5 winners and 5 losers from a chaotic start to NBA free agency

The first night of NBA free agency didn’t disappoint. Besides the usual allotment of big-money contracts to stars and role players alike, the Paul George sweepstakes came to a swift end when the Pacers traded him to the Thunder for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. That left other teams (*cough Celtics cough*) out in the cold wondering why the Pacers settled for an inferior offer to theirs.


We’re still not sure the answer to that question. Additional reporting suggests the Pacers rejected multiple Celtics offers and also turned down a three-way package that would have landed them Denver’s Gary Harris and other goodies. Maybe Kevin Pritchard likes Oladipo and Sabonis that much. Maybe those other proposals weren’t as solid as it appears. Only Pritchard and the Pacers’ front office really know.

The George blockbuster was the headliner of a busy night in the league. Here are the winners and losers from the first few hours of the free-agent period.

WINNERS

Oklahoma City Thunder

What a difference a few hours makes. As they entered free agency, the Thunder were staring at a hefty luxury-tax bill, a bloated cap sheet for years to come, and a superstar with one year left on his contract and no sidekick in sight. Losing Kevin Durant was bad enough. Playing out Russell Westbrook’s prime with an expensive roster that had no chance to support him in any meaningful way was arguably worse.

And then Sam Presti won the Paul George sweepstakes when nobody expected he would.

With one move, all those Thunder problems melted away. Westbrook has his sidekick, which hopefully nudges him closer to committing for the long haul. The Thunder actually trimmed salary by removing Oladipo’s four-year, $84 million deal off the books, though they’d surely love to replace it with a long-term deal for George after next season. Better yet, they found a secondary star whose off-ball game and defensive tenacity meshes perfectly with Westbrook’s aggressive style.

This could all fall apart if George departs for the Lakers next year and Westbrook leaves soon thereafter, but now the Thunder have a real chance. They were going nowhere fast and will never sign a talent like George outright in free agency. Now, they have a year to convince George he can win in Oklahoma City, which they should do plenty of even in a deep West.

That’s a hell of a lot better than the alternative path of staying the course.

Russell Westbrook

He won’t be outgunned anymore. George is close to the player Durant was and should be even more willing to defer ball-handling to Westbrook.

Can’t wait for those Thunder-Warriors games next year.

Jrue Holiday and Blake Griffin

Must be nice to have both of your incumbent teams over a barrel. The Pelicans couldn’t afford to lose Holiday with DeMarcus Cousins in the final year of his contract, and Clippers owner Steve Ballmer didn’t pay $2 billion to execute a rebuild. That’s how two mid-20s players with spotty injury histories secured five-year guaranteed contracts for nine figures.

Both played the situation perfectly. Griffin threatened meetings with the Suns and Nuggets to coerce the Clippers into handing him a five-year, $173 million max extension. Holiday’s camp made noise about the Pacers before agreeing to a five-year, $125 million deal with a player option at the end and incentives that could push the final number to $150 million.

That’a a lot of mullah secured in case those pesky injuries strike again. It’s hard to see either deal aging well for the Clippers and Pelicans as the cap begins to flatten out.

Jazz

Only the Jazz really know if they have a real chance to keep Gordon Hayward, but the last 24 hours have to encourage them. First, they snagged a nice bridge point guard in Ricky Rubio for basically nothing. (Prior reports that keeping incumbent George Hill was a prerequisite to retaining Hayward have been disputed). Then, they watched the Celtics’ dreams of a Hayward-George pairing disintegrate.

Hayward could very well go to the Celtics anyway, and the Heat loom as an increasing threat to sweet talk Hayward to South Beach. Nevertheless, the Jazz’s chances of keeping their star are better now than they were a day ago. That’s all they can ask.

Ron Baker

It’s hard to scoop so many great reporters on your own re-signing.


Miami Heat v Indiana Pacers - Game 1

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

LOSERS

The Pacers

Really? That’s the best y’all could do for Paul George?

Maybe Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis will show more in an environment where they aren’t standing around and watching Westbrook dribble. Maybe. Even so, Oladipo has a fat $84 million contract and Sabonis replicates Myles Turner’s skill set. And no future draft picks?

The market was certainly cool for George, considering his long-desired goal of landing in Los Angeles, but Pritchard might have been better off just letting George’s contract expire than accepting this return.

Danny Ainge

There’s an understandable instinct to rationalize another Celtics’ failure to turn their bushel of assets into a star. Danny Ainge’s most recent offer for George — unveiled suspiciously soon after George went to OKC, for the record — was a better one than the package Oklahoma City presented. Tom Ziller is right: the Celtics can’t help it if the Pacers did something dumb.

But this is yet another example of Ainge passing on the bird in hand for two in the bush. The Celtics reportedly wanted to pull off the double swoop of landing Gordon Hayward in free agency and George via trade. They pushed to snag Hayward first, under the assumption that George would still be there later and the Pacers would wait for their standing offer. Instead, they lost George to another team and may not land Hayward, either.

That was the same logic that convinced Ainge to trade the No. 1 pick for future assets, that stopped a chance to acquire DeMarcus Cousins, that made Jimmy Butler seem like a problematic option. The possibilities for the future looked far nicer to Ainge than the reality of the present.

But fortune favors the bold, not the exceedingly patient. Ainge may have the last laugh in five years, but there’s a price to waiting for the perfect opportunity instead of pouncing on repeated good ones.

The Eastern Conference

The East already stunk, and now it’s lost Jimmy Butler and Paul George in the span of eight days, with Paul Millsap possibly next. Dion Waiters might make the All-Star team next year!

The supermax

The whole point of this new rule was to keep star players in one place. The logic was that tossing more money at these players would convince them all to sign on the dotted line as soon as possible and not worry about teaming up to chase championships.

So far, one player has signed a supermax contract: Stephen Curry. With the Warriors. Who already won titles.

The system is not working as intended because players — shocker! — value freedom of movement over getting slightly richer. The Wizards offered John Wall a supermax extension, but he didn’t sign it immediately because he wants to make sure the Wizards can bring him the championship mix he seeks. The threat of Westbrook passing on the big payday convinced the Thunder to make the blockbuster deal for George. The Pacers didn’t take the chance that George would make all-NBA this year because they knew he’d bolt anyway. The Kings and Bulls got cold feet about giving DeMarcus Cousins and Jimmy Butler all that money.

The provision that was supposed to squash superstar movement is instead encouraging it. That cannot be what the owners intended.

Reporters on TV

Where are you going, Brian Windhorst?

And is Adrian Wojnarowski lost in the ESPN cafeteria?

Let me teach you how being on TV is done, folks.


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