NBA offseason winners/losers: Warriors, Clippers striking out early; Knicks, Thunder make defensive 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 is 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 a whole squad of top-shelf perimeter defenders funneling scorers toward an elite rim protector, which will likely be Mitchell Robinson with Isaiah Hartenstein a good bet to leave. It’s impossible to overstate how much Bridges elevates this already very good team. 

Offensive clarity, which would’ve been a real problem had the Knicks gone traditional star hunting, can be retained around Jalen Brunson as the unrivaled alpha with Bridges slotting back into a more natural role of secondary scorer and deadly floor spacer. 

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 become eligible 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. We still have to see what the Warriors get back for him as this is being reported as a likely sign and trade, but who knows … maybe Klay just takes less money to sign with the Lakers on a midlevel. 

Either way, Klay is gone, and from a basketball standpoint 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.

By extension, that means the Warriors effectively dumped Jordan Poole’s salary for nothing last summer, as Paul was the player that came back in that deal, and now he’s gone for nothing. The Warriors made a run at Paul George 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 no return. 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 in truth, if this was always the likely outcome as the Warriors had ridden the two-timeline plan beyond the point of return and are clearly OK with cutting a franchise icon loose, then why sign Draymond Green last summer to a $100M deal? 

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.”

Look on the bright side … The Clippers still get to pay Kawhi Leonard, who will never be healthy, and James Harden, who hasn’t been worth his salary for his last three teams and will only get worse, almost a quarter billion dollars over the next three years! 

So what’s next? Late Sunday night (technically early Monday morning here on the East coast), the Clippers signed Derrick Jones Jr. to a three-year, $30M contract, which is a pretty nice deal. Would DeMar DeRozan do the Clippers a favor on a sign-and-trade at a number that would keep them below the second apron? If so, do the Bulls even want what L.A. might be able to offer? 

We’ll see what else the Clippers are able to do this summer, but right now, still being tied to Leonard and Harden feels like rehiring the captains of a ship that’s already sunk — and losing George for nothing after they gave up Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to get him if a particularly bitter pull to swallow. 

Now, let’s not get all preachy with the benefit of hindsight. There probably wasn’t a GM in the league that wouldn’t have traded for George when he came as a package deal with Kawhi in the summer of 2019. To say it was a long shot that SGA would ever become this great would be an understatement, and the Clips went all in at a time when there was plenty of criticism to go around for the teams that didn’t do the same when provided with an opportunity. 

Still, the NBA is a result business. And that trade just didn’t work out. This is not enough to show for the PG-Kawhi era. 

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. 

Wrap your head around this: The Nets turned Kevin Durant into NINE first-round picks. They got four from the Suns plus Mikal Bridges, whom they just turned into five more. They also regained control of their own 2025 and 2026 first-round picks, which they had sent to Houston in the James Harden deal. 

That’s a huge deal, because now that they control their own draft pick next summer, they can, shall we say, strategically stink this season in pursuit of a high slot for the loaded 2025 class. All told, the Nets have 15 first-round picks over the next seven drafts and are projected to open up $60 million in cap space next summer. This could be the fastest rebuild in history if they want to play it that way, or they could take their time and develop a bunch of these picks while taking on bad contracts for even more future capital. 

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. 

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.

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.

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. Denver was already low on shooters and it just got worse. 

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.

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.

Orlando gets Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on a three-year, $66M deal and it still has space to work with. KCP is the classic player that you don’t realize how good he is until he gets to your team and you watch him all the time. Pressure defender, 41% 3-point shooter, impactful cutter; he’ll make life easier on Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner as an off-ball mover and floor spacer on a team that was, and still is, short on shooting, and he’ll further solidify what was already the league’s second-ranked defense. 

We need to see what, if anything, happens with Trae Young, but the return for Dejounte Murray was pretty great. Atlanta gets back two first-round picks (they sent three to San Antonio for Murray in the first place) plus Larry Nance and Dyson Daniels. 

The 2025 first-round pick Atlanta got back in the Murray deal is coming from the Lakers, and the 2027 pick will be the worst of either the Bucks or Pelicans. All those teams project to be pretty good, so it’s not likely that Atlanta just scored a lottery pick. But first-round picks are always valuable, and Daniels is a keeper as Atlanta tries to outfit a viable defense around No. 1 overall pick Zaccharie Risacher and potential emerging cornerstone Jalen Johnson. 

It’s not a huge win. It’s like 65 cents on the dollar for Murray and the No. 1 pick in one of the worst draft classes this century, according to most experts. But a new page is like halfway turned. I don’t hate the roster if Atlanta keeps Young. Suddenly it’s looking at least passable defensively with Risacher, Daniels, Johnson and Onyeka Okongwu, and potentially DeAndre Hunter if he’s not moved. 

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