The veteran forward Trevor Ariza was traded three times last week — from Portland to Houston to Detroit and ultimately to Oklahoma City. It was perhaps the best illustration that an expected transactional frenzy, after nine mostly dormant months for N.B.A. roster moves, had lived up to billing.
One player agent at the heart of the chaos described it to me as three months’ worth of business crammed into 10 days leading into next week’s scheduled start of training camps. From the many trades and free-agent signings that also had the N.B.A. draft wedged in between them, these are the five most important takeaways:
We didn’t get Lakers vs. Clippers in the Western Conference finals, but their free-agent face-off was a compelling consolation.
If Rob Pelinka finishes anywhere close to seventh in next season’s executive of the year balloting, as he did in 2019-20, it would represent peak pettiness from the voters (who, remember, are fellow executives rather than members of the media).
Pelinka’s Lakers are the early leaders in the race for best off-season honors. They:
Proactively traded for Oklahoma City’s Dennis Schröder in anticipation of Rajon Rondo’s exit;
Signed Wesley Matthews Jr. to replace Danny Green after Green was dealt for Schröder;
Unexpectedly signed Montrezl Harrell away from the Clippers to replace the Philadelphia-bound Dwight Howard;
And traded JaVale McGee to Cleveland to create the needed financial flexibility to sign Marc Gasol.
The Lakers also beat out their Staples Center co-tenants in a head-to-head showdown for Markieff Morris, preventing the Clippers from signing both Morris, who spent last season with the Lakers, and his twin brother, Marcus. Throw in a re-signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and it’s a lock that the Lakers, with a more dynamic supporting cast to surround LeBron James and Anthony Davis, will start the new season as clear-cut title favorites for the first time in James’s time in Hollywood.
The Clippers, though, haven’t folded. They went into the off-season determined to make dramatic chemistry changes after a humbling second-round playoff exit to Denver. They upgraded from Harrell — who team officials quietly decided had to go — by luring Serge Ibaka away from Toronto. The additions of Ibaka and Luke Kennard (via trade with Detroit) are just the beginning; many rival teams also expect the Clippers to trade Lou Williams in their quest to create a fresh-start environment after they blew a 3-1 series lead to the Nuggets.
How Paul George rebounds from a poor postseason and how much influence an all-new coaching staff led by Tyronn Lue wields are key factors in the Clippers’ ability to stay in the same orbit as a Lakers roster widely deemed stronger than the championship group of 2019-20. Yet just knowing that the Clippers will keep trying ensures that Los Angeles, as it was in the first 72 hours of free agency, will remain one of the league capitals of intrigue.
Gordon Hayward knew what he was doing when he walked away from the $34.2 million the Boston Celtics would have owed him.
The ceiling on a four-year deal for Hayward was widely projected in the $100 million range after his myriad injury woes in Boston, where he had a player option for the coming season. Mark Bartelstein, his agent, extracted $120 million over four years from the Charlotte Hornets, whose $63 million offer sheet to Hayward in 2014 when he was a restricted free agent was matched by the Utah Jazz.
Spending nearly twice as much to land Hayward six years later is earning Michael Jordan, Charlotte’s owner, no shortage of consternation, but that’s not Hayward’s concern (or Bartelstein’s). We detailed in last week’s newsletter that the Hornets would probably be interested in trading for Houston’s Russell Westbrook if they missed out on LaMelo Ball in the draft. After the Hornets were able to select Ball at No. 3, they pivoted to overpaying Hayward rather than absorbing the remaining three seasons and nearly $133 million left on Westbrook’s contract.
So we’re about to find out if Jordan comes off worse for spending big compared with last summer, when he decided not to pay to retain the All-Star Kemba Walker. Adding to the disconcerting math for Jordan: Hayward will essentially cost $39 million for the first three seasons of his contract, if Charlotte’s only way to create sufficient cap room is to eat and pay out the remaining $27 million on Nicolas Batum’s contract over the next three seasons. Although it’s true that the small-market Hornets have never been a free-agent destination, they could have used their cap space in trades to try to bring in a marquee name on a shorter deal (like, say, Detroit’s Blake Griffin) rather than make such a long commitment to Hayward.
