Re-Grading Every Top 2021 NBA Offseason Move So Far

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistNovember 30, 2021

Re-Grading Every Top 2021 NBA Offseason Move So Far

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    The 2021 offseason wasn't as flashy as other free-agency periods that saw the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard change teams. But there were still some major moves, with some contenders landing big names in trades and other teams completely remaking themselves in free agency.

    A little over a month into the season, we're seeing the early results of some of these moves, both good and bad. The Heat signing Kyle Lowry has worked out just as well as they'd hoped; the Lakers' trade for Russell Westbrook...not so much.

    Now that we've arrived at the quarter mark of the 2021-22 regular season, let's re-grade some of the most noteworthy offseason moves in free agency and the trade market.

Lakers Trade for Russell Westbrook: D

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    The Lakers hoped they'd be able to form a new Big Three by putting Westbrook next to LeBron James and Anthony Davis. So far, it just hasn't worked.

    Westbrook has been better lately, but he's struggled to fit into the Lakers offense and share primary ball-handling duties with James. In a lot of ways, he's been the same Russell Westbrook he's been since Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City, putting up big numbers and leading his team to wins but also taking some terrible shots and turning the ball over a ton.

    The past few years with the Thunder, Rockets and Wizards, he's been able to function like that because those teams didn't have real title expectations. This Lakers team is a different story, and their disappointing start to the year is causing concern around the NBA world.

    Aside from Westbrook's up-and-down individual play, the trade severely limited the moves the Lakers can make going forward.

    L.A. gave up three valuable role players in Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Montrezl Harrell (all three of whom are thriving in Washington). It cashed in all its chips for Westbrook, who is not only a huge defensive downgrade but forced them to fill out the rest of the roster with aging veterans on minimum contracts.

Lakers Sign Carmelo Anthony: B

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    The other big name the Lakers brought in over the summer is one of James' close friends and someone he has been rumored to want to play with for years in Carmelo Anthony. Coming off a successful two-year stint in Portland, in which he revived his career and even proved himself willing to come off the bench, the timing was right for Anthony to finally team up with James.

    What Anthony has given the Lakers is about what can be expected at this point in his career.

    He's still a massive liability on defense, but he can score in a variety of ways and has embraced being a spot-up shooter, hitting a career-high 42.7 percent of his threes. He's still capable of big scoring outbursts that have been the reason they've won a couple of close games (28 points against the Grizzlies, 29 against the Hornets).

    Not a lot has gone right for the Lakers this season, but the addition of Anthony has gone about as well as anyone could have hoped.

Bulls Spend Big on Lonzo Ball, DeMar DeRozan: A

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    No team made a bigger splash in free agency than the Bulls, whose offseason haul was headlined by signing Lonzo Ball for four years and $80 million and DeMar DeRozan for three years and $85 million.

    Only four players from last season's team, which finished 31-41 and outside the play-in group, returned. The message the front office was sending to the rest of the league was clear: The Bulls want to be relevant again and win games.

    So far, so good. Chicago is currently third in the Eastern Conference with a 13-8 record and impressive wins over the Brooklyn Nets, Utah Jazz, Boston Celtics and Dallas Mavericks, thanks in no small part to its new additions.

    Ball has fit in perfectly in the backcourt next to Zach LaVine (the Bulls are plus-3.0 in net rating when they're on the floor together, per Cleaning the Glass), and DeRozan is having the second-best scoring season of his career at age 32 with 25.8 points per game. The questions some people had over the summer about his fit next to those other two guards have proved to be overblown.

    The Bulls' less-heralded free-agent signing, former Lakers guard Alex Caruso, has also been highly impactful on the defensive end and provided stability and consistency for the bench unit. Completely remaking a roster in one offseason can be risky (see the Lakers above), but Chicago took a big swing to return to prominence after a four-year rebuild, and the early returns are exactly what they wanted them to be. The Bulls are back.

Heat Sign Kyle Lowry: A

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    Associated Press

    Lowry was the biggest name to change teams in free agency, finally ending up in Miami after trade talks with the Raptors fell through at last season's deadline. After a run to the Finals in the bubble in 2020, the Heat had a disappointing 2021-21 showing, getting swept in the first round by the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks.

    They didn't want that to happen again, so they brought in Lowry in hopes that he'd add the defensive toughness, leadership and playmaking he became known for in nine seasons in Toronto.

