Wednesday, March 29, 2023

NBA offseason winners/losers: Lakers still chasing Kyrie Irving, Buddy Hield; James Harden deal a win-win

The James Harden deal in Philadelphia is all set: Two years, $68.8 million, with a player option on the second year, meaning if Harden returns to All-NBA form an out-performs that roughly $34 million annual number in year one, he can forego the second season and become a free agent next summer in search of a longer, bigger deal. 

This is the best outcome for the Sixers, too. They don’t commit to Harden long term after a sketchy postseason showing that indicated a steep decline in his game, but they don’t lose him for nothing after trading Ben Simmons to get him. Also, Harden agreeing to a smaller annual salary have Philadelphia enough cap space to sign P.J. Tucker, who will really help them in their championship pursuit, just as he did in Milwaukee and Miami the last two years. 

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Big offseason questions that remain: Where will Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Donovan Mitchell end up? Are the Lakers done with their roster? They hope not. Pending further moves, the Lakers are among the teams with an incomplete offseason grade so far. For now, taking into account the draft, trades and free-agent signings, here is my list of 2022 offseason winners and losers. This post will continue to update.

Winner: James Harden

As mentioned above, Harden guarantees himself just under $70 million over the next two years but can opt out after year one if he plays well and sees a longer, bigger contract in his future. That’s not bad for a guy whose game appeared to be on a steep decline last season, particularly in the playoffs. 

Harden has a real chance to compete for a title with Joel Embiid and a Sixers roster that has been rounded out nicely with the additions of De’Anthony Melton and P.J. Tucker. 

Incomplete: Lakers

I think the Lakers jumped the gun on a few of their Thursday signings. They used their MLE on Lonnie Walker, who isn’t as good as Malik Monk, whom they lost to Sacramento. I like Juan Toscano-Anderson, he’ll help. Troy Brown Jr. isn’t exactly moving the needle. Damian Jones is a nice signing, but same one the non-needle-mover scale. 

The Lakers didn’t have much to work with. What this comes down to is whether the Lakers can find a way to land Kyrie Irving and/or Buddy Hield, the latter of whom they are reportedly still pursuing via trade talks with the Pacers. If they get Irving or Hield, preferably Irving, obviously, then the offseason is a win. If they don’t, and they go into next year with Russell Westbrook as their starting point guard and no shooting to speak of, nobody is going to care much about Lonnie Walker or Damian Jones. We’ll wait and see. 

Winner: Deandre Ayton

Ayton agreed to a four-year, $133 million max offer sheet from the Indiana Pacers on Thursday. Ayton is a restricted free agent, so the Suns had 48 hours to match the offer, which they reportedly did, per Adrian Wojnarowski. Ayton will be starting the 2022-23 season with the Suns, who simply couldn’t afford to lose Ayton for nothing. 

I say starting the season because the Suns could opt to trade Ayton as soon as they’re legally allowed, which would be Jan. 15. That is a real possibility, but it’s muddy. Remember, Phoenix is trying to balance a potential offer for Kevin Durant. Ayton becomes a trade chip in a multi-team deal or perhaps straight-up with Brooklyn, but the former feels more likely. 

But none of this is Ayton’s problem. He is now generationally wealthy, wherever he ends up long-term. 

Winner: Boston Celtics

After finishing two wins from an NBA championship, the Celtics went out and landed Danilo Gallinari, who cleared waivers after being let go by San Antonio, and Malcolm Brogdon in a trade with the Pacers, who took back Daniel TheisAaron NesmithNik StauskasMalik FittsJuwan Morgan and a 2023 first-round pick from Boston. 

All of those parts are highly expendable for Boston, which essentially got Brogdon for a first-round pick that will likely land in the mid-to-late 20s. Brogdon is really good. He adds to Boston’s ridiculously stacked defense and is another ball-handler and scorer to live well in a flowing, egalitarian offense. Shocker: Another Celtic who can shoot, create and defend. Good luck finding a hole on this team. 

