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Free Agency Winners and Losers: Kawhi keeps Raptors, Lakers, Clippers waiting

Dave Zarum, Sportsnet.ca | posted Tuesday, Jul 2nd, 2019

We didn’t have to wait long for the fireworks to get started — actually, we didn’t have to wait at all. A furious first night of NBA free agency saw the landscape of the league change drastically in a matter of hours.

There’s still plenty of dust to settle — including the much-awaited decision from Kawhi Leonard — but until then, here’s a look at early winners and losers of free agency.

Winner: Golden State Warriors

Despite reportedly offering him a max deal, the Warriors lost Kevin Durant to Brooklyn, but still wound up among the biggest — and most shocking — winners on Sunday night.

First, the team re-signed Klay Thompson to a five-year deal. If Thompson is back from his ACL injury by the new year, or trade deadline, then a Thompson-Steph Curry backcourt remains arguably the most lethal in the NBA and should keep the Warriors status as perennial contenders intact.

Then, the team went ahead and removed “arguably” from that last sentence by landing restricted free agent D’Angelo Russell from the Brooklyn Nets in a sign-and-trade. Russell, a 23-year-old all-star point guard last season and former second-overall pick, was always expected to be moved — but the Warriors name had never came up in any rumours or reports until the deal was done.

Russell gives the Warriors another lethal shooter who will help Golden State remain dangerous as they await Thompson’s return and let their new three-man backcourt run wild in the competitive West.

Winner: The East’s talent pool

The Eastern Conference All-Stars — if that were still a thing — got a lot stronger on Sunday night.

Leading up to free agency there was a chance that the East would weaken and lose a number of its stars, with rumours linking the likes of Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton, Al Horford, Tobias Harris, Kemba Walker and others to Western conference clubs.

All of those players remained in the East, although the chairs shuffled around quite a bit, while the conference gained a mega-star in the form of Kevin Durant.

In a world in which Kawhi Leonard returns to Toronto, the East could boast three or four of the NBA’s top five in Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Durant, and Joel Embiid.

Here’s are the highlights from the East’s great shakeup after night one:

• Kevin Durant to the Nets
• Kyrie Irving to the Nets
• Kemba Walker to the Celtics
• Jimmy Butler to the Heat
• Al Horford to the 76ers
• Josh Richardson to the 76ers
• Malcolm Brogdon to the Pacers

The other winner here is parity in the East; depending on what happens with Leonard, the East could be wide open. While the 76ers and Nets made the most improvements, all of the teams listed above have rosters that could compete for a spot in the Finals.

Of course, Leonard remains the biggest and most mysterious domino yet to fall. His decision will have a major impact on the East’s landscape (…and ditto the West). Should Leonard return to Toronto, the Raptors become the favourites to return to the Finals — and probably even title favourites — but if he leaves, there could instantly be as many as five or six teams jockeying for top spot in the East (and the Raps won’t be one of them).

Loser: The teams that won’t sign Kawhi

One, for the obvious reason that if a team strikes out on Leonard, they lose out on both the game’s top player and the opportunity to become instant championship favourites.

But after roughly 1,304 notable players found a home on the first night alone, the remaining free agent market is suddenly paper thin.

This isn’t really a factor for the Raptors, who aren’t likely to dive into the free agency pool apart from re-signing Leonard, but for teams like the Clippers and Lakers, their search for a star via free agency will be an abject failure.

Winner: the new-look 76ers
For awhile, it looked fairly bleak for Philadelphia. Jimmy Butler was reportedly on his way out — which turned out to be true — and right out of the gate, starter JJ Redick signed with the New Orleans Pelicans (another big winner on Sunday).

The team was able to re-sign Tobias Harris, which is good, but not enough to make up for two crucial losses.

But later in the night the Sixers pulled off a pair of big moves, first sending Butler to the Miami Heat in a sign-and-trade that netted them another great defender and potent scorer in Josh Richardson. Then they signed five-time all-star Al Horford away from the Boston Celtics, a move that seemed to come out of nowhere.

Now the Sixers are a defensive juggernaut with a top-five of Ben Simmons, Richardson, Harris, Horford, and Joel Embiid. Talk about re-tooling on the fly…

Winner: The small market teams

The Oklahoma City Thunder won one for the little guys last year by beating L.A. and re-signing Paul George. This year, it’s the Utah Jazz and Indiana Pacers who were among the biggest winners — not for making a big splash on a marquee name, but for more subtle, yet potentially just as significant moves on Sunday.

The Jazz signed Bojan Bogdanovic, an underrated forward who was instrumental to Indiana’s strong season despite losing Victor Oladipo to injury. His shooting and scoring ability will provide a much needed boost to a Utah team that also signed quality reserve Ed Davis and recently traded for point guard Mike Conley, Jr. — making them a sleeper contender in the West.

The Pacers may have lost Bogdanovic, but surprised many when they acquired guard Malcolm Brogdon from the Milwaukee Bucks in exchange for draft picks, and also signed under-the-radar scoring threat Jeremy Lamb.

Loser: Adam Silver and the anti-tampering movement

Frankly at this point it’s insulting to our intelligence. Teams and players can’t engage before the 6 p.m. ET start to free agency, we’re told, yet obviously negotiations have been long underway. In the hour leading up to 6 p.m., there were countless signings announced, and by 6:01, there were countless more.

Not sure what the answer is here for commissioner Adam Silver and the NBA, but for now, their ability to effectively enforce any anti-tampering rules is non-existent.

 

Winner: The Brooklyn Nets

There are obvious risks given there’s no precedent of a player at Durant’s age (32 when he’s expected to return at the start of the 2020-21 season) returning to form after an Achilles’ injury. But Durant’s size and skill-set should allow him to remain at least a highly-effective weapon on offence.

Who knows how much of a threat the Nets will be this season, but they’re eyeing a clear opportunity to make some noise in 2020 and beyond.

Loser: The New York Knicks

First, the obvious: The New York Knicks traded Kristaps Porzingis — a 22 year-old seven-foot-three centre who shoots threes, blocks shots, defends, and runs the floor — for cap space and the opportunity to sign one of the many big-name free agents this summer, specifically a not-so-secret shot at signing Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, or both.

They signed neither, settling for Julius Randle — a fine young forward, but not in the class of reported targets like Durant, Irving, or even Walker.

After losing at the draft lottery, the franchise took another hit on Sunday night after ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported that the team decided to low-ball Kevin Durant, who was widely expected to receive a max contract. Of course, it was later reported that Durant and Irving both ended up taking a discount to go down the street to the Brooklyn Nets, another blow for a franchise that’s already punch-drunk.

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