NBA Free Agency Recap: Retaining young players the priority for capped-out teams

Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images /

Neither a lack of cap space nor LeBron James’ impending decision quieted the historically action-packed first couple days of NBA free agency. The teams that had money to spend decided to do so quickly, for the most part, and we’re already looking at quite a different league than we left at the end of the 2017-18 season.

It helps to see it all in one place to compare, contrast and maybe laugh a little at the decisions these teams make to try and stay competitive.

The players I will focus on in this space are the NBA’s neophytes. The majority are coming off of their rookie deals– meaning most are restricted free agents. They are the players who will be foundational, mostly cheap pieces for championship contenders over the next several years. A contender is not built in one summer, but by counting each piece along the way, the final product can look much clearer.

Aaron Gordon — 22 years old — Restricted FA
Agreed to return to Orlando Magic for four-years, $84 million

Rumors emerged from Orlando in the weeks leading up to free agency that the team was willing to match whatever offer sheet Gordon might sign with another team as a restricted free agent. In the end, it never got to that point, as Gordon decided to stay put despite the Magic’s investment in players at his position in each of the last two drafts.

Gordon could have earned up to $25.5 million next season, but it appears there was no market for him to get his maximum. Instead, he will return to the team that has helped turn him into a budding star, where new management has put a focus on the future.

Coincidentally, it appears Gordon’s deal will be a mirror image of that of former Magic draft pick Victor Oladipo. Gordon will earn a straight $21 million each year of the contract. Orlando could create as much as $30 million in cap space next summer to improve the roster, and will enter next season fully in position to see what it has in the young nucleus of Gordon, Mohamed Bamba and Jonathan Isaac.

The biggest question: Can they all play together?

Jerami Grant — 24 years old — Unrestricted Free Agent
Agreed to return to Oklahoma City Thunder for three-years, $27 million

After trading for Grant in 2017, the Thunder retained the Syracuse alum’s full bird rights as a result of the four-year contract he signed when he was drafted. Grant played well for parts of two seasons in Oklahoma City, and earned a significant raise from the minimum salary he earned on his first contract. Because Oklahoma City could use his full bird rights signing him to a new contract, the team was able to go over the salary cap to give him any amount in his first season up to his maximum salary.

The truth is that Grant is probably the best option on the Thunder roster to start in the frontcourt opposite Steven Adams. He has potential as a 3-and-D big, truly one of the rarest player archetypes in the league. With just a 16 percent usage rate, Grant is also a much better fit with Russell Westbrook than Carmelo Anthony, someone who has openly expressed frustration with his role on the team.

There is talk that Anthony and the Thunder could eventually agree to a buyout, with Anthony entering the final year of the max contract he originally signed with New York under Phil Jackson. That would free him to join a contender in Los Angeles or Houston, teams he shares various connections with. Grant, in that context, would be an underpaid starter for a very expensive team.

Expect him to be a large part of this Thunder team, which will have its sights set on a deep playoff run.

Joe Harris — 26 years old — Unrestricted FA
Agreed to return to Brooklyn Nets for two-years, $16 million

Harris had the potential to leave Brooklyn and fetch a sizable salary on the open market, having developed into one of the league’s best off-ball shooters during his time with the Nets. Surely, young teams building out their rosters would have given Harris a look, and maybe he could have gotten a similar deal in Indiana, Philadelphia or Milwaukee.

But after working himself into a 42 percent 3-point shooter in his two seasons with the Nets, Harris will run it back. He should be in line for greater playing time in Brooklyn than he would have found elsewhere, and at just 26, could continue to grow as a playmaker and defender.

Like Oklahoma City with Grant, the Nets maintained Harris’ early bird rights after signing him when he was cut by the Magic in 2016. At the end of this contract, Harris will have the opportunity to dip back into the market at age 28, when he could earn an even greater payday or a longer deal.

Mario Hezonja — 23 years old — Unrestricted FA
Agreed to deal with New York Knicks for one-year, $6.5 million

The Magic declined Hezonja’s option for the 2018-19 season, making him an unrestricted free agent this summer and signaling they would not move forward with the former No. 5 overall pick. That made him one of the most interesting players on the market, a potential microwave scorer locked away in a bad situation for his first three seasons.

