There are still more than 25 roster spots open, a handful of available free agents who played big minutes last season, and the potential for a couple of huge trades. But a lot has already gone down in the first 10 days of free agency. Here are some takeaways.
1. The Knicks are running it back
The New York Knicks just enjoyed their best season in the last 10 years, winning a playoff series for just the second time in the last 22. They signed Jalen Brunson last summer and traded for Josh Hart in February. The moves paid off and the Knicks are bringing back the same core for more.
They traded Obi Toppin to the Pacers and added Donte DiVincenzo in free agency, but the Knicks have retained their top seven (and 11 of their top 12) guys in regard to total minutes played last season. Those 11 guys account for 90% of the team’s 2022-23 regular-season minutes, the highest percentage of returning minutes for any team.
Percentage of 2022-23 regular-season minutes currently set to return
|Rank||Team||’22-23 Min.||Ret. Players||Ret. Min.||%Ret.M|
Players who are currently under contract or have reportedly agreed to re-sign (as of July 9).
The Oklahoma City Thunder currently rank second in continuity, and the two departed players who played the most minutes last season – Mike Muscala and Darius Bazley – actually left in February. But for the second straight year (and after a bunch of trades), the Thunder have far too many players on their roster after 10 days of free agency. So they’ll have to make some cuts and/or more trades between now and the start of the season, which could reduce the percentage of last season’s minutes on their opening-night roster.
The Sacramento Kings rank third in continuity and are bringing back all eight guys who played at least 60 minutes in their first-round playoff series. They seemingly had an opportunity to make a major addition in free agency, but chose to run it back, adding only Chris Duarte (via a trade with the Pacers) and EuroLeague MVP Sasha Vezenkov (whose Draft rights they acquired last year).
2. The Lakers keep refreshing
The Los Angeles Lakers won the championship in 2019-20. And then …
- Their 2020-21 opening-night roster accounted for just 59% of their ’19-20 regular-season minutes. That was the lowest rate for a defending champion since The Last Dance (1998 Bulls).
- Their 2021-22 opening-night roster accounted for just 23% of their ’20-21 regular-season minutes (via only three returning players).
- Their 2022-23 opening-night roster accounted for just 40% of their ’21-22 regular-season minutes (via five returning players).
And now, the Lakers are once again near the bottom of the league in continuity. Over the last four seasons, 66 different players (second most in the league*) have logged regular-season or playoff minutes for the Lakers. And as things stand right now, there are six new guys – four vets and two rookies – on the roster.
* The Nets (68) have had the most players log minutes for them over the last four seasons. The Hornets (40) have had the fewest.
A lot of this turnover happened at the February trade deadline, when the Lakers traded Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverley and Thomas Bryant. And they’re bringing back six of the seven guys who played at least 200 playoff minutes.
But they’ve also said goodbye to three more guys – Dennis Schroder, Troy Brown Jr. and Lonnie Walker IV – who played more than 1,000 regular-season minutes for them in ’22-23. There are now just five Lakers left from last year’s opening night roster: Max Christie, Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Austin Reaves and Cole Swider (on 2-way contract).
This core was built on the fly in February and reached the conference finals just three months later. Now, it will have a full training camp together, along with a reworked bench that includes Gabe Vincent and Taurean Prince.
3. The Warriors, Clippers and Wolves have shooters
There were 147 players who shot the league average (36.1%) or better on at least 100 3-point attempts last season. And at the end of the season, the Brooklyn Nets and LA Clippers each employed nine of them, most in the league.
The Nets have parted ways with four of their nine, including their three best shooters from beyond the arc last season: Yuta Watanabe (44.4%), Joe Harris (42.6%) and Seth Curry (40.5%). They’ve added Lonnie Walker IV, but he shot slightly worse from deep (36.5%) than the fourth guy they lost (Patty Mills – 36.6%).
The Clippers waived Eric Gordon (37.1% on 356 attempts), but are still tied for the league lead with eight guys who shot the league average or better on at least 100 3-point attempts last season. The other teams with eight are the Golden State Warriors and the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Warriors lost DiVincenzo (39.7%), but they’ve added Dario Saric (39.1%), Cory Joseph (38.9%) and Chris Paul (37.5%). They still have two roster spots open (though every addition comes with a ton of luxury tax) and two unsigned free agents – JaMychal Green and Anthony Lamb – who shot the league average or better on at least 100 3-point attempts last season.
The Wolves ended last season with seven shooters. They waived Prince, but have added Brown (38.1%) and Shake Milton (37.8%) in free agency.
The Chicago Bulls have seen the biggest gain (+2) in guys who shot the league average or better on at least 100 3-point attempts last season, going from four to six. Jevon Carter (42.1%) and Torrey Craig (39.5%) join Alex Caruso, Zach LaVine, Coby White and Patrick Williams.
The aforementioned Nets have seen the biggest drop, going from nine to six. Still, there are only four teams with more shooters and six other teams that have six.
