2021 NBA free agency has largely come and gone. There were in excess of 120 deals agreed to, several extensions and around 20 or so trades. There were no real league-changing moves made, but several teams set themselves up to make runs at the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks. The NBA feels as wide-open as it has in quite some time. That should make for an interesting season. As a means of reviewing the action that happened, and some questions to still be answered, here are Five Lists of Five. We picked five topics that interest us and went over five items within each topic.
Five Best Value Contracts
Chris Paul and Cameron Payne – Phoenix Suns: The Suns pulled a bit of a shocker, given their history, and spent money to keep their team together. And they did so in a really smart way. Sure, Chris Paul signed a four-year, $120 million contract, but Phoenix is on the hook for only $75 million guaranteed. If Paul’s play falls off, the Suns can move on relatively cheaply. If he’s still good, they’ll happy pay him $30 million per season. Getting Payne back for $19 million over three years is a great value, one that is made even greater when it came out the final season is only $2 million guaranteed. Phoenix has their point guard position covered for at least a couple more seasons.
Bobby Portis – Milwaukee Bucks: Portis took one of the biggest hometown discounts around. He re-signed with the Bucks using his Non-Bird rights, which gave him only a modest pay bump over last year. That allowed Milwaukee to use the Taxpayer MLE to sign George Hill. Every little bit helped to keep the tax bill down for the champs.
Richaun Holmes – Sacramento Kings: We’ve all made “KANGZ!” jokes, but this was one of the best moves any team made this summer. Holmes was neck-and-neck with Jarrett Allen for the best center on the market and the Kings kept their guy for less than half of what Allen got from the Cleveland Cavaliers. Considering a handful of playoff contenders had cap space and a hole at center, Sacramento did really well to get Holmes back for the full amount his Early Bird rights could get him.
Nicolas Batum, Reggie Jackson and Kawhi Leonard – LA Clippers: The Clippers had challenges in front of them this offseason with limited ability to re-sign Batum, Jackson and Leonard to the contracts they all earned. LA knocked it out of the park with each deal, like hitting back-to-back-to-back homeruns. Batum came back on the modest bump in pay his Non-Bird rights got him. The Clips used Jackson’s Early Bird rights to bring him back on a great contract. And getting Leonard to agree to a long-term deal vs a 1+1 contract was another win. Look for LA to sign Leonard to an extension two years from now, which will make his contract in effect a seven-year pact. That’s good work in both the short and long-term.
Dennis Schroder – Boston Celtics: Every offseason a free agent is left standing without a chair when the music stops. This year that was Schroder. As both money and rotation spots dried up, Boston was able to snag Schroder for just the $5.9 million Taxpayer MLE. Schroder is far from perfect, and he’ll probably leave after just one season, but the Celtics needed some scoring punch and a point guard. At some point, the talent becomes too good to pass up compared to the cost.
Five Biggest Head-scratching Contracts
Zach Collins – San Antonio Spurs: This one doesn’t look as bad as it could have, but it’s still fairly baffling. Even though the Spurs are giving Collins only about $11 million guaranteed out of his three-year, $22 million contract, that still feels like an overpay. Collins hasn’t been healthy for two years, and he got hurt again while rehabbing this offseason. Who exactly was San Antonio bidding against here?
Maurice Harkless and Terence Davis – Sacramento Kings: Neither of these deals is overly egregious on their own. But together they look odd and offset the value signing of Richaun Holmes to some extent. The Kings essentially tossed away $8 million in combined salary to two replacement-level backups. That’s wasted spending.
DeMar DeRozan – Chicago Bulls: This contract is probably fine for this season. It’s probably even fine for 2022-23. $28.6 million in 2023-24, in what will be Year 15 for DeRozan when he’s 34 years old, already looks bad. And that’s assuming the first two years go fine.
Gary Trent – Toronto Raptors and Normal Powell – Portland Trail Blazers: We’re lumping these two together, because they were traded for each other. At the time, it looked like Toronto got the better end of that deal. $18 million per year for Trent isn’t even all that bad. It just seems unnecessary. They like to play Fred VanVleet off-ball a good amount, already have OG Anunoby inked long-term at the three and drafted Scottie Barnes. If Trent becomes a bench player, this is an overpay. As for Powell, it’s more about the future years. When he’s in his early-30s, is he going to be worth $20 million? And is this re-signing the move that convinces Damian Lillard that the Trail Blazers are on the right path? It also locked Portland into a lot of three-guard lineups that will never defend well enough to be a real contender.
Daniel Theis – Houston Rockets: This one isn’t about Theis. Not even a little bit. He’s worth an average of $9 million a year, and Houston has a team option on the last year. But the Rockets already have Christian Wood. They drafted both Alperen Sengun and Usman Garuba. And Kenyon Martin Jr. looks like a blossoming big man prospect. For this year, Theis is fine. His presence lets the kids grow at their own rates. But what’s the long-term plan here?
Five Contender Questions
What happens with Ben Simmons? We’re roughly a month or so from training camp opening. Philadelphia has shopped Simmons everywhere. So far, their asking price remains high. Will the Sixers ask come down? Will another team come up? The best bet is meeting in the middle, but who that trade partner will be remains a mystery.
