With the focus of the NBA transitioning over to Summer League action, it is time to review a very exciting and volatile summer of free agency. In this era of basketball where money is king and Big Threes are becoming the new normal, free agency is becoming the preferred tool for general managers to build immediate contenders. With big names like LeBron, Carmelo and Chris Bosh headlining this 2014 free agency class, there is definitely a lot to address in this review.
The James Effect
First off, it is time to address the biggest fish of this pond, LeBron James. At first, it seemed as though LeBron would stay in Miami alongside the rest of the Big Three and possibly add another star to the mix as well. But despite the success he had in Miami, LeBron could not resist his sense of duty to return to Cleveland and bring a championship to the region he calls home. His move to Cleveland created a domino effect that has brought on immense ramifications for himself, Cleveland, Miami, other free agents, and the league as a whole. For Cleveland, this move is a godsend, both on and off the court. Off the court, LeBron’s homecoming has brought happiness to a city with a less than stellar sports reputation. It has also brought energy to the people of north-east Ohio and has given them hope. Commercially speaking, LeBron’s return is projected to bring the city $500 million. Indeed, in the eyes of Clevelanders everywhere, The Return has trumped The Decision, and the entire region is focused on one goal: breaking the Cleveland Curse, and bringing a championship to the shores of Lake Erie. But do the Cavaliers have what it takes on the court to deliver?
During LeBron’s first stint in Cleveland, he was able to almost singlehandedly keep the Cavaliers in the running for the NBA title. In the latter half of the 00s, LeBron James had led his team to five Top-4 East finishes, four 50 win seasons and a Finals appearance all while having only one teammate who received an All-Star selection in this timespan (Mo Williams, 2009). This new Cavaliers team is much stronger, boasting another star in Kyrie Irving and a potential superstar in Andrew Wiggins. Irving is no LeBron, and he was unable to lead the Cavs to the playoffs on his own. However, he is a perfect fit playing as a sidekick and a second option to a superstar. He should improve as both a basketball player and a leader under James’ tutelage, and will become a better distributor while still being capable of taking over offensively when needed. Both LeBron and Kyrie should be probable All-Stars this year. The number one pick Andrew Wiggins should be a starter this year, but unlike other first overall picks, Wiggins will be on a title hunting team, and will not be expected to shoulder the load on his own. Wiggins has a bright future, and with a mentor like LeBron, he could become a superstar in his own right. The frontcourt of the Cavs doesn’t boast the star power of the back, but Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao are decent players who can hold their own. Plus, James is capable of sliding to the four, and he is absolutely deadly in that position. With Dion Waiters as the sixth man and the likely signing of Ray Allen, the Cavaliers are easily the biggest winners of free agency. There have been some eyebrows raised at LeBron’s two year contract, but the reason for the short contract length is due to the NBA’s new TV deal that will bring more money to the league, and to the players.
Even though the Heat lost their best player, they were determined to stay in the title chase. Their biggest move was to retain Chris Bosh on a max contract. By matching a max contract offer from the Houston Rockets, this move was a statement of intent by Pat Riley that the Heat are not going away anytime soon. However, paying $118 million to someone on the wrong side of 30 is not always a good idea, and in this case Bosh was overvalued. Dwyane Wade was brought back as well on a two year thirty million dollar deal. To replace LeBron James, the Heat signed Luol Deng from the Cavaliers, and while he is no superstar, he is a serviceable player who should be a reliable presence for the Heat. Point guard is still an issue with the Heat, with Mario Chalmers falling out of favor last year after previously being a mainstay. The Heat should consider bringing on a veteran like Jameer Nelson. Rookie Shabazz Napier should receive significant playing time no matter who the starter is, and at some point this season he may very well take the starting job. With Chris Bosh being a better fit at the four, the resigned Chris Andersen could get an increased role this year, though he could rotate with Udonis Haslem in being the frontcourt partner for Chris Bosh. Mid-level additions Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger will come off the bench and should provide decent production. The Heat have clearly taken a step down in this free agency period, but there is no reason to believe they won’t stay competitive in the East.
