The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Free Agency, According to NBA Execs

A serious topic of conversation at the NBA Summer Leagues has arisen these past few weeks: Has this offseason topped the regular season for entertainment?

A load of fresh talent entered the scene: Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Jayson Tatum, Josh Jackson, De’Aaron Fox. Nearly a half-dozen major stars relocated: Chris Paul, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Paul Millsap and Gordon Hayward. Others stayed for contracts that crossed new thresholds of extravagance: Steph Curry (five years, $201 million), Kyle Lowry (three years, $100 million) and even JJ Redick (one year, $23 million). Some general managers were on TV more than LaVar Ball. Even the Sacramento Kings, as more than one GM noted, did something that was cause for optimism.

Ultimately, though, what really changed? Winning July doesn’t guarantee anything in October. Remember how excited everyone was last summer about the Minnesota Timberwolves and Detroit Pistons? Remember how everyone questioned that funky Chicago Bulls lineup or how far the Oklahoma City Thunder would fall without Kevin Durant? Or what a sneaky-smart addition Chandler Parsons was to the shooting-starved Memphis Grizzlies? 

The T-Wolves flailed, of course, and the Pistons faded, while the Thunder had one of the league’s 10 best records. The Bulls made the playoffs, and Parsons was never a factor thanks to torn cartilage in his knee.

With that in mind, here’s an assessment of what has transpired in the last few weeks and, courtesy of conversations with various agents and team executives, whose moves made the most sense and whose didn’t.   

       

I See What You Did There

Understand this about NBA decision-makers: The less gaudy deals that land a quality veteran or secure an up-and-coming talent at a bargain are the kind they relish. The Nuggets’ winning the Paul Millsap sweepstakes is certainly a plus for them, but when you’re a young, talented team offering three years and $90 million, is that shrewd or just right time, right place? Durant’s taking a few million dollars less to allow the Warriors to give Andre Iguodala a few million more is closer to serendipity than savvy. So while the following deals didn’t garner the biggest headlines, they received the most nods of approval by executives in Las Vegas.

         

A parade in Sacramento! Of solid, if no longer spectacular, veterans.

The Kings drafted a group of high-character players—De’Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson and Frank Mason III—to change a culture that has been more about high drama in recent years. Expecting rookies, no matter how mature or talented, to set the bar for your franchise is not only unreasonable, it also threatens their development.

It’s hard to imagine a better role model and locker room voice than Mr. Half-Man, Still Half-the-Time Amazing, Vince Carter. At 40, he is much more of a floor-spacer now than a rim-crusher, but he is still fully capable of dropping the hammer if he sees an opening. The why is the time he puts into keeping his body right—time that will be on full display for Fox and Co. to emulate every day they come to work.

Let’s face it: Carter also provides Sacramento a badly needed change in perception. The conversation now is not about players’ wanting out (Rudy Gay), acting out (DeMarcus Cousins) or coaches on their way out (they’ve had five different ones in the last five years) but about a place where an eight-time All-Star wants to be a mentor. That’s a change in narrative that money can’t often buy, especially not $8 million for one year.

The Kings also added Zach Randolph and George Hill to expand the reserve of veteran leadership. Some opposing team officials questioned giving Hill three years and $57 million, expecting that Fox will be ready to supplant Hill well before the veteran’s contract expires, but only $1 million of Hill’s deal is guaranteed in the third year. The thinking behind the move is Sacramento wants to find ways to keep Fox on the floor without his having to carry the full weight of the point guard duties, plus Hill can play the 2-guard role as well.

That raises a question of just how many minutes shooting guard Buddy Hield could see if the focus is on developing Fox and getting their money’s worth for Hill—but it’s a far better problem than the kind Sacramento has had lately.

Unfortunately for the Kings, the man largely responsible for the giving the franchise a shot at those incoming players may have come and gone in a flash. Scott Perry, hired as the Kings VP of basketball operations in April, is on track to fill the New York Knicks’ GM vacancy. Perry and team president Vlade Divac had quickly forged a great working relationship, with the former providing the team-building acumen and knowledge of the league the Kings have needed in their front office for quite some time. Who takes his place? If the Kings are as astute as they were in landing Perry, they will go after Oklahoma City Thunder assistant GM Troy Weaver, whose resume is similar to Perry’s.

