Rating the best and worst NBA moves so far
Which teams have improved the most in NBA free agency, and what’s still to come?
Team-by-team analysis of the major and minor deals.
Note: Updates on each deal will be posted here throughout the day.
The $7.8 million the Hornets saved by trading Dwight Howard to the Brooklyn Nets for Timofey Mozgov — a deal that became official Friday, as the Nets were able to use salary-cap space created after the start of the league year to take on Howard’s salary — allowed them to pay more than the minimum for a backup to Kemba Walker at point guard.
Unfortunately, that money doesn’t appear to be well spent. Although Parker has enjoyed an incredible NBA career, at age 36 he can no longer be considered a quality backup. Parker moved into that role midway through last season with the San Antonio Spurs, giving way to second-year point guard Dejounte Murray as the starter. In performance terms, the move was overdue. The Spurs outscored opponents by 5.7 points per 100 possessions with Murray on the court, according to NBA Advanced Stats, but had a minus-0.8 net rating with Parker at point guard.
Never a prolific 3-point shooter under the best of circumstances, Parker took fewer than 10 percent of his attempts beyond the arc last season, making them at a 27 percent clip. No longer capable of getting to the free throw line on a regular basis, Parker has no means of scoring efficiently. His .498 true shooting percentage ranked 252nd out of the 275 players who saw at least 1,000 minutes of action.
But Parker might in fact be an upgrade at backup point guard from Michael Carter-Williams, whose .446 true shooting was even worse. Parker at least provides a modicum of floor spacing compared to Carter-Williams. Still, Charlotte had the ability to outbid almost any other team in the backup point guard market and could have come away with a more productive player.
Already, we’ve seen Raymond Felton sign for the veteran’s minimum, while Yogi Ferrell (restricted), Devin Harris, Shane Larkin, Ty Lawson, Shelvin Mack, Shabazz Napier and Isaiah Thomas remain free agents. Any of them would be better choices in basketball terms as a backup point guard than Parker. The Hornets surely value the championship experience Parker will bring to the locker room. I don’t think it was worth $5 million a year.
Within hours of the report that the Kings would tender an offer sheet to LaVine, a restricted free agent, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski announced the Chicago Bulls have decided to match the offer to retain LaVine.
The offer sheet was an interesting gamble for a variety of reasons, starting with how it forced the Bulls’ hand. Chicago and Sacramento were two of the three teams remaining with more than $6 million in cap space, putting them and the third team (the Atlanta Hawks) in a power position when it comes to taking on bad salary from other teams in exchange for draft picks.
The Bulls had the most potential cap space at $26 million with holds for LaVine and fellow restricted free agent David Nwaba, while Atlanta is between $21 million and $24 million and Sacramento was at $19 million, just enough to make this offer sheet. (To do so, it appears the Kings would have to waive forward Nigel Hayes, whose salary is non-guaranteed.)
Once Chicago matches, the team’s cap space will drop to at most $17 million with Nwaba’s cap hold, meaning the Bulls would no longer have as much room to take on salary as Sacramento. For the Kings, that potential might offset the minor pain of having their cap room tied up as Chicago waits to officially match on LaVine (and perhaps drags out his physical, delaying the process).
Alternatively, the Bulls could speed up the market by trying to make a trade within the two days they have to match. LaVine’s cap hit won’t increase from his hold ($9.6 million) to his first-year salary (about $18.6 million) until the contract is matched, so Chicago will have more purchasing power during that window.
So far, we’ve discussed the LaVine contract solely in terms of its cap implications. The real downside for Chicago is not so much the loss of cap space as much as gambling an incredible amount of money on a young shooting guard with serious flaws.
LaVine believers would encourage us to throw out last season, when he was coming back from a torn ACL and played just 24 games on a team with little else in the way of shot creation. Indeed, LaVine was a far more efficient scorer with the Minnesota Timberwolves, posting an excellent .576 true shooting percentage in 2016-17 prior to the ACL tear. He dropped to .499 in last season’s abbreviated schedule, a career low.
