Every spring, NBA fans are treated to basketball’s ultimate competition for players: the playoffs. At the end of four rounds, the last team remaining is crowned champion and we typically have a better appreciation for which players are “16-game players” and which players are “82-game players” (as Draymond Green would say). We also find some players who surprise us in good ways (Jamal Murray for making a leap) and bad ways (Eric Bledsoe for regressing).
Once the playoffs end, we get to the summer, and NBA fans are treated to basketball’s ultimate competition for front offices: free agency. The free-agency period in the NBA is akin to the playoffs for NBA front offices, except that more than one team can win. Like the players in the playoffs, in the NBA Front Office Playoffs, we typically gain a better appreciation for which GMs and team presidents are four-month executives (approximate length of the NBA offseason) and which are the eight-month executives (approximate length of the NBA season). And like the players, we also have front offices that pleasantly surprise us and those that let us down by always seeming to take one step forward, then two steps back.
These concepts couldn’t have been more obvious this offseason, in particular, during the league’s frenzied first eight hours of free agency that saw roughly $3 billion spent on players and an insane amount of player movement.
The cream of the crop always rises to the top
Because of the rise in analytics, publicly available information, and intense focus on the NBA, there are probably more competent front offices today than ever. Like the best players in the league, the best executives have a way of separating themselves from the rest of the pack when it matters the most by having a vision and multiple contingency plans in case something doesn’t go as expected. Take, for instance, president of basketball ops Bob Myers with the Golden State Warriors. Despite losing Kevin Durant to the Nets, he created a max cap slot essentially out of thin air by working out a sign-and-trade (sign-and-trades are back in a big way) with the Nets, which brought him back D’Angelo Russell to either pair with the Splash Brothers or use as a valuable trade chip around midseason.
Most people, myself included, thought that if the Warriors lost Durant, they would simply lose the ability to go over the salary cap (they were only allowed to go over the cap for Durant because they owned his Bird Rights). However, by “signing” Durant, the Warriors were able to open that cap hold and then trade it for Russell. By having the foresight that losing Durant to the Nets was a possibility, Myers may have extended Golden State’s window to compete in the loaded Western Conference.
The ability to adjust on the fly is a skill that is shared by another championship-winning executive, Danny Ainge. While this offseason may have been a net-negative for Boston because it lost Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, Ainge was able to do some serious damage control by swooping seemingly out of nowhere to sign Kemba Walker, who averaged almost identical numbers as Irving last season. (The Hornets' low-balling of Walker certainly helped Boston.) Ainge also did well to ink Enes Kanter to a team-friendly, two-year $10M contract. Kanter is a 14-point, 10-rebound-per game center who will help make up for what Horford brought to the table offensively.
Other elite, front-office execs who made smart trades and signings this offseason were Pelicans executive VP of basketball ops GM David Griffin, Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey and Nets GM Sean Marks (we’ll get to him later). As has already been well-documented, Griffin was able to squeeze every penny from the Lakers in the Anthony Davis trade and then acquired additional assets on draft night. He didn’t stop there either -- he signed 41-percent three-point shooter JJ Redick to spread the court for Zion Williamson. Finally, he traded for an excellent two-way role player in Derrick Favors. The GM who traded Favors, Lindsey, made the deal because he was able to sign one of the top free-agent forwards (Bojan Bogdanovic). He then signed Ed Davis to a bargain two-year, $10M deal to help replace Favors. This all came after he had made the Jazz a contender by acquiring Mike Conley on draft night.
On the other hand, the bad front offices (and owners) tend to stick out like a sore thumb during free agency
What do the Knicks, Suns and Hornets all have in common? Bad owners. Not bad in a Donald Sterling-type of way, but bad in a sense that they just aren’t good organizational leaders, which, in turn, inhibits their respective front offices.
James Dolan and the Knicks traded their most promising player since Patrick Ewing in Kristaps Porzingis at mid-season to clear cap space. On paper, it seemed like a smart idea to clear two max cap slots for Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, but in reality, all they did was trade their best player so they could sign three power forwards (Julius Randle, Bobby Portis and Taj Gibson), a point guard who can’t shoot (Elfrid Payton) and two wings who can shoot, but can’t do much else (Reggie Bullock and Wayne Ellington). Jay Williams, Kevin Durant’s business associate on The Boardroom, pointed out that Durant was the one who first called Porzingis a “unicorn,” so trading Porzingis to open those cap slots apparently hurt the Knicks’ chances in landing him this summer. Dolan’s stubbornness and boorish behavior likely played a big factor in his decision as well.