One of the most important third parties affect by LeBron James’ decision has been the Houston Rockets. Houston and its general manager Daryl Morey have been at work putting together a super team capable of being title favorites. The Rockets put a max offer towards Chris Bosh, and it was believed that Bosh would have accepted the offer if LeBron chose to re-sign with the Heat. With a line-up of Beverley, Harden, Parsons, Bosh and Howard, the Rockets would have boasted the best starting lineup in the league. However, as fate would have it, LeBron went to the Cavs, and Bosh accepted a max contract offer from the Heat. To continue piling on, the Rockets declined to match the 3 year $45 million offer to Chandler Parsons from the Mavericks, and had to settle for Trevor Ariza as his replacement. After swindling opposing GMs for years, it is Daryl Morey now eating crow. The Rockets still boast a competitive roster headlined by James Harden and Dwight Howard, but the talent drop off between Chandler Parsons and Trevor Ariza is significant. In addition, the Rockets gave up role players Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik as salary dumps. While they were overpaid, they still need to replace their production off the bench. The continued development of Donatas Montiejunas should help, and signing someone like Shawn Marion for the veteran’s minimum would be a good idea.
Not every team can get a superstar free agent like LeBron James, but a team can still add second tier players that can take a team to the next level. Teams that already have an existing and successful structure have used this free agency period to add their final piece and become contenders. While they haven’t taken the great leap like that of the Cavaliers, the Hornets, Bulls and Mavericks have elevated themselves significantly as a result of their work this month in free agency.
The Chicago Bulls were already borderline title contenders before free agency and they were determined to burst through by adding a superstar. By using their amnesty provision on Carlos Boozer, the Bulls had enough cap space for a max contract. They courted Carmelo Anthony, and it made perfect sense, since they had the money, and it made basketball sense since they could not hedge everything on Derrick Rose’s brittle knees forever. However, Melo chose to return to the Knicks, which left the Bulls scrambling for a backup plan. Fortunately, Pau Gasol was available, and he signed a team friendly 3 year $22 million deal. Gasol will lock down the power forward position, and should have a good season especially with Joakim Noah next to him in the frontcourt. As for the rest of the team, Derrick Rose still has superstar potential when healthy, and Jimmy Butler should continue growing as a player, though his shooting percentage could use work. The small forward position is an enigma, with two rookies, Doug McDermott from Creighton, and Nicola Mirotic from the EuroLeague, competing for the position. McDermott is a catch and shoot type of guy who should get a lot of space when on the floor with the likes of Rose and Noah, whereas Mirotic is a point forward who can lead the second unit offensively. With Taj Gibson leading the defense on the second unit, no one should sleep on the Bulls as possible title contenders.
The then Charlotte Bobcats were one of the pleasant surprises of last season, with Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson leading the formerly inept franchise to the playoffs. The newly rebranded Hornets are now determined to enter deeper into contention and use their abundance of cap space to make a big free agent splash. They shocked the world when they signed Utah Jazz swingman Gordon Hayward to a max contract offer sheet. While the Jazz chose to match the offer and keep him in Utah, the bold move showed that the Charlotte front office meant business and was fully committed to expanding on its core and bringing a competitive team to the basketball crazy state of North Carolina. The Hornets ended up signing Lance Stevenson, a comparable player to Hayward, on a far more team friendly nine million per year for three years. There are no questions about Stevenson’s talent, but he does bring with himself some baggage. He can be very immature at times, but the change in scenery should help the mercurial swingman stay focused. The mediocrity on the forward positions is a question, with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Gerald Henderson competing for the 3, and Cody Zeller and rookie Noah Vonleh competing at the 4. Henderson is a better player overall, but Kidd-Gilchrist is a better fit for the three, whereas the experience and size of Cody Zeller should give him the edge over inexperienced Noah Vonleh on a win-now team. Losing Josh McRoberts to the Heat was a blow, but Marvin Williams should do an adequate job in replacing his production as a stretch four.
The Dallas Mavericks have chased a superstar to pair with Dirk for many years, and while they didn’t happen this year, the Mavericks were still one of the biggest players of free agency and are arguably the most improved team of the West. First off, the Mavericks had to sign their current superstar Dirk Nowitzki to a new contract. Despite max contract offers from the Lakers and the Rockets, Nowitzki chose to take a massive hometown discount by staying in Dallas for a 3 year $25 million contract. General manager Donnie Nelson then proceeded to engineer a trade with the New York Knicks to bring back Tyson Chandler, a former Defensive Player of the Year who already won a championship with the Mavs. The trade also netted Raymond Felton, who struggled last year, but is still capable of being a role player for the Mavs, though probably not as a starter. As for players the Mavs traded away, Jose Calderon is the only one the Mavs would really miss, and the point guard position is an issue the Mavs must figure out heading into the season. Longtime Mav Devin Harris returned to the Mavs on a discounted four year contract, and should play a role in the point guard rotation. Signing a veteran like Jameer Nelson should also help alleviate the loss of Calderon. The signing of Chandler Parsons was the final piece of the Mavericks’ plan this summer, and his addition, while slightly overpriced at $46 million for 3 years, should net the Mavs a surefire starter who can play like a borderline All-Star. His defensive liabilities are a concern, but Parsons is a hard working player who should be able to improve on defense, especially under the tutelage of a coach like Rick Carlisle. Vince Carter is a major free agency departure, and the Mavs do need to improve upon the rest of their bench if they are to take another step forward and contend for a title. However, with a Chandler, Nowitzki and Parsons, as well as a resurgent Monta Ellis at the two, the Mavericks are a team that has star power and substance on the high end of their roster. This is a team that took eventual champions San Antonio to seven games in the first round. Bank on them to finish higher than the eight seed this year.
