2021 NBA free agency: 45 players who could be available, from Kawhi Leonard to Goran Dragic

The 2021 free-agent class could have been flashier. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Paul George signed contract extensions before the season, Chris Paul seems unlikely to leave the Western Conference champions and Kawhi Leonard never seemed like a real free agent, even before his ACL injury. To the degree that there’s buzz about superstars changing teams, it’s about the trade market, not free agency. 

This class remains interesting, though, because of some of the veteran All-Stars and better-than-usual restricted free agents involved. The New York Knicks, Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs can all get in the free-agent game, and it’s possible that the Dallas Mavericks, Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls and Memphis Grizzlies could join them. This list of 45 free agents is not a ranking, but the players have been grouped into categories that (hopefully) make it easier to digest. It will be updated and expanded before free agency begins on Aug. 6.

Looking for an All-Star caliber vet?

Conley was a crucial part of the Jazz’s spectacular regular season, and he can’t reasonably be blamed for their exit in the playoffs. He’s one of their few above-average defenders, and he finally made his first All-Star team on the strength of his best offensive season since 2016-17. Utah might have reservations about committing long-term money to a 33-year-old point guard, but it’s not as if it would have cap space if he walked. Unless Utah is OK with taking a major step back, it should try to retain Conley and address the roster’s lack of defensive versatility on the margins. 

Lowry arrived in Toronto in 2012, was almost traded in 2014, re-signed for a second time in 2017, won a championship in 2019 and was almost traded again this March. He’s 35 years old, seeking a chance to compete for another title and what might be his last big payday. There’s a case for him returning to the Raptors, but they’ll have competition from contenders that see him as the missing piece and non-contenders that think he can be their Chris Paul. New York has a hole at point guard, Lowry is close with Miami’s Jimmy Butler and he should have several sign-and-trade options on the table. He can play on and off the ball and remains one of the league’s best help defenders. 

DeRozan, 31, is coming off the best playmaking season of his career, in which he averaged 7.4 assists and 2.1 turnovers per 36 minutes, to go with the refined midrange scoring and elite free throw rate he’s known for. If his time is up in San Antonio, then the offense-starved Knicks are a compelling theoretical landing spot. He’d hardly solve their spacing problem, though, and he’s not the cleanest fit next to R.J. Barrett — any team interested in DeRozan needs to be able to put shooters around him and put the ball in his hands.   

RFAs of intrigue

Collins could tell you why he deserves a max or near-max extension, but his playoff performance speaks for itself. Despite being out of his offensive comfort zone next to Clint Capela, Collins found all sorts of ways to help the Hawks, answering questions about his ability to affect winning. Collins’ counting stats don’t show it, but he improved this season, mainly on defense, and there’s now a two-year sample of 40-percent shooting from deep. Twenty-three-year-old players this talented usually sign rookie extensions, and every team that can put itself in a position to issue him an offer sheet should at least explore it. Hard to imagine Atlanta not matching, though. 

Ball improved his 3-point volume and free throw shooting again, but his main strengths are still his main strengths: Passing, particularly in transition; defense, particularly off the ball; rebounding and top-tier basketball IQ. There will be a limit on how effective he is in the halfcourt until he becomes a scoring threat inside the arc, but he’s just 23 and brings so much to the table in every other facet of the game. While he pairs well with Zion Williamson in New Orleans, it’s unclear if the front office will be willing to invest heavily in him after adding guards Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kira Lewis Jr. in consecutive drafts.

Brown reinvented himself as a do-everything role player in Brooklyn, setting screens for stars and then hitting floaters and finding 3s and layups for teammates in the short roll. He has surely earned himself some suitors, but the Nets have his Bird rights and a deep-pocketed owner. It’s not necessarily impossible for another team to pry him away, but it won’t be cheap. 

In an era where specialists are almost extinct, Robinson is an exception to the rule. Sure, he’s “just a shooter,” but he’s a 6-foot-7 shooter who can make contested, on-the-move 3s at high volume. His accuracy dropped from 44.6 percent in 2019-20 to a still-extraordinary 40.8 percent this season, and, if the contracts Joe Harris and Davis Bertans signed last offseason are any indication, his salary is about to rise from $1.7 million to 10 times that. The Heat have all sorts of options this summer, and Robinson’s relatively low cap hold means that they should be in a position to re-sign him regardless of whether or not they operate as an over-the-cap team. 