    That's exactly what he's done. He's been a huge defensive upgrade over Goran Dragic—Miami is the fourth-best team in the league on that end. His scoring has taken a hit, which was to be expected playing alongside Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, but he's 10th in the league in assists with 7.4 per game.

    The Heat are currently third in the East at 13-8 and have the league's fourth-best net rating at 5.61 points per 100 possessions, per Basketball Reference. And he fits in perfectly with that organization, which is about all the same things he's about when it comes to work ethic and toughness. An ideal match for both sides.

Warriors Bring Back Andre Iguodala: A-

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    If nothing else, bringing Iguodala back after two seasons away has been huge for the Warriors' chemistry. One of the most beloved members of the 2015-19 teams that won three titles in five years, Iguodala carved out a niche for himself as a versatile defender and unselfish playmaker who fit the "strength in numbers" philosophy perfectly.

    At age 37, he's a far more limited player now than he was when he won the Finals MVP in 2015, but having him in the locker room as the Warriors attempt to thread the needle of competing and developing young talent at the same time has been enormously helpful.

    Iguodala has played in just 12 games this season and been out since Nov. 18 with a knee injury. For someone with his track record and deep knowledge of the organization and culture, that's kind of besides the point.

    The Warriors have been the best team in the NBA with limited on-court contributions from him, and it's a virtual lock that he's going to have at least a couple of big moments in the playoffs. This is a signing Golden State made for May and June, not November and December.

Knicks Add Kemba Walker: D

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    Adding Walker made all the sense in the world over the offseason.

    After a disappointing two seasons in Boston and a trade to Oklahoma City followed by a buyout, the Knicks signed the four-time All-Star to a two-year, $18 million deal. It's not only a great story (Walker is from New York and was a local high school basketball superstar) but a worthwhile gamble that he'd be able to make an impact on a playoff-worthy Knicks team if he could stay healthy.

    On Monday, however, Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau announced that Walker would be out of the rotation entirely, not just the starting lineup. Maybe down the road, he'll have an opportunity to contribute again. As of today, it's been a disappointment.

    Up until Monday, Walker hadn't been great, but he hadn't been terrible. He's started all 18 games he's played in but played a career-low 24.5 minutes per game. After being one of the great surprises of last season, the Knicks have taken a step back this year, hovering around .500 in the play-in range.

    That's been due as much to regressions from Julius Randle and RJ Barrett as anything else, but Walker has been a net negative, as The Athletic's Fred Katz pointed out. The Knicks defense is tops in the NBA when Walker sits (99.0 defensive rating) and last (116.3) when he’s on the floor. On offense they are 27th with him playing, ninth without him.

Pelicans Trade for Jonas Valanciunas: B

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    There haven't been many positives for the 5-17 Pelicans, but trading Steven Adams for Jonas Valanciunas has been one of them. In particular, his three-point shooting, never a strength of his game previously, has taken a massive leap in his first year in New Orleans.

    He's shooting 46 percent on a career-high 2.3 attempts per game, which will make him a nice fit alongside Zion Williamson once the superstar power forward is back on the court. On Monday, he exploded for 39 points and 15 rebounds in a surprising road win over the Clippers. 

    The Grizzlies' end of that trade didn't look great on paper, but Adams' passing ability has made him a solid fit in Memphis. He's a savvy defender and has continued to rebound well. The Grizzlies' season is up in the air after Ja Morant suffered a knee injury Friday night, but when he comes back, he should continue to play well alongside Adams. This has been a rare trade that's worked out well for both teams.

Nets Sign Patty Mills: B+

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    With massive salaries on the books for three stars, the Nets didn't have many avenues to add depth. Landing Mills, who has developed into one of the league's most reliable backup point guards over the past decade in San Antonio, for two years and $12 million was a steal.

    Mills' importance to the Nets has only grown as one of the Nets' two star guards, James Harden, is off to a bad start to the season and the other, Kyrie Irving, is away from the team because he remains unvaccinated and a New York City mandate requires those attending indoor events to be vaccinated.

    Mills started the season coming off the bench, but has recently moved into the starting lineup. He's playing a career-high 27.9 minutes per game, and they've been productive minutes. He's averaging 12.3 points per game, the most of his career, and second in the league in three-point percentage (50.0) on 6.4 attempts per game.

    Despite Harden's struggles and Irving's absence, the Nets currently have the best record in the Eastern Conference. The biggest reason for that is Kevin Durant, who is a leading MVP candidate once again. But Mills has been a stabilizing force for a team still figuring itself out and was one of the better value signings of this summer's free agency.