What are the Mavericks, Pacers and Trail Blazers doing? All three teams are sort of stuck in the middle. None did a whole lot this offseason, not for this year or setting up for the future. Are they all really content to run it back for the most part?
Will the Lakers on-the-fly rebuild work? Los Angeles revamped their roster by a large amount. They’ve got at least eight new faces, and they still have three open roster spots. You also might have heard that a lot of those players are older. And that’s before we even get into the odd fit of Russell Westbrook with LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Who plays center for the Nets? Presumably this will be Blake Griffin again, but getting through 82 games and then a two-month playoff run holding down the middle is a big ask. Will DeAndre Jordan re-emerge in the rotation? Can Steve Nash trust Nicolas Claxton enough to give him big minutes? This is the Nets one weakness and it’s one that opponents will try to exploit nightly.
Do the Heat have enough depth? Miami made the big move by adding Kyle Lowry. They also added P.J. Tucker. And they re-signed a bunch of their own free agents, including Duncan Robinson. The starting five looks terrific, and Tyler Herro should be fine as the sixth man. After that, it looks really shaky. The Heat have a little bit of their MLE left. Look for that to be used on an in-season addition of some sort.
Five Roster Battles to Watch
Wizards Power Forward: Washington added a lot of guys, mostly in the Russell Westbrook trade. After all their moves, the Wizards have at least four players whose best position seems to be at the four. And that’s with plugging in Montrezl Harrell as the backup five. How will Wes Unseld Jr. find enough minutes for Rui Hachimura, Davis Bertans, Kyle Kuzma and Deni Avdija? The last two will probably play a lot at small forward and that’s come with mixed results thus far.
Timberwolves Shooting Guard: Minnesota mostly sat out the offseason, minus a tax avoidance trade of Ricky Rubio to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Taurean Prince. The tricky part was that trade took the only true point guard off the roster. D’Angelo Russell will slide over and play the one primarily. That’s actually good, because Minnesota has more than enough pure shooting guards. In order to find enough minutes for Anthony Edwards, Malik Beasley and Josh Okogie, someone will have to play out of position as a smaller-than-ideal three. And that’s before we even consider throwing any minutes towards salvaging Jarrett Culver.
Memphis Grizzlies and Atlanta Hawks: File this one under “Good problems to have”. These two teams are in the same boat. They both have a lot of talent and go at least 12 deep in rotation players. For Atlanta, they have some older players that they can spot rest days for. Memphis has a lot of guys who need minutes to continue their development.
Kings Center: Richaun Holmes should play a lot. It’s the limited minutes behind him that are a mess. Sacramento acquired Tristan Thompson as a veteran backup. That’s fine, but they also signed Alex Len to fill the same role. And, to this point, Marvin Bagley has generally looked his best at the five. That’s going to leave Luke Walton going big when everyone else goes small.
Spurs Guards: It sounds good to have a lot of guards and wings in today’s NBA. That is until you have too many. San Antonio now has six players who are best at either point guard or shooting guard. A couple can slide up and play some three, but for the most part these guys are all true guards. That’s going to leave a few young players on the bench and missing out on key development time.
Five Teams with Disaster Potential
Chicago Bulls: The Bulls are significantly more interesting than they have been in a long time. Zach LaVine is a true star. Nikola Vucevic is perennially underrated. DeMar DeRozan has had a rebirth as a playmaking small-ball four. Lonzo Ball’s shooting has improved enough that he can play off-ball without worries now. It’s that last part where things could get messy for Chicago. Too many guys have to play off-ball. LaVine and DeRozan are high-usage players. Vucevic needs touches to get in rhythm. Ball is better than ever as a spot-up shooter, but still needs the ball a lot to make the most of his skills as a passer. Add to it that youngsters Coby White and Patrick Williams are trying to establish themselves, and you have a potentially explosive mix. And not in a good way.
Philadelphia 76ers: This one is pretty simple. The Sixers really can’t bring Ben Simmons back and just expect everything to be fine. There were some harsh things said in the aftermath of Philadelphia’s playoff ouster. If Daryl Morey can’t find a workable Simmons trade, the locker room mix for the 76ers could get toxic really quickly.
Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard hasn’t formally requested a trade yet, but that seems like it’s coming any day now. When asked about it at the Olympics, Lillard clearly wasn’t happy with the team’s offseason work. If he forces a trade now, Portland could be stuck with a “best available offer” situation. That’s a tough spot to be in with your franchise player.
San Antonio Spurs: How are they going to find enough time for all their guards? Are the bigs good enough to support the backcourt talent? Is there enough shooting? What’s the long-term plan here? After a playoff streak that lasted for two decades ended a couple of years ago, the Spurs have a lot of questions and not very many answers.
Oklahoma City Thunder: This one is cheating a little. OKC is going to be bad this season, and it’s by design. But the plan of amassing draft picks can only go so far. They traded out of the Alperen Sengun pick to get yet another future first and that already looks like it was a mistake. The Thunder couldn’t flip Kemba Walker for more picks and bought him out. They tried hard to trade up in the draft, but teams weren’t interested in offers that included multiple future first round picks. Fans can be patient in a rebuild, but it’s important that you don’t keep kicking the can down the road. And it’s really important that you don’t kick the can so far down the road that you can’t find it again. Oklahoma City is right on the border of taking this too far.