The Knicks, for the record, were in the Hayward chase throughout. After the Knicks weighed their own trade for Westbrook, they pursued Hayward much harder, with Coach Tom Thibodeau serving as lead admirer. The Knicks eventually decided to increase their offer to four years from two to compete with sign-and-trade interest from Indiana and Charlotte, but the Hornets went to a financial level for Hayward that no rival was willing to match.
Shooting — perhaps the easiest basketball skill to work on alone — has never been more valuable.
Silly as it sounds to say out loud, teams are looking for shooters (and keen to reward the best).
Illustration No. 1: Joe Harris, who was struggling to stay in the league through his first two seasons in Cleveland, has blossomed in Brooklyn beyond all reasonable projections and just landed a four-year, $72 million contract (with an additional $3 million in unlikely bonuses) from the Nets.
Illustration No. 2: Washington’s Davis Bertans elected not to play in the N.B.A. bubble to guard against injury after an offensive breakout in his fourth N.B.A. season, then duly agreed to a five-year deal with the Wizards worth up to $80 million on the first day of free agency.
Practice your shooting, kids. Obvious as it sounds.
The West is still the deeper conference, by far, but the East’s top six is a more competitive jumble.
Miami made a wholly unexpected trip to the N.B.A. finals and improved its roster through the acquisitions of Avery Bradley and Moe Harkless. Milwaukee will remain a contender for the league’s best regular-season record, and presumably be a better playoff team after acquiring Jrue Holiday, even after the Bogdan Bogdanovic fiasco.
Boston lost Hayward but agreed to add the bruising Tristan Thompson to fill a clear need in the frontcourt on a team-friendly contract. Toronto will certainly miss Ibaka and Gasol but has re-signed Fred VanVleet and hopes Aron Baynes can step into the center void.
Daryl Morey has been decisive upon arrival in Philadelphia by shipping out the ill-fitting Al Horford and bringing in two needed shooters: Danny Green and Seth Curry. The Nets are poised to acquire the sharpshooting Landry Shamet from a draft-night trade and, beyond re-signing Harris, should finally have both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in uniform.
The jockeying among those six teams is going to be heated and unpredictable. The rest of the West’s ability to prevent the Lakers and the Clippers from delivering the conference finals showdown they still owe us, by contrast, is questionable given that Denver, Houston and Utah have nudged their rosters forward only marginally — if at all. Golden State’s loss of Klay Thompson to a season-ending Achilles’ tendon tear likewise scuttles the Warriors’ expected surge back into contention. Portland and especially Phoenix, through Chris Paul’s arrival, have strengthened, but Dallas will have to overcome a late start to the season for Kristaps Porzingis as he recovers from knee surgery.
Nothing we’ve seen matters more than what happens with Giannis Antetokounmpo’s contract in the next 26 days.
The Milwaukee Bucks have until Dec. 21 to persuade Antetokounmpo to sign a five-year, $230 million so-called supermax contract extension. If he signs it, Milwaukee’s failure to acquire Bogdanovic after it was portrayed as a done deal will become a footnote.
If Antetokounmpo elects not to sign it by then, his contract situation will hang over the franchise like an ominous cloud all season, especially if the Bucks incur damaging penalties from the N.B.A.’s investigation into whether the team violated anti-tampering rules by engaging with Bogdanovic days before the start of free agency.
Milwaukee responded to the Bogdanovic deal collapse by striking deals to bring in a clutch of useful role players — the guards D.J. Augustin and Bryn Forbes and the forwards Bobby Portis and Torrey Craig — but this triage work can only be assessed with the context of the only reaction that matters: Antetokounmpo’s.
For two weeks before it appeared that the Bucks had a deal to bring in Bogdanovic alongside Holiday, there had been promising rumblings in league circles that Antetokounmpo was prepared to sign the extension. A belief was building that Antetokounmpo was likely to opt for immediate financial security by signing before the season and quietly reserving the right to try to force a trade later if he was unhappy, as George did one season after re-signing in Oklahoma City.
Now? Bogdanovic — someone Antetokounmpo, by all accounts, was eager to play with — has joined the Atlanta Hawks, while Milwaukee is enveloped by eerie silence. The Bucks can only wait for Antetokounmpo’s return from an off-season trip to Greece and then, they hope, his signature.