Playing for 2015
The Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and Boston Celtics are three of the most storied teams in the NBA and are big market destinations that shouldn’t have problems attracting free agents. However, due to salary concerns, these teams did not take any steps to improve upon their poor seasons from last years, and are not expected to be competitive going into next year. However, while they are cash strapped at the moment, these teams have several significant contracts due to expire next year, which means they will play a big role next summer attracting marquee free agents.
Of these three teams, the Boston Celtics are the ones that have the most flexibility. Rajon Rondo missed most of last year, and he will be expected to step up this year and lead his team. If his injury still lingers, then the Celtics have promising rookie Marcus Smart to fall back on. The team will have to make a big decision in 2015 when Rajon Rondo hits free agency. They could bring Rondo back, or they could let him go and roll with Marcus Smart as their point guard of the future. Jeff Green is one of the most versatile players in the league, capable of playing the two, three and four. He also has an expiring contract this year, and it will be hard to imagine the Celtics retaining him. The frontcourt is brimming with potential as Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynik look to further their development, and they are young players that the Celtics could build around if they choose to do so. The only notable moves by the Celtics were to re-sign Avery Bradley, add Evan Turner, and take on expiring contracts from the Cavaliers. The Celtics won’t be competing for a title this year, but they could potentially play a big role next summer in rebuilding their squad and putting together a winning team. Of course, they could choose to expedite that process by trading for Kevin Love. They have the assets needed to concoct such a trade with promising youngsters, expiring contracts, and future draft picks. With a trade package of Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynik, a 2015 first rounder, and some expiring contracts, the Celtics should be able to procure Kevin Love, sign him to a max deal, and still have enough cap space to add another superstar through free agency next summer.
The Los Angeles Lakers are on the other end of the spectrum, at least asset wise. With the exception of rookie Julius Randle, the Lakers don’t any real long term assets as well. And if their draft pick next year falls outside of the top five, they won’t have a draft pick either, since it was traded to the Suns as part of the Steve Nash trade. The Lakers tried to compensate for this in free agency by wooing Carmelo Anthony and offering him a max contract, but that effort failed, and as a result, the Lakers had to settle for Plan B and sign several mid-level players in order to fill out their team. The eccentric Nick Young was brought back to the Lakers on a four year $21.5 million contract, though it remains to be seen whether he will start, or whether he will have the sixth man role he has thrived in last year. Jordan Hill was brought back too, and Ed Davis was fished away from Memphis on a very team friendly salary. To replace the departing Pau Gasol, the Lakers signed the amnestied Carlos Boozer on a $3.25 million bid for the last year of his contract. As for trades, the Lakers took Jeremy Lin on an expiring contract as well as a future first round pick from Houston. Since they were unable to get a big free agent, the Lakers are trying to put together a team that is good enough to compete for a playoff spot. However, Father Time finally caught up to Kobe Bryant, and last season he struggled due to injuries. Even if he does bounce back, it is doubtful that he could lead the Lakers to the playoffs on his own anymore. The Lakers should have tried to pair him with a budding superstar by extending offer sheets to Eric Bledsoe and Greg Monroe. However, they chose to look towards 2015, when their plethora of expiring contracts will make way for cap space they could use on Kevin Love, if he hits unrestricted free agency. The Lakers lack any real tradable assets, so they have no choice but to stand pat next year and plan for the future.