After a disaster of a draft night (according to literally everyone), Robert Sarver and the Suns handed Ricky Rubio a three-year, $51M contract in the opening minutes of free agency. Rubio is a good passer and defender but a terrible shooter (his career 39-percent shooting from the field is among the worst in modern NBA history). This definitely wasn’t a bargain deal for Rubio, and if the Sun were going to sign a point guard at the start of free agency, shouldn’t they have gone after a bigger fish like D’Angelo Russell first?
Finally, after refusing to trade Kemba Walker at the trade deadline the past two seasons, Michael Jordan and the Hornets decided to effectively move on from Walker by low-balling him this offseason. Instead of maximizing his value at the deadline or signing him to a max offer and then trading him at the deadline this season (like what the Clippers did with Blake Griffin two years ago), the Hornets let him go for nothing. Then, they overpaid Terry Rozier with a whopping three-year, $58M contract. With Kemba gone, MJ is probably the best player in the Hornets’ organization. Maybe that’s what he wanted all along.
The Nets and 76ers front offices pulled off potentially impressive re-brands with some gutsy maneuvering
The Nets pulled off the heist of the offseason by essentially stealing the Knicks’ dream free agents Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. GM Sean Marks should be commended as the architect of one of the greatest three-year rebuilds in NBA history. Knicks fans should feel no shame in jumping to the Brooklyn bandwagon after this offseason. However, let’s be sure to not understate how big a gamble the Nets made here. Durant might never be the same player he was before the injury when he returns in the 2020-21 season, and Kyrie is essentially being put in the same situation he was brought into in Boston with impressionable young players looking for him to be a leader. As the Celtics taught us last season, chemistry is paramount for team success, and the Nets are merely a great team on paper at the moment.
Speaking of last season's Celtics, GM Elton Brand and the 76ers lured Al Horford from Boston and acquired Josh Richardson from the Heat in a sign-and-trade that sent Jimmy Butler to South Beach. On paper, the 76ers’ front office appears to have amazingly changed the direction of its team without altering its trajectory as a contender.
Philadelphia will start four excellent defenders (Joel Embiid, Horford, Richardson and Ben Simmons) along with Tobias Harris, and bring wing defenders Matisse Thybulle and Zhaire Smith off the bench. The gamble here is that Butler was the team’s closer and primary ball handler in the fourth quarter of playoff games, and JJ Redick was the team’s best shooter and floor spacer. Can the Sixers' defense be so good that it won’t matter? Brand’s job probably depends on it.
Spending is an addiction
After making impressive strides over the past year, the Magic and Kings took a couple of steps backward in free agency with some bizarre signings earlier this week. Orlando’s front office all but built an artificial ceiling on its future by signing Nikola Vucevic (four-year, $100M), Terrence Ross (four-year, $54M) and Al-Farouq Aminu (three-year, $29M) to long-term deals.
I have a ton of questions for Magic GM John Hammond: How is Vucevic worth double what Brook Lopez is worth (four-year, $52M) in today’s NBA? (Hint: He isn’t -– don’t look at the playoff stats if you’re a Magic fan.) Are you giving up on Mo Bamba already? Would you rather pay Ross $13.5M per year for four years or Jeremy Lamb $10.3M per year for three years? (Lamb is probably better.) Finally, why did you bring in Aminu to take minutes from Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac? If he never develops a jump shot, isn’t Jonathan Isaac basically Aminu? (They’re damn near clones of each other through Isaac’s first two seasons.) Enjoy competing for the seven and eight seeds the next four seasons, Magic fans!
Last but not least (ok, maybe least), GM Vlade Divac and the Kings spent $187M on the following players: Harrison Barnes (four years, $90M), Dewayne Dedmon, Cory Joseph and Trevor Ariza. Barnes, who averaged 14 points and six rebounds per game for the Kings last season, adequately summed up this signing by the Kings by Instagramming a picture of himself firing wide right on a jump shot. Dedmon (three years, $40M) and Joseph (three years, $37M) weren’t terrible signings, but they certainly weren’t bargains after seeing what comparable players went for (Robin Lopez signed for under $10M over two years and Ish Smith received $12M over two years). The Ariza deal (two years, $25M) was baffling considering his regression as a defender and age (34). No smart team would ever have made than kind of offer to him.
The Board Man delays
To put a bow on this analogy, Kawhi Leonard helped his team win the ultimate prize in the 2019 NBA Playoffs. Now, he’s the ultimate prize for the Front Office Playoffs. Any day now, Kawhi …