NBA free agency: Early winners and losers include the Sixers, Victor Wembanyama and the Clippers

The opening hours of NBA free agency came and went with a relative whimper, until the biggest domino fell early Monday, with Paul George joining the Philadelphia 76ers on a maximum contract, according to multiple reports. Now that we've had some movement, here's a look at the winners and losers of free agency so far.

The Clippers will introduce fans to a new arena at the start of the 2024-25 campaign, so what is their first order of business in free agency? Adding Kevin Porter Jr., who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and a harassment violation in January, months after his arrest on domestic violence charges in New York.

Porter has not played in the NBA since the arrest. The Houston Rockets deactivated Porter and traded the remainder of his contract to the Oklahoma City Thunder, who promptly waived him this past October. He played six games in Greece this past spring, which was apparently enough for the Clippers to sign him.

We should mention: Porter was traded to the Rockets shortly after he reportedly threw a tantrum in the Cleveland Cavaliers' locker room, allegedly throwing food and confronting general manager Koby Altman. Houston also suspended Porter for "losing his temper" at halftime of a separate game in January 2022.

The Clippers' second order of business in free agency? Working with Russell Westbrook to find a trade, possibly to the Denver Nuggets, according to Yahoo Sports' Jake Fischer. Westbrook recently picked up a $4 million contract option for the coming season. The one-time MVP played well off the bench for the Clippers, averaging an 18-8-7 per 36 minutes. He finished tied for seventh in Sixth Man of the Year voting.

And the Clippers' third order of business in free agency? Losing Paul George.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 12: (L-R) Paul George #13, James Harden #1 and Kawhi Leonard #2 of the LA Clippers watch play from the bench during a 110-109 loss to the Utah Jazz at Arena on April 12, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
The Clippers' big three is no more. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

"Heading into this offseason, our roster was constructed [with] three great players 33 and over, two of whom could become free agents," the Clippers said in a strange statement. "We wanted to retain them on contracts that would allow us, under the constraints of the new CBA, to continue building the team.

"We negotiated for months with Paul and his representative on a contract that would make sense for both sides, and we were left far apart. The gap was significant. We understand and respect Paul's decision to look elsewhere for his next contract. We explored an opt-in and trade scenario, but it would have left us in a similar position under the new CBA with very little asset value to justify the restrictions."

What a stray shot at Westbrook, who probably should have been linked with George, Kawhi Leonard and James Harden as four "great players [aged] 33 and over." The Clippers managed to retain Harden on a two-year, $70 million deal, making him and the oft-injured Leonard the faces of the Clippers' new arena.

Pretty rich for Clippers owner Steve Ballmer to cry poor, too. Ballmer is the seventh-richest person in the world, and he just removed his team from contention with a cost-cutting decision, all while adding Porter. Swiping Derrick Jones Jr. from the Dallas Mavericks for $30 million over three years is no replacement for George, either. The Clippers are worse now than they have been, and they were already on shaky ground.

Daryl Morey spent years as Houston Rockets general manager trying to pair James Harden with another star, cycling through Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook. Similarly, star-chasing for Joel Embiid's co-star in Philadelphia led Morey to trade Ben Simmons for Harden and Harden for cap space.

That cap space will land Paul George on the Sixers, who reportedly signed the summer's biggest free agent to a max four-year, $212 million contract.

George is a perfect fit between Embiid and Tyrese Maxey on the Sixers. They desperately needed help on the wing, where in recent years they toggled through one-dimensional role players. Even at 34 years old, George remains one of the NBA's premier two-way players. He will be the best player to change teams in free agency, and Morey's alternatives would have made his team less of a contender this coming season.

The Sixers still face an uphill battle to contend with the reigning champion Boston Celtics. Embiid's health is always a concern, particularly after another knee injury limited him on another playoff run, and George has been no more reliable. His 74 games for the Clippers this past season marked his first time playing more than 56 games in a campaign since 2018-19. If healthy, they should be among the East's top seeds.

