NBA free agency winners and losers, non-Nets edition

Karl-Anthony Towns (32) and Rudy Gobert will be teammates in Minnesota. (Rick Bowmer/AP)
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After a frantic start Thursday, the NBA’s free agency period ground to a near-halt over the weekend as executives waited for the Brooklyn Nets to resolve Kevin Durant’s trade request. This is a weighty moment of anticipation; a Durant trade would end an era in Brooklyn, potentially establish a new title favorite and set up major secondary moves, such as a possible reunion for LeBron James and Kyrie Irving on the Los Angeles Lakers.

While Brooklyn was sifting through its options, the total value of new contracts and extensions handed out since Thursday zoomed past $2.5 billion. Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic agreed to a record $264 million extension, becoming one of 10 players to land new nine-figure contracts in the first 72 hours.

As Durant drama keeps the NBA on pins and needles, here’s a rundown of the best moves and biggest mistakes from the opening weekend of free agency, non-Nets edition.

NBA free agency, trade tracker: Timberwolves get Rudy Gobert, Celtics land Malcolm Brogdon

Winners: Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens

Rewind a few years, and it was tempting to think that Danny Ainge had lost his touch. In his final few seasons with the Boston Celtics, Ainge’s boldest moves backfired, and he became a bit of a punchline for countless rumored trades that never came to fruition. The result was a maddening Celtics team that repeatedly inflated hopes and then failed to live up to expectations.

Boston shook up its hierarchy last summer, parting with Ainge and moving Brad Stevens from the sideline to the front office. That decision, rare and a bit awkward, has paid off brilliantly for all parties.

Ainge landed with the Utah Jazz, whose demoralizing first-round exit set the stage for Friday’s blockbuster trade of Rudy Gobert. The Jazz made out like a bandit, nabbing four first-round picks, a pick swap and a collection of players while laying the groundwork for an even deeper tear-down if it chooses to trade Donovan Mitchell. Ainge rediscovered his fastball, selling high on a 30-year-old center who has never reached the Western Conference finals, who repeatedly expressed frustration with his teammates during the playoffs and who will earn roughly $170 million over the next four years.

Meanwhile, Stevens has been on a hot streak of his own in Boston, making targeted additions to fill in the gaps. Deals for Al Horford and Derrick White lifted the Celtics to the Finals for the first time since 2010, and Friday’s trade for Malcolm Brogdon directly addressed their biggest remaining need: an experienced ballhandler who wouldn’t compromise their versatile and physical defensive identity. That Stevens was able to land Brogdon from the Indiana Pacers without sacrificing any of his top eight players was beyond impressive, even though the 29-year-old guard was limited to 36 appearances last season by various injuries.

Losers: Minnesota Timberwolves

Minnesota’s Gobert gamble is hard to get behind, especially because it came in conjunction with a new four-year, $224 million supermax extension for Karl-Anthony Towns. There are fit questions galore. How will Towns hold up defensively as a power forward against spread lineups? How will Gobert’s paint presence alter Minnesota’s pace-and-space style? Will Gobert be happy with a tertiary offensive role? Will the Timberwolves actually be able to play their twin towers together in the playoffs?

In NBA blockbuster trade, Timberwolves land Rudy Gobert from Jazz

Making a bold talent grab after a 46-win season is a laudable idea, but the Timberwolves appear to be cutting too far against the grain by building their roster around a pair of centers with limited postseason track records. To make matters worse, they paid an arm and a leg in draft picks for the right to conduct their grand experiment. If the pairing doesn’t work, unwinding it could be extraordinarily difficult given the size of their contracts. How far will Gobert’s trade value erode if the Timberwolves don’t make a deep postseason run over the next two years?

Winners: Philadelphia 76ers

In the aftermath of another second-round exit, Joel Embiid bemoaned the 76ers’ lack of toughness and praised P.J. Tucker’s confidence and physicality. “I’d be lying if I said that we’ve had those types of guys,” Embiid said in May. “Nothing against what we have; it’s just the truth. We never had P.J. Tucker.”

Ask and ye shall receive. While Philadelphia is still working through its negotiations with James Harden, team president Daryl Morey targeted Tucker and Danuel House to fill out a rotation that proved to be lacking in the playoffs. While Danny Green’s ACL injury seemed like it might leave the 76ers with too many holes to fill, Morey traded for guard De’Anthony Melton on draft night and then landed Tucker and House, former Rockets who have extensive experience playing alongside Harden.

The reported price for the 37-year-old Tucker was a generous $33.2 million over three years, but that will be money well spent if his fierce defense and hustle plays help the 76ers get over the hump to the Eastern Conference finals. Of course, Philadelphia is also poised to be a major beneficiary of a Brooklyn implosion, given their divisional ties and the blockbuster trade of Harden for Ben Simmons. No wonder Embiid was laughing out loud on Twitter shortly after Durant issued his trade request.

Losers: Dallas Mavericks

The Atlanta Hawks dealt three first-round picks to the San Antonio Spurs to get Dejounte Murray, a 25-year-old guard they view as Trae Young’s new sidekick. That’s a hefty price for a non-shooter who has made only one all-star team, but the Hawks are now one step closer to forming the type of “Big Three” core needed to compete at the highest level. If Young and Murray hit it off, the Hawks could be in position to attract disgruntled stars next summer and beyond by pitching their backcourt’s talent and potential.

Spurs sending all-star Dejounte Murray to Hawks in day of deals

As Atlanta took a step forward, the Dallas Mavericks regressed. Rather than building on their impressive run to the Western Conference finals, the Mavericks lost Jalen Brunson to the New York Knicks in free agency and made no additions of consequence, unless you count adding center JaVale McGee. Suddenly, Luka Doncic was stripped of his No. 2 scorer.

