Ladies and gentlemen, your winners and losers from the first 24 hours of 2022 NBA free agency …
The Jokic brothers
Two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokic once described his brothers, Strahinja and Nemanja, thusly: “They look like serial killers, but they are actually really nice people when you meet them.” I do not know them. What little I do know sure suggests they are now the de facto security team for the NBA’s Biggest Contract Ever. Charlatans will swirl a $264 million contract, but not when the Jokic brothers are staring back at them.
“My brothers get crazy really quick,” Nikola once told ESPN’s Zach Lowe.
They created a Twitter account in order to inform the Morris twins, “If you want to make a step further be sure we will be waiting for you.” Nemanja is a 6-foot-6 Muay Thai fighter, and the 6-8 Strahinja “once held down my arms,” Nikola told Sports Illustrated, “and threw knives around my head. That was a little crazy.”
A little. Yeah.
“Why be afraid. I am playing a game of basketball. I am scared of only one person in my life. That’s my brother,” Nikola said, referencing Strahinja to the Denver Post’s Mark Kiszla in 2017. “Have you seen him?”
I have no idea if Nikola’s brothers still live with him, now that he is married, but his then-girlfriend did share a three-bedroom apartment with them in downtown Denver, where half a ton of prime Serbian beef was just “playing one-on-one, taking charges, swearing at each other” on a mini basketball hoop in some hallway.
“Nikola doesn’t have a choice in whether he wants us around or not,” Nemanja told SI.
OK, then. At least they have $264 million to fix the holes in the wall now.
The NBA’s old heads
Only 31 players who were drafted (or signed) before 2009 finished this past season on an NBA roster, and seven of them got paid in the first 24 hours of free agency to extend their rein as the league’s oldest heads.
As the negotiating window opened on Thursday, the Miami Heat reportedly sent “a delegation of employees” to 42-year-old Udonis Haslem’s house to see if he was interested in being paid $3 million to serve as coach Erik Spoelstra’s muscle on the bench for his 20th season. This is respect for your elders. Forget phoning agents and inquiring about Kevin Durant’s availability at 6 p.m. ET. Get UD his money.
PJ Tucker will be 40 when his guaranteed three-year, $11.6 million deal ends with the Philadelphia 76ers.
The San Antonio Spurs doubled the newly acquired Danilo Gallinari’s guaranteed salary to $10.4 million and bought the contract out, just so he could sign with the contending Boston Celtics for a reported $13 million.
Tucker, Gallinari, Nicolas Batum, JaVale McGee and Thaddeus Young, all between ages 34-37 next season, received multi-year deals worth a combined $91.6 million without hesitation at the beginning of free agency.
That does not even include 35-year-old Jeff Green, who opted into $4.5 million, or Kevin Durant, the soon-to-be 34-year-old who requested a trade in the hours before free agency and will fetch a monstrous return.
Zion Williamson’s chef
Williamson has missed almost twice as many as games as the 85 he has played in three seasons for the New Orleans Pelicans since they drafted him No. 1 overall in 2019, including all of last season, but the machinery of NBA business operations practically required the team to give him $207 million through 2028.
Williamson’s weight reportedly rose north of 300 pounds as he rested his broken foot last season, which would make the league’s heaviest player, even though he is nine inches shorter than Boban Marjanovic.
New Orleans cuisine can be awfully tempting, especially when you are rolling out of work at midnight, but Williamson’s new contract means he can comfortably afford the $1.5 million LeBron James has reportedly spent annually on personal chefs, masseuses, trainers and biochemists, among other investments into his body. There is another $38 million on the line if he gets to work now and makes an All-NBA team in 2023.
Jessica Holtz Steinberg
Holtz is the first female player agent to secure a maximum contract and did it twice within minutes of the midnight window opening on extensions, negotiating a pair of four-year, $224 million supermax deals with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Phoenix Suns for Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker, respectively.
Flying under the radar
Two quiet moves I think deserve extra credit: Kyle Anderson to Minnesota and Bruce Brown to Denver.
Both signed for a midlevel exception.
Anderson played 21.5 minutes off the bench for the Memphis Grizzlies last season, averaging a pedestrian 8-5-3 on 45/33/64 shooting splits, but he meant far more to them as a stabilizing veteran. He arrived from the San Antonio Spurs with playoff seasoning and helped Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins preach the Gregg Popovich gospel in Memphis. The team outperformed expectations every season, and he left them on a path to contention to join a Timberwolves team that is in serious need of leadership for their young stars.
