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Most interesting teams after 2021 NBA Free Agency.

2021 NBA free agency

The 2021 NBA Free Agency jamboree is effectively done and dusted for another year.

Earlier this week, we took a look at some of the more interesting individual additions. Today, it’s time to take a look at the teams themselves.

As always, there will be winners and losers announced, but this article isn’t about that. Rather, we’re going to examine some of those teams that have made significant moves but still leave equally as significant questions unanswered.

Los Angeles Lakers

Better the Devil, you know, eh?

The Lakers have gone back to the well this offseason, literally. All of their offseason additions are players known to either the organisation or to superstar/de facto general manager LeBron James.

All of Kent Bazemore, Wayne Ellington and Trevor Ariza will suit up for their 2nd tour of duty as a Laker. Dwight Howard for his 3rd. Even the non-returning Laker additions are known quantities. Russell Westbrook is no doubt a polarising player, but you know what you’re getting with him. As an individual, he’s seemingly in King James’ good graces, which always helps. Their final addition is one Carmelo Kyam Anthony, who is only one of LeBron’s best friends on the planet.

As you may have noticed, each and every one of those additions is on the downslope of their career arc. Not one of them is going to provide positive trade value down the road, but with James turning 37 years old in December, the future is not something at the front of LA’s mind.

So how do the Lakers additions fit for the here and now?

The Lakers always need shooting and perimeter defense to complement James and Anthony Davis. Westbrook and Howard aside, all of their new players provide some degree of floor spacing. Bazemore has turned himself into an excellent shooter over the course of his career. Ellington very quietly connected on 42.2% of his six attempts from deep last season whilst playing off of Jerami Grant and a Plumlee (it doesn’t matter which one). He should only improve alongside James, Davis, and Westbrook.

Where this set of seven falls over is in relation to the team’s other need: defense.

Under a marvelous defensive coach in Frank Vogel, the Lakers have built their success in the LeBron era upon a steadfast defense. Many of their departing players were superior defensively, or at worst, could hold their own. Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Alex Caruso (more on him below) were all very good examples of the fabled 3-and-D role player.

For all the shooting that their latest set of role playing wings provide, only Ariza has a reputation as a defensive stopper; but he has not lived up to that moniker for a number of seasons.

Dwight Howard is a three time Defensive Player of the year, but the last of those came 11 years ago. These days he’s an excellent rebounder (17.5 per 36 minutes) and a good shot blocker, but his positional defense has declined markedly as his mobility has waned, thus his remarkably high foul count. He’ll be valuable, but only in limited minutes. That makes any potential contributions from the equally ancient Marc Gasol vitally important.

But let’s not bury the lede any further. This offseason for the Lakers is all about Russell Westbrook. At this stage of his career, it’s plainly clear that Russ isn’t a ceiling raiser for your team, but he is most certainly a floor raiser. To that end, he should be able to carry the Lakers for short stretches should James or Davis suffer injuries or, in LeBron’s case, need a rest. Given he provides nothing of substance defensively, Russ’s impact will be measured on offense.

The $64,000 question is this: how does Russ adapt to playing away from the ball? He’s clearly the 3rd best player on this team. Hopefully, for the 1st time in his career, he understands that. Given Westbrook’s predilection for standing in the corner, hands on his knees when he doesn’t have the ball, can he turn himself into an active off ball presence? If he does, the Lakers have a legitimate Big Three that could mesh beautifully. If history holds true, though, this could be a very expensive gamble gone wrong.

It should be noted that Westbrook hasn’t had the greatest on injury luck over the past few seasons. Both in Houston and Washington, he was able to come on strong in the 2nd half of the campaign. He was a prime mover in Washington’s late playoff push. If Russ can start a season healthy for the first time in years, that could make a huge difference to his integration.

Chicago Bulls

Chicago’s offseason is a case study in the definition of ‘success.’

Coming into the 2021 campaign on the back of three straight lottery appearances, the Bulls changed tack in trading for Orlando centre Nikola Vucevic, clearly valuing making the playoffs over developing the youngsters they had drafted over that span. Their offseason moves only strengthen that stance.

Their primary additions, in a vacuum, all make some modicum of sense.