          

Rudy Gay signs with Spurs for two years, $17.2 million.

Let’s be honest: Lauding the Spurs for just about every move they make has become almost rote in some circles, and the results would suggest that needs to be toned down a notch. LaMarcus Aldridge, halfway through a four-year, $84 million deal that pulled him away from Portland, has not been the second star to Kawhi Leonard that they hoped, and his overall play is trending in the wrong direction.

Now Gay, as with Aldridge, arrives as a player who has consistently put up great statistics that failed to produce wins; he’s only been to the playoffs once, and that was five years ago in a labor dispute-shortened season.

The flip side: With Manu Ginobili aging and Aldridge meek at all the wrong times, the Spurs desperately needed another dynamic scorer who can not only create his own shot but is also unafraid to take it—yet only had the mid-level exception with which to land one.

Enter Gay, whose market value assuredly was driven down by the rupture of his Achilles tendon last season but is still only 30 (about to be 31) and is promising the comeback of all comebacks. As is, he immediately jumps to third behind only Leonard and Tony Parker in ability to score one-on-one. Combine the solid reputation of the Spurs’ medical staff, coach Gregg Popovich’s care in keeping players fresh and the fact that Gay’s ability to score off the dribble has more to do with how he uses his size (6’8″, 230 lbs) and misdirection than pure speed, and he could just be the crunch-time addition they need. All for what is the sixth-highest salary on the roster.

“He could be great for them,” says one rival VP when asked to name the deal he thought could be a steal. “Super-talented. If he can get healthy and get right, that could be a great deal.”

                 

Head Scratchers

Tim Hardaway Jr. signs with Knicks for four years, $71 million.

You’ve already read enough negative reactions that the point has been made: Hardaway, who already took a big step up this past season simply to salvage his career, must take another one to justify this contract.

Let’s be clear, though: The mistake was not in reacquiring Hardaway—he was the Knicks’ first-round pick in 2013—as much as the amount invested in him. His age (25), physical ability to be a two-way player (6’6″, 205 lbs), three-point shooting (career 35.2 percent) and the relatively thin free-agent market for shooting guards (none averaged more than Dion Waiters’ 15.8 ppg) all make him a reasonable piece to put alongside cornerstone Kristaps Porzingis and, presumably, No. 8 pick and point guard Frank Ntilikina.

The mistake the Knicks made is in not realizing how the market changed once the Detroit Pistons put themselves over the cap by signing point guard Langston Galloway; that meant the Pistons had to renounce the rights to their young, promising shooting guard, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

“If you’re spending $71 million, KCP is the better prospect,” says one Western Conference GM. “I give them credit for at least this: Instead of Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose and all these guys they signed a year ago, at least Hardaway is on the right career arc if you’re building around Porzingis.”

So there you have it. The first move by acting GM Steve Mills made a little more sense than those by the guy he replaced, Phil Jackson. Baby steps, Knicks fans, baby steps.

              

Kelly Olynyk signs with Miami Heat for four years and $50 million.

A lot of players can deliver during the regular season; far fewer can maintain the same production or efficiency in the postseason. Olynyk is one of them—the wrinkle is that his production (9.5 points, 4.7 rebounds per game) doesn’t normally warrant getting paid $12 million a year.

He will be forever remembered, and feted, by Boston fans for his 26 points in Game 7 against the Wizards to push them into the Eastern Conference Finals, but it’s not exactly a habit. He’s exceeded that total only a handful of times in his first four years and only once in the last two, scoring 28 in a double-overtime, regular-season loss to the Warriors last season.

Olynyk is a decent pick-and-pop power forward and plays with the kind of physicality and grit that Heat president Pat Riley has long admired. Most executives are loathe to second-guess Riley’s decisions, but this is one they did.

“Because he played well in the playoffs, everybody thinks it’s OK,” said one GM. “[But] he averaged 10 points and five rebounds a game during the regular season!”

   

Denver trades Danilo Gallinari to the Clippers in a three-team deal that lands it a second-round pick.

