NBA Free Agency Winners and Losers

kawhi_leonard_vs_charlotte_2019
Leonard turned the NBA on its head by signing with the Clippers. (Wikimedia Commons)

Chaos. Absolute chaos. That is the best way to sum up NBA free agency in 2019. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are teaming up with the Clippers. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving joined forces in Brooklyn. Anthony Davis finally landed in Los Angeles alongside LeBron James and DeMarcus Cousins. That doesn’t even include Al Horford, Jimmy Butler or Kemba Walker signing with new teams.

It was one of the craziest weeks in the history of the league. At the end of the day, the league’s power dynamic has completely shifted. The NBA officially runs through Los Angeles. It is time to assess the winner and losers from this wild free agency period.

los_angeles_clippers_logo_1984-2010Winners: Los Angeles Clippers
Wow. No one saw this coming. The Clippers were long linked to Kawhi, but no one expected him to go there alongside George. The former Thunder superstar forced his way out of OKC and now creates a superstar pairing with a ton of depth around them. Los Angeles has to be the title favorite heading into the season.

Russell WestbrookLoser: Russell Westbrook
This cannot be where Russ expected to be when free agency opened. The talks are already rumbling about a potential Westbrook trade so Oklahoma City can truly enter a rebuild. He finds himself without a co-star on a team that still couldn’t make it out of the first round of the playoffs. His days in OKC are numbered.

800px-adam_silver_281584700477129Winner: The NBA
Do you remember there ever being a more exciting free agency period in another sport? MLB is coming off a year where huge names moved, but it took so long that the fun was lost. The NBA is in a league of its own when it comes to exciting offseason drama. It is clearly dominating the headlines and will be the talk of the sports world well into the month of July, not a typical situation for basketball.

toronto_raptors-wordmarkLosers: Toronto Raptors
Leonard is gone. Danny Green is gone. That’s 40 percent of the Raptors’ championship-winning starting lineup set to play next year in Los Angeles. Toronto is far from a rebuild, still boasting Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam. The bench is deep, but this team no longer has a top-five star to lean on. The Raptors will be good, but they are no longer anywhere near the title conversation.

Nets logoWinners: Brooklyn Nets
It is easy to almost forget about the Nets given the moves the Clippers just made, but Brooklyn set itself up to be a contender from 2020 onward. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan join a team full of young talent and perimeter shooting. The Nets even made the playoffs last season without their new big three. Without Durant, they don’t have the makeup of a real contender, but when he returns, they will be firmly in the conversation.

9163126439_ba341593de_bLoser: New York Knicks
It’s hard to talk about one basketball team in New York without bringing up the other. The narrative all season was that the Knicks were poised to land a bunch of stars in the offseason. Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis were all mentioned. Instead, New York’s big free agency move was to land Julius Randle. That is barely a consolation prize by comparison to what could have been. Given the fact the Knicks also missed out on the Zion sweepstakes, fans are going to be very unhappy with how this offseason went.

1280px-los_angeles_lakers_logo.svg_Winners: Los Angeles Lakers
No, they didn’t win the Kawhi sweepstakes, but it might be a good thing for the Lakers for this year. With limited cap space, the Lakers filled out the rest of their roster, bringing back Rajon Rondo and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Then they landed the floor-stretching Danny Green and continuing reclamation project DeMarcus Cousins. Cousins showed flashes of his All-Star potential in the postseason, before he suffered another injury. There is a decent amount of injury risk with this team, but if it can stay healthy, Los Angeles is much closer to an NBA title than it was a year ago.

charlotte_hornets-wordmarkLosers: Charlotte Hornets
This continues to be one of the worst run franchises in the NBA. Kemba Walker skipped town and the Hornets overpaid to bring in Terry Rozier. He might be 25 years old, but paying him over $19 million a year seems pretty steep. This team is capped out otherwise and seems to be nowhere near the playoff conversation. Charlotte will finally have more flexibility next season, but losing Walker makes it tough to qualify this as anything other than a loss.

philadelphia76ers2Winners: Philadelphia 76ers
Lost in the shuffle of all this is the fact the Sixers reloaded for another run. Signing Tobias Harris, sending Jimmy Butler to Miami for Josh Richardson and signing Al Horford makes Philly one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. It will be interesting to see how this team lines up, Ben Simmons could play point guard, but it seems like this is the best positioned team to challenge Milwaukee in the East next year.

