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NBA free agency winners and losers: A tough weekend for the Wizards and Knicks

While other teams made moves in free agency, it was a quite weekend for the New York Knicks, who brought back guard Elfrid Payton after the team struck out on bigger names such as Fred VanVleet and Gordon Hayward. (Matt Slocum/AP)
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NBA free agency tends to be frenetic, but this year’s delayed and condensed period was a full-fledged speed-dating session. Over the weekend, most of this year’s top-tier targets committed to new deals, and rising stars Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell and De’Aaron Fox inked max contract extensions.

The moves will keep coming, but here’s a look at the winners and losers from the first 72 hours of NBA free agency.

Winners: Los Angeles Lakers

The defending champs raced out of the starting gates, executing a fairly significant rotation overhaul with remarkable precision. The Lakers wasted no time moving on from playoff underperformers such as Danny Green and JaVale McGee, and they realized early that Rajon Rondo would be able to cash in on his strong bubble play.

Through trades and signings, they replaced Rondo with Dennis Schroder, Green with Wesley Matthews, and centers McGee and Dwight Howard with Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell. The Lakers also turned Green’s salary slot into a new contract for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, rewarding him for an excellent postseason. Once Anthony Davis is officially re-signed, the Lakers will be positioned as solid 2021 title favorites, something that wasn’t the case last year.

There are concerns: The 35-year-old Gasol lagged in the playoffs, Harrell played poorly in the bubble, and Schroder lacks Rondo’s experience and basketball IQ. Even so, the new version of the Lakers is deeper and more athletic, with pieces that should fit cleanly around LeBron James and Davis. Swiping Harrell from the rival Los Angeles Clippers and Matthews from the Milwaukee Bucks, another top contender, amounted to icing on the cake.

Losers: Milwaukee Bucks

There’s an alternate version of history — one that seemed so possible just a week ago — in which the Bucks emerged as huge winners. If they had turned Eric Bledsoe into Jrue Holiday, landed Bogdan Bogdanovic to complete a stellar starting lineup, filled out their bench with role players and convinced Giannis Antetokounmpo to re-sign on a supermax extension, it would have been cause for celebration and adulation.

Unfortunately for Milwaukee, the Bogdanovic pursuit fell through, leaving the Bucks to pursue a backup plan that involved role players such as D.J. Augustin, Bobby Portis and Bryn Forbes. That series of events could have been worse, but it also could have been a lot better. The steep price to acquire Holiday — multiple players, three first-round draft picks and two pick swaps — would be a lot easier to swallow if Bogdanovic were coming aboard. Now, it looks like an overpay with considerable downside if Antetokounmpo or Holiday chooses not to re-sign down the road.

Winner: Rich Paul

There was backlash when Paul, James’s longtime friend and business partner, launched Klutch Sports to represent NBA players, including public stare-downs over Bledsoe and Tristan Thompson with Phoenix and Cleveland, respectively.

Fast-forward to the present, and Paul wields power as effectively as anyone in basketball. After successfully steering Davis through a trade request saga to James’s Lakers in 2019, Paul secured a payday for Caldwell-Pope from the Lakers and helped Harrell move from the Clippers to the Lakers in a power-tilting move.

But Paul’s success wasn’t limited to solidifying the Lakers as title favorites and setting up James for a possible fifth ring. His clients are winning, too. Davis thrived in Los Angeles, winning a ring in his first season after never advancing past the second round in New Orleans. Caldwell-Pope got a nice raise, in part because his shooting and defense are perfectly suited to playing alongside James. And Harrell, needing to rebuild his market value after a poor postseason, should feast in pick and rolls with James and Schroder.

Outside Los Angeles, Paul lined up a nice landing spot for Thompson, who got a two-year, $19 million deal to plug a big hole in the Boston Celtics’ front line. Thompson languished on losing Cavaliers teams in recent years, and he now will have the chance to play major minutes for a title contender. And don’t forget: Anthony Edwards, another Klutch client, went No. 1 to the Minnesota Timberwolves in last week’s draft. Paul’s sphere of influence continues to expand as he sharpens his eye for win-win deals.

Losers: Washington Wizards

Give Tommy Sheppard credit for this much: The Wizards’ general manager repeatedly signaled that re-signing shooting specialist Davis Bertans was his top priority, and he didn’t come home empty-handed. Of course, there’s room to nitpick on the terms of Bertans’s five-year, $80 million contract. Only a select few free agents secured five-year deals this weekend, and all were players who have far more upside and hold far more important roles than Bertans. Overpays happen, especially for lottery teams seeking to secure proven talent. That’s not the end of the world.

But John Wall’s trade request landing shortly after free agency opened was a worst-case scenario from an optics standpoint. As the Wizards geared up for the new season with a long-anticipated free agency signing, the franchise’s longest-tenured player tried to hit the eject button. Sheppard and Bradley Beal have both done their parts to publicly support Wall during his extended rehabilitation from an Achilles’ injury, but the all-star point guard was apparently wounded by trade talks with the Houston Rockets involving Russell Westbrook. Instead of opening with a fresh start and some genuine excitement around Wall’s comeback, the Wizards launched on a familiar sour note.

