NBA free agency winners and losers: A new beast in the East? Who is the best in the West? (2024)

The 2024-25 NBA Finals: Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Philadelphia 76ers.

Given the way free agency is playing out and given the changing dynamics of the league where six different teams have won the title in the past six seasons, that's as likely a Finals matchup as any.

Now, will it be Thunder-76ers for the title in 2025? That will play out over 82 regular-season games and two months of playoff basketball – and of course, trades and injuries alter the landscape.

But in the early days of free agency, the Thunder and Sixers have made moves that put them in great position for this season.

Thunder-Sixers Finals? The Boston Celtics, New York Knicks, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves are among the teams that will try to prevent that from happening.

Here are the winners and losers through the early days of free agency:

NBA free agency winners

Philadelphia 76ers

In win-now mode, the 76ers wanted a high-quality wing and a long-term deal for restricted free agent and All-Star guard Tyrese Maxey. They got that and more in a free agency period they had targeted as the right time to make significant moves. The Sixers added All-Star forward Paul George, who had a fantastic 2023-24 season, and agreed to a long-time extension with the 23-year-old Maxey. With All-Star and 2022-23 MVP Joel Embiid, the Sixers have arguably the best guard-wing-center trio in the league. They brought back Kelly Oubre, added depth at center in Andre Drummond and depth at guard in Eric Gordon. Plus, they have five tradeable first-round picks if the right opportunity arises.

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Oklahoma City Thunder

In 2021-22, the Thunder won 24 games. Last season, they won 57 games and are set up for the present and future with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Chet Holmgren and Jalen Williams. They traded for Alex Caruso and added Isaiah Hartenstein in free agency. Those two additions fit the Thunder’s philosophy of hard work and professionalism without sacrificing financial flexibility or disrupting the development of their three young stars. And the Thunder still have a treasure trove of draft capital. They are in position to be one of the best teams in the West through the end of this decade, at least. Adding a title is part of the mission.

Orlando Magic

The Magic are rising in the East. How high can they go? We’re about to find out. They landed one of the top free agents available, getting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to leave Denver. He gives the Magic championship experience (titles with the Los Angeles Lakers and Nuggets) and a two-way player who provides shooting the Magic need. He shot 40.6% on 3-pointers in 2023-24. The veteran is a remarkable story. The Pistons renounced his rights in 2017 and his career was in jeopardy. He has turned into a valuable player and Caldwell-Pope and his agent, Klutch Sports CEO Rich Paul, have negotiated $150 million in contracts in the past season years.

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New York Knicks

The Knicks added Mikal Bridges via trade and re-signed OG Anunoby to a roster that also includes Jalen Brunson, Julius Randle, Josh Hart, Donte DiVincenzo and Mitchell Robinson. They are better equipped to compete with Boston for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, and the Knicks will have an improved defense. Will they have enough offensive creators?

Boston Celtics

Rarely is the status quo good enough. Unless you’re the Celtics who captured the 2024 title with 64 regular-season victories and a 16-3 playoff record. They reached extensions with Derrick White and Jayson Tatum (record-setting contract), and have their starting lineup of White, Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday secured for at least the next two seasons. No title is guaranteed, but the Celtics are in prime position to be part of the conversation even with that massive payroll that will pay those five players nearly $200 million starting with the 2025-26 season. Tatum and NBA Finals MVP Brown will improve, too.

Victor Wembanyama

Wembanyama, the 2023-24 Rookie of the Year, will continue to develop, and in 2024-25, he’ll get the bonus of playing alongside future Hall of Fame point guard Chris Paul, who reached a one-year, $11 million deal to play for the Spurs. Wembanyama will learn from Paul, accelerating his progress. The Spurs may not be contenders next season, but they’re headed in the right direction, and it won’t be long before they’re near the top of the West. Or before Wembanyama moves into first-team All-NBA territory.

Eastern Conference

The East is getting better. Maybe not as good as the West 1-10, but definitely better. The Knicks, Magic, 76ers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers (don’t forget they reached the conference finals) should be better, and the Celtics aren’t going anywhere. Even if they don’t match or surpass last season’s wins total, the confidence they have from winning the title more than makes up for a few more regular-season losses so they’re ready for a long playoff run. And can the Miami Heat return to conference prominence? Will there be a surprise team? Regardless, the East made strides, and the champ resides in the conference.

Worth mentioning: Dallas Mavericks (getting Klay Thompson), Cleveland Cavaliers (extending Donovan Mitchell), Dejounte Murray (traded from Atlanta to New Orleans)

NBA free agency losers

Golden State Warriors

The dynasty that won four titles in eight seasons featuring Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green is over. Thompson left the Warriors for the Dallas Mavericks. While this is best for the Warriors in the long turn and for Thompson in the short term, it’s still a downer for the Warriors. All things come to an end, and unhappy endings are part of the story.

Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers retained James Harden and still have Kawhi Leonard, but it’s hard to see how the Clippers improved from a 51-win team with the loss of Paul George to the 76ers. They’re moving into a new $2 billion arena, Intuit Dome, and Inglewood, and owner Steve Ballmer prefers to have a team that can compete for a title. Looking at the landscape of the West, the Clippers are not among the top five teams.

Denver Nuggets

A year ago, the Nuggets were in celebration mode, having won the franchise’s first title. The hangover comes fast and lasts. Denver lost Bruce Brown after the championship season and lost Kentavious Caldwell-Pope after a 57-win season this year. It’s understood the Nuggets wanted to maintain financial flexibility but two key players from a championship team are gone, and they haven’t found equal replacements yet while other teams in the West got better. Championship windows open slowly and close quickly.

Phoenix Suns

The Suns were 49-33 and in fifth place in the West and were swept by Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs. Two (Kevin Durant, Bradley Beal) of their three main players (Devin Booker is the other) are in their 30s, and it’s hard to see what the Suns did that made them better, hard to see a path to getting better and hard to see the Suns as any better than the fifth-best team.

Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks don’t have the ability to make significant roster moves without a major trade. They have $151.4 million in salary committed to Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez for 2024-25. Looking around the East, the Bucks see teams improving and possibly passing them in the standings. It’s Boston, Philly, New York in that order with Cleveland and Orlando rising. Just like Denver, are the Bucks watching the championship window close?

Incomplete

Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers and LeBron James agreed to a two-year, $104 million deal. That's a good start, but the Lakers still need roster improvements. D’Angelo Russell exercised his player option for 2024-25, so right now, the Lakers have essentially the same team as they did last year (except for drafting Dalton Knecht and Bronny James) and have not made the roster changes that elevate them in the West after losing to Denver in the first round in April. At least not yet. Let’s give the Lakers a minute in free agency and through July to see what they can do in the trade market.

Follow NBA reporter Jeff Zillgitt on social media @JeffZillgitt

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NBA free agency: Thunder, 76ers improve; Clippers, Nuggets need help

NBA free agency winners and losers: A new beast in the East? Who is the best in the West? (2024)

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