Winners and losers to this point in NBA free agency

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Teams began entering into agreements with free agent players shortly after midnight Eastern on July 1, but due to a league-imposed moratorium on activity, no deals can be officially signed until July 10.

We’re almost there, and plenty of the top names available have indeed been swooped up by teams looking to make a splash next season. While there are still some major impact players left on the market, let’s take a look on some of the winners and losers to this point in the free agent sweepstakes.

WINNER: Houston Rockets. Dwight Howard chose Houston as the place he’ll sign for the next four seasons, even though his deal contains an opt-out after three that could either see him walk, or sign an extension to remain there into the twilight of his career. In addition to Howard, the team is locking up shooters like Francisco Garcia and guys that can contribute meaningful minutes off the bench if called upon like Omri Casspi.

It remains to be seen if Houston is done making moves, or if they’ll look to do something with the contracts of Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik. But for now, pairing Howard with James Harden is a huge win for the Rockets organization.

ALSO A WINNER: The Lakers. It’s true that the Lakers wanted Howard to stay in Los Angeles, and were willing to see their payroll exceed $90 million next season (even before luxury tax penalties, which would have been massive) to make that happen. A max contract for five years was what the Lakers happily would have offered for Howard’s services, but now that he’s gone, the reality that he was never a match for the franchise can finally be allowed to sink in.

Howard didn’t enjoy playing with Kobe Bryant, felt marginalized in Mike D’Antoni’s system, and never embraced the pressure of playing for a franchise where championships were not only expected, but demanded. Shaquille O’Neal was right about Howard to a certain extent, and even if he had chosen to stay with the Lakers, trouble would have been brewing in that relationship very soon, and it would have caused more harm than good for both sides.

The Lakers have nothing to do in free agency but wait a season until they have an almost completely clean slate from a salary cap perspective, but it seems as though they dodged a bullet where Howard was concerned, despite the organization’s best efforts to sign him.

LOSER: Milwaukee Bucks. We qualified these characterizations up top by saying it’s as of right now, with plenty of time left for things to change. But at the moment, Milwaukee isn’t looking all that sharp. The Bucks traded for J.J. Redick at the deadline last season, only to deal him away to the Clippers in the three-way trade that sent  Eric Bledsoe to the Suns, which netted Milwaukee nothing more than a couple of future second round draft picks.

Combine that with Monta Ellis appearing as though he’ll leave, along with the yet-to-be-resolved situation with Brandon Jennings, and it’s been a rough go of it so far. The team did add O.J. Mayo as a more cost-effective (but less dynamic) replacement for Ellis, and signed a solid veteran big man in Zaza Pachulia. But none of that screams improvement for a Bucks squad that finished six games below .500 last season, and it appears as though they’re grabbing players to fill roster spots without much of a long-term plan for success.

LOSER: Utah Jazz. The Jazz had two high-quality, unrestricted free agents in Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. There were rumors that at least one would be dealt at the trade deadline last season, because it would have made sense to get some assets in return for guys you weren’t planning on signing once the season was over.

The trade deadline came and went, however, and both Jefferson and Millsap remained on the roster. Utah fought for the final playoff spot in the West, before ultimately succumbing to Houston and the Lakers to finish the season as part of the group of teams in the draft lottery.

Now, Jefferson has chosen Charlotte, and Millsap has agreed to play in Atlanta. The Jazz, meanwhile, chose to start from scratch by taking on the bad contracts of Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins from the Warriors.

WINNER: The Clippers. There was no question that Chris Paul would stay in the big market of Los Angeles and take all of that guaranteed money that staying with his current team would provide. But the Clippers tried their best to screw things up by having ownership publicly hang Paul out to dry where Vinny Del Negro was concerned, and Paul wasn’t at all happy with how that whole saga played out.

It’s amazing, however, what a few shrewd moves can do to quickly change those perceptions.

The Clippers managed to get Doc Rivers to leave the Celtics to become their head coach, before going out and solidifying the roster in hopes of making a deeper postseason run next year. L.A. retained Matt Barnes, added Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick in the trade that sent Bledsoe out of town before his salary demands became too unmanageable, and then replaced Bledsoe with a similar but more reasonably priced version of a backup for Paul in Darren Collison.

EYE OF THE BEHOLDER: Nets, Pistons, Bobcats. The view you have on the moves that these three teams made largely will depend on your opinion of how to best go about building an NBA franchise.