Brown played 24.6 minutes per game for the Brooklyn Nets last season, both as a starter and reserve, and as a guard and forward. He has been the third-best player in Brooklyn’s last two playoff appearances on a roster filled with former All-Stars. You do not break through veteran bias without putting in the work. He and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope give Jokic a pair of reliable 3-and-D guys who are used to complementing stars.
Dort is a solid 3-and-D player. He scored 30 points in a Game 7 two years ago, nearly eliminating James Harden’s Houston Rockets in a first-round playoff series. He averaged 17 points a game on below-average shooting efficiency for a 24-win Oklahoma City Thunder team that needed someone to get up shots.
Is he worth $87.5 million over the next five years? Dort’s average annual salary of $17.5 million makes him the fifth-highest paid free agent in the first 24 hours, behind only Bradley Beal, Zach LaVine, Jalen Brunson and Anfernee Simons. Norman Powell got a five-year, $90 million deal from the Portland Trail Blazers last year, and they shed his salary before season’s end. Powell also had an extensive track record as a scorer and won a title playing 23 minutes a night off the bench in a conference finals for the Toronto Raptors.
It feels like $87.5 million is a stretch for Dort, but OKC failed to hit the salary floor last season, spreading an additional $22 million throughout the roster as a result, so someone might as well take the whole bag now.
It is no secret that Mitchell and Utah Jazz teammate Rudy Gobert were at odds over the past few seasons, resulting in one playoff series victory in the past four seasons, despite winning 65% of their regular-season games together. It felt inevitable that the franchise would choose between Mitchell and Gobert this summer, and they chose Mitchell on Friday, trading Gobert for five first-round picks and some useful role players.
Jazz executive Danny Ainge could turn around and trade Mitchell, too, but he is now armed with six first-round picks, all of which he acquired in the first 24 hours of free agency, to pursue talent around his star.
The more you look at Utah’s trade, the better it looks for the Jazz. Even if he is one of the best defensive players of his generation, Gobert is still a center who will be paid $46.7 million at age 33 in 2025-26 and at times has been exposed against small-ball offenses in crunch time of playoff games. They traded him for Jarred Vanderbilt, Patrick Beverley and Malik Beasley — three of the top seven players on one of the best second-half teams in the NBA this past season — and, again, five first-round picks (three unprotected).
The seven-time All-Star received permission from the Nets to pursue sign-and-trade deals around the deal, found nothing but a paltry offer from the Los Angeles Lakers and walked back into his $36.5 player option, only for Kevin Durant — the close friend who Irving convinced to join him in Brooklyn — to request a trade.
That has got to be an ego blow, even for Irving, who has spent the last five years singularly dismantling three Eastern Conference favorites without a hint of humility. Irving is an exceptional talent, and to be an afterthought in the roster-building plans for so many teams at the age of 30 takes a special person, too.
Now, he is left to either hitch his wagon to Durant’s exit strategy, negotiate an unprecedented buyout in the prime of his basketball career, or actually report to work and resurrect the value he has tanked as a player.
We cannot leave Brooklyn off the hook. Marks made his name as an executive rebuilding the Nets from a disastrous trade for past-their-prime stars into a frisky playoff opponent, only to make the same mistake as his predecessor. The heap of unprotected draft picks he traded for James Harden to assemble three of the most unpredictable superstars in NBA history for the league’s worst-ever chemistry experiment, could join Billy King’s acquisition of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce as disasters that set the franchise back decades.
The only way Marks can salvage this mess is to trade Durant for a haul of equal proportions. Even that may not remove the stench. The Nets ran around like a headless chicken at the start of free agency. They traded a first-round pick for Royce O’Neale, who is only really helpful to a contender. They let 25-year-old Brown walk for $13.3 million and signed 33-year-old Patty Mills for $14.5 million over the same two-year window.
Nic Claxton for $20 million over two years is fine. Then, you remember how badly Marks capitulated to his stars. The Nets signed DeAndre Jordan to a four-year, $40 million contract, just to satiate Durant upon his arrival, even though they had Jarrett Allen on the roster. They spent $6 million and four second-round picks to dump Jordan’s deal this past September, and then threw Allen into the Harden trade for a pittance.
Naturally, Allen is an All-Star for the Cleveland Cavaliers now.
Oh, and the Nets canned coach Kenny Atkinson, who just helped the Warriors win another title, all because Durant and Irving got to run the team. Maybe Marks will regain control of his organization at some point.
