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By: Justin Rivers
Along with the draft, free agency is one of most anticipated and most entertaining parts of the NBA’s off-season; however, with 2020 zapping our fun and the lack of a robust free-agent market filled with top-notch talent, this free-agency period has thus far lacked the fireworks and blockbuster moves we otherwise immediately enjoyed last summer. Nevertheless, there have yet been solid, roster-bolstering moves – especially by contending teams – that could pay dividends as soon as opening night. So, in no particular order, here are my top free-agent moves of the NBA off-season thus far.
Jayson Tatum agrees to five-year, $195 million max rookie extension with Celtics
This was a no-brainer. Jayson Tatum, the third overall pick in 2017, has been nothing short of sensational since arriving in Boston. Following Kyrie Irving’s departure to Brooklyn, Tatum blossomed into a number one option on offense. Last season, he averaged a career-high 23.4 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game en route to his first All Star nod and an All-NBA third team selection. While leading the Cs to the Eastern Conference Finals for the third time in the last four seasons, he also posted career highs in steals and blocks and shot 40.3% from 3-point range. In Boston, the rise of Tatum and Jaylen Brown made Gordon Hayward’s disappointing tenure bearable, and it made Hayward expendable. The Duke alum has undoubtedly established himself as the go-to superstar for the Celtics of the future.
Donovan Mitchell agrees to five-year, $195 million max rookie extension with Jazz
Another member of the 2017 NBA Draft class, Donovan Mitchell took the league by storm his rookie season and nearly won Rookie of the Year in the process. As the thirteenth overall pick, Mitchell was the steal of the draft. Since his rookie campaign, he has developed into Utah’s young superstar. Last season, he made his first All Star team. Moreover, he averaged a career-high 24.0 points per game and career highs in rebounds, assists, and 3-point percentage. With Utah historically not being much of a free-agent destination, it was important to lock up Mitchell for the long term. Since Mitchell has yet to make an All NBA team, only $163 million is guaranteed; however, there are clauses that permit Mitchell to reach the full $195 million threshold if he makes an All-NBA team this upcoming season. If that’s not incentive, then I don’t know what is.
De’Aaron Fox agrees to five-year, $163 million contract extension with Kings
It appears that the Kings believe that they’ve found their next franchise cornerstone in De’Aaron Fox. The manner in which they’ve inked the former fifth overall pick in 2017 to a massive new deal sans an All-Rookie, All-NBA, or All Star selection is indicative of such. Since 2017, Fox has developed into an explosive, two-way option at the point guard position. Last season, he averaged a career-high 21.1 points per game. In 2019-20, he furthermore averaged 6.8 assists, 3.8 rebounds, and 1.5 steals per game while shooting 48.0% from the field. His extension includes provisions that would permit him to reach the full $195 million max during the lifetime of the deal, too. Clearly, there are no doubts as to who the franchise player is going forward for the Kings.
Montrezl Harrell signs with Lakers on two-year, $19 million deal
It’s not often that you see this much roster turnover by a defending NBA champion looking to repeat. Unlike the typical LeBron James-led teams of the past, the Lakers’ roster is progressing rather than regressing. During his latter years in Miami and twice in Cleveland, LeBron’s supporting cast always eventually regressed to an accumulation of bare bones, outdated parts, and misfits. This time – however, that certainly isn’t the case.
After Dwight Howard’s twitter gaffe and departure to the City of Brotherly Love, the Lakers were able to bring in the reigning Sixth Man of the Year in Montrezl Harrell, an undersized big man that’s younger, more athletic, and more explosive than Howard. Last season, Harrell averaged 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game on 58% shooting from the field. He and “Lemon Pepper” Lou Williams came off the bench for the crosstown Clippers and combined to provide the type of one-two, big-small scoring punch that you’d desire in a starting lineup. Now, the Lakers have the 2020 Sixth Man of the Year runner-up, Dennis Schröder. Compared to Williams, Schröder is seven years younger, a better defender, a better playmaker, and a more efficient scorer from the field and from deep. Plus, a Schröder-Harrell duo has the potential to rival that of Harrell and Williams.
