Two days after the start of free agency, the landscape of the NBA already looks very different.
The Miami Heat found their new starting point guard in Kyle Lowry via a sign-and-trade with the Toronto Raptors. The Chicago Bulls continued to revamp their roster with the acquisitions of DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball. The Los Angeles Lakers added seven free agents to the roster in less than two days, including future Hall of Famers Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard.
What were the most surprising moves? Did the Bulls and New York Knicks do enough to join the upper echelon in the Eastern Conference? Our NBA Insiders answer the big offseason questions and share what moves could still be made to help a contending team get over the top.
1. Which move was most surprising over the first two days?
Tim Bontemps: Nicolas Batum going back to the LA Clippers for only the non-Bird raise off his minimum contract last year. Batum had several teams interested in offering him more than that but chose to stay with the Clippers instead. Given Kawhi Leonard could very well miss the entire season, I thought he might be gettable by other contenders trying to make a push next season. Instead, he chose to remain with the Clippers — potentially setting himself up to get a healthy raise next summer, when the team will hold his early Bird rights as it did with Reggie Jackson this summer.
Kirk Goldsberry: Patty Mills to Brooklyn. A lot of teams could have used Mills, who provides elite shooting and a great spark off the bench, but the Nets, who might already possess the best shooting team in the league, just added him anyway. Mills, who is currently leading Australia in the Tokyo Olympics, provides Brooklyn with yet another way to score efficiently from 3.
Andrew Lopez: The Bulls acquired DeRozan a day after landing Ball. DeRozan thrived last year with the ball in his hands for the San Antonio Spurs while averaging a career-high 6.9 assists. In his three seasons with San Antonio, DeRozan doubled his assists production from his first nine seasons in Toronto (6.2 per game from 3.1). Now he heads to a Chicago team where Ball is being brought in as the point guard and Zach LaVine will also command his fair share of the ballhandling duties. And to boot, Chicago is paying DeRozan $85 million over three years and had to ship out Thaddeus Young and multiple picks to do so.
Jorge Sedano: Lonzo Ball to the Chicago Bulls. Honestly, this is more about the New Orleans Pelicans letting him go for a package that was underwhelming. Ball had career highs in points, field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and free throw percentage. Not to mention that he made more 3s than Trae Young and Bradley Beal last season. He and Zion Williamson had nice chemistry together as well. I like Nickeil Alexander-Walker, but he better be ready.
Ohm Youngmisuk: Andre Drummond to the Philadelphia 76ers. It’s understandable that Drummond’s value plummeted after last season’s Lakers experience, but now Drummond is a backup to Joel Embiid? The one good thing is Drummond should see some starts because of Embiid’s health. But if the Sixers keep Ben Simmons, Drummond only adds another non-perimeter shooter. For the Sixers, getting Drummond at this price is no risk. But you have to wonder how much Drummond will be able to increase his value in Philadelphia.
2. After their moves the past two days, the Bulls are a top-____ team in the East.
Goldsberry: Top eight. The East is loaded, so this is not an insult, but with teams like Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Miami contending for the Eastern crown, the Bulls should be happy with any playoff seed this upcoming season. The East is now chock full of legitimate two-way squads fighting for supremacy, so I’m just not sure Chicago will be able to keep up, especially on defense.
Lopez: Top eight? They aren’t in the top class with Brooklyn or Milwaukee (or Philadelphia, depending on your taste). Miami made a huge jump. New York and Atlanta are still there. Boston should be better. That leaves Chicago at the top of the middling part of the conference ahead of the Indianas and Charlottes of the world.
Sedano: Top seven. I love what the Bulls did at the trade deadline last season and what they’ve done in free agency. They are going to be a pest all season. A starting five of Ball, LaVine, DeRozan, Patrick Williams (or Lauri Markkanen) and Nikola Vucevic is definitely formidable. However, let’s not get too carried away just yet. The top of the East is still some combination of Brooklyn, Milwaukee, Miami, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Boston. The Knicks will be in the playoff picture, too. The East is no longer the “Leastern Conference.”
Youngmisuk: After their moves the past two days, the Bulls are a top-six team in the East. The addition of Ball alone was a huge boost for the Bulls. But adding DeRozan gives the Bulls a trio of scoring options with LaVine and Vucevic. It remains to be seen how DeRozan fits in with LaVine, but the Bulls will be competitive. Welcome back to playoff basketball, Chicago.
Bontemps: Top 12. I see the East being broken up into three tiers. The top features five teams, in no particular order: Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Miami, Philadelphia and Atlanta. The bottom features three more: Cleveland, Detroit and Orlando. That leaves seven more — Chicago, Boston, New York, Indiana, Toronto, Washington and Charlotte — fighting for three playoff spots, plus two more play-in tournament spots. Given Chicago is going to have a truly horrid defense — it’ll be hard not to when playing DeRozan, Vucevic and LaVine — not only could I see them not making the playoffs, I think there’s a chance they miss the play-in tournament altogether. That, to be clear, is not what Chicago was counting on in making this trade.
3. What one word would you use to describe the Knicks’ moves?
Lopez: Uptosomething. OK, so I cheated a little bit. Replacing Reggie Bullock with Evan Fournier was the only real move New York made outside of keeping its talent together. In the short term, the Knicks seem like they are betting on themselves to continue the growth the group made under coach Tom Thibodeau last season. But while their cap space in future years seems to have dried up, they have the right capital to make a move if a star becomes available.
