Opening night of 2019 free agency may have been the wildest in NBA history. We are here to sort the winners and losers from a league-altering series of signings.
When you sign Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving — two of the three biggest names on the market — you are a winner in free agency, even if the former ruptured his right Achilles tendon and the latter fractured a title contender’s locker room. They stole the show before free agency even opened, with the news coming moments before 6 p.m. on Sunday. In one fell swoop, they legitimized the franchise, took ownership of New York City basketball and cemented themselves as contenders in 2020-21.
There are plenty of questions about how this will work. Can Kenny Atkinson wrangle Irving in a way Brad Stevens could not? Will Durant enjoy playing with Irving any more than he did Russell Westbrook? How will two of the league’s most combative superstars handle playing in the NBA’s largest media market? Will Durant ever be the same after suffering a historically devastating injury? And how much will change between now and the next time we see Durant on the court?
Still, this is KD and Kyrie, two of the most talented scorers on the planet, now playing for a Nets team that was the laughingstock of the league not long ago. Brooklyn also added DeAndre Jordan and Garrett Temple, a pair of useful veterans, to a talented young roster. That the Nets are in this position — arguably even with the Boston Celtics this coming season and ahead of them thereafter — is a stunning turnaround six years removed from one of the worst trades in NBA history.
This one took a wild swing in a span of four minutes on Sunday night. After J.J. Redick left for the New Orleans Pelicans, we learned the Sixers agreed to send Jimmy Butler to the Miami Heat in a sign-and-trade, which seemed like a blow to a team that relied heavily on Redick to space the floor and Butler to generate offense late in playoff games, but within minutes we discovered that Josh Richardson was on his way back in the Butler deal and Al Horford was coming from Boston.
The Butler deal remained up in the air late Sunday night, as the Heat tried to find a third team to take on Goran Dragic’s contract, but it seems headed for completion.
The 76ers will essentially swap Butler and Redick for Horford and Richardson, and also signed Tobias Harris to a five-year, $180 million deal. Horford and Richardson combined to make 237 3-pointers last year, three fewer than Redick. Still, the Sixers locked in a massive starting lineup that will form a devastating defense, while making the Celtics worse. Once the key to slowing Joel Embiid in recent years, Horford can now help maximize his new frontcourt mate’s effectiveness and rest.
There is risk to spending almost $300 million on Harris, who disappeared at times in the playoffs, and Horford, who will be 37 years old when his deal ends. But there is no clear-cut NBA favorite right now, and the Sixers just opened their title window.
The new West
The championship chances of the Golden State Warriors had already taken a hit in 2019-20, given the tendon tears for Durant and Klay Thompson, but KD’s departure East seemingly lessened their title odds henceforth. Then came the news that D’Angelo Russell was coming back in a sign-and-trade, which is a lot to unpack.
The Warriors will not lose Durant for nothing, and they add another star alongside Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, but the move’s salary cap constraints also meant they had to move on from Andre Iguodala, and it cost them a first-round pick. This makes for a weird roster once Thompson returns, with three guards and only one plus defender among them, and no cap room to add frontcourt depth.
The Warriors can always move Russell for a piece in the future, but the death lineup is dead in Golden State, and every other playoff team in the West went to bed on Sunday feeling better about their futures, regardless of their own free agency.
The Utah Jazz probably feel best. Having already traded for Mike Conley, they signed Bojan Bogdanovic and Ed Davis, two of the more underrated players on the market. The sign-and-trade of Derrick Favors to New Orleans mitigates the Davis move a bit, but a starting lineup with Conley, Bogdanovic, Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles is a small-ball monster with Rudy Gobert mopping up on the back end.
The Los Angeles Lakers, who saw a lot of their contingency plans come off the board if they do not land Kawhi Leonard, will continue to feel good with LeBron James and Anthony Davis at the top of a roster with $32 million in cap space.
The Portland Trail Blazers lost Al-Farouq Aminu to the Orlando Magic, but will sign Damian Lillard to a super-max extension and keep Rodney Hood on a nicely priced two-year, $16 million deal after already swapping Evan Turner for Kent Bazemore.
Likewise, the Denver Nuggets did not make a big free-agent splash on Sunday night, but they retained Paul Millsap and extended Jamal Murray for big money.
The Houston Rockets also kept their core together. None of this leaves many open playoff spots, but now almost every team that gets in at least feels it has a chance.
The sign and trade
Long thought dead after the decision eight years ago to remove the fifth year from contracts for outgoing players, the sign-and-trade made a big comeback in 2019.
With teams either attempting to salvage something out of an outgoing asset or doing salary cap gymnastics to maximize incoming assets, the league’s increased player movement has opened the door for the revival of the sign-and-trade.
On Sunday night alone, the Celtics, Hornets, 76ers, Heat, Warriors and Nets agreed to blockbuster sign-and-trade deals respectively involving Terry Rozier, Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler, Josh Richardson, Kevin Durant and D’Angelo Russell. Four All-Stars changed hands, and no team left empty-handed, although Charlotte may have gotten its pocket picked in committing three years and $58 million to Rozier.
Before free agency even opened, Irving and Durant had already committed to the Nets, and Kemba Walker had been a Celtic for a few days. Horford opted out of Boston a week ago, knowing there was a four-year deal north of $100 million on the table elsewhere. And wouldn’t you know it: Butler’s sign-and-trade conveniently left $100 million available, and Horford was laying in wait without ever meeting with the 76ers. More than $3 billion worth of business was conducted before midnight.