A second-round success story, Graham’s cap hold is only $4.7 million, which gives Charlotte some flexibility. Even if the Hornets elect to use their cap room to chase free agents, they can theoretically bring Graham back with his Bird rights. They have a lot of guards in the mix, including the next player on this list, but coach James Borrego turned that into a strength this past season. Small-market teams tend to hang onto players like Graham, and I’m curious to see whether or not he can get starter-level money. Graham can make plays out of the pick-and-roll, but he didn’t expand his offensive repertoire this past season: 67 percent of his shot attempts were from 3-point range. And his 3-point percentage was virtually identical to breakout year, his accuracy on pull-up 3s fell beneath 30 percent. 

After a rocky first few years, Monk’s fourth season was by far his best. This is a feat in itself, given that he got COVID-19 just before training camp started and wasn’t in the Hornets’ rotation until late January. He shot a career-high 40.1 percent from deep and seemed to find his place as an instant-offense sixth man, a role that was particularly important when Charlotte was without Gordon Hayward, in need of a credible threat off off the bounce. There is upside here given that he’s just 23 years old, but the Hornets might be choosing between Monk and Graham, and Monk has a $16 million cap hold. 

On the surface, Markkanen’s 2020-21 season seems impressive — he averaged 19 points per 36 minutes on 61.9 percent true shooting, finally cracking the 40-percent mark from 3-point range after three years of inefficiency. His free throw rate, usage rate and assist rate were all career lows, though, and a career-high 85 percent of his made shots were assisted. He doesn’t fit next to Nikola Vucevic, and if he’s going to make good on the promise he has shown since his rookie season, he can’t be reduced to a spot-up shooter. A sign-and-trade is probably best for both sides, but could be complicated to execute. 

Horton-Tucker’s emergence was one of the few unequivocal positives to come out of the Lakers’ 2020-21 season. A second-round pick in 2019, he earned his spot with a mix of shifty playmaking, defensive versatility and an appetite for getting into the paint. Horton-Tucker is only 20 years old, with one year of experience in an NBA rotation, and anyone trying to steal him from the Lakers will be betting on him turning into a shooter (or perhaps taking on a Brown-like role when off the ball) — he made just 28.2 percent of his 3s last season and only attempted 3.6 per 36 minutes. The Lakers can use early Bird rights to sign him to multi-year contract starting starting at up to $11 million.  

A couple of weeks after joining the Raptors, the former No. 37 pick scored a career-high 44 points, a particularly remarkable performance because Trent did it on 17 for 19 shooting. His overall efficiency actually declined after the trade, though, and while his usage increased, it was all based on playmaking for himself, not others. Trent is 22 years old and he’s shot 39.7 percent from 3-point range over the past two seasons, with some memorable flashes of high-level perimeter defense. Teams generally don’t acquire restricted free agents with the intention of trading them, so the safe bet is that he’s not going anywhere.

The Cavs did well to swoop in and steal Allen as part of the James Harden trade, but now they have a decision to make: Are they willing to pay whatever it takes to retain him? His re-signing felt more like a fait accompli before Cleveland wound up with the No. 3 pick in the draft, which might put the team in position to draft big man Evan Mobley. Allen, 23, has proven to be a reliable screen setter, finisher and team defender. 

Hart fits everywhere, including New Orleans. One of the few Pelicans you can’t blame for their poor defense the last couple of seasons, there’s a strong case for bringing him back. He’s not a great outside shooter, nor is he the ideal defender to put on supersized star wings, but he brings smarts, versatility and awesome rebounding for his size.  

Others to consider: Kendrick Nunn (R), Hamidou Diallo (R), Saben Lee (R), Jordan McLaughlin (R), Jarred Vanderbilt (R), Frank Ntilikina (R), Zach Collins (R), Terence Davis (R), Isaac Bonga (R), Garrison Mathews (R), Svi Mykhailiuk (R), Tony Bradley (R)

UFAs of intrigue

His spot-up shooting complements Luka Doncic extremely well, but, if the Mavs want to have real cap space before Doncic becomes a max player, they’d essentially have to let Hardaway walk. If they do let him walk, though, they’d also sacrifice their full midlevel exception (MLE), so they’d have to be confident they were adding a real difference-maker with that cap space. If Hardaway returns at an eye-popping number, it’s because his ability to make contested shots has proven indispensable in the playoffs. 

Dinwiddie suffered a partial tear of his ACL two weeks into the season, so we barely got to see him play with Kevin Durant, never mind seeing him play with James Harden. Now that Harden is in the mix, Dinwiddie seems overqualified for whatever role the Nets can give him , but, then again, they sure could have used another playmaker in the second round of the playoffs. If they can’t bring him back, it would behoove them to work out a sign-and-trade. The 28-year-old played the best basketball of his career when he had a chance to run the show in 2019-20, and there should be teams offering him the opportunity to be that guy on a full-time basis. (Dinwiddie has already declined his $12.3 million player option.)

Powell was less efficient and less prolific in Portland than in Toronto, but still fit in extremely well offensively. If the Blazers don’t pivot to rebuild mode, expect them to try to re-sign him — when they acquired him at the deadline, it was as much for his Bird rights as it was for the stretch run. Should they they hesitate, at 28 he’s just young enough that every cap-space team should at least be interested. In his first season as a full-time starter, Powell got buckets in every which way. (Powell is expected to decline his $11.6 million player option.)

Easily the best unrestricted center on the market, Holmes has developed into the kind of player that could help the Kings get back to the playoffs. They’re in a tricky spot, though, because they only have early Bird rights on him, which means they can only offer up to $10.5 million in the first year of a new deal. Sacramento will have to clear cap space if it wants to keep him. (How good would this guy look in Charlotte?)

When the Suns signed Payne out of the G League before the NBA bubble, nobody knew he was going to become one of the better backup point guards in the league. He’s playing a key role on a Finals team, and he could handle more minutes on a team that doesn’t have two starts in the backcourt. The speed has always been there, but the shooting — from 3 and from floater range — has changed everything. Phoenix has his early Bird rights. 

Another ex-Thunder guard on a minimum contract, Jackson played some of the best basketball of his life in this year’s playoffs. He has found a home in Los Angeles, having transformed from a pick-and-roll playmaker to a deadeye shooter who can still create in a pinch. If he wants to return, though, he’ll have to accept a contract starting at $10.3 million. Like the previous two players on this list, the Clippers only have Jackson’s early Bird rights, so they could theoretically get priced out. 

Schroder reportedly turned down a two-year, $34 million extension before the season and a four-year, $84 million extension before the trade deadline. He was not a perfect fit in Los Angeles, since the career-best shooting he showcased in 2019-20 didn’t hold up. The Lakers are stuck in the Bird Rights trap, though, so it’s easy to envision the two sides working something out. Early in the season, before injuries derailed everything, he did seem to be taking some pressure off of LeBron James offensively. 

At the trade deadline, it seemed pretty simple: The rest of the season would be an audition of sorts for Oladipo in Miami. He wasn’t expected to play at the All-NBA level he reached in 2018; he just had to fit in and give the offense some off-the-dribble juice. Unfortunately, Oladipo only appeared in four games before needing season-ending quad surgery. Whether he re-signs or goes elsewhere, at this point he probably needs to sign a short-term deal to prove he deserves a longer, more lucrative one. The Miami Herald reported that he could remain sidelined until as late as next February.  

This is complicated. Players like Oubre are always in high demand, but his first season with the Warriors was a mixed bag. He’s not a natural fit in their offense, they were much less effective with him on the court and he took offense to Steve Kerr’s comments about moving him to the bench when Klay Thompson is healthy. If he does embrace a bench role, it could make sense to bring him back, provided that ownership is willing to deal with the enormous luxury-tax consequences. Otherwise, since Golden State should not be in the business of letting anybody walk, a sign-and-trade is a possibility. 

Like Payne and Jackson, Caruso has been one of the biggest bargains in the NBA for the last couple of seasons. Rather than changing games as a scorer, though, he has been a defensive sparkplug for the Lakers. They have his full Bird rights, which gives them a good chance to retain him even if there is a long line of teams offering him the MLE.

The option game

Leonard is the best player on this list, but he might never hit free agency. He has a player option worth $36 million next season, and, if he opts in, he is eligible for a four-year, $181.5 million extension that would keep him under contract until 2026. Alternatively, he could opt out and sign a deal with a higher starting salary (but runs through 2025 at the latest). It is unclear how, if at all, the partially torn ACL he suffered in the playoffs will affect his plans. Presumably, the Clippers will still be willing to pay him whatever he wants regardless of his availability next season. 

Paul has a $44.2 million player option on the table, but it wouldn’t be crazy for him to decline it and sign a multi-year deal. In this scenario, he could try to maximize his earnings on a three-year contract worth up to $144 million in Phoenix, or he could take a pay cut so the front office can stay below the tax and use its full MLE.  

