NBA offseason winners and losers: Warriors, Clippers struggle in free agency, Knicks, Spurs make splashes

NBA free agency is underway and the biggest news we’ve gotten in the first few hours is that Paul George is not going to return to the Clippers. As for where he’ll actually sign, that’s still an unknown — though the Philadelphia 76ers feel like the decided favorite to land his services. 

With the NBA draft complete and now free agency opening, and with a few big trades already on the books, here are some early winners and losers from the 2024 NBA offseason. This is a fluid list. Things can change quickly. But here’s how it looks at the moment. 

In a vacuum, Mikal Bridges isn’t worth five first-round picks and another swap. But in the context of this Knicks team, he is. With OG Anunoby re-signed, the Knicks are one of the few teams that can match the Celtics’ blueprint of multiple elite perimeter defenders funneling scorers toward an elite rim protector. It’s impossible to overstate how much Bridges elevates this already very good team. 

Offensive clarity can be retained around Jalen Brunson as the unrivaled star with Bridges slotting back into his more natural role of secondary scorer and deadly floor spacer, and New York also did good work in the draft by trading for a bunch of second-round picks that provide them with more financial flexibility as their payroll sets to balloon when Bridges and Brunson come due for extensions. Second-round pick Tyler Kolek could also end up being an immediate contributor as a Brunson backup. 

It’s still possible that the Bridges trade will expand as the Knicks look for a way to extend their hard-cap line to the $189.5M second apron, which might allow them enough room to sign Isaiah Hartenstein, but Hartenstein’s issue is the fact that New York can offer him a maximum deal of $72.5M over four years ($16.1M in the first year of the deal) because the only have his early Bird rights. Another team could, in theory, offer him almost double that with a first-year salary north of $32M. Hard to imagine Hartenstein passing up that kind of money. Rest assured, whoever gets him will also be a winner on this list. 

Klay Thompson hasn’t officially signed with another team, but he’s not coming back to the Warriors. That’s not a bad thing. The marriage has run its course, as difficult and nostalgic as the official breakup will be. It hurts considerably more that the Warriors were not able to work out a deal to use Chris Paul’s $30M salary for the upcoming season as trade capital, and have now lost Paul to the Spurs for nothing. 

That means the Warriors effectively dumped Jordan Poole’s salary for nothing last year, because Paul was the player that came back in that deal. And now they get nothing for Paul. The Warriors made a run at Paul George, as referenced above, and believed they were near the finish line of getting a blockbuster done. But they didn’t. 

They do get below the tax line (hooray!) and can make a decent signing with the $12M midlevel exception, but that’s not going to change their team. The white flag on this era might’ve waved when Paul was let go for nothing. That was a real chance to make a big-money move. It may be for the best in the long run to cut bait with the pipe dream of rising back into the ranks of contention, but right now it feels like the Warriors rode their two-timeline plan straight into a wall. 

Loser: Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers are going to lose Paul George. We don’t know to which team yet, but George is gone. The Clippers actually put out a statement before it’s even become official

“Paul has informed us that he is signing his next contract with another team,” the Clippers said. “Paul is a tremendous talent and an elite two-way player. …We negotiated for months Paul and his representative on a contract that would make sense for both sides, and we were left far apart. The gap was significant. We understand and respect Paul’s decision to look elsewhere for his next contract.”

As a consolation, they get to pay Kawhi Leonard, who will never be healthy, and James Harden, who will only get worse, almost a quarter billion dollars over the next three years. And all this just to not add a fourth year to George’s deal if only to open the new building with a team you can at least sell as a contender? It’s not like you’re clearing the books entirely. You’re still paying a ton of money to two “stars” who become considerably less valuable in the absence of a third. 

I wouldn’t have extended Leonard in the first place. There’s no way you’re getting that money’s worth. But once they did that it seemingly would’ve made sense to keep the band together. Paying Kawhi and Harden this kind of money to be a potential play-in team is actually kind of sad, and it only makes it worse that they didn’t get anything in return for George when there was reportedly a pretty good deal on the table from the Warriors. 

From The Athletic’s Tim Kawakami:

Any possible PG13 trade between the Warriors and Clippers was always going to be complicated, but Warriors executives thought they’d solved the puzzle. From what I’ve heard, some combination (but definitely not all) of Wiggins, [Chris Paul], Jonathan Kuminga or Moses Moody plus one future first-round pick were put into discussions with the Clippers.

