All right, take a deep breath. The 2022 edition of NBA free agency began with the typical flurry of moves that were somehow finalized in the first 30 seconds of the negotiation window, but things have finally slowed down, giving us time to reflect on all the movement, surprises, and Oscar-worthy Brian Windhorst memes.
Each free-agency period is different, as sometimes superstars make shocking decisions to change teams, and other times we’re left waiting and wondering while key decisions are left until the dog days of July — or later. This time around, there’s one crucial name everyone is waiting to see move (psst, it rhymes with Devin Kurant), and once that happens it will surely set off a chain reaction that will shape the league for the 2022-23 season.
For now, however, let’s take a step back and look at six things we learned from the first weekend of 2022 NBA free agency.
1. It pays to be a superstar
Within hours of the official start of 2022 free agency on Thursday, NBA teams had already committed a total of over $1 billion to five players. Yes, five players:
Not much later, New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson agreed to a five-year extension that could reach $231 million with incentives. Reminder: He’s played 85 games (including no playoff appearances) in three seasons. All-Star guard Darius Garland, who has yet to hit the 70-game plateau in a single season, agreed to an almost identical deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The lesson is simple, however trite it’s become. The NBA is a superstar’s league, and it’s nearly impossible to win without one. Stephen Curry. Giannis Antetokounmpo. LeBronJames. Kawhi Leonard. Kevin Durant. Those are just the last five title winners. To find a team that last won a title without any player you could conceivably consider a superstar, you have to go back to the 2004 Detroit Pistons.
NBA teams know this, and that’s why we saw such eye-popping numbers being signed over to players who could potentially be the best player on a title team. Get used to it, because those figures are going to continue to rise. Jokic is set to make $61 million in 2027-28, the final year of his newly agreed upon extension. When the NBA negotiates its new rights deal after the 2024-25 season, it might be realistic to expect the league’s best players to be taking home over $100 million in a single season by the final years of their contracts. Simply insane.
2. Trades are the new free agency
Close your eyes and think back to the summer of 2017. It was a simpler time when NBA fans worldwide were glued to their phones, laptops and TVs waiting to find out where coveted free agent Gordon Hayward would take his talents. First, it came out that he was signing with the Boston Celtics. Then that report was refuted. Then, finally, on the Fourth of July, exactly five years ago, Hayward revealed in a Player’s Tribune essay that he was, in fact, heading to Boston. What a thrill ride.
One year earlier, Kevin Durant made the free-agency decision that imploded the NBA universe and produced an unctuous meme that’s as relevant today as it was then.
In recent years, however, free agency has lost the majority of its sizzle. Designated player extensions and contracts (colloquially known as the supermax) were designed to give teams an advantage in retaining their own superstars. The advantage has become so great, however, that it makes zero financial sense for the player to sign elsewhere. Take Beal, for example. Had he elected to change teams this offseason and spur Washington’s five-year, $251 million offer, his contract with another team could “only” reach the ballpark of four years, $185 million. You’d have to be thoroughly disgusted with your home city and absolutely detest your teammates to leave almost $70 million of guaranteed money on the table.
It makes much more sense to secure the financial windfall and then, if things don’t work out down the road, simply demand a trade (why hello again, Mr. Durant!). That’s why there was so little credible buzz about any of this year’s top potential free agents — Beal, Zach LaVine, James Harden — actually leaving their teams. Until something changes in the CBA, you can expect most players to continue to re-sign and/or extend with their current teams and figure it out later, significantly deflating what used to be a frenzied free-agency period.
In its place, however, we’ve gotten trade demands and blockbuster deals that rival, and perhaps exceed, the excitement that free agency used to bring. So we’re not exactly complaining.
3. KD may never be satisfied
Unless you’re one of the seven people left in the world who hasn’t seen “Hamilton,” you’re probably familiar with one of the production’s most impressive and revelatory numbers. As her sister is set to marry the protagonist, Alexander Hamilton, a prescient Angelica Schuyler realizes that both she and Hamilton have a constant yearning that they can’t seem to fill.
“And I know she’ll be happy as his bride,” Schuyler concludes. “And I know, he will never be satisfied. I will never be satisfied.”
One of the musical’s themes is that the very drive and determination that Hamilton allowed to rise from humble beginnings to one of the most prominent figures in American history are also what prevented him from being content with the accomplishments and accolades he’s earned.
It’s easy to think of this when looking at Durant, who has requested a trade from the Brooklyn Nets after signing a four-year, $198 million extension with the franchise less than a year ago. Murmurs of Durant’s discontent reached a fervor when contract talks between Brooklyn and Kyrie Irving were briefly at an impasse, but most expected that Irving opting into the final year of his deal would keep Durant in Brooklyn alongside his good friend and the partner he chose three summers ago.
Instead, Durant has asked out, with the Phoenix Suns and Miami Heat reportedly atop his list of preferred destinations. The irony is almost too obvious. Durant has consistently pushed back against criticism for his decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder to join the 73-win Golden State Warriors. He’s also pushed back against those who say his two titles in Golden State are diminished because of their loaded roster. Joining the Nets along with Irving — and later James Harden — Durant gave an opportunity to be the unquestioned alpha on a potential title team, but that quickly went south due to injuries and an eventual trade demand from Harden.
Durant didn’t seem satisfied after winning his titles and Finals MVPs as part of a superteam. Now he doesn’t seem content trying to do it on his own, and wants to join one of last season’s No. 1 seed to endure the criticism all over again? It’s all confusing from the outside, and maybe it should be. We like to think we understand what’s going on within the minds of NBA players, but we truly have no clue. Durant is entitled to seek any situation that he feels will bring him happiness.
But as he prepares to leave a franchise for the third time in his career, it’s fair to question whether Durant is seeking satisfaction that he’ll simply never find.
4. Lakers going to Lakers
Last offseason the Lakers were criticized for surrounding LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook with old players who couldn’t shoot, which ultimately led to a catastrophic season in which they missed the playoffs. So this offseason Rob Pelinka and the front office decided to pivot. They elected to sign young players … who also can’t shoot:
As you can see, Walker is the only high-volume 3-point shooter of the bunch, and his 3-point percentage has consistently deteriorated over his four years in the NBA, down to a career-low 31 percent last season on five attempts per game. Toscano-Anderson, despite being a smart, winning piece on a championship team, also shot a career-low 32 percent from deep last season.
It was wise for the Lakers to inject some youth and defensive help (maybe?), but they seem to be repeating their mistakes by ignoring one of the most important skills in the game today. In true Laker fashion, however, there’s a semi-attainable deus ex machina waiting to solve all their problems!
With Durant requesting a trade, the consensus is that Kyrie Irving will be next to go, and the Lakers and Nets have reportedly been in preliminary contact about a possible Irving-Westbrook swap. This would obviously go a long way toward solving the Lakers’ shooting woes, especially if Brooklyn throws in Joe Harris or *swoons* Seth Curry (though they wouldn’t do much for the Lakers’ defensive issues).
The market for Irving doesn’t appear to be robust, so the Nets might possibly entertain taking on Westbrook’s massive expiring contract if the Lakers are willing to part with one or both of their available future first-round picks to set up an Irving-James reunion in Los Angeles.
Whether it happens or not, man, it must be exhausting to be a Lakers fan. There’s always some mythical move in the works that’s going to bring the franchise back to the promised land, but it’s anyone’s guess whether it actually happens. When it does (Shaquille O’Neal, Pau Gasol, LeBron James, Anthony Davis), it tends to work out pretty well. But if this one doesn’t come to fruition, it’s hard to find a path to contention for a franchise perpetually in championship-or-bust mode.
5. The Wolves REALLY wanted Rudy Gobert
Imagine someone telling you that an All-NBA mainstay was traded for four first-round picks (three nakedly unprotected), three promising young prospects and two veteran rotation players.
“Oh, Kevin Durant got traded?” you innocently ask, unaware of the jolt of confusion you’re about to receive.
“Nah. Rudy Gobert went to the Timberwolves.”
We can debate whether the trade was worth it until we’re midnight blue in the face, but this is inarguably a massive haul, one that very few — if any — anticipated in preceding Gobert trade rumors. All told, here’s what the Jazz took home in the deal:
It’s hard to imagine any other teams were offering anything close to that package for Gobert, but who knows?
This trade raises the asking price for pretty much any superstar on the market for the foreseeable future, including Durant. This is similar to the return the Lakers shipped out for Anthony Davis back in 2019, but Davis was 26 years old at the time, while Gobert just turned 30. Not to mention that Davis was then considered a top-10 player in the league, something Gobert — despite his defensive talents and accolades — has never approached.
It’s always best when trades work out for both sides, so here’s hoping Gobert is a great fit in Minnesota. But if he’s not, and the Wolves don’t end up significantly improving with him, this deal could look pretty rough a few years from now.
As for the Jazz, the world now appears to be their oyster, whether they choose to retool around Donovan Mitchell or commence a full rebuild by tanking their way into the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes.
6. Knicks are OK with being OK, and that’s OK
Jalen Brunson on a four-year, $104 million deal?
Mitchell Robinson on a four-year, $60 million deal?
Signing highly coveted backup center Isaiah Hartenstein?
Shedding the salaries of Kemba Walker, Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel while adding three moderately attractive future first-round picks?
New York’s offseason moves so far haven’t exactly initiated jubilant celebrations outside of MSG.
In reality, New York’s offseason has been a whole lot of “meh,” but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. None of these moves are bad. Even if it’s a slight overpay, the Brunson deal almost certainly isn’t going to be an albatross that hinders future dealings. The Robinson contract seems to be about the right price, and the finagling the front office did to secure a few future firsts on draft night was admirable.
Knicks fans may have wanted a big splash, but — like last offseason and many before that — such a move simply wasn’t available. There’s considerable value in trying to be a solid playoff team while building a good culture and developing young players. Eventually either those players become good enough that you vault from fringe postseason team to title contender (like the Boston Celtics) or you become attractive enough that superstars want to plant their flag with your franchise (like the *cough* Brooklyn Nets).
While they’re certainly not going to be a usual suspect in the pre-season title contender conversations, the Knicks will be OK next year, which could set them up to be better than OK at some point down the road.
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