Once LeBron James announced, “I’m Coming Home,” to Cleveland last Friday, the free-agency floodgates opened, with the player moves coming fast and furious.
James was the Pied Piper, the one who set in motion so much change in the NBA that it left some teams with high hopes, some with despair and some thinking they remain on the right course for next season.
James’ decision to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers for a second stint, obviously made them the big winners in the free-agency marketplace, and it left his old Miami Heat team a loser because it lost the best player on the planet.
So here is a quick look at the teams who are the winners, losers and wild cards during the free-agency period:
James spent his first seven NBA seasons playing for the Cavaliers, before spending the last four years in Miami. The Cavaliers had a woeful 97-215 record without him.
And just by rejoining the Cavaliers, James has made Cleveland into a championship contender.
The Cavaliers drafted Andrew Wiggins with the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft last month. And after James’ decision, the Cavaliers signed free-agent small forward Mike Miller, who won two NBA championships with James in Miami.
Cleveland already has an All-Star point guard in Kyrie Irving, a quality shooting guard in Dion Waiters and a tough-minded center in Anderson Varejao.
The Cavaliers still need some more pieces to win an NBA title, but having James completely changes their outlook.
The signing of former Lakers All-Star Pau Gasol, and getting Creighton forward Doug McDermott in a draft-day trade from Denver should do wonders for the offensively challenged Bulls.
Gasol averaged 17.4 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists in 60 games last season for the Lakers. He’s an upgrade at power forward over Carlos Boozer, who was just waived by the Bulls via the NBA’s one-time amnesty provision.
The return of a healthy Derrick Rose, if he resembles the player who won the 2011 MVP award, will make Chicago a big winner.
Rose missed the entire 2012-13 season recovering from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and he missed 72 games last season after surgery for a torn cartilage in his right knee.
But if Rose is truly back to being that explosive point guard, and if Gasol gives them the offense they so desperately need, the Bulls have a very good chance of reaching the NBA Finals.
You just can’t count this team out.
Coach Gregg Popovich, considered the best coach in the NBA, has agreed to a contract extension, and that should be enough to make the 2014 NBA champions contenders again.
It also helps that Tim Duncan, 38, has decided to play next season. And Tony Parker (France) and Manu Ginobili (Argentina) both decided not to play this summer for their respective countries in the World Championships, preferring to rest. And then there is the evolution of small forward Kawhi Leonard, 23, who was the Finals MVP.
Plus, the Spurs re-signed key reserves Boris Diaw and Patty Mills and drafted UCLA’s Kyle Anderson, whose style of play fits San Antonio’s approach to the game.
All of that is a big reason why the Spurs have a chance to win back-to-back titles for the first time.
The Thunder didn’t land any big name free agents, but it still has MVP Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, and that is more than enough to contend.
Signing wingman Anthony Morrow, a very good outside scoring threat, helps fill a spot after the exits of Thabo Sefolosha and Derek Fisher.
But the Thunder has always concentrated on developing young players.
So look for guards Reggie Jackson, Andre Roberson and Jeremy Lamb, center Steven Adams, and forward Perry Jones to play significant roles next season.
They failed to get Carmelo Anthony or James, proving the Lakers are no longer the free-agent destination they used to be.
Lakers fans haven’t been jumping for joy, either, after the team traded for point guard Jeremy Lin from Houston, or the re-signing of Nick Young and Jordan Hill.
The Lakers don’t even have a coach, though Byron Scott appears to be the front-runner.
If there is hope, it is because of rookie forward Julius Randle and the promise of a 2015 first-round draft pick from the Lin deal.
It’s impossible for the Heat to make up for the loss of James.
But the Heat did rally some by re-signing Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Mario Chalmers, acquiring point guard Shabazz Napier in a draft-day trade from Charlotte and signing free agents Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger.
That leaves the Heat as the fourth- or fifth-best team in the East, but not the championship favorite it had been the last four seasons.
The Knicks got Anthony back, but that’s about it.
The Knicks’ Big Three consists of Anthony, new president Phil Jackson and new coach Fisher.
Jackson needs better players, Fisher needs coaching experience and Anthony will have to play the best hoops of his life to give the Knicks a chance of reaching the playoffs.
The Nets lost Coach Jason Kidd (after his failed power coup) to Milwaukee, but gained a top-notch replacement in Lionel Hollins. The Nets got Jarrett Jack from Cleveland, and they re-signed Alan Anderson, but they also lost Paul Pierce (Wizards) and Shaun Livingston (Warriors) in free agency.
The Wizards got veteran Pierce (to replace Trevor Ariza) to show young fellas John Wall and Bradley Beal what it’s going to take to win a title. They also signed free agents Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair to shore up their frontcourt.
The Rockets lost offense-minded Chandler Parsons in free agency to Dallas, but Houston acquired a better two-way player in Ariza to replace Parsons at small forward.
By re-signing point guard Kyle Lowry and trading for guard Lou Williams, the Raptors improved their chances of reaching the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.
They wanted a better backup big man, and got that when they signed center Spencer Hawes. They lost talented backup point guard Darren Collison to the Sacramento Kings, but signed Jordan Farmar to back up Chris Paul.