There is still work for Morey to do. He signed veterans Andre Drummond and Eric Gordon for big man and shooting depth, respectively, and still the Sixers only have a handful of players under contract — with few options beyond salary cap exceptions to make another splash. But George is a heck of a start.

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - DECEMBER 11:  Kentavious Caldwell-Pope #5 and Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets reacts in the final seconds of their 129-122 win over the Atlanta Hawks during the fourth quarter at State Farm Arena on December 11, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is reportedly heading to Orlando. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

For the second straight season, the Denver Nuggets lost a key free agent to a team willing to pay more.

Bruce Brown left last summer, when the Indiana Pacers gave him a two-year, $45 million contract. Denver could not offer Brown more than a $7.8 million starting salary, so it was understandable that he left, but it was no less harmful to the Nuggets, who were coming off the first championship in franchise history.

Now, they have lost Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to a reported three-year, $66 million contract from the Orlando Magic. This time, the Nuggets could have re-signed him at a similar number but opted otherwise.

Caldwell-Pope has been one of the NBA's best 3-and-D complements for years, also contributing to the Los Angeles Lakers' 2020 championship run. His reliability helped Denver establish a dominant starting five, outscoring opponents by 13.6 points per 100 possessions over their league-leading 958 minutes.

The Nuggets will still be great and still contend, because they have Jokić, but they are making both more difficult for the three-time MVP in his prime, and what message does that send to everyone on the team?

The San Antonio Spurs desperately needed a point guard who could supply San Antonio Spurs phenom Victor Wembanyama the basketball in advantageous positions, and they landed the best table-setter of a generation: 39-year-old Chris Paul, who reportedly agreed to a one-year, $11 million deal with the Spurs.

This is an acknowledgement of San Antonio's failure to transform Jeremy Sochan into a point guard on a roster without one. Instead, they will field Paul, who still averaged 9.2 assists per 36 minutes in a reserve role for the Golden State Warriors this past season. His 10.8 assists per game led the NBA two years ago.

By no means does this make the Spurs a contender — or even a playoff team. It does, however, make Wembanyama an All-Star and raise the bar for the next point guard who is lucky enough to play with him.

The league changed its policy this year, allowing teams to negotiate with their own free agents as soon as a champion was crowned. It led to a flurry of deals, including the respective returns of OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam to the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers. (The Toronto Raptors' consolation prize for losing two valued members of their 2019 championship team: $175 million for Immanuel Quickley. Yikes.)

The trickling news of those signings removed a ton of drama from the opening night of free agency, when we are usually flooded with the news of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of new contracts. Instead, we were alerted to new deals for Bol Bol, Alex Len and Max Christie when the free-agency veil was lifted.

The momentum heading into the NBA's new television contract is slowing to a crawl. The NFL has stolen some of the league's shine on Christmas. The two-day draft was a miss. Slowly, the NBA's tentpole days are losing a bit of their luster, and this is no different. (Not to mention the ratings flop of an NBA Finals.)

For the uninitiated, the second apron — roughly $190 million, or about $50 million above the salary cap — severely restricts high-spending teams. They can no longer sign free agents to salary cap exceptions, most notably the taxpayer's mid-level exception (a starting salary of about $5 million). They also cannot aggregate outgoing salaries in trades. Both further limited activity on the opening night of free agency.

Only a handful of players — Jonas Valančiūnas (three years, $30 million from the Washington Wizards), Caldwell-Pope, Paul, Drummond, Jones and George — changed teams for anything more than a minimum deal, and some of them did so because their incumbent teams were looking to avoid the first or second apron.

These rules were imposed to prevent big-market teams from amassing exorbitant payrolls and to elevate small-market teams into contention, and I am not sure it is having its desired effect. Pretenders (cough ... Orlando ... cough) are getting a little better, but we are left with fewer truly great teams. If this is what free agency becomes — teams limited by and afraid of these aprons — what benefit is it to the league?