Along with the Warriors’ Green and Lamb, there are four other available free agents who shot the league average or better on at least 100 3-point attempts last season: Christian Wood (37.6%), Terrence Ross (36.8%), Will Barton (36.7%) and Terence Davis (36.6%).
4. The Rockets should climb on at least one end of the floor
The Houston Rockets were one of two teams that finished the season with just one guy (Kevin Porter Jr.) who shot the league average or better on at least 100 3-point attempts last season. They were also the first team in 29 years* (and the first team in a 30-team league) to rank in the bottom five on both ends of the floor in a third straight season, ranking 27th in offensive efficiency and 29th in defensive efficiency in ’22-23. Not coincidentally, the Rockets have had the league’s worst record (59-177, .250) over these past three years.
* The last team to rank in the bottom five on both ends of the floor in three straight seasons was the Mavs in 1991-92, ’92-93 and ’93-94, when there were 27 teams.
It’s also not a coincidence that the Rockets have a new coach, replacing Stephen Silas with Ime Udoka, whose Celtics ranked ninth offensively and first defensively in his one season as head coach, eventually reaching the 2022 Finals. Houston also used its cap space to add five veterans to the roster.
They still have just one guy (Porter) who shot better than 36% on at least 100 3-point attempts last season, with the two highest-paid of those new vets – Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks – having shot 34.2% and 32.6%, respectively. Those two guys have also shot worse than 50% in the paint over the last three years, and among 243 players with at least 1,000 field goal attempts over those three seasons, they rank 194th and 233rd in true shooting percentage.
But they should help the Rockets improve defensively. VanVleet led the league (for the third time in the last four seasons) with 3.8 deflections per game. Brooks is a more physical defender who’s had some strong isolation numbers over the last few years.
Both guys can get a little overzealous defensively, Brooks with his physicality and VanVleet with his ball-chasing. But, between them, they’ve been on eight top-10 defenses, the kind of experience the Rockets really need.
5. Who’s left?
There are two remaining free agents who played at least 2,000 minutes last season, and both of them are restricted: P.J. Washington (Charlotte) and Ayo Dosunmu (Chicago).
The other seven available free agents who played at least 1,000 minutes last season are all unrestricted. They include another Hornet (Kelly Oubre Jr.) and two Timberwolves (Jaylen Nowell and Austin Rivers). The other four are Wood (DAL), Ross (PHX), Lamb (GSW) and Wenyen Gabriel (LAL).
A few more notes regarding guys who are still available:
- Oubre (20.3) is the only one who averaged at least 20 points per game in 25 games or more. Others that averaged double-figures are Wood (16.6), Washington (15.7), and Nowell (10.8).
- Washington (149), Oubre (108), Wood (105), Ross (95), Davis (89) and Kendrick Nunn (79) are the only six that made at least 75 3-pointers last season.
- Wood (491), Washington (358) and Gabriel (286) had the most total rebounds, while Dosunmu (206), Washington (175) and Theo Maledon (152) had the most total assists. Washington (145), Bismack Biyombo (106) and Wood (102) are the only three who totaled at least 100 steals + blocks.
6. Some small ball from the Suns?
The Phoenix Suns went all-in before free agency began, trading for Bradley Beal, a deal addressed in this space two weeks ago. Since then, the Suns have re-signed Damion Lee and Josh Okogie, while adding Gordon, Watanabe, Keita Bates-Diop, Drew Eubanks and Chimezie Metu, all on minimum contracts.
Bates-Diop, Beal, Gordon, Lee, Watanabe, Kevin Durant and Cameron Payne give the Suns seven guys who shot the league average or better on at least 100 3-point attempts. (Devin Booker shot 35.1% from beyond the arc last season and has topped 36% just once in the last five years.) They have bigs (Eubanks, Metu and Deandre Ayton) but the Suns could certainly play some minutes with a lineup of Gordon (or Lee or Payne), Beal, Booker, Watanabe and Durant, which would be impossible to guard.
Four of those five guys can handle the ball, and all of them can shoot it. It will be interesting to see what the offense looks like under new coach Frank Vogel, whose Lakers ranked 30th and 29th in player movement (miles traveled per 24 minutes of possession) in his last two seasons with L.A., but ranked higher (fifth and 18th) in ball movement than Monty Williams’ Suns (17th and 27th), who ranked 16th in player movement and 19th in ball movement last season.
More ball movement will create more catch-and-shoot opportunities. Among 248 players with at least 100 catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts last season, Lee (47.0%), Watanabe (45.7%), Booker (44.4%) and Durant (43.1%) ranked third, fourth, 10th and 22nd in catch-and-shoot percentage.
