Which teams have improved the most early in NBA free agency, and what’s still to come?
Team-by-team analysis of the major and minor deals:
1. Agreed to a reported one-year, $4.4 million deal with center Ed Davis
2. Agreed to a reported two-year, $16 million deal with Joe Harris
The Nets agreed to a pair of deals early Sunday morning that they should be able to sign after using their cap space to complete the trade with the Charlotte Hornets that they agreed to ahead of the NBA draft.
Because he played the past two seasons on a minimum-salary contract, Harris’ cap hold is for the veteran’s minimum. He’ll make far more than that on a two-year deal to return that was somewhat surprising given it will cut into Brooklyn’s cap space for the summer of 2019.
Harris blossomed into a key contributor in Kenny Atkinson’s system, and my projections had him among this year’s top 30 free agents. Despite that, I would have been tempted to see whether Atkinson could repeat the trick with another castoff rather than pay Harris like a quality reserve.
On the plus side, the Nets can now pitch potential additions on the chance to follow in Harris’ footsteps and get rewarded the way he did.
Brooklyn seemingly got better value with Davis, one of the league’s top backup bigs during his three years in Portland. Presumably anticipating the market tightening for centers, Davis grabbed a one-year deal that will probably end up coming out of the Nets’ room midlevel exception.
Davis should be a solid contributor in Brooklyn, but not so good as to block Jarrett Allen‘s pursuit of the starting job in his second season. And at this price, Davis could fetch a small return at the trade deadline if the Nets want to move him to a contender.
The Celtics got better play than they could have reasonably expected last season from Baynes, who proved a key part of the league’s best defense. With Baynes on the court, Boston allowed just 97.0 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA Advanced Stats, as compared to a 104.3 defensive rating with Baynes on the bench.
As the playoffs highlighted at times, there are limitations to Baynes’ game, even now that he has become an occasional 3-point threat (shooting 11-of-23 beyond the arc in the postseason). There was a reason the Celtics were able to nab him with the $4.3 million room exception last summer after using their cap space on Gordon Hayward.
Additionally, the market for centers figures to be even worse this year than it was in 2017. So I might have held the line on the player option Baynes will reportedly hold for 2019-20, an apparent concession to the fact that this was the most Boston could pay Baynes using his non-Bird rights and keeping the taxpayer midlevel exception free to use elsewhere.
Whether by trade or as a free agent, there has been a growing sense over the past week that Jordan was headed to Dallas three years after spurning an agreement with the Mavericks to re-sign with the LA Clippers in the summer of 2015.
The most interesting news, then, is the one-year duration of this contract — “approaching” the value of the $24.1 million player option Jordan declined on Friday, per Marc Stein of The New York Times. I’m a little perplexed the two teams couldn’t agree on a trade that would have seen Jordan opt in and get traded into Dallas’ cap space, a move that would seem better for both sides. The Mavericks would have gotten Jordan’s full Bird rights in the event they stay over the cap next summer, while the Clippers would have created a $24 million trade exception to use over the next year.
That bit of bookkeeping aside, this deal seems reasonable for Dallas. Jordan’s ability as an above-the-rim finisher in the pick-and-roll remains as good a fit for the Mavericks’ offense now as it was in 2015. Jordan averaged 1.3 points per play when he shot out of the pick-and-roll last season, tying him for seventh among players with at least 100 such shot attempts, according to Second Spectrum tracking. Dallas big men, by contrast, averaged 1.1 points per play in those situations — right around league average.
While Jordan’s offensive value has been something of a given, his defense has fluctuated throughout his career, and last year it saw a downturn in that regard. Jordan’s block rate declined nearly by half to a career-low 2.4 percent of opponent 2-point attempts, far worse than the average for centers (3.5 percent).
Blocks are an imperfect measure of rim protection, certainly, but Jordan’s more advanced metrics weren’t strong either. The 63.9 percent opponents shot within 5 feet when Jordan was the primary defender put him only 31st of the 36 players who defended at least 300 such shots, per Second Spectrum tracking on NBA Advanced Stats.
If Jordan is going to be an offense-only center, he’s not worth $20 million-plus, particularly as he advances into his 30s. Fortunately, Dallas’ exposure is limited because of the one-year deal.
By spending most of their cap space on Jordan, the Mavericks are forgoing the opportunity to sign other free agents to favorable long-term deals in a year when few other teams have more than the non-taxpayer midlevel exception to spend. However, I’m not sure which youngish free agents would have been a good long-term fit alongside Dallas’ young backcourt of Dennis Smith Jr. and No. 3 overall pick Luka Doncic, so I think waiting for next summer — when the Mavericks could create more than $50 million in cap space — is a reasonable decision.
The Nuggets quickly took care of business with two of their own free agents, re-signing Barton and Jokic.
Let’s start with the Jokic deal, something of a fait accompli after Denver decided to decline his 2018-19 team option and made Jokic a restricted free agent.
At that point, the only real question was what kind of concession the Nuggets would ask in return for paying Jokic far more than the $1.6 million he was scheduled to make this season: a slight break on the max or no player option on the contract. The two sides apparently agreed on the latter option, with Jokic getting a full five-year max, meaning he won’t become an unrestricted free agent until 2023 — when he’ll be in his prime at age 28.
The downside here is Denver pushing deep into the luxury tax after bringing back Barton on a deal that appears more lucrative than the four-year, $42 million extension (the most the Nuggets could offer at the time) he turned down during the season. Assuming the deal is for the full $54 million, as reported by ESPN’s Chris Haynes, and contains standard 8 percent raises, that means Barton will make about $12 million in 2018-19, which puts Denver’s total payroll at $22 million above the luxury-tax line for 14 players under contract (including first-round pick Michael Porter Jr., who has yet to officially sign).
The biggest takeaway is that trading the expiring contracts of Darrell Arthur ($7.5 million) and Kenneth Faried ($13.8 million) now won’t be enough for the Nuggets to dodge the tax after replacing them on the roster. Locking in Barton for at least three years — he also managed to secure a player option on the final season, a coup in a market where few free agents will get so much guaranteed money — could encourage Denver to deal incumbent starting small forward Wilson Chandler, making $12.8 million in the final season of his contract.
Marc Stein of The New York Times also reported that the Nuggets might consider moving backup center Mason Plumlee. However, since Plumlee’s contract extends into 2019-20, I suspect he would be more difficult to trade than Faried or Arthur despite the fact that he provides more value on the court.
Besides clearing salaries off the books, Denver’s other remaining goal this summer is presumably to sign a backup point guard with veteran Devin Harris a free agent. Otherwise, the rotation is largely set with Barton and Jokic returning.
Occasional chatter about the possibility Durant might leave the two-time defending champions was quickly disproved as he became one of the first players to agree to a new 2018-19 contract. The only drama here was how long a contract Durant would sign, and in turn how much he would make.
Because of the pay cut he took last season to help the Warriors manage their luxury-tax bill while re-signing Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, Durant was limited to a starting salary of $30 million on the kind of one-plus-one deal he ultimately accepted. To unlock his full max of $35.7 million, Durant would have had to sign a contract for at least two full years using early Bird rights. So he prioritized the flexibility to return to free agency in the summer of 2019 — and potentially then sign a full five-year max in Golden State, having attained full Bird rights by playing three years with the team.
The decision was meaningful for the Warriors, who remain deep in the luxury tax. Coincidentally, the amount of money Durant will forgo ($5.7 million) is similar to the amount of the taxpayer midlevel exception Golden State can utilize in free agency ($5.4 million). The potential for the Warriors to use that money to add to the roster — in a summer when $5.4 million could go a long way because of the cool market for free agents — might have helped convince Durant to go in this direction.
2. Agreed to a reported one-year, $2.4 million deal with Gerald Green
Both the Rockets and Paul should be able to find reasons to feel good about this deal, making a strong compromise. Paul gets his max salary, joining fellow point guards Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook as the three players currently set to make more than $35 million in 2018-19. (LeBron James should soon join them when he agrees to a new contract.)
Meanwhile, Houston held the line on a fifth year of this deal that would have paid Paul some $47 million at age 37. Realistically, it’s going to be difficult for Paul to be worth his salary at any point in this contract given his age and tendency to suffer muscle injuries. I project his value at around $80 million over the next three seasons, when he’ll actually make $115 million. But such is the price of contending for the Rockets, who got within a game of the NBA Finals after adding Paul at this time a year ago.
Houston also re-signed Green to a one-year, minimum contract, which is important to managing the team’s tax bill. Given how well Green played in Mike D’Antoni’s system, and that he’s a local product, getting him back at that price is a huge win.