Sedano: Typical. There is always a lot of fanfare surrounding the Knicks when they have money to spend. Usually, it’s uneventful. This was no different. Fournier is a good player, and they did a nice job keeping the band mostly intact. But I do think teams will have a better read on them this upcoming season. They won’t surprise anyone this time around. They’re a legitimate playoff team, but nothing more than that. By the way, that should be fine after what Knicks fans have had to endure for the past decade or so. They should enjoy their (mostly) young and fun team.
Youngmisuk: Vanilla. At least that was before news of Kemba Walker’s buyout to return home. And to be honest, vanilla isn’t a bad flavor, especially when it comes to the Knicks. Too often, the Knicks have poured too much money or assets into doomed mirages. After making the playoffs, the Knicks brought back several of their free agents and added Fournier. Those moves didn’t guarantee the Knicks a more successful season. But as long as those contracts don’t cost them a shot at adding a legitimate superstar, should one become available in the trade market this season or next, Knicks fans appear to be able to trust that the current regime has a plan.
Bontemps: Puzzling. New York has spent the past couple of years painstakingly maintaining flexibility and cap space. Then, this offseason, they’ve turned around and given out long-term deals to Derrick Rose, Nerlens Noel, Alec Burks and Fournier, locking New York into a team that wasn’t good enough to get out of the first round last season, and doesn’t appear to have any path to being a top-four team in the East the next three years. I guess the Knicks will just be happy to try to make the playoffs again the next couple of years? But after their patient approach had paid nice dividends for them, it was odd to see them so rapidly change course like this.
Goldsberry: Random. The Knicks were rightfully the toast of the East last year, but they needed to make a splash this offseason to continue their ascendant trajectory in a suddenly deep conference. Instead, they lost Reggie Bullock and added Evan Fournier, while re-signing Noel, Rose and Burks. It’s not that they got worse — they didn’t — it’s that they failed to add a signature player who can move them up the East standings.
4. Fact or fiction: The Lakers put the right pieces around their new Big Three
Sedano: Fact. They certainly got the right type of players to play around their new Big Three of James, Davis and Westbrook. There is a lot of shooting on the roster now. However, the new additions also add plenty of mileage to Frank Vogel’s rotation, something he’ll have to manage on a nightly basis. I feel confident that Anthony and Howard will get minutes. I would expect the same for Kent Bazemore. Vogel is a defensive-minded coach, and of the perimeter scoring threats they added, Bazemore is the best on that end. If other perimeter players like Wayne Ellington, Kendrick Nunn and Talen Horton-Tucker can find a way to survive on the defensive end, the Lakers will have successfully solidified their rotation.
Youngmisuk: Fact. General manager Rob Pelinka went out and revamped this roster by adding an intriguing blend of veterans and young players with potential. Vets like Anthony, Trevor Ariza, Ellington and Bazemore should improve the perimeter shooting. And the Malik Monk and Nunn signings are steals. The downside? The Lakers might have defensive issues, which isn’t good for a Frank Vogel team. The bigger question might be: Is the Lakers’ Big Three the right fit?
Bontemps: Fiction, but not because of the moves the Lakers made. Instead, it’s the reality that Los Angeles finds itself in with a roster that is going to be more than half-filled with minimum contracts. The minimums the Lakers have landed have largely been fine. That being said, they are minimum contracts for a reason: all of them are flawed players. Getting Nunn for the tax midlevel was a nice move, too. But the defense has suffered a massive downgrade, the fit issues with Russell Westbrook and LeBron James are real, and this team currently has more players 35 and over than under 30. That’s not a recipe for success.
Goldsberry: Fiction. I don’t like the spacing in Lakerland. While James, Anthony Davis and Westbrook are all awesome, they all need to pressure the rim to truly thrive as scorers. None of them are great off-ball perimeter threats, which means the Lakers need to surround this trio with loads of shooting talent, and they just haven’t done that. Make no mistake, they have some shooting talent with Carmelo Anthony, Ariza and Ellington on board, but their inability to fill it up from 3 could be a big concern in the 2021-22 season.
Lopez: Fact. The Lakers desperately needed shooting after going with a Russ-LeBron-AD trio. And they did just that. Wayne Ellington (42.2%), Carmelo Anthony (40.9%), Kent Bazemore (40.8%), Malik Monk (40.1%) and Kendrick Nunn (38.1%) all shot above 38% from 3 last year. The depth of the additions will go a long way with the Lakers’ older core.
5. What’s one move that could still help a contender?
Youngmisuk: If Walker’s knee is healthy and checks out, the former All-Star could provide a contender with a scoring punch of 20 or more points per game. The Knicks, it appears, are ready to find out.
Bontemps: Even just a couple of days in, the free-agent marketplace is already running out of interesting options. Still, there are four interesting players still sitting there to be had: Dennis Schroder, Danny Green, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Reggie Jackson. If any of the contending teams can find a way to land one of them, it’s a win. Otherwise? We’re at the point in free agency when much of this is simply rearranging the furniture for the sake of doing so.
Goldsberry: The Bucks need to replace P.J. Tucker, and Green is just the guy to do it. Green is a champion who provides excellent corner 3-point shooting and solid perimeter defense. Tucker is a big loss for the champs, but Green could be a perfect replacement.
Lopez: Philadelphia could make that Ben Simmons trade. Depending on the return, it could shake things up in the Eastern Conference and give the Sixers the push they need to make it over the top.
Sedano: Acquiring Schroder. I know the season didn’t end great for him, but he’s still a viable Sixth Man of the Year candidate on the right team. He will likely have to alter his contract demands, but he can certainly help a contender.