Golden State general manager Bob Myers spent the past several weeks lauding owner Joe Lacob for his willingness to spend well into the luxury tax, even for the 15th member of their championship roster. “A lot of owners would never have done that,” he told The Athletic. Myers added in his exit interview, “We’re going to try our best to … bring all those guys back. Thankfully, this ownership group supports that.”
Fast forward to July 1, and the Warriors lost Gary Payton II and Otto Porter Jr. to higher bidders and Nemanja Bjelica to the Euroleague. Those are financially prudent decisions, especially if Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody and James Wiseman replace them in the playoff rotation, but can we stop pretending that the NBA’s billionaire owners are charitable figures? Warriors ownership is worth billions, and they will profit from this past season. They bought the team for $450 million in 2010, and it is worth $5.6 billion.
They also have a breaking point on what they are willing to spend, even if it is higher than Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke, who also owns the Los Angeles Rams, Colorado Avalanche and Arsenal F.C., among other sports franchises, and just dipped under the luxury tax, despite being one of the world’s richest people.
The Knicks and Lakers evermore
Jalen Brunson, Isaiah Hartenstein and Mitchell Robinson are quality players, which is more than New York can say for every one of its free-agent classes, but signing all three for a combined $180 million feels a bit excessive — and not unlike last year’s plan, which the Knicks have spent this offseason trying to unravel.
After his first full season in the front office, executive Leon Rose spent a combined $310 million on Julius Randle, Evan Fournier, Derrick Rose, Alec Burks and Kemba Walker. The Knicks did not want a single one of those deals by the end of this past season. They traded a first-round pick, six second-round picks and $6 million to get out from under Burks, Noel and Walker, just so they could pay Brunson like an All-Star.
Two years and $16.7 million is decent for Hartenstein, but why then turn around and give Mitchell Robinson $60 million over the next four years? It is difficult to see a cohesive direction for the Knicks, so status quo.
Same goes for the Lakers, who did not have money to splurge this summer. They failed to retain Malik Monk and spent their midlevel exception on Lonnie Walker IV, a 3-and-D replacement without the 3 or D.
The Lakers spent minimum contracts on Damian Jones, Troy Brown Jr. and Juan Toscano-Anderson, bringing their total number of Klutch Sports clients to at least eight. (Klutch represents LeBron James. Remember how we discussed the separation of church and state as it applied to Durant and the Nets?)
The San Antonio Spurs and Chicago Bulls refused to extend qualifying offers to Walker and Brown. Jones bounced around on 10-day contracts for the second half of last season. At least Juan Toscano-Anderson carries some championship DNA from the Warriors, even if he played 17 meaningful playoff possessions.
It says a lot that this my be an upgrade from last season’s disastrous offseason, when executive Rob Pelinka traded for Russell Westbrook and signed a host of other washed veterans, who turned a title contender into a laughingstock. It still does nothing to address another star-laden chemistry disaster.
So much for Lakers exceptionalism.
Fringe Eastern Conference contenders
After sitting out the first night of free agency, Celtics executive Brad Stevens swiftly signed veteran sharpshooter Danilo Gallinari for the taxpayer midlevel exception and traded Daniel Theis, Aaron Nesmith and their 2023 first-round draft pick to the Indiana Pacers for former Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon.
Within hours on Friday, Stevens addressed two of the depth issues that cost Boston a title this past season. Gallinari is a big wing who can ease the regular-season pressure on Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, saving their energy for the playoffs, and Brogdon can run the offense if his teammates are dying on the vine, committing turnover after turnover. Both Gallinari and Brogdon can also shoot the lights out, combining to make 38% of their 9.3 combined 3-point attempts per game over the course of their careers.
The question is their health, but neither will be asked to carry a heavy load.
Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Bucks retained their core on affordable salaries (Bobby Portis, Pat Connaughton, Wesley Matthews and Jevon Carter for a combined $21.6 million next season) and added veteran Joe Ingles for the taxpayer midlevel exception. If Ingles reverts to form from his February ACL surgery by the start of the playoffs, his sharpshooting (41 3P% for his career) and playmaking will be useful.
The Philadelphia 76ers poached PJ Tucker from the Heat, added Danuel House and traded for De’Anthony Melton on draft night. The Atlanta Hawks traded three first-round picks to pair Dejounte Murray with fellow All-Star Trae Young. All of it was done to gain ground on the heavyweights at atop the Eastern Conference.
Still, the Celtics and Bucks, the two best teams in the East last season, kept their distance from the pack in the first 24 hours of free agency, which is all bad news for Miami, unless they win the Durant sweepstakes.
On to Day 2.
– – – – – – –