In signing Harrell, the Lakers were not only able to poach one of their crosstown rival’s top-4 scorers from 2020 making them worse, but – assuming the 6-foot-7 Harrell does not start at center for the Lakers – they also got better by improving their bench scoring and their stable of big men. When you include the fact that Montrezl Harrell’s deal includes an option after the first year, the Lakers clearly benefit from maintaining their salary cap flexibility going into the 2021 off-season that’s overflowing with top-tier talent.
All in all, the defending champs have thus far added Harrell and Schröder, as well as Wesley Matthews, a career 38.1% shooter from 3-point range, on a one-year, $3.6 million deal. All of whom are essentially expiring deals, too. Plus, the Lakers were able to bring back Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who shot 38.5% from 3-point range last season, on a three-year, $40 million deal.
The Lakers have effectively gotten younger while adding what everyone said they lacked the most last season – SHOOTING. Moreover, they maintain the ability to play fast, be athletic, be big, and throw lobs. Once you include the inevitable re-signing of Anthony Davis, the Lakers not only look scarier than a Nets team that could potentially add The Beard, but they appear poised to win their first set of back-to-back Larry O’Brien trophies since Kobe delivered a pair in ’09 and ’10.
Fred VanVleet re-ups with the Raptors on four-year, $85 million deal
On Saturday, Fred VanVleet received the largest contract in NBA history for an undrafted player, and it’s well deserved. It’s not often that a free-agent signing by a team I couldn’t care less about makes me genuinely happy, but VanVleet is the kind of feel-good, bet-on-yourself story that’d make even bitter Warriors fans happy. In fact, after news of his new contract broke, he even responded to his own tweet from 2016 that wrote “Bet on yourself” with money-bag emojis.
In 2016, VanVleet went undrafted. Then, he signed a two-year, $1.45 million deal with the Raptors. He proceeded to scrap for minutes behind a Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan backcourt while spending stints in the G-League. Once DeRozan was traded to San Antonio, he helped fill that void – especially in the playoffs. Going into the 2018-19 season, he re-signed with the Raptors on a two-year, $18 million deal. That following postseason, he was an integral part of the Raptors’ championship run in 2019. In the Finals, he shot nearly 40% from deep on over six attempts a night.
VanVleet, now an NBA champion, carried his hot play over into the 2019-20 season. With Danny Green’s departure in free agency, VanVleet became the starter in the backcourt across from Lowry. Last season, he posted career-highs across the board, averaging 17.6 points and 6.6 assists per game while averaging 39% from 3-point range and shooting nearly four free-throw attempts a night. Aside from a strong inside-outside game, he also displayed how he’s a tenacious defender despite his 6-foot-1 size. The manner in which he tied for 3rd in the league in steals per game was indicative of his defensive effort.
Re-signing VanVleet was a no-brainer for Masai Ujiri and Toronto. The organization is great at player development and players like VanVleet and Pascal Siakham are indicative of this. Also, the Great White North isn’t exactly a popping free-agent destination; as such, it’s vital for them to keep their home-grown talent. Not only is the 26-year-old Fred VanVleet set to continue progressing next season, but also, with the 34-year-old Kyle Lowry in the last year of his three-year, $90 million deal, the Raptors are perfectly positioned for VanVleet to take over as the franchise’s starting point guard upon Lowry’s inevitable departure and for the organization to make a run at a marquee free agent next off-season – maybe even Giannis.
Joe Harris re-signs with the Nets on four-year, $75 million deal
In the NBA, elite 3-point shooting is undoubtedly at a premium. Nothing illustrates this more than Joe Harris’ four-year, $75 million contract to re-up with Brooklyn. In recent days, everyone and their mother’s have been focused on James Harden’s having turned down a two-year, $103 million extension to stay in H-Town and his desire to get to the Borough of Kings to form the NBA’s latest Big 3. On the other hand, Nets’ general manager Sean Marks made it clear that his focus was on keeping Harris in Brooklyn, which he made clear just hours before free agency commenced.