If you’re of the opinion that you need to get worse before you can get better, by bottoming out to clear cap space and then earning high-lottery draft picks in order to secure a young and talented roster, then it’s more than likely you’re not in favor of the moves made by these franchises.

Let’s start in Brooklyn, where the Nets are never going to pursue that model as long as billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov is running the show. He favors immediate success and relevance above all else, so bringing in Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to add to a starting lineup already featuring Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and Brook Lopez is pretty much going to be the way things are done in Brooklyn for the foreseeable future.

The bench depth, along with just how effective Pierce and Garnett can be at this late stage of their respective careers, will be serious questions in terms of just how far the Nets can go during a run through the postseason. But on the flip-side, they’ll be a top-four team in the East, and will be extremely intriguing to watch.

As for the Bobcats and the Pistons, both teams made similarly big moves to add star power immediately instead of waiting (or in this case, continuing) to try to rebuild in the conventional way. Charlotte added Al Jefferson from the Jazz, and Detroit went out and got Josh Smith from the Hawks.

Neither of these moves make a ton of sense when you consider the rest of the players currently in place on the respective rosters. But at some point, teams need to stop being terrible in favor of being just bad in order to give the fans a certain level of hope, and give them a top-level talent to root for while adding a few more wins to the season-long struggle to develop the youth for the future.

Joakim Noah on if he can play at former level: “Probably not. Probably not.”

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For three games, Joakim Noah has been clear of the 20-game PED suspension he started at the end of last season.

For three games, he has not even dressed for the Knicks.

This is the former Defensive Player of the Year who was already on the decline when Phil Jackson gave him a $72 million contract that is now the worst in the NBA. Noah is out of the rotation, where Enes Kanter starts at center (with Kristaps Porzingis at the four) and Kyle O’Quinn coming off the bench.

Noah told Marc Berman of the New York Post he is frustrated but gets the situation.

“I’ll be all right. I’ll be all right,’’ Noah said in his first comments since being reinstated. “I understand the situation. I’m going to make the best of it.”

When asked if he still feels he can be close to the player he was in his 2013-14 campaign, Noah said: “Probably not. Probably not. You know. I can help. I feel like I could help this team and that’s just my reality. But I just want to just be the best that I can be.

“It’s not about trying to be what I was three, four years ago, because it’s not the reality.”

Noah is a smart and mature player, he understands his reality, and he has the exact attitude you want a veteran off the bench. He can help in practices, he can help because he understands how to play defense and can teach it, and eventually, he will get a chance on the court. He is not part of the future of the Knicks, but he can guide these young players.

The Knicks new management will look for a way to unload Noah’s contract, but considering the sweeteners the Knicks would need to throw in to get a team to deal for Noah, it’s unlikely we see any action on that front for a long time.

Frustrated Gregg Popovich calls all three referees “f****** blind”

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The Spurs completed an amazing comeback win against the Thunder Friday night, coming from 23 down to knock off the Thunder when Carmelo Anthony‘s game-tying three was just a two because his toe was on the line.

Gregg Popovich was into this one.

So much so that when he didn’t like an out-of-bounds call he made sure all three officials knew exactly how blind he thought they were.

The best part of this is Popovich covering his eyes, just to really emphasize his point.

We’re really going to miss Pop when he steps away to live at a winery full time.

Lakers/Suns have minor skirmish, Lonzo Ball just walks away

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If you’re on the court when your team gets in an NBA “fight” — what the rest of us would call a shoving match where nobody really wants to throw a punch — should you run into the fray and help your teammates?

Friday night, with just more than three minutes to go in Phoenix’s eventual win, the Suns called a timeout, and Tyler Ulis and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope got in one of those silly shoving matches. Players from both teams raced into the fray to protect their teammate/break it up.

The Suns’ rookie Josh Jackson picked up a technical for his role racing in and escalating the matter.

Watch the video again, and you’ll see Lakers’ rookie Lonzo Ball just walk away from it all and head to the bench.

That has led to criticism of the rookie from some Lakers’ fans, who see a guy who didn’t rush in to protect his teammates — that’s seen as part of the sports locker room culture. A “band of brothers” or “us against the world” mentality. Ball, frankly, gave a more mature answer than that.

Ball is right, nothing was going to come of this. It was meaningless posturing. Walking away was the mature move.

However, the question is how is this perceived in the Lakers’ locker room? Do the players care that Ball shrugged and walked away? Do they think he needed to race in and try to look tough like everyone else? That can impact his standing on the team — as a guy Magic Johnson brought in to be a leader — more than anything.