7. The champs take a hit
The Denver Nuggets are NBA champions for the first time and should be the preliminary favorite to win the title (again) in 2024. But they suffered a big loss when Bruce Brown left for Indiana (and a two-year, $45-million contract). The Pacers should be a super-fun team to watch with Brown and Obi Toppin joining Tyrese Haliburton and Bennedict Mathurin.
Brown ranked third in regular season minutes and sixth in playoff minutes for the Nuggets. He played 189 more postseason minutes (9.5 per game) than any other player off the Denver bench and ranked third on the team in time of possession (3.0 minutes per game). Among the Nuggets’ 26 two-man combinations that played at least 100 playoff minutes together, the team was at its best (plus-17.5 points per 100 possessions) with Brown and Aaron Gordon on the floor.
Christian Braun (one of only six rookies in the last 20 years* to play at least 75 minutes in The Finals) should be ready to take on a bigger role, but the Nuggets must believe that Reggie Jackson will also be needed to absorb some of Brown’s playing time. They re-signed the 33-year-old to a two-year, $10-million dollar deal even though he played just 18 total playoff minutes.
* The others: Tyler Herro (208), Daniel Gibson (139), Kendrick Nunn (135), Courtney Lee (88) and Luke Walton (79).
8. Can the Cavs keep improving?
The Cleveland Cavaliers have come a long way in the last two years. In the 2020-21 season, they were outscored by 8.3 points per 100 possessions, the league’s third worst mark. In ’21-22, they were a plus-2.1 per 100, having seen the biggest jump for any team in the last 15 years (since the 2007-08 Celtics). And they took another significant leap last season, ranking second in the league in point differential per 100 possessions (plus-5.6).
But for the second straight year (they went 0-2 in the Play-In Tournament in 2022), the Cavs had a disappointing postseason showing. They lost to the Knicks in five games, scoring an anemic 101.9 points per 100, the fewest for any team in any 2023 series.
Evan Mobley and Darius Garland are just 22 and 23 years old, respectively. So the Cavs should continue to see some internal improvement. And they’ve seemingly filled the holes in their rotation, adding Max Strus and Georges Niang.
Niang is one of only two players (Seth Curry is the other) who’ve shot 40% or better on at least 200 3-point attempts in each of the last four seasons. Strus played a big role on a team that just reached The Finals (and will shoot off the move more the Niang), but has bigger questions in regard to efficiency and consistency. He shot 41.0% from deep in 2021-22, but dropped to 35.0% last season and just 31.9% in the ’23 playoffs.
9. Is Lillard bound for Miami?
The Miami Heat were the other team (along with the Rockets) that finished the season with just one guy who shot the league average or better on at least 100 3-point attempts. And that guy wasn’t Strus (35.0%) or Gabe Vincent (33.4%), who are gone via free agency.
It was Tyler Herro (37.8%), the likely centerpiece of a trade package for Damian Lillard, who has reportedly expressed an interest in being traded to Miami. Lillard (37.1%) shot only slightly worse from beyond the arc than Herro, even though a much higher percentage of his 3-point attempts came off the dribble. The Blazers’ star played only 58 games, but only Luka Doncic attempted more pull-up 3s last season.
There would need to be some adjustments if Lillard (fifth in the league in time of possession) were to join the Heat, who were in the top half of the league in both ball and player movement. But Lillard would have a capable pick-and-roll partner in Bam Adebayo, who wouldn’t be asked to shoot as much as he did last season. The big man has seen drops in efficiency with jumps in usage rate in each of the last two seasons.
Defensively, the Heat would be a good fit for Lillard, in that they have two of the best defenders in the league – Adebayo and Jimmy Butler – to make up for his deficiencies on that end of the floor. They can also protect him in their zone defense, having played more zone last season (1,545 total possessions in the regular season) than any other team in 17 years of Synergy tracking. The ’22-23 Blazers actually played the second most zone in that time (1,114 possessions).
If the Blazers were to trade Lillard, they would drop from 22nd to 25th in the continuity rankings above.
10. A few more notes
- The Milwaukee Bucks kept their championship core together, re-signing Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton. Those two played just 195 total minutes (149 in the regular season, 46 in the playoffs) alongside both Jrue Holiday and Giannis Antetokounmpo last season.
- The Utah Jazz’s acquisition of John Collins means that we’ll see more of Lauri Markkanen at small forward, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Utah outscored its opponents by 3.7 points per 100 possessions in 1,013 total minutes with Markkanen on the floor with any two of Walker Kessler, Kelly Olynyk and Jarred Vanderbilt last season. That was just a tick below Markkanen’s overall on-court mark (plus-3.8 per 100).
- As noted above, Washington, Dosunmu and Wood are the available free agents who played the most minutes last season. Not coincidentally, the Hornets (5,210), Bulls (3,507) and Mavs (3,074) are the teams with the most ’22-23 minutes played by free agents who are still available.
- Based on reports through Sunday night, there are 19 teams that still have roster spots (not including 2-way spots) available, though Washington would take the Hornets off that list.
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