The New York Knicks are at an interesting point this year. Despite the Knicks’ lack of viability as a championship contender, they managed to retain the services of Carmelo Anthony for the next five years under a deal slightly below the max contract. The Knicks missed out on a playoff spot last year, and it does not look any easier on them this year due to the loss of defensive cog Tyson Chandler. From that trade however, the Knicks upgraded at point guard by replacing Raymond Felton with Jose Calderon, and they did upgrade their bench by adding several role players from the Mavs like Samuel Dalambert and Wayne Ellington. They also still have JR Smith, who can be a capable scorer, but his immaturity makes him unreliable. Other than that, the Knicks did not make too many free agent signings due their position in salary cap hell. Amare Stoudamire is eating up a large portion of the cap, but his contract expires next year, and the freed cap space should be music to the ears of Phil Jackson and head coach Derek Fisher. With the money saved, they could add a star to play alongside Melo. Rajon Rondo would be a great fit alongside Melo, and a defensive big like Marc Gasol or Roy Hibbert could also be part of the plan for the Knicks and their future. Until that happens, the Knicks aren’t expected to do much or go anywhere this year. But come 2015, the Knicks could be contenders again.
Other Notable Moves
Kyle Lowry returns to Raptors: Lowry’s breakout season, alongside DeMar DeRozan’s emergence, helped change GM Masai Ujiri’s plans and made him stick to and build around the current Raptors core. And with a team friendly 4 year $48 million contract, this is good business for both the Raptors and for Lowry.
Gordon Hayward returns to Jazz: Heyward is a talented player, but he’s not worthy of a max contract by any means. By committing such money to Hayward, the Jazz have made him their cornerstone, which makes this season critical for Trey Burke, Dante Exum, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter to develop around him.
Isaiah Thomas signs with Suns: For a point guard as talented as Thomas, signing him for 4 years at $27 million is a bargain and a coup for the Phoenix front office. However, there is now a logjam at the guard positions, with Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic entrenched at those positions. Truly baffling as to why the Kings didn’t match the offer.
Marcin Gortat returns to the Wizards: Extending Gortat on a 5 year $60 million contract shows the Wizards are on win now mode. However, Gortat is on the wrong side of thirty, and his albatross of a contract will hold the Wizards back from any meaningful upgrades to their roster on the long term. A frontloaded or shorter deal would’ve been better for the team.
Paul Pierce signs with the Wizards: Washington has added some veteran leadership to their roster while also providing a replacement for Trevor Ariza. Pierce will contribute as a starter, but he won’t put out the same mileage as Ariza, and would be best served in a Manu Ginobili role. Nevertheless, at a 2 year $11 million contract, Pierce is a good buy for the Wiz.
Shaun Livingston signs with the Warriors: Livingston was a true revelation last year for the Brooklyn Nets, and after his successful season, Livingston will move the Bay and will be a much needed backup to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. And with only a 3 year $16 million contract, this is a good move by the Warriors to strengthen their inept bench.
Elephant (Timberwolf) in the Room
The one prominent issue that hasn’t been settled yet this summer has been the future of Kevin Love. Love is adamant on leaving the Wolves, and several teams have entered the Kevin Love sweepstakes. Previously, the Celtics and Warriors were considered the frontrunners, since they have good assets to build a trade package around. However, talk of a Celtics trade died down, and the Warriors unwillingness to part with Klay Thompson has put Golden State’s bid in doubt. The Bulls have also recently put themselves back into play, but it is doubtful that a package of Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott and Jimmy Butler would please the Wolves. However, with the Cavaliers having added LeBron James, there now lies the possibility of Kevin Love being the next superstar to take his talents to the shores of Lake Erie with first overall pick Andrew Wiggins headed the other way. If Cleveland makes this offer to Minnesota, the Wolves should take it, especially if the Cavaliers throw in Dion Waiters, Anthony Bennett or more draft picks. Wiggins is a once in a generation talent, and since Minnesota will be in rebuild mode, someone like Klay Thompson is not likely going to resign with the Wolves. However, getting Andrew Wiggins on a rookie contract will give the Wolves ample time to rebuild around Wiggins while retaining financial flexibility. As for the Cavaliers, as alluring it is to add another superstar right now, they would be making a mistake giving up on someone like Wiggins, who could become a superstar under LeBron’s guidance. Plus, on a per dollar basis, Andrew Wiggins would be more productive than Kevin Love, and the Cavaliers could use the money saved to add another free agent next year, like Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeAndre Jordan or even Kevin Love if he enters free agency. And they would still hold on to Wiggins as he will continue to get exponentially better year by year. Kyrie, Wiggins, LeBron, Thompson, Gasol. Now that’s a super duper team.
This free agency period was already one of the most memorable ones just for LeBron’s return alone, but with high profile moves all over the league, the performance of these new signings could very well make or break their teams’ seasons. And with a Kevin Love blockbuster trade seeming imminent, the action this summer is not over quite yet.