NBA free-agency winners and losers, plus why the apron era is the end of exceptionalism

Call it the end of the exceptionalism era. No longer can the biggest markets and richest owners play by their own sets of rules while the rest of the NBA scrambles to keep up in the arms race.

The first 36 hours or so of free agency emphatically hammered that point home, with the richest bluebloods seeming to take the hardest hits. In particular, the three elite teams of the West Coast — the Los Angeles Lakers, LA Clippers and Golden State Warriors — all saw the combination of this year’s cap apron rules and next year’s punitive repeater tax seem to snuff out their last hopes of true title contention.

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Those three teams have entered every season for the last half decade with a championship-or-bust mantra, but already the writing was on the wall that the future would be harder. They combined to win three playoff games last season, and their best three players are 39 (LeBron James), 36 (Stephen Curry) and 33 (Kawhi Leonard).

Remember, it was less than six months ago that the Clippers were looking like a title team, tearing through the league with a 32-9 mark in a 41-game early-season stretch. Leonard was healthy, a trade of James Harden added a jolt of shot creation and the West seemed wide open. As for the Lakers and Warriors, they aspired to similar heights, having met in a second-round playoff series in 2023 after the Lakers won the title in 2020 and Golden State in 2022.

These last two days, however, have slammed shut a series of possible doorways back to contention. The Clippers lost Paul George to free agency without compensation, the Warriors couldn’t turn Chris Paul’s contract or Klay Thompson’s free agency into an impact player and the Lakers haven’t made a single notable addition despite the willingness of LeBron James to take a pay cut.

In a second-apron environment, you can’t just throw money at your problems. None of these teams had the assets or cap flexibility to materially improve their situations. They’re not the only ones, incidentally — Denver, Phoenix, Milwaukee, Miami and others are learning the same. But they stand out the most because we’ve become inured to their exceptionalism — that whatever rules we apply to most teams don’t necessarily apply to them. In the most recent collective bargaining agreement, that is no longer true. If the Clippers and Warriors want to go $50 million into the tax, there are real consequences.

Of course, the offseason is still young. Opportunities may still come these teams’ way (keep an eye on Lauri Markkanen and Cam Johnson, for instance). And at the margins, some good decisions were made.

For instance, the Clippers unwillingness to give George a four-year max at age 34 is defensible in a vacuum and might be more so if they can turn his departure to Philadelphia into a sign-and-trade that generates a $50 million trade exception. There are limits on how to use an exception of that size that in our brave new tax-apron world, but it’s still significant.

The Clippers are also adding Derrick Jones, Kris Dunn and Nic Batum, as well as Kevin Porter Jr. (The fact the Clippers felt they had to resort to this move underscores their talent-addition challenges; Porter’s past locker-room demeanor and off-court issues are both red flags, in my opinion.)

LA, however, is positioned to fight another day, sitting below the tax apron with expiring money, and could even be a cap room team a year from now. (Keep an eye also on an extension for Ivica Zubac, which can run up to four years and $78 million.) Meanwhile the candle is burning out on a Leonard-Harden core, and the Clippers don’t control their next five drafts. That’s a tough environment to be much more than average.



Now what? How the Clippers will navigate the post-Paul George era

Similarly, the Warriors finally acknowledged the reality that had been slapping them in the face for the last two seasons. They completed the second half of the Jordan Poole salary dump (and what a save that was) by waiving Paul’s non-guaranteed $30 million deal, then let Thompson go and agreed to a deal with De’Anthony Melton in his stead.

This seems more jarring optically than it is in pure basketball terms. The Warriors replaced Thompson with a better, younger player who cost less, then got a $16 million trade exception and two second-round picks. This can’t be seen as anything other than a giant win, with the biggest potential snag being that they get “DiVincenzo’d” next summer if Melton outplays his one-year contract and they have no Bird rights on him.

But it’s only a win because of where the Warriors were — stuck with an old, expensive core and no longer able to buy their way out of it. The more nagging question is: What, exactly, do they do from here? The Warriors have a middling-to-good team in an awesome conference, which is how they won 46 games last year and still missed the playoffs. A similar outcome seems highly plausible again.

The hardest part is Golden State is no longer good enough to contend but not quite bad enough for conscience-free tanking. Additionally, the Warriors’ best player is arguably the biggest needle-mover of the last decade for fans and TV. If you’re playing Football Manager with this roster, trading Curry for a giant heap of assets and starting over is the no-brainer move. If you’re running a team in real life, it’s unthinkable.

As for the Lakers, this was where exceptionalism truly went to die this summer, as one top free-agent target after another fell by the wayside. Even with LeBron James volunteering a potential pay cut, the combination of apron rules, limited draft assets and undesirable matching salaries conspired to keep the Lakers off the free-agent scoreboard. Their only move so far as of Tuesday morning was re-signing a player (Max Christie) who wasn’t good enough to stay in their rotation a year ago.