Also, with all his shooting woes, is this the first sign of some Lakers fans starting to turn on Lonzo? It’s a little early for that.

Harrison Barnes offers advice for Dennis Smith Jr., Julius Randle

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For a guy in just his sixth NBA season, Harrison Barnes has seen a lot.

He has seen the mountaintop, having won a ring as a role player for the Golden State Warriors. He’s also has felt the devastation of being on a team that historically blew a 3-1 NBA Finals lead. He’s been a high school phenom — unfairly compared to Kobe Bryant — and a high draft pick (No. 7), he understands the pressures that come with all that. He’s played (and plays) with superstar future Hall of Famers. And he’s been the guy pushed aside by a team, despite playing well, to make room for one of those superstar players — the harsh business reality of the NBA.

Barnes is learning something new this season in Dallas — how to deal with losing. He never dealt with it before — not high school, AAU, college at North Carolina — but the Dallas Mavericks are 2-14, and while they struggled last year it was nothing like this.

“It’s been difficult,” Barnes told NBC Sports about the start of the season, “but I’ve definitely seen a lot of highs, seen a lot of lows, I’m just trying to get better and lead my team to some wins.”

With all that experience, Barnes was brought in to be a leader in Dallas, and he’s worked to do that on and off the court. Off the court, he has met with local high school players and donated gear he wears — Shock Doctor basketball mouthguards and McDavid HEX protective arm and leg sleeves — to those programs. 

On the court this year, he’s tried to blend his game with rookie Dennis Smith Jr., who the Mavs see as the future at the point guard spot.

“Playing with Dennis has been great,” Barnes said. “He’s got a lot of tools that will help him be a great guy in the league for a long time. So the transition, in terms of playing together and developing chemistry, hasn’t been hard at all. I think he’s very mature beyond his years, and that makes it easy.”

As a leader, his advice to Smith Jr. has just been to not hold back, trust his instincts.

“My advice is to always be aggressive in your decision making,” Barnes said. “Whether it’s ‘should I pass?’ or ‘should I shoot?’ should I do this or should I do that, whatever it is, be aggressive. Because right now as a team, we’re in a little bit of a rut, we just need energy. Whatever it may be, even if you’re making the wrong play or the wrong decision, do it with conviction so there’s some inertia and the rest of us can feed off it.”

With the young high school players around Dallas his advice is similar — go for what you want on and off the court, give it your all — but he adds with them they need to protect their bodies in an increasingly physical game.

“Today I was able to go to Lincoln High School, meet with the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams, and I was able to donate some Shock Doctor basketball mouthguards and McDavid HEX protective arm and leg sleeves to the young kid, and talk to them about protecting your body when you’re out there,” Barnes said. “The game is becoming more physical and more competitive at a younger age, and the best ability is availability.”

If there’s one guy in the NBA who can relate to Barnes’ path, it might be the Lakers’ Julius Randle.

The fourth-year big has been up and down but has gotten better every season and shown promise with the Lakers, putting up 11.4 points per game on 54.3 percent shooting this season (both career highs, although his jumper still needs work), plus grabbing 6.7 rebounds, but mostly he brings energy and physical, strong defense  in just 20 minutes a game off the bench. He has transformed his body, gotten leaner but stronger, and has done a good job filling a role for Los Angeles as a physical, defensive player in a league going small and getting skinnier

Randle is coming up on the end of his rookie contract next summer and is due a payday, he thought he was part of the franchise’s future, yet he is likely the odd man out in Los Angeles as the Lakers chase big name free agents. Randle’s name is a staple of trade talks (about moving Luol Deng and his contract).

Harrison Barnes can relate. He was swept out of Golden State to make room for that team’s successful run at Kevin Durant.

What would Barnes tell Randle?

“My advice is to focus on what is going to be the best for you,” Barnes said. “Focus on where you can grow as a player, get better, where you would thrive in. Whether or not he ends up in the same place or a different place, just make sure you’re in a situation where you can grow. That’s the most important thing because a lot of things are going to be out of his control, who decides to go where and that type of stuff, but as long as he focuses on getting better with his craft that’s the one thing he can control.”

That’s what Barnes did a couple seasons ago, and he ended up in Dallas with a big contract, a big opportunity, and a chance to be a leader. He’s trying to do that on a team transitioning out of the Dirk Nowitzki era, but it hasn’t been easy.

And it’s come with some harsh new lessons. Like dealing with losing. One Barnes and the Mavericks want to move past as quickly as they can.