After a frenzied and frantic few days earlier this month, free agency period has concluded for everyone except a few players still waiting for an offer. And yet for all the signings and trades and millions of dollars promised to players, it feels like little has fundamentally changed. With Giannis Antetokounmpo signing a supermax extension with the Milwaukee Bucks before last season, there were no truly franchise changing free agents available this summer; any team hoping to overhaul their roster this offseason was left without many avenues to do so. And while the salary cap did not contract as many feared, it did remain stagnant for the first time in nearly a decade. If teams wanted to remake themselves, the opportunities to do so were few. It would not be fair to characterize the bulk of these moves as ones made for the sake of motion, though few seem consequential. The league’s landscape looks much as it did before the offseason began.
The Chicago Bulls were the biggest exception to this trend. They completed sign-and-trades for DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball, who will slot in alongside Nikola Vucevic, Zach Lavine, and Patrick Williams. There are some who are quick to criticize the Bulls for committing themselves to a core that seems decidedly lodged in the Eastern Conference’s second tier, but one lesson of the last few years is that no team is ever truly locked in and no contract is immovable. Also, after only making the postseason once in the last six seasons, the majority of Bulls fans are content with having a team that can be described as “solid” and “competent” for the first time in many years.
The one other team that made aggressive moves was the Miami Heat, who acquired Kyle Lowry and re-signed Duncan Robinson. Lowry makes any team better, but are the Heat in a situation where Lowry makes them good enough to join the league’s elite? Pat Riley was willing to bet that their 2020 Finals run was more indicative of where the team is at than their underwhelming follow-up when they were defeated in the first round. The Heat were intent on improving, on taking advantage of Jimmy Butler’s prime but the opportunity for more impactful moves were not present. If they are a free agency winner, and I think they are, that says as much about the conservatism that characterized the rest of the league’s moves as it does about what the Heat did.
Instead of teams trying to maneuver themselves into the league’s upper class, there was a tendency to stand pat, content with either their current roster or the assets they’ve accumulated. Accordingly, the biggest signings were all superstars like Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, and Kawhi Leonard agreeing to new contracts or extensions with their current team, not that anyone expected any of them to leave anyway. But apart from a seeming inability to make transformative moves -- though as the Bulls and Heat showed by executing sign-and-trades with little cap maneuverability, if a general manager is intent on remaking their team, they can find a way -- there may also have been a disinterest in doing so.
Perhaps owners and executives were more reluctant to take risks in light of the uncertainty that has surrounded the league for the last two years. With the NBA having to interrupt the 2019-20 season for several months and then alter the schedule for the 2020-21 season, the league has not played a full 82 games in two years and has lost millions of dollars in revenue. There is no reason to assume that such a situation will repeat itself, but it appears that some teams are still taking a wait and see approach.
In light of all these unprecedented changes, there must have been several teams who felt that they could have gone further in the postseason or even won it all if things had been normal. As it was happening, the playoffs were as defined by who was absent as it was by what the remaining players achieved. Now, teams that were affected are wondering what could have happened if they had to overcome the randomness of playing a season in the midst of a pandemic and if one of their best players had not been cut down by injury. Why overreact and overhaul a team on the basis of bad luck?
With so many legitimate contenders, there is no singular juggernaut that the rest of the league is chasing. When the Golden State Warriors were at their peak, they prompted other contenders to enter into an arms race because going all-in was the only way any other team could hope to match them. While the Bucks are the defending champions, they seem human and vulnerable in a way the Warriors did not. No team feels the need to scramble to catch up to Milwaukee or the Phoenix Suns; it’s about filling in smaller gaps rather than needing to make up a lot of ground.
If the offseason seemed like an anticlimactic change of pace, it speaks to how happy most of the contenders are with their current core and how the rebuilding teams are content to take their time. However, one lesson from the last decade is how quickly things change, how rapidly the balance of power shifts. This moment of seeming stasis is likely just a temporary reprieve, shaped by a number of contingencies coming together. The center never holds.