What is it with the Nuggets’ aiding and abetting teams that stand in their way of making the playoffs? They did it in dealing Jusuf Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers last season (the Blazers summarily snaked them for the eighth and final seed) and they very well may have done it again by dealing Gallinari to the Clippers.

League executives understand why Denver would want to assure Gallinari a big payday (three years, $65 million) by signing and trading him, even if it didn’t value him that way; it sends a message to players across the league that the Nuggets take care of theirs, even if they’re sent elsewhere. Gallinari was never an All-Star but gave them six solid seasons despite knee surgery that cost him a full year during his run in Denver. Moving him also opened the cap room and roster spot for Millsap, who is a major upgrade.

But several executives with teams hoping to be in the Western Conference playoff race shook their heads at Denver’s making all their lives more challenging. In Gallinari, the Clippers not only got a forward they can mix and match with Blake Griffin‘s inside power game, but the deal also got them out of Jamal Crawford’s three-year, $42 million contract signed last summer. Crawford went to Atlanta, which was rewarded the Clippers’ first-round pick for adding his salary to its books; the Hawks then waived him, and he signed for two years and $8.8 million with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“Send him to Miami, but don’t trade him to the Clippers,” said the GM of a 2016 playoff team in the West. “[The Clippers] were dead in the water. They had no shooting, no spacing, and you bailed them out. You got them off a toxic contract in Jamal. Why would you help them, a direct competitor? As a bottom-tier Western Conference team, the Clippers could’ve been eliminated.”

   

Master Plan or Massive Fail?   

Jeff Teague signs for three years, $57 million with Timberwolves.

The Timberwolves needed a point guard after dealing Ricky Rubio to the Utah Jazz for a future first-round pick, and on paper, Teague, a one-time All-Star with a history of helping teams get to the playoffs (he’s never missed them in eight seasons) would appear be a great fit for a Minnesota team desperate to break through to that other side.

The hesitation among executives is that while Teague averaged a career-high 7.8 assists last season for the Pacers, he’s still regarded as more of a ball-dominator who looks for his shot than a pure facilitator—and with Butler and Crawford joining Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, did it really make sense to give up on a pure pass-first point guard in Rubio? It’s not as if the first four mentioned are catch-and-shoot scorers. Neither, for that matter, is Teague. Maybe it works; maybe they all get along and are more dangerous because of their similar strengths and weaknesses, but…

“I don’t see the fit,” says an executive from one of Minnesota’s division rivals.

            

Lakers sign Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to one-year, $18 million deal.

This one has a lot of tentacles. League sources say Caldwell-Pope’s agent, Rich Paul, wanted a max contract from the Pistons to stay there. “It was, ‘This is what we want,’ and he wasn’t taking anything less,” says one Eastern Conference player personnel director. “It’s how Rich operates.”

The Pistons passed, waiving Caldwell-Pope to make room to sign Galloway to a three-year, $21 million deal. Caldwell-Pope subsequently signed a one-year, $18 million offer from the Los Angeles Lakers.

You may also know them as that team that has its eyes on landing not just one but two major stars next summer, and one of those stars on their radar just happens to be a client and lifelong besties with Mr. Paul—LeBron James

Now, making nice with LeBron’s circle and taking a long look at Caldwell-Pope on a one-year deal makes a certain degree of sense. It would be easier to believe as a way of getting the latter over the former if the Lakers didn’t already have more than $36 million invested in wing players between Luol Deng, Corey Brewer and Jordan Clarkson—or that they hadn’t just spent a first-round pick on Villanova shooting guard Josh Hart.

If it’s a favor that leads to James’ coming west and being one of those stars the Lakers hope to add, then, of course, it’s well worth it. Even if James doesn’t end up joining them, Caldwell-Pope, at 24, could be worth keeping. The tricky part for KCP is proving he deserves a long-term max contract while playing in a crowded backcourt with, as it stands, a rookie point guard in Ball and a team looking to develop forward Brandon Ingram.

“He’s a shot-maker,” says the personnel director, “but I don’t know how much he makes others better, and I don’t know if he guards. To be a max guy, that’s a tough one for me.”

         

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @RicBucher. 

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