The Winners and Losers of 2021 Free Agency (So Far)
Little kids have Christmas. Foodies have Thanksgiving. Filipinos have the “-ber” months (IYKYK). But what do NBA fans have as the “most wonderful time of the year”? The offseason, and more specifically, free agency.
In the NBA, summertime is when you can expect the unexpected. Huge trades can happen at the drop of a hat and signings can shake the landscape of the league.
Despite starting later in the year (a ripple effect due to the pandemic), 2021 free agency has brought with it the same excitement as seen in years past: a flurry of blockbuster trades, players getting pay raises, and new “Big 3s” being formed. Some teams have made major upgrades to their rosters, while others smoothed out the rough edges. Without further adieu, here are three of the biggest winners and losers from free agency after the first week.
The Heat went out and used their cap space wisely. They finally landed Raptors guard Kyle Lowry in a sign-and-trade, signed Jimmy Butler to a four-year, $184 million extension, and re-signed Duncan Robinson to a five-year, $90 million contract. They also brought on P.J. Tucker with a two-year deal and re-signed guard Gabe Vincent, forward Max Strus, and center Dewayne Dedmon.
Although some may be stunned by Robinson’s hefty payday and Butler making $50 million when he’s 36, the moves Miami made will continue to make them competitive in a strong Eastern Conference. Now, the new “Big 3” of Lowry, Butler, and Bam Adebayo will look to lead the Heat towards their second Finals appearance in three years.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers began their offseason with a bang, trading for Russell Westbrook and bringing the Leuzinger High School and UCLA alum back to his hometown. They started their free agency with a family reunion, bringing in former Lakers Trevor Ariza (first stint was 2007–09), Wayne Ellington (2014–15), Kent Bazemore (2013–14), and Dwight Howard (2012–13, 2019–20) on veteran-minimum deals*. The purple and gold also signed Carmelo Anthony and Malik Monk to one-year minimum deals, and Kendrick Nunn to a two-year, $10M contract. At the moment, they have three available roster spots, presumably to be filled with returners Wes Mathews and Jared Dudley as Dennis Schröder searches elsewhere for his $100M payday.
*Howard will be the third player in NBA history to have three stints with one team (the other two were Michael Beasley with the Heat and Steve Blake with the Blazers).
Overall, the Lakers have addressed their offensive needs, adding a bunch of solid shooters and a rim-running big man next to Russ, LeBron, and AD. They may have sacrificed a bit of their defense, but that shouldn’t affect a system that has finished top-3 in Defensive Ratings for the last two seasons. They may not have settled the debate over whether they are a superteam or a “retirement home”, but the LakeShow will look to prove the doubters wrong once the season gets rolling. Just look at what LeBron tweeted (and then deleted).
As it stands now, the Bulls have emerged the biggest winners of free agency, going from a lottery-laden franchise to a legitimate playoff contender in the span of 48 hours. The first domino to fall was landing Lonzo Ball in a sign-and-trade, in which they sent Tomas Satoransky, Garrett Temple, and a second-round pick to New Orleans. They then doubled down on former Laker guards, signing fan-favorite and absolute stud Alex Caruso to a four-year, $37M deal.
General Manager Marc Eversley was not done yet, however, acquiring Spurs star DeMar DeRozan in a sign-and-trade and giving San Antonio Thaddeus Young and draft compensation. They then cooled off on their hot streak of moves, signing and dealing Daniel Theis to the Rockets and receiving an $8M trade exception in return. Most recently, they have upgraded their bench with backup center Tony Bradley, signing the 23-year-old to a one-year contract.
With these improvements and a “win-now” attitude, the Bulls have shown their fans and the rest of the NBA that they will not continue to be a meek and lowly franchise. The core of Zo, LaVine, DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic will raise the Bulls to prominence soon.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans have had an underwhelming offseason to say the least. Aside from making a draft-night deal that sent Steven Adams, Eric Bledsoe, and the 10th and 40th picks to the Grizzlies for Jonas Valanciunas and the 17th and 51st picks, GM David Griffin has done little to bring in more significant help for Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram. The Pels were linked to Kyle Lowry, Chris Paul, and Malcolm Brogdon as possible starting point guards and wound up with…Tomas Satoransky and Devonte Graham. Fans who hoped “Griff” would make the same “win now” moves that LA and Chicago made were let down once again.
NOLA has kept its young core of Williamson, Ingram, Kira Lewis Jr, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker; however, for a franchise that is stuck between competing for a playoff spot or continuing to build through the draft, they should figure out their identity soon before another superstar takes the “Big Easy” way out.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers have been in the news for a while now, attempting to get over the hump of an early playoff exit while convincing Damian Lillard to be a Blazer for life. Like New Orleans, Portland was expected to give its superstar more help, but so far, GM Niel Oshley has yet to make a major move.
This week, the Blazers have signed center Cody Zeller, guard Ben McLemore, wing Tony Snell, and re-signed wing Norman Powell. Lillard expressed his thoughts on the signings during his Olympic media availability, saying, “[T]his go-round, we weren’t able to go out there and get some of the guys that we would have liked.” Even though the Blazers were mentioned frequently in trade rumors and speculation of a superstar split began to grow, it appears that the front office will move forward, making the necessary adjustments to help Portland go on a deep playoff run.
Unlike the Pelicans and Blazers, the Celtics have been wheeling and dealing for several bench players, completing two trades within the past week after moving on from Kemba Walker a couple of months ago. The first one was acquiring Josh Richardson from the Mavericks in exchange for Moses Brown and a trade exception generated from the Gordon Hayward trade. The other was a three-way deal that shipped Tristan Thompson off to the Sacramento Kings while receiving Kris Dunn, Bruno Fernando, and draft compensation from the Atlanta Hawks.
Outside of those trades, the only notable signing the Celtics have made is reuniting with big man Enes Kanter, who last played for them in 2019. Aside from that, they are still in need of a starting point guard and have recently been in talks with Dennis Schröder, who has the potential to fill that void and hold down the backcourt with Marcus Smart.
With the level of competition elevating in the East, it is crucial that Boston surrounds its star duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown with adequate talent that can help them succeed (talent far better than Richardson and Dunn). Otherwise, fans may be looking at another early playoff exit for the guys in green.
The first week of free agency has been one for the books, with epic moves uniting superstars and sign-and-trades illuminating the futures of once-dark franchises. As teams round out their rosters and the offseason continues, the anticipation and excitement of next season will only continue to rise, and time will tell if a team’s decisions culminate in happiness or heartbreak.