The party isn't technically over, but it's getting a little awkward for everybody who has stuck around. On Sunday evening, Marc Gasol left the Toronto Raptors for the Los Angeles Lakers, and Aron Baynes immediately stepped into his spot. Earlier in the day, restricted free agent Bogdan Bogdanovic signed an offer sheet with the Atlanta Hawks, giving the Sacramento Kings 48 hours to match it. With that, just five players remain unsigned out of the top 45 free agents on our free agency tracker.
Even that is overstating it. Two of the five are right at the top of the list, Anthony Davis and Brandon Ingram, who are both expected to re-sign for max money with their respective teams. Then there is restricted free agent big man Dario Saric and guards Langston Galloway and Shabazz Napier.
1. In Season 2, a new character on the LeBron and A.D. Show
I'll never forget the first game Gasol played for the Raptors. It was at Madison Square Garden in February of 2019, and he came off the bench. Immediately, Toronto's offense had more life. His teammates weren't always ready for his passes, but they would get used to them quickly.
A giddy Danny Green told me afterward that the Raptors wouldn't even have to alter their playbook with Gasol on the court for them to score in new ways. Gasol's vision opened up different options on their regular plays.
Kawhi Leonard made Toronto a legitimate contender, but Gasol's superlative feel for the game took the team up a notch. Those Raptors wouldn't have won the title without his post defense against Joel Embiid, his 3s against the Milwaukee Bucks and his passing against everybody. Now his job is to elevate the team that just won the title.
In LeBron James' 17 seasons, he has played with 173 teammates, none of them quite like Gasol. He will make the Lakers' devastating defense even better, but the offensive end is where he can be transformative. For a championship team, Los Angeles was pretty predictable in the halfcourt. Sometimes it was stiff and stagnant, leaving James to make something out of nothing. A career-low 29 percent of James' made shots were assisted last season, including a career-low 26 percent of his made shots at the rim, per Cleaning The Glass.
In 2013-14, the most efficient season of James' career, 42 percent of his made shots were assisted, including about half of his made shots at the rim. The Lakers' stated plan when he arrived was to turn him into more of a finisher again, but they deviated from it when their shooting-starved roster flopped and their top-heavy roster needed him to run point. They can revisit that now, with Gasol finding open cutters and shooters from the high post.
Playmaking 5s force defenses to worry about more angles of attack than they would otherwise. Gasol, however, is not your average playmaking 5. He is one of a handful of players in the league who reads the game as fast as James does, and their skills naturally complement each other. Before long, their chemistry could rival the borderline telepathic connection that took James years to build with Dwyane Wade.
For this to work the way I'm describing, Los Angeles needs to commit to a more unpredictable offense when training camp opens on Dec. 1, the same way it pledged to play championship-caliber defense at the beginning of Year 1 of the James-Davis era. James is used to controlling the game and manipulating the defense, and it will be obvious early on whether or not he is OK with a less ball-dominant rule.
Beyond the Gasol signing, the Lakers' approach to the offseason suggests that James is happy to cede some playmaking responsibility after the shortest season-to-season turnaround of his career, shortly before his 36th birthday. If he were not, why would they have targeted Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell? James' Cavaliers never gave Kevin Love enough elbow touches for my taste, but this could and should be different.
Even if the presence of Gasol, whose 36th birthday is a month after James', doesn't change the offense as much as I'm anticipating, it will make the old stuff work better. His ability to shoot 3s allows James and Davis to run virtually unguardable pick-and-rolls without making Davis play more center than he wants to. Don't be fooled by Gasol's shaky performance in the bubble, where he was uncomfortable and uncharacteristically out of rhythm. He has plenty left to offer, and he is on just the team to show it.
2. Regarding the Bucks
Milwaukee added sharpshooter Bryn Forbes and wing defender Torrey Craig on Sunday, following agreements with score-first big man Bobby Portis and floor general DJ Augustin. The Bucks' biggest move remains the Jrue Holiday trade, which cost them Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, three first-round picks and two pick swaps.
Looming over this offseason are Giannis Antetokounmpo's still-unsigned supermax extension, their failed sign-and-trade for Bogdan Bogdanovic and a series of blunders (source) that turned retaining guard Pat Connaughton into a salary-cap catastrophe. It is not clear how the first item on that list is affected by the ones that follow.
If Antetokounmpo is pleased enough with the direction of the team to sign an extension, that is all that matters. Milwaukee would not be the championship favorite, nor would it be without pressure to perform better in the playoffs, but having the back-to-back MVP under contract beyond this season would turn down the temperature immensely.
