So it’s July 1st, which means (other than it being 3 days from July 4th holiday) that it’s the official start of the NBA free agency period. Much like any NBA Blog or Web site, I will be doing my own ratings with a “Flannel, PBR and PER” spin. I will categorize the free agency signings from Day 1 into 4 “Hipster” beer choices as follows:
Miller High Life: The champagne of beers meaning that these are the best of the best signings. They make sense for the team and will have great long-term value down the road.
Pabst Blue Ribbon: These solid deals are worth a blue ribbon and overall are more positive than negative. They aren’t quite elite deals, but it’s hard to argue with the signings (i.e. like PBR, which is great, but doesn’t really touch Miller High Life).
Rolling Rock: The deals are meh. They have serious warts with them, but if you had to weigh it on a positive to negative basis, it’s probably like 55-51 percent positive. Just enough to be worthwhile, but certainly not the No. 1 or 2 choice. These deals, just like Rolling Rock, are ones that you settle for when choices 1 or 2 are off the board.
Natural Light: These deals, much like Natural Light and the Budweiser company in general, suck. We don’t know what these teams were thinking.
So now that we have the categories set let’s get started.
(Note: a lot of the linked articles come from SB Nation, since I have been primarily following Twitter and SB Nation’s Free Agency stream. Gotta love Tom Ziller and crew).
High Life Signings
- Kawhi Leonard, 5-year, $90 Million deal with the Spurs: This was probably expected. After all, Leonard in all seriousness embodies what it means to be a Spurs player. He was undervalued (ala Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker), he’s a quiet leader (ala Tim Duncan) and he holds a ton of position flexibility thanks to his offensive and defensive skill set (ala Boris Diaw). Leonard was the Finals MVP in 2014, and he improved across the board last season, posting career highs in PER (22.0), usage rate (23.0), rebounding percentage (12.9) and defensive rating (he allowed only 0.96 points per possession which was best in the league). It is obvious that Leonard is one of the most complete players in the league and is a budding star that looks prime to take the mantle as the Spurs’ franchise player when Duncan finally retires. Furthermore, the deal is mostly back-loaded, with his contract only counting $7.2 million against the cap this year (he will supposedly earn up to $16.5 million in the final year of his deal), which gives the Spurs flexibility to sign other guys both currently on the roster (they have already signed Danny Green) as well as other potential Free Agents (LeMarcus Aldridge is apparently a target). Both financially and for the future competitiveness of this team, this deal fires on all cylinders and should be seen as the toast of the early free agency period.
- Anthony Davis, 5-year, $145 Million extension with the Pelicans: This is a deal that just makes sense and he’s worth every penny. Davis led the league in PER at 30.8 and he is only in his 3rd year. His 3rd year people! He is a two-time All-Star, was a dark horse MVP candidate last year, and will be a more serious MVP candidate this year because he’ll have a better head coach in Alvin Gentry. Gentry will bring an offensive system that will make it not only easier on the Pelicans in general, but Davis, and that is scary. $145 Million over 5 years seems like a steal when you think about what impact Davis will have in the next half-decade, and by then, he will still only be 26 at the end of his deal.
- Danny Green, 4-year, $45 Million deal with the Spurs: Green pretty much is what he is: a sharpshooter in the Kyle Korver mold that fits well with the Spurs “Pace and Space” system (62 percent of his shots last season were 3-point attempts, and he’s been over 60 percent the past 3 seasons with the Spurs). But, at an average of about $12-13 million per year, and considering the hot market for players of such caliber after the success of the Golden State Warriors last year, Green really comes as a value. Khris Middleton, a similar kind of player for the Bucks, earned another year and $25 million more total than Green. Again, I know the Spurs had bargaining power because Green has not had success beyond San Antonio, but he’s still a valuable fit that keeps the Spurs’ future bright when the sun finally sets on the Duncan-Ginobili-Parker trio.
