More than any other sports league, the NBA has been able to turn free agency—a fancy series of private job interviews and contract negotiations—into a marquee event. Thanks to short contracts, emboldened players and a malleable salary cap (which, like computers or the wind, seems to be governed more by magic and whimsy than logic), NBA free agency represents an annual reshaping of the league. This year’s iteration felt particularly hectic since nearly a third of the teams can plausibly claim to be legitimate contenders next year. Here, the winners and losers of basketball’s silly season:
A Recap of NBA Free Agency 2021: The Winners and Losers
Loser: Dennis Schröder
Over the last week, NBA teams awarded $2.2 billion worth of contracts to 105 free agents. Of those numbers, $640 million were given to 20 point guards. Dennis Schröder—not even a year after turning down a four year, $84 million extension from the Lakers—has gotten none of it. Believing that a team would somehow become desperate enough to offer a $100 million contract this summer, Schröder priced himself out of consideration for nearly every possible destination as cap space around the league evaporated. Meanwhile, the Lakers’ trade for Russell Westbrook has rendered Schröder vestigial to their championship ambitions and without a clear spot in their rotation. At this point, it seems likely that Schroder will have to settle for a one-year deal in the neighborhood of five million dollars.
Certainly, Schroder isn’t a bad player; his spindly quickness propelled him to be the runner-up for Sixth Man of the Year two seasons ago. Nor is he strapped for cash—he’s earned over $70 million so far during his career. He is, however, a victim of external circumstance and his own hubris. There’s not a huge demand for monopositional guards who are unremarkable shooters, passers or defenders. If only Schroder realized this before it was too late. Tough—no, Tuff 🔥 💯—scene.
Winner: The New York Knicks
Yes, the Knicks. The Knicks! Perhaps even more shocking than their playoff berth last season is the fact that they’ve managed to keep the good vibes rolling into the summer, augmenting a relatively solid core with some backcourt brio. By adding Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, the Knicks have addressed their most glaring weakness from last season: a lack of guys who make stuff happen. Even during their surprising 41-31 season, they often couldn’t conjure up any reliable source of offense beyond hoping that Julius Randle would drain contested jumpers like a thicc Kevin Durant. Now, Walker is instantly the best point guard the Knicks have had in at least 20 years; although his busted knees caused the Boston Celtics to trade him, and the Oklahoma City Thunder to cut him, he’s still one of the premier pull-up shooters in the NBA. Similarly, Fournier is a clever scorer who can offer some secondary playmaking. Sweetest of all, the Knicks have souped up their guard rotation at their rival’s expense: the Celtics traded three draft picks in deals involving Fournier and Walker, only for the pair to end up with the Knicks.
Barring any league-wide wonkiness, though, the Knicks will probably finish with a worse record than they did last year, despite their clear improvement. The Eastern Conference’s middle class has improved and it’s difficult to imagine the Knicks being better than the Nets, Bucks, Sixers, Heat and Hawks. Still, that’s almost beside the point. If last year proved the Knicks are back, this summer announced their intention to never leave.
Loser: The New Orleans Pelicans
Back in 2006, a man went viral for making a series of small barters, ultimately trading his way up from a red paperclip to a new house. The New Orleans Pelicans are doing the opposite of that. While the ‘Cans seemed poised for an extended rebuild after trading Anthony Davis, Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram have been so good that they’ve expedited that process; Williamson and Ingram are ready to win now and New Orleans’ front office has panickedly scrambled to accommodate.
As such, the Pelicans approached the offseason with a single focus: a doomed pursuit of Kyle Lowry or Chris Paul. They sacrificed draft capital to slough off the salaries of Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams to Memphis; they made no real effort to retain Lonzo Ball, who was their clear third-best player last season and provided important connective offensive lubrication. After Lowry tampered his way to Miami and Paul stayed put in Phoenix, the ‘Cans ended up coughing up another first round pick for Devonte Graham. To be sure, Graham is a good player; it’s his fit that’s more dubious. Graham’s greatest strengths—his pull-up shooting and steadiness with the ball—is mitigated by the fact that he will cede control of the ball to Williamson and Ingram while his twerpiness will exacerbate an already-terrible defense. Worse, Williamson is trending towards disgruntlement, à la former franchise players like Anthony Davis or Chris Paul. In total, the Pelicans became a smaller, less athletic team with less roster flexibility; they’re in the process of turning a house into a red paperclip.
Winner: The Los Angeles Lakers
Everybody—including Lebron James, especially Lebron James—has seen the jokes. The Lakers are playing NBA2K21 with the salary cap turned off; the Lakers are a lock to win the 2014 NBA championship; there’s only one ball; the Lakers are just hitting up all their old exes. And, to a certain extent, those jokes are true, but they’re obscuring the most important fact: the Los Angeles Lakers are now the overwhelming favorite to not only win the Western Conference, but to win a championship.
For years, the prevailing strategy for a Lebron James-led team has remained constant; if you surround James with shooters who can play tolerable defense, he will reward you with a Finals appearance. By trading for Russell Westbrook, the Lakers have eschewed that formula for something much weirder and potentially better. At this stage in James’s career, he’s addled by his own middle-agedness—he’s no longer able to bullrush his way to the basket at will and, last season, took a smaller proportion of his shots at the rim than he has in a decade (conversely, he shot more threes than ever). More, he’s suffered major injuries in two of the last three seasons, adding a new degree of precarity to his partnership with the similarly brittle Anthony Davis.
Westbrook, though, offers an antidote to these ills, taking on creation responsibility while James slides into a less strenuous role during the regular season; despite his obvious flaws, Westbrook remains one of the most explosive and productive players in the league. Beyond being the best and also angriest passer that James has ever played with, Westbrook represents a bridge from James’s ball-dominant past to a less demanding future.
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