The first day of free agency saw NBA teams commit a whopping $1.4 billion to free agents on Wednesday, as playoff contenders improved and big-market underachievers struck out. The 2015 free-agent class continues to cash-in and several big-market teams show signs of tapping out as the free-for-all on players heads into its first weekend.
With the draft behind us, free agency offers the best option for teams to rebuild, improve, and craft a roster capable of competing for an NBA title. This year featured one of the richest slates of available talent in recent history, as demonstrated by the 10-figure amount already pledged to this year’s class. We break down three teams that made the biggest moves and three teams who have so far missed out.
#3 – Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavaliers went with an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach as they re-signed key players from last year’s Finals run. They locked up Kevin Love with a surprising five-year, $100 million dollar contract, a long-term commitment few were expecting given his third-option status with the team. Iman Shumpert will receive $40 million across four years. Tristian Thompson appears close to getting $84 million over five years. While I don’t love the idea of paying Shumpert $10 million a season, a player who is known for his defense (but ranked 57th in defensive RPM this past year) and lacks offensive ability, if LeBron James is happy, then the Cavs are set to compete for a title yet again this upcoming year.
#2 – Toronto Raptors
The Raptors followed up a solid 2013-14 campaign by finishing 4th in the Eastern Conference this past year and were expected to make a run in the playoffs. Instead, they were swept by the Washington Wizards in an embarrassing first-round exit, exposing their need for a gritty two-way player who can shoot from the outside.
DeMarre Carroll looks like the perfect solution, signing a four-year, $60 million contract. The high-energy fan-favorite in Atlanta has become a premier defender and possesses an offensive acumen that should not be understated. Carroll’s .579 effective field goal percentage ranked 4th in the league, mainly due to his 39.5% success rate from behind the three-point line. His addition, combined with a healthy core of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozen, and Jonas Valanciunas, should vault the Raptors into at least the second round of the playoffs.
The signing also gets bonus points for killing two birds with one stone, as it improves the Raptors’ roster while weakening the Atlanta Hawks, a conference rival that finished atop the East this past year.
#1 – Milwaukee Bucks
Fresh off a surprising season that saw the Bucks, the team with the worst record in 2013-14, make the playoffs as a 6th seed despite losing second overall pick Jabari Parker to an ACL tear early in the year, the new-look franchise continued moving in the right direction.
They wasted no time in re-signing 23-year-old Kris Middleton, who shot over 40% from beyond the arc and played as a key cog in a defensive machine that finished 8th in the league in points allowed. While a five-year, $70 million contract may seem overdoing matters, the young two-way forward showed flashes of superstar potential en route to an impressive 13 point, 4.5 rebound, 2.3 assist, and 1.5 steal per-game season.
The Bucks also addressed their offensive woes (22nd in ppg), signing talented big Greg Monroe to a three-year max deal. Monroe, one of only five players last season to average 15 points, 10 rebounds, and two assists per game, spurned a number of suitors, ultimately deciding on the Bucks because he felt they gave him the best chance to win immediately.
This seems smart. Milwaukee boasts an impressive core of young talent, featuring Parker (20 years old), Middleton (23), Giannis Antetokounmpo (20), Michael Charter-Williams (23), and now Monroe himself (25). They figure as a sleeper pick to compete for the Eastern Conference title for years to come.
#3 – Portland Trail Blazers
What an offseason it has been for the Trail Blazers, a team set to return just one player from their starting lineup that guided them to a 5th-place finish in a tough Western Conference this past season. Nicolas Batum departed via trade and it appears that Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez, and superstar LaMarcus Aldridge will follow suit via free agency.
To fill the void, the Blazers added Gerald Henderson (via Batum trade), Mason Plumlee (via draft-day trade with the Nets), and signed offensively challenged Al-Farouq Aminu to a four-year, $30 million contract. The Aminu signing puzzles as he averaged less than six points a game with the Mavericks this past season while playing on a minimum-salary contract. They also added former Lakers big man Ed Davis.
The one positive is that Portland will re-sign superstar point guard Damian Lillard to a max extension, but given the depleted roster around him, the team’s outlook appears depressing. Henderson, Plumlee, Aminu, and Davis rank as role players at best, and given that a majority of the premier free agents have already been recruited, the Trail Blazers head for a lottery pick rather than a return to the postseason.
#2 – Los Angeles Lakers
This was the year the Lakers were waiting for. Cap space is open, Kobe Bryant still has some life left (maybe), and they drafted what appears to be a future superstar point guard in D’Angelo Russell. Yet, so far, listen to the crickets.
Kevin Love rumors swirled and the Lakers appeared as a potential landing spot for LaMarcus Aldridge. But Love decided to stay in Cleveland and Aldridge left a meeting with the Lakers brass unimpressed. Given the lack of talent on their roster, and the fact that Kobe Bryant figures to dominate offensive touches well into his sunset years, Jordan chose Dallas over LA.
The best scenario for the Lakers would be another lottery year, while waiting for Kobe’s salary to come off the books next season and getting ready for another run at a talented free-agency class in 2016.
#1 – New York Knicks
It has been a miserable offseason yet again for the New York squad. The 4th pick in the NBA draft left the team devoid of a game-changing rookie, as they selected 19-year-old Kristaps Porzingis, who is talented but probably won’t make an immediate impact. Greg Monroe was at one point rumored to be a done deal, but the big man decided Milwaukee was a better destination. The Knicks remain in the mix for LaMarcus Aldridge but do not seem to sit atop his list.
Arron Afflalo is a decent consolation price at $8 million a year, but he is not the game-changer Phil Jackson was supposed to attract. Neither is Robin Lopez, who will likely end up with the Knicks now that DeAndre Jordan has come to terms with the Dallas Mavericks. With Carmelo Anthony remaining the only true star on an otherwise offensively-challenged roster, the Knicks will likely retain their cellar-dweller position in the Eastern Conference.”
Curiously, the Lakers and the Knicks, the two biggest markets generally viewed as top destinations for free agents, again fail to attract talent. Players increasingly choose teams based on ability to win, rather than attractions or media exposure cities offer—a troubling trend for these two historic franchises.