And Paul George, the Warriors’ home run target for acquisition this offseason, wiped out the final year of his contract with the LA Clippers and became an unrestricted free agent, which basically cut off any realistic path for the Warriors because they don’t have the cap room to sign him as a free agent.

This came after very serious negotiations among the Warriors, George and the Clippers all the way through Saturday afternoon’s deadline for George’s contract decision and after the Warriors believed — several times — that they were on the verge of landing the 34-year-old small forward, team sources said.

The Warriors had agreed to give George a max, four-year extension upon arrival. They believed they had proposed several variations of a trade that the Clippers could and would accept. Stephen Curry and Draymond Green were 100 percent on board. George gave strong indications he wanted to join the Warriors. But the Clippers never agreed to any version of a trade, and now George is a free agent and essentially beyond the Warriors’ reach.

I get not wanting to set up a conference rival and all, but when the alternative is nothing? Kuminga is a pretty prized young asset along with a first-round pick. In the end, the Clippers just kept digging their hole deeper. They never should’ve traded for Harden. They never should’ve signed Leonard to this latest deal. But they did both, and then still let George walk, which means, in essence, they traded Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for one conference finals appearance in five seasons. 

That’s not hindsight, by the way. The George trade made sense at the time. But the NBA is a results business, and the Clippers, in the grand scheme of their aspirations, came up woefully short on that deal. And they have no real immediate path forward with Leonard and Harden still on the books. This is bleak stuff. 

Winner: James Harden

Harden didn’t get the max deal he was looking for when he forced his way out of Philadelphia, but listen, since he went 7 of 27 and 1 of 11 from 3 over his final two games with the Sixers, both losses in blowing their 3-2 series lead over Boston in 2023, Harden has signed contracts for north of $100 million, including the $70M he just got from the Clippers for the next two years

He’s still a very good player, top five as an isolation scorer and pull-up shooter and still one of the best facilitators in the league, but you know what you get with him by now, and it’s not worth the money he keeps making. The teams giving it to him are losing. He’s winning. 

New Orleans acquired Dejounte Murray in a deal with Atlanta, shipping out Larry Nance Jr., Dyson Daniels, a 2025 first-round pick and a 2027 first-round pick. It’s a great move by New Orleans, which is doing everything it can to keep pace in the unrelenting Western Conference arms race. 

I’m not holding Murray to his general defensive apathy in Atlanta. Nobody plays defense there. Murray is super long and can be a major problem on ball; he has been an All-defense level defender in his past, and New Orleans was already the sixth-ranked defense a year ago. Murray pairs with Herb Jones as a possible elite defensive duo if Murray takes that challenge to return to form. 

Murray can play off ball and provide shooting for a team that needs to bring more 3-point firepower, and we still need to see what happens with Brandon Ingram. If he returns a nice package in a potential trade, New Orleans gets even stronger. If he stays, you just added Murray to an already pretty loaded talent pool led by Zion Williamson. 

Winner: San Antonio Spurs

San Antonio just signed Chris Paul, one of the smartest basketball payers ever, to aid in the development of Victor Wembanyama. Paul still has something to give as an actual player and will organize the Spurs and be able to get the ball to Wembanyama in advantageous positions, but the discussions he’s going to have with the young face of the franchise, the little pointers here and there, are, on their own, worth at least the $11M San Antonio is paying Paul for one season. 

San Antonio also had a great draft. I’m going to keep saying this: Having top-end perimeter defenders with on-ball force and multi-positional athleticism has become so important in the NBA. It’s even better if you have an elite rim protector behind them. San Antonio has Wembanyama as a generational paint protector, and now here comes 6-foot-6 Stephon Castle, whom they took with the No. 4 pick, and whom Jay Bilas compared to Jrue Holiday for his physical defensive force. 

After that, the Spurs traded the rights to their No. 8 pick, Rob Dillingham, to the Timberwolves in exchange for Minnesota’s unprotected 2031 first-round pick and a protected 2030 first-round swap. This isn’t to say Dillingham won’t turn out to be really good (he’s got some serious scoring upside, but he’s tiny and might not ever be able to credibly defend), but for the Spurs, this is a longer-term play that opens up a lot more roster-building options as Wembanyama ages into a superstar. 

If the Spurs become as good as they expect to be with Wembanyama, their own future draft picks will fall farther and farther down the board. So it becomes important to control other teams’ picks, which may be better suited to land higher in the draft, to outfit your team with cheap rookie-contract support as payroll increases around the stars. In essence, the whole goal is to stay below the second-apron tax line, which is where so many roster-building avenues become closed off.