Again, the Lakers still have time. The summer might have a more positive spin if they can salvage a Jerami Grant trade or a DeMar DeRozan signing, especially if it doesn’t cost them D’Angelo Russell along the way. (The Lakers have plenty of underperforming contracts to put into deals; Russell’s $18.7 million is a value.) But they’re at a persistent disadvantage bidding against rivals better positioned for the apron era.

Enough about those three teams. Let’s talk about some other winners and losers from the opening hours of free agency:



Harper: As free agency continues, some NBA teams seem to be challenging the CBA


The Harden trade really has a different spin now, huh? The Sixers got two first-rounders, two second-rounders, a pick swap and stuffed P.J. Tucker’s dead money into the deal too. Then, summer came and they ended up with the cap space to pluck George off LA’s roster.

It’s a huge win for the Sixers’ strategy of leaning into cap space once the implications of the new CBA became apparent, even in an environment where nearly all the best players sign extensions. It was a high-wire dance and a gamble they only narrowly won. If George hadn’t signed, there was no alternate player even remotely good enough to justify max-level money, and the Sixers cap-room window would have effectively shut once Tyrese Maxey signed his five-year max deal.

But it did work, and on Philly’s timeline, it’s extremely important. We don’t know how long Joel Embiid’s body will hold up, but he’s one of the league’s best players right now and has an All-Star sidekick in Maxey. George is 34 and will miss regular-season games, but he’s always been a near-ideal third star, somebody who can make open shots, defend good players and scale his shot creation up or down as the situation requires.

The biggest risk here is that George’s play goes south in the final two years of his deal, but by that point, his contract becomes a massive salary match to be used in concert with those firsts. Two years from now, the Sixers can put four firsts in a trade to make godfather offers with George’s contract if they want. In the bizzaro logic of Apronworld, getting that third big contract in the first place is half the challenge.

The Sixers are by no means a sure thing to even be the second-best team in the Eastern Conference; they have much work left to build out a viable rotation. Kelly Oubre, Eric Gordon and Andre Drummond will help. Signing a starting-caliber four with their remaining $9.3 million in cap space would aid mightily, too. In the end, Philly might be a little too thin to beat Boston and New York, but it’s still a heck of a lot better than what it had before.

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Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey are looking to contend in the East with the addition of Paul George. (Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)


It’s one thing to resist the depredations of the tax aprons in 2024. It’s another to be skirting the tax for years. That’s what Denver has been doing even while it has the best player who will ever wear the franchise’s uniform in his prime.

Amid Nikola Jokić MVP seasons, the Nuggets have spent half a decade cheaping out by trading draft picks to dump salaries and skimping on contracts to avoid or minimize the luxury tax. They still managed to win a championship despite this, but this isn’t how you max out what should be a golden era in Denver. It is Lame with a capital L.

Losing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to a ridiculous, bloaty offer would have been one thing. Losing him to a three-year $66 million deal is embarrassing. The Nuggets could have either matched that and stayed right at the second apron or had him opt-in for his $15.4 million player option for this season and built a three-year extension off that.

Denver’s past roster sins ended up costing it: An overpay to JaMychal Green eventually cost the Nuggets a 2027 first-round pick in a stealth salary dump, for instance, and a baffling midlevel deal for Reggie Jackson in 2023 cost them three seconds to dispatch.

Bigger picture, though, the contract extensions did the Nuggets in. They had a Stan Kroenke budget but acted like their owner was Steve Ballmer, breezily committing to max extensions for Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. without much of a fight (especially the latter) and giving little-used Zeke Nnaji a ridiculous (and virtually untradeable) four-year, $32 million extension a year ago.

Partly as a result of past sins, Denver has no tradeable draft picks. The Nuggets can do picks swaps in 2026, 2028 and 2030, if available, and can deal a 2031 first-rounder — conditional on them even having the pick to trade.

They’re stuck, basically hoping one or two late draft picks can turn into something beyond an “interesting” bench piece. The Joker Era deserves better.



What’s next for Nuggets after losing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope?

The Oklahoma City Thunder didn’t get a superstar or a secondary shot creator to open up their playoff offense, but they did the best they could have with their cap space and assets, using room to get the best attainable player for them on the market (Isaiah Hartenstein), declining options on Isaiah Joe and Aaron Wiggins to lock them in on longer deals at team-friendly numbers and dealing Josh Giddey for Alex Caruso.

Once they extend Caruso in six months, they’ll have a multi-year window with a core of the above players, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Chet Holmgren, Jalen Williams and Luguentz Dort. If Cason Wallace, Nikola Topić or one of their many future draft picks can join the party, so much the better.

Watching the Thunder play crunchtime of their most important game of the season with two bigs underscored that playing five-out and spamming guard-guard screens wasn’t a 48-minute panacea against every opponent. Hartenstein, in particular, helps two glaring weaknesses — the lack of a decisive short-roller and the team’s pitiful rebounding.

More importantly, the money on the deals of Joe, Wiggins and Hartenstein gives the Thunder a very important currency: Tradeable salary. One of the barriers to using their surfeit of future draft choices in a future deal was that they had no plausible means of exchanging one of them for an A-lister because they didn’t have the necessary salary match on hand. Now they do.

To that end: We’re still learning the details, but I would strongly expect a third-year team option on Hartenstein’s deal. The Thunder don’t necessarily want to be paying Holmgren a max and Hartenstein $30 million in the same season in 2026-27, and an option year essentially gives them a two-year window where Hartenstein is plausibly expiring money for a receiving team.

Similarly, let’s see where the guaranteed money ends up on Wiggins’ deal. He was locked in for one year at $2 million, so giving him an extra four years and $45 million on top of that seems pretty extreme for a fungible, fringe-rotation guy who is likely to get lapped by incoming draft picks.

However, if the out years are either non-guarantees or team options, that has the impact of turning the contract into a trade exception that’s usable at whatever moment the Thunder need it. Going that route is far more effective than just locking in the money and then sitting there in 2027 wondering why this guy is on the cap for two more years.



Losing Hartenstein hurts the Knicks, and finding a replacement will be difficult

Time will tell whether it’s enough, but the Mavericks definitely upgraded their offensive potency with the additions of Naji Marshall and Klay Thompson after the Boston Celtics exposed their lack of perimeter threats in the NBA Finals.

There was an equal and opposite cost, as the Mavs lost Derrick Jones Jr. and Josh Green and may suffer at the defensive end because of it. Nonetheless, the idea of putting Thompson in the weakside corner on a Luka Dončić–Dereck Lively II pick-and-roll was likely too salivating to reasonably resist, especially when it only cost them one second-round pick. (Charlotte supplied the other one.)

Marshall also is an underrated addition as a smart two-way player who isn’t as threatening a standstill shooter but has more juice as a ballhandler and general havoc-maker. His contract (three years, $27 million) rivals Melton’s as the best value deal of this cycle so far.

Again, hard choices had to be made. The Mavs had to surrender Green to stay under the first apron after already giving up draft equity to turn Tim Hardaway Jr. into Quentin Grimes. On paper, though, it’s hard to see tougher playoff lineup in the West than this one.

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Naji Marshall rises for a dunk against the Wizards. (KeShawn Ennis / NBAE via Getty Images)


You’re not really a Nuggets shooting guard until you move to Central Florida. Caldwell-Pope followed the well-trod path worn by Gary Harris, Arron Afflalo, Evan Fournier, R.J. Hampton and Von Wafter when he agreed to the previously mentioned deal with the Magic.

Orlando also agreed to bring back Harris to a two-year, $14 million that could come out of its room exception and secured Goga Bitadze on a three-year, $25 million deal that will be signed once the rest of its cap space is gone, because he only has a $2 million cap hold.

The Magic still have roughly $25 million in cap room left, and one thing they might do is renegotiate-and-extend Jonathan Isaac’s contract with part of it. Doing so, rather than a standard extension, would push more money into the present and take it out of future seasons, when likely max extensions for Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero will make the Magic’s roster more expensive.

My BORD$ formula has a $15 million valuation on Isaac, and he’s 26 years, old, so let’s start there. Suppose you wanted to give him that money over three years, for a total of $45 million, in a contract extension.

In Orlando’s situation, it makes more sense to drop as much of that money into this season as possible by using cap space in a renegotiate-and-extend. You could do that by using $6.5 million of cap room to give Isaac a raise to $23.5 million from his current $17 million, then drop his salary by the maximally allowed 40 percent the next season to just $14.1 million. With 8 percent declines in the following two seasons, his salary would be $13 million in 2026-27 and $11.9 million in 2027-28, for a total package of $45.5 million in new money.

With the money left over after that, the Magic could still use another shot-creating guard. If nothing emerges, however, don’t be shocked if they use the cap room on a one-year overpay with a team option for 2025-26, effectively keeping the money alive as a trade exception to take into this season or next offseason.



Losing Hartenstein hurts the Knicks, and finding a replacement will be difficult


Phoenix has painted itself into an impossible corner, and it seems likely the only way out will inevitably be trading Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, whether that’s at the 2025 trade deadline or 18 months from now. Nonetheless, as long as the Suns are putting up the good fight of trying to stay in contention, they played their hand about as well as they could.

Mason Plumlee was the best center they could have brought in on a minimum deal and an upgrade on the departed Drew Eubanks. Re-signing Bol Bol and (eventually) Josh Okogie at raises on their minimum deals keeps their two best internal improvement candidates in the mix.

As for Royce O’Neale’s deal? Not great, Bob. Four years and $44 million for a 31-year-old player is a big chunk of change. But the Bird rights trap bites hardest on second-apron teams like the Suns that have no means of replacing the player for more than the minimum. O’Neale almost had to come back, and the Suns had zero leverage.

The endgame of this is staggering: The Suns will have the league’s most expensive roster this year and likely will in 2025-26 too. They will have their 2032 and 2033 draft picks frozen for being over the second apron and will have the 2032 pick moved to the end of the first round if they can’t get under the second apron by 2026.

But for now, at least, they’re alive — just barely — in the contender conversation once again.

San Antonio’s addition of Chris Paul might seem a bit odd, given that the Spurs are rebuilding and Paul is 39 years old. Even given the team’s need at point guard, other targets were available, and San Antonio had the money to chase them — most notably Tyus Jones, brother of incumbent point guard Tre Jones.

However, there may be something here beyond the long-term lovefest between Gregg Popovich and CP3. By signing Paul to a one-year deal, San Antonio gives itself the chance to profit from his contract twice. Paul will be an expiring deal come February, at which time Spurs could either aggregate it if they wanted to use their cache of future picks to hunt for a big star or sell off less dramatically for a second-round pick or two if he’s playing well and the Spurs are out of the hunt.

It’s perhaps not the most dramatic thing the Spurs could have done, and their offseason still feels incomplete pending other moves. But Paul was possibly the best player they could have brought in at that position, the money is reasonable and the contract is highly portable.

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Chris Paul and Victor Wembanyama shake hands prior to a preseason game last fall. (Kyle Terada / USA Today)

Looking just at birth certificates, the moves made by Detroit to add Tobias Harris and Washington to add Jonas Valančiūnas can leave you puzzled. Are these teams rebuilding or what?

In reality, part of rebuilding is having just enough talent on hand, and in the right spots, that younger players can develop in a legitimate basketball environment. Valančiūnas prevents rookie Alex Sarr from getting mashed by bigger, stronger matchups in his first year and lets all the other Wizards play next to a real center. Harris is a legitimate scoring threat to put around Cade Cunningham so he isn’t facing five defenders with a foot in the paint as he did as year ago. Even bad teams need players like that around.

There were secondary considerations, of course. Harris’ contract, in particular, is ideally set up to be a trade piece a year from now, when his $26-million-a-year deal becomes expiring money. Valančiūnas, meanwhile, was among the few centers on the market at this price point, so Washington couldn’t be too choosy.

I think both the Pistons and Wizards were taken aback by just how bad they were a year ago. It’s one thing to take your lumps and develop, but these two were expecting to lose somewhat honorably. Instead, they went a combined 29-135 when nobody was even tanking. Yikes!



Why are the Wizards going to sign Jonas Valančiūnas?

Other thoughts

  • Bulls: I like Chicago going younger even if I don’t love all the individual contracts. Five years of Patrick Williams at $90 million seems like a bit much, I’m not sure Jalen Smith can play backup five every night and the Bulls should have wrested a draft pick from the Thunder in the Caruso trade. But the Bulls having a direction instead of chasing 39 victories again is a giant win.
  • Pacers: Indiana’s four-year $60 million deal for Obi Toppin was perfect, just fitting into its financial structure to stay below the tax once Smith left. At some point, Indiana will have to make some hard decisions with its younger players and contracts, but the Pacers are set to run it back in 2024-25.
  • Raptors: I’m worried Toronto overcommitted on contracts for Scottie Barnes and Immanuel Quickley, especially the latter. The two will combine to make over $70 million next year; are they good enough to drive a top-15 offense? Toronto is already essentially capped out for next year, so I’m not sure how much help is coming.
  • Hornets: Charlotte’s new front office rolled into free agency relatively quietly, but picking up Josh Green was a good move at the margins. It appears the Hornets will do it with cap space, likely by waiving Dāvis Bertāns, and then take Reggie Jackson into their room exception. The Hornets still can be a player with cap room depending on what happens with Miles Bridges.
  • Jazz: The center market was thin, but I don’t really get Utah paying Drew Eubanks $10 million over two years. The Jazz haven’t played their cap space cards yet.
  • Bucks, Heat: I mentioned other apron teams above, but you can see how Milwaukee and Miami have their hands tied too. Each has been limited to minor deals (Delon Wright, Kevin Love) thus far.
  • Kings, Pelicans: We haven’t heard much from Sacramento or New Orleans yet — outside of the Dejounte Murray trade — but I expect both teams to be active in the trade market.

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(Top photo of Stephen Curry and James Harden: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)

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