The NBA world was treated to a quiet Fourth of July for what felt like the first time in a while as there was almost no movement in free agency – a welcomed change after Kevin Durant and Gordon Hayward held the holiday hostage with their decisions the past two years.
Though there aren’t any big names left to send shockwaves around the league, the free agency class still has a bunch of unsigned impact players who remain up for grabs.
Here’s a look at some of the top players that are still available.
There has surprisingly been no buzz around the Houston Rockets centre, who is an unrestricted free agent in a summer when that distinction isn’t favourable.
With so few teams actually possessing cap space, giving an offer sheet to an unrestricted free agent and tying up your cap space while the player’s team decides what to do has pretty much been avoided.
Capela would seem like the type of player worth the risk, however, after turning into one of the best centres in the league at just 24 and being a vital part of the Houston Rockets’ immense success last season.
His ability to protect the rim and guard on the perimeter makes him a defensive weapon, while his ability to finish at the rim makes him an ideal lob target and roll man.
Fortunately for Houston, it seems as if they’ll be able to retain him as money has dried up elsewhere. They’ll still have to give him a significant pay raise, but it’s looking more and more like they can do it on their own terms instead of having to match a large offer sheet by another team.
Like Capela, Smart is a restricted free agent, which bodes well for Boston’s chances of retaining their bulldog guard.
Smart is an interesting case because his value lies more in his intangibles and ability to make winning plays than in cold, hard numbers. His 3-point shooting might not ever come around – he’s hit 29.3 per cent for his career – and he’s never going to be a go-to scorer, but his defensive tenaciousness and ability as a playmaker out of the pick-and-roll make him an impactful player.
This market may not reveal his true worth though, so Smart may be better off signing his qualifying offer of $6.05 million and becoming an unrestricted free agent next summer, when the cap will rise and more teams will have money to play with.
As recently as a year ago, it seemed like Thomas was eventually going to get his wish for a team to “bring the Brinks truck out”. Instead, he’ll now have to prove himself all over again on his next contract if he ever wants to become a max player.
The Orlando Magic appear to be serious suitors and that would be a destination where Thomas could show he still has plenty left. With Orlando not dealing with any realistic playoff expectations and having a young squad, Thomas may find a similar situation to the one he was in back in Boston.
It will all depend on whether or not he’s still the same player who finished fifth in MVP voting last year, or the one who struggled this past season while continuing to deal with a hip injury.
Another unrestricted free agent on the list, the Milwaukee Bucks forward may not get the kind of lucrative deal he’s hoping for.
The 23-year-old flourished in his third year, averaging 20.1 points on 49.9 per cent shooting, but missed all but three games this past season. When he did play, especially in the playoffs, he showed promising flashes as a secondary scorer, but there’s also a perception he doesn’t impact winning as much as his numbers might suggest.
Parker could be another case of someone better off taking the qualifying offer – in his case $4.3 million – but he and Milwaukee may meet in the middle and agree to a reasonable deal for both sides.
The Lakers first added James’ longtime agitator Lance Stephenson before reaching deals with JaVale McGee, a player who carries an oafish reputation, and Rajon Rondo, a ball-dominant guard who has been known to be cantankerous.
Aside from potential chemistry issues the trio brings to the table, Stephenson and Rondo, at least, don’t seem like a fit with James on the court. Neither can shoot all that well and both require the ball to be effective, which goes against the qualities the typical role player next to LeBron has had over the years.
It was fair to wonder just how aware LeBron was of these moves before they happened and whether or not he gave his blessing to team president Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka to go forward with them.
As it turns out, James has been consulted on the signings and been kept in the loop, according to ESPN.
That still leaves the question of why LeBron is okay with the Lakers going in this direction, instead of surrounding him with more shooters as was the case in Cleveland.
Based on ESPN’s report, James has bought into Johnson’s plan to use him more off the ball as he progresses through the later stages of his career.
While he’s coming off arguably the greatest statistical season of his career in which he played all 82 games for the first time, James will turn 34 before the end of the year and has countless mileage already on his seemingly indestructible body.
By surrounding James with playmakers like Rondo and Stephenson, as well as Lonzo Ball, the Lakers are hoping to take pressure off LeBron to create every possession, which would allow him to do utilise other parts of his game like cutting – which he flashed with great success during his time in Miami – and posting up.