Our Sam Quinn laid out just how many of these picks San Antonio has managed to compile from other teams:

Most teams use draft night to build for the next few years. The Spurs, with Victor Wembanyama in tow, are taking a much longer view. Over the past few years, they have slowly assembled a deep war chest of draft picks well into the future. A 2028 pick swap with the Celtics. A 2030 swap with Dallas. Now, another 2030 swap as well as an unprotected pick from the Timberwolves in 2031. Throw in the 2025 and 2027 picks the Spurs have from Atlanta, the 2026 swap the Hawks owe them and the protected pick eventually coming from Chicago thanks to the DeMar DeRozan trade and suddenly, the Spurs are set up to control at least one of another team’s first round pick in every draft from now until 2031 with the exception of 2029.

You might be thinking: How valuable could the Wolves’ 2030 and/or 2031 pick(s) be considering how good of a team they have? Well, that’s over a half-decade from now. It might actually be smarter to bet on good teams right now falling off five or six years from now than bad teams still being bad that far down the road. It’s extremely hard to maintain excellence in the NBA. The more you bet on other teams’ picks, the better your chances of a few of them turning up golden. The Spurs are putting more and more chips on the table. 

Winners: Cade Cunningham and Scottie Barnes

Cunningham and Barnes both signed max rookie extensions. Cunningham gets $226M over five years from the Pistons, while Barnes could earn up to $270M over five with the Raptors if he makes an All-NBA Team, or wins Defensive Player of the Year or MVP next season. If Barnes doesn’t earn one of those distinctions — it seems unlikely that he will — then he’ll “only” make the $226 over five that Cunningham got. Either way, both these guys are terrific young players and now they’ve set up themselves and their families for generations to come.

Winner: Immanuel Quickley

It’s not quite the full five-year max that Cunningham and Barnes got, but Quickley will happily take the $175M the Raptors just gave him for the next five years of his services. Quickley was the 25th pick in the 2020 draft. Go back the draft history and count the number of players taken 25th or lower who have carved out legit NBA careers. Relatively speaking, it’s not many. And even fewer have earned a payday like this.

Loser: Denver Nuggets

Fear of the second apron and all the roster-building restrictions that come with it cost the Nuggets Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who goes to Orlando on a three-year, $66M deal. KCP was Denver’s best point-of-attack defender and a perfect offensive component within the Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray galaxy — in which he fired 3s and cut for layups and curled off two-man actions for pull-up mid-range jumpers with attention always shifted elsewhere. To lose him is a big blow for the Nuggets, who lost Bruce Brown and Jeff Green from their 2023 title team last summer. These peripheral parts are key, and as it looks right now, Denver will only look to replace Caldwell-Pope internally, probably by promoting Christian Braun into the starting lineup. Braun is a nice spark-plug player. He’s not KCP.

Winner: Sacramento Kings

There’s some talk that Sacramento might end up landing Brandon Ingram, but until that happens the only move of significance we’ve seen so far is the re-signing of Malik Monk on a four-year, $78 million deal. This was the max contract the Kings could offer Monk with his early Bird rights. It is a big deal that Monk signed before even testing free agency, as he could’ve been offered $100 million by other teams and it’s entirely possible that someone would’ve gone higher than Sacramento could’ve matched. Monk, who finished as the Sixth Man of the Year runner-up to Naz Reid after averaging a career high 15.4 points and 5.1 assists this season, is an electric scorer for the Kings and has clearly found a home he was not interested in leaving even with more money likely available. Last season, Monk led all bench players in total points and assists and was one of only two players in the past 25 years to have 1,000 points and 300 assists as a reserve, according to ESPN Stats. He also carded the highest assist percentage on drives among all players. He punctures defenses in multiple ways, even as a high-flying lob finisher from the guard position.

Winner: Oklahoma City Thunder

Josh Giddey was a drag on this team, and the Thunder found a way to move him to the Bulls for Alex Caruso without even having to give up one of their zillion draft picks as sweetener. OKC’s defense was already stout, and now you add Caruso to Lu Dort and Jalen Williams and SGA and Cason Wallace on the perimeter, with Chet Holmgren, an elite rim protector, backing those guys up, and the Thunder look like legit title contenders even before we see what they do with the $30M-plus they have in cap space.

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