The simple fact that Elton Brand of the Sixers clearly lacked last off-season, Sean Marks knew in spades; you surround your stars with 3-point shooting. And, Joe Harris is an elite, 3-point marksman. In his career, the 6-foot-6 Harris shoots 42.6% from deep, which, if he retired today, he would be 12th on the all-time 3-point field goal percentage list. Last season, he shot 42.4% from range, which placed him 20th in made 3-point field goals and 7th in 3-point shooting percentage. But, of the NBA’s top-7 3-point shooters by percentage last season, he was the only player to start in every game he played. As such, he was the only one to face the opposing team’s starters on defense every night he played.
It’s easy to see why Marks wanted to keep Harris in the fold. Next season, Joe Harris can slide into a backcourt alongside Kyrie Irving, who’s a career 39% 3-point shooter. If we project the Nets’ opening night lineup to include Irving and Harris as well as forwards Kevin Durant and Taurean Prince, then the Nets will tip off with a lineup that – excluding their center – boasts all career 36% or better 3-point shooters. With an All-NBA, dynamic duo in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, that’s the kind of lineup, with potent scorers in Caris Levert and Spencer Dinwiddie off the bench, that can easily contend for the crown in the Eastern Conference and a NBA championship as constructed – and this is without the potential future addition of James Harden.
Marcus Morris Sr. remains with Clippers on four-year, $64 million deal
The loss of Montrezl Harrell is somewhat mitigated by the retention of Marcus Morris Sr.. Pertaining to the Clippers, there is no debate that they were the most disappointing team last season – especially after their season was bookended by a blown 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference Semifinals. In February, the Clips acquired Morris Sr. from the Knicks, for whom the 6-foot-8, combo forward was averaging a career-best 19.6 points per game and shooting a career-best 43.9% from 3-point range.
When he got to Los Angeles, his production obviously dropped as he had to fit into a convoluted roster that already boasted four players averaging 18 points or more per game and that was constructed around stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. With the Clippers last season, Morris’ production and efficiency dropped as he played 19 regular-season games, averaging 10.1 points per game and shooting 31% from deep. He did add tenacity and toughness to the Clippers on defense, but it’s certainly hard to find your niche offensively when there’s no continuity on the roster. If the Clippers can bring in a playmaking point guard this off-season, then I see Morris Sr. properly being able to settle in as the Clippers third option on offense behind George and Leonard.
Serge Ibaka agree to two-year, $19 million deal to join the Clippers
After losing their best reserve big to the Lakers, the Clippers were staring at a bench of big men that consisted of Patrick Patterson, Justin Patton, Joakim Noah, and Mfiondu Kabengele. So, it’s safe to say that signing the highly coveted Serge Ibaka saved the Clippers’ off-season.
Last season, Ibaka came off the bench for Toronto and averaged a career-high 15.4 point per game. He also pulled down 8.2 rebounds per game and shot 38.5% from deep. In Los Angeles, he will reunite with Kawhi Leonard, with whom he won a title in 2019, and – frankly – he’ll provide an overall upgrade from Montrezl Harrell. The 7-foot Ibaka provides the size and defense the Clippers lacked in Harrell; however, he can also provide the scoring that the Clippers enjoyed with their now departed big man. Plus, unlike Harrell, Ibaka can actually shoot the ball.
Christian Wood agrees to three-year, $41 million deal with Rockets
For all intents and purposes, the Rockets’ off-season thus far can largely be reduced to the phrase, “Houston, we have a problem.” They parted ways with their coach; in a move essentially out of left field, their general manager resigned; they traded away their best two-way, 3-and-D player for a lesser 3-and-D player and a 2020 mid-first-round pick – neither of which they currently still possess; plus, both of their stars want to get out of dodge. But! Assuming that Houston can somehow, someway reconcile with their stars, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, the addition of Christian Wood could surely be an interesting one.
While this isn’t a small-ball centric move per se, the acquisition of Wood certainly does not signal as large of a departure from what the Rockets were attempting to do offensively as one may have initially thought. After trading away Clint Capela at the deadline to acquire Robert Covington, the 6-foot-7 RoCo, who’s naturally a small forward, became the tallest player in Houston’s starting lineup as a stretch, small-ball power forward, which pushed the already undersized, 6-foot-5 P.J. Tucker from his position as an undersized four and part-time small-ball center to a full-time, laughably small center. This extreme micro-ball, seven-seconds-or-less style was fun to watch; however, it appears that the new front office has a brain cell, and knows that, with teams like the Lakers boasting a taller, more versatile lineup, you cannot double down on this style and win a title.