Though he doesn’t have the size of a traditional big, James is one of the most efficient post-up players in the league thanks to his combination of strength and skill. He ventured into post at times with the Cavaliers, especially in the playoffs to take advantage of mismatches, but the physical toll of posting up, as well as the burden of creating offence for this teammates, meant that James couldn’t back down every play.
LeBron has also spoken about his desire to play with high IQ players and Rondo certainly fits that description. He’s no longer an All-Star, but the 32-year-old remains one of the best passers in the league and raised his level of play in the postseason each of the past two years.
James has never played alongside someone like Rondo or Ball, who have similar court vision and a knack for finding the best available shot on the floor.
Stephenson isn’t on the same level, but still possesses an ability to create shots for himself and others with the ball in his hands. He won’t be a primary playmaker like James, Rondo or Ball, but as a change-of-pace option off the bench he’ll also be able to relieve LeBron for small stretches.
All of this, of course, is predicated on James having the patience to transition into a more hands-off role, which is not a given. Ever since he left the Heat, James’ teams have played exactly how he’s wanted them to as he seemingly exerted control of every aspect of the Cavaliers’ style. With how the Lakers appear to want to utilise him, he’ll have to allow others – players and coaches – to have the reins more.
That may sound fine to James right now, but it might not be so easy in the season if there are growing pains and players aren’t performing to his expectations.
Fortunately for the Lakers, the deals signed by Stephenson, Rondo and McGee are all for one year, so if this experiment fails, it won’t last long.
But with it looking more and more likely that another star won’t join in Los Angeles this summer, it could be a long year for LeBron.
Even during the summer and in the middle of free agency, when hope springs eternal for teams around the league, Golden State had to ruin the fun and remind everyone of their place atop the hierarchy. It wasn’t enough that they had two former MVPs and four All-Stars, they just had to go out and get a fifth to round out a lineup with seemingly no holes.
You can be mad at the Warriors, but you can’t blame them for improving their team. What were they supposed to do, turn down one of the best centres in the league on principle? Similarly for Cousins, you can give him the Kevin Durant treatment and call him a coward, but ultimately you can’t stop a player from signing where he wants. It’s called free agency for a reason.
So we have no choice but to accept the fact that Cousins is now a Warrior and a team that could have already been considered the best ever just got better.
How much better though? That’s where there may be a disconnect between the reaction the Cousins news drew and what the actual impact could be.
Let’s preface this by saying there is absolutely no downside for the Warriors in adding Cousins. It’s only a one-year deal – there’s almost no chance Cousins is still on the team next year due to Golden State’s cap situation, as well as his own earning potential after returning from an Achilles injury – at a low annual figure, which means even if Cousins become a locker-room problem, they can cut him at minimal cost.
The biggest question mark with Cousins revolves around his injury and whether or not he can return to being the player he was before tearing his Achilles. If he can’t, it’s not like the Warriors are leaning on him anyways.
If he can, or at least come close to having the same effectiveness, the fit on the court isn’t seamless. This isn’t a case of Golden State adding a player like Al Horford, who would amplify everything they already do well at a position that hasn’t had that type of impact for them.
Cousins is a plodding, high-usage big who commands the ball on post-ups and often lacks effort on defence. In many ways, his playing style is the antithesis of what the Warriors strive to do.
So while he’ll start, it’s unlikely Cousins will be in Golden State’s closing lineup, which should remain the Hamptons Five. That unit is what gives them their identity and what truly allows them to be an all-conquering death machine on both ends of the court.
The real benefit of Cousins will be in those second-unit lineups when he can pick on back-ups by doing what he does best. Those will be the minutes when the Warriors get their money’s worth and then some.
It makes Golden State even harder to beat, but there’s only so much better a team at their level can get. Eventually, you reach a tipping point where the collective level of talent on the floor doesn’t result in the kind of production you would get from that talent being in isolation elsewhere. It’s insane Golden State may be reaching that point, but it’s not out of the question.
Outside of Houston and Boston, no team was going to have a legitimate shot at beating the Warriors next season anyways. And you can make a case that the versatility and style the Rockets and Celtics employ could allow them to deal with Cousins better than anyone else.
The gap between the Warriors and the rest of the league has undoubtedly widened, but it’s been by inches, not feet.