If he doesn't sign, every transaction and every missed opportunity will be under heightened scrutiny. The Bucks' season will serve as a referendum on the franchise itself, as well as its chances to retain Antetokounmpo.
I am skeptical that they've done enough to address the shortcomings that showed themselves in the last two postseasons. Milwaukee needed more playmakers, more defensive versatility and, above all else, more players who can space the floor and stay on the floor come playoff time. As currently constructed, Milwaukee is not as deep as it was last season, and it has not fundamentally fixed these flaws.
Augustin will run pick-and-rolls capably and Forbes might be able to replace Hill's shooting, but they're both small guards who can be exploited on defense. Portis will ideally feast on the open looks Brook Lopez enjoys, but there is nothing about his defensive track record that suggests he could have held his own against the teams that eliminated the Bucks. Craig absolutely can, but opponents will give him the Bledsoe treatment on the other end.
Milwaukee is again going to win a ton of regular-season games. It will again be measured on what happens afterward. Even with Holiday on board, I'm not sure that the Bucks roster is meaningfully more prepared for that. But my opinion isn't the one that matters.
3. New York was quiet, but …
For a second straight offseason, the Knicks entered free agency with a boatload of cap space and came out of it with a bunch of non-stars on short-term deals. They have, however, learned a lesson or two from last season.
The most successful move New York made the summer of 2019 was the signing of Marcus Morris. The forward played the best basketball of his career for a few months, then the Knicks traded his $15 million expiring contract to the Los Angeles Clippers and picked up a first-round pick. Their other short-term additions didn't add up to much on the court or the trade market, and they would have been better off using their space to absorb contracts in exchange for draft picks.
This time around, New York got two second-round picks from the Utah Jazz to help them clear Ed Davis' $5 million salary, then it traded Davis to the Minnesota Timberwolves for another one. It could very well flip the newly signed Austin Rivers (three years, $10 million, Years 2 and 3 non-guaranteed), Alec Burks (one year, $6 million) and Nerlens Noel (one year, $5 million) for more stuff. The same is true for the re-signed Elfrid Payton (one year, $5 million).
In this sense, the Knicks have done fine. They didn't sign any negative-value deals or sacrifice an ounce of future flexibility. Despite hiring win-now coach Tom Thibodeau and being linked to Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, they have not made any wild, overly ambitious or headline-grabbing trades. Or at least they haven't yet.
Another thing New York hasn't done, though, is put together a particularly coherent team. I would've liked to see the Knicks do the rebuilding-phase version of what the Philadelphia 76ers have done: find more shooting and make life simpler for RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson. If the front office is more or less finished, it's still not going to feel like New York is really building anything.
4. Look at Portland!
It was mildly surprising to see 22-year-old center Harry Giles come to terms with with the team that employs Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins and Enes Kanter. In Giles' two healthy seasons in Sacramento, he competed for minutes with Willie Cauley-Stein, Marvin Bagley III, Nemanja Bjelica, Kosta Koufos, Caleb Swanigan, Skal Labissiere, Dewayne Dedmon, Richaun Holmes, Anthony Tolliver and Alex Len. You'd think his first priority would be playing time.
From this vantage point, it's impressive that the Portland Trail Blazers were able to get him. (Alternative theory: Compared to his previous situation, this might as well be a starring role.) Giles has more upside than his confusing Kings tenure suggests, and while the center market was crowded, there weren't many comparable young players available.
The Blazers kept Carmelo Anthony around on the cheap, too, and I'm not sure how they're going to keep all of these frontcourt dudes happy when everybody's healthy. The other side of that, though, is that this is their most injury-resistant roster in years.
5. Nice save
The Raptors failed to re-sign Gasol or Serge Ibaka, but they were ready with a backup plan. Aron Baynes used to be regarded as a bruiser, but his game has never looked more well-rounded than it did last season in Phoenix.
The Suns empowered Baynes to stretch himself as a facilitator and go from an occasional 3-point shooter to an enthusiastic one. He still sets crushing screens and is one of the strongest and most physical players in the league, too. He's not Gasol, but he is a bit younger and allows the Raptors to play the same style. They pivoted perfectly.
Toronto also re-signed restricted free agent big man Chris Boucher, and it did so without giving up any of its 2021 flexibility. The whole league is monitoring what's happening Milwaukee, but clearly the Raptors, Mavericks and Heat are paying particularly close attention.