The opening days of NBA free agency saw players sign for more than $2.6 billion in guaranteed contracts. Most of that money came from teams retaining their own players, highlighted by max extensions for LaMelo Ball and Tyrese Haliburton that could total more than $250 million.
The biggest stories of NBA free agency are still developing. Damian Lillard finally submitted a trade request to the Portland Trail Blazers. He reportedly hopes to land on the Miami Heat, but the Blazers are determined to make the best deal for the team regardless of Lillard’s preferences. The Philadelphia 76ers are stuck in a similar situation: James Harden requested a trade after picking up his $36.5 million player option, and his wandering eye is on the Los Angeles Clippers. The Sixers are reportedly ready to play hardball knowing they have to pull off this trade to save the rest of the Joel Embiid era.
For the latest on NBA free agency, follow our live tracker of every signing and trade in the league this summer. Also, check out our list of the best remaining free agents. Now let’s look at the early winners and losers in free agency.
Winner: Phoenix Suns bench
The Suns made the first big move of the offseason by trading Bradley Beal and the final four years, $207.6 million remaining on his contract. The Suns were extremely limited in how they could fill out the rest of the roster around Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Beal, but they somehow came away with an impressive haul of talent in free agency that rebuilds their depth and strengthens them as the strongest challenger to the Denver Nuggets in the West.
The Suns got a little bit of everything in free agency. Eric Gordon is a big steal for two years, $6 million. The guard — who turns 35 in December — is a three-point threat with deep range and a quick trigger. Yuta Watanabe was acquired from the Brooklyn Nets as a 6’9 three-point sniper who thrived playing with Durant. Keita Bates-Diop comes over from the San Antonio Spurs as a big defensive forward with an improved shooting stroke. Chimezie Metu and Drew Eubanks will add frontcourt depth, while Damion Lee is another knockdown shooter in the backcourt. Athletic wing Josh Okogie was also re-signed after some good moments in the playoffs.
The Suns’ depth was their big concern after the Beal trade. They did about as well as possible given their limitations.
Loser: James Harden
James Harden left about $15 million on the table when he took a pay cut to help the Philadelphia 76ers fill out the rest of the roster last offseason. The thinking at the time was that the Sixers would reward Harden with a lucrative extension this summer, but that’s not what happened. After another playoff flameout, the Sixers decided they weren’t going to give Harden the deal he was looking for. Harden then picked up his $36.5 million player option and requested a trade.
Harden reportedly wants to land on the Los Angeles Clippers, but the Sixers can’t afford to just give him away. Philadelphia director Daryl Morey reportedly has a sky-high asking price for Hardenleading to speculation that he could eventually return to the Sixers. Morey knows he has to pull off this trade if the Sixers are ever going to build a real championship contender with Joel Embiid, but Harden doesn’t seem to be valued as a max player around the league.
Harden can’t exactly break out of Philly like he once did in Houston if he wants to sign a huge contract next summer. It’s a difficult situation for both the player and the team, and there doesn’t seem to be an easy end in sight.
Winner: Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks
The Houston Rockets entered free agency with a league-high $60 million in cap space. Houston has been one of the worst teams in the NBA since trading Harden in early 2021, and the team was determined to stock up on veteran talent to complement its young core. The Rockets walked away with Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks after offering both players a huge bag of cash that far exceeded offers elsewhere.
VanVleet agreed to a three-year, $130 million deal with a team option on the final year. The Toronto Raptors wanted to keep their point guard, but they couldn’t compete with an offer over $43 million per year. The Brooks deal might be even more amazing. After the Memphis Grizzlies made it known they didn’t want him back, the Rockets still gave Brooks $80 million over four years. It might be the most head-scratching deal of the offseason. Brooks earned Second Team All-Defense honors last season for his ability as a wing stopper, but he is a poor shooter who takes far too many shots.
No one would have expected VanVleet and Brooks to pull in such gigantic paydays at the start of free agency. It pays to enter the market when a rebuilding team is desperate for quick improvements.
Loser: Portland Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers’ front office were at odds from the moment the team got the No. 3 overall pick in the draft lottery. Lillard wanted the pick traded for immediate veteran help, but Portland brass reportedly rejected all offers. After the Blazers selected another small guard in Scoot Henderson, it was up to Lillard to decide whether to continue to stick it out with the franchise or finally submit the trade request people around the league have been waiting for.
Lillard made his decision on the second day of free agency: he wants out of Portland and hopes to land with the Miami Heat. The Blazers’ front office reportedly won’t hand-deliver him to the Heat, opting instead to shop around for the best deal. It looks like Lillard will eventually be traded, but it’s hard to imagine there’s a package out there that could return the same value.
The day before Lillard submitted his trade request, the Blazers agreed to a five-year, $160 million deal with Jerami Grant. It now looks like a big overpay for a team that is likely to relegate to the bottom of the standings for the third season in a row.
Lillard is probably the greatest player in Blazers franchise history. He was to retire in Portland. There is now massive pressure on the Blazers’ front office to get big value back. They better hope Henderson and Shaedon Sharpe reach their sky-high ceilings as well. Losing a player like Lillard will amount to a quick kick in the gut for fans, but at the end of the day, these Blazers were always more than a move away from true contention.
Loser: Cap space
It wasn’t long ago that teams would spend years carefully planning to open up cap space at the right time to get in the mix for top free agents. These days, all you get in the offseason is the option to overpay Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks, or the chance to take on a bad contract for a couple of second-round picks or a small move up in the first round.
Eight teams entered the offseason with true cap space this summer, and only the Rockets used it to make big additions that still came at a premium in terms of cost. The Pistons used their cap space to pick up Joe Harris and Monte Morris as salary dumps. The Thunder used their cap space to take on Davis Bertans’ albatross contract in exchange for moving up from No. 12 to No. 10 in the 2023 NBA Draft. Orlando did nothing but overpay Joe Ingles this offseason, while the Jazz used their cap space to take a salary dump in John Collins that can actually help their team.
Most stars will just sign with their current team these days because they can get more money that way. At least when they eventually ask out the likes of Harden and Lillard, their clubs will get something in return for their exit. It will be fascinating to see if the new CBA rules ultimately make cap space more valuable again, but for now it feels like opening up cap space is an outdated team building strategy.
Winner: The Pacers
Okay, there was one team that used its cap space well. The Indiana Pacers made one of the most surprising deals in free agency by signing Bruce Brown to a two-year, $45 million deal. It’s both a brutal blow to the Denver Nuggets’ chances of repeating as champions, and a great payday for one of their postseason heroes. While a $22.5 million annual salary seems like a massive overpayment for Brown at first glance (he made less than $7 million last season), I like it for Indiana for a few different reasons.
First, Bruce Brown is really good. He gives the Pacers some much-needed offensive defense on the perimeter, and offensively, he can serve as the connective tissue between Tyrese Haliburton, Bennedict Mathurin and Myles Turner. The second year of the contract is also a team option, essentially allowing the Pacers to treat Brown as an expiring contract in trade negotiations for two seasons.
The Pacers also acquired Obi Toppin from the Knicks for a pair of second-round picks. He gives Haliburton a vertical spacer that can also shoot a little bit. Indiana already had a nice young core, and now they supplemented them with some good veterans without committing to long-term deals.
Winner: The Knicks’ Villanova connection
Donte DiVincenzo becomes the third former Villanova player to join the Knicks after signing a four-year, $50 million deal. He joins former teammates Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson on the Knicks’ roster.
Now if only the Knicks could add Mikal Bridges, they would really be cooking. Do not worry, Hart is already working on it.
Winner: Former Miami Heat role players
Nothing gets a player paid like a good run in the NBA Playoffs. Just ask Max Strus and Gabe Vincent.
Strus and Vincent played on minimum contracts for Miami as they helped the team reach the NBA Finals as the No. 8 seed. Both were paid elsewhere for their services: Strus signed a massive four-year, $64 million deal with the Cavs, while Vincent joined the Lakers for the full Mid-Level Exception of $33 million over three years.
The Heat will need to find some new undrafted free agents to develop if they want to maintain their success. Historically, that hasn’t been a problem for Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra.