Biggest Winners and Losers from 2021 NBA Free Agency so Far
Remember back in the days of yore, around 2018 or so, when NBA free agency would take more than a few seconds to unfold? When we would be waiting on marquee players to make decisions for days, all the while tracking their every move and tweet?
Things sure have changed.
Free agency now unfurls, er, pretty much before it ever starts. Rumors of contracts and trades trickle out days in advance. And official agreements hit the breaking-news wire immediately after the clock strikes 6 p.m. ET. It can be underwhelming and, frankly, steal some of the fun from the entire process. Yours truly only has the brain bandwidth to fire off so many bad jokes when 60-something players are striking deals within six hours.
On the bright side, this frenetic, potentially illegal pace allows us to dive into the nuts and bolts of free agency sooner. In this case, that means identifying the biggest winners and losers.
Please note this process will take into account bigger moves made around the draft that won't become officially official until the league's moratorium is lifted on Aug. 6. Please also note these interpretations of players and teams can change. There's a lot of offseason left to traverse. These are just my initial impressions based off everything that's happened so far.
The To-Be-Determined Crew
The Bulls were on track to have a universally lovable offseason. Alex Caruso fills a defensive void on the perimeter, and Lonzo Ball is a divine offensive fit next to Zach LaVine.
Then they signed-and-traded for DeMar DeRozan.
And not only did they sign-and-trade for DeRozan, but they gave him a fully guaranteed three-year, $85 million deal while forking over a 2025 first-rounder, two seconds (2022 and 2025) and Thaddeus Young in the process. I mean: My. God.
DeRozan's fit on the Bulls is wonky. He is an operable iso scorer and has turned into one of the league's more dangerous pick-and-roll maestros. But he's a non-factor when displaced from the ball and compromises an already-shaky defensive dynamic. His teams have allowed more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor in each of the past six seasons.
Taking chances is perfectly fine. But where was DeRozan's leverage that Chicago needed to guarantee him an average of $28.3 million per year? And where was the San Antonio Spurs' leverage that they were able to extract a protected distant first-rounder, two seconds and the Bulls' most valuable defensive player last season?
Perhaps this all works out. Sliding DeRozan up to the 4 in lineups that feature Nikola Vucevic can help alleviate some of the spacing concerns, and he gives Chicago a genuine offensive lifeline when when LaVine's on the bench. But after already mortgaging part of the future at last year's trade deadline, and with LaVine set to hit unrestricted free agency next summer, the Bulls as they stand profile as uncomfortably combustible.
New York Knicks
Certain Knicks fans will inevitably take this as an insult. It's not. Their offseason is eminently defensible. But landing Kemba Walker for sub-mid-level money is the only indisputable victory of the offseason.
Re-signing Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel and Derrick Rose without including a third guaranteed season changes the context of those deals. Ditto for the four-year, $78 million contract given to Evan Fournier, which includes a team option on the final installment. And locking down Julius Randle on a max extension well south of what a max deal would have run for him next summer—up to five years and $207 million—could be a flash-bulb moment the Knicks brag about down the line.
At the same time, New York has significantly reinvested in last season's explosion while losing its best perimeter defender (Reggie Bullock). None of the commitments are inherently damaging. The Knicks remain flexible over the long term, and it wasn't like any superstars were available to scoop up in free agency. But interpreting last year as a new normal when next season's Eastern Conference hierarchy will be tougher to navigate is still a risk—a justifiable one, sure, yet a risk all the same.
Holding on to Kyle Lowry through last season made some sense if the Raptors planned to bring him back or could net a nifty return in a sign-and-trade. They did neither.
Accepting Precious Achiuwa and Goran Dragic for Lowry is akin to selling low knowing there was at least one package returning higher value available to them in March. This deal could be viewed differently if the Raptors were trying to give the GROAT a proper sendoff, but they spent the season playing in Tampa rather than Toronto and wound up shutting him down to close the year.