Harrell’s per-minute numbers in his season with the Lakers don’t look that different from the couple of years that preceded it, but the experience wasn’t quite what he signed up for. The 2020 Sixth Man of the Year averaged just 22.9 minutes in 2021-22 and lost his spot in the rotation in the first round of the playoffs Harrell took a discount to join a team that had just won a title, and a weird fit became much weirder when the front office created a massive logjam midseason. Harrell has a $9.7 million player option, and he’d presumably want some certainty about his role if he were going to pick it up. 

Ibaka is in the same position as Harrell, with a $9.7 million option that would keep him on the title contender he chose last offseason. He had season-ending back surgery in June, and while there would normally be plenty of suitors for a big man who blends shooting with rim protection, uncertainty about his health might cool his market. The best version of Ibaka would have fit right in to what the Clippers were doing in the playoffs, and he might simply want to get healthy and give it another shot. It’s worth wondering, though, if Leonard’s hazy status for next season will affect Ibaka’s decision. 

Dragic has a $19.4 million team option, and the Heat have a bunch of options here. If they exercise the option, they could use his salary in some kind of blockbuster trade; if they don’t, they can open up cap space (and still potentially re-sign him at a lower number). Dragic couldn’t consistently duplicate his bubble brilliance last season, but it wasn’t a surprise when the 35-year-old took the reins as Miami’s starting point guard again during its first-round series. 

The box-score stats are nothing special, but Green gave the Nuggets a lot of the glue-guy stuff they were getting from Jerami Grant. Nikola Jokic said he wants to play with him forever, so if Green decides to opt out of his $7.6 million salary, Denver would be wise to re-sign him on another one-plus-one deal.

Others to consider: Josh Richardson (PO), Justise Winslow (TO), Kris Dunn (PO), Isaiah Hartenstein (PO), Willie Cauley-Stein (TO), Bryn Forbes (PO), Andre Iguodala (TO), Bobby Portis (PO), Derrick Jones Jr. (PO)

The vets: Point guards and combo guards

Williams will turn 35 in October, and he indicated on Instagram that he thinks he’ll return to Atlanta. You know what his strengths and weaknesses are by now, so it’s just a matter of whether or not he and the Hawks can find a sensible deal for him to run the second unit. Even if he walks, the team can take a victory lap on the trade that brought him home, since two second-round picks came with him. 

No one stole the ball like McConnell last season. And while his defense deservedly attracted attention, he also had the most efficient offensive season of his career, shooting a career high 58.6 percent inside the arc — the man loves his short jumpers. The 29-year-old clearly played well enough to warrant a raise, but the Pacers can’t give him one comfortably. They’re close to the luxury tax, with another key free agent reserve and all sorts of questions about how their pieces fit. 

If he’s happy with the role he had in New York, it would make sense to come back on a deal starting at $13.4 million, the most the team can offer with his early Bird rights. Rose, who turns 33 in October, shot 42 percent from deep and 50 percent from midrange in 35 games with the Knicks, per Cleaning The Glass, both of which would easily be career highs if maintained for a full season. He elevated the team offensively as soon as he arrived, but, as he said at the end of the season, the Knicks have “big plans” for the offseason. How he fits will be determined by what else they do. 

Mills has spent the last decade in San Antonio, and now the front office must weigh his corporate knowledge against the opportunity to give its young playmakers more responsibility. If the Spurs do choose to let Mills go, they’ll miss his shooting — Mills’ overall efficiency dipped a bit last season, but he still made 41.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s on 3.9 attempts per game. He turns 33 five days after free agency starts. 

Others to consider: Alec Burks, Garrett Temple, Austin Rivers, Brad Wanamaker, Cory Joseph (non-guaranteed), Avery Bradley, Elfrid Payton, Ish Smith, Raul Neto, E’Twaun Moore, Langston Galloway

The vets: Wings

The soon-to-be 29-year-old wing is a good bet to return to Boston after the Kemba Walker trade. He had a tumultuous couple of months with the Celtics, but he gives them a big wing who can score and provides some secondary playmaking. Re-signing him would put them into the luxury tax, but it’s difficult to imagine them avoiding the tax without taking a serious step back. 

Barton has reportedly declined his $14.7 million player option, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he and the Nuggets are headed for a divorce. He became an even more crucial part of their rotation when they traded Gary Harris and R.J. Hampton at the deadline, and they’ll be without Jamal Murray for most of next season if not all of it. 

McDermott was a bright spot in a confusing and dramatic Pacers, season, reinventing himself as not just a movement shooter but an an extremely efficient at-rim scorer — 47 percent of his shot attempts came at the rim, per CTG, and he made 69 percent of those attempts, a result of his smarts cuts, ability to attack close-outs and good touch as a finisher. Like McConnell, the 29-year-old McDermott is due for a significant raise. The Pacers might have to pick between them.  