Winner: Atlanta Hawks

Trading Kevin Huerter, a good player, for a draft pick that very well might not convey until 2027 is questionable to me. Now, if that pick eventually gets attached to, say, Clint Capela or John Collins and the Hawks flip for another All-Star-ish player (to go with the Dejounte Murray move), then we’ll reevaluate. But right now, losing Huerter just because you have a position logjam is tough. The Hawks would’ve almost certainly preferred to keep Huerter over Bogdan Bogdanovic, but the latter doesn’t have the trade value to bring back a first-round pick, protected or otherwise. 

Still, getting Murray from the Spurs makes this offseason a win for Atlanta. It can still get better, but Murray alone is a really nice addition. There are pessimistic points about the pairing with Trae Young. Both thrive with the ball. Young is a more natural option playing off-ball, but he has to commit, and by commit I don’t mean simply standing somewhere spacing the floor while Murray is running pick and roll. 

Young has to move. Cut. Relocate. Become a Steph Curry-like fly to track. I have my doubts about his desire to do that. I envision more of him moving once off a screen, not getting the ball, then standing around or, at best, running toward the handler for a dribble-hand-off. But even in that environment the Hawks are a better team. 

Murray is a second guy who can get two feet in the paint and he has really improved his midrange shooting. When he’s off ball, which will be quite often with Young, Murray is a candidate to be abandoned by defenses collapsing on penetration due to his lacking 3-point game/catch-and-shoot skills, but that said, he can really take advantage of that runway on catch-and-go secondary creations. 

Defensively, Murray is a long, athletic monster. He’s a nightmare on-ball and a hawk, so to speak, off the ball; he led the league with an even two steals per game. You’re playing with fire even trying to run a DHO with him tracking. He’ll reach in with those Inspector Gadget arms and poke that thing away in a snap. 

The Hawks now have two high-level perimeter defenders in Murray and De’Andre Hunter. Onyeka Okongwu can be pretty big-time on the defensive end. If they trade Collins or Capela, it has to be for another two-way player so as to keep Young as the only real target in the starting lineup. That’s how a Trae Young team can survive defensively. Without any other weak links. Atlanta is making moves to create that reality. 

As the icing on the cake, AJ Griffin, a consensus top-10 talent, fell to the Hawks at No. 16 in the draft. Concerns about his injury history no doubt led to Griffin’s fall, and scouting reports suggest he has lost, ir still in the process of trying to regain, a fair bit of his burst and/or foot-speed on both sides of the ball. If he regains it, this is a major steal for Atlanta. 

Even if he doesn’t, Griffin is one of the best shooters — with a “nasty” step-back — in this 2022 class. At worst he’s a floor spacer with length and physicality. Perfect for Atlanta with the double-creation of Young and Murray slated to create a bunch of catch-and-shoot 3s. If Collins stays, good luck defending the rim rolls for lobs with Griffin waiting in the corner as the defense collapses. 

Winner: Houston Rockets

First, Jabari Smith slipped to Houston at No. 3 in the draft. Most mocks had Smith going No. 1 to Orlando, with Paolo Banchero ending up with the Rockets. But Banchero went first, and Smith fills a big need in Houston with potential as an elite defender. 

Banchero, an NBA-ready scorer who doesn’t project nearly as well as a defender, would’ve overlapped to a degree with Alperen Sengun, another highly skilled, offensive-minded big. With Jalen Green emerging as a big-time scorer, Houston is already offensively lopsided. Smith, who is also a terrific shooter and athlete, balances that out, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if he ends up the best player in this class. 

In addition, the Rockets could stand to be a major beneficiary of the Brooklyn Nets’ teardown. Here’s a refresher on all the future draft picks/swaps Brooklyn sent to Houston in the James Harden trade:

When Houston made this trade, the belief was that Brooklyn was entering what would be an extended stretch of championship contention. Those picks, certainly through at least 2025, were reasonably expected to end up in the late-20s range. 

Once Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are traded, which seems like an inevitability, those picks stand to become a lot more valuable. Brooklyn has no incentive to go into an extended rebuild by tanking precisely because they owe these picks to Houston, but even in a case where they bring back established players in a Durant deal, those players are not going to be Kevin Durant. Even if the picks end up in the mid-to-late teens, that’s still somewhere in the ballpark of 10 draft slots higher than expected for Houston. 