Declaring them outright losers still goes a touch too far, mostly because they negotiated a new deal with NBA team architect extraordinaire Masai Ujiri. His return is monumental for the franchise, and he more than any other executive deserves the benefit of the doubt—though, Toronto's signing of the actually terrible Sam Dekker does, in fact, test the limits of that leeway.
Winner: Los Angeles Lakers
Trading for Russell Westbrook has defined the Los Angeles Lakers' offseason, but that's not the entirety of it. They made other moves on the margins during actual free agency, and their roster makes more sense because of it.
Bagging Carmelo Anthony, Trevor Ariza, Kent Bazemore, Wayne Ellington and Malik Monk on minimum deals will beef up the spacing of a half-court offense that desperately needs breathing room. They are snipers of varying effectiveness and function—i.e. Ellington prefers to work in motion—but the Lakers jettisoned their two leading three-point makers from last season (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma) to nab Westbrook, one of the league's worst jump shooters ever. Adding even league-average marksmen goes a long way under the circumstances.
Kendrick Nunn is a more awkward fit as someone who prefers to operate on-ball, but he provides more north-south jet fuel and converted 42.1 percent of his catch-and-fire triples last season. Snagging him for the taxpayer's mid-level exception is a worthwhile talent-in-a-vacuum play.
Dwight Howard does nothing for the Lakers' floor balance, but he comes cheap, has experience playing beside Anthony Davis and is a muuuch better rim-runner than Andre Drummond. Talen Horton-Tucker's return also doesn't help Los Angeles' shooting, but a 20-year-old who can defend a bunch of different positions has value to a team that's nearly barren of every other future asset.
None of these moves turn the Westbrook acquisition into a no-risk proposition. Nor does it excuse the Lakers decision to let Alex Caruso walk, despite his chemistry playing beside LeBron James and having the ability to keep him. But Los Angeles entered free agency with supremely limited flexibility following the Westbrook blockbuster and managed to flesh out its rotation in a way that promises actual depth and spacing.
Additionally, as of now, the list of Lakers moves doesn't include overpaying Dennis Schroder. That's a huge win.
Loser: Dennis Schroder
Speaking of Dennis Schroder...yikes.
Plenty of free agents have ostensibly seen their markets implode. Lauri Markkanen and Kelly Oubre Jr. remain unsigned at this writing and will be lucky to net salaries noticeably above the non-taxpayer's mid-level exception. Victor Oladiop is headed back to the Miami Heat on a minimum deal. Etc., etc. etc.
Schroder's market regression amounts to a massive L even by those standards. He turned down an $84 million extension from the Lakers earlier this year and now finds himself unsigned, without a shred of leverage to his name.
Sure, Oladipo is kind of in the same boat. He passed on a two-year, $45.2 million extension from the Houston Rockets during the middle of the season. But his lack of appeal is at least somewhat tied to his health. He's working his way back from another right quad injury. He also re-signed with the team that owns his Bird Rights, giving him the opportunity to reboot his value and secure a larger payday in 2022 independent of other teams' cap space.
Schroder's case is less explicable. He missed time toward the end of the season while in the league's health and safety protocols and needed to quickly ramp up for the playoffs, but his value was waffling long before then.
The Lakers forked over Danny Green and a first-rounder in hopes Schroder would inject some much-needed shot-making both beside LeBron James and without him. He didn't. His shooting percentages at the rim and from deep fell off their career-high marks from 2019-20, and Los Angeles' half-court offense rated inside the 25th percentile of efficiency when he ran the show sans LeBron.
How Schroder's foray into free agency ends is anyone's guess. Will he take a make-good deal at a cut rate to join a different team? Might the Lakers re-sign him on a short-term pact just to have another salary-matching anchor they can flip at the deadline? Will he get a loftier-but-still-modest payday via a sign-and-trade scenario yet to materialize?
Everything is seemingly on the table—you know, except the opportunity for Schroder to meet, exceed or even remotely sniff the $84 million windfall he rejected months ago.
Winner: Miami Heat
Playing against the Heat is going to suck something awful next season. They have assembled an All "Get Under Your Skin" Team by partnering Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler with Kyle Lowry, P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris. They might lead the league in both technical fouls committed and drawn.
