While this year’s NBA free agency period is still in its infancy stages, a lot has happened.
LeBron James sent shockwaves through the NBA on Sunday night with his decision to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers. In one move, he made one team an unquestioned winner and another an unquestioned loser.
But LeBron moving to Los Angeles is not the only noteworthy move we’ve seen.
The two-time reigning NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant effectively ended his free agency period before it started. Other big names, like Paul George and Chris Paul, have both decided to stay put. What does that mean for their teams?
Also, while they don’t grab the headlines, a number of under-the radar players have signed and figure to make big impacts for their new teams.
These are the biggest winners and losers from NBA free agency thus far.
Winner: Los Angeles lands The King
No move made by any other team in free agency will be this big. LeBron is headed to Los Angeles to play for the franchise of Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, and so many of the greatest players in NBA history.
Magic has delivered on his big talk. The Lakers have been in an extended period of rebuilding, not making the playoffs since 2013. That’s now over. As is the case with any team LeBron plays on, Los Angeles will be expected to compete for a title in 2019. The balance of power in the NBA is even more shifted to the Western Conference.
Loser: Thunder walking an expensive tight-rope
Guys like Anthony and George coming back to OKC is a positive move for the franchise. Unfortunately, it comes with a cost. The Thunder presently have a tax bill of $130 million, the biggest in NBA history.
This is really a tough place for Oklahoma City to be in. It is an unquestioned positive that players like Anthony and George — established players who came up with other franchises — want to play there. On the other hand, this is an awful lot of money to pay for a team that hasn’t gotten out of the first round in the two years since Durant’s departure. The situation is complicated enough to make the Thunder both a winner and loser in the early part of free agency.
Winner: Kevin Durant returns to Golden State Warriors
While not a shocking move by any stretch, we have to start with the move that has the biggest impact on the championship picture. Obviously, Durant and the Warriors have won the championship in both seasons since coming together. In that time, only one of the eight postseason series has gone more than five games.
Make no mistake, LeBron’s decision will have a lot to say about the championship picture, as well. This is especially true if he brings someone like Kawhi Leonard with him to Los Angeles. But for the Warriors, maintaining the status quo was the biggest splash they could have made.
Loser: Houston Rockets take massive gamble on Chris Paul
There’s no doubt that Paul is a Hall of Famer. But he’s also 33 and plays a position where players generally don’t age that gracefully. Given the injuries that Paul’s dealt with over the last two years, it’s hard to imagine him being an exception to that. If Houston can’t win in 2018 (or maybe 2019), there’s no reason to think that the final years of his deal will look much better for the team.
Winner: Dallas Mavericks quietly turning into very good team
The Mavs have missed the postseason in each of the last two seasons and haven’t seen the second round of the NBA Playoffs since winning the championship in 2011. But based on the moves they’re making, we have to wonder if that might be changing soon.
Dallas added DeAndre Jordan, who’s coming off of one of the best seasons of his career. The Mavs are also expected to bring back franchise icon, Dirk Nowitzki. This is on the heels of what was a very good draft. We’re not expecting that Dallas will be among the league’s best teams during the 2018-19 season. But this is a good time to buy stock in this franchise’s future.
Loser: Philadelphia 76ers lose sixth man
Marco Belinelli played in only 28 games for the 76ers after getting traded from the Atlanta Hawks. When Belinelli played his first game for Philadelphia, the 76ers stood at 29-25. With him, Philly went 23-5.
Now, we understand that basketball is a team game. We’re certainly not trying to give Belinelli all of the credit here. But in those 28 games, he averaged 13.6 points a game while shooting 49.5 percent from the field, 38.5 percent on threes, and 87 percent from the free-throw line. That’s quality production coming off of the bench. Now that he’s back in San Antonio, it won’t be easily replaced.
Winner: Indiana Pacers add nice piece in Doug McDermott
Now that LeBron has left the Eastern Conference, the the 76ers and Boston Celtics are now the instant favorites. And while it’s hard to dispute that, we can’t completely overlook the fact that the Pacers took LeBron and the Cavaliers to seven games in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs. With a little improvement, a deep playoff run isn’t exactly a long shot for the Pacers.
McDermott is a career 40.3 percent three-point shooter and is coming off of a season where he shot 42.6 percent from behind the arc. So, we’ll say with confidence that signing McDermott is definitely a step in the right direction for this franchise.
Loser: Trevor Ariza ends up in curious location
Of course, we have to qualify this by saying we’re talking strictly about the on-court part of this deal, not the financial element. On the court, Ariza works best as a player who can roam the perimeter. When the defense converges on the team’s best players, he ends up with the ball, wide open on the three-point line. He did that for the Houston Rockets in 2017-18, knocking down nearly 37 percent of his threes in the process.
Now, he’s with the Phoenix Suns. This team might be on the rise, but it’s a long way from teams like the Rockets and Warriors. It’s hard to question the motives here. Money talks, after all. But on the court, this feels like a move that Ariza will regret.
Winner: Ersan Ilyasova makes Bucks more dangerous
Signing Ersan Ilyasova doesn’t look like a blockbuster. But in reality, it’s a signing that we like a lot. If the recent run of the Golden State Warriors has taught us anything, it’s this: To seriously compete for an NBA title, you need to shoot the ball from distance. Milwaukee ranked in the bottom 10 of the NBA in three-point shooting during the regular season. So, the Bucks clearly needed an upgrade.
Ilyasova represents that. He knocked down better than 36 percent of his threes last season and has a career mark of just under 37 percent. That will help the Bucks’ offense spread the floor and will provide a dangerous shooter for opposing teams to worry about.
Loser: Cleveland Cavaliers move back to life without LeBron
Cleveland fans shouldn’t react to this the way that they did in 2010. LeBron’s second run with the Cavaliers produced four trips to the NBA Finals and an NBA Championship. The fans in Northeast Ohio, a region that hadn’t seen a championship in any since 1964, should feel a lot of gratitude towards him.
That said, Cleveland’s history without LeBron on the roster is not pretty. During his four-year stint with the Miami Heat, the Cavs peaked out at 33-49. The last time Cleveland made the playoffs without LeBron on the roster was the 1997-98 season. The Cavs without LeBron are a team with Kevin Love (unless he’s traded) and a lot of bad contracts. This team’s outlook is not good going forward.