Lonzo Ball is an ideal fit next to incumbent star Zach LaVine. He’s not a traditional half court point guard but is a maestro in the open floor who should create a bevy of highlights with LaVine. In the half court, he’s turned himself into a very good catch-and-shoot option who can play off of the newfound creativity across this roster. Defensively, his ability as an off the ball disrupter is most welcome. Whilst LaVine has improved defensively, the only incumbent who is even close to being considered a stopper would be 2nd year forward Patrick Williams.

That’s where another of the Bulls signings comes in: former Lakers’ cult hero Alex Caruso. The 27 year old guard is not the player that some of the more delusional folk on #NBATwitter would have you believe, but he is a very good on ball defender who can provide resistance at the point of attack that nobody else on this roster can.

Offensively, he’s creative, though for every imaginative pass to a teammate, there’s an equally inventive pass straight to an opponent – in short, if Caruso is handling the rock, then your offense is in trouble. Where he provides value on offense is as a reliable – if somewhat streaky – floor spacer. Caruso has connected on 37.7% of his attempts beyond the arc through his career, including a 40% clip last season. He’s another that should thrive amongst the play making that surrounds him in Chicago.

It’s the last of Chicago’s big free agency additions that is so confounding: the sign and trade for veteran forward DeMar DeRozan. Let’s not denigrate DeRozan’s ability here. The man is a four time All Star and, through his three years stint as a Spur, has turned himself into an exceptional play making forward. That passing ability dovetails perfectly with his mid range artistry, where DeRozan footwork and finishing are a genuine throwback to the high scoring wings of the 80s and 90s.

On this team, DeRozan could well be the fulcrum of the half court offense. LaVine is better in the open floor than the half court; Ball is not an effective half court creator. Vucevic is a magnificent half court option, able to pummel players down low and step outside, hitting an even 40% of his 6.3 attempts from three last season. His elbow pick and pop game with DeRozan could be magic.

Alternatively, DeRozan could monopolise the basketball, thus marginalising LaVine and Vucevic by turning them into spot up shooters. He could stop Ball and LaVine from getting out in the open court where they’re so devastating. Defensively, DeRozan adds absolutely nothing to this team. To be fair, he’s added practically nothing defensively to any team he’s played for, so this wouldn’t be news to Bulls’ main decision maker in Arturas Karnisovas.

So what to make of all of these moves?

Clearly, the Bulls’ standard MO of acquiring players for their potential ceilings rather than as floor raisers is a thing of the past. This iteration of the Bulls is a 6th seed in waiting. Could they be better? Sure. They might, might be able to sneak into a 4th seed if things fall their way. They could just as easily fall into the play-in tournament, too.

It looks to this writer as though the Bulls are being influenced by two factors: crowds returning to the arena; and LaVine’s impending free agency. Chicago is desperate to make the playoffs to give their long suffering fans something to hold on to and to give LaVine a reason to stick around for another contract.

If they secure a low playoff seed, the crowds are happy and LaVine inks another deal, then this season will be a success in Chicago. If LaVine leaves, then all of this was for nothing, and the Bulls are onto yet another rebuild.

Washington Wizards

The Wizards have been in a seemingly endless loop entitled ‘How do we put a 2nd star next to Bradley Beal?’. That looks to have finally changed.

After the John Wall era came to its sad but inevitable end and the Russell Westbrook experience proved not to their liking, they’ve settled on leaving Beal as the singular main man on the team, choosing to instead surround him with players that should complement his game.

The clear Robin to Beal’s Batman will be the newly signed Spencer Dinwiddie, acquired in that absurd five team monstrosity that began with Westbrook’s trade to the Lakers. The durability of the 28 year old can rightly be questioned, but his production in 2020 (his last complete campaign) cannot. Whilst it’s unlikely he’ll match the 20 point/7 assist figures he put up then, he’s perhaps the ideal point guard to play next to Beal. Dinwiddie is creative enough to run the team, thus allowing Beal’s gravity as a shooter to bend the floor or play off the ball, which puts the rock in the hands of the Wizards’ superstar. He’s not nearly the force of nature that Wall or Westbrook was for Washington, but he’s a far steadier presence at both ends of the floor. He’ll give Washington a reliable option when Beal rests, without expectations of a more prominent role.

The Wizards’ recent lottery trips have netted them their presumed forward rotation of the future in Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija, and the sharp shooting Corey Kispert. Washington will also be hoping for a bounce back season from sniper Davis Bertans.

