The 2021 NBA free agency class will be defined, as usual, by the role player musical chairs that often determines tight playoff series. Players who have proven valuable in those series earned big contracts.
There were also some star moves, albeit no major ones apart from Russell Westbrook and the Los Angeles Lakers, and re-signings. After day 1, here are some winners and losers:
Winner: Chicago Bulls
The Bulls made a point of building around their core of Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic. They were in the discussion for a number of notable players, and they came through with big contracts for Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso. They needed defense and competent role players, and Ball and Caruso fit that bill.
The Bulls get some off-the-dribble play-making from Ball, but he’s more of a stationary 3-and-D player than any sort of secondary creator. Caruso is an elite defensive guard with smarts on offense. These acquisitions are a step in the right direction for Chicago.
Loser: Brooklyn Nets
It was always going to be a crunch for the Nets, whose team is ridiculously expensive with Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. Their bench and depth has felt the effects of cap crunch, as the Nets dealt sharpshooter Landry Shamet for the inferior, if still useful, Jevon Carter and the 29th overall pick. The trade saved them money.
They lost one of two free agents and have so far struggled to get involved in any others. They gave Blake Griffin another one-year deal, but let Jeff Green walk to the Nuggets. Green was a productive and versatile player.
Winner: Kyle Lowry and the Miami Heat
The Heat did an impressive job of scrounging up enough cap space to bring in Lowry, the star guard who can step in now as the third-best player on the team. Lowry is a good fit as a shooter and veteran ball-handler. The move is a risk given the price of the contract and the limited further ability to improve the team.
But the Heat now have three stars and a group of surrounding players that could prove very effective. They re-signed Jimmy Butler and Duncan Robinson to long term deals, and added PJ Tucker as a free agent. It’s debatable how far the Heat advance in the championship discussion with these moves, but they undoubtedly are an improvement.
Loser: New Orleans Pelicans
In a desperate offseason, the Pelicans have made some moves worthy of being questioned. Their trade of Ball may have helped open cap space, but Ball was quietly a good fit, and the trade return (Tomas Satoransky, Garrett Temple, second-round pick) was ultimately underwhelming. They followed that with their biggest acquisition so far: Devonte’ Graham, the Hornets gunner, who was signed and traded for a lottery-protected 2022 first round pick.
Charlotte should be happy to have emerged with a first-round pick out of Graham. The Pelicans are looking to add shooting around Zion Williamson, and Graham provides it. But this is a lot to pay, and Graham’s efficiency has never been high.
Winner: Former Lakers
With a barebones roster surrounding the new questionably-fitting big three, the Lakers turned to veterans they’re familiar with. All four players they’ve added played for the team at one point before.
Wayne Ellington is a proven sharpshooter who had a solid season in 2020-21. Trevor Ariza should provide competent 3-and-D services. Kent Bazemore will help a weakened perimeter defense while also shooting willingly from three. Dwight Howard makes a ton of sense as a backup center.
These are the right kinds of players that the Lakers should be targeting. They’ve put themselves in quite the predicament by adding Russell Westbrook, but rumors still swirl around players like Buddy Hield and Danny Green.