The first few hours of NBA free agency were unsurprisingly action-packed as several players, including some top-tier stars, agreed to deals to take themselves off the market.
Paul George returning to the Oklahoma City Thunder on a four-year deal was the biggest story of the first day, but there were enough fireworks to go around, even if LeBron James held off on his decision.
Here’s a round-up of some of the key free agents who committed on day one.
After LeBron, Durant was the best player on the market, but he predictably and promptly re-signed with the Golden State Warriors to remove any doubt of him potentially leaving the defending champions. Durant agreed to a two-year, $61.5 million deal that allows him to enter free agency again next year, so he essentially chose flexibility over a long-term contract that would have paid him a starting salary of $35.7 million. The savings will greatly reduce Golden State’s luxury tax bill.
After coming within a win of the NBA Finals this past season, the Houston Rockets had no choice but to bring back Paul for another run. The sides settled on a four-year, $160 million max deal which allows the Rockets to keep hold of their star without surrendering a fifth year when Paul would be 37, while the point guard gets one last pay day. With Paul’s age, it seems almost certain that he won’t be worth what he’ll be paid near the back end of the contract, but it’s a concession the Rockets had to make.
The Dallas Mavericks finally got the centre after he slipped out of their grasp in 2015, with Jordan agreeing to a one-year deal worht close to the $24.1 million player option he declined with the Los Angeles Clippers, according to ESPN. Jordan will hit free agency next summer when more teams are expected to have cap space, while Dallas get a big man who is one of the best finishers at the rim and rebounders in the league. The Mavericks want to get back to winning games and this move certainly helps with that.
🤠— DeAndre Jordan (@DeAndre) July 1, 2018
The Denver Nuggets decided to decline Jokic’s $1.5 million team option this summer to instead lock him up to a long-term deal, and that’s
exactly what happened as the sides agreed to a five-year, $148 max contract. While Denver get the security of locking down Jokic for the foreseeable future, they’ll now have to get creative if they want to stay out of the luxury tax, or at least not pay as much as they’re currently slated to. Still, it’s worth it to keep hold of Jokic, who is a franchise cornerstone and still just 23.
Ariza wasn’t one of the top players available, but his decision to take a one-year, $15 million deal with the Phoenix Suns could spell doom for the Houston Rockets and make it easier for the Warriors to get back to the Finals. His ability to play either forward spot as a 3-and-D player was vital to Houston’s success and versatility against the Warriors. Now, Ariza will try to help elevate the young Suns, who should be much improved and have an outside shot at competing for a playoff spot.
Trevor Ariza wasn't taking another discount deal. He has always been a guy who just wants to be respected & appreciated. Houston lost a significant piece. Rugged defender. Locker room leader. It'll be interesting to see how the Rockets replace him.— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) July 1, 2018
One year ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder bet on their culture to win over a star who had longing eyes for another franchise. Just minutes into free agency this summer, that gamble paid off in a major way as Paul George rewarded their faith by staying put.
Despite having every opportunity to head home and sign with the Los Angeles Lakers – the team George had previously made known was his preference – the All-Star forward committed to the Thunder with a four-year, $137 million contract on Sunday.
The deal includes a player option on the fourth year, which means Oklahoma City will have George under contract for at least the next three seasons – a major win for a franchise that shipped Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indiana last year without knowing if they could retain their incoming star for more than a single season.
It seemed like a forgone conclusion that George, a Southern California native, would jump ship to the Lakers this offseason, especially after the Thunder had a relatively disappointing campaign and failed to get out of the first round of the playoffs. His desire to don the purple and gold was why the Pacers traded him away in the first place and why Oklahoma City took such a huge risk in acquiring him.
Yet even with the possibility of joining the Lakers alongside LeBron James and forming the core of a new superteam on the table, George apparently doesn’t believe the grass is greener on the West Coast.
George didn’t just do the Thunder a solid by signing on for another year to run it back, he legitimately surrendered personal flexibility to ensure a long-term commitment. He could have just as well inked a one-plus-one deal with a player option on the second year that would have allowed him to hit free agency again next summer and reassess his options. And if George was adamant on securing a multi-year deal for the sake of security, he could have done a two-plus-one contract to hit free agency in 2020, when he will have 10 years of service and qualify for a max deal that would pay him a starting salary of over $36 million.
Instead, the Thunder can now plan on having a core of George, Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams for the next three years, and building around that in the hopes of contending for a title.
It’s an ideal outcome for Oklahoma City considering the alternative they were staring at last summer when, of those three, only Adams was under contract past 2017-18. But, as it stands right now, the way they’ve built their roster is about to cost them an exorbitant amount of money.