- Paul Millsap, 3 years, $58 million with the Hawks: Millsap has always been vastly underrated over his career. But, he’s finally getting some love in Atlanta and rightfully so. He’s a two-time All-Star, he is coming off a season where he put up a 20.0 PER and a 56.5 true shooting percentage, and he accumulated a career high 8.3 win shares. He has thrived under Mike Budenholzer in all aspects of his game, as he has improved defensively in Budenholzer’s sytem, and he has been more prone to shoot the 3-ball, as his 3 point attempt rate has been 20.2 and 23.2 percent the last two years with the Hawks (his career 3 pt attempt rate in Utah was 2.2 percent). And, with a 35.7 3-pt percentage in Atlanta, Millsap has made the more attempts worthwhile. He is really a versatile weapon that can hurt teams in a variety of ways, and his contract is cheaper than Brook Lopez, even though Millsap is infinitely a more flexible and versatile player than Lopez, especially these past couple of years. The Hawks know the Cavs will be the team to beat, but like last season (when they snagged the East’s top seed), they are looking to make it a dog fight for the top spot. Millsap will be the prime reason they do so, as long as he is healthy.
Pabst Blue Ribbon Signings
- DeMarre Carroll, 4-year $60 million with the Raptors: I don’t make this a High Life signing because it is really risky. Carroll has always been a defensive force, but he was always a one-trick pony prior to his arrival in Atlanta. But once he played in Mike Budenholzer’s system, his offensive game improved, as his true shooting improved to 57.5 and 60.3 percent in his two seasons with the Hawks. Consequently, he averaged double figures PPG also (11.1 and 12.6, his first and second year respectively) and combined for 7.4 offensive win shares, over triple what he generated in Utah (2.3), where he played two seasons and was most effective prior to coming to Atlanta. And thus, I worry about his offense going south, because while I like Dwane Casey, I do not think he’s as talented or creative a coach as Budenholzer, and the Raptors are filled with high-usage guys who need the ball (Kyle Lowry, DeMar Derozan, etc.). But, the Raptors were woeful defensively last year, ranking 25th in the league in defensive rating. Carroll’s energetic and versatile defensive play will improve that. Furthermore, Carroll also provides good insurance for the Raptors should Terrence Ross not work out, who is coming off a woeful season where he ranked 10th on the team in Win Shares (2.4). Carroll will bring either defensive punch to the starting lineup or be a force off the bench and take the pressure off of Ross, who needs to rebound after a bad year. I think it was a lot of money for a guy who still has a lot to prove, especially offensively, but I liked the idea of Toronto improving themselves immediately on the wing and defensively with Carroll.
- Goran Dragic, 5-year, $90-million with the Heat: What I like about this deal? Dragic is one of the more under-appreciated point guards in the league. Two seasons ago he had a PER of 21.4 and when he moved to Miami, his PER was 18.8 (up from 16.7 in Phoenix, which demonstrated the dysfunction with the three point guards had an effect on his performances). Dragic is an effective playmaker (career 28 percent assist rate) with a great ability to get to the rim (41.4 percent of his shots came from 0-3 ft). And lastly, Pat Riley once again used his psychological skills to the Heat’s advantage, as Dragic was eligible to make up to $110 million on the open market, and he settled for $20 million less to stay in Miami. What I don’t like? Dragic really didn’t help the Heat all that much when he arrived (they actually fell out of playoff contention in his time there, though a certain share of that has to be attributed to Chris Bosh missing most of the time when Dragic arrived due to a blood clot in his lungs) and Dragic’s deal only looks great if Wade comes back. If he doesn’t, the deal probably goes to Rolling Rock status. (Though it seems as if Wade is likely to re-sign with Miami).