It didn’t carry over to the playoffs as well as the Knicks hoped, but Bullock was a crucial part of their shockingly successful regular season. He almost always drew the most difficult defensive assignment and seemed to relish the role. Offensively, he made 41 percent of his 3s at pretty good volume, and he was the only player on the roster who could shoot on the move. Bullock’s cap hold is only $5.5 million, which could help the Knicks if they’re trying to play the cap-space game, but keeping him will be much more expensive than that, given how many teams are looking for 3-and-D wings. 

The prototypical 3-and-D wing, Green’s absence was felt when he went out with a calf injury in the Sixers’ second-round series against the Hawks. Green made 40.5 percent of his 3s in Philly and is exactly the kind of smart, low-usage role player that helps teams win championships. Expect him to re-sign or work out a sign-and-trade, unless he is willing to accept a below-market contract to choose his next destination. 

Others to consider: Kent Bazemore, Wayne Ellington, JJ Redick, Denzel Valentine, Sterling Brown, David Nwaba, Wesley Matthews, Otto Porter Jr., Furkan Korkmaz, Rodney Hood (non-guaranteed), DeAndre’ Bembry (non-guaranteed)

The vets: Frontcourt/bigs

Green joined Mike D’Antoni in Brooklyn to reprise the stretch-5 role he played in Houston, and eventually James Harden followed them there. It was an ideal fit for player and team, with Green shooting a career-high 41.2 percent on 3s, many of them wide open, and switching like crazy on defense. He’ll turn 35 in August, but he played well enough to fairly seek more than another minimum contract — and that’s where this gets complicated. The Nets can offer him a $3.1 million salary with non-Bird rights, or they can dip into their taxpayer MLE, and they’re in the same position with the next player on this list. 

It’s hard to imagine a better stint for a buyout guy. Griffin went from the scrap heap to the starting lineup in Brooklyn, outperforming every expectation on the defensive end and proving that he still has some athleticism to go with his high-post passing and spot-up shooting. It wasn’t the same kind of prove-it season that 2018-19 was, but if there were questions about whether or not he could adapt to a complementary role, he answered them forcefully. Is this the kind of role he wants to play again, though? 

It is a wonder that Tucker, at 36 years old, is still doing this. He’s still logging big minutes in the NBA Finals, playing the exact same relentless, exhausting style of defense that defines him. Sure, the Bucks’ opponents have hid smaller defenders on him and played off of him in the halfcourt, but they’re often paid the price when Tucker has crashed the offensive glass. Whether he returns to Milwaukee or latches on to another contender, expect him to be pestering superstars in next year’s playoffs. 

Noel turned out to be one of the better signings of the 2020 offseason, stepping into a starting role for most of the season because of Mitchell Robinson’s injury issues. He is a perfect match for Tom Thibodeau’s defensive system, and at 27 years old he should still be a vertical threat for the life of his next contract. It’s typically tough for non-shooting bigs to hit it big in free agency, but Noel sets himself apart from some of his peers with his quick hands and feet. 

There’s nothing particularly exciting about Theis, and he’ll likely end up underpaid because of it. He’s a physical presence despite standing only 6-foot-8, and any winning team can use role players who play smart positional defense and set great screens. There are avenues toward him staying in Chicago, but the team needs to figure out what it’s doing with Markkanen, whether or not it’s going to renegotiate Zach LaVine’s contract and how it’s going to handle the three key players who are on partially guaranteed deals. 

It’s hard to overstate how important the Batum renaissance was to the Los Angeles Clippers, even before he he began playing smallball 5 in the playoffs. At 32 years old he’s not the same point-forward type he used to be, but he’s still a plus defender with positional flexibility and real gravity on the perimeter. He could try to find a new team that can pay him more than the $3.1 million the Clippers can offer with non-Bird rights, but it’s worth noting that he’s still getting paid by the Hornets for another two seasons. 

Others to consider: Kelly Olynyk, Paul Millsap, Cody Zeller, Khem Birch, JaVale McGee, Boban Marjanovic, D.J. Wilson (R), DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond, Nemanja Bjelica, Dewayne Dedmon, Taj Gibson, Moe Wagner, Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, Frank Kaminsky, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Enes Kanter, Hassan Whiteside, Gorgui Dieng, Trey Lyles, Rudy Gay, Trevor Ariza, Torrey Craig, Stanley Johnson, Aron Baynes (non-guaranteed), Georges Niang, Robin Lopez, Alex Len

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