Wood is a four; however, at 6-foot-10, he has the height to be moved to the five. This would permit the Rockets to go back to occasionally running Tucker at center and going small on occasion as a strategic changeup to their starting and main lineup. Here, the downside – however – is that Wood is only 214 pounds. With the Lakers starting point guard being the 6-foot-9, 250-pound LeBron James, and most NBA centers being around – at least – 240 pounds, one would think this could be a recipe for disaster. In the short term, if you throw the 245-pound Tucker at the opposing team’s best bigman, then this perceived downside can be somewhat mitigated while the 25-year-old Wood works to put on weight.
Nevertheless, Wood adds a ton of upside to the Rockets lineup. He is a tall rim-running, two-way forward with range. Last season, he averaged 13.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, and almost a block a game on 56.7% shooting from the field and 38.6% from deep. With the Pistons last season, he began the year stuck behind Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond; however, after Drummond was shipped to Cleveland, Wood emerged. In his last 14 games prior to the shutdown in March, he averaged 22.6 points and 9.8 rebounds. Given the fact that Russell Westbrook has regressed to being a mediocre shooter, the Rockets were forced to play with him as a point-center type of player. Wood’s shooting ability allows them to still utilize Westbrook as a point-center, while also giving them the lob-threat that James Harden enjoyed in Capela.
Albeit, if both Harden and Wesbrook leave, then Wood is still a nice piece for Houston to develop and try to rebuild.
Jae Crowder signs three-year, $30 million deal with Suns
It’s simple. Going into next season, the Suns have the making of a dangerous playoff team. Not only did they acquire Chris Paul via trade this off-season, but they also signed journeyman Jae Crowder. Crowder was a key cog in Miami’s run to the NBA Finals a few months ago, averaging 12 points per game and shooting 34.2% from 3-point range on nearly eight attempts a game. A Paul-Booker-Bridges-Crowder-Ayton starting five boasts both explosive scoring and grit and tenacity on defense. Phoenix can trot out a duo of 3-and-D wings at the forward spots with a defensive anchor in the middle in Ayton. If the Suns’ young duo of Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton can continue to progress, then the Suns will undoubtedly make the postseason. Moreover, I believe Devin Booker could average 30 points per game this season with Chris Paul as his backcourt running mate. Last season, Paul brought the Thunder to the postseason as the fifth-seed with a worse roster.
Tristan Thompson signs two-year, $19 million deal with Celtics
While nobody in Beantown is sad to see Gordon Hayward go to Charlotte – except maybe Brad Stevens, many were hoping for a Gordon Hayward-Myles Turner sign-and-trade with the Pacers. It’s no secret that Boston needs a center, and, now, they have one in Tristan Thompson. Albeit undersized at 6-foot-9, Thompson is a capable rebounder. Last season, the former fourth overall pick averaged 12.0 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. The Celtics’ starting center Daniel Theis only averaged 6.6 rebounds per game. Along with bringing in Jeff Teague, the Celtics addressed positions of need in free agency and were able to shed the injury-prone, overrated, and overpaid Gordon Hayward.
Rajon Rondo signs two-year, $15 million deal with Hawks
With how coveted Rajon Rondo was amongst contenders, it’s a little surprising to see him go to Atlanta of all places; however, money talks. Coming off his second NBA title, the 34-year-old Rondo wanted to get paid. He was indispensable to the Lakers and their run to the franchise’s 17th championship. In the playoffs, he averaged 8.9 points, 6.6 assists, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.4 steals per game off the bench while shooting 40% from deep. Playoff Rondo is a thing!
The Hawks are clearly trying to make the playoffs. Rondo can fill the veteran void left by the retirement of Vince Carter and can help in the development of Trae Young. On occasion, you could even put them both in the backcourt and allow Young to focus more on scoring than distributing. Along with the additions of Danilo Gallinari and Kris Dunn in free agency, their roster looks young and dangerous-enough to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference as a sixth-seed or worse.
Stay tuned to the Blitz as this article will be updated as more free-agency news comes in
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