That said, there is one possible way the Nets could have their tank and eat it too. Being that the 2023 pick owed to Houston is a swap (meaning Houston gets the higher of the two picks), and being that Houston is a good bet to finish with a pretty bad record in its own right, the Nets could, in theory, tank their way into a high lottery pick, and the worst that would happen is they would switch picks with Houston. As long as Houston is also drafting high, the Nets would still get a high pick in a talented draft class. 

Example: The Nets tank all the way to a top-three pick. Houston lands at No. 4 or 5 or 6. They swap. Yeah, Brooklyn loses a top-three pick, but it still lands a great pick. Combine that with the bevy of picks it could get for Durant and Irving, and suddenly that’s a huge package of picks it could then go out and flip next summer for the next star who is looking to get out of his current situation. 

So here’s where it gets exciting for Houston. Just for fun, imagine that the Nets do succeed in threading this one-year tank needle and end up with one of the three worst records in the league. Now say Houston also finishes in the bottom three. In that scenario, they would each have a 14 percent chance of getting the No. 1 pick, meaning Houston, with the right to swap picks with Brooklyn, would actually double its chances of lucking into Victor Wembanyama (a drool-inducing prospect) to 28 percent. 

Winner: Zion Williamson

The man has played 85 career games over three seasons, one of which he didn’t play a single second, and he just got a five-year contract extension that could be worth up to $231 million. I’m not sure if this is a win yet for the Pelicans. If Zion plays and stays healthy for the majority of this contract, of course, it’s a win. New Orleans has a pretty damn good team brewing. 

But if Williamson is in and out of the lineup and the Pelicans never gain real traction in a loaded Western Conference, and Zion’s trade value dips because he can’t stay healthy, this could end up ugly for the Pels. But for Zion, regardless of how it plays out, he walks out filthy rich. 

Winner: Minnesota Timberwolves

The Wolves gave up enough capital to choke a hippo, but they got Rudy Gobert. After signing Karl-Anthony Towns to a four-year, $224 million extension that keeps him in Minnesota for the next six years, it’s twin-tower time in Minnesota, which sent back to Utah Malik BeasleyPatrick BeverleyWalker KesslerLeandro BolmaroJarred Vanderbilt and multiple first-round picks: unprotected first-rounders in 2023, 2025, and 2027, and a top-five protected pick in 2029. 

Gobert is a one-man defense, and notions that he loses defensive viability in the playoffs have been greatly exaggerated. Given the Wolves’ ability to score the ball with Towns, Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell, this suddenly looks like a really good team. It will have to be to justify this steep of a price, but it’s worth the risk. It’s been ages since the Wolves were actually a team to take this seriously, and I don’t subscribe to the theory that teams have to contend for a championship to warrant these kinds of gambles. 

Indeed, the Wolves aren’t going to win the title next year. It’s probably a good bet that they won’t win one during the Gobert era, however long that lasts. You know why? Because only one team wins it all. That doesn’t mean the other 29 did it wrong. For the Wolves, this is a major jolt of franchise energy, building on the momentum they’ve already created with the drafting of Anthony Edwards and last year’s playoff appearance. You can talk about how much the Wolves gave up, but the reality is teams like the Wolves almost always have to overpay to land elite players. Gobert almost locks in Minnesota as a 50-win team, and potentially closer to 55. 

And this doesn’t have to be the final iteration of a contending roster in Minnesota. Towns could still be traded. Same for Russell. In the meantime, Minnesota raised its floor and ensured it won’t be one of those feel-good stories to fall back into the wasteland the next season. 

That’s what happened to Atlanta after it’s surprise run to the 2021 conference finals. It decided not to build on that momentum, and fell flat. So the Hawks got busy this summer, trading for Dejounte Murray. Just like the Wolves for Gobert, the Hawks gave up a ton for Murray, and they’re likely not going to win it all. But they’ve raised their floor.  Reestablished the franchise energy. And they might not be done. John Collins and/or Clint Capela could be moved. There’s no way not to be excited about what the Hawks could be with Young and Murray, just as there’s no way not to be excited about the Wolves heading into next season with Towns, Gobert and Edwards, and when was the last time you could honestly say the Wolves were a legit team to watch? 

Winner: Utah Jazz

The Gobert/Donovan Mitchell tandem had hit its ceiling. Everyone knew it. The Jazz didn’t mess around. They cut bait with Gobert and brought back a gigantic haul of assets, which they originally said they would use to build around Mitchell. 

We all suspected that wasn’t true. Danny Ainge isn’t a half-measure guy. Why would he trade Gobert but keep Mitchell to be a play-in-level team in the West, only for Mitchell to eventually demand out anyway when they stink? Go the whole way and get in the tank game for Victor Wembanyama. 

It appears that’s exactly what Ainge is doing. Reports have emerged that place Mitchell on the block and it now feels like a matter of time before he’s gone, and when he is, combined with the Gobert package, Utah is going to be armed with a ton of draft capital and/or young talent and on the road to a high lottery pick for a super-talented 2023 class. 

Loser: Dallas Mavericks

Dallas lost Jalen Brunson and, unless it’s going to pull a sneak attack for Kyrie Irving, shows no signs of replacing him with a high-quality creator. He was the second-best player on a team that went to the conference finals, and at times served as a more-than-capable go-to guy when Luka Doncic was out. 

I think Brunson was worth more money on the Mavericks next to Luka than he’ll be worth in New York. I would’ve liked to see the Mavericks go after Brogdon after losing Brunson, or just not lose Brunson in the first place. 

Dallas did trade for Christian Wood, who should pair nicely as a pick-and-roll/pop complement to Doncic, but treading water by subtracting Brunson and adding Wood feels like an effective step back in what is going to be a death march through the Western Conference. 

But hey, at least the Mavs got JaVale McGee for $20 million. 

Winner: Cleveland Cavaliers

Cleveland locked up Darius Garland on a max rookie extension (but win for Garland at five years and a possible $231 million), and also brought back Ricky Rubio, who was a key piece for the Cavs as he got out to a surprisingly red-hot start last season. Rubio was the classic steadying force for a young team, averaging 13-6-4 before he tore his ACL last December. He really fit with them. Getting Rubio back for $18M over three years is a nice deal for both player and team. Robin Lopez also heads to Cleveland. He backs up Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen as Cleveland can stay huge with multiple lineups. 

Winner: Jalen Brunson

Brunson got paid. The Knicks reportedly gave him a four-year, $104 million deal. For a guy who was taken in the second round in 2018, this is a windfall. Good for him. He deserves it. We’ll see how Brunson fares without Luka Doncic around to occupy all the defensive attention. But either way, the bag is secured. Brunson is set for life, and the icing on the cake is that gets to play for his father, Rick Brunson, who recently accepted an assistant coaching position with the Knicks. 

Incomplete: New York Knicks

I originally had the Knicks as an offseason loser. But I’ve reconsidered and taken a longer view. Here’s where I come out.

At the moment, the Knicks allocating a combined $164 million to Jalen Brunson and Mitchell Robinson, with a potential max extension looming for R.J. Barrett, doesn’t look great to me. It appears to have taken the flexibility the Knicks had created over the past few years with minimal long-term commitments and turned it into a ticket to mediocrity. 

That said, the Knicks don’t think they’re done, and indeed they’re armed with a bevy of flippable pieces. They have up to eight future draft picks they could trade for Donovan Mitchell, and if they get him, this will have been a big summer for New York. Mitchell won’t make the Knicks a contender, but if they hang onto Barrett, they will have a solid foundation with Mitchell, Brunson and Barrett to go out and attract more in the coming years. And they would be a good team now, too. Though the defense would be pretty suspect. 

If the Knicks whiff on Mitchell, however, their window to land a star could close quickly. At this moment, it would be hard for another team to beat the package they have to send back to Utah, but as other disgruntled stars become available in the coming years, that won’t be the case. Houston and Oklahoma City are loaded with capital. Once the timelines lineup for their young rosters and they feel they’re ready for a win-now star, they are both going to have pure gold to throw around, and the Knicks could be stuck with a 43-win team after having to pay Brunson, Robinson and Barrett in excess of $300 million while trying to use highly protected draft picks to build around the edges. 

This was a multi-year plan Leon Rose put into motion. We’re still in the middle of it. To pay off, the big move has to come through. The pieces are in place to have a shot at that. Whether it happens remains to be seen. 

Winner: Nikola Jokic

The dude signed the biggest contract in NBA history. Five years, $264 million. He’ll make an eye-popping $60 million in the final year of the deal. I’m not sure what else to say. The man won. So did the Nuggets. Jokic is awesome. 

