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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.

Khris Middleton drops career-best 51 on Wizards, Bucks win without Antetokounmpo

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Khris Middleton scored a career-high 51 points in the absence of injured teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo, leading the Milwaukee Bucks to a 151-131 victory over the Washington Wizards on Tuesday night.

Middleton, hoping to be chosen an All-Star reserve for the second straight year on Thursday, helped the Bucks hold off a second-half Wizards rally. Middleton also had 10 rebounds and six assists while hitting 16 of 26 shots and 7 of 10 3-pointers.

Milwaukee (41-6) scored a franchise-record 88 points in the first half, finished with its highest total of the season and won its ninth straight game despite the absence of Antetokounmpo, who sat out with a right shoulder injury.

Bradley Beal led the Wizards (15-31) with 47 points, his second straight 40-point game and sixth of the season.

Milwaukee led by as many as 32 points but the Wizards rallied in the third quarter, putting up 41 points to cut their deficit to 117-104 entering the fourth. Washington got within seven points in the final period but could not get closer.

Eric Bledsoe had 34 points, 10 assists and six rebounds for the Bucks. Donte DiVincenzo added 16 points.

Middleton responded with 13 points in the fourth quarter as he scored the most points by a Bucks player this season. He pounded home a dunk to go over 50 points and give the Bucks a 13-point lead late in the final quarter.

Antetokounmpo had 50 points on Nov. 25 against Utah.

The Bucks came out firing from deep, hitting eight of their first nine attempts from 3-point range. Milwaukee converted 14 of 22 shots in the first quarter on the way to a 42-28 lead.

And they kept going in the second quarter. Middleton hit his fourth 3-pointer of the half to give the Bucks a 69-43 lead with 5:46 left. Middleton nailed two more 3s to finish the half 6 for 6 from 3-point range and with 28 points.

The Bucks sank 14 of 24 3-pointers in the half and established a franchise best for points in a half as they grabbed an 88-63 lead at intermission.

The previous mark for points in a half was 87 set against New Orleans on March 14, 1979.

Joel Embiid’s Kobe tribute: 24 points while wearing uniform No. 24; 76ers’ win

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Wearing No. 24 in honor of Kobe Bryant, Joel Embiid scored 24 points in his first game in three weeks, leading the Philadelphia 76ers to a 115-104 win over the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night.

Embiid and the rest of the Sixers wore No. 24 and No. 8 Bryant jerseys in warmups in honor of the Los Angeles Lakers star, who was killed Sunday in a helicopter crash. Embiid was granted permission from Hall of Famer Bobby Jones to wear the retired No. 24 instead of his usual 21 for his first game since he tore a ligament in a finger in his left hand.

The Sixers went 6-3 without Embiid, the first Sixer to be voted to three straight All-Star Games since Allen Iverson.

Embiid had averaged 23.4 points and 12.3 rebounds in 31 games this season. Against the Warriors, Embiid played with a splint on his hand that didn’t affect him when he buried a 3 that sent the Sixers into halftime with a 59-54 lead.

Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons had “Mamba Forever” and “RIP Gigi” (for Bryant’s daughter, among the nine killed in the crash) on each sneaker and scored 17 points.

The Sixers were the latest team to honor Bryant in a pregame ceremony. Bryant led suburban Lower Merion High School to the Class AAAA state title at Hersheypark Arena in 1996, the school’s first since 1943. His framed No. 33 Aces jersey was displayed at midcourt and the Sixers held a 33-second moment of silence of Bryant and the other eight victims in Sunday’s crash. The Sixers rang a bell nine times and shone nine lights on the court during the solemn remembrance. The Sixers skipped pregame introductions for both teams and instead played a video of Bryant’s last introduction in Philadelphia in a December 2015 game and images of him with Allen Iverson and Julius Erving.

Yes, all teams have been affected by Bryant’s death, but it struck particularly hard in Philly, where the former NBA star had a turbulent relationship with Philadelphia. His high school coach Gregg Downer spoke to the media for the first time earlier in the day, and wore Bryant’s No. 33 Lower Merion warmup jacket.

The mood in the building also was tempered, in part, because the 10-win Warriors gave the Sixers a serious challenge. The Sixers were 12-point favorites but D'Angelo Russell, who scored a team-high 28 points, kept the Warriors within single digits for most of the fourth quarter.

Al Horford buried a 3 and Shake Milton followed with another to push it to a 16-point lead and send the Sixers on their way to a whopping 22-2 record at home.

 

A tearful Shaquille O’Neal talks about his time, relationship with Kobe Bryant

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Shaquille O’Neal told Justin Tasch of New York Post: “I’m not doing well. I’m sick” about the death of his former teammate Kobe Bryant (along with eight others, including his daughter Gianna).

A lot of people can relate to that, but Shaq pulled it together enough to talk about his former championship teammate.

When it came to what he could no longer tell Kobe, Shaq teared up.

Shaq and Kobe had legendary feuds back in the day, but in later years made up and were friends.

Like many people, Shaq is still trying to process all of it. That’s going to take a long time.

Chris Paul posts emotional tribute to Kobe Bryant

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Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant were tight.

The shocking death of Kobe Bryant — along with his daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash — hit CP3 hard and the point guard missed his first game of the year Monday, sitting out as he tried to come to grips with it all. Kobe and Paul won Gold Medals together, their kids were friends, and they competed fiercely against each other on the court. 

Tuesday night, Paul posted this personal tribute to Kobe.

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I don't know if I'll ever be able to fully process it. My parents have always said everything happens for a reason and its in God’s plan. But this one is different. Broken fingers, torn Achilles, it didn’t matter. You overcame it all!! You were DIFFERENT! Sometimes we competed so hard against each other that you could never tell how I was always watching YOU!! I needed to see how much better I needed to get and how much harder I needed to work! The love you had for the game was nowhere near the love you had for YOUR girls!! All 5 of them!! And Gigi, who we had already prearranged her marriage with lil Chris, is as beautiful and feisty as she could ever be!!! As I’ve watched you in retirement, as happy as you’ve ever been, I’ve sat back and prayed and hoped that my baby girl will look at me the way Gigi looks at you!!! I Love You and will miss you with all my heart my brother!!! All my love to Vanessa and all the families during this time 🙏🏾 #Mamba4Life #Mambacita

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Like Paul, a lot of us are struggling to process it all.