Everyone knew how the dominoes would fall before the first one tipped. How this happened when teams were not permitted to recruit players before 6 p.m. is evidence that tampering is not only widespread in the NBA, but necessary to compete in the marketplace. Lakers fans will be quick to remind you that Magic Johnson was fined twice for less egregious violations of the anti-tampering rule.
In March, the Knicks owner vowed that players and their agents told him that they want to play in New York, giving hope to the NBA’s most downtrodden fanbase that Durant and Irving would come. In a way, he was right, since they went to Brooklyn.
Dolan also said then, “We are definitely going to pay them,” which didn’t go over so well when it turned out he reportedly did not want to offer Durant a max contract over concerns about his Achilles. Durant actually did take less to make room for ex-Knick DeAndre Jordan on the Nets, but the news that Dolan blinked on the max meant he was never in on KD or had a handy excuse for why he did not land him.
In the end, Dolan did pay his free agents — namely power forwards Julius Randle, Bobby Portis and Taj Gibson. They will make a combined $114 million over the next three years, or $26 million less in that same span than Kristaps Porzingis, the All-Star big man the Knicks traded to create max cap space for Durant and Irving.
The Knicks have to take a long look in the mirror after they lost out on a superstar pairing to the crosstown rival Nets — a franchise with less history and fewer fans behind it. Madison Square Garden is no longer the mecca, and that undoubtedly is on Dolan, whose fraught relationship with players from the organization’s last title contender is still impacting their ability to build a legitimate team two decades later. The choice is clear now more than ever: Either Dolan goes, or the Knicks suffer.
The Milwaukee Bucks retained All-Star wing Khris Middleton and signed veteran center Brook Lopez to a sizable extension, but they also lost rising guard Malcolm Brogdon over a price tag. Rather than retain a key piece of a title contender around the NBA MVP, the Bucks opted not to match the Indiana Pacers offer of four years and $85 million for Brogdon, instead signing-and-trading him for a few draft picks.
The Bucks also kept George Hill and added Robin Lopez to back up his twin brother, but losing Brogdon is a massive blow. His ability to play on or off the ball, space the floor and defend multiple positions opened up so many options, most notably the ability to mask Eric Bledsoe’s playoff failures. He was at times their third-best player behind Antetokounmpo and Middleton, and they lost him for cash.
It is not as though the Bucks could not afford Brogdon. Their owners are billionaires who split the bill for Milwaukee’s new arena with the city’s taxpayers. If ever they were going to pay into the luxury tax, it is now, when you have a contender led by a transcendent player in his prime, two years removed from his own free agency. We shall see if this decision comes back to bite them when Antetokounmpo’s contract ends in 2021, but it certainly makes his road to a championship tougher today.
When the news came down that the Celtics were signing-and-trading Rozier for Walker, it appeared as though Boston might be making a play to retain Horford. It would have required even more salary cap machinations, but there was a moment where making one last pitch to their All-Star center seemed a real possibility.
Then, Horford left for the rival Sixers. The Celtics did add Walker, avoiding complete disaster, but they lost Irving, Horford and Rozier. It is still unclear which midlevel exception Boston will have to spend on a replacement center, but a number of their options at $5 or $9 million went elsewhere on Sunday. Even if they land one of the top bargain bigs left, matching up with Horford and Embiid is a logistical nightmare.
If the Celtics believed, as was probably the case, that they were not a title contender with Walker and Horford, offering Horford $109 million over the next four years probably was not a prudent move. Still, the Celtics are less talented today than they were last season, even if the locker room may be a happier place.
The Magic spent $154 million on Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross, keeping together the core of a roster that finished 42-40, captured the seventh seed in the East and lost in a five-game first-round series to the eventual champions.
The Vucevic deal is a curious one, since they locked him in for the remainder of Mo Bamba’s rookie contract. It is unclear who they were bidding against. How they plan to develop one center while paying the other $25 million annually is a difficult question to answer, unless they now view Vucevic as a trade asset down the line.
The Magic did swipe Al-Farouq Aminu from the Blazers for three years and $29 million, which gives them depth on the wing, where again they are paying Aaron Gordon $20 million and trying to develop Jonathan Isaac. These moves seem to have been made with an eye toward prioritizing mediocrity over development.
Los Angeles, for now
The only move either L.A. team made was the Clippers retaining Patrick Beverley for $40 million over the next three years. Both teams remain in a holding pattern as they await Kawhi Leonard’s free-agent decision. At least one will whiff with its max cap space, and there is a chance both do, should Leonard return to the Raptors.
Every other top free agent on the market is now committed elsewhere, which destroyed the Clippers’ dream of pairing Leonard with another max-salaried free agent — like Butler or Horford. The biggest star name left is DeMarcus Cousins, and he is not going to sway Leonard’s decision. The Clippers are now left to sell last year’s roster as being one two-time Finals MVP away from title contention.
Meanwhile, the Lakers are pitching a super-team of never-before-seen proportions, grouping three of the league’s best five talents. If they cannot convince Leonard to join LeBron and Davis, their alternative plan to spend $32 million in cap space on a trio of players got a little tougher on Sunday night. Many of the guys who could have provided depth — Ross, Beverley and Darren Collison, to name a few — are no longer available. They could be looking at scraps if Leonard keeps them waiting.
It is increasingly likely that whatever team lands Leonard will be the title favorite in 2020, so one L.A. team’s fortunes could change at any moment. But on the first night of free agency, at least, the Lakers and Clippers are hanging in the balance.
Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant will join forces on the Brooklyn Nets. (Getty Images)
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