Nonetheless, LaVine was still a below-average player in Minnesota because of his poor defense. He’s consistently rated among the league’s weakest defenders by ESPN’s real plus-minus (RPM), contributing few rebounds, steals and blocks without providing strong individual defense. Last year’s minus-2.1 defensive RPM, which ranked 490th in the league, was a career best.
Granted, LaVine is young enough at 23 to improve. Nonetheless, he projects more as a high-scoring sixth man in the Jamal Crawford mold than quality starting shooting guard. And this offer sheet pays him like an above-average starter. So it’s unlikely that LaVine will be able to outproduce his contract over the next four years, whereas if any of last season’s efficiency decline proves permanent, it could become dead weight.
The Bulls are in position to gamble because even with LaVine, they’d still be able to clear nearly $50 million in cap space in the summer of 2019. Nonetheless, as the NBA gathers in Las Vegas for summer league, this looks more like placing a big bet on the roulette wheel than it does a blackjack player counting cards.
1. Agreed to a reported two-year deal with forward Ryan Broekhoff
Asked last month about international free agents who might come to the NBA this summer, I highlighted Broekhoff, an Aussie wing who played college ball at Valparaiso but went undrafted before making his way to Europe.
Broekhoff found his way back on the NBA radar thanks to his shooting. Playing for Lokomotiv Kuban in Russia, he made 49 percent of his 3-point attempts last season between EuroCup and VTB United play. Broekhoff hasn’t been quite that accurate in the past, but has consistently shot better than 40 percent from the shorter FIBA 3-point line.
To earn minutes in Dallas, Broekhoff will have to shoot well given his limited other contributions at this point. But the same could be said of Doug McDermott, who landed a reported three-year, $22 million deal from the Indiana Pacers after finishing last season with the Mavericks.
After using their cap space to sign Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott to previously reported deals, the Pacers will use their room midlevel exception to sign O’Quinn. As a backup center, O’Quinn is an upgrade over Al Jefferson, a weaker defender who isn’t as skilled away from the basket as O’Quinn.
Long a standout by advanced metrics, O’Quinn has had a tougher time winning the trust of coaches because of his occasional tendency to try to do too much and unwillingness to serve as a dive man in the pick-and-roll. Last season’s 18 minutes per game with the New York Knicks were a career high for O’Quinn.
That’s all Indiana should need from him, what with Myles Turner as the starter at center and Domantas Sabonis capable of playing both frontcourt spots. I tend to prefer Sabonis as a 5. Analysis of lineup data from NBA Advanced Stats shows the Pacers outscored opponents by 2.5 points per 100 possessions in the nearly 1,500 minutes Sabonis played at center last season, as compared to a minus-1.5 net rating in his 345 minutes at power forward.
That said, Indiana was unlikely to find a power forward as effective as O’Quinn with the room midlevel, and an O’Quinn-Sabonis frontcourt should be more versatile and effective than Sabonis’ pairing with Jefferson.
With the Pacers’ roster largely complete — they’ll have 14 players under contract with O’Quinn, though Alex Poythress‘ salary is non-guaranteed at this point and Ike Anigbogu‘s only partially guaranteed — they seem to have improved on the roster that pushed the Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games in the opening round.
Complacency was the potential danger of Indiana’s unexpected success last season, and give the Pacers credit for avoiding that. They’ve also maintained flexibility for the summer of 2019, when they could create nearly $60 million in cap space but also have the opportunity to stay over the cap and re-sign these players if they perform well.
1. Agreed to a reported four-year, $37 million offer sheet with forward Kyle Anderson
Barely 24 hours after I declared that Wayne Selden might be the Memphis Grizzlies‘ best wing — a statement both about Selden’s strong play for the Grizzlies’ entry in the Utah Jazz Summer League and their poor depth at the shooting guard and small forward positions — they’ve attempted to upgrade via restricted free agency.
Memphis’ offer sheet for Anderson is an aggressive one, paying him the most possible using the non-taxpayer midlevel exception — including a 15 percent trade bonus, per Wojnarowski. Anderson would surely step in as the Grizzlies’ starter at small forward, leaving a crowded battle at shooting guard including Selden, incumbent small forward Dillon Brooks, MarShon Brooks and Ben McLemore.