Few players Hezonja’s size possess his wild scoring and shooting potential. He quietly shot .442/.337/.819 in 75 games for Orlando last year, and at age 23 could still see significant improvement in the right situation. The problem is that he doesn’t often create offense for others or play consistent defense, meaning his value is currently quite limited.

New York is hedging its bet on Hezonja, who reportedly was excited by the prospect of playing under new Knicks coach David Fizdale, by signing him to a one-year deal. If he improves and becomes more consistent, the Knicks will have his non-bird rights and the relationship advantage to lock him up long-term.

Nikola Jokic — 23 years old — Restricted FA
Agreed to return to Denver Nuggets for five-years, $148 million

By declining Jokic’s fourth-year option on June 25, Denver set the stage to make him a restricted free agent and ultimately negotiate a five-year maximum contract for the Serbian big man. He will join Gary Harris as part of the Nuggets’ long-term core, with both players now signed through at least the 2021-22 season.

This was a no-brainer. After drafting Jokic at No. 41 in 2014 and bringing him over the following season, Denver could have had Jokic for one more season at a discounted rate, but would have risked losing him in unrestricted free agency. Signing him now means the Nuggets will have to maneuver out from under the luxury tax by trading one or all of Mason Plumlee, Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur. But it was a financial commitment the Nuggets knew they would have to stomach as Jokic’s rapid development showed on the court.

Jokic’s growth will be fascinating going forward. If he can become a more consistent defender while shouldering the primary playmaking load on offense, Denver’s unorthodox roster could become a team to fear.

Elfrid Payton — 24 years old — Unrestricted FA
Agreed to sign with New Orleans Pelicans for one-year, $2.7 million

After a mid-season trade to Phoenix, Payton entered the market with almost no leverage to earn a lucrative long-term contract. Instead, the young, athletic scoring guard will sop up some of the Pelicans’ non-taxpayer mid-level exception and be their backup point guard.

Reports indicate the Pels’ acquisition of Payton does not take them out of the market for Rajon Rondo, who would likely return to the starting lineup if he stays put. It’s puzzling to pair both non-shooting point guards in the same rotation, as New Orleans is likely locking itself into poorly spaced lineups over the full 48 minutes of a game, but getting both at an extremely cheap price is important for this small-market team facing luxury tax implications in a potential DeMarcus Cousins deal.

Glenn Robinson III — 24 years old — Unrestricted FA
Agreed to sign with Detroit Pistons for two-years, $8.3 million

Robinson was not technically coming off his rookie deal — he was waived by Minnesota after one season — but he was coming off the equivalent three-year, minimum deal after Indiana plucked him off waivers in 2015. The Pacers had bigger fish to fry with cap space aplenty, and struck quickly on a deal with Doug McDermott that sealed their backup wing spot the next three seasons.

That meant Robinson, still quite raw after a rough left ankle injury stole the majority of his fourth NBA season, was available. Detroit, armed with only their taxpayer mid-level exception, grabbed him quickly. He surely addresses the team’s biggest need, providing needed depth behind Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson on the wing, but represents a somewhat sizable bet for Detroit, who badly needed the player they acquired to move the needle.

After four up-and-down seasons (and only one in which he was a plus shooter), it’s tough to say for sure Robinson can make Detroit better.

Next: Every NBA team's Mount Rushmore

Fred VanVleet — 24 years old — Restricted FA
Agreed to return to Toronto Raptors for two-years, $18 million

VanVleet’s market would have been interesting had he signed a longer offer sheet with another team, but the young guard decided to stay put with the franchise where he grew into the player he is today.

With the Suns reportedly the primary aggressor for his services, VanVleet was eligible as an undrafted free agent for a ballooning (or “poison pill”) deal which would pay him the equivalent of the mid-level exception during his first season, then give him a 5 percent raise the second, before exploding to any amount up to his maximum salary in the third season. It’s unlikely Toronto would have gone deeper into the luxury tax to keep him. But once the Suns used their cap space on Trevor Ariza, perhaps the possibility of a deal like that disappeared for VanVleet.

After a season in which he was one of the most valuable players in Toronto, VanVleet will return with likely an even bigger role and have an out after just two seasons to return to the market during his prime and fetch the long-term deal that did not materialize this summer.