Free agency makes or breaks NBA teams. A successful summer in pro basketball can mean the difference between championship contention, meddling in the middle of the standings, and flailing into a lottery pick.
One of the biggest moves during 2021 free agency involved the Wizards for the second time in as many seasons. Shockwaves were sent around the league less than a year ago when Washington traded franchise point guard John Wall to Houston in exchange for Russell Westbrook. This summer, the Wizards made headlines again by shipping Westbrook and a second-rounder to L.A. in exchange for Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell and another second-round pick.
Washington has had an excellent free agency thus far. One of the best in the league, in fact. But they’re not alone. Where do they stand among the rest of the Eastern Conference in terms of free agency success?
Here are the teams in the East who have had the best FA periods in 2021, ranked:
1. Miami Heat
Leave it to Pat Riley to once again kill it in another free agent frenzy. Upgrading at point guard from Goran Dragic to Kyle Lowry (after signing the former Raptor to a three-year, $90 million deal) was the biggest plus of the offseason, as Lowry will likely prove to be a perfect Robin to Jimmy Butler’s Batman.
Lowry’s role in Miami will likely be almost identical to what it was in the days of the DeMar DeRozan-led Raptors, with Lowry allowing his SG to be the first scoring option while providing energy and outside shooting when necessary. Butler also signed a massive four-year extension, and his backup, Duncan Robinson, inked a five-year deal himself. The Heat’s backcourt is set.
Then, account for their bigs. Wizards fans will know that the fact the Heat are paying newly acquired forward Markieff Morris just $1.6 million this season could be a steal—he meshes well with star guards (see Beal, Wall circa 2017), can defend 3-5, and can be a viable pick-and-roll threat for a number of Heat playmakers. Miami also added P.J. Tucker on a two-year deal, fresh off his first NBA championship with the Bucks. Tucker is the exact 3-and-D forward Miami needed to pair with their guards, as he will spot up when needed (he shot 39% from deep this past season) and is content playing his role.
A starting five which could include Butler, Tucker, Morris and Bam Adebayo is quickly looking like one of the grittiest, best defensive units in the league. Miami is poised to hover around the top three seeds in the stacked East in 2021-22. Heck, maybe even Victor Oladipo can join in the fun by showing some of the scoring dominance he did in Indiana. Pat Riley has done it again.
2. Washington Wizards
With the five-team deal that sent Westbrook to L.A., the Wizards ended up securing Spencer Dinwiddie, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, Aaron Holiday, and Isaiah Todd. That means, for the first time since, well, at least the turn of the century, the Wizards finally have depth at every position on the floor.
NBC Sports Washington recently ranked Dinwiddie as the 10th best free agent available this offseason, and for good reason. Before his ACL injury that sidelined him most of this past season, he averaged 20 and 6 in 2019-20. Dinwiddie could be the spark the Wizards need in the absence of Westbrook, as he has proved to be an elite midrange scorer with phenomenal finishing ability at the rim. Also account for the fact that his contract in D.C. is a bargain—three years, $62 million.
Now consider the new arrivals from California. Harrell is a tough rim protector who will bolster Washington at center behind Thomas Bryant and Daniel Gafford. Caldwell-Pope is a sharpshooter who can stretch the floor and become a great spot-up option off the bench. The wild card is Kuzma. Will he stew on the roster as he did in the closing years in Los Angeles, or will he revert to the Kyle Kuzma of old who scored almost 19 ppg off 46% shooting?
Somehow—against an air-tight salary cap and a debilitating Westbrook contract—the Wizards got younger, deeper, cheaper, and better at shooting over the summer. Then add the additions of Kispert, Holiday and Todd and you’ve set up a solid core of guys who could become scoring options down the line. Will they contest for the No. 1 seed in the East? No. But a playoff spot, and perhaps even a first-round win, could be on the horizon over the next couple of seasons.
3. Chicago Bulls
Chicago went after a slew of offensive stars since their season ended and were able to snag two big fish: DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball. The former arrives in the Windy City on a four-year, $85 million sign-and-trade that sent Thaddeus Young and a first-rounder to San Antonio. Ball arrives on an identical deal that sends two former Wizards (Garrett Temple and Tomas Satoransky) to New Orleans.
By adding Ball and DeRozan, Chicago’s guard space has been given an excellent combination of a pass-first PG (Ball) and a three-level, primary scoring option (DeRozan). The two will likely pair well and with Zach Lavine as a third piece of the puzzle, Chicago will probably put up serious offensive numbers this season.
Coby White will likely move to the bench after having a good rookie season in Chicago out of UNC, where he will be joined by yet another offseason addition in Alex Caruso. Ball will have plenty of options when he brings the ball up, as Nikola Vucevic can provide a post-scoring threat who can also spot up from deep.
While the Bulls undoubtedly got better this summer, the only knock on them is that they didn’t get good enough. They elevated their ceiling to be about the middle tier in the East—yes, a huge improvement from years past. But is all the money they spent on their new acquisitions worth a first-round exit, at best?
Still, the Bulls have set themselves up for long-term success. Ball is still just 23, Lavine is 26, and the gap at veteran presence has been filled by the 32-year-old DeRozan.
4. Brooklyn Nets
The Nets have the most talented roster in the NBA, plain and simple. They took special care to keep that roster intact over the summer, signing the league’s best player in Kevin Durant to a four-year, $198 million extension. Check off that box.
However, they did lose a solid role player in Jeff Green and one of the league’s brightest young 3-point shooters in Landry Shamet. They could afford to let Dinwiddie go to D.C., given the depth they already have at point guard in Kyrie Irving plus a new addition in Jevon Carter (from the Shamet deal to PHX). Keeping Blake Griffin and Bruce Brown for cheap solidifies their depth at other positions, enabling them to make another solid run at a championship.
Consider this from The Athletic’s John Hollinger: “Finally, the Nets may end up with the most postseason-important free agent from this class, picking up sharpshooting guard Patty Mills on a one-year deal with a player option. Not only was this good value, but the fit couldn’t be better. Mills playing off the ball hunting 3s while defenses focus on Durant, Harden and Irving makes for an impossible task for opposing defenses.”
Brooklyn didn’t even need to get better to compete for a ring—they simply needed to not get worse. They did that and then some with their offseason moves. Don’t forget about the fact that they nearly made the conference finals this past season, even though their big three missed serious time with injuries and Durant’s foot is about a centimeter too long.
5. New York Knicks
The new-look Knicks, who just made the postseason for the first time since 2013, are all of a sudden making savvy free agency moves. If they wanted to truly contend for a deep playoff run, they needed to do some finagling over free agency to solidify some holes on their roster.
Let’s first consider who they lost: Reggie Bullock and Elfrid Payton. Okay, they can probably live with that. Now let’s check out who they added: Kemba Walker (two years for just $18 million!) and Evan Fournier (four years, up to $78 million).
Start Kemba at point guard, and you have one of the best backup PGs in the league in Derrick Rose. RJ Barrett showed serious promise in his first two years and he’s backed up by one of the most intriguing and exciting young scorers in Immanuel Quickley. Fournier, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson round out the rest of their starting five. That, on paper, is an amazing group.
Fournier can spot up just as well as he can create his own shot, though he likely won’t have to anymore with the space Walker will open up. Randle just won a very well-deserved Most Improved Player award—he can be the defensive stalwart of the team while showcasing his newfound three ball (he shot a career-high 41% from three this past season; that’ll mesh very well with Kemba and Barrett, who are better inside the arc).
All of a sudden, the Knicks are looking like a potential three or four seed in the East, with possibilities of making it to the conference final in a couple of years.
This list obviously does not encompass all of the Eastern Conference free agency moves. Some teams—like the Celtics, Hornets and Bucks—all had very good FA periods. Just not good enough to move them into the top five of most improved squads. Other teams have been left in limbo by certain players’ contracts and how they’ve tried to handle the trade market (ahem, Ben Simmons and the Sixers).
This list also does not mean that the five teams above are guaranteed to make deep postseason runs, or even make the playoffs in 2022. But after what those five front offices showed over the last month, their stock has risen, putting them in a great spot to make waves down the line.