Way-Too-Soon 2021 NBA Free-Agency Player Rankings

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistNovember 30, 2020

Way-Too-Soon 2021 NBA Free-Agency Player Rankings

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    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    The NBA's 2019 offseason gave us unprecedented star movement. In 2020, the league has seen a whirlwind of over 100 moves that have reshuffled the league's role players. The future offers more potential chaos with a 2021 class of free agents that could potentially include multiple MVP candidates.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and more might be available. All will obviously have plenty of suitors (assuming the incumbents are out of the running).

    That's just the very top of the group, though. This is a free-agency class with some depth, too. With the caveat that plenty can happen between now and the 2021 offseason, let's look at the top 10 potentially available free agents for that summer (as well as a handful of honorable mentions).

    Numbers from 2019-20 should help us determine the order, and we also have to account for age. When most or all of the basketball attributes are pretty even, that can be a deciding factor.

    Versatility is another factor. The league continues to trend positionless, and those who possess a wide variety of skills and the size to guard multiple positions hold extra value. Specialists still exist, but it's becoming increasingly important to help in multiple facets.

    Finally, a word on Anthony Davis. As of the publish date, the details of his next contract with the Los Angeles Lakers have not been reported. For the purposes of this piece, we'll assume he signs a two-plus-one deal that gives him the opportunity to enter free agency in 2022 when he has 10 years of experience and access to the 35-percent-of-the-cap max contract.

    Now, without further ado, those honorable mentions.

Honorable Mentions

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    A handful of players deserved some consideration for the top 10, and we'll present them in alphabetical order.


    Jarrett Allen

    His path to a more prominent role was impeded by the arrival of DeAndre Jordan last season, but Jarrett Allen still has plenty of potential as a rim-rolling, rim-protecting 5.


    OG Anunoby

    Three-and-D players are in high demand, and the 6'7" OG Anunoby provides both parts of that equation. Last season, no one matched Anunoby's combination of defensive box plus/minus and three-point percentage.


    Lonzo Ball

    Like Allen, Lonzo Ball has a veteran who'll take minutes and possessions away in 2020-21. In Ball's case, it's Eric Bledsoe. He should still be able to showcase his unique combination of size, passing ability and defensive versatility in this contract year, though.


    Spencer Dinwiddie

    There may not be many touches to go around on the 2020-21 Brooklyn Nets. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving will take the bulk of the responsibility, but Spencer Dinwiddie has proved himself a capable No. 1 option. Perhaps fitting into a smaller role might actually make him more appealing to some teams in 2021, assuming he declines a $12.3 million player option.


    Devonte' Graham

    After a breakout 2019-20, Devonte' Graham will now have to defer to LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward on plenty of his possessions. More spot-up opportunities off their drives might boost his efficiency, though.


    Jonathan Isaac

    The timing of Jonathan Isaac's season-eliminating torn ACL couldn't have been much worse. He was looking like a potential cornerstone for the Orlando Magic, and he's now robbed of his opportunity to build value ahead of restricted free agency.


    Luke Kennard

    Luke Kennard should be able to command the offense a bit when the stars are on the bench, but he might build more free-agency value by spacing the floor for Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.


    Kyle Lowry

    Kyle Lowry turns 35 in March, but strength and craftiness (two bedrocks of his game) aren't likely to abandon him before he's done playing. A big 2020-21 could help him land one more sizable contract.


    Lauri Markkanen

    In theory, Lauri Markkanen is exactly what teams are after these days: a multiskilled big who can pull rim-protectors away from the paint. Reality hasn't always lived up to the promise, though.


    Kelly Oubre Jr.

    No one should expect him to be Klay Thompson, but Kelly Oubre Jr. is a more than capable stopgap as the Golden State Warriors' star 2 misses his second consecutive season. If his slashing and transition game can pull defenses toward the paint and give Stephen Curry precious extra milliseconds on the catch, Oubre might cash in during the 2021 offseason.


    Duncan Robinson

    One of the best floor-spacers in the league, Duncan Robinson figures to be challenged by Tyler Herro for minutes in 2020-21. The latter's emergence and the Miami Heat's potential pursuit of a max player in 2021 might make Robinson available to the rest of the league.


    Dennis Schroder

    After a stellar 2019-20 in which he showed an ability to accept and adapt to a smaller role, Dennis Schroder now has a chance to display his abilities for a title favorite with the Los Angeles Lakers.

10. Victor Oladipo

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    After a stellar 2017-18 in which he averaged 23.1 points and led the league in steals, a ruptured quad tendon derailed Victor Oladipo's rise to NBA stardom. Over the next two seasons, he appeared in 55 games and put up 17.3 points per contest with a way-below-average effective field-goal percentage.

    Now, he's on an expiring contract that the Indiana Pacers might not be able to unload if they even wanted to.

    "I'm going to say something, and this is not my opinion," ESPN's Brian Windhorst said on the Lowe Post. "This is based on conversations from all around the league at every level. Victor Oladipo and Russell Westbrook do not have trade value."

