The 2017 free agent market has been cold thus far. This is likely a result of a disconnect between players and front offices in how they interpret last summer’s spending spree: Players want that same money, while teams are terrified of making the same mistake twice.
Through Weekend 1 of free agency, we have only seen 25 reported deals. We are still waiting for Gordon Hayward and Paul Millsap to make their decisions (this could also be freezing the market), as well as for restricted free agents such as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Otto Porter to sign offer sheets.
In the meantime, let’s take a look at the action that has transpired and break down the market implications, as well as the basketball ones.
Best contract for a player
Patty Mills, San Antonio Spurs (four years, $50 million): I wanted to choose Tony Snell here. He’s a worse player than Mills, and is considerably less proven. He would also allow me to write about how Milwaukee signed a far better player than Miles Plumlee to a cheaper contract than Miles Plumlee, and how that new contract was still extremely player friendly, and what that says about the Miles Plumlee deal.
I refrained, only because 3 and D wings are in such high demand that this may actually be a market-fair deal. Instead, I can say that Mills, who is receiving the same four years, $50 million that Plumlee did, is still robbing the generally-prudent Spurs here.
As a soon to be 29-year-old point guard who has proven his inability to do anything against big wing defenders (see: Thompson, China Klay), there’s no way Mills should come away with this many years and that many dollars. Not in this summer’s market, where point guards are in relatively low demand and unusually high supply. Credit to Mills for sensing this and signing before the money dried up, though any fringe starter would likely gobble up $50 million guaranteed, market savvy or not.
Runner up: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (five years, $201 million): Many have dubbed Curry’s supermax deal a win for Golden State because he did not receive a fifth-year player option or a no-trade clause.
The lack of a NTC is a win for the Warriors, though the likelihood of the team ever shopping Curry is less than unfathomable. As for the lack of an option year, who is to say that helps Golden State? The next time Curry hits the market, he’ll be one of two things: A dominant player still capable of commanding an even richer five-year max, or a former star in decline that the Warriors will want to part ways with (think Dwyane Wade last summer, or Kobe Bryant before his last contract). If it’s No. 1, the Warriors would want to lock in to that sure-to-be-bad-by-the-end deal when Curry is 33 rather than 34. If it’s No. 2, Curry would be opting into his fifth year anyway.
What we’re left with is the richest contract in NBA history. That’s a relative win, even if players should ultimately be paid more.
Best piece of bargaining
Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors (three years, $48 million): It’s unclear what other teams actually offered Iguodala. Regardless of what was out there, or how much he was secretly willing to re-sign for, the former Finals MVP cleverly created his own value. Throughout the season, he routinely brought up free agency on his own volition. This idiosyncratic behavior (most players avoid the topic entirely, even when asked) made his true intentions difficult to read. He further created uneasiness among the Warriors brass by scheduling external meetings, taking some, then canceling the rest before meeting with Golden State, that final action serving as a strategic “good will” gesture.
Iguodala the basketball player is worth $16 million to the Warriors, but Iguodala the person would have probably stayed for half that. Luckily for the brilliant, if not simply extremely strange small forward, Iguodala the bargainer never showed his hand.
Best contract for a team
Tie: Kyle Lowry (three years, $100 million) and Serge Ibaka (three years, $65 million): In both similar and unique ways, these are both A+ signings by Masai Ujiri.
The similarities: Ujiri had to pay slight premiums on yearly value to achieve this, but both players come off the books in three years. This is a hedge against decline, either of the two players individually or the team collectively. If the latter occurs, both become fascinating trade chips as soon as next summer. Had Ujiri given out more years to either, this would cease to be the case.
Ibaka: There is a long-standing rumor that Ibaka is older than his listed age, a rumor the big man recently exposed as racist and offensive. He’s certainly right. Rather than accusing him of lying about being 27 based on stereotypes, we should just accept that every athlete ages differently. Perhaps Ibaka’s remarks came partially out of frustration; most 27-year olds with Ibaka’s two-way pedigree command more years. Toronto, meanwhile, gets one of the better 3 and D bigs in basketball for the remainder of his 20s.
Lowry: Lowry’s free agency was treated as an existential dilemma for the Raptors during the season: Do they max out a player who is the greatest in franchise history, but is also guaranteed to be an albatross in two or three years? Can the Raptors ever reach contender status while Lowry is still a star? Are they better off rebuilding? Is there value in modest success?
Suddenly, with one three-year deal, Ujiri rendered all the discussion pointless. He found a way to keep the franchise player without locking the Raptors in to a long period of darkness down the line.
JJ Redick, Philadelphia 76ers (one year, $23 million): Ben Simmons will need a very specific type of team around him to reach his potential. Before the Redick signing, he didn’t have it. After it, he does. It really is that simple. The geometric shift that occurs when adding an elite shooter who can come off screens from every spot and any angle is major. When said player is replacing Gerald Henderson, the shift is profound. Redick’s spacing, scoring, wisdom and professionalism will help every young Sixer, but particularly their non-shooting 6’10” playmaking 20-year-old.
Runner up: PJ Tucker, Houston Rockets (four years, $32 million): Outside of a No. 2 option to lighten Harden’s absurd workload (Chris Paul, check), a versatile defender was Houston’s biggest need entering this offseason. Even the team’s best defensive players last year (Patrick Beverly, Trevor Ariza) were one, maybe two position defenders. Paul, for all his exploits, is no different.
Tucker is nothing if not switchable; he has the tree-trunk frame to bang down low and the quick-twitch instincts to stay with wings. He can guard 2 through 5, play with or in place of Ryan Anderson and allow Houston to go big or small. Tucker can shoot threes, too, which is of course the key to all of this. Mike D’Antoni now has a poor man’s Shawn Marion to pair with two rich man’s Steve Nash’s.
Taj Gibson, Minnesota Timberwolves (two years, $28 million): I have always hated coach/GM combos, and my hatred continues to be validated. Other than Tom Thibodeau’s affinity for toughness and his personal relationship with Gibson, what needs does the veteran big address for Minnesota? Of the Wolves nine rotation-caliber players, five are now power forwards and centers, meaning their need was, and still is, on the perimeter. More specifically, they need shooters. After finishing dead last in three point makes last season, they traded away Zach LaVine (2.6 makes per game). If they were to spend on a former Bulls big, they should have at least targeted Nikola Mirotic.
General managers are supposed to soberly assess their rosters and dispassionately work to improve them. Thibodeau has done neither thus far, though the Jimmy Butler trade proved that it is better to be biased than moronic.
Signing most likely to alter balance of power
Redick. This is more about all of the top guys staying put (Curry, Lowry, Griffin, Holiday) or not yet signing (Hayward, Millsap, Dion Waiters) than it is about this move being earth shaking. Considering the perpetual exodus of stars from the Eastern Conference, though, Redick to the Sixers suddenly makes them favorites for the sixth seed.
That fact alone does not tip the scales, but if the Sixers win 45 games as this year’s sexy up-and-comer, will there be a more desirable option for major free agents next summer? Of course, Redick’s one-year deal means he may not be around to see the team ascend to contender status with a major splash. But he will be key to whatever success the Sixers have this year, success which could ultimately alter the future of the East.