- Brook Lopez, 3-year $60 Million with the Nets: I know Lopez isn’t the dominant post he was a few years ago. But Lopez had a bounce back last year after missing most of the 2013-2014 season due to injury. He played 72 games and posted a career best rebounding rate (14.3 percent) and his PER was once again solid at 22.7. Furthermore, with Mason Plumlee now gone (in a trade to Portland), Lopez will be the center of the Nets’ offense in the post, which is likely since Lionel Hollins is the kind of coach who earned his chops getting the ball to Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol in the post in Memphis. What I like the most about this deal? The fact that it is only 3 years. Lopez is certainly a lot more valuable in my mind than Tyson Chandler, and Chandler got a 4-year deal from Phoenix. If Lopez can continue to come back from his All-Star form from three seasons ago, this deal could be a lot more valuable than the experts think.
- Khris Middleton, 5-year, $70 million with the Bucks: I like the Green signing more, but don’t get me wrong: I love Middleton and think he’s going to form a great young combo with Giannis, MCW and Jabari in the years to come. Middleton posted career bests last season in win shares (6.7), PER (15.6), PP36 (16.0) and true shooting percentage (56.3 percent). Also, Khris was widely known for his play in the clutch (with buzzer beaters being a common occurrence) and his impact in helping the young Milwaukee Bucks make the playoffs and give the Bulls an entertaining six-game series. Middleton was a second-round pick whom the Bucks received along with Brandon Knight in the Brandon Jennings a couple of years back, and has been a pleasant surprise for a guy who was imagined as contract fodder in the deal.
- Paul Pierce, 3-year, $10.5 million with the Clippers: No question Pierce is over the hill. He’s going to be 38 years old next season and his All-Star days are behind him. But Pierce put up a surprisingly effective campaign as support to John Wall and Bradley Beal last year. His 16.3 PER was his best mark since 2010-2011. He also developed into a 3-point specialist, with 46.2 percent of his shots being 3-point attempts (he shot 38.7 percent on threes). Pierce is not the same kind of game-changing superstar he once was in Boston, and Washington knew that and put him in a role that helped him mentor the younger stars and incorporated a system that allowed him to succeed individually despite his limitations (something Brooklyn didn’t do two years ago; they wanted him and Garnett to be 2008-2010 Pierce and Garnett and it failed miserably). I can see Los Angeles doing the same. Doc Rivers knows Pierce, and Pierce will bring instant leadership and production in a more limited role. He is Matt Barnes but with more consistency and less headaches (though he won’t match Barnes’ athleticism). What keeps this from being a High Life pick though? I just don’t know how he’ll mesh with the Clippers more temper mental talent. If things don’t go well initially with Pierce’s arrival, I could see him clashing with the younger stars, especially DeAndre Jordan (if he’s back) and Blake Griffin (I think Chris Paul is temperamental as well but Paul’s a bit more of a vet that will have instant respect for Pierce). I know Doc is all about team chemistry, but he hasn’t reached the kind of “ubuntu” in LA that he had in Boston. Will Pierce be the difference or will he fall into the anti-“ubuntu” that has kept the Clippers from going further in the playoffs?
Rolling Rock signings
- Kevin Love, 5-year, $110 million with the Cavs and Tristian Thompson, 5-year, $80 million with the Cavs: I am glad for Cleveland and LeBron’s sake that Love re-signed with Cleveland. It would have been devastating for him to leave in free agency considering not only did they not even get a healthy playoff season with him and they lost out on the reigning rookie of the year (Andrew Wiggins) in the process (seriously…imagine LeBron and Wiggins running the floor…I think LeBron would have won the Finals with Wiggins if the Love trade never happened). However, I just don’t know if Love fits in this team. He really emerged as more of a spot-up corner 3 player on this Cavs team (his corner 3 percentage was 32.1 percent; his previous high in this category was 13.2 percent his sophomore season), and there are guys who can come a lot more affordable than Love. And furthermore, this leads to Thompson, who earned an $80 million extension. With Love, Thompson and Mozgov, one post is going to be the odd-man out. And while Love is the more established player, it was obvious that the combo of Mozgov and Thompson was very effective in the playoffs for Cleveland, probably more so than with Love supposedly because Thompson and Mozgove are both upgrades defensively over Love. In fact, if I was Cleveland, I would have simply gone forward with Mozgov and Thompson, even if it meant the Wiggins trade was all for naught. I think the former Longhorn and the big Russian just have more long-term upside than Love, who I am not sure is the dominant post presence that he was in Minnesota (though he certainly has diversified his game). If they re-signed just one, I would credit that to them committing to a certain style of play (either more wide open with Love or more post-oriented with Thompson). But both? It just smells like a recipe for disaster in year 2 of the James era 2.0.
