It’s Day 4 of NBA free agency, and while some impactful free agents still haven’t decided their future (yeah, we’re talking about you, Kawhi Leonard), the league-wide picture of who improved their roster and who fell short is pretty clear.
That’s why we enlisted Bally Sports’ NBA experts — Brandon “Scoop B” Robinson, Sandeep Chandok and Joe Lago — to weigh in on the big winners and losers of a hectic 2021 free agency period.
Brandon “Scoop B” Robinson
Winner: Chicago Bulls
Guided by head coach Billy Donovan, the Bulls finished last season in 11th place in the Eastern Conference with a 31-41 record. Needing a traditional point guard, they added Lonzo Ball from the New Orleans Pelicans via a sign-and-trade agreement that rewarded the UCLA product with a four-year, $85 million contract. It’s a brilliant move because Ball can be the playmaker next to All-Star Zach LaVine, saving LaVine (who missed 14 games last season) from additional wear and tear. Also, the 6-foot-6 Ball, who averaged 14.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.7 assists in 2020-21, can defend both guard positions.
Ball isn’t the only coming attraction in Chicago. The Bulls landed a solid scorer in DeMar DeRozan through a sign-and-trade that sent Thaddeus Young, Al-Farouq Aminu, a future first-round pick and two second-rounders to the San Antonio Spurs. DeRozan averaged 21.6 points in 2020-21 for his eighth straight season of at least 20 points per game. Chicago also added Alex Caruso on a four-year, $37 million contract. The move will prove fruitful for the Bulls’ defense, as Caruso’s presence was crucial for a Los Angeles Lakers team that posted the NBA’s No. 1 defensive rating (106.8).
With Nikola Vucevic and crafty flame-throwing guard Coby White already on the roster, Chicago definitely has a chance to make the playoffs for the first time since 2017.
Loser: Portland Trail Blazers
The Trail Blazers were looking to maintain a robust roster and keep All-Star Damian Lillard happy, so they brought back Norman Powell on a five-year, $90 million deal. A solid shooter who can create pretty much any shot he wants, Powell was shipped to Portland at the trade deadline last season and took flight immediately and continued that progression in the playoffs, where he averaged 17.0 points per game.
Portland lost Carmelo Anthony to the Lakers and Zach Collins to the Spurs in free agency but added Tony Snell, Cody Zeller and Ben McLemore. Will that keep Lillard happy? Will he request a trade? Time will tell.
Winner: Los Angeles Lakers
The “retirement home” joke is funny, and the comparison to the 2004 Lakers team with an older Gary Payton and Karl Malone is valid. But make no mistake: Rob Pelinka has dominated free agency, putting L.A. in position to rebound in 2021-22.
It began with bringing back three former Lakers: Wayne Ellington (2014-15), Trevor Ariza (2007-09) and Dwight Howard (2012-13, 2019-20), who returns after a one-year stint with the Sixers. Carmelo Anthony is finally set to sport the purple and gold after being connected to the Lake Show for a couple of seasons. The 18-year veteran will get to play with longtime friend LeBron James, both of whom were drafted in 2003.
Kent Bazemore made his way from the Bay to L.A. because he feels the Lakers have a better chance at winning a championship. And the latest transactions from Hollywood include 23-year-old guard Malik Monk and 26-year-old Kendrick Nunn. So it’s not just a bunch of old guys. The Lakers did lose defensive stud Alex Caruso to the Bulls, but they were able to retain Talen Horton-Tucker.
With all of these signings, along with the acquisition of Russell Westbrook, the Lakers added shooters, defenders and guys who can create for themselves and others. This will be key because Frank Vogel’s offense struggled when James wasn’t on the court last season. And for those who still think this an old group: Anthony Davis is only 28 and in the prime of his career.
Bron has a message for the haters in a since-deleted tweet.
Loser: Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. After their most recent exit, longtime president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson was relieved of his duties. Rick Carlisle stepped down a day later, igniting controversy about the Mavs franchise and Luka Doncic’s future with the team.
Doncic signed a max extension and is currently playing in the Tokyo Olympics, and Mark Cuban brought in Jason Kidd as head coach. But while Doncic has been overseas, new general manager Nico Harrison hasn’t done much to improve the Mavs roster. He brought in former Knicks forward Reggie Bullock and former Rockets wing Sterling Brown to bolster the defense and shooting.
Dallas re-signed Tim Hardaway Jr. and Boban Marjanovic, too, but it still lacks a secondary ballhandler alongside Doncic. And after striking out on Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, two premiere players, options are becoming limited, although Dennis Schroder and Reggie Jackson are a pair of quality guards still on the market. Goran Dragic could wind up in Dallas with Doncic, his fellow Slovenian teammate, if he’s bought out by the Raptors or traded again.
As things stand now, however, the Mavericks haven’t done much to improve their roster in a Western Conference that will be as competitive as ever as teams get healthy and make moves, such as the Lakers have.
Winner: New York Knicks
First of all, I am shocked — shocked! — that Scoop didn’t choose his beloved Knicks as the big winners of free agency. Are they ready to dethrone the NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks as kings of the East? Probably not. Have they upgraded enough to at least reign as princes of NYC? That’ll likely have more to do with the Nets’ ability to stay healthy. Never mind, though. Knicks fans should be thrilled by the moves made during free agency.
No Chris Paul reunion with Leon Rose? That’s OK. Kemba Walker is coming home. Remember the Knicks’ offensive struggles in the playoffs? Professional scorer Evan Fournier is coming to help All-Star Julius Randle (who agreed to a four-year, $117 million extension). Also, key veterans Derrick Rose, Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson were all brought back to maintain the momentum from last season’s 41-31 and four-seed finish.
There’s no better place to watch basketball than Madison Square Garden, which is absolutely electric when the Knicks are good. Their surprising revival under head coach Tom Thibodeau won’t be a one-hit wonder. Leon Rose has made sure of that, and his bountiful offseason has left Knicks fans to metaphorically kiss the hand and pay their ultimate respect.
Loser: Golden State Warriors
The Warriors are light years behind when it comes to recruiting veterans looking to play for the minimum and chase a championship. Patty Mills, who was perceived to be a good fit, joined Brooklyn’s big three. Nicolas Batum, who reportedly would’ve joined the Warriors last offseason but changed his mind when Klay Thompson tore his Achilles, said no again. Even Kent Bazemore decided not to rejoin good friend Stephen Curry, and he did so by pouring salt in the GSW front office’s wound by saying the Lakers give him a bigger chance to win a title. Ouch.
Obviously, Thompson’s rehab status is what’s hurting Golden State’s free-agent pursuits. Until he’s himself again — running, spotting up and burying 3-pointers with ease — the Warriors won’t be viewed as a legitimate title contender despite Vegas’ flattering odds. So instead of luring sure-thing shooters to the Bay Area, GM Bob Myers has had to roll the dice on vet-minimum additions Otto Porter Jr. and Nemanja Bjelica, hoping they can return to full health and produce at their optimal, pre-injury levels.
But that’s not how this offseason was supposed to go. After Curry’s incredible near-MVP renaissance, Golden State was in position to reload and potentially add another star scorer to give the 33-year-old Curry some much-needed help until Thompson was up to speed. But their NBA Draft dealings didn’t lead to a major trade. Instead, they used their lottery picks on prospects Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody to accompany last year’s No. 2 selection James Wiseman. The franchise’s future might be set, but its present isn’t looking so hot if the 2021-22 goal is to contend for another championship. At least Steph got paid.