The Thunder currently have a payroll of $156 million for next season and because they will be victims of the repeater tax penalty, that means they’ll have to foot a tax bill of $130 million, the largest in NBA history, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks.
It would be one thing to pay that much for a title contender, but Oklahoma City couldn’t get out of the first round with the same group this past season. Andre Roberson’s season-ending injury proved to be a crippling blow, but even with the Thunder at full strength going forward, it’s fair to wonder how much of a challenge they’ll pose to the Golden State Warriors, if they can even get through the rest of the loaded Western Conference.
Using the stretch provision on Carmelo Anthony – who picked up his 2018-19 option for $27.9 million – and spreading out his cap hit over the next three years would massively relieve the tax burden on Oklahoma City for the coming season, but it would worsen their financial situation in the two seasons after that.
Stretching Carmelo would produce a $9.3M dead-money cap hit for 3 seasons. That'd be painful. Including it would take the Thunder to $135M to just 7 players in 2019-20, and $128M to just 5 players in 2020-21. The luxury tax lines are projected at $132M and $141M, respectively.— Albert Nahmad (@AlbertNahmad) July 1, 2018
The Thunder could choose to just bite the bullet for the coming season, but that would be uncharacteristic for a franchise that traded away James Harden in 2012 to seemingly avoid the luxury tax.
Even after signing George, general manager Sam Presti has his work cut out, but there’s no doubting the victory Oklahoma City have secured in keeping their core together.
With as much movement that now exists among players in the NBA, the summer has become a sort of second season, providing seemingly endless entertainment and intrigue.
This offseason has already been a compelling one, but it’s about to reach a new level with free agency getting under way at midnight on Saturday (EST, 08:00 UAE time). That means we could quickly learn where LeBron James will play next season, as well as the fate of others on the open market.
Of course, for many of the big names, free agency will mostly be a formality as they promptly re-sign with their current teams. That will likely apply to Kevin Durant, who is expected to stay with the Golden State Warriors, as well Chris Paul and Clint Capela, who were essential to the Houston Rockets coming within one win of the NBA Finals.
With that said, here’s a look at the biggest free agents whose immediate future isn’t so predictable.
All eyes will be on the best player in the world as he makes his decision on where to take his talents – or where to keep them.
The chances of James leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers again, most likely for the Los Angeles Lakers, appear to be somewhere around 50-50. While he’s reached the Finals four straight years since returning to Cleveland, they’ve been beaten three times by Golden State and look to have plateaued.
The Lakers, at least as of now, aren’t exactly a ready-made contender, but the prospect of bringing in another star or two to form a new superteam makes them a legitimate threat to lure James away.
Similarly, George may want to see what James decides before making his pick between the Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder.
The star forward seemed destined for Los Angeles last year when it was reported the Lakers were his preference, but after a year with the Thunder, George apparently is seriously considering giving it another go with Russell Westbrook and Co.
George grew up just outside of Los Angeles, but Oklahoma City are banking a year with their franchise has changed his mind.
Either way, he may be a major domino for LeBron, and vice versa.
Almost any other year, the supremely talented Cousins would be the most interesting name on the market, but with LeBron and the Lakers grabbing all the headlines, the big man is somewhat going under the radar.
Part of that is the fact Cousins is coming off an Achilles tear, so it’s unclear if he’ll be back to his dominant self right away, or ever again. Plus, the New Orleans Pelicans were arguably better after he was sidelined, so it’s possible his gaudy numbers don’t translate to winning contributions.
Still, the Pelicans will likely do whatever they can to keep hold of him, if for no other reason than to at least show Anthony Davis they’re willing to spend to be competitive.
If Cousins doesn’t get offered a max contract though, he may take a short-term deal to prove he can return to an All-Star level.
After opting out of the final year of his contract with the Los Angeles Clippers, it seems all but certain the centre will be plying his trade elsewhere next season.
And the worst-kept secret in the league may be the mutual infatuation between Jordan and the Dallas Mavericks, who secured a verbal agreement from him in the summer of 2015, only for the big man to renege and stay with the Clippers.
Playing the market
Cap space is in short supply among teams this summer, which could affect the length and worth of several contracts for non-stars.
Role players who are entering free agency hoping for a nice payday are likely to be disappointed as teams try to keep their powder dry for next summer’s class.
That said, there are still a bunch of young, promising restricted free agents who could draw big offer sheets, such as Aaron Gordon and Jabari Parker. But teams may be less inclined to take risks this summer in the current cap climate.