If Antetokounmpo withholds that signature, Milwaukee is in for the longest and most uncomfortable season with a pending free agent since Durant’s final season in Oklahoma City in 2015-16.
The Scoop @TheSteinLine
You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at email@example.com. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.)
Q: The media narrative of “giving up too much” in a trade is so much different when it’s not the Lakers. — @ikeonic_ from Twitter
Stein: The inference here is that the Bucks have been celebrated for swinging a trade for Jrue Holiday whereas the Lakers were roundly criticized for surrendering too much by sending an array of draft picks and young talent to New Orleans for Anthony Davis. I would submit that the truth is firmly in the proverbial middle.
The Lakers had to hear it constantly from naysayers — until they won the championship. The Bucks are probably in for the same sort of second-guessing until Giannis Antetokounmpo signs a contract extension. Milwaukee’s package for Holiday: Eric Bledsoe and George Hill combined with three future first-round picks and two pick swaps.
Maybe the Lakers were subjected to louder negativity, but that’s largely because A) they’re the Lakers and have the league’s highest profile, and B) Davis’s very public trade demand had essentially left the Lakers as the only team New Orleans could trade Davis to in July 2019. Davis’s narrow trade market, more than anything, is what made people question why the Pelicans’ haul was so big.
Now people around the league are wondering if the Bucks have gone too far, especially after a proposed sign-and-trade for Sacramento’s Bogdan Bogdanovic collapsed. That deal, before it fell apart, helped fuel a wave of Bucks optimism since it so closely followed the revelation of an agreement for the Holiday trade.
The truth is that the Bucks did give up too much for Holiday — unless it works. If that was the deal that persuades Antetokounmpo to commit his long-term future to Milwaukee, and so long as Holiday doesn’t bolt when he enters 2021 free agency, this all-in approach will be redeemed no matter how lopsided it may look today.
Q: We know Tim Duncan made his living on bank shots (and all-time great defense), but do we know how many points he actually scored with bank shots? Also: Is he the bank-shot leader or is there someone else more prolific in scoring off the glass? — PK (Gdansk, Poland)
Stein: As noted in this April piece on Duncan after his selection to the Basketball Hall of Fame’s class of 2020, bank-shot data has only been tracked in the N.B.A. since the 2003-4 season. So a comprehensive answer to your question, sadly, is practically impossible.
What I can tell you, thanks to some typically priceless research from my former ESPN teammate @MicahAdams13 is that Duncan converted 945 bank shots (good for 1,890 points) over the final 13 seasons of his career, shooting 59.1 percent on bankers over that span.
Q: You forgot Lawrence Frank! — Michael Oruch
Stein: Michael’s email arrived in response to the item in last week’s newsletter about the three former Nets head coaches who now hold jobs as assistant coaches in Los Angeles: Kenny Atkinson with the Clippers and Jason Kidd and Lionel Hollins with the Lakers.
We didn’t “forget” Lawrence Frank because Frank is not an assistant coach. Perhaps he should have been mentioned because of his Nets ties, too, but Frank is the Clippers’ president of basketball operations after moving out of the coaching ranks.
Golden State’s Klay Thompson last week became the fourth player who was selected to the 2018 All-Star Game to tear his Achilles’ tendon. The others in an unfortunate run of star players succumbing to the league’s most dreaded injury: DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall and Kevin Durant.
Marcus Morris of the Los Angeles Clippers landed a four-year contract worth $64 million in free agency — more than $60 million higher than his twin brother, Markieff, came away with by settling for a one-year veteran minimum deal to stay with the Lakers. Early in their careers, in 2014, when Markieff Morris was the more established N.B.A. player, they signed deals with the Phoenix Suns worth a combined $52 million that the brothers were told they could split however they wanted. Markieff Morris took $32 million over four years, with Marcus receiving $20 million over the same span.
Last week’s draft was the 11th in a row in which a college freshman was selected No. 1 over all: Georgia’s Anthony Edwards by the Minnesota Timberwolves. The last non-freshman to be drafted with the No. 1 pick was the Oklahoma sophomore Blake Griffin in 2009.
Obi Toppin, the Knicks’ draft selection at No. 8, led the nation with 107 dunks last season at Dayton.