Nonetheless, the big story of the night for the Rockets is starting small forward Trevor Ariza jumping ship for a one-year, $15 million deal with the Suns — a huge hit to Houston’s chances of competing with the Warriors. Ariza’s departure is stunning given his close relationship with Houston stars Paul and James Harden and his vital role in the Rockets’ starting lineup.
Nearly as much as PJ Tucker’s ability to defend centers, it was Ariza sliding down to power forward that made Houston’s small lineups feasible. And Ariza was the Rockets’ first option against top wing scorers, including Durant in the Western Conference finals.
That Ariza didn’t think he could get as good a deal from Houston could be a signal that new owner Tilman Fertitta wasn’t willing to pay an exorbitant luxury-tax bill to bring the roster back intact. General manager Daryl Morey will be hard-pressed to replace Ariza with only the taxpayer midlevel exception to offer in a market short on 3-and-D players who can defend either forward spot. I’m fascinated to see how the Rockets respond.
As a combo forward just reaching his peak (he turned 26 in January), McDermott fits the rough outline of what the Pacers should add to one of last season’s most surprising teams. It’s the specific player who doesn’t fit as well.
In theory, McDermott can defend either forward spot. In practice, that mostly means he’s a liability at either position. Last season was the first time in four NBA seasons that McDermott’s defensive rating in ESPN’s real plus-minus was better than three points per 100 possessions — worse than league average; he improved all the way to minus-2.3.
Thanks to his shooting (40 percent career from 3) and ability to move without the ball, McDermott is a useful offensive player. But useful isn’t enough to make up for his poor defense and make him even a neutral overall contributor. McDermott is ill-equipped to defend quality scorers one-on-one and rarely provides steals or blocks.
Indiana can point to Bojan Bogdanovic last season as an example of turning a player with a dismal defensive track record in RPM — even worse than McDermott’s — into a decent contributor. (Bogdanovic even served as the Pacers’ primary defensive option on LeBron James in the playoffs.) If McDermott can make similar strides, this contract might end up being an OK one. That’s just not enough upside to justify making McDermott a priority when there are so few other teams out there with cap space.
When Casspi signed for the minimum with the Warriors a year ago, it was roundly lauded (including in these parts) as an ideal signing. Instead, Casspi didn’t even make it to the playoffs with Golden State, which released him to make room for Quinn Cook on the postseason roster.
That outcome aside, Casspi remains worth a flier for a team in need of combo forward help. He could end up filling in for Chandler Parsons when Parsons is unable to play due to injury or rest, something the Grizzlies have to plan on happening on a regular basis. And Casspi surely came cheap after his ill-fated season with the Warriors.
As much as any deal reported in the early hours of Sunday morning, Ilyasova to the Bucks came as a surprise. Perhaps that should not have been the case, given his history with the organization. This is Ilyasova’s third tour of duty in Milwaukee, the most recent one coming under a different front office and coaching staff. Still, there’s a level of familiarity there on both sides.
During the three years since the Bucks traded him to Detroit, Ilyasova has done a strong job of retaining his value into his early 30s. His ability to stretch the floor remains a constant, and Ilyasova battles defensively. He’s one of the NBA’s most prolific charge-takers, tying for second in the league by drawing 26 of them last season, according to NBAMiner.com research.
Back in Milwaukee, Ilyasova figures to fill the role Mirza Teletovic was expected to play before a recurrence of blood clots sidelined him and ultimately led to his release. One interesting development last season was Ilyasova playing center as part of the Philadelphia 76ers‘ small lineups in Joel Embiid‘s absence, and Ilyasova-Giannis Antetokounmpo frontcourts could be potent offensively.
The big concern with Ilyasova is whether he’ll fall off at some point in his mid-30s. According to reporting by ESPN’s Zach Lowe, the final season of Ilyasova’s contract is non-guaranteed, providing the Bucks cover.
Now the question becomes what happens with Milwaukee restricted free agent Jabari Parker. Ilyasova could be Parker’s replacement, and dipping into the non-taxpayer version of the midlevel exception to sign him hard caps the Bucks at about $130 million in salary. In practice, Milwaukee is unlikely to pay the tax, meaning a de facto hard cap of $123.7 million. Adding Ilyasova puts the Bucks at about $110 million for 13 players, meaning a big offer for Parker is no longer forthcoming.
It’s possible Parker could still return if he takes his $4.3 million qualifying offer and targets unrestricted free agency a year from now. But it’s increasingly clear Parker isn’t part of Milwaukee’s long-term plans.
Given the Timberwolves were the most motivated (and perhaps only) suitor for Rose when he was waived by the Utah Jazz after the trade deadline, it’s no surprise he’s returning to Minnesota on a similar contract.
Rose played reasonably well for the Timberwolves in the playoffs, breaking down Houston’s switches to score one-on-one. It didn’t hurt that Rose shot 7-of-10 on 3s in those four games, something Minnesota can’t count on continuing.
The biggest risk of re-signing Rose is that he cuts into the minutes for the superior Tyus Jones as a backup to Jeff Teague. But Rose played the majority of his minutes in the regular season alongside Jones (72 out of 119, per NBA Advanced Stats), so that concern might be somewhat overstated.
The Suns seem to be asking the question, “What if we made the entire team out of small forwards?”
Having drafted a small forward with the No. 4 pick of the 2017 draft (Josh Jackson), signed one to an extension last fall (T.J. Warren) and traded for the rights to one drafted No. 10 this year (Mikal Bridges), Phoenix now spent the vast majority of its cap space on another player who primarily plays the 3.
The good news is that if there’s one position where more is almost always better, it’s small forward, the most versatile spot on defense. I’m guessing Ariza will start at power forward, pushing the Suns’ developing bigs (Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss) out of the lineup after each started about half the games last season. But he could also start at shooting guard, pushing Devin Booker to the point.
The big story here to me is Phoenix’s passing on using its cap space to sign a point guard, leaving the position in the hands of shoot-first Brandon Knight (coming back from a torn ACL) and No. 31 pick Elie Okobo. Barring a trade, that seems to signal using Booker as a primary ball handler with Jackson in a supporting role — an interesting gamble that could enhance Booker’s value.
More likely, I suspect the Suns’ lack of playmaking will doom their offense to the NBA’s bottom 10 despite their upgrades elsewhere. And I don’t think the addition of Ariza and Bridges will be nearly enough to help last year’s worst defense in the league, not with rookie Deandre Ayton anchoring things in the middle.
Phoenix evidently wants to push for a playoff spot this season — that’s presumably the rationale for signing a 33-year-old free agent to a one-year deal. But there’s a big difference between wanting to making the playoffs and actually doing it, as the Suns have found out over and over again during their eight-year run in the lottery.
On the plus side, Ariza should draw trade interest if Phoenix does fall out of the playoff race. Additionally, the one-year deal protects the Suns’ cap space in 2019, when they could get in the mix for a max free agent if they hold off on an extension for Booker to take advantage of his relatively low cap hold.
That said, I think Phoenix would probably have been better off using its cap space now to sign a younger player to a long-term deal that could have aged well as the cap increases.
2. Agreed to a reported two-year, $12 million deal with guard Marco Belinelli
The two deals San Antonio reportedly agreed to early Sunday morning don’t really square with the idea of the Spurs rebuilding with young talent acquired in exchange for Kawhi Leonard. Instead, San Antonio seems to want to win now — with or without Leonard.
Gay, who declined an $8.8 million player option on the second season of the contract he signed with the Spurs last summer, surely got the maximum raise possible — 20 percent — using non-Bird rights. That would put his deal at $10.1 million, a pretty good outcome for Gay given the limited market for free agents this summer. Gay and Kyle Anderson teamed up to fill in for Leonard at small forward last season, and I’d expect a similar arrangement going forward, presuming Anderson returns as a restricted free agent.
In the event San Antonio can convince Leonard to be part of the team next season, Gregg Popovich can go back to the original plan to use Gay and Leonard together as part of smaller lineups the likes of which the Spurs have rarely used in recent years.
Belinelli returns to the site of his greatest NBA heights. The best true shooting percentage of Belinelli’s career (.605) came in 2013-14 as part of the Spurs’ most recent championship team; the second-best (.582) was last season, which he split between former San Antonio assistants Mike Budenholzer (in Atlanta) and Brett Brown (in Philadelphia). The question is how long Belinelli can sustain that level of performance, given he’ll turn 34 by the end of this contract. A one-year deal for Belinelli would have been more prudent.