While adding Anderson wouldn’t exactly turn Memphis’ weakness into a strength, he would be an upgrade if he performs like he did last season in San Antonio. Though Anderson doesn’t provide much floor spacing, he posted a strong .582 true shooting percentage last season on the strength of making nearly 56 percent of his 2s. Anderson has always been an excellent distributor from the wing and uses his long arms to rack up steals and blocks despite subpar lateral quickness. The Spurs might render the question of how Anderson fits with the Grizzlies moot by matching the offer sheet. With Kawhi Leonard‘s future uncertain, San Antonio too is in need of forward depth, and Anderson started 67 games last season.
The Spurs can match without too much concern about the luxury tax, so I would expect them to do so. But with so little else available on the wing in free agency — Wayne Ellington is the only unrestricted free agent of note left — Memphis taking a chance that San Antonio passes seems reasonable.
1. Agreed to a reported one-year, minimum deal with guard Ian Clark
After signing Elfrid Payton and Julius Randle, the Pelicans are basically down to minimum-salary offers from here on out. Technically, New Orleans still has about $1.7 million remaining from its room exception, but that actually is slightly less than Clark’s minimum salary.
Serving as the Pelicans’ fourth guard last season, Clark struggled, making a career-low 32 percent of his 3-point attempts. He needs to be at least at league average (36 percent) to provide reasonable efficiency. And Clark needs to score with reasonable efficiency to be effective given his limited other contributions.
At the same time, the low replacement level at shooting guard means Clark projects somewhat better than replacement next season. So a minimum deal to bring him back in a similar role is reasonable.
It’s worth noting that the Felton signing pushes the Thunder’s payroll into historic territory — more than $300 million in salary and luxury tax, as currently constructed, my colleague Adrian Wojnarowski notes. But that isn’t an argument against the move.
Unless Oklahoma City were to fill out its roster exclusively with this year’s second-round picks, who count at the rookie minimum, any free agent the Thunder signed would count the same as Felton against the cap and tax. And Oklahoma City does not have a backup to Russell Westbrook on the roster.
Felton did a credible job in that role last season, providing above-average production for a player making the veterans minimum. Although he’s not an efficient scorer (.494 true shooting percentage), Felton rarely turns the ball over and is a good enough 3-point shooter that he must be guarded beyond the arc.
With Felton turning 34, there’s some concern he might fall off, and Oklahoma City doesn’t really have an insurance policy on that possibility. The Thunder played just 72 minutes last season with neither Westbrook nor Felton on the court, exclusively in garbage time. Presumably, one of Oklahoma City’s two-way roster spots will go to a point guard who can play in case of injury, like PJ Dozier a year ago.
As for the Thunder’s tax situation, surely they won’t actually end up paying $300 million for this roster. In the wake of the Paul George signing, I outlined how Oklahoma City can reduce its payroll dramatically by waiving Kyle Singler and stretching his salary over five years. Waiving Carmelo Anthony — possibly with a buyout — and stretching his salary also seems an increasingly likely possibility to mitigate the Thunder’s massive payroll.
2. Agreed to a reported one-year, $4.4 million deal with Nemanja Bjelica
After the Sixers used their cap space to complete Tuesday’s trade with the Denver Nuggets for Wilson Chandler, I suggested their room exception might be earmarked for a backup center. Philadelphia found a cheaper alternative, bringing back Johnson at the veterans minimum.
Long a standout in plus-minus metrics, Johnson performed well in them last season, too. Philadelphia outscored opponents by 2.3 points per 100 possessions with Johnson on the court last season, according to NBA Advanced Stats, which doesn’t sound all that good until you remember that Johnson exclusively played with Joel Embiid on the bench. Consider that, per an analysis of lineup data, the 76ers had a minus-4.3 net rating with third-stringer Richaun Holmes at center.
The only quibble here is whether Philadelphia might have been able to get an even better center at a bargain rate because of this year’s weak market for 5s. It’s possible that Brook Lopez or Kyle O’Quinn could have ended up in the Sixers’ price range. Failing that, Johnson is a good value at the minimum after getting $11 million from Philadelphia last summer.
