NBA Free Agency Winners and Losers

With the NBA free agency season winding down, I decided to stop procrastinating and to recap the ups and down of the hectic free agency period. What better way to do that than with a good old winners and losers column? Let’s start with the most obvious example.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Winners

Gee, I don’t know… They didn’t have that great of a summer. All they got was the best player alive, who, just by being in Cleveland:

  1. Immediately made them into title contenders and
  2. Made all of the valuable veterans chasing rings come to Cleveland

In addition to getting LeBron, they have a bunch of young, cheap, and valuable assets and could get Kevin Love.

As I said, not a particularly good July for the Cavs.

Sacramento Kings: Losers

What the hell are they doing??? Here are two facts that shed light on why the Kings have been consistently one of the worst teams in basketball for the last decade:

  1. They let their young, talented, restricted free agent point guard (Isaiah Thomas) leave for Phoenix so they could instead save money by picking up a career backup (Darren Collison) instead. How much did they save? About a million dollars per year for the next three years (and seven mil in the fourth year). They say they have some advanced stats that show that Collison is better than Thomas, but I, like most observers, am skeptical.
  2. They’re currently ducking the luxury tax line by just under a million dollars. That’s normally fine (for instance, the Thunder are also just under the luxury tax) but they’re spending a ton of money for a lottery team with no upside.

That seems like a loss to me.

Houston Rockets: Losers

Well, the Rockets are still in a good position for the future, with two stars in Howard and Harden, along with plenty of cap flexibility. They have the normal number of picks (the 1st rounder that they traded to the Lakers with Jeremy Lin is replaced by the 1st rounder they got from the Pelicans for Omer Asik) so they’re not completely screwed like the two New York teams, and they’ve got a top-notch GM who isn’t completely incompetent. Due to Houston’s positive long-term outlook, it’s strange to see them on the list as losers.

The reason why their summer wasn’t a success is due to their failed attempts at landing the upper tier free agents available. They dumped off Asik to New Orleans and Lin to Los Angeles to create cap space to sign free agents. That’s normally commendable, but when you miss out on the best free agents, you suddenly find yourself without two valuable rotation players.

Not only did the Rockets miss out on Melo and Chris Bosh, but they also decided not to keep Chandler Parsons. Their plan for free agency was to let Parsons go into restricted free agency, keeping his cap hold at about 2-3 million and to get rid of Lin and Asik, thereby creating enough cap space to sign a max level free agent. Subsequently, the plan was to sign a max level free agent while remaining under the cap. They would then be able to go over the cap to resign Parsons, giving them a big four of Harden, Howard, Parsons, and Bosh/Melo.
Of course, when Parsons signed an offer sheet with the Mavs, the Rockets only had three days to sign a free agent and then to resign Parsons. They were unable to do so, and then, at the end of the three-day waiting period, they simply let Parsons go.

To replace Parsons at the 3, Houston signed Trevor Ariza. Ariza is older than Parsons and is signed to a longer contract, although for less per year, meaning that Houston will have more cap space for additional free agent signings. Ariza, outside of the contract itself, is a good signing for Houston. He shoots 3s as well as Parsons and plays much better defense, which is especially important on a team with Harden, a defensive sieve. Still, he’s not Bosh, Melo, or even Parsons.

Houston came into this free agent period with high hopes, and left with less than they came in with. The team that suffered a first round playoff exit to Portland just got worse. That’s a pretty bad summer.

LeBron James: Winner

Let’s list the four biggest ways that LeBron won the summer, he:

  1. Goes home to Cleveland, erasing much of the pain from his brief defection in 2010
  2. Gets out of a deteriorating situation in Miami, where he would have been stuck with old and expensive teammates, where he would have had to carry his team every night (kinda like the late 2000s Cavs)
  3. Goes to the only place he could have gone to win titles without being branded a mercenary
  4. Gets a team where he either gets to play with a bunch of young stars who can save his legs, or with less young stars and Kevin Love, a top 10 player.

Not too shabby a summer for King James, huh?

Miami Heat: Losers           

Speaking of LBJ, the Heat had a bad summer. They lost the best player on the planet. That alone is enough to make a team a loser. However, outside of losing LeBron, the Heat actually had a surprisingly good summer.

They resigned Dwyane Wade to a more manageable contract. The kept Chris Bosh, who’ll become their new franchise player. If Bosh can keep up his defense while shouldering the offensive burden, the Heat will be in good shape.

In addition to the players they resigned, they also signed a few good free agents. They signed Luol Deng to replace LeBron (if anyone can truly do so) at the 3. They got Josh McRoberts, a 3-point-shooting, floor-spacing big man, who fits well with Miami’s offensive philosophy of passing, movement, and space. They also acquired Danny Granger, a veteran like the Heat have signed in years past, but, unlike those prior veterans, he’s (probably) not washed up.

Although the Heat lost LeBron, they had a pretty productive summer. However, next year they’ll almost certainly get worse after losing their best player and the strengthening of their in-conference rivals. That’s enough to make them losers.

Phoenix Suns: Winners

They are loaded. Perhaps not skill-wise, at least not yet, but there are really no teams out there that have a better long-term outlook than the Suns. You could make a case for the Hawks. You could make a case for the Sixers. But really, no team compares to the Suns.

Last year they won 48 games when they were trying to lose. Phoenix won with a young team that can only get better. They had four first round draft picks in this year’s draft. They aren’t hamstrung by cap concerns. The Suns can resign Eric Bledsoe and will still have max level cap space next summer. Even if they can’t sign a free agent, they can still trade for a star. They have a ton of young, cheap, and movable assets. For a team that’s pretty good already, adding a max level player would make them elite.

Still, that’s their long-term outlook. We’re only looking at this summer, though. They had one notable free agent acquisition, signing Isaiah Thomas away from Sacramento. In Phoenix’s two-point-guard offensive system, Thomas will be a good fit. However, one free agent signing is generally not enough to make a team a winner. In this case, though, it’s what the Suns don’t do (or at least don’t need to do) that makes them winners.

Originally, they offered Bledsoe 48 million over 4 years. Bledsoe turned them down. They moved on and signed Thomas for 4 years and about 27-28 million dollars. The advantage here is twofold. One, they get a cheaper replacement for Bledsoe. Two, they can afford to play hardball with Bledsoe, forcing him to accept less money to come back to Phoenix.

If Bledsoe comes back, great! They have another good player. If he doesn’t, that’s great, too! They have extra cap space to use to improve up and down their roster.

Now, if Phoenix hadn’t signed Thomas, they would have either lost Bledsoe or been forced to give him a cap-crippling contract that would mess up their cap space for years to come, just so they could keep together their core from last year.

The Thomas signing, because of all of these reasons, is one of the most underrated signings of free agency and is enough to make the Suns winners.

Indiana Pacers: Losers

The Pacers stagnated, not signing anyone of great import. However, they lost Lance Stephenson, a brutal blow.

Despite his antics, Stephenson was one of two players on Indiana last year (in addition to Paul George) who knew the definition of the word ‘score’. If you subtract him from a horrendous Indiana offense and don’t replace him with anyone good, that’s a combination for disaster.

Even the Pacers’ vaunted defense will be affected. Stephenson was a big part of the defense with his long arms and physical defense. He’s also valuable on defense because of his ability to guard the 3, in addition to his position at 2-guard.

Stephenson’s ability to create offense along with his flexibility on defense will be sorely missed in Indiana.

Indiana’s loss of Stephenson coupled with the gains other Eastern contenders made this offseason is enough to make them losers.

Charlotte Hornets: Winners

The Hornets (it feels weird calling them that) were the team that signed Stephenson away from the Pacers. It was a great signing for them. Their, at times, stagnant offense gets a big boost from adding someone who can make his own shot and (kinda like a linebacker) is able to bully his way to the rim for easy layups.

Steve Clifford’s defensive system gets another versatile, long-armed defender. Adding another elite defender to a team that was among the league leaders in defensive efficiency last season? That’s a recipe for a top-3 defense.

With an elite defense, a decent offense, and Lance Stephenson (not to mention an NBA great running the show), could Charlotte be turning into Indiana 2.0.? That potential is more than enough to make this a successful summer for Charlotte.

NBA Fans: Winners

We were the biggest winners of all. Let’s just quickly run through all the ways we won the summer. We got…

  1. Two weeks of nonstop excitement, constantly refreshing our Twitter feeds and ESPN to see if an important free agent had signed.
  2. To dream for the future, imagining our favorite team acquiring LBJ, Melo, Bosh, or whoever else.
  3. To see new teams rise, young teams get even better, and established teams get worse.
  4. To feverishly work out trade scenarios on the ESPN Trade Machine that’d net our team Kevin Love
  5. To watch a player make amends for one of the worst things to ever happen to a fan base in the history of sports

It’s been a helluva summer.



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