Doncic and Young will always be linked by their draft day trade, and the Mavericks must now take a page out of the Hawks’ playbook. The 23-year-old Slovenian guard is ready to lead a title team right now, and Dallas needs to pull out all the stops to get him an A-list partner and set itself up as a landing spot for a future superstar team-up. Perhaps the Mavericks are still feeling burned by their Kristaps Porzingis gamble, but they can’t treat Doncic as a distant bystander to NBA power plays. They need to be in the mix.

Winners: Zach LaVine and Bradley Beal

In the run-up to free agency, it seemed possible that a relative lack of salary cap space around the league could harm the earning power of third-tier stars who weren’t certified top-10 players or rising centerpieces. Of course, Jokic, Towns and Devin Booker were heading for supermax extensions. Of course, Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and Darius Garland were going to cash in with big-dollar rookie extensions.

Yet LaVine, 27, and Beal, 29, entered the summer coming off down years because of nagging injury issues. LaVine finally made the playoffs with the Chicago Bulls, but knee problems and a reduced role alongside DeMar DeRozan kept him from career-year production. Beal, who earned 2021 third-team all-NBA honors, missed more than half the season with a wrist injury and saw his numbers drop dramatically. Both guards are bankable scorers, but they are underqualified to be No. 1 options for a contender because they aren’t elite playmakers or perimeter defenders.

Those shortcomings didn’t cost LaVine or Beal in the slightest. LaVine pulled down a five-year, $215 million contract with the Bulls, while Beal re-signed with the Washington Wizards on a five-year, $251 million deal. Chicago and Washington will struggle to get their money’s worth on these agreements, as neither team is positioned to be in the Eastern Conference’s top tier for the foreseeable future. Max money for fringe all-star contributions is a good gig if you can find it.

Buckner: Only in Washington do NBA stars get $251 million participation trophies

Losers: New York Knicks

The Knicks got their man by signing Brunson to a four-year contract worth at least $104 million. While that’s not an egregious overpay for a quality starting point guard, through Sunday it was the richest agreement given to a player without any all-star appearances. Brunson should be a good culture fit with demanding coach Tom Thibodeau, and he’s coming off a breakout fourth season with Dallas.

But Brunson thrived with the Mavericks thanks to their spacing lineups, which opened driving windows and allowed him to unleash his nifty moves in isolation. The Knicks spent a combined $76 million on two centers — Mitchell Robinson and Isaiah Hartenstein — who do the vast majority of their work in the paint. That will require a major adjustment from Brunson, who must also find a way to coexist with Julius Randle, a ball-dominant forward who shot poorly last season.

New York deserves credit for having a plan and executing it; team executives watched Brunson in person during the playoffs and then hired his father as an assistant coach. Even so, creating the room to sign Brunson required the Knicks to trade their lottery pick, another lottery pick belonging to the Charlotte Hornets, Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel and Kemba Walker. That’s a lot of heavy lifting for a player who is on track to be the Atlantic Division’s least accomplished starting floor general, pending a total Brooklyn sell-off.

Winners: San Antonio Spurs

Just as the Jazz sold high on Gobert, the Spurs did well in trading Murray, a fan favorite who showed considerable development during his six years in San Antonio. Murray didn’t have enough help around him to lead the Spurs to meaningful playoff success, and he will probably be seeking a max or near-max contract when he becomes a free agent in two years. Rather than aiming for play-in tournament appearances and risking a Murray departure in free agency, the Spurs wisely entered the tank race to land French phenom Victor Wembanyama in the 2023 draft.

San Antonio’s decision to part with Murray recalls the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 2019 trade of Russell Westbrook; both franchises hit a wall and responded by trading their highest-profile talents rather than searching for complementary pieces. Fast-forward three years, and the Spurs should boast a Thunder-like collection of young players to mount a more serious push back into the playoffs. Of course, there will be lots of painful losing along the way.

How a ‘Woj bomb’ blew up NBA draft lines and cost bettors

Losers: Golden State Warriors

The post-title vibes were so enthusiastic that it was hard to picture the Warriors suffering too many roster defections. Surely, ownership would be willing to run up the luxury tax bill in hopes of repeating and their free agents would be willing to make concessions to keep the party going.

That proved to be the case with center Kevon Looney, who re-signed on a three-year, $25.5 million deal that made sense for both sides. Otherwise, the raid was on: Gary Payton II, Otto Porter Jr., Juan Toscano-Anderson and Nemanja Bjelica found new homes. None of those four was indispensable, but losing Payton after his breakthrough season and strong playoff run was a punch to the gut.

Golden State rallied by signing guard Donte DiVincenzo away from the Sacramento Kings on a two-year, $9.3 million contract. That’s a reasonable price for a 25-year-old catch-and-shoot specialist who has some playoff experience with the Milwaukee Bucks, and he should help fill the backcourt minutes vacated by Payton. Still, Golden State’s approach, which was a bit more cost-conscious than expected, will require James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody to take big steps forward next season.

Winners: Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers are ready to leap up the Western Conference standings after a lost season in which they waited for Kawhi Leonard to return from a knee injury. Losing the energetic Hartenstein to the Knicks was a blow to their frontcourt rotation, but they re-signed their top priority — versatile forward Nicolas Batum — and used their mid-level exception on John Wall. Although Wall has played just 72 games over the past four seasons, he fills a position of need as a ballhandling playmaker and should relish his first chance to play for a contender.

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