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After a comparatively quiet Saturday, the opening weekend of the NBA’s 2017 free agency period wrapped up Sunday with a bang. Three of The Vertical’s top seven free agents reached new deals, with a pair of Eastern stars staying put and another heading out west to continue that conference’s ongoing arms race.
There were several smaller deals locked up, too, plus plenty of rumblings about where some of the remaining notable names on the market might settle in the days ahead.
Let’s sort through it all, beginning with the grades:
GRADING SUNDAY’S DEALS
Paul Millsap signs with the Nuggets: Last summer, many fans were surprised to find the Denver Nuggets on the list of teams to land a free-agent meeting with All-Star shooting guard Dwyane Wade. He wound up signing with the Bulls, but later raved about how impressed he was with his recruitment by Denver’s front office and coaching staff.
“Those guys, I was sold on them, those individuals, great individuals,” Wade told The Denver Post. “They made it a lot tougher than people think, just from the standpoint of when you get into free agency, it’s all about how comfortable someone can make you feel. It’s about the picture they paint for you about the what’s the possibility of how the team can look with you inside of that team.”
Nuggets brass must have painted a masterpiece on Sunday. Afer swinging and missing on Wade, after coming up short in rumored trade-deadline and draft-night deals for the likes of Paul George and Kevin Love, this time, they got their man, agreeing to terms on a three-year, $90 million deal with All-Star power forward Paul Millsap.
Millsap fits the bill of exactly what Denver’s been looking for at the four spot next to rising star center Nikola Jokic. From our Northwest Division free agency shopping list:
[Kevin] Love’s a name that sticks because Denver needs to figure out what it’s doing at power forward. Jokic firmly established himself as the Nuggets’ center of the future — this is why [Jusuf] Nurkic is now in Portland, instead of being unhappy next to Malone on the bench — but Denver hasn’t yet found the right sort of fit at the four next to their super-skilled but somewhat slow-footed and ground-bound playmaker. A defensively versatile type who doesn’t demand No. 1 option touches would be wonderful.
Enter Millsap, a player the Nuggets had reportedly targeted last year with a package centered on draft picks and forward Kenneth Faried, but who now comes aboard at the cost of nothing but money. (A lot of money, to be fair.)
On the defensive end, the 6-foot-8, 245-pounder has the heft to bang bodies down low, active hands to contest shots and dart into passing lanes to create deflections and snag steals, and still enough lateral quickness at age 32 to hold up when switching screens on the perimeter and guarding in space. He’s an incredibly smart defender who always seems to be in the right spot, ranking sixth among all qualifying power forwards in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus metric last year and acting as one of the linchpins of a Hawks defense that ranked among the NBA’s half-dozen stingiest in each of the past three years. He’ll immediately be the best defender on the Nuggets, and man, could they use the help. Only the Los Angeles Lakers gave up more points per possession than Denver last season.
The Nuggets did, however, boast the NBA’s fifth-most-efficient offense — No. 1 with a bullet after Jokic re-entered the starting lineup in mid-December — and Millsap ought to help there, too. He moves without the ball, he’s a willing screener, and he won’t bog down Denver’s motion offense with isolation play. He’s not quite a stretch four, having shot better than league-average from 3-point range just once in his career (and less than 32 percent in the last two seasons in Atlanta). But he’s a credible threat on the perimeter who can drive to the basket, create off the bounce and make plays for others, having averaged a career-high 3.7 assists per game last season to go with his 18.1 points and 7.7 rebounds. Millsap brings experience working with a talented center with touch from his years alongside Al Horford in Atlanta; he won’t take the ball out of Jokic’s hands, but when it comes to him, he can make something happen with it.
Millsap helps, on both ends of the court, and does so while packing a tireless work ethic that’s earned him the respect of opposing players and coaches en route to four straight trips to the Eastern Conference All-Star team. He’s extremely consistent; as Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers put it earlier this year, “He’s ‘Groundhog Day.'” But while Phil Connors spent nearly 34 years covering that assignment in Punxsutawney, Pa., Millsap’s deal only runs for three — and the Nuggets hold a team option on the final year, according to Matt Moore of CBS Sports. Denver should get as close to prime production as Millsap can provide next year, and if things go south after that, the Nuggets can walk away while maintaining financial flexibility for extending the contracts of Jokic and swingman Gary Harris when their rookie deals are up.
A no-brainer max for Jokic, a heavy eight-figure annual sum for Harris and $30 million for Millsap means the Nuggets will soon become awfully expensive. Importing the former Hawk likely means free agent Danilo Gallinari doesn’t come back, could prompt a move on from Faried, and might mean some more personnel departures as general manager Tim Connelly looks to thin out a crowded frontcourt. There could be some roster-management headaches, and some flirtations with the luxury tax, in the Nuggets’ near future.
If that’s the cost of adding an All-Star who bolsters your strength while directly addressing your most significant weakness at your position of greatest need, and who does so at a price you can afford for a period of time you can live with so you can take the next step in returning to the ranks of consistently competitive teams, it’s a cost you pay gladly. The Nuggets opened up their checkbook with a smile on Sunday, in hopes of getting to laugh all the way to the playoffs. — Dan Devine
Denver grade: A
Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka re-sign with the Raptors: Toronto gave Lowry three years and $100 million. It gave Ibaka three years and $65 million. General manager Masai Ujiri is bringing the band back together for another successful regular season that ends in playoff disappointment, which is … fine. It’s far from the worst decision a GM has ever made. There’s something to be said for winning games and having fun. But it won’t yield a championship, so the upside of these re-signings is extremely limited.
But the positive spin is that Toronto got both Lowry and Ibaka at very reasonable prices. And, crucially, they refrained from giving either a fourth year, meaning the path to a rebuild — provided there is no miraculous run the Finals over the next few seasons — is shorter. So the Raptors come out of the negotiations with Lowry and Ibaka as winners, even if the decision to run it back is a resignation to 50 wins and a likely second-round playoff exit. — Henry Bushnell
Toronto Grade: B-
Taj Gibson signs with the Timberwolves: Minnesota’s biggest need is shooting, and bringing in Gibson on a two-year, $28 million certainly doesn’t help in that department. But it solidifies the Wolves’ identity — or at least what we expect it to be — and aligns that identity with head coach Tom Thibodeau’s. With Gibson and Karl-Anthony Towns inside and Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins on the wings, Minnesota will bully teams all over the court and try to win with physicality? The Wolves won’t look much like a modern NBA team, but they’ll sure look like a Thibodeau team. — HB
Minnesota Grade: C+
Kyle Korver re-signs with the Cavaliers: Korver got $22 million over three years to return to Cleveland as the Cavs look to fortify their bench for another run at Golden State. Korver, 36, was underwhelming this past June against the Warriors. But he remains one of the best 3-point snipers in the NBA, and, because his game doesn’t depend all that much on athleticism, probably still has a few years left in him despite his age. — HB
Cleveland Grade: B
Nene re-signs with the Rockets: Nene agreed to a four-year, $15 million deal to return to Houston late Friday night. It turned out he was literally 18 days too old to receive that fourth year. So Nene eventually accepted the same deal without the final year. He’ll be back as the Rockets’ backup center on a three-year, $11 million contract, and he’ll once again have a vital role as Houston tries to measure up to Golden State in the West. — HB
Houston Grade: A-
Justin Holiday returns to the Bulls: Even rebuilding teams need dudes who can defend on the perimeter and hit 3-pointers, provided they come at the right price. Two years and $9 million, per Shams Charania of The Vertical, is the right price for Holiday, a 6-foot-6 swingman who averaged 7.7 points and 2.7 rebounds in 20 minutes per game in 82 appearances. (That the Knicks never made a competitive offer to try to keep him, despite their own glaring need for guys who can defend and shoot, is curious.) He’s a solid reserve wing in a league where those can be tough to come by, and he’ll help Chicago in the short term without hampering the longer-term rebuilding effort. — DD
Chicago grade: B
Ben McLemore goes to the Grizzlies: The former Kansas star came to the Kings expected to join DeMarcus Cousins as a major contributor to the franchise’s resurgence, but struggled to find a consistent role or translate his athleticism into consistent production while playing for four head coaches in four tumultuous years. Now, Sacramento has turned the off-guard spot over to Buddy Hield, and a Memphis team that can never seem to find enough shooting or athleticism on the wing to take a flyer on the 2013 draft’s No. 7 pick in hopes that he’ll find his footing in a more stable organization. McLemore will make the full taxpayer midlevel exception for two fully guaranted years and joins Wayne Selden in wings that the Grizz have locked up in free agency’s early days, which — with decisions still to come on power forwards JaMychal Green and Zach Randolph — suggests it miiiiiiiiight be getting close to time for Memphians to start the painful process of bidding farewell to Tony Allen. Stay tuned. — DD
Memphis grade: C
Jodie Meeks signs with the Wizards (two years, $7 million)
SUNDAY’S RUMORS AND REPORTS
The Clippers are going after Danilo Gallinari. The Italian shooter crossed the Kings off his list on Sunday before following in Blake Griffin’s footsteps and entering Steve Ballmer’s dream-weaving factory. We don’t think the Clips had any special T-shirts made up for this visit, but they did reportedly crank up the heat on their pursuit of the 6-foot-10 forward:
Whether Gallinari likes that picture enough to overlook reasonable concerns of what the Clippers’ post-Chris Paul/J.J. Redick backcourt will look remains to be seen. Ditto for whether the chances of a potential return to Denver were vaporized or enhanced by the Millsap signing. Either way, the Clippers’ wheels appear to be turning, as they try to surround the re-upped Griffin and DeAndre Jordan with shooting in an attempt to stay postseason-competitive in an increasingly brutal West. — DD
Will Swaggy P go ring-chasing? Per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Warriors are considering investing their $5.2 million of remaining mid-level exception money in Nick Young. After rejuvenating JaVale McGee’s career last year, they seem intent on turning yet another misfit into an NBA champion. Young would be turning down more money elsewhere to play in Golden State.
For what it’s worth, Swaggy might already have the support of one key recruiter in the Warriors’ camp. — HB
Cory Joseph could be on the move: The Raptors have had talks with the Pacers about a trade that would send Joseph to Indiana, according to Michael Scotto of Basketball Insiders and multiple other reports. Joseph would fill the starting point guard role vacated by Jeff Teague. The Raptors want to move Joseph’s $7.6 million salary, and could be ready to elevate Delon Wright into the backup role behind Kyle Lowry. — HB
Get your Shabazz Muhammad here: ESPN.com’s Chris Haynes reports that the Minnesota Timberwolves pulled the qualifying offer that they’d extended to Muhammad to remove his cap hold from their salary sheet, a necessary bit of bookkeeping to make room for the addition of Gibson without having to shed another contract. The 6-foot-6 swingman and sometimes-small-ball-power-forward has been to this point in his career an off-the-bench interior bucket-getter who doesn’t shoot from distance all that well or excel at much else; what sort of interest develops in his services now that he’s moved from restricted status to the unrestricted market remains to be seen. — DD
LOOKING AHEAD TO MONDAY
Gordon Hayward met with the Celtics Sunday. He’ll link up with Utah Jazz executives Dennis Lindsey and Steve Starks and head coach Quin Snyder in San Diego on Monday. But don’t expect a decision until Tuesday or Wednesday … — HB
Dion Waiters met with the Lakers Sunday, according to Michael Scotto of Basketball Insiders. He’d previously met with the Heat, with whom he had a strong and entertaining 2016-17 season. But with Miami currently engaged in the Hayward sweepstakes, Waiters appears to be keeping his options open. It’s worth noting, perhaps, that new Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka used to represent Waiters during his days as a player agent. — DD
And speaking of L.A. …
There’s “mutual interest” between the Lakers and Rajon Rondo, according to Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times. Hours after the 31-year-old point guard hit the open market when he was waived by the Bulls, his representatives reportedly reached out to the Lakers about a potential partnership, and L.A.’s brass is apparently entertaining the idea of bringing in Rondo on a short-term deal as a mentor for No. 2 overall pick Lonzo Ball.
Rondo’s track record as a veteran leader is something of a mixed bag, but the young players in Chicago last year raved about him even as he clashed at times with the coaching staff and his veteran teammates. It’d be awfully strange to see the longtime Boston Celtics triggerman running the break in forum blue and gold, but then, stranger things have happened in the NBA … several of them, in fact, involving Rondo. — DD
TOP 10 BEST AVAILABLE (via The Vertical’s Fab 50 Free Agents)
1. Kevin Durant, SF
2. Gordon Hayward, SF
3. George Hill, PG
4. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, SG
5. Otto Porter, SF (NOTE: Porter on Sunday received a max offer sheet from the Kings, but has reportedly not yet signed it.)
6. Dirk Nowitzki, PF
7. Danilo Gallinari, PF
8. Rudy Gay, SF
9. Zach Randolph, PF
10. Nerlens Noel, C