As the entire NBA universe waits for a much-anticipated Kevin Durant trade that may never come, it’s time to take stock of the flurry of activity that defined the past two weeks of the offseason. We’ve seen enough to pick our free agency winners, as well as teams that left us with more questions than answers.
This exercise will focus on projecting team performance next season (with one notable exception). These teams may not win more games in the regular season but have improved their chances in the postseason.
All contract terms are taken from Spotrac.
NBA Free Agency Winners
Undrafted and Unhearalded Players Getting Paid in Free Agency
The most heartening development in NBA free agency was the number of lowly-regarded players who earned life-changing money. The Oklahoma City Thunder rewarded the undrafted Luguentz Dort with a five-year, $82.5 million deal (year five is a team option). Gary Payton II and Amir Coffey are other undrafted players who signed new contracts this offseason. Newly-crowned NBA champion Payton returns to Oregon on a three-year deal worth over $26 million after playing college ball at Oregon State. Payton received a player option in the third year. Coffey parlayed his “cup of coffee” (sorry) with the LA Clippers into a three-year agreement worth $11 million.
Even veteran P.J. Tucker just signed the single largest contract of his career, a contract worth over $33 million over three years. The 37-year-old Tucker can also opt out of the final year of his deal in hopes of negotiating a larger contract. That’s tremendous for a 2006 second-round pick who spent five years playing internationally before seizing a role in the NBA. These are the clear free agency winners from a player’s perspective.
These are the biggest free agency winners in the NBA from a team perspective. No team did more to improve their chances of postseason success than the Sixers. They’re coming off two straight second-round exits, and they were significant favorites over Atlanta in 2021 before being upset by the Hawks (and Ben Simmons’ disinterest in layups). Joel Embiid’s injuries have contributed to their defeats, but GM Daryl Morey sorely needed to upgrade the roster around the perennial MVP candidate.
Morey earned his place on this list of winners, aided by James Harden’s assumed pay cut. Tucker slots in as a perfect frontcourt partner for Embiid. He shot 41.3% on his corner threes last season and can guard high-scoring forwards and the occasional center. Tucker’s boxouts will help a team that was mediocre at grabbing defensive rebounds, and we know Embiid appreciates his toughness.
Danuel House Jr. is a lesser version of Tucker who can hit an open three and hold up defensively in tough matchups, and he provides essential depth. De’Anthony Melton was acquired for the no. 23 pick (which became David Roddy) and the injured Danny Green. We went in-depth on the trade here, and Melton’s turnover creation makes him an intriguing potential partner to Tyrese Maxey. Those two could lead the transition attack for the Sixers, which played at the sixth-slowest pace last season.
The Nuggets had a lost season thanks to injuries to Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. Serbian wizard Nikola Jokić won his second consecutive MVP award, but the short-handed Nuggets bowed out in the first round to the Golden State Warriors. New GM Calvin Booth had a fruitful NBA free agency period and bolstered the roster around those three scorers.
Bruce Brown joins the team after spending the last two seasons screening and rolling for whichever superstars were available in Brooklyn. Brown is a solid defender who credibly defends larger wings despite his 6’4” height. Jokić’s offensive genius can help cover for Brown’s unreliable shooting; he shot 40.4% from three last season but just 28.8% in 2020-21. The thought of Brown or the returning Aaron Gordon screening for Jokić with shooters around them is enough to make basketball nerds pass out from excitement.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will be one of those shooters after coming in a trade from Washington. He shot 39% from deep last season and should get even easier looks in Denver. Caldwell-Pope projects as the primary defender against scoring guards. His ability to fight through screens will be crucial with Jokić’s inability to consistently defend the three-point line. Denver must agree, as they just signed Caldwell-Pope to a contract extension. They’ll hope both new defenders can stick to shooters better and reduce the number of threes their opponents take. Denver was just average in terms of the number of attempted threes allowed, the number of threes opponents made, and overall defensive rating.
Denver’s depth will be tested without Monte Morris available to step in for Murray as he recovers from his torn ACL. The decision to sign DeAndre Jordan instead of re-signing DeMarcus Cousins was puzzling as well. Still, Denver has greatly improved their defensive potential.
The Boston Celtics have shown a willingness to join their Finals opponents, the Golden State Warriors, in the luxury tax. The trade for Malcolm Brogdon essentially guarantees the Celtics will be making prohibitive luxury tax payments next season, and likely future seasons as well.
Luckily for the leprechauns, the moves they made will greatly improve their chances of making a second consecutive trip to the Finals. Brogdon should help the turnover issues Boston had in the playoffs. The Sixers were the only team to commit more giveaways in the playoffs while advancing past the first round. Last season Brogdon committed 2.3 turnovers per 36 minutes, less than Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, or Marcus Smart. When he’s not steadying the Celtics by handling the ball, he’ll improve the spacing for Boston’s cramped offense. He shot 42.6% from three for the Bucks in 2018-19 when set up by Giannis Antetokounmpo. He should improve on his 31.2% clip from last year with increased catch-and-shoot opportunities and better health.
The Celtics’ improved depth will help them manage everyone’s minutes during the regular season as they prepare for a deep playoff run. Boston also signed Danilo Gallinari, who is aging but should provide scoring off the bench in the regular season. The only rotation player they lost was Daniel Theis. This is a clear win for everyone except team owner Wyc Grousbeck’s wallet.