"Gasol with his all-around skill is probably the best center in the Eastern Conference," writes Smith of the veteran.
Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

Winners and losers of NBA free agency

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By Sam Smith | 07.21.2014 | 10:15 a.m. CT | asksam@bulls.com | @SamSmithHoops

Consider this NBA universe as the 2014 summer of free agency comes to a close: The Celtics and Lakers again are not expected to make the playoffs; the Heat probably will struggle to be a playoff team, and the Knicks are not expected to make the playoffs, though I believe they are better than the conventional wisdom. Phil Jackson, Pat Riley and the winningest franchises in NBA history consider the lottery more than championship rings for now.

The winners in free agency and given related trade moves were, obviously, the Cavaliers, Bulls, Knicks, Hornets, Pelicans, Clippers, Wizards and Trail Blazers, while the losers were the Heat, Rockets, Lakers, Mavericks and Nets.

So with summer league ending Monday and most of the wheeling and dealing pretty much done, here’s a very early look at how the conferences will be this season.

 

Eastern Conference

1.  Cleveland Cavaliers: Recruiting LeBron James, clearly, was the story of the summer. It now also seems difficult to believe they won’t work out a trade for Kevin Love. But even if they don’t and retain No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins, they have depth, size and another All-Star with Kyrie Irving, which is as much or more than James had to work with in Miami.

2.  Bulls: It was a heck of a stretch run close to add Pau Gasol after failing in attempts with Carmelo Anthony and Love. Gasol with his all-around skill is probably the best center in the Eastern Conference. And he now plays with last season’s best center, Joakim Noah. The Bulls addressed shooting weaknesses with lottery pick Doug McDermott, have a deep backcourt and another promising young player in Nikola Mirotic.

3.  Indiana Pacers: Losing Lance Stephenson is a setback, though more so for Stephenson. So should we expect anything different as leaving does make sense with his often irrational behavior. He signed for less guaranteed money than the Pacers offered him and leaves a sanctuary franchise for him. But the Pacers will recoup enough with C.J. Miles and are expected to add Rodney Stuckey. They’ll still be short scoring and obviously wavered with Roy Hibbert as they explored deals in the summer.  

4.  New York Knicks: They were a winner in bringing back Carmelo Anthony. They weren’t about to attract agents next summer—not that there are that many to make a difference, anyway—without an All-Star. They were the kings of the underachievers last season with a coach who lost the team and a team that quit on one another. Jose Calderon is a strong distributor and Phil Jackson has a chance of getting to J.R. Smith. They have some young talent and the way Tyson Chandler played last season, Sam Dalembert will look like an upgrade. Jackson through coach Derek Fisher will find good use for a shooter like Andrea Bargnani.

5.  Charlotte Hornets: Free agents to Charlotte? First Al Jefferson and now Lance Stephenson. Michael Jordan is quietly making it a destination. Losing Josh McRoberts perhaps hurts in depth somewhat, but they now have a starting five and can put non scoring Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on the bench. Stephenson has that athletic dimension, though Jordan may have to give him some talks. They’ve become a tough out.

6.  Washington Wizards: It’s unclear whether Paul Pierce is an upgrade over Trevor Ariza, whom they lost. But they retained their size bringing back Marcin Gortat with Nene and added Kris Humphries. It seems a curious choice for Pierce, but if he has enough left they shouldn’t at least take a step back. And we’ll see if Otto Porter was a mistake.

7.  Toronto Raptors: They pretty much stabilized in their main move of retaining Kyle Lowry. He had his best season in his contract year, which is always a concern. They added Lou Williams for depth shooting and have a deep bench with Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson. The issue is whether the guards will yet involve Jonas Valanciunas, which they should as they have now been paid.

8.  Detroit Pistons: Stan Van Gundy’s plan is pretty much Orlando Light. Stand a big time big man near the basket and surround him with shooters as they have in adding Jodie Meeks, D.J. Augustin and Caron Butler. Greg Monroe wants a max deal, which they won’t pay, appropriately, and they still could make a move with Josh Smith to the Kings. Now if only someone will take Brandon Jennings.

9. Atlanta Hawks: They’ll probably make the playoffs as I usually put them ninth and they always seem to figure a way in. And they should with Al Horford returning, which makes the East this season also a conference where someone deserving misses the playoffs. Maybe the commissioner should reseed so as not to cheat the East. They didn’t do much adding Thabo Sefolosha and trading Lou Williams. Cap room doesn’t mean much there as they lose out all the time, like Dallas.

10. Miami Heat: What was the point of getting a salary break from Dwyane Wade to not be in title contention? Better to have paid him off and got into free agency sooner. They pretty much bring the old gang back with Chalmers, Anderson and Haslem, though replacing James with Luol Deng will be tough on Deng and the community. And playing with a backcourt of players who don’t much pass, Deng figures to mostly enjoy the weather. We’re not likely to hear from Miami again as contenders for years to come.

11. Orlando Magic: It’s a very young team, still, with two more lottery picks and losing Jameer Nelson and Arron Afflalo. Though they made a nice addition with Channing Frye. They picked two of the draft’s better defenders and look like they are about to make a move. Or make some changes.

12. Brooklyn Nets: Paul Pierce left and Kevin Garnett returns. Not the best scenario for the Nets. Like the Bulls with Derrick Rose, a lot depends on the return of Brook Lopez, who isn’t as far along. They’re always trying something, so they added Jarrett Jack, though losing Shaun Livingston and Marcus Thornton offsets that. Replacing Jason Kidd as coach with Lionel Hollins probably was their best move of the summer.

13. Boston Celtics: They keep making opportunity moves, which are helpful, if not significant. They drafted Marcus Smart, so all the talk will be of the fate of free agent Rajon Rondo. They gave up some cap room for more picks and Tyler Zeller, added Thornton and gave a lot of money to Avery Bradley. So we’ll see about that.

14. Milwaukee Bucks: They’re no longer last. The draft was big in adding a franchise face in Jabari Parker. The Jason Kidd hiring is a likely disaster, though it is new owners. For now it’s probably still best to run out contracts.

15. Philadelphia 76ers: They lost 26 straight last season and still couldn’t finish last. So they drafted another player who couldn’t play this season in hopes of achieving their goals. By the time they can compete again, Michael Carter-Williams will be the losingest player in NBA history.

 

Western Conference   

1.  Los Angeles Clippers. Had one of the better free agency pickups, though it was quiet, with Spencer Hawes. He’s much improved and gives them one of the best big man shooters. They lost backup guard Darren Collison, but should do OK with Jordan Farmar. Perhaps their greatest issue is how much the Donald Sterling saga hangs over the franchise.

2. San Antonio Spurs: Didn’t do much, which generally isn’t good for a champion. But they don’t spend much there and they got their guys back at mostly reasonable rates, though Patty Mills likely won’t play until a few months into the season. Heck, Popovich may do that anyway with the rest of the players.

3. New Orleans Pelicans: Of course, I also had them making the playoffs last season. But the pickup of Omer Asik was big to pair with the fast developing Anthony Davis. They’ll have Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson back and have a lot of scoring with Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon, who should be ready to play as he heads into his player option year. They lost Anthony Morrow and Jason Smith, but are primed to make a move.

4. Oklahoma City Thunder: They make just minor moves, which may not be enough as pretty much everyone with cap room is now eying Kevin Durant for 2016. They get an unheralded shooter in Anthony Morrow and we’ll see if Sebastian Telfair can still play. But failing to keep James Harden continues to haunt them.

5. Golden State Warriors: Yes, this really is a tough conference. They didn’t do much, adding Livingston and losing Steve Blake for rookie coach Steve Kerr. They’ve involved in the Kevin Love talks, though appropriately won’t give up Klay Thompson, and Love likely will go to Cleveland. If, if, if they can keep Andrew Bogut healthy. They have enough if they can get through with some interior good health.

6. Portland Trail Blazers: They have quietly been winners every summer with subtle moves. Getting Steve Blake and Chris Kaman adds to the depth even with the likely loss of Mo Williams, who doesn’t much like backup roles. It’s a big season to finally get LaMarcus Aldridge signed.  

7. Memphis Grizzlies: They were one of the better teams after Marc Gasol’s return and they retained Zach Randolph, which surprised many. They lose Mike Miller, who had a surprisingly healthy season, but added Vince Carter in something of a surprise as well. Still short some long distance shooting, but could be a team that moves higher in Gasol’s free agency year.

8.  Houston Rockets: Big free agency loser as they basically gave up Jeremy Lin just to be able to talk to Chris Bosh on the telephone. They lose much of their depth in Lin and Asik and the glue guy Chandler Parsons and add Trevor Ariza, who they didn’t like before. They’ll be in a race to just get into the playoffs.

9. Denver Nuggets: Another team that can change like the Pelicans if they are healthy with Danilo Gallinari, JaVale McGee and Nate Robinson. They made a nice pickup getting back Aaron Afflalo for Evan Fournier. But they have to have money problems giving the Bulls that lottery pick for Doug McDermott to take Anthony Randolph. The Bulls also got Aaron Brooks, their free agent.

10. Dallas Mavericks: Have become an un destination. No one really ever wants to go there. So they way, way, way overpaid Chandler Parsons. They got Tyson Chandler back and offloaded Vince Carter and likely Shawn Marion. Dirk’s a trooper and took about half what he could have made, though you know he gets paid off on the other end, and should. But they lose a lot of shooting and Rashard Lewis and Devin Harris don’t answer that.  

11. Phoenix Suns: It’s going to be tough catching everyone sleeping on them again. They’re going to shoot even more adding shoot first point Isaiah “the wrong” Thomas, though Eric Bledsoe remains unsigned. They lose a solid veteran in Channing Frye and expect Gerald Green to do that again?

12. Sacramento Kings: They could break through some time as they’re obviously willing to make moves. Josh Smith? Now drafting another shooting guard you assume they dangle Ben McLemore. They invited DeMarcus Cousins to USA tryouts. What if he actually gets it? Darren Collison can’t shoot as well, but is a team upgrade over Isaiah Thomas.

13. Minnesota Timberwolves. It’s hard to see how they don’t do the Andrew Wiggins deal. Though it was a bad draft year in 2013, they’d get back to back overall No. 1s. It was fairly obvious his teammates were tired of Love. They add a flashy rookie in Zach LaVine and you could see them trying to save some money giving the Cavs the longer contract of Nikola Pekovic in the trade for Anderson Varejao and rebuilding yet again.

14. Utah Jazz: Not a bad free agency even if they seemed to overpay Gordon Hayward. But they keep him and get an impressive rookie in Dante Exum to play with Trey Burke. They have a lot of young talent, so we’ll see what’s up with Quin Snyder. Trevor Booker’s a good addition off the bench.

15. Los Angeles Lakers: Whom do you put them ahead of? Maybe the Timberwolves, though they could have Love until the trading deadline. It’s their worst ever free agency as they courted just about everyone and for the first time ever no one wanted to be in L.A.  Kobe’s going to be out of control watching this with Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer, Julius Randle and Nick Young.  Big money to keep Jordan Hill? Steve Nash hobbling. Though Pau Gasol taking about a third less than what the Lakers offered to go to Chicago is one of the biggest free agent upsets ever.

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