The NBA entered a new world on Friday. When free agency began in the evening, all 30 teams officially began operating under the new rules laid out in the recently-agreed upon collective bargaining agreement. Teams didn't even receive the finished document until earlier this week, and they are now building rosters under the rules it outlines on the fly.
There was plenty of action on Friday, but all of it was underlined by the new realities laid out be the collective bargaining agreement. Every deal that was struck did so under brand new circumstances. So let's look at some of the biggest takeaways from the first day of free agency and how this new CBA is affecting player-movement.
The new CBA is scaring teams
There was an expectation coming into the offseason that the new, punitive second apron would terrify the league's biggest spenders. That hasn't exactly happened. The Warriors gave Draymond Green a $100 million deal. The Phoenix Suns have blown past the second apron, and depending on how the rest of their offseason goes, the Celtics could as well. Aside from the Clippers waiving Eric Gordon for tax purposes, the league's most expensive teams have remained very expensive.
Where we're actually seeing the weight of the new CBA kick in first is at the bottom of the payroll spectrum. Utah absorbed the contract of John Collins rather than enter free agency as a big spender. The Pistons did the same with Joe Harris and Monte Morris. Indiana entered free agency with a mountain of space and with most of the biggest names settled, are seemingly prepared to live with Bruce Brown as its only major addition. Orlando added Joe Ingles on a short-term deal. San Antonio did the same with Tre Jones. Their free agency periods have otherwise been uneventful so far.
On one side of the equation, there's a new rule that's explaining this careful spending. In the past, teams didn't need to reach the salary floor until the end of the season. That allowed them to carry a bunch of space into the regular season to wield in trade negotiations. Now, teams that do that lose their luxury tax dispersement, so teams are making sure that they're spending their money somewhere. However, these same teams are afraid of major long-term expenditures.
There are still players left on the board, but look at the sort of contracts the biggest names have signed. Kyrie Irving, Khris Middleton and Fred VanVleet only got three-year deals. James Harden opted in because he didn't see a long-term offer on the table. As of this writing, only six players (Green, Jerami Grant, Kyle Kuzma, Jakob Poeltl and restricted free agents Herb Jones and Julian Champagnie) have received deals of either four or five seasons in length. As a point of comparison, we've seen as many as 35 free agents receive four- or five-year deals in a single offseason back in 2016. The CBA climate often dictates free agency to a far greater extent than fans realize.
So let's put all of this in action. Nobody expected Bruce Brown, for instance, to earn a deal that nominally pays him $22.5 million annually. It's worth noting, however, that thanks to a team option, the deal is functionally only for one year. The Pacers wanted Brown, they needed to reach the salary floor, and they didn't want to ink a long-term deal in an environment in which they are still figuring out how to navigate through this new CBA. The deal they signed Brown to accomplished all of those goals. It got them the player they wanted on the terms they needed without any long-term downside. Many of the deals agreed to on Friday fit that basic template. Teams don't want to commit to long-term contracts without understanding what exactly they're committing to.
The league is expecting a few more blockbusters
Modern free agency is an incredibly fast process. Most of the best players are off of the board within a few hours, if they weren't already gone when the opening bell rang thanks to tampering. If you don't make your moves early, you're picking players off of the scrap heap.
Well, let's take a look at a couple of important teams. The Miami Heat lost playoff starters Gabe Vincent and likely Max Strus and responded by bringing back Josh Richardson and Kevin Love. They proceeded to trade Victor Oladipo to Oklahoma City likely for luxury tax savings. The Philadelphia 76ers lost Georges Niang and Shake Milton and have replaced them with nobody. The Los Angeles Clippers have not signed or lost any players, if you exclude Eric Gordon, whom they waived earlier this week.
So what's going on here? Well, all three of these teams are rumored to be involved in major transactions. The 76ers and Clippers are reportedly discussing a Harden trade, and likely can't comfortably commit to certain contracts without knowing whether or not the deal is happening. The Heat are reportedly still pursuing Damian Lillard. It's not a coincidence that they haven't signed a point guard to replace Vincent.
For a variety of reasons, the NBA is a trades league now. The best players rarely move through free agency anymore, and the uncertainty that comes with lengthy trade negotiations impacts what teams can and can't do in free agency. For what it's worth, Portland's decision to make Grant the highest-paid free agent of 2023 by guaranteeing him $160 million signals that they don't plan to give away Lillard without a fight. Of course, having accomplished little else in free agency, it's not clear how Lillard will feel about Portland's relatively quiet night.
This is the summer of continuity
Yes, yes, I know, I just wrote about the blockbusters that may be coming. But zoom out a bit. A total of 10 free agents have thus far signed deals worth at least $50 million. Nine of them signed with their original teams.
The Lakers had pathways to significant enough cap space to seriously pursue players like Irving, VanVleet, Middleton and Harden. They made it clear from the jump that they planned to bring back most of their own free agents, and assuming they ultimately retain D'Angelo Russell, they largely held to that plan. The Raptors lost VanVleet for nothing but refused to pivot, instead signing Jakob Poeltl for $80 million over four years. The Kings gave away a first-round pick on draft night to create cap space... only to use it to re-sign their own players in Harrison Barnes and Trey Lyles.
So what's going on here? Here's a theory: teams are afraid of the limited flexibility the new CBA will grant under certain circumstances, so they're choosing to act cautiously with their own free agents rather than risk bringing in new players that might not fit out of fear that they can no longer be moved as easily. In short, NBA teams are afraid of the unknown, and it's leading to more of them prioritizing retention over addition.
With time, teams will learn to navigate this new world. Odds are we see a bit more free-agent movement next offseason. But for now, there is so much uncertainty about what these new rules will really mean that teams don't want to take the sort of risks that it often takes to seriously compete for championships.