In the middle, they will welcome the return of Thomas Bryant from a knee injury. Bryant isn’t a strong defensive presence, not really protecting the rim or rebounding with any great fervour. What he does bring is an ability to finish on the roll and a strong three point shot, albeit in limited volume.

The defensive work at the five will come from 2nd year pogo stick Daniel Gafford, who averages 11.1 boards and an outstanding 3.6 blocks per 36 minutes over his short career.

When you look down this Wizards roster, you quickly realise that there is suddenly quite a lot of depth to the squad. You can also see a very clear hierarchy: Beal, then Dinwiddie, then Bryant/Hachimura, then the rest. That can’t be underestimated. Beal’s emergence as a true #1 option clearly irked John Wall, and the mere thought of being a 2nd option has never crossed the mind of Westbrook.

Whilst they’re not going to push for a top four spot, this Washington team – health permitting – should be in the top eight in the East. Subtracting the obvious chemistry issues they’ve had over the past five years should lead to a more harmonious locker room and, by extension, a happier Beal.

But what if the young talent doesn’t take a step forward? What if Dinwiddie’s body continues to betray him? What if Bertans’ slump is the new normal and his big year as a Spur was the outlier? Will we finally see Beal ask out of Washington?

San Antonio Spurs

San Antonio’s post golden generation rebuild has seen them acquire a raft of very good complementary players, but nobody for them to compliment. The roster is littered with players who are excellent at filling their roles like Dejounte Murray, Derick White, Jakob Poeltl, Keldon Johnson. Lonnie Walker shows flashes of genuine star potential but likely tops out as an explosive 6th man type.

The Spurs are in desperate need of a focal point. DeRozan isn’t good enough to be that man, so moving on from him was understandable. But have any of the front office moves really changed the landscape?

Whilst draft capital was the main return in the DeRozan sign-and-trade, don’t sleep on veteran forward Thad Young. He’s the obvious opening day starter at power forward. The 33 year old effectively abandoned the three pointer last season but contributes in just about every other part of the game. He is a plus defender against bigger wings – a treasured commodity – and can switch up and down the positional spectrum. Offensively he is a classic glue guy, able to link up the play (4.3 assists last season), move well off the ball, and score without having any action ran for him. He’s no star but is a very good pickup, all the same.

Along similar lines is the signing of Doug McDermott. The sharpshooting forward is another big wing capable of playing at the four. He will give the Spurs the true knockdown shooter they’ve lacked since Bertans left town, shooting over 40% from beyond the arc for his career. He won’t add anything on the defensive side of the basketball but will provide spacing, savvy cutting (a must in Gregg Popovich’s system), and enough offensive flexibility to be able to fit into just about any five man unit.

As a brief aside, the Spurs also received Chandler Hutchison in that monstrosity of a five team deal. He’s another big wing with the ability to play power forward for stretches, though he has yet to really put it together at the NBA level. A consistent and injury free run will hopefully help the 25 year old find his place in the league.

As much as the Spurs have stocked up on bigger wings, their true value plays are for a pair of stretch bigs in former Blazer Zach Collins and Australian big man Jock Landale. Collins has missed more games than he’s played over his career, including 71 games missed in 2020 and all of the 2021 season. His deal (3 years/$22 million) is cheap enough that should Collins’ shoulder injuries prove terminal to his career, the Spurs are not on the hook for serious coin. Should he get his body right and start to fulfill his obvious potential as a rim protecting big with shooting range, then the Spurs have themselves a bargain.

Landale is a similar type of player. The 25 year old has been one of the best big men outside the league for a couple of years. At 6’11’ and 250 pounds, he’s the same size as Collins, but unlike the former lottery pick, he is a far more physical presence and – importantly – is immensely more durable. Landale doesn’t have the same vertical athleticism that Collins possesses, but is still very quick around the court, able to switch onto guards with some success, is a reasonable post player, an excellent cutter, and has turned himself into a good outside shooter. Popovich traditionally likes to use two big men where possible. Both Collins and Landale allow him to play another big next to Poeltl without clogging the lane.

Whilst none of these moves give the Spurs the focal point they so crave, they do give them some positional flexibility. They also give San Antonio a number of very tradable contracts. Given they’re not at all a noted free agency destination, could the Spurs be lining up for an opportunistic trade should a star become available?