The Wizards’ reboot needs to start with trading both John Wall and Bradley Beal

Winners: Fred VanVleet

Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet clearly expressed his intentions this month on JJ Redick’s podcast: “I won a championship, and it’s time to cash out.” In addition to being a straight-talker, the undrafted VanVleet is entertaining to watch, a gamer who scores in bunches and plays hard-nosed defense. Simply put, he is the type of lead guard whom teams such as the New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls desperately needed.

But watching VanVleet toil on an also-ran would have been a drag. He’s very good, but not quite good enough to carry a bad franchise to relevance. Indeed, he has been a perfect fit in the Raptors’ collective culture. Players in VanVleet’s spot don’t always get to have their cake and eat it, too, so it was nice for all parties to see Toronto reward him with a four-year, $85 million contract.

Losers: Charlotte Hornets

Michael Jordan can never seem to decide whether the Charlotte Hornets are coming or going. Last year, he opted not to pay Kemba Walker and negotiated a sign-and-trade that returned Terry Rozier on a brutal overpay. This year, he spent too much again to land Gordon Hayward on a four-year, $120 million contract just days after selecting LaMelo Ball, a high-upside lead playmaker, with the third pick in the draft.

How the 19-year-old Ball and the 30-year-old Hayward will mesh is anybody’s guess. And who knows why Jordan felt a lottery team full of intriguing young pieces needed to throw huge piles of money at a one-time all-star who hasn’t fully recaptured his form after a significant leg injury in 2017? Hayward can do more than he showed in Boston, but he’s not a franchise player, and the Hornets are inexplicably paying him like one.

Winners: Portland Trail Blazers

Portland has had good, bad and ugly offseasons trying to build around Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, a talented but ultraexpensive backcourt duo. This year counts as a good one; the Blazers traded for Robert Covington and Enes Kanter, re-signed Carmelo Anthony and Rodney Hood, and signed Derrick Jones Jr. away from the Miami Heat. Portland will return a rotation that is deeper and better balanced than last year’s, with Covington filling the roster’s largest hole as a versatile frontcourt defender.

Losers: New York Knicks

The Knicks have reached “dog bites man” status with their free agency strikeouts. Another year passed, and another class of free agents elected to sign elsewhere. New York was one of the few teams with meaningful cap space this summer, but it had no luck with headliners such as Fred VanVleet and Hayward. Instead, the Knicks’ new management team settled for Elfrid Payton, Austin Rivers and Nerlens Noel. New York’s best options now seem to include trading for Westbrook or playing out another ugly losing season before taking their best shot at free agency next summer. Good luck.

Winner: Trae Young

The Atlanta Hawks overpaid for Danilo Gallinari (three years, $61.5 million) and Rondo (two years, $15 million), and they’re still waiting to find out if the Sacramento Kings will match their four-year, $72 million offer sheet to Bogdanovic. It might be tempting to argue that the Hawks, like the Hornets, should have remained patient rather than try to fast-track a playoff push.

The difference between Atlanta and Charlotte, though, is Trae Young, a franchise centerpiece who grew frustrated at times during the Hawks’ demoralizing 2019-20 season. Atlanta ranked in the bottom five in offensive and defensive efficiency, in large part because Young’s supporting cast was raw and inexperienced. The Hawks’ influx of veterans should provide a level of stability and confidence to Young’s professional life that he simply didn’t enjoy in his first two seasons. Internal development alone wasn’t going to lift Atlanta into the playoff picture.

Losers: Detroit Pistons

New general manager Troy Weaver was certainly busy, drafting Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart; trading away Luke Kennard; signing Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee and Jahlil Okafor; and sign-and-trading Christian Wood to the Houston Rockets. When the dust settled, it was fair to wonder whether Detroit had accomplished much at all.

Keeping Wood would have been far better than paying Plumlee and Okafor, and sinking $60 million over three years into Grant, a complementary piece on offense, makes little sense for a rebuilding team. The Pistons have endured more damaging spending sprees — Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva and Reggie Jackson come to mind — but Weaver’s first round of moves lacked restraint and a cohesive vision.

Winner: Zion Williamson

The New Orleans Pelicans were so busy that Zion Williamson, the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft, is somehow the franchise’s longest-tenured player. Pelicans executive David Griffin turned his roster upside down over the past few weeks, trading Holiday while acquiring Steven Adams and Bledsoe in trades and drafting Kira Lewis Jr. Here, the activity looks like real achievement.

New Orleans got younger and more fun on paper, Adams should help shoulder the load inside, and Griffin has stockpiled a boatload of draft picks as he attempts to construct a sustainable winner around Williamson. Most importantly, the Pelicans’ youth movement should help reduce the massive expectations that swirled around Williamson during his rookie year.