- Brandon Knight, 5-year, $70 million and Tyson Chandler, 4-year, $52 million with the Suns: Phoenix confuses me. Last year, they signed Isaiah Thomas to a multiple year deal though they already had three point guards on the roster (Dragic, Bledsoe and Tyler Ennis, their first round pick). Then they traded Dragic for Brandon Knight, and much like the deal for the Heat, it really didn’t help their playoff chances. Knight just seemed like a better fit in Milwaukee and he doesn’t have the ballhandling or playmaking ability that complements Eric Bledsoe like Dragic did. In his 11 games, Knight stopped going to the rim (29.1 percent of his shots came from 0-3 in Milwaukee; that fell to 15.4 in Phoenix) and settled to being an outside shooter (46.9 3-point attempt rate), which is fine if that’s from your wing specialist, but not a guy who’s allegedly taking over for Dragic at the point. Maybe Phoenix likes this version of Knight. Maybe they see Bledsoe taking over more point opportunities. But $70 million seems a lot for a guy who didn’t perform well and is suspect when it comes to the running the point. As for Chandler? Can he fit into Coach Hornacek’s run and gun system? I watched Phoenix live against Sacramento and they can push the pace. It was common to see one of the Morris twins play small-ball center. Can Chandler handle it? I know, he’s there for defense and maybe leadership, but I have trouble seeing Chandler as a fit with this squad and their style of play. And four years? Maybe Phoenix is just holding him as a trade asset to eventually trade back to Dallas in a year or two?
- Jimmy Butler, 5-year, $95 million with the Bulls: On paper, it really is a pretty solid deal. Butler is coming off his best season yet in his career, posting a PER of 21.3 and a true shooting percentage of 58.3 percent while accumulating 11.2 win shares last season. Butler is an athletic guard who really assumed the mantle as one of the go-to perimeter scorers for the Bulls as Derrick Rose struggled through injury. The fact that they got him for only 5 million more than Dragic and Kawhi Leonard seems like a good deal, especially when you consider how much he meant to the Bulls last year. However, Butler’s breakout seemed random (never posted a PER above the 15 range in his 3 previous seasons), and he seemed to rely heavily on the mid-range last year, shooting 12.1 percent of his shots from 10-16 ft and 21.2 percent of his shots from 16 to the 3 point line. This was a big increase from two years ago where he shot only 8.5 percent and 19.8 percent of his shots from those spots respectively. And likewise, his 3-point shooting percentage went down from 34.6 percent in 2013-2014 to 21.2 percent last year. People may argue that his true shooting went up when he started embracing the mid-range more (his true shooting was 52.2 percent in 2013-2014), but it wasn’t as if his efficiency improved in those shots much better than his 3-point shots. He went up 2 percent in 10-16 range and 1.5 percent in 16 to 3 point shots while his 3-pt percentage improved 9.5 percent. This will be interesting to see how this shot selection will mesh with Fred Hoiberg, who tends to embrace a lot of modern-day NBA principles (i.e. 3 and Key). Butler may be worth the $95 million and I think Butler will fit with the up-tempo style of Hoiberg, but I am a little skeptical to see Butler put together two All-Star campaigns in a row.
