In the early days of NBA free agency, most teams are busy trying to level up. There are always 29 teams whose seasons ended in disappointment the year before, and for the most part, they want to make sure that doesn’t happen again. This year was no different.
Some teams brought back free agency formulas that had worked well for them in the past — or had at least produced familiar results. On the other end of the spectrum, there are several teams that made dramatic changes while displaying varying levels of aggression.
For the second time in three offseasons, the Miami Heat landed one of the best free agents on the market despite entering the summer without any cap space. In 2019, the Heat cobbled together a four-team deal to bring Jimmy Butler to Biscayne Boulevard via sign-and-trade. General manager Andy Elisburg — widely known as perhaps the league’s premier “capologist” — didn’t have to get as creative this time around, but he and the rest of the Heat’s front office still figured out a way to bring in Kyle Lowry on a three-year, $90 million deal, re-sign Duncan Robinson on a contract averaging $18 million per year and sign P.J. Tucker to a two-year contract, all while ducking the luxury tax.
The Heat struggled last season to replicate the success they experienced in the NBA bubble, and they flamed out in the first round of the playoffs, getting swept by the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks. The Heat had upset the Bucks on their way to the Finals the year before, but after losing Jae Crowder in free agency and seeing their backcourt take a step backward, they just were not good enough in 2021.
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The deals for Lowry and Tucker were clearly designed to address those issues. Lowry is a better defender than Goran Dragić and more of a threat away from the ball due to his cutting and shooting ability. Tucker is the type of big-wing defender every team needs — as he proved with the Bucks last season. Miami is betting big on age and experience (Lowry and Tucker will be 35 and 36 next season, respectively, while the soon-to-be-extended Jimmy Butler will be 32), which has the potential to backfire down the line. But the Heat seem to think they’re ready to win right the heck now, and they’re acting like it.
So are their opponents from the 2020 Finals. In the summer of 2019, the Los Angeles Lakers went all-in with a familiar formula, surrounding LeBron James and Anthony Davis1 with a ton of shooting, including six players who had shot 36 percent or better from three during their pre-Lakers career.2 Not all of those players played a major role in the Lakers’ run to the championship, but a bunch of them did, and the formula worked.
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Last offseason, the Lakers decided to abandon that formula in favor of pursuing offensive upgrades that seemed designed to help them most when James and Davis were off the floor. They traded Danny Green in a package for Dennis Schröder and used their mid-level exception on Montrezl Harrell. They brought in Marc Gasol, Wesley Matthews and and retained Markieff Morris (who had been signed on the buyout market during the 2019-20 campaign) as well, but those players were collectively lower-volume and lower-accuracy shooters than the ones they were replacing. The Lakers bowed out in the first round of the playoffs in large part due to injuries, but it was also apparent that the pieces did not fit quite as well as they did the year before.3
Last week, L.A. pushed its remaining trade chips (Caldwell-Pope, Harrell, Kyle Kuzma and the No. 22 overall pick in this year’s draft) to the center of the table to acquire Russell Westbrook, who is just about the non-shooting-est point guard there is. But in free agency, the Lakers have again prioritized shooting above all else. Trevor Ariza (36 percent since 2013), Wayne Ellington (38 percent for his career), Kent Bazemore (36 percent career, 41 percent last year), Carmelo Anthony (40 percent across his two seasons in Portland), Malik Monk (40 percent last year) and Kendrick Nunn (38 percent last year) all bring long-range sniping to varying degrees, and in packages of different sizes.4 It should make the Lakers a more malleable — and better-fitting — team than they were a year ago … if all the old bodies can hold up throughout the season.
It’s notable that armed with a player similar to James in size, playing style and production (Luka Dončić), the Dallas Mavericks are attempting to replicate the same formula that has brought James so much success in the past. Dallas reportedly had bigger ideas in mind heading into free agency, but retaining Tim Hardaway Jr. and then signing Reggie Bullock and Sterling Brown is an acknowledgment that the best path to success is to surround Dončić with as much shooting as possible and let him capitalize on the space it affords him. The Mavs are still likely in need of secondary playmaking and more help on defense, but at least they are on the right track to maximize the best parts of their best player’s skill set.