Loser: Brooklyn Nets

It wasn’t free agency. technically, that bit Brooklyn, but on Thursday Kevin Durant issued a trade request. Once Durant goes, Kyrie Irving will likely follow. The Nets, who were supposed to compete for championships for the foreseeable future, just got blown up. 

Now, I will say that this could actually turn out OK for Brooklyn. They’re going to get a king’s ransom for Durant that should include at least a few ready-to-win players in addition to future draft capital, as the Nets have no incentive to tank in that they owe a boat full of future picks/swaps to the Rockets for the James Harden deal. 

If the Nets talk the Lakers into giving up a few first-round picks, or even just one if Russell Westbrook is going back to Brooklyn, for Irving, that will be even more capital they could package up and move for another All-Star. Donovan Mitchell could end up there in a multi-team deal. They still have Ben Simmons. This might not end up so bad. 

But for now, the Nets are about to lose Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden inside of six months.

Winner: Philadelphia 76ers

James Harden’s discount deal is a win-win for Harden and the Sixers, who don’t have to commit to Harden long term after a sketchy postseason showing, but also don’t lose him for nothing after trading Ben Simmons to get him. Also, Harden agreeing to a smaller annual salary gave Philadelphia enough cap space to sign P.J. Tucker, who’ll be a massive addition for depth, defense and 3-point shooting on the wing.

Tucker is a big score. He will seriously lift Philly’s defense and slot perfectly as a corner shooter for Tyrese Maxey and Harden drive-and-kicks. Throw in De’Anthony Melton, whom the Sixers landed on draft night from Memphis for the No. 23 pick and Danny Green, and the Sixers have had a very nice offseason. 

Winner: Oklahoma City Thunder

OKC got Chet Holmgren with the No. 2 overall pick. Just that pick alone is a big win. Holmgren could well be the best player in this draft — a potential generational defender who fits perfectly as a skilled, shooting big in OKC’s stretched offensive layout that makes room for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s penetration and Josh Giddey’s sixth-sense passing. 

OKC wasn’t done there. It traded three future first-round picks to the Knicks for the No. 11 pick, where they took Ousmane Dieng. Then with the No. 12 pick, the Thunder selected Jalen Williams — not to be confused with one Jaylin Williams, whom the Thunder took in the second round. The common trait in all these guys: length. OKC is prioritizing positional size and skill. All of these guys, including Holmgren, could be projects. But the Thunder are not in a terrible rush. 

One other move that kind of slipped under the radar: Oklahoma City traded the No. 30 overall pick to the Nuggets for JaMychal Green and a 2027 first-round pick. Green, who is on an expiring $8.2M contract this season, could very well be flipped at the trade deadline for yet another future draft pick. This is classic Sam Presti. Right as he depletes his asset chest with the three outgoing picks for Dieng, he builds it right back up by getting, in essence, two future picks for the price of one. 

The Thunder also re-signed Lu Dort to a five-year, $87 million deal. Dort had a team option for $1.9M for this upcoming season, and the Thunder could’ve held him to that. Instead, they let him out of that deal so he could sign a bigger deal and start making bigger money a year earlier. Now Dort is slated to make over $15 million this season. This is why agents and players like dealing with the Thunder, who we know worked in concert with Chris Paul to get him to a preferred destination. They consistently do right by their guys. 

Winner: Bradley Beal

Beal also signed a massive extension with the Wizards: Five years, $251 million. I still bet he gets traded before that contract expires, but by signing with Washington, which owns his Bird rights, he guaranteed himself a fifth guaranteed year, which will equate to about $57 million extra in his bank. That goes with him even if he does get traded. I’d bet good money that Beal winds up having his cake and eating it too, eventually ending up on a contender while also signing the biggest deal possible. 

Loser: Washington Wizards

They should’ve traded Beal a long time ago. There’s no way this team is competing for anything other than a bottom playoff seed with Beal making that kind of money. He’s just not a 1A championship guy. He honestly might not even be a sufficient No. 2 given how deep the talent is across the league right now. Washington should have a bundle of assets right now for Beal. 

This is what the Spurs did after Kawhi Leonard. They tried to win with DeMar DeRozan — a pretty good Beal comp — as their best player instead of committing to a rebuild. They finally conceded to reality and recently traded Dejounte Murray to the Hawks for a bunch of first-round picks, signaling a fresh start. Maybe Washington will eventually come to the same conclusion with Beal. They certainly should. But until then, they’re paying Beal and Kristaps Porzingis just shy of $80 million next season. Good luck with that. 

Incomplete: San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs got three first-round picks (one via Charlotte), plus a potential pick swap, from the Hawks for Dejounte Murray. That haul sounds better than it might actually turn out. From our Sam Quinn:

Charlotte’s 2023 first-round pick is so heavily protected it might only ever convey as second-rounders. Unprotected control over Atlanta’s first-round picks from 2025-2027 looks a bit more enticing until you realize how young their team is. Those will be Trae Young’s age 26-28 seasons. Murray will be 30 when the last pick changes hands. Barring injuries or a team-wide split, those picks probably aren’t going to be especially valuable. 

So that’s the first thing. Let’s see how these picks turn out. Atlanta is no lock to be an upper-crust playoff team in the East. Those picks could easily be mid first-rounders, which would be a win for a player like Murray, who is very good but not a superstar. 

Mostly, San Antonio is now in position to tank. It has put this off in the past. Instead of trading Kawhi Leonard for a boatload of picks, it tried to stay competitive with DeMar DeRozan. Murray, likewise, was just good enough to keep the Spurs competitive enough to really get in the mix for a high lottery pick. 

Now the Spurs can join what will be a growing group of teams trying to position themselves for presumed 2023 No. 1 pick Victor Wembanyama. More from Sam Quinn:

For those of you who don’t obsessively track European teenagers, Wembanyama is going to be the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft. He is, by nearly universal consensus, the highest-rated prospect to enter the draft since at least Zion Williamson in 2019. Some believe we must go back as far as 2003, when a 16-year-old kid from Akron had already been dubbed the chosen one, to find a better prospect. Imagine stretching out Anthony Davis by a few inches and giving him a more reliable jumper. “The ultimate goal is to acquire Giannis Antetokounmpo’s strength and conditioning, and Kevin Durant’s skills,” Wembanyama has said. That’s the sort of prospect we’re talking about here. The Spurs were the first team to make a transparent play for the French MonStar. They won’t be the last.

The lottery odds are now equal (14 percent) for the three teams with the worst records, so you can’t just guarantee yourself the best shot at a prospect by ending up dead last in the standings. And like Sam said, the Spurs won’t be the only team angling for Wembanyama. The dude is 7-foot-3 with a 7-9 wingspan, and look at the skill and fluidity he possesses. 

If San Antonio somehow lands Wembanyama, obviously trading Murray and bottoming out will have been a major win. If it doesn’t happen, the 2023 draft is still considered talent rich. I lean toward calling this offseason a win for San Antonio, but will keep it at incomplete for the possibility that the ping pong balls don’t fall their way and those draft picks don’t turn out to be very valuable. We’ll see. 

(Slight) Winner: Portland Trail Blazers

We’ll wait and see if the Blazers actually manage to field a more competitive team than the one they had with CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, Larry Nance Jr. and Robert Covington. But those deals are done. All that matters now is have they gotten better this summer, and the answer is yes. 

In essence, the Blazers flipped McCollum and Powell for Jerami Grant and Gary Payton II. In a vacuum, I’m not sure that’s a win for Portland, but within the context of a Lillard-led roster, wing length and versatile defense had to be a priority. 

The Blazers signed Anfernee Simons to a $100 million deal. They’re still stuck with a small, defensively lacking backcourt, but again, there’s a bit more defensive support around them now. That’s still not optimal. Defense in today’s NBA is oftentimes more about the weakest link than the strongest. 

Still, Simons and Lillard are going to light up the scoreboard. Grant is now properly positioned as a supporting scorer rather than the go-to guy. Payton is a total beast. Portland fans are going to fall in love with him. He’s an elite defender and a special cutter (Portland needs to find a way to take advantage of this as Golden State did with all its movement) and floor runner.