Natty Light Signings
- Brandan Wright, 3-year, $18 million with Grizzlies: This is a weird one because I actually like Brandan Wright and think he is a very good, underrated player in the right situation. Plus, the contract is very friendly, being only about $6 million per year on average. But, I don’t see Wright fitting in on this team. He obviously will come off the bench with Z-Bo and Gasol manning the four, five posts, respectively, but I am not sure how effective he will be in Dave Joerger’s offense. I think this probably also means the end of Kosta Koufos, who I think was a very underrated cog for the Grizzlies and fit their needs better (which was defense from the posts). Maybe they will keep Koufos of course, with Jon Leur now a Phoenix Sun, but if Wright is the primary bench option off the bench for Memphis, I think that isn’t a good sign, because I don’t know if he can play the style (i.e. Grit and Grind) that is demanded of a post player in Memphis.
- Thaddeus Young, 4-year, $50 million with the Nets: Thaddeus Young is the king of tweener player that in my mind seems enticing on paper, but ends up being disappointing. He is like a Natty Light bottle. It looks cool. The design is somewhat cool. You pop it open though, take it in and…just disappointment. Young cannot shoot from beyond the arc, as he is a career 32.3 percent 3-pt shooter, and has only taken 14.9 percent of his shots from beyond the arc in his career. And thus, that has kind of limited him in the small and power forward positions, as he is not really big enough to establish himself down low there, and he is not skilled enough to keep defenders honest. Young is pretty much a poor man’s Andre Iguodala, ironic considering they both played for the Sixers to start their careers. I could see Young find a renaissance as a small-ball center, but unfortunately, Lionel Hollins is not the kind of coach to employ that kind of strategy, and the presence of Brook Lopez further hinders it from reality as well. I think Young could have fit in a lot of places in a different kind of role. Unfortunately, that won’t be in Brooklyn, and that’s what makes this deal seems unappealing (like Natty Light).
- Al-Farouq Aminu, 4-year, $30 million with the Blazers: I don’t get Aminu love by any means. This is a guy who is a poor man’s Thaddeus Young, which is sad because Young is a poor man’s Iguodala (I could continue the cycle here, but I won’t for space sake). Aminu’s career true shooting percentage is 50.5 percent. His career PER average is 12.4. He flamed out of New Orleans even though the organization spent a lottery pick on him, and while he did bounce back in Dallas in a reserve role, he only averaged 18.5 minutes. To spend about an average of $7.5 million per year over FOUR YEARS just seems like way, way too much. I know Portland likes their versatile big guys who can play multiple positions. I am sure that the Blazers wanted to replace former Swiss Army knife Nic Batum in some kind of way. And yes, Aminu can play multiple positions, as he logged in time, according to basketball reference at every position but point. But unlike Batum, Aminu can’t really play any position well, which is the reason why he is not a starting caliber player in the NBA anymore and barely serviceable as a bench player.
- Iman Shumpert, 4-year, $40 million with the Cavaliers: The Cavs want to keep the band together. And that is understandable as the Cavs were two games away from bringing that elusive title to Cleveland. Signing Love to a massive contract is understandable. He is an All-Star, a big name, and you traded a possible future superstar (Wiggins) for him, so you have to keep face and hope that Love pans out. Thompson was a Cavs draft pick and had a good playoff run, especially in the Finals. You can’t blame them wanting to reward Thompson for the good work (not to mention beat the rush before another team offered him a contract; Thompson was a restricted free agent). But Shumpert? $10 million on average per year for a guy who only scored .98 points per 100 possessions last season? I am all for team chemistry and do believe that Shumpert provides a lot of defensive value to the Cavs (he has accumulated 6.5 defensive win shares in his four-year career). But $10 million per year just sounds like a lot to pay for it. It’ll be interesting to see if Shumpert can find a more refined offensive role in his first full season in Cleveland to help justify this signing.
I will probably create another post in the next day or so to discuss some other signings and extensions, but this is the list so far. It’s only July, but the 2015-2016 NBA season couldn’t start soon enough.