Another team trying to replicate a formula that worked well in the past is the Golden State Warriors. It was commendable that the Dubs made the play-in tournament without Klay Thompson, but they did so largely on the strength of their defense, which finished fifth in the league. Despite Stephen Curry practically going nuclear and putting up numbers to rival those of his 2016 MVP campaign, Golden State struggled to generate efficient offense. An area where they were noticeably deficient was the “big wing” department. Andrew Wiggins, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Juan Toscano-Anderson were the only non-centers 6-foot-6 or taller who played at least 1,000 minutes last season. That’s a far cry from the days of Thompson, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.
Oubre seems unlikely to be back, but Wiggins and Toscano-Anderson will be, and Thompson should be healed from the injuries that kept him out of the past two seasons. Plus, the Warriors used their two lottery picks on Jonathan Kuminga (6-foot-8) and Moses Moody (6-foot-6), then signed Otto Porter (6-foot-8) and Nemanja Bjelica (6-foot-10) to veteran minimum deals in free agency.
With the exception of Kuminga, all of the big wings they added are plus shooters, which should help create more space for Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green. Multiple players who fit that archetype will also make it easier for the Warriors to trot out their small-ball units with Green at center — lineups they had a tough time getting to last year, especially while James Wiseman was healthy.
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The New York Knicks seemed like they were leaning into familiarity only to take an abrupt — and interesting — left turn on Wednesday morning. New York spent the first couple days of free agency re-signing its cadre of midcareer veterans who significantly outperformed their contracts a year ago. Taj Gibson re-signed at the veteran’s minimum, while Derrick Rose, Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel each got a raise and a three-year deal, albeit with a team option in the final season.
But New York used the rest of its cap space to make fairly significant upgrades at both starting guard spots. The Knicks replaced Bullock (who still might be signed-and-traded to Dallas rather than signed outright, per some reports) with Evan Fournier, who is not quite the shooter or defender Bullock is but provides much more in the way of off-dribble creation. (He averaged seven drives per game last season compared with Bullock’s 1.3, per NBA Advanced Stats.) As we saw during their playoff loss to the Atlanta Hawks, that’s something the Knicks desperately needed, as their offense cratered when Rose tired out from playing too many minutes and all the defensive attention was focused on Julius Randle.
But if all the Knicks had planned was bringing back the same roster at a higher cost and replacing Bullock with Fournier, their series of trades down and out of the first round of the NBA draft, seemingly designed to create as much cap room as possible, wouldn’t have made much sense. The plan came into clearer focus on Wednesday when the Oklahoma City Thunder bought out Kemba Walker of the two years and $74 million (!) remaining on his contract,5 clearing the way for him to sign with New York on a deal that will reportedly average around $8 million per year.
Walker is instantly the Knicks’ best point guard since, like, Charlie Ward. That’s not saying much, but it’s been that long since the Knicks had even a high-level starter at the position. Walker, like Rose, has injury issues and may need to have his minutes managed (which is a dangerous place to be with a player on a Tom Thibodeau team), but his ability when healthy to create off the bounce — both in drive-and-kick situations and walking into pull-up threes — is exactly what the Knicks needed in a point guard.
Walker can take some of the creation burden off of Randle’s shoulders, allow RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley to slot in as second-side shotmakers and drivers, provide a scoring threat on pick and rolls with Mitchell Robinson and Nerlens Noel, and give Thibodeau another option beyond “throw the ball to Randle in the mid-post” in close-and-late situations. New York is taking a risk betting so much on two point guards with extensive injury histories (and it might be tough to replicate last season’s top-five defense with Walker and Fournier in the starting backcourt), but it’s a bet that seems worth it given the dramatic talent upgrade.
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The San Antonio Spurs entered the offseason with more cap space than almost any team in the NBA, and they’ll exit it with … a lot more power forwards than they had earlier this week. San Antonio spent $64 million over three years to sign Doug McDermott and Zach Collins, then signed-and-traded DeMar DeRozan to the Bulls in a deal that brought back Thaddeus Young and Al-Farouq Aminu, along with a future first-round pick and two future seconds.
They got good value for DeRozan, and they definitely had needs in the frontcourt given their paucity of options alongside starting center Jakob Poeltl (especially after Rudy Gay, Trey Lyles and Gorgui Dieng all signed elsewhere), but it’s tough to envision what this version of the Spurs is supposed to look like on the floor. There’s been a clear changing of the guard with DeRozan and Patty Mills following LaMarcus Aldridge out the door, but it’s going to be difficult to find enough playing time for each of Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell and rookie Joshua Primo — and perhaps even tougher for that sextet to find scoring opportunities with no primary scorer to bend the defense away from them.
The Chicago Bulls clearly were not satisfied with missing the playoffs after trading two first-round picks (among other things) for Nikola Vučević at last year’s trade deadline. Zach LaVine’s extended bout with COVID-19 torpedoed those hopes, but the team Chicago had built around that duo was probably not a guaranteed postseason outfit in the upcoming season, either. So, the Bulls splashed the pot like no other team in free agency, landing Alex Caruso on a four-year, $37 million contract and executing sign-and-trades for DeRozan (three years, $85 million) and Lonzo Ball (four years, $85 million).
The Bulls are almost certainly better today than they were before. Their offense should be both quite fun to watch and quite tough to stop. They have multiple high-level creators in the halfcourt in LaVine and DeRozan and a fully capable post-up/pick-and-roll big man in Vučević, one of the league’s more versatile inside-outside scorers at his position. Ball is not your traditional point guard, but that’s more than fine on a team with LaVine and DeRozan. In halfcourt situations, Ball can do what he does best: knock down jumpers and make whip-smart passes to keep the line moving. (What exactly DeRozan will do when he’s off the ball is an open question.) And Ball will undoubtedly throw a lot of transition lobs to the likes of LaVine and Patrick Williams.
Chicago’s questions will mostly come on defense. Caruso is a pest on the ball and Lonzo is an ace team defender who is almost always in the right position, but LaVine, DeRozan and Vučević are net negatives on that end of the floor, which means Chicago will regularly have two or three minus defenders in the game. (It doesn’t help that the Bulls surrendered Young — their best defender last season — in the trade.) Caruso, Ball and Williams likely are not enough to make up that gap, but the Bulls could still potentially execute a Lauri Markkanen sign-and-trade to net themselves some help on that end.
The New Orleans Pelicans, meanwhile, replaced Ball with Devonte’ Graham, in yet another sign-and-trade deal. Graham is much less expensive in terms of dollars (four years, $47 million) but cost the Pelicans a (lottery-protected) first-round pick, while Ball only netted Tomáš Satoranský, Garrett Temple (on a three-year, $15 million deal) and a second-rounder.
Graham is a more traditional point guard than Ball is, but he is very small and has proven almost incapable of scoring inside the 3-point arc, making only 39.5 percent of his twos during his three seasons in Charlotte. The Pelicans needed a replacement with Ball leaving because it’s not apparent that 2020 first-round pick Kira Lewis Jr. is ready for the starting role, and they got both a suitable one in Graham and a capable backup at either guard spot in Satoranský. But New Orleans may have downgraded at what has arguably become basketball’s most important position, and done so not only at an asset deficit, but also with Zion Williamson’s reported unhappiness with the organization lurking in the background.
CLARIFICATION (Aug. 4, 2021, 2:51 p.m.): This story has been updated to reflect new reporting that the contracts of Derrick Rose, Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel each include a team option on the final year.