    That shouldn't be surprising.

    Beyond the two injury-affected seasons, there may not be much to gain from acquiring Oladipo. If he's never going to be the same, the team that hypothetically trades for him will have given up assets for a non-star. If he bounces back to his pre-injury levels, that team will suddenly be faced with his free agency in 2021.

    So, Oladipo will likely have to rehab his value as a member of a Pacers squad that has figured out how to play without him. In 2019-20, Indiana had a 0.0 net rating with Oladipo on the floor and was plus-2.7 points per 100 possessions with him off.

    The 2017-18 version of Oladipo would fit just fine alongside Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren and Domantas Sabonis, though. And if he can rediscover that form, his placement on this list will probably look low in hindsight.

9. Mitchell Robinson

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    Playing for the New York Knicks has understandably impacted the perception and notoriety of Mitchell Robinson. The organization has the league's worst record over the last two years (and the last 20, but who's counting?).

    The Knicks are bad. That's no revelation. Robinson, on the other hand, has shown plenty during his short career.

    Since the start of the 2018-19 campaign, Robinson is 35th in the league in box plus/minus. He's averaged 14.1 points, 11.2 rebounds, 3.7 blocks and 1.4 steals per 75 possessions with a league-leading 71.0 true shooting percentage.

    He is perhaps the lone truly bright spot in this particular Knicks rebuild (at least so far).

    The only way he'll enter the 2021 free-agency class is if New York declines a team option for the 2021-22 campaign, though. That seems borderline impossible given his more-than-manageable $1.8 million salary.

8. Jrue Holiday

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    It'll be interesting to see if Jrue Holiday gets a statistical bump playing alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo.

    Last season, he had a below-average effective field-goal percentage for the second consecutive season (and for the ninth time in his 11 seasons). But all the attention Antetokounmpo commands should get him more open looks.

    Khris Middleton, George Hill and Eric Bledsoe all had better effective field-goal percentages when Giannis was on the floor than they did when he was off in 2019-20.

    If Holiday provides the same level of defense that made him such an expensive trade target while also posting better efficiency numbers on the other end, plenty of teams will be after him in 2021, should he choose to decline his $27 million player option and enter free agency.

    Though he spent the first six seasons of his career playing mostly point guard, Holiday has shown an ability to play on the wing in recent years. Defensive versatility is key, and he can ably guard 2s and 3s.

    Throw in a little playmaking, too, and it's not hard to see why Holiday can crack the top 10.

7. Chris Paul

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    Chris Paul turns 36 in May. At some point, age, miles and injuries have to catch up with him. But his top-10 finish in 2019-20 MVP voting suggests he may have a little more to give contenders before he hangs up his sneakers.

    Last season, the Oklahoma City Thunder were plus-6.7 points per 100 possessions with CP3 on the floor and minus-7.1 with him off, giving him a plus-13.8 net rating swing that ranked in the 98th percentile.

    With Paul's steady hand at the wheel, OKC was able to generate loads of open looks over the course of the season. His point-of-attack defense took pressure off Steven Adams, as well.

    His biggest impact may have been what he did for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, though. The up-and-coming guard had the opportunity to watch one of the greatest floor generals of all time from as close a view as possible. His breakout numbers in 2019-20 were tied in part to Paul's tutelage.

    If CP3 can provide all of the above to the Phoenix Suns, teams might be willing to give him one more two- or three-year deal. That assumes Paul opts out of the last season of his current contract, which is probably a stretch.

    If he picks up his player option, Phoenix will be on the hook for $44.2 million.

6. John Collins

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    It's likely because the Atlanta Hawks were so bad, but John Collins just wrapped up one of the quietest 20-10-1 seasons we've ever seen.

    On the year, he put up 21.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. Only 10 seasons in league history have hit the 20-10-1 benchmarks with less average playing time. Add in qualifiers for a three per game and a 40-plus three-point percentage and the list narrows to just Collins' 2019-20 and three campaigns from Karl-Anthony Towns.

    What these numbers show, beyond solid, all-around production, is that Collins is a thoroughly modern big who can space the floor and protect the rim a bit. What they don't show, at least not explicitly, is the explosive athleticism with which he plays.

    When he first entered the league, Collins appeared on track to function primarily as a rim-roller. In certain possessions, he can still be devastating in those sets. Expanding his game should give him more NBA staying power, though.

    He quickly proved capable of playing the 5. In 2019-20, it became clear he could also log minutes alongside a bigger center. Next season, with Clint Capela and Danilo Gallinari entering the rotation, he might even have to guard some 3s.

    If he proves capable of that, his restricted free agency could become expensive for the Atlanta Hawks.

5. Rudy Gobert

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    There was some temptation to have Rudy Gobert one spot higher on this list.

    Over the last three seasons, his plus-7.7 net rating swing tops that of the No. 4 player on this list, and he's almost a walking top-five defense unto himself.

    In 2019-20, the Utah Jazz's defense ranked in the 81st percentile with Gobert on the floor despite the fact that he was often flanked by defensive liabilities. In the previous three seasons, Utah's defensive rating ranked no worse than the 95th percentile when Gobert was on the floor.

    Beyond taking up an enormous amount of space with his 7'9" wingspan, Gobert has a knack for knowing when to go for the block and when to stay home to box out. He's as capable as any player his size at handling switches on the perimeter, and he's a force on the glass.

    What's not as well known about him is the way he impacts the Jazz's offense. Utah has scored more points per 100 possessions when Gobert is on the floor in each of his past five seasons.

    An off-the-charts true shooting percentage, gravity as a roll man and the ability to create shots through offensive rebounds makes Gobert a plus on offense, too.

    He doesn't handle the ball or shoot jumpers, though, and that can make building around him a bit more of a challenge.

4. Paul George

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    After he finished third in the 2018-19 MVP voting, Paul George's first season with the Los Angeles Clippers was highlighted by injuries and a postseason flameout.

    George appeared in just 48 of a possible 72 regular-season games. Then, in the playoffs, he shot 39.8 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from three. In a Game 7 loss to the Denver Nuggets, he went 4-of-16 from the field in a season-ending effort.

    The performance ensured his third sub-50 effective field-goal percentage in the last four playoffs.

    Perhaps the challenges of 2019-20 will fuel George, though. When healthy, he remains one of the game's few players who can defend the opposition's best player while carrying the load of a No. 1 option on the other end.

    George's size (6'8", 220 lbs) and athleticism make him a truly multipositional player. He can guard 2 through 4, blow by bigger defenders and shoot over smaller ones.

    His embrace of high-volume three-point shooting also makes him a good match for Kawhi Leonard, who does plenty of damage from the mid-range.

    Only three players in league history—Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Buddy Hield—have matched George's combination of threes per game (2.4) and three-point percentage (38.1).

    He may already be in his 30s, but PG has plenty left to offer suitors should he decline his $37.9 million player option for 2021-22.

3. LeBron James

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    John Hefti/Associated Press

    LeBron James is annihilating our traditional notions about aging in the NBA.

    In 2019-20, his age-35 campaign, he averaged 25.3 points, a league-leading 10.2 assists and 7.8 rebounds. His 8.4 box plus/minus was comfortably the best for an age-35 (or older) campaign.

    The gap between James and second place is even bigger when you look at years of experience. This most recent campaign was LeBron's 17th. No one with that many years under his belt has been close to his level of production.

    Still, he has to slow down at some point. Eventually. Maybe.

    As he approaches two decades in the league, we may finally be reaching a point at which he wouldn't be one of the top two targets on the open market.

2. Kawhi Leonard

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Kawhi Leonard gets the nod over LeBron James primarily because he's seven years younger. If a team had the option to build out a long-term future around either one, it'd be hard to ignore that difference.

    Numbers might actually point to Kawhi, too. 

    Over the last five seasons, Leonard's box plus/minus is 8.7. LeBron's is 8.4. Kawhi also boasts a slightly higher true shooting percentage, a much higher three-point percentage and a better steal percentage over the same stretch.

    In 2018-19, he also displayed a Michael Jordan-like ability to commandeer an entire playoff run on the way to a title.

    Kawhi can lead a team on both ends of the floor. He's not quite the same defensive force he was in 2014-15 and 2015-16 when he won back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards, but he can still blanket an opposing wing about as well as anyone.

    Plus, he's made up for whatever level of impact has waned on that end with his offense. In the same five-year stretch referenced earlier, he's averaged 24.6 points, 3.5 assists and 1.9 threes while shooting 39.0 percent from deep.

    The concern with Leonard, of course, is health. So-called "load management" appears to be a necessity going forward. Sporadic availability from your star is less than ideal, but if it means access to a playoff performance like 2019's, it's worth it.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

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    Brett Davis/Associated Press

    Giannis Antetokounmpo has posted unprecedented numbers in each of the past two seasons. In 2019-20 alone, he went for 33.2 points, 15.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.1 steals per 75 possessions.

    Look at that line again. Just look at it

    Those are basically prime Kareem Abdul-Jabbar numbers, but with more assists. And Giannis is still a few days shy of his 26th birthday.

    Even if he doesn't add a reliable jumper over the life of his next contract, Giannis is on track for all-time-great status. In terms of physical dominance, he's like a more mobile Shaquille O'Neal.

    If he does add that reliable jumper, forget about it. There's truly nothing defenses would be able to do about him.

    With two MVP nods already under his belt, the league appears to be Giannis' for the foreseeable future. All that's left is a title, and his mere presence on a roster all but guarantees contention.

    Of course, like many on this list, it's not a given that he enters free agency. Giannis has until December 21 to sign a supermax extension worth around a quarter of a billion dollars with the Milwaukee Bucks. If he does, the Bucks remain firmly entrenched in the title picture.

    If not, he completely alters the landscape of the NBA.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass.