July 3, 2018, 5:47 pm
LeBron James might be the smartest player in NBA history. He’s always thinking the game one or two steps ahead, creating passing and driving lanes only he can see coming, and thwarting the opposition with early, disruptive defensive rotations – at least when locked in on that side of the ball, of course.
“He’s so ahead of the game right now, it’s not even funny,” Dwane Casey said in December 2016, months after James and the Cleveland Cavaliers eliminated his Toronto Raptors from the playoffs, and before they would do it twice more in even more devastating fashion, with consecutive second-round sweeps.
At 33, James isn’t the consistently nuclear athlete he was a decade or even five years ago. The jumper, though clearly improved, still comes and goes, and he doesn’t commit to playing in the post with any type of regularity until spring. The lack of sustained defensive engagement, even in the playoffs, is a problem that warrants more attention.
No matter. There’s an argument to be made that James has never been better, at the peak of his powers when most players begin sharply declining because his intellect has matched, or perhaps even surpassed, his unique combination of size, athleticism and skill. Did you notice the complete lack of concern that James, at 37, will fail to live up to his $41 million player option for 2021-22? Those crickets weren’t just an acknowledgement of what he means for the Los Angeles Lakers as a free-agent recruiter and brand ambassador, but also the certainty that his understanding of the game, ever growing, will allow him to wield the on-court influence of a superstar even as his physical capabilities start noticeably fading. James is as close to ageless as a sport like basketball allows its players to be.
Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka know that, and James’ minimum commitment to the Lakers of three years ensured they wouldn’t be forced to sacrifice the long-term for the short. Finally, a team could be grown and developed around him rather than pasted together on the fly. To be clear, none of the moves Los Angeles made in the wake of James’ agreement limit its flexibility going forward. The only player added in free agency this summer who will definitely be around past next season is James; one-year contracts, obviously, have no bearing on the Lakers’ ability to create max cap space going forward.
Still, it’s not like that heartening reality makes Los Angeles’ post-James free-agency binge much more defensible. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is the best player among those additions, and it’s not particularly close. His performance as a shooter finally aligned with his reputation last season, when he hit 38.3 percent of his nearly six 3-point attempts per game. Caldwell-Pope isn’t a deadeye, and doesn’t have the shooting versatility of James’ former teammates like Ray Allen and Kyle Korver. He’s far more reliable launching off kick-outs and simple ball movement than sprinting around screens and letting fly without his feet set. Given his ability to capably defend both guard spots and even some wings, though, Los Angeles certainly could do worse than Caldwell-Pope as a backcourt starter.
But why the Lakers deemed it necessary to pay him $12 million less than 24 hours after free agency began is unclear. A competitive market for Caldwell-Pope never materialized publicly, and the lack of cap space throughout the league means it might never have. Regardless, his deal was announced less than an hour after James’, as general managers, agents and players found themselves frantically responding to the summer’s biggest domino falling earlier than anyone anticipated. Well, except Rich Paul, James’ agent and long-time friend, who just happens to represent Caldwell-Pope, too.
Paul’s chief responsibility isn’t building the best supporting cast around James. His allegiance in contract negotiations lies with the player he’s representing, and through that lens, Paul did well for Caldwell-Pope. But that dynamic doesn’t explain away Los Angeles’ extreme haste in coming to terms with Caldwell-Pope, nor its even more surprising agreements with Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Rajon Rondo.
Ignore the endless list of questions about on-court fit and locker-room chemistry for a moment. After ending years of free-agency failure by bringing in the greatest player of his generation on July 1, the Lakers suddenly possessed the present-day cachet befitting their status as 16-time champions in the league’s glitziest and most desirable destination. No one in the league influences player movement like James, and Los Angeles used all of its meaningful cap space less than a day after he made his decision. What was the rush?
The Lakers’ urgency would make more sense if the players who committed to them were highly valued in a basketball vacuum, but that’s just not the case – for reasons plainly obvious to anyone who’s followed the NBA over the last decade. Stephenson indeed rehabilitated his career in a second go-around with the Indiana Pacers last season. After failing to catch on with a team two years ago despite multiple regular-season auditions, he re-established himself as a viable NBA player in 2017-18, if one who won’t ever be able to completely curb his worst tendencies.
At the $4.5 million room exception, though, Los Angeles surely could have done better than a ball-dominant, non-shooting malcontent whose main utility is his mild effectiveness defending four positions. It’s hard to imagine there was much of a market for Stephenson at that price. McGee, meanwhile, was had for the veteran’s minimum, an objectively fair value for a career-long question mark who flashed in the postseason playing a narrow, defined role for an all-time juggernaut. Someone would have given McGee his $2.4 million, definitely, and the Lakers were in need of a vertical spacer and shot-blocker.
Yet like with Caldwell-Pope and Stephenson, why lock him down so soon? Would earmarking a minimum space for McGee on Sunday, then perusing the pool of available big men over the next few days to follow really have risked him later turning it down?
At least McGee’s deal doesn’t complicate Los Angeles’ salary structure; the same can’t be said for Rondo’s. Logistical context makes his one-year, $9 million even more frustrating. Los Angeles renounced its rights to Julius Randle, who reportedly wanted to play elsewhere, on Monday afternoon, shedding his cap hold and creating $13.8 million in additional space. Literally six minutes after ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski broke that news, he reported that Rondo had agreed with the Lakers.
Randle’s preference to leave Los Angeles was no secret; those rumors swirled well before July 1. It’s fair to assume, then, that available players were operating under the assumption the Lakers would eventually have an open eight-figure salary slot. All of that cap space wasn’t a surprise, basically, as evidenced by Johnson and Pelinka ostensibly negotiating with Rondo before having the space to give him $9 million. Maybe the Lakers did their diligence, only to learn Rondo was the best option to use the funds made accessible by granting Randle’s wish.
Succeeding deals across the league cast doubt on that possibility. Later on Monday, DeMarcus Cousins took the mini mid-level from the Golden State Warriors, a one-off contract that will pay him barely more than Stephenson. Avery Bradley would have fit snugly into Los Angeles’ cap before agreeing to a two-year, $25 million deal – only partially guaranteed for its second season, reports ESPN’s Zach Lowe – to return to the Clippers. The reborn Tyreke Evans, who shot a league-leading 40.8 percent on pull-up triples last season, got a one-year, $12 million deal from the Indiana Pacers.
Wouldn’t one of those guys have given the Lakers a better chance to compete this season than Rondo? Despite making strides as a shooter, teams still don’t treat him like a legitimate 3-point threat, going under ball screens and cheating an extra step or two off of him away from the ball. And that’s the other thing: Rondo, like James, is best utilized with the ball in his hands. James frequently bemoaned the Cavaliers’ lack of playmaking depth during his last two seasons in Cleveland, but Los Angeles has gone overboard in that regard, puzzlingly prioritizing ball-dominance over long-range shooting in secondary free agency despite the presence of James, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball.
There’s the development of young incumbents to consider here, too. It’s already been made clear that Rondo and Ball will compete to start at point guard. Stephenson will certainly cut into the playing time of Josh Hart, solid on both ends as a rookie, and perhaps Kuzma’s depending on how Luke Walton constructs his lineups. Only Caldwell-Pope and McGee fill real needs on the Lakers’ roster, which makes the signings of Stephenson and Rondo – let alone the timing and cost associated with them – even more confusing.
Unless, of course, someone uniquely familiar with each of Los Angeles’ latest free agents is pulling the strings from behind the curtain. On Monday afternoon, less than two days after James and Johnson met for three hours to cement the former’s future in purple and gold, ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported the Lakers are “pretty darn sure” James, vacationing in Europe, approves of their subsequent deals in free agency.
James, basketball genius, has never been good at helping management fill out the bottom half of his team’s roster. He prefers veterans to youngsters, and routinely lets personal relationships affect his appraisal of a player’s actual worth. Isn’t it conceivable that James, extremely familiar with Stephenson, McGee and Rondo, signed off on their additions? Given his clout in the basketball world and the need for all franchises, even Los Angeles, to placate their superstars, it would be remiss to assume otherwise.
The Lakers still have just below $6 million in cap space to dole out, and are surely maintaining contact with the San Antonio Spurs regarding Kawhi Leonard. They aren’t quite finished this summer. But adding a sharpshooter like Wayne Ellington or versatile forward like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute won’t undo the mistakes Los Angeles has already made, and trading for Leonard might only exacerbate them. There isn’t a move left on the chess board that would change that equation; it’s difficult to fathom what one might even look like.
The Lakers have already won the offseason. Getting James alone drastically alters their immediate fortunes, and they haven’t given away any more long-term money. Signing Leonard, or any other superstar free agent, into cap space next summer is still very much on the table. But the fact remains that Los Angeles is no longer the blank canvass it was after James announced he was coming to town.
We know, for the most part, what the Lakers will look like next season, and why James is sure to endure frustration he might have been able to avoid if they’d taken a different approach to spending the cash not used on him. Why the smartest player in the league seems to have signed off on the deals that will inevitably prompt it, though, is another thing entirely.
June 26, 2019, 10:02 pmKevin Porter Jr. - PG-SG - Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cleveland Cavaliers have announced that they have officially acquired the draft rights to Kevin Porter Jr.
This trade was confirmed on draft night but it has now officially gone through. Porter Jr. figures to see opportunities off the bench as a score first guard for a Cleveland team in desperate need of bench production in his first season. He'll get his first look with his new team in Summer League.
Source: Marc Stein on Twitter
June 26, 2019, 9:10 pmStanley Johnson - SF - New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans have opted to not extend a qualifying offer to Stanley Johnson, making him an unrestricted free agent according to Shams Charania of the Athletic.
This doesn't come as much of a surprise. Johnson struggled to make much of an impact both in Detroit and in New Orleans this season, despite possessing defensive upside that has been mired by his inconsistencies elsewhere throughout his career. He's still 23, and should find an offer elsewhere for next season. Wherever that may be, he will have a long way to go before he will become fantasy relevant.
Source: Shams Charania on Twitter
June 26, 2019, 7:49 pmDerrick Favors - PF - Utah Jazz
According to Shams Charania of the Athletic, Derrick Favors will field calls from several interested teams and act as if he will be an unrestricted FA, a sign that he doesn't expect the Jazz to pick up his team option.
Favors has gone on the record indicating that he'd love to return to Utah, but it appears that they are interested in allocating the 17 million he would have made, elsewhere. Favors has always struggled to maximize his fantasy potential playing next to Rudy Gobert, and perhaps a situation with a less clogged paint could do more for his value.
Source: Shams Charania on Twitter
June 26, 2019, 7:13 pmThomas Bryant - C - Washington Wizards
Thomas Bryant has been given a qualifying offer from the Wizards, making him a restricted free agent.
Bryant surprised last season, coming from obscurity to finish with top-125/100 value (8/9-cat). That despite Scott Brooks toying with his minutes. If the Wizards can keep Bryant around last season's workload he'll easily be a steal in fantasy leagues, though we're obviously hoping he takes hold of the starting job.
Source: Fred Katz on Twitter
June 26, 2019, 6:30 pmRomeo Langford - PG - Boston Celtics
The Celtics start Summer League practice this weekend but first-round pick Romeo Langford will not be cleared for full contact.
Langford is recovering from right thumb surgery, which is not expected to have any significant long-term effects. This is just the Celtics taking it easy on their new rookie. Hopefully he's cleared before Summer League ends, otherwise we'll get our first look at him in preseason.
Source: Adam Himmelsbach on Twitter
June 26, 2019, 5:58 pmEnes Kanter - C - Trail Blazers
The Blazers, Lakers and Celtics are among the teams that will be interested in free agent Enes Kanter, according to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.
Portland knows Kanter well and would surely like to have him back after his admirable work filling in for an injured Jusuf Nurkic, while playing through his own serious ailments, in the playoffs. The Celtics could use a ferocious rebounder to replace Aron Baynes and are barren at the center spot with Al Horford's departure, while the Lakers are lining up cost-effective depth with their roster almost completely empty. Kanter might not replicate his Knicks numbers, but he'll be a standard-league asset no matter where he lands.
Source: Chris Haynes on Twitter
June 26, 2019, 5:51 pmCheick Diallo - PF - New Orleans Pelicans
Cheick Diallo will be an unrestricted free agent after the Pelicans decided not to extend him a qualifying offer.
Diallo has solid per-minute output but the playing time has never been there for him in New Orleans. He's got talent and good work ethic, but the league is flooded with available big men at the moment. Hopefully Diallo lands in a spot where he can continue his development.
Source: Adrian Wojnarowski on Twitter
June 26, 2019, 5:43 pmNikola Mirotic - PF - Milwaukee Bucks
Nikola Mirotic is another player on the Mavs' list of free agent targets, per Brad Townsend of the Dallas News.
Mirotic is not as high on the list as Patrick Beverley, but the Mavs see the stretch forward as a potential fit. While Mirotic ended the postseason out of the rotation for Milwaukee, he's going to be a hot commodity given his floor-spacing and should hold solid standard-league value no matter where he ends up.
Source: Dallas News
June 26, 2019, 5:39 pmTobias Harris - SF - Philadelphia Sixers
The Clippers, Mavs, Nets, Nuggets, Wolves, Kings, Grizzlies and Pelicans are expected to be interested in Tobias Harris once free agency opens.
The Clippers are the most surprising team on the list, but only because they dealt Harris unexpectedly last season. Even so, the team and player had success together and the relationship wasn't necessarily damaged by the deal. Harris is one of the top second-tier free agents available and should have his pick of competitive offers. The Sixers are said to be confident about re-signing him, but they won't be able to do so without a fight.
Source: The Athletic
June 26, 2019, 5:30 pmJulius Randle - PF - New Orleans Pelicans
The Bulls are expected to indicate "early interest" in Julius Randle, according to The Athletic's Shams Charania.
Randle is coming off a career year and is looking to cash in. The Bulls have plenty of space available and won't be in the mix for max players, so there's definitely a fit salary-wise if Chicago can get in on Randle before other teams pivot off the top players. It would be a pain for fantasy players however, as Randle joining a frontcourt that already features Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. would put a cap on each player. The Knicks and Nets are also interested in Randle, and we'll hear about more suitors in the coming days.
Source: The Athletic