Sticklers will point out Miami hasn't vaulted itself onto the same plane as a healthy Brooklyn Nets squad or even the reigning-champion Milwaukee Bucks. Whoop-de-friggin'-do.
Nobody was positioned to bridge that gap relative to gettable free agents and, for now, the offseason trade market. The Heat have at least given themselves a chance. "A healthy Brooklyn Nets" squad is a fairly humongous qualifier at this point, and Milwaukee remains top-heavy. Enough things can feasibly break right for Miami to emerge from the Eastern Conference.
Addressing the point guard and power forward situations is a big deal for the Heat. Lowry dropped off a tick last season, but he's a viable off-the-dribble hub who will set physical screens and defend his butt off. Both Tucker and Morris are better options at the 4 than anyone Miami tried to supplant Jae Crowder with last season—minus the occasional standout performance from Trevor Ariza.
Outside shooting remains a potential offensive wart. Neither Adebayo nor Butler reliably stretches defenses beyond the three-point line, and Tucker, while an upgrade at the 4, splashed in just 31.4 percent of his corner triples during the playoffs.
Still, the Heat will be fine. They brought back Duncan Robinson on a five-year, $90 million contract that seems steep at first glance but isn't so huge when weighed against the five-year, $100 million pact the Cleveland Cavaliers handed Jarrett Allen. Head coach Erik Spoelstra is a whiz at manufacturing quality looks amid clumpiness, as well.
Miami also boasts a bunch of swing potential. Maybe Tyler Herro re-breaks out. A healthy Victor Oladipo would only add to the defense's F-U factor and can boost the offense's off-the-dribble shooting. Entering a free-agency period in which authoring material leaps seemed impossible for almost every team, the Heat have reinserted themselves into the take-them-seriously clique. They win.
Loser: New Orleans Pelicans
It became pretty clear early on that the New Orleans Pelicans' offseason would need to be viewed in totality before rendering a verdict. Zooming out on their moves, though, doesn't help:
- In: Devonte' Graham (four years, $47 million via sign-and-trade); Tomas Satoransky; Garrett Temple (three years, $15 million with $10 million guaranteed via sign-and-trade); Jonas Valanciunas; No. 17 (Trey Murphy), future second-round pick (via Chicago), future second-round pick (via L.A. Clippers)
- Out: Steven Adams; Lonzo Ball (four years, $85 million via sign-and-trade); Eric Bledsoe; No. 10 (Ziaire Williams); No. 40 (Jared Butler); 2022 first-round pick (lottery protection); L.A. Lakers' 2022 first-round pick (top-10 protection)
This is at once a lot to take in and incredibly underwhelming.
Isolating the Pelicans' moves doesn't reveal any one truly bad decision. The cost of shedding Adams (two years, $35 million) and Bledsoe (two years, $22 million guaranteed) wasn't astronomical. They traded down seven spots in the first round (No. 10 for No. 17), 11 spots in the second round (No. 40 for No. 51, the latter of which they traded to the Clippers) and a protected first-rounder from a championship contender.
Punting on Ball isn't terrible on its own, either. It feels like the Pelicans could have grabbed more for him ahead of the trade deadline, but if they didn't want to pay $20-plus million per year for a point guard who cannot initiate the half-court offense, then so be it. Picking up Graham is solid business. He's coming off a down year, but he can stroke threes off the catch and has shown in the past he can knock down off-the-bounce jumpers.
Combine everything together, and it starts to look dicey. The Pelicans essentially turned Ball, two pick swaps (a first and second) and two first-rounders into...Graham, Satoransky, Temple, Valanciunas and two seconds. That verges on ugly.
Commend the Pelicans for clearing cap space to chase Kyle Lowry if you so please. The same goes for their apparent $100 million overture to Chris Paul. Big swings are admirable. They missed. And their contingencies were unspectacular while lacking discernible aim. They should be flexible again next summer, but they just saw what significant spending power might get them.