Saving the $4.45 million room exception allowed the 76ers to use it on Bjelica instead, which is one of the summer’s best contracts. I was expecting Bjelica to get a deal starting at least at the $5.3 million taxpayer midlevel exception, so either he took a modest discount with the aim of returning to free agency next summer or the market was softer than he expected after the Minnesota Timberwolves withdrew his qualifying offer.
Whatever the reason, Bjelica — not the more expensive Wilson Chandler, added via trade — figures to be the best player Philadelphia added this offseason. He offers similar skill as a power forward to the departed Ersan Ilyasova, albeit without the ability to defend centers as Ilyasova did at times late in the regular season and in the playoffs. Nonetheless, Bjelica’s ability to credibly defend either forward spot and provide shooting and some playmaking on offense gives Brett Brown additional flexibility building creative, interchangeable lineups.
The downside is that adding three players pushes the 76ers to 17 players under contract, including Holmes and T.J. McConnell, whose 2018-19 salaries are non-guaranteed. Philadelphia will likely look to buy out Jerryd Bayless to clear one spot.
That still leaves the Sixers needing to waive or trade one of Holmes, McConnell, Justin Anderson, Furkan Korkmaz or Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot. Anderson, in the final year of his rookie contract, is probably the most likely candidate, but teams that are interested in dealing for Korkmaz and Luwawu-Cabarrot should get on the phone now. Where 2017 second-round pick Jonah Bolden — who will apparently play for the team during summer league — fits into this mix remains unclear.
July 1 was not just the start of NBA free agency but also the first day first-round picks entering the fourth and final years of their rookie contracts were eligible to sign extensions. Booker became the first one to do so Saturday, putting pen to paper on a deal that will reportedly pay him the maximum $158 million over five years.
A max contract was inevitable for Booker as the centerpiece of Phoenix’s youthful roster. The question was whether it would come this summer or next. By delaying an extension for Booker, the Suns could have taken advantage of his relatively small $9.9 million cap hold to be players in free agency.
Had Phoenix renounced the rights to the team’s other free agents, that could have created somewhere in the neighborhood of $35 million in projected cap space — more than enough to hand out a max contract to a player with seven-to-nine years of experience, a group that includes most of the top players on the market.
As is, with Booker making the max — currently projected at $27.25 million — the Suns will be down to about $17 million in cap space with the current roster. That could change, of course, but it might make trading this year’s expiring contracts a better course for Phoenix. Tyson Chandler ($13.6 million) and Jared Dudley ($9.5 million) would allow the Suns to take on a big, long-term salary from a team looking to create flexibility.
It’s possible that Booker’s salary could be even higher. We haven’t heard yet whether Booker’s extension provides for him to make more (up to 30 percent of the salary cap, rather than the typical 25 percent max) if he qualifies for a designated rookie extension by making an All-NBA team next season. (Booker could also qualify by winning MVP or Defensive Player of the Year, which seem unlikely.)
It is worth pausing for a second to ask whether we’re sure Booker is a max player. His first two seasons in particular, Booker’s high-scoring production was largely empty. A volume scorer, Booker posted below-average true shooting percentages and contributed little else in the box score save points.
Last season was an immense step forward for Booker, who boosted his 3-point percentage from 36.3 percent to 38.3 percent, more in line with his evident shooting prowess. That helped him score with slightly above average efficiency, impressive in the context of his 32 percent usage rate — the league’s fifth-highest mark. Booker also showed progress as a playmaker, improving his assist rate on a per-minute basis by 40 percent.
There’s still work for Booker to do at the defensive end of the court. Like many players of his ilk who are considered good individual defenders but contribute few rebounds, steals or blocks, Booker’s impact on team performance hasn’t matched his reputation as a budding stopper. Phoenix, which had the league’s worst defense on a per-possession basis last season, allowed 2.0 more points per 100 possessions with Booker on the court, according to NBA Advanced Stats. An improved scheme under new coach Igor Kokoskov might help Booker at the defensive end.
Because of his defensive shortcomings, Booker clearly isn’t a max player at this point. Given his age (Booker won’t turn 22 until the end of October), skill and the fact that he plays the most scarce position in the league, it’s reasonable to expect Booker to get there over the course of this extension.
1. Agreed to a reported four-year, $48 million deal with center Jusuf Nurkic
I figured Nurkic and the Blazers might have one of this summer’s longest standoffs in restricted free agency as both sides grappled over what the right price was to keep Nurkic from taking his one-year qualifying offer and becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2019.
Instead, the two teams came to a relatively quick resolution on a deal that pays Nurkic much more than his $4.8 million qualifying offer but less than he surely hoped for on a multiyear deal — a reasonable compromise.
I had thought Portland might be OK with Nurkic taking his qualifying offer because it would have given the team a path to avoid the luxury tax, and potentially move on to 2017 lottery pick Zach Collins at center if Nurkic departed. I apparently underestimated how strongly the Blazers believe in Nurkic, who was the anchor of a defense that ranked a surprising eighth on a per-possession basis last season.
Portland might also think that Nurkic and Collins could coexist long term. Collins played primarily as a power forward as a rookie alongside now-departed Ed Davis, and played a handful of minutes next to Nurkic. Collins’ development as a shooter should provide the spacing Nurkic needs on offense, so it’s really just a matter of whether he’s capable of keeping up with starting-caliber power forwards on the other end.
Lastly, this deal sends a signal that Blazers owner Paul Allen is comfortable paying the luxury tax. As is, Portland projects about $7.5 million into the tax, translating into a $12 million bill. It’s possible the Blazers could make moves to mitigate the tax or dodge it entirely at the trade deadline, but for now Portland is paying the tax for a team that finished third in the Western Conference during the 2017-18 regular season before crashing and burning in a playoff sweep.
This summer has yet to feature the kind of fireworks anticipated in the wake of that sweep, with Terry Stotts returning as coach and Seth Curry the Blazers’ marquee addition in free agency. Given Portland’s financial limitations, staying the course might prove more prudent than overhauling in reaction to a four-game sample.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Friday that Howard completed a buyout with the Nets and is set to join the Wizards on a one-plus-one deal for the taxpayer midlevel exception.
The price is undoubtedly better than the $23.8 million Howard was set to make this season, the last of a three-year contract signed with the Atlanta Hawks that saw Howard get traded twice. Still, it seemed like with Brooklyn paying the bulk of Howard’s 2018-19 salary, Washington might be able to drive an even better bargain. Howard getting a player option was an especially surprising concession given how the supply of free-agent centers seems to exceed the demand.
Howard’s addition pushes the Wizards nearly $11 million in the luxury tax counting Thomas Bryant, whose 2018-19 salary was set to guarantee Thursday after he was claimed off waivers from the Lakers. That would mean a luxury-tax bill of more than $18 million, hefty for a team that lost in the first round last season and is no lock to get further in the playoffs this time around.
Whether Washington can do better will depend in part on how effective and motivated Howard is. He’s coming off a solid season for the Hornets, having shot 56 percent from the field and pulled down defensive rebounds at the league’s fourth-best percentage. Yet Howard still wore out his welcome with his immaturity and desire to play a central role offensively.
In Washington, Howard’s 24 percent usage rate figures to come way down, given predecessor Marcin Gortat finished just 16 percent of the Wizards’ plays last season. How Howard handles that will be worth watching.
At 32, Howard doesn’t really satisfy John Wall‘s desire for Washington to get younger in the middle than the 34-year-old Gortat in anything but a technical sense. He does offer a bit more athleticism. And given the Wizards’ limited financial flexibility, adding a quality young center was never realistic barring a trade involving one of the team’s three star perimeter players.
Ultimately, the Howard signing is a high-risk, high-reward one for Washington. If he can fit in, Howard is the most complete center the Wizards could have added with their taxpayer midlevel exception. But if Howard demands touches in the post and sulks when he doesn’t get them, Washington could rue adding Howard like several teams have before.
More moves by the Nets, Celtics, Pistons, Pacers, Grizzlies, Heat, Bucks, Timberwolves, Knicks, Pelicans, Blazers and Spurs