cleveland_cavaliers_wordmarkLosers: Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavs are undoubtedly in a rebuild and seemed poised to move high-priced veterans like Kevin Love and JR Smith. With free agency mostly over and every roster seemingly set, it is going to be more difficult to move either or both players. Cleveland had a window to reshape the roster and it feels like it missed out.

miami_heat_wordmarkWinners: Miami Heat
For whatever reason, Pat Riley never wants to go through a rebuild. Miami reloaded again by adding Jimmy Butler in a sign-and-trade deal with Philly. Suddenly, the Heat are in the mix to continue to build. Don’t expect the Riley to sit around idly either. He will be aggressive in acquiring more pieces to surround Butler and Dion Waiters.

minnesota_timberwolves_wordmarkLosers: Minnesota Timberwolves
There were a lot of rumors this was a likely destination for DeAngelo Russell. Not only did Minnesota not land him, they failed to move Andrew Wiggins’ bloated contract as well. Signing Jordan Bell was a savvy, but Minnesota went through another offseason without finding a way to build around Karl-Anthony Towns. In a loaded Western Conference, this team feels further away from the playoffs than they did a year ago.

memphis_grizzlies_wordmarkWinners: Memphis Grizzlies
Make no mistake, Memphis is nowhere near competing with the top tier teams in the West, but they are leaning into the rebuild. The Grizzlies sent Mike Conley to Utah and acquired Andre Igoudala and a first round pick from the Warriors as part of a salary dump. They will continue to be active, already adding Delon Wright to the list of veterans shipped out.

 

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NBA Cornerstones: Small Forward

Cornerstone players will be a recurring theme on Second Look Sports where I look at each position in a certain sport and I choose a cornerstone player to build my franchise around. I will have a couple of parameters for this selection though I will factor in age, potential, injury history, experience, reputation and production. I think it should be a fun and interesting topic to discuss on here. I hope that you guys agree.

The selection: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Honorable mentions: Tobias Harris, Kevin Durant, Gordon Hayward, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard

This decision was more of a consideration between youth and potential or experience and leadership. The only issue is, you really can’t argue with selecting the best player in the world. The selection came down between Kevin Durant and LeBron James, as it rightfully should. While James may be the older player at 30 as opposed to Durant at 26, James has an insane amount of big game experience. He has played 158 career playoff games to Durant’s 73. James also has two rings while Durant has still been unable to lead his team to a title. Both players are equally as durable missing minimal time and playing through injuries throughout their careers. The truth is that LeBron might be the best player in the world but right behind him is Durant. These two being at the same position makes this increasingly difficult.

For starters, both Durant and James are elite scoring threats. LeBron’s career average of 27.5 points per game is a shade higher than Durant’s 27.3. What makes James so scary though is the array of moves in his arsenal. He can take it to the bucket, he can hit the step-back jumper and he can back you down in the post. That makes him hard to defend because you are never quite sure what he is going to do next. It is hard to differentiate between the former MVP and the reigning one, but LeBron simply scores more effectively. James hits on about 50 percent of his shots, which is an absurd rate considering how many he takes per game (and it’s about 20). Durant converts 48 percent of his shots, but the extra push gives James the edge.

James also dominants in just about every aspect of the game. Over his eleven-year career, the four time MVP has averaged right around seven rebounds and seven assists per game. Looking at his full stat line, LeBron regularly puts up 27, 7 and 7. I don’t know if there is another player in the league right now who is capable of accomplishing that. Durant averages roughly seven rebounds a night but only dishes out between three and four assists. Those are still impeccable numbers but they do not add up to what James can accomplish.

Another thing that makes James so skilled is his cerebral play. I do not have any statistic to back this up but if you watch film of the Akron, Ohio native long enough, you notice his ability to get other players involved in the action. He makes sure guys get their points and promotes a team-first approach. He also has an incredible understanding of the game and acts as a coach on the court. Sometimes that can cause an issue as we have seen this season with David Blatt but in the past, under Mike Brown and later Erik Spoelstra, James has flourished and found a good mix between being the student and the teacher.
On the defensive side of the ball, LeBron has been an above average player. He consistently comes up with just short of one block and 1.7 steals per night. His defense has definitely started to slip a little over the past two seasons and it shows in his demeanor. James will certainly begin to decline in about two or three years but those few years are well worth the investment.

With all that James is capable of, he is not perfect. He is an average free throw shooter, only hitting about 75 percent of his attempts. He is also a middling 3-point shooter, with roughly 35 percent of his shot going in this season from beyond the arc. He has shot over 40 percent though in a season before, so there is reason to believe that James, who is known for adding elements to his game during the offseason, could improve his long ball still, even in the later stages of his career.

He also has managed to do a fairly good job with ball security considering his high usage rate. He has averaged 3.3 turnovers per game in his career, only slightly worse than Durant’s average of 3.2. He is not known for his ankle breaker dribbling either but he still knows how to make a couple of moves to get himself some space to shoot. His hesitation move is also one of the best in the NBA because of his explosiveness.

I get that this is a questionable decision because of his age and high number of minutes logged but sit back and think about building an NBA team. In James, you get a versatile player capable of adjusting his game play and style in a variety of ways. He is smart enough to be a coach on the court and he is athletic and strong enough to make some plays that others simply cannot. In a year or two, he will no longer be a worthy candidate for this title because he is definitely heading into his final years of contributing at a truly elite level. Until then, he will keep dominating opponents, always making his team a title contender.

For previous Cornerstones selections, click here.

Who means more: The Big Three or Kawhi?

It’s not often the reigning NBA champion Spurs make headlines for anything other than winning. Especially not for something said by Head Coach Gregg Popovich. Yet it happened. Popovich was quoted this past week talking about his young forward Kawhi Leonard and it was some high praise. According to cbssports.com, Popovich told Leonard, “To heck with those guys. The Big Three, they’re older than dirt. To hell with them. You’re the Big One. You’ve got to go do your deal.”

All this praise for the 2014 NBA Finals MVP begs an obvious question: is Pop right? Does Leonard really mean more than Manu Ginobli, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker? Popovich has been calling this kid the new face of the franchise since drafting him in 2012.

I decided to break it down a little bit. I wanted to see if there was a way I could find a way to place a value on Leonard, even if just in comparison to his teammates. So let’s take a look at everything we can find.

The basic stats won’t cut it, but they are helpful so we will start there. Leonard is second on the Spurs in points per game (14.9) this season behind Parker (16.2) and ahead of Duncan (14.0). He also ranks second in rebounding nightly (8.0) behind Duncan (10.4) and Leonard leads the team in steals per game (1.88). Leonard is also second among starters in terms of player efficiency rating with an 18.7 behind Duncan, who has a 21.4. Clearly, Leonard can pull his own weight as he is contributing across the board. He is also a solid shooter, hitting 45.6% of his shots and is third on the team in 3-point shots made, behind Danny Green and Ginobli. Looking at it this way, Leonard seems more to me as a part of a Big 4 potentially, rather than a Big One just yet. Nevertheless, we need to search a little deeper.

Some adjusted statistics tell the story a little better especially when you look at the Big 3’s and Leonard’s averages per 36 minutes of play. Leonard is scoring at the same rate as Duncan (16.7) and behind both Ginobli (18.0) and Parker (18.7). The rebounding gap between Duncan and Leonard also widens a bit with them averaging 12.3 and 9.0 respectively. Once again, this seems like Leonard is just a part of the Big 4.

The advanced statistics are fun to examine as well as they show Leonard be an important cog in the team, but not the important one. Leonard has snagged 14% of possible rebounds while he has been on the floor this season. That is a solid mark but that only ranks 4th on the team (among players of have played at least 100 minutes) Duncan is 19.3% of the rebounds when he is on the floor. He does come up with a steal on 3% of all opponents possessions, which ranks ninth in the league. Leonard additionally has the lowest usage percentage out of the Big 4 (I am just calling them that now).

Leonard is tied for the team lead of Win Shares with Green and Duncan. The third year pro also has the second highest wins over replacement value behind Green but ahead of the rest of the Big 4. The gap though is only a meager 0.2 between him and Tim Duncan (3.5 and 3.3). For a reference point, Stephen Curry leads the league this season with a value of 8.0. That is not enough to give Leonard an edge for the title of “The Big 1.”

This does not mean by any stretch that I doubt that the former San Diego State product can’t eventually become the best player on a very talented Spurs team but for now, I am sticking with Leonard being a part of the Big 4. Kawhi Leonard is a very good player, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t think he is as good as his coach wants him to think he is quite yet. Only time can tell. Let me know what you think.