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NBA offseason winners and losers: Celtics add to championship formula; Hawks, Blazers prioritize defense

We’re into the fourth day of NBA free agency, and a lot has happened. A number of huge contracts have been awarded, as well as a lot of smaller ones that might pay off big time. Significant deals have also occurred. As we flesh out the 2022 offseason winners and losers, we’ll gradually factor in draft outcomes.  Here’s what we’ve got thus far.

Winner: Boston Celtics

The Celtics went out and acquired Danilo Gallinari, who passed waivers after being released by San Antonio, and Malcolm Brogdon in a deal with the Pacers, who returned Daniel Theis, Aaron Nesmith, Nik Stauskas, Malik Fitts, Juwan Morgan, and a 2023 first-round selection to Boston.

All of those pieces are very disposable for Boston, which effectively acquired Brogdon for a first-round selection in the mid-to-late 20s. Brogdon is fantastic. He complements Boston’s extremely stacked defense and is another ball-handler and scorer who can thrive in a fluid, egalitarian system.

Winner: Atlanta Hawks

 Trading Kevin Huerter, a solid player, for a draft selection that may not be available until 2027 seems odd to me. Now, if that choice is eventually tied to, say, Clint Capela or John Collins, and the Hawks trade for another All-Star-type player (to go along with the Dejounte Murray trade), we’ll reassess. However, losing Huerter due of a position logjam is difficult right now. The Hawks almost definitely would have liked to keep Huerter over Bogdan Bogdanovic, but the latter lacks the trade value to bring back a first-round choice, protected or not.

Still, acquiring Murray from the Spurs makes Atlanta’s summer a success. It may yet become better, but Murray is a welcome addition. There are several concerns regarding the coupling with Trae Young. Both flourish when they have the ball. Young is a more natural off-ball option, but he must commit, and I don’t mean merely standing someplace across the floor while Murray runs pick and roll.

Young must relocate. Cut. Relocate. To track, transform into a Steph Curry-like fly. I have serious reservations about his willingness to do so. I saw him going off a screen once, not getting the ball, then standing about or, at best, rushing toward the handler for a dribble-hand-off. Even in that situation, the Hawks are a better team. Murray is a second person who can get two feet in the paint and has improved his midrange shooting significantly.

Murray is a long, athletic beast on defense. He’s a terror on the field and a hawk off the field. Even trying to conduct a DHO with him tracking is dangerous. He’ll reach in with his Inspector Gadget arms and quickly poke that object away. Murray and De’Andre Hunter have given the Hawks two elite perimeter defenders. On the defensive end, Onyeka Okongwu can be a force. If Collins or Capela are traded, it must be for another two-way player in order to maintain Young as the only legitimate target in the starting lineup. That is how a Trae Young defense can endure. There are no additional weak linkages. Atlanta is taking steps to make it a reality.

Winner: Zion Williamson

He’s played 85 games in three seasons, one of which he didn’t play a single second, yet he recently signed a five-year contract deal for up to $231 million. I’m not sure if the Pelicans have won yet. Of course, if Zion plays and remains healthy for the remainder of this deal, it’s a victory. New Orleans is developing a fairly nice squad.

However, if Williamson remains in and out of the lineup and the Pelicans never establish traction in a stacked Western Conference, and Zion’s trade value drops as a result of his inability to stay healthy, things may get ugly for the Pels. But regardless matter the outcome, Zion goes away fabulously rich.

Winners: Minnesota Timberwolves

The Wolves forked up enough money to strangle a hippo, but they got Rudy Gobert. After signing Karl-Anthony Towns to a four-year, $224 million extension that will keep him in Minnesota for the next six years, it’s twin-tower time in Minnesota, as the Timberwolves sent back to Utah Malik Beasley, Patrick Beverley, Walker Kessler, Leandro Bolmaro, Jarryd Vanderbilt, and multiple first-round picks: unprotected first rounders in 2023, 2025, and 2027, and

Gobert is a one-man defense, and claims that he loses defensive effectiveness in the playoffs are largely overstated. Given Towns, Anthony Edwards, and D’Angelo Russell’s propensity to score, the Wolves appear like a pretty good squad. It has to be to warrant such a high price, but the risk is worth it. It’s been a long time since the Wolves were a genuine contender, and I disagree with the notion that teams must win a championship to justify such risks.

The Wolves will not win the championship next year. It’s a safe bet that they won’t win one during Gobert’s tenure, whatever long that lasts. Do you understand why? Because only one squad can win everything. That doesn’t imply the other 29 made a mistake. This is a significant boost to the Wolves’ franchise vitality, building on the momentum they established with the pick of Anthony Edwards and last year’s playoff berth.

The Hawks did the same thing when they acquired Dejounte Murray. They gave a lot. They are unlikely to win it all. But they’ve entered the ring. They’re attempting to fight. Fans adore it. The energy that surrounds a franchise feeds on itself. There’s no way not to be enthusiastic about the Wolves’ prospects for next season, and when was the last time you could say that?

Winners: Utah Jazz

The Gobert/Donovan Mitchell duo had reached its peak. Everyone was aware of it. The Jazz were not to be trifled with. They broke ties with Gobert and returned with a massive collection of assets, which they will now utilize to develop around Mitchell. With four additional first-round selections and some attractive salary-attachers to float in trade negotiations, Utah can get into a lot of conversations. This is a win-win situation. Minnesota needed to make a splash with a dramatic relocation, while Utah needed a new beginning. They were both successful.

Losers: Dallas Mavericks

Dallas lost Jalen Brunson and shows no prospects of replacing him with a high-quality creator, unless it pulls a surprise move for Kyrie Irving. He was the second-best player on a team that advanced to the conference finals, and he filled in well when Luka Doncic was out. Brunson was worth more money on the Mavericks next to Luka than he will be in New York, in my opinion. I’d have rather to see the Mavericks pursue Brogdon after losing Brunson, or just not lose Brunson in the first place.

Dallas did make a deal for Christian Wood, who should complement Doncic nicely as a pick-and-roll/pop player, but treading water by removing Brunson and adding Wood feels like an effective step back in what will be a death march through the Western Conference.

But, hey, the Mavericks did get JaVale McGee for $20 million.

Winners: Cleveland Cavaliers

Cleveland signed Darius Garland to a five-year, $231 million contract deal (a victory for Garland), and also re-signed Ricky Rubio, who was a vital component for the Cavs last season after a shockingly strong start. Rubio was the prototypical rock for a young squad, averaging 13-6-4 before tearing his ACL in December. He was a perfect fit for them. Bringing Rubio back for $18 million over three years is a good bargain for both the player and the franchise. Robin Lopez will also be in Cleveland. He complements Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen, allowing Cleveland to maintain its dominance with varied combinations.

Winner: Jalen Brunson

Brunson was compensated. The Knicks allegedly signed him to a four-year, $104 million contract. This is a huge payday for a man who was drafted in the second round in 2018. That’s fantastic. He’s earned it. We’ll see how Brunson performs without Luka Doncic to divert all defensive focus. In any case, the luggage is secure. Brunson is set for life, and the cherry on top is that he gets to play for his father, Rick Brunson, who recently took a position as an assistant coach with the Knicks.

Losers: New York Knicks

Listen, I’m happy for Brunson, but I don’t believe he’s a good enough player to devote this much money to for the next four years. From where I sit, unless the Knicks, who paid Mitchell Robinson $60 million, can somehow pull off the trade for a star player that they’ve been missing for the previous decade, they’ve pretty much signed themselves up for mediocrity. It’s simply too much money to bet on Jalen Brunson and Mitchell Robinson.

Brunson, who quickly becomes New York’s best player (yep, better than RJ Barrett and Julius Randle), cannot be more than the third-best player on a legitimate championship-contending team.

The Knicks also signed Isaiah Hartenstein to a two-year, $16 million contract. He’ll make an excellent backup center. But nothing that makes a difference.

At the end of the day, it’s a loss to go out and trade all the assets the Knicks moved to clear the space they did, only to finish up with a non-All-Star as their prize $104M signing.

Winner: Nikola Jokic

The contract was the largest in NBA history. $264 million over five years. In the last year of the contract, he’ll earn an eye-popping $60 million. I don’t know what more to say. The man triumphed. The Nuggets did as well. Jokic is fantastic.

Losers: Brooklyn Nets

It wasn’t free will. That technically bit Brooklyn, but on Thursday, Kevin Durant requested a trade. If Durant leaves, Kyrie Irving is likely to follow. The Nets, who were expected to contend for titles in the near future, were just blown up.

Now, I’ll concede that this may work out well for Brooklyn. They’ll get a king’s ransom for Durant, which will include at least a couple ready-to-win players as well as future draft capital, because the Nets have no motivation to tank because they owe the Rockets a boatload of future selections from the James Harden trade. Durant wishes to relocate to Phoenix. It’s home run time if they can acquire Devin Booker. But I have my doubts.

If the Nets can persuade the Lakers to part with a couple first-round selections, or even just one if Russell Westbrook returns to Brooklyn, for Irving, they will have even more resources to package and trade for another All-Star. Ben Simmons is still on the team. This might not be so horrible in the end.

However, the Nets are set to lose Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden within the next six months. Brutal.

Winners: Philadelphia 76ers

James Harden hasn’t signed his new contract yet, but he clearly agreed to forego enough yearly pay to allow the Sixers to sign P.J. Tucker for slightly over $33 million over three years. That’s a tremendous win. Tucker will significantly improve Philadelphia’s defense and fit in wonderfully as a corner shooter for Tyrese Maxey and James Harden drive-and-kicks. Add in De’Anthony Melton, whom the Sixers acquired from Memphis on draft night for the No. 23 selection, and Danny Green, and the Sixers are having a very good offseason.

Winner: Bradley Beal

Beal also agreed to a five-year, $251 million contract deal with the Wizards. I still think he’ll be traded before his deal ends, but by signing with Washington, which controls his Bird rights, he secured himself a fifth guaranteed year, which will add around $57 million to his financial account. That applies to him even if he is traded. I’d put money on Beal getting his cake and eating it, eventually landing on a contender while also signing the richest deal conceivable.

Losers: Washington Wizards

They should have traded Beal years ago. With Beal getting that much money, this club will never compete for anything other than a low-level postseason seed. He’s just not a 1A title contender. Given how deep the league’s talent is right now, he might not even be a sufficient No. 2. Washington should have a slew of assets ready for Beal right now.

This is what the Spurs did following the departure of Kawhi Leonard. Instead of committing to a rebuild, they sought to win with DeMar DeRozan as their top player (a very apt Beal comparison). They ultimately gave in to reality and sold Dejounte Murray to the Hawks for a slew of first-round choices, indicating a new beginning. Perhaps Washington will finally reach the same conclusion as Beal. They very surely should. But, in the meanwhile, they’ll pay Beal and Kristaps Porzingis just under $80 million next season. Best of luck with it.

Winners: Portland Trailblazers

I’m not sure if I prefer Anfernee Simons to Jalen Brunson. At the moment, I’d choose Brunson because he’s a playoff defender. But it’s getting there. So, why do I consider the $100 million Portland awarded Simons over four years to be a victory but the $104 million the Knicks gave Brunson over the same time period to be a loss? Simple: Simons does not have to be the Blazers’ top player. Damian Lillard is his man for the job.

To be honest, Simons doesn’t have to be the Blazers’ second-best player. They just acquired Jerami Grant in a trade. Simons has the potential to be a future star, but he does not have to bear that responsibility right immediately.

The Blazers then acquired Gary Payton II from the Warriors for $28 million over three years late Thursday night or early Friday morning in the east. Payton is fantastic. Portland supporters will fall in love with him. He’s a great defender who can also cut and run the floor. He has the ability to hit corner 3s. Portland needed to improve its defense, and Grant and Payton are two significant acquisitions.

The Blazers are still using small lineups, and to suggest they are lacking defensively in the backcourt is an understatement. They really need one more move, and it needs to be a good one, and I believe Joe Cronin will deliver. I believe it is evident that this government intends to keep the brakes on.

Winners: Sacramento Kings

Kevin Huerter is an excellent player. The Kings did well in acquiring him for what amounted to a first-round selection (no offense to Justin Holiday or Mo Harkless, but the pick was the value). In addition, the selection is lottery-protected in 2024, top-12 protected in 2025, and top-10 protected in 2026. In other words, if the Kings continue to stink and miss the playoffs in 2024, they will still get that selection. With the West as deep as it is, they may very well maintain it until 2026.

Meanwhile, Sacramento has quietly put together a really good five-man lineup with De’Aaron Fox, Huerter, Harrison Barnes, Richaun Holmes, and Domantas Sabonis. Fox is 24, Huerter and Davion Mitchell are also 23. Keegan Murray, 21, was selected fourth overall by Sacramento. They may be patient while still putting a competitive product on the market. Dare I suggest there are some genuine positive vibes surrounding the Kings right now?

Winner: Lu Dort

Dort was not even drafted. On two-way contracts, he had to work his way into the league. He recently inked a five-year, $87.5 million contract with the Thunder. Dort will never have to worry about money or his spot in the NBA again if he can transform himself into a brick of a defender while also growing substantially as a shooter.

Also, kudos to the Thunder for awarding Dort with this money a year ahead of schedule. They could have exercised the $1.9 million club option on Dort this season. Instead, they let him out of it so that he could negotiate a far larger contract that would begin immediately. Dort will earn more than $15 million this season, up from $1.9 million last year, with much more to follow over the next half-decade.

Winner: Gary Payton

Payton, like Dort, went undrafted. He moved around the G-League, played on two-way contracts, and was cut from six different NBA clubs. Last season, he finally earned a legitimate job with the Warriors. He annihilated it. He is now under contract with the Portland Trail Blazers for $28 million. It’s dreamy stuff.

Winner: Devin Booker

Over a four-year period, $224 million was secured. There isn’t much else to say. The dude is fabulously rich. I don’t believe Booker will be traded for Kevin Durant. If he did, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for him to join a Nets team that is still going to be fairly strong this year with whatever they get back for Durant and a ton of selections to get even better in the future to build around Booker. Life is wonderful.

Losers: Golden State Warriors

The Blazers acquired Gary Payton II from the Warriors. This is painful. Payton was outstanding in his job for the Warriors, who were already short on perimeter defense even with Payton. Golden State has a high repeater tax. It simply determined that paying Payton this much money couldn’t be justified given the significant tax ramifications for every dollar spent.

Golden State determined that it could not afford both Kevon Looney and Gary Payton. They chose Looney, who they brought back for $25.5 million over three years. That choice does not sit well with me. Looney is an excellent player for the Warriors. There is no way they can win the championship without him. They did, however, draft James Wiseman. Through that view, Looney is more replaceable on the Warriors’ roster than Payton. I would have paid for Payton and hoped Wiseman would start earning his keep.

Reasonable minds might debate, but everyone can agree that losing Payton is a significant blow for Golden State, who also lost Otto Porter Jr. to the Raptors. Two rotation players from a championship squad have left. Signing Donte DiVincenzo, who I really like, helps to alleviate the sting of Porter’s departure, but not Payton, who is simply different type of player with a distinct effect that is so rare in this league. The Warriors, in my opinion, are a poorer team now than they were a few days ago.

Winners: Ja Morant, Zach Lavine, and Karl Anthony Townes

Morant agreed to a five-year, $193 million contract deal with Memphis as a rookie. Morant has the potential to earn up to $231 million in incentives during the life of this deal. Towns agreed to a four-year, $224 million contract deal that will begin in 2024, giving the Wolves him for the next six years. LaVine has agreed to a five-year, $215 million contract deal with Chicago.

Incomplete: Lakers

I believe the Lakers rushed a couple of their Thursday acquisitions. They used their MLE on Lonnie Walker, who isn’t as excellent as Sacramento’s Malik Monk. Juan Toscano-Anderson appeals to me. He’ll assist you. Troy Brown Jr. isn’t exactly a game changer. Damian Jones is a good addition. I just believe the Lakers might have waited to see if Donte Divincenzo, who is still unsigned after the Kings declined to make him a qualifying offer, or TJ Warren became available at the MLE level.

The Lakers didn’t have a bad first day. It’s not a victory or a defeat in my opinion. They were limited in their options. What it comes down to is if the Lakers can acquire Kyrie Irving. If they do, the offseason will be a success. If they don’t, and they head into next season with Russell Westbrook as their starting point guard, nobody cares about Lonnie Walker or Damian Jones. This offseason will be remembered as a failure. So, we’ll have to wait and see.

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