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Five things we’ve learned through four days of free agency

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In the free agency of 2018 players were grabbing the bag. Fast.

Ordinarily free agency — especially for the big names — plays out over the first week of July as players meet with various teams, try to play teams off one another, and push for the best offer out there. Not in 2018. Not with most teams cash-strapped (only nine teams had more than $10 million in pure cap space to spend signing free agents before free agency). Knowing the market was tight, players grabbed the deal in front of them. Fast.

What did we learn from the first four days of free agency? Here are the five big takeaways.

1) Everyone — players and teams — are focused on 2019. As of this writing, there have been 52 contracts handed out to NBA players this free agency period — 29 of them (56 percent) have been one-year deals, or contacts with an opt-out after one year (stat courtesy Marc Stein). For comparison, the previous couple of years about 30 percent of contracts were one-year deals. This year’s the list of short deals includes big names such as DeMarcus Cousins to the Warriors, as well as the more expected ones, such as Raymond Felton staying with the Thunder.

Why? Money. As mentioned in the intro above, not a lot of teams had money to spend on free agents — the majority of teams were over the cap and/or into the luxury tax, many didn’t even have the full mid-level exception to offer. That changes next summer when many of the contracts signed during the drunken sailor spending spree of 2016 (when the cap spiked) come off the books.

The end result is players are reading the marketplace, then taking one-year deals to get back into free agency when there is more money out there. Cousins did it. Derrick Favors did it with Utah. Tyreke Evans did it. Rajon Rondo. The list goes on and on.

Teams also are biding their time, looking to make a splash in 2019 rather than in this market. Teams are trying to avoid long-term contracts that impact next year’s cap space.

One caveat now for 2019 — the market is going to be saturated. There always will be money to pay the top guys (Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, etc.), and in 2019 that money will trickle down couple tiers below those guys, but there is not going to be enough big money for everyone. Some players who think they are going to get paid next summer will be disappointed.

2) The Lakers won free agency by getting LeBron James, but they are focused on 2019, too. LeBron wasted no time making his call — no formal meeting with the Cavaliers, his agent had a perfunctory one with the 76ers basically just to let them know he wasn’t coming, and that was it. Before free agency was 24 hours old LeBron had made his call and let the world know — he was going to the Lakers.

More than just that, he signed a four-year deal with the Lakers, showing Magic Johnson and company the kind of trust he showed Pat Riley in Miami but never gave to Dan Gilbert or anyone in Cleveland.

With that trust, the Lakers are not overpaying to win now. They have ignored the line thinking that with LeBron at age 33 they can’t spend a year building and must win immediately. Talks to trade for Kawhi Leonard cooled, and the Lakers didn’t throw their remaining cap space at long-term deals for the best players available. Los Angeles didn’t even keep Julius Randle. The roster the Lakers have put together for the 2018-19 season coming up — the young core of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, plus now veterans (and interesting personalities) Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo, and JaVale McGee — will be good, it’s a playoff team, but it’s no threat to Golden State or Houston. Even with the greatness of LeBron, this is a team that will hover around 50 wins in a brutally deep Western Conference, and at best make the second round of the playoffs.

The focus is on getting another superstar, another All-NBA level player. Maybe Leonard, via trade or as a free agent next summer. Maybe another star free agent they can sign into cap space (Jimmy Butler or Klay Thompson). Maybe another star unexpectedly becomes available via trade. Maybe a lot of things, but the Lakers have prized flexibility above all, the ability to sign guys or make deals. They want to contend for titles, but they — with LeBron’s blessing — are thinking a season or two down the line. As part of that plan, they want to get LeBron working off the ball more.

3) Yes, the Golden State Warriors got better, but it was more than DeMarcus Cousins that fell their way. The Golden State Warriors got better this summer. No doubt. Not in the “they formed the Death Star” kind of way that NBA Twitter freaked out about, but Cousins — despite his expected mid-season return and being less than 100 percent, lethargic defense, ball-stopping offense in the post — is an upgrade over JaVale McGee or Zaza Pachulia. Cousins will hit some threes, make some passes, and fit in as best he can in the Warriors’ system.