The Blazers are still looking at deploying a lot of small lineups and, again, to say they’re defensively deficient in the backcourt would be an understatement. They really need one more move, and it needs to be a good one if they have any intention of even threatening to sneak in through the back door of the contender conversation. 

Problem is, I don’t know what other cards they have to play. I don’t think Portland is anything more that its ever been — which is a puncher’s chance team that you can’t ever totally rule out because of Lillard. And now they have better balance and a few top-shelf defenders. It’s a win given what they were working with. They did the most they could. But it’s not like they vaulted themselves into another tier of contention. Frankly, this team could still be in a battle to even make the playoffs. 

Winner: Sacramento Kings

Kevin Huerter is a good player. The Kings did well to land him for essentially a first-round pick (no offense to Justin Holiday or Mo Harkless, but the pick was the value). And the pick is lottery-protected in 2024, top-12 protected in 2025 and top-10 protected in 2026. In other words, if the Kings still stink in 2024 and miss the playoffs, they’ll still get that pick. And they could very well keep it through 2026 with the West as deep as it is. 

Meanwhile, Sacramento continues to quietly put a pretty nice five together with De’Aaron Fox, Huerter, Harrison Barnes, Richaun Holmes and Domantas Sabonis. Fox is 24 years old, Huerter and Davion Mitchell are 23. Sacramento just drafted 21-year-old Keegan Murray No. 4 overall. They can remain patient while continuing to put a competitive product on the floor. Dare I say, there are some actual good feels around the Kings at the moment. 

Winner: Lu Dort

Dort didn’t even get drafted. He had to grind his way into the league on two-way contracts. Now he just signed with the Thunder for $87.5 million over five years. By turning himself into a brick of a defender while improving greatly as a shooter, Dort will never have to worry about money or his place in the NBA again. 

Also, good on the Thunder for rewarding Dort with this money a year before they had to. They could’ve exercised the $1.9 million team option they had in place for Dort this season. Instead, they let him out of that to sign a much bigger deal that can now kick in right away. Instead of $1.9 million, Dort will make over $15 million this coming season with much more to come over the next half-decade. 

Winner: Gary Payton II

Like Dort, Payton was un-drafted. He bounced around the G-League and played on two-way contracts and was let go six separate times from NBA rosters. Finally, he found a real role with the Warriors last season. He killed it. Now he’s got a $28 million contract with the Portland Trail Blazers. Dream-come-true stuff. 

Winner: Devin Booker

Secured $224 million over four years. Again, not much else to say. The man is filthy loaded. I don’t think Booker will end up in a Kevin Durant trade. If he does it wouldn’t be the worst thing to go to a Nets team that is still going to be pretty good this year with whatever they get back for Durant with a ton of picks to get even better in the coming years to build around Booker. Life is good. 

Loser: Golden State Warriors

Golden State lost Gary Payton II to the Blazers. This hurts. Payton was so great in his role for the Warriors, who were already thin on perimeter defense even when they had Payton. Golden State is deep in the repeater tax. It simply decided it couldn’t justify paying Payton this much money given the massive tax implications for every dollar they spend. 

Golden State decided it couldn’t afford both Kevon Looney and Payton. They opted for Looney, whom they brought back for $25.5M over three years. I’m not sure I agree with that decision. Looney is fantastic for the Warriors. No way they win the title without him. But they drafted James Wiseman. Looney, through that lens, is more replaceable on the Warriors’ roster than Payton is. I would’ve ponied up for Payton and depended on Wiseman to start earning his keep. 

Reasonable minds can disagree on that stance, but either way, everyone can agree that losing Payton is a big loss for Golden State, which also lost Otto Porter Jr. to the Raptors. That’s two rotation pieces from a championship team gone. Signing Donte DiVincenzo, who, I really like, eases the sting of losing Porter, but not Payton, who is simply another kind of player who has a unique impact that is so hard to find in this league. I think the Warriors are a worse team today than they were a few days ago. 

Winners: Ja Morant, Karl-Anthony Towns, Zach LaVine

Morant signed a max rookie extension with Memphis for five years and a guaranteed $193 million. Morant has the potential to make up to $231M over the life of this contract based on incentives. Towns got a four-year, $224 million extension that will begin in 2024, meaning the Wolves have him locked up for the next six years. LaVine is staying with Chicago on a five-year, $215M extension. 

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