Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Irving himself with assets related to that deal, while Brooklyn made do with propping up the likes of an aging Joe Johnson and late-stage Andrea Bargnani to eke out lottery seasons sans its own first-round picks after KG and Pierce declined and then departed.
For the Nets to assemble a playoff roster under those circumstances and then convince two of the league's best players to join them—all while the very team that swindled Brooklyn sees its chances at a title quickly evaporating—is sweet, sweet victory.
There are clear arguments for why the Durant-Irving experiment could underwhelm, but right now, the Nets are winners, and gigantic ones at that.
The Chicago Bulls are in the midst of a rebuild, with skill development and chemistry formation taking priority.
They have a good foundation in place, as the selection of Coby White in this year's NBA draft seems to give them a solidified starter at each position: White, Zach LaVine, Otto Porter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. That quintet isn't ready for the playoffs, but general manager Gar Forman and executive vice president John Paxson made two key moves this week that may expedite their rebuild, reaching agreements to acquire forward Thaddeus Young and guard Tomas Satoransky.
Young is one of the more anonymous starters in the NBA, but he's started over 70 games in each of the last four seasons and is competent on both ends of the floor. The 31-year-old also provides professionalism and stability to a team that has lacked in that area for several years (remember when the Bulls almost mutinied against Jim Boylen last season?).
Satoransky is a fantastic athlete and 40 percent three-point shooter who will provide cover for White and allow him to improve his considerable offensive skills.
It'll be a few years before they achieve postseason success, but the Bulls are making smart decisions on the margins to help their young players reach their full potential.
For many years, the Indiana Pacers have appeared content with mediocrity. Forty-eight wins and a first-round exit has generally been as good as it gets for fans in Circle City during the post-Reggie Miller years (with apologies to the brief Paul George-Roy Hibbert era).
However, based on Kevin Pritchard's recent moves, that line of thinking appears defunct.
In response to losing two starters, Indiana's president of basketball operations agreed to trade for scoring forward T.J. Warren, came to terms with versatile wing Jeremy Lamb and agreed with breakout guard Malcolm Brogdon on a four-year, $85 million deal in a sign-and-trade from the Milwaukee Bucks.
While a starting lineup of Brogdon, Lamb, Warren, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner doesn't boast any All-NBA-caliber players, there is enough talent to garner a playoff berth. Brogdon joined the vaunted 50-40-90 shooting club last season, Lamb was part of an elite group that averaged 15 points, five rebounds, two assists and one steal per game, and Turner is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Oh, and Victor Oladipo will return from a ruptured quad tendon at some point next season.
Anybody who tells you the Pacers are merely a fun story is wrong. They're a real threat in the East.
New Orleans Pelicans
New Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin has pitched a near-perfect game since he took over the job this spring. He has only brought in two players during free agency—agreeing to sign JJ Redick and to trade for Derrick Favors—but each fits extremely well with this new version of the Pelicans.
Building around the extraordinary vision of Lonzo Ball and transcendent athleticism of Zion Williamson, New Orleans promises to be one of the NBA's fastest, most dangerous clubs, playing high above the rim on offense and forming a fearsome five-man unit on defense.
Redick remains an all-time great shooter who will benefit immensely from Zion's Shaq-like ability to collapse defenses into the paint. Favors, while not overly athletic nor switchable on defense, is an efficient interior scorer and smart team defender, shooting 58.6 percent from the field and ranking seventh among power forwards in ESPN's real plus-minus (RPM) last season.
The young Pelicans won't be expected to seriously contend this year, but with the guidance of this new veteran leadership, they could be ready to do so way before anybody expects.
If it feels like the Philadelphia 76ers are perpetually teetering on the edge of a roster crisis, that's because they have been. Since 2017, when Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons played together for the first time, there have been rumblings about their questionable on-court fit.
However, instead of trading one of them, Sixers management has configured four vastly different starting lineups in the last eight months. Last season began with Robert Covington and Dario Saric as the two starting forwards, and both were traded for Jimmy Butler in November 2018. Then, Philadelphia dealt picks and bench players for Tobias Harris in February 2019. Now we have arrived at attempt No. 4, which seems to be the most permanent arrangement yet.
Philly split the difference on its two highest-profile free agents this week, agreeing to re-sign Harris to a five-year max contract and letting Butler walk to the Miami Heat in a sign-and-trade deal that will net wing Josh Richardson. In addition, All-Star big man Al Horford agreed to enter the fold on a four-year, $109 million deal.
The new starting lineup? That would be Simmons, Richardson, Harris, Horford and Embiid. It's massive, super versatile and probably the best starting five in the Eastern Conference.
For all the drama surrounding the Sixers in recent months (and years), they look as fearsome as ever.
For the first time in almost two decades, the Sacramento Kings have an exciting team, led by the charismatic backcourt of De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield and bouncy big man Marvin Bagley III.
General manager Vlade Divac realized the next step was to surround his young talent with veteran leaders who can both contribute on the court and provide invaluable support off it. He achieved this by agreeing to sign three well-liked, veteran role players: forward Trevor Ariza (two years, $25 million), big man Dewayne Dedmon (three years, $41 million) and guard Cory Joseph (three years, $37 million).
All three fit well with Sacramento's direction and provide passable spacing and smart defense. They should also be quite motivated to compete on such a young, high-flying team—especially Ariza, given that he spent the last 12 months playing for the lowly Suns and Wizards.
This group of additions isn't perfect—the Kings also agreed to re-sign trade-deadline acquisition Harrison Barnes to the tune of $85 million over four years, and it's possible Ariza, Dedmon or Joseph will decline significantly over the course of their deals. But if their veteran leadership buoys the team's dynamic young core and readies it for contention, then those deals will have been worth it.
The Western Conference is wide open, with seemingly an entire playoff field's worth of teams believing they can make the Finals.
This line of thinking clearly drove the Utah Jazz's last few weeks of transactions.
Days before the draft, Utah traded for All-Star-caliber point guard Mike Conley, placing him alongside Donovan Mitchell to form one of the NBA's best backcourts. But the Jazz weren't content with sitting back. Sunday night, they doubled down on contention, agreeing to sign wing Bojan Bogdanovic and backup center Ed Davis.
These two moves make the Jazz a contender in the West. A 42.5 percent three-point shooter last season and burgeoning shot-creator, Bogdanovic will excel with the oceans of open space that Mitchell and Conley create. Davis is also a beloved teammate and a high-efficiency scorer at the rim, not to mention a general analytics darling (he ranked 11th among centers in ESPN's real plus-minus last season).
These types of role players help win titles, and Utah seems to understand that as well as any team.
All stats courtesy of Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.