Unless they have a left-field trade up their sleeve, this offseason's body of work is flat-out bad.
Winner: Star Point Guards Age 33-and-Older Standing Under 6'2"
Are you concerned about the performance curves for aging point guards who stand shorter than 6'2"? NBA teams can't relate.
Ultra-veteran floor generals made absolute bank in this year's free-agency market. Have a looksy:
- Mike Conley, age 33: Re-signed with the Utah Jazz for three years, $72.5 million.
- Kyle Lowry, age 35: Signed-and-traded to the Heat on a three-year, $87 million deal (assuming the outgoing package to the Raptors only includes Goran Dragic and Precious Achiuwa).
- Chris Paul, age 36: Re-signed with the Phoenix Suns for four years, $120 million ($15 million guaranteed in Year 3 with a team option on final season).
Yes, this is a very specific subset of free agent. And the market wasn't teeming with younger alternatives. More and more, though, contenders and fringe contenders appear to be prioritizing their immediate timelines regardless of how the talent-retention cost will play out in the longer term.
Maybe Lowry will be worth nearly $30 million in his age-37 season. He didn't sniff stardom before his late-20s, and we just watched age-35-season CP3 make the All-NBA second team. But years and career arcs like that are the exception rather than the rule.
This isn't even solely an instance of Miami, Phoenix and Utah saddling themselves with longer-term risk. Conley, Lowry and Paul are all old enough that they could fall off, suddenly and starkly. Immediate gambles are being made, too.
No one's criticizing those dice rolls, by the way. The Jazz dumped salary to make Conley's contract more palatable on their tax bill and were generally applauded for it. The Heat need to maximize the partnership of Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler, the latter of whom they just signed to a four-year max extension that'll take him through his age-36 season. Lowry does just that.
The Suns absolutely should have paid CP3 after a season of excellence that ended in a trip to the Finals. And his deal is actually more team-friendly than most projected. Imagine that: A contract that guarantees a 36-year-old six-footer $75 million, at minimum, being considered a steal. Good for CP3. Good for all these guys.
Loser: Boston Celtics
Relative inaction or general lacklusterness is not typically grounds to declare any team a loser. The Suns could otherwise be here. So, too, could the Bucks after they apparently entered penny-pinching mode in negotiations with P.J. Tucker.
And yet, there is something thoroughly uninspiring about the Boston Celtics' offseason that warrants overarching skepticism beyond to-be-determined status.
Ducking the tax and remaining flexible in advance of the 2022 offseason is clearly a priority. They gave up the No. 16 pick to exchange Kemba Walker for the cheaper Al Horford and Moses Brown, and turned Tristan Thompson into Kris Dunn. They then sent Brown to the Dallas Mavericks and took Josh Richardson into the remainder of their Gordon Hayward trade exception—a move that added payroll on its face but also ensured the Celtics wouldn't be ponying up for Evan Fournier.
Few are criticizing Boston for any of its moves. The status of Kemba's left knee remains in question, and the buyout he brokered with the Oklahoma City Thunder was never a plausible option for the Celtics. They don't have the timeline required to ferry two seasons' worth of star-sized dead money. Guaranteeing Fournier three seasons at nearly $20 million a pop is hardly a no-brainer.
Acquiring Richardson's expiring contract is a nifty flier on a player who, prior to leaving Miami, could hit threes, make the occasional off-the-bounce jumper and defend four positions. The Celtics have the makings of a defensive terror with him, Dunn, Horford, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum.
To what end, though? The Celtics are currently at a severe offensive-creation deficit. They effectively condensed their big-man rotation by shipping out Brown and Thompson, but their best passer is now Horford or Smart. They were already reliant on banging in difficult jumpers to get by on offense. That dependence has only increased.
And for what? In the name of ducking the tax (for now)? Cleaner books in advance of 2022 free agency? Maybe the Celtics have an unforeseen move in them or a devout belief in some of their youngsters finally hitting. For the time being, their offseason is meh at best—and "meh" just isn't good enough for a team that just finished seventh in an Eastern Conference scheduled to be even deeper next year.