The annual summer arms race that is NBA free agency has opened, and while this class is not littered with impactful names, the signings carry some weight. Contenders like the Los Angeles Lakers are desperate to find cheap role players to fill the rest of the roster. Phoenix and Milwaukee are trying to retain as much talent as possible from teams that made it to the NBA Finals. Teams such as New Orleans and Chicago, which were outside the postseason picture, and anxious to secure playoff spots.
Let’s look at the three teams that made the most notable signings at the beginning of free agency.
Kyle Lowry (3 years, $90 million)
P.J. Tucker (2 years, $15 million)
Of all the teams that acquired talent in this free-agency window, the Miami Heat made the biggest splash. Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker join a team that is a year removed from the NBA Finals, and they should have an immediate impact on a squad that was downright disappointing last season. Lowry and Tucker provide shooting and defense for the Heat, which surprisingly struggled in both areas.
Miami finished last season 19th in 3-point shooting (36.2%) a season after it was the second-best shooting team in the league. Lowry is a career 36.8% shooter who hit 39.6% of his 7.2 3-point attempts per game last season. Tucker has become a catch-and-shoot specialist. Since the 2017-18 season, 68% of his attempts have come as 3-pointers, and over that span he has shot 36.6% from deep. His specialty is as a corner shooter, an area of the floor in which Miami finished 27th at 35.2%. Tucker has shot at least 38% from the corner since he joined Houston, and he will provide some consistency for an area of weakness for the Heat.
The two are also very solid perimeter defenders. Only three times in Lowry’s career did his team’s defensive rating get worse when he was on the floor. More importantly, in each year but two, his team gave up fewer attempts within 4 feet of the basket with him on the floor. This is important for Miami, which struggled to defend the rim last season. The Heat might have allowed the fifth-fewest attempts at the rim, but when opponents got to the hoop, they shot 64.7%. Last season was statistically one of Tucker’s worst defensively, but he is still a fine perimeter defender. In his first three seasons with the Rockets, he improved their rim defense every year. A full year of Tucker engaged in hunting a title should help him get back to his defensive roots.
Overall, Miami did an excellent job of improving, not only luring Lowry and Tucker but re-signing Duncan Robinson to the largest contract ever for an undrafted player. However, how much closer did it really get to winning a championship? The SuperBook cut Miami’s odds from 30-1 before free agency to 20-1 as of Tuesday morning, but the path toward a title is much harder. If Brooklyn is fully healthy, does a core of Lowry, Tucker and Jimmy Butler give Miami a chance in that series? Perhaps, but a wide gap still exists between those teams if the Nets are healthy. Miami should be a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference, but it is hard to invest at such a short price to win the NBA Finals.
Los Angeles Lakers
When the Lakers acquired Russell Westbrook on draft night, they severely limited the level of free agents they could sign. Los Angeles entered the free-agent signing period with just $12.6 million in space below the hard cap and only five players on the roster. Therefore, Alex Caruso is now a member of the Chicago Bulls. The Lakers’ objective in free agency was to find shooting and guard depth on the cheap, and they did that to a certain extent.
In terms of shooting, the names that pop off the page are Wayne Ellington and Kent Bazemore. Ellington is a career 38.2% 3-point shooter who has posted six seasons of shooting 39% or better from deep. Last season in Detroit he hit 42.2% of his 6.0 3-point attempts per game, and he is exactly the type of player the Lakers were looking for. He won’t be confused with Jrue Holiday on defense, but in the right lineups he will be far from a defensive liability. Bazemore is also coming off a solid shooting season in which he hit 40.8% from deep for Golden State. He is a much worse career shooter (35.6%), so he’ll likely fall somewhere between those figures. He also provides a steady presence on defense and the ability to handle the ball. Ellington and Bazemore are not the sexiest names, but they address needs. That is always a plus in my book.
As for the rest of the class, I have my reservations. Trevor Ariza has the ability to stretch the floor if he finds his stroke, but he is a career 35.2% shooter and shot just under that mark for Miami last season. He still has value on defense, so that fits the mold of Los Angeles, but I would much rather have seen the Lakers acquire a better 3-and-D candidate than the 36-year-old veteran. Dwight Howard is not expected to have a massive role for this team, but seeing the Lakers acquire another center makes me worry about Anthony Davis’ willingness to play that position. Lineups with a true center, Davis, LeBron James and Westbrook are going to be clunky. Los Angeles needs depth at the position, and for this experiment to work, Davis needs to embrace playing center this season.
The Westgate SuperBook adjusted Los Angeles ever so slightly from 9-2 odds to 7-2 odds to win the title, but that is mostly due to projected liability. Jeff Sherman, VP of risk management at SuperBook Sports, told me the day of the Westbrook trade that bettors would be “double fisting” tickets on Los Angeles to win the title due to the star acquisition.
Lonzo Ball (4 years, $85 million)
Alex Caruso (4 years, $37 million)
After the Bulls acquired Nikola Vucevic at the trade deadline, I believed they would be able to find their way into the Eastern Conference play-in tournament. Instead, the Bulls did not even finish 10th in the East, but now they are clearly in the business of being a playoff team with the additions of Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso.
Both players bring defensive intensity to a backcourt that was average at best on that end of the floor. Chicago finished last season 15th in defensive efficiency, according to Cleaning The Glass (113.1), and both guards have been phenomenal defenders throughout their careers. In Caruso’s four seasons with the Lakers, their defensive rating improved by no fewer than 3.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. Ball finished as the 11th-ranked point guard in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus. With both in the fold, the Bulls should get inside the top half of the league in defensive efficiency. Ball has also developed into a fine shooter. After hitting just 31.5% from deep in his first two seasons, Ball has sunk 37.6% of his 3-point attempts in New Orleans. He has never lost his touch as a passer and should fit very nicely alongside Zach LaVine in the Chicago backcourt.
The Bulls will not compete for a title soon with this roster, but this team should be one of the final eight in the Eastern Conference. Odds to make the postseason have not been posted by any operator, but when they are, Chicago should be near the top of the list of plays to make in that market.