New York Knicks

There has been a lot of consternation over the Knicks offseason signings and extensions.

To recap, they’ve extended Julius Randle, Derrick Rose, Alec Burks, and Nerlens Noel. They brought in former Celtic teammates (for a hot minute) in Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker to replace Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock.

Examining the extensions, they all look expensive but can be justified.

Randle – 4 years/$117 million – is a bet that his breakout 2021 season will be his new standard. If he’s able to maintain his play, then the contract is somewhat of a bargain. Even if Randle drops away a touch from his 2021 All NBA level play, his deal still equates to what a Jamal Murray type is earning. That seems about right for a star that isn’t quite a true superstar.

Rose’s agreement is a little more dicey. On raw numbers, a 3 year/$43 million contract for a player that averaged 15 points per contest off the bench would seem like a great deal. But there are, as there always are with Rose, complexities. He turns 33 years old shortly after the season opens, and whilst he’s enjoyed three years of good health, the spectre of another leg injury is always lurking with the unfortunate Rose. It’s also worth noting that Rose enjoyed a massive outlier of a season when shooting the three. The 31.1% career marksman connected on 41.1% of his treys in the past season – that’s right, a full 10% better than his career average. This is the most obvious regression to the mean statistical candidate that this writer has perhaps ever seen. Throw in the total lack of defense that Rose provides, and this contract has all the markings of one that will age poorly.

At 3 years/$32 million, Nerlens Noel’s extension will either look brilliant or horrible, based on one single factor: is he the long term starter? If he starts, the somehow still only 27 year old will be one of the cheapest starting fives in the NBA. He’s still just about as bouncy as he was in his early days, able to block shots with ease, but he’s added enough lower body strength that he can hold his position against bigger bodies. His reflexes are still cat like, allowing him to pick off passes, interrupt dribbles and cause deflections. Whilst his shooting range extends barely beyond his arm, he’s still a valuable lob threat, though not as effective in that area as Mitchell Robinson.

Ahh, yes! Mr. Robinson. Talent wise, the 23 year old is basically everything that Noel is, but better. Robinson’s issues start and finish between the ears. His attentiveness on defense is patchy at best. He ball watches to an alarming degree, and even right now, he’s probably somewhere biting on a pump fake. Encouragingly his foul rate has dropped year on year, so he’s shown the capacity to change his behaviours. That begs the question: can he develop enough to take back his starting role? If he does, then Noel’s contract falls into that bracket of overpaid backups alongside Derrick Favors, Tristan Thompson, Dwight Powell, and Deandre Jordan.

The players New York imported are just as interesting.

Evan Fournier is the big money addition as the long time Magic guard signed with Boston for $78 million over 4 years. This deal has a whiff of Old New York on it – the classic overpay for an above average free agent (see: Houston, Allan). Fournier’s shooting definitely fits a need, and he’s an infinitely more versatile offensive player than the departed Bullock. But Fournier provides precious little play making, positional versatility, or defense. That last trait in particular could prove a problem for coach Tom Thibodeau. This deal will pay Fournier like the elite shooters: Joe Harris, Duncan Robinson, and Davis Bertans. Fournier is not in their realm as a shooter.

Kemba Walker’s $8 million deal is a far sight cheaper than Fournier’s, thanks to his buyout from the Thunder. His offensive skill set is exactly what the Knicks need: shooting and play making. Walker is, of course, a minus defender, but he at least tries. Thibs will appreciate that. The biggest concern with Kemba is that troublesome knee. If he can stay somewhat healthy, or at least see to it that he doesn’t get injured at the same time as Rose, then this is a slam dunk win for the Knicks.

What remains to be seen, though, is what the Knicks end game. After so many years as a laughing stock, is the plan to simply win back some respectability through repeated playoff appearances? If so, it would mark the 1st time in a generation that the New York front office has played the long game.

This writer, however, can’t help but look at some of those contracts and see how they could fit together in a package for a max contract player. With Damian Lillard seemingly unsettled, Ben Simmons (a horrible fit in New York, for what it’s worth) very much available, and Bradley Beal chatter never far from the surface, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if Madison Square Garden finds itself the home to a new superstar – and not much else – before the season is out.

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