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Somehow, after the first day of free agency, the big story is not a free agent at all.
Kevin Durant made sure of that when he demanded a trade from Brooklyn just hours before free agency theoretically began at 6 p.m. ET on Thursday. (In reality, free agency began several weeks ago, but we aren’t supposed to say this part out loud).
As a result of that, and the shockwaves which radiated outward — re-imagined Kyrie Irving-Lakers scenarios, complex Deandre Ayton sign-and-trades and teams from Boston to Miami to
Golden State Memphis imagining how they could pull together a deal for a superstar who will remain under contract for an entire Olympiad – the first day of free agency understandably got a bit of short shrift.
Which is fair, to an extent. With the destinations of the big names already known (although we enjoyed the performance art about Jalen Brunson’s “decision day” as the Knicks belatedly swim against the current of a tampering charge), there wasn’t going to be a single free-agent move that would knock our socks off. Anything that happens with Durant is orders of magnitude bigger than the other stuff that took place on June 30.
Nonetheless, several moves caught my eye on the first day, both for good and bad. Let’s go through some of the biggest ones:
Hats off to Minnesota for what was hands down the best deal of the first day. Anderson’s BORD$ value is more than double the annual value of this contract, and there’s a good reason for that. While he’s not much of a shooter, “Slo-Mo” is a plus in nearly every other category, and especially as a defender.
That’s the valuation side, but the fit is even more of a win. Anderson can clog the offense when paired with other non-shooters, but playing next to the league’s best-shooting center and three guards who can let it rip from deep, he should be a major plus with his loping slashes to the cup. Anderson is also a major upgrade for a team that struggled on defense last season and lacked quality at both forward spots.
Meanwhile, it was a rough day for Memphis at the power forward spot. The Grizzlies had an all-timer of a news dump when they announced just before free agency tipped off that Jaren Jackson, Jr. needed surgery for a stress fracture and would be out for several months, and then Slo-Mo – who had so capably filled in for Jackson during his relatively frequent injury absences – bolted for Minnesota hours later.
Oddly, the Grizzlies will have 16 players under contract once they ink rookies Jake LaRavia, David Roddy and Kennedy Chandler, after also agreeing to re-sign Tyus Jones. Once they presumably waive the injured Danny Green, they’ll be about $5 million under the cap despite having a full roster and being a likely contender in the West. One possible use for this money: A renegotiate-and-extend for the expiring $11.4 million deal of Dillon Brooks.
Thumbs down: Marvin Bagley to the Pistons (three years, $37 million)
It’s weirdly frustrating to see the Pistons mostly get the big-picture stuff right while still stepping on assorted rakes along the way. Their bizarre obsession with Bagley is a perfect example.
Detroit traded two second-round picks just to get his restricted free agent rights at the 2022 trade deadline, even though his team at the time pretty clearly had no intention of keeping him. Then they doubled down once free agency started, engaging in a bidding war against vapor as soon as the opening bell sounded. The few teams with cap room didn’t seem to need or want Bagley, but the Pistons paid him anyway. The Pistons don’t particularly need Bagley either, given that they already have three centers who are better (Jalen Duren, Isiah Stewart and Kelly Olynyk), and he has never demonstrated the skill level needed to play the 4.
On a glass-is-4-percent-full note, Bagley is young and can score, so perhaps he adds enough empty calories to make this contract look kinda not terrible. Either way, the Pistons’ cap situation is so clean going forward that the contract is unlikely to hurt them. He might even inadvertently help their long-term outlook if he plays as he did in Sacramento and keeps them in prime tanking position. But there were better uses of two seconds, and better gambles to take with above-MLE money, than this one.
You can argue there is a bit of Buddy Ryan Syndrome at play here, with Sixers general manager Daryl Morey replaying his greatest hits from the Houston days by bringing back Tucker and House to join James Harden and his one-time draft pick De’Anthony Melton. However, one can also argue, more emphatically, that the Sixers finally have a couple of wings who fit their Harden-Embiid-Harris-Maxey core with the additions of Tucker, House and the previously acquired Melton.
The Sixers needed James Harden to opt-out of his $47 million for the season to pull this off (as our Shams Charania reported he will do) and will be hard-capped the rest of the season, but can bring Harden back on a three-year deal for roughly $110 million and proceed at least fairly comfortably through the season. Philly still likely has some issues ramping up to the levels of the Bucks, Celtics and Heat in the East, but between these additions and one or two subtractions (including a name below), this is a much more coherent roster than it was a year ago.
Thumbs down: DeAndre Jordan to Denver (one year, minimum)
What are we doing here? Jordan was awful last year, will be 34 on opening day, and can’t jump anymore. Why are you jumping to sign him on the first day of free agency?
Unfortunately, I think I know why: Because the Nuggets are only going to sign minimum contracts so they can avoid the luxury tax, which would also explain why they gave up a future first-round pick to drop JaMychal Green, and followed that by another money-saving move in dealing Monte Morris and Will Barton for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Ish Smith.
Denver also signed Davon Reed to a minimum contract (yay?), although he actually was a useful player last season. Unless we see evidence to the contrary, we can assume they’re just about done. (The Nuggets have one open roster spot, which will either be filled by restricted free agent Vlatko Cancar or another player on a minimum contract). That would leave the Nuggets above the tax line, still, but able to get under by trading Smith later in the season. They’ll avoid the tax, but even more than that, they’ll also avoid maximizing the prime years of the best player in franchise history.
Ingles is working his way back from a torn ACL, but the Bucks don’t need him to amass regular-season wins. The idea is to have a threatening shooter who can help them in playoff games, and getting him for one year at the taxpayer mid-level is good value if he has anything in the tank post-surgery. Adding Matthews and Carter on near-minimum deals (Matthews for one year, Carter for two), locks in solid defenders to pad the back end of the rotation at the only price the Bucks could pay because of being in the tax.
Milwaukee also kept Portis on a four-year, $49 million deal – the most they could pay him – and got an unexpected bonus when Pat Connaughton opted into his deal for $5.7 million this year. That last one likely came with strings attached in the form of an extension that would kick in a year from now, but in the short term, keeps what could have been a staggering luxury tax bill to something quasi-reasonable. The Bucks will enter the year $26 million into the tax, which would result in a $65 million check to the league – heady stuff for a small market. We’ll see if they ride it out or if they move off money in-season (George Hill or Grayson Allen, perhaps), but the 2021 champs are well-positioned to regain their perch.
Thumbs down: Lu Dort extension (five years, $87 million)
This was a pretty extravagant extension considering they didn’t even have to do one: Oklahoma City could have just allowed Dort to play this year on his $1.9 million deal and then either re-signed him in free agency or, more plausibly, extended him for four years starting at $12.95 million per.
Dort has improved as a shooter, but the idea of him as a high-level 3-and-D guy is still a ways off. We haven’t seen the Thunder play a real, meaningful game in a couple of years, but he’s still a player opponents will dare to shoot from the perimeter and don’t fear as a finisher or creator. He’s a brick wall in isolation defense, but his impact stats suggest that he might be overrated on this end as well.
Contrast this, if you will, with the similar deal that Houston signed for a relatively similar (if somewhat older) player, Jae’Sean Tate. Like Dort, his team turned down a team option for the minimum to ink him to a longer deal, but it’s for barely one-quarter the amount: $22 million over three years.
Oklahoma City can have max or near-max cap room next summer regardless of the Dort contract, but it feels like they overreached here by several million a season. I had a BORD$ value on Dort of $7.2 million – right around what Tate got, but just half of what the Thunder paid Dort.
(Photo of James Harden and P.J. Tucker: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports)