July used to be a relatively quiet time on the NBA calendar. Prior to the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, NBA contracts were longer and players were hitting free agency far less frequently. But with shorter contracts and savvy general managers valuing cap space more than ever, summer has become one of the most hotly anticipated times of the year. Not a time for those who cover the NBA to take a vacation.
Between now and the start of the NBA season, expect more free agents to be signed—both Greg Monroe and Eric Bledsoe still await deals—and a big trade or two to occur (one involving Kevin Love, perhaps). But almost three weeks into July, there has already been a ton of player movement and copious amounts of drama.
Here are some of your winners and losers of free agency, thus far.
Winner: Cleveland Cavaliers
We may as well start with the biggest winner of them all: the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Since LeBron James took his talents to South Beach in 2010, the Cavs have been a sad, dysfunctional lottery team, compiling a dismal 97-215 record during that time. In their four post-LeBron seasons, the Cavs have managed to luck out and score three first-round picks, but that has had little impact on their on-court performance. In the coming season, however, the Cavs will vault from lottery team to a legitimate contender to emerge from the East thanks to the return of James, who dramatically signed a two-year, $42-million deal with his hometown team last week.
James returns to Cleveland a much better player than the one he was when he unceremoniously left in 2010. With two championships under his belt, James now knows what’s required to win the ultimate prize, but he’s also added components to his game that he didn’t possess during his initial stint in Cleveland. James is now one of the best—if not the best—low-post players in the NBA in addition to being a much-improved long-range shooter. He has also learned to play as a power forward and featured prominently at the four-spot in Miami’s versatile small ball lineups—that promises to give the Cavs a lot of on-court flexibility next season.
Having the greatest player on the planet back in northeast Ohio not only dramatically alters the ceiling of this Cavs team, but it will serve to attract other big names to come and play in what is a relatively small market (see: Love, Kevin), which in turn will give that market a huge economic boost.
Expect all eyes to be on Cleveland come November.
Loser: Miami Heat
It goes without saying that the Miami Heat are the biggest loser to emerge from the LeBron homecoming party. When James opted out of the final two years of his contract, Heat president Pat Riley was confident that he could put the necessary pieces in place to persuade James to remain in Florida. The allure of home and the great redemption narrative that came with it were too much for James to resist, however. To add insult to injury, the Cavaliers own Miami’s 2015 first-round pick (it’s top-10 protected) left over from the sign-and-trade in 2010, when LeBron originally left for South Beach. Oh, the cruel irony.
Losing the league’s best player drops the Heat, the cream of the Eastern Conference crop for the past four seasons, down to the status of a good, but not great team battling for a top-four seed. Riley resisted the urge to blow things up and instead signed Chris Bosh to the five-year max (probably an overpay) and two-way swingman Luol Deng to attempt to fill the void left by James. Dwyane Wade took a nice hometown discount to keep things a little more flexible going forward.
Given the city that they play in, the Heat will always be attractive for big-name free agents, and they possess one of the best young coaches in the NBA in Erik Spoelstra. But a fifth straight trip to the NBA Finals seems unlikely next season.
Winner: Toronto Raptors
Long-suffering Raptors fans will be the first to tell you that the off-season has never been the happiest time for the team. The Raptors have developed a reputation—with good reason—as being a team that players bolt from given the chance, usually when they hit free agency. Retaining star players has always been an issue for the organization. That reputation is beginning to change, however.
The Raptors number one priority this summer was retaining star point guard Kyle Lowry, and they did just that. After a stop-start career, Lowry was stellar last season—arguably the best two-way point-guard in the NBA. The Philadelphia native developed an excellent relationship with coach Dwane Casey and general manager Masai Ujiri, but the Rockets and Heat were both interested in the free agent. The Raptors fought off those advances to sign their man for a perfectly reasonable four-year $48-million deal, signaling what appears to be the start of an aggressive, confident business approach from a front office looking to implement a real culture change in Toronto.
The Raptors also locked up Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson, two players who played a big role in the Raptors 48-win season. The Raps now have a talented, young core in place for the next two seasons and should expect internal development from the likes of Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross. Just as importantly, however, the team has a bunch of salary coming off the books in the next two summers, ensuring a lot of flexibility if the chance to sign a big free agent arises.
Loser: Houston Rockets
When it comes to free agency, sometimes you swing and hit the ball out of the park, and sometimes you whiff so badly that you end up hitting yourself in the face with your bat. Daryl Morey and the Houston Rockets have had the latter experience so far this summer.
With James returning to Cleveland, it seemed certain that Bosh would follow suit and move on. The Rockets offered Bosh a four-year deal worth somewhere in the region of $90 million. To open up the necessary cap room they traded away some serious depth, in the form of Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik. But if the Rockets had landed Bosh—a perfect foil for Dwight Howard in the frontcourt—they would have had the most talented starting five in the NBA next season
However, Bosh decided to remain in Miami; in part because he and his family love the city, and because Pat Riley was able to offer Bosh an additional year of guaranteed money. This totally messed up the Rockets’ master plan. Not only had they traded away some key players on their roster, but during the wait for Bosh’s decision, the Dallas Mavericks signed restricted free agent Chandler Parsons to a three-year, $46-million offer sheet. Once the Bosh deal fell through, Morey declined to match the deal for Parsons.
The Rockets did sign defensive ace Trevor Ariza to a four-year, $32-million deal, but the former Wizard has a lower ceiling than Parsons, and overall the Rockets are significantly thinner depth-wise heading into next season. Morey’s gamble on Bosh made sense, as did his unwillingness to tie himself to a Harden-Howard-Parsons core once the Bosh deal fell through, but there’s no denying the fact that it has been a disappointing summer for the Rockets.
Winner: Washington Wizards
Trevor Ariza’s former team, the Washington Wizards, haven’t make any huge moves so far this summer, but they’ve resigned a key piece from last season and impressively tinkered around the edges of their roster, adding depth.
The Wizards smartly let Ariza walk in free agency, deeming (and probably correctly) that $32 million was too much for a player nearing 30, whose great play last season might have been the result of that player being in a contract year. As well as Ariza shot the ball, he was reliant on John Wall to penetrate and break down the defence, creating plenty of jump shots for the small forward. The Wizards signed veteran Paul Pierce to a much smaller contract, and the former Celtic should be able to have similar success. Pierce also gives the Wizards a valuable shot-making dimension that they didn’t have in Ariza—the team won’t have to rely on Wall so much next season when they need a bucket late in the shot clock.
Washington also re-signed centre Marcin Gortat to a five-year, $60-million deal. The Polish Hammer, as he’s affectionately known, was a valuable part of their team last season, and although the contract seems a tad large, that’s essentially the market price for a skilled big man that can finish at the rim and defend. For some added depth, the Wizards signed Kris Humphries to a three-year deal. Considering Nene Hilario’s injury history, he could prove a valuable pick-up.
With LeBron moving to Cleveland and the Pacers losing Lance Stephenson, the East should be wide open next year. Expect the Wizards, a team with the perfect blend of young talent and savvy veterans, to challenge for top spot.
Loser: Los Angeles Lakers
It’s difficult to sympathize with a team that has won 16 championships and has, more often than not, come out on top during the off-season. The aura around the Los Angeles Lakers—that feeling that they always get their guy—is slowly beginning to dissipate.
The Lakers, with just four players signed to contracts for next season, had put themselves in a position—a least financially—to sign a big free agent this summer. LeBron was never a realistic option to be honest, but the team met with Carmelo Anthony—a good friend of Kobe—and Anthony was reportedly very impressed with the organization.
The lure of a five-year max deal with the Knicks proved too much for Melo to resist, however, and the Lakers were left empty handed in superstar free agency. They’ve made a few small signings—Jordan Hill, Nick Young and Jeremy Lin are all decent role players—but they’ve also seen Pau Gasol, a key piece, leave for the Chicago Bulls.
Ideally the Lakers want to keep cap space open for 2015 and 2016 when, in theory, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant will be available. But there’s no guaranteeing that those aforementioned stars will want to come to a team low on talent and to play with a 35-year Kobe Bryant who may well be a shadow of his former self after that brutal Achilles tear two seasons ago.
Kobe Bryant wants that sixth NBA title more than anything, but as things presently stand, there appears to be little chance of the Lakers returning to the top of the NBA podium.