However, the list of things that have given the Warriors a better shot at a title now goes way beyond just Cousins. For one, the only team that was a real threat to them last playoffs, the Houston Rockets, got a little bit worse when Trevor Ariza took Phoenix’s cash. LeBron James came to the West on a team that is not yet a threat. The Spurs are dragging their feet on the Kawhi Leonard situation, keeping on the bench a player who (if healthy) could help form a contender somewhere. The list goes on. Things have gone right for the Warriors this offseason, but it is more than signing a guy coming off a torn Achilles.

4) Restricted free agents have been left hanging. Clint Capela should have some team offering him a max or near max contract to try to poach him from Houston. Marcus Smart has no offers yet. Nor does Jabari Parker. Or Zach LaVine. Or Jusuf Nurkic. Or Kyle Anderson. Or Rodney Hood.

In a tight financial market, teams have spent on the guys they could get rather than tie up their cap space for a few days trying to snag one of the NBA’s restricted free agents. Remember, these are the guys where the team they played for has the right to match any contract. In the case of Capela, Houston GM Daryl Morey has made it abundantly clear he would match any offer and that has scared off potential suitors. In the case of Parker or LaVine, injury concerns have teams hesitant to jump in with the level of commitment it would take to scare off the Bucks or Bulls. And so on and so on down the list.

The bad news for these restricted free agents is there are not a lot of teams with money left — Sacramento, Atlanta, a few others — and those teams are not looking to spend a lot and win more right away. Those teams are more likely to take on a bad contract for a future asset than overpay to try to steal a player away. The options for the restricted free agents are not getting any better. Expect a few to play for the qualifying offer then become free agents next summer (see item No. 1 on this list).

5) Oklahoma City got the band back together, but they are going to pay a lot to do it. The number is staggering — $300 million. The Thunder got their man — Paul George will be back on a new max contract. As expected, Carmelo Anthony opted in to his $28.7 million. Jerami Grant will return and sign a three-year, $27 million contract. Combine all that with Russell Westbrook‘s max contract that kicks in, plus the repeater tax, and the Thunder are lined up to pay the largest salary plus tax bill in NBA history. That $300 million bill would make the Lakers or Knicks blush.

Is it worth it to run back a 48-win team that was bounced in the first round of the playoffs?

In OKC, they know that in the past nine months two stars have chosen them, chosen to stay in their market over going to Los Angeles or New York or wherever. That’s a big win. This team believes it was better than it showed down the stretch and into the playoffs. Ownership says its worth whatever price and they will pay it for a year.

Around the league, other teams expect the Thunder to make a couple of cost-savings moves. Just something to keep an eye on.

Bulls reportedly apply for cap relief from Omer Asik contract

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Omer Asik didn’t play a minute for the Bulls this season (they got him in the Nikola Mirotic trade). Back in training camp he ruled out indefinitely with inflammatory arthritis, which had flared up last summer. Asik had played in just 49 games combined the two seasons before that.

Prior to this season, the Bulls waived Asik. He was paid his full $11.3 million for this season but had only $3 million guaranteed for next season. The Bulls have now applied for cap relief — meaning taking that $3 million off the books for next season — because of Asik’s injury, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

One year after a player last appeared in a game, teams can apply for cap relief if a player’s injury or condition is determined to be career-ending. An independent doctor needs to verify that Asik could not play again to get the extra cap relief. Asik gets paid, it is still a guaranteed contract. Miami took this step with Chris Bosh, for example.

The Bulls have talked about being aggressive in free agency — finding guys to pair with Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, and Otto Porter — and while that $3 million is not a lot, it helps. The Bulls will have between $20 million and $23 million in cap space if/when the league approves Asik coming off the books (depending on what they do with a couple of players), according to our Dan Feldman. That’s not max contract money, but it can help bring in some depth and shooting to go around the young core in Chicago.

LeBron James, Stephen Curry top NBA jersey sales again

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There are new names on and climbing the list: Joel Embiid is up to No. 5, Luka Doncic came in 13th as a rookie.

However, for the most part, the names on the list of the most sold jerseys in the NBA look very familiar.

With LeBron James jumping teams to the Los Angeles Lakers, it should be no surprise he tops the list of most-sold jerseys (based on NBAStore.com sales since the start of the season). Stephen Curry is second, and the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo climbed up to third.

Here are the top 15 in jersey sales this season.

1. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
2. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
4. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics
5. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
6. James Harden, Houston Rockets
7. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
8. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
9. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
10. Jimmy Butler, Philadelphia 76ers
11. Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat
12. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder
13. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
14. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
15. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Three Sixers made the list (Embiid, Simmons, Butler), the most of any team. Also, Wade went out in the top 15 after his Last Dance farewell tour.

Here are the top 10 franchises in team merchandise sales:

1. Los Angeles Lakers
2. Golden State Warriors
3. Boston Celtics
4. Philadelphia 76ers
5. Milwaukee Bucks
6. Chicago Bulls
7. Oklahoma City Thunder
8. Houston Rockets
9. Toronto Raptors
10. New York Knicks

Malcom Brogdon out for Bucks-Celtics Games 1 and 2

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Malcolm Brogdon suffered a foot injury that’d sideline him for the start of the playoffs.

The Bucks (vs. Pistons) and Celtics (vs. Pacers) won their first-round series too quickly.

Milwaukee-Boston will be the first series between teams coming off sweeps since Lakers-Suns in the 2010 Western Conference finals and first such second-round series since Pistons-Bulls in 2007. So, the Bucks-Celtics series will begin Sunday, the second-earliest of four possible dates.

Which means no Brogdon to begin the series.

Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Game 1 is Sunday, and Game 2 is Tuesday. That leaves open the possibility of Brogdon returning for Game 3 Friday, May 3.

Brogdon is a good shooting guard, but the Bucks were just fine without him in the first round. Sterling Brown and Pat Connaughton played well against Detroit, and Tony Snell could enter the rotation as he gets healthy.

But the Celtics are a far bigger challenge. Milwaukee won’t necessarily need Brogdon against Boston, but the Bucks’ chances are much higher if he returns to full strength.

Russell Westbrook to critics: ‘I don’t really care what people say’

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Russell Westbrook has faced a lot of criticism this season, a chorus that grew louder in the first round of the playoffs.

While he averaged a triple-double for the third straight season, his shooting degenerated and his efficiency dropped. This is Westbrook’s shot chart for the regular season.

Which was better than his playoff shot chart.

The results of his shooting woes were obvious in the playoffs. Portland big man Enes Kanter can be exposed as a pick-and-roll defender if pulled out on the perimeter to deal with a ball handler, but the Trail Blazers didn’t have to do that. Kanter would sag back, clog the paint, and dare Westbrook to take jumpers or drive past him. Even when Westbrook drove there were not clear lanes and he struggled to finish.

That swelled the volume of criticism of Westbrook. Not that he cares. Did anyone actually expect him to be bothered? Westbrook brushed off his critics speaking with the media after his exit interview on Thursday. Via Royce Young of ESPN.

“There used to be conversations if I was a ball hog, but now I lead the league in assists for the past three years or whatever it is, that’s getting squashed out,” he said. “So now the conversation is about shooting. Next year I’m going to become a better shooter. After that it’ll be probably, f—, my left foot is bigger than my right one. Who knows.

“So that’s why, back to your point, I don’t really care what people say, what they think about me, because it doesn’t really matter. I know what I’m able to do and know what I’m able to do at a high level every night, and nobody else can do what I can do on a night-in, night-out basis, and I truly believe that. If they could, I’m pretty sure they would. But I know for a fact that nobody can.”

Westbrook still impacts the game with his drives and athleticism, he is still an All-NBA level guard in this league, if not MVP level anymore. He is still one of the game’s elite players. However, as he was getting outplayed by Damian Lillard in the first round the questions came up again, “just how far can the Thunder go with Westbrook as their primary option?” After four surgeries in six years, can he still carry a team deep into the playoffs?

When Westbrook was on the floor without Paul George this season, the Thunder struggled. When it was George without Westbrook, they still played well. It’s become clear that not only must Westbrook improve his shooting — not to Curry levels, but closer to his MVP self that shot better from the midrange — but also Sam Presti and Thunder management need to find a way to get more shooting around Westbrook. A stretch-five, in particular, would help (Stephen Adams is good at a lot of things, but spacing the floor is not one of them). OKC needs shooters around Westbrook.

How the Thunder pull that off with a capped-out team — they have the second-highest payroll in the league this season and Westbrook and George are maxed out for years — is going to require some real creativity. But if the Thunder are going to be more than a first-round-exit team in the West, they need to find a way.