Updated 2021 NBA Free-Agency Big Board After a Month of Games
A month into the 2020-21 NBA season, numbers are starting to feel more trustworthy. Player roles are crystallizing. And the 2021 free-agent class is becoming easier to analyze.
With a decent sample size now in place, we can examine that class and where each of its players should rank.
Determining the order is largely a subjective exercise. Though projection systems from FiveThirtyEight and others can certainly help, analyzing the future is about feel.
Which upcoming free agents best fit growing trends in the game? Who has yet to hit his prime? Who may be nearing the end of his career? Those factors, early-season numbers and a dash of projecting all inform the big board as it stands today.
Just one caveat before we dive in, though: If a player on a rookie deal could only become a free agent if a team option is declined, then we're going to assume that won't happen. The biggest name that eliminates from consideration is Mitchell Robinson, who has played like a bona fide foundational piece for the New York Knicks.
Much has been said about the lack of star power in this particular class, but a quick glance at the entire group shows there's still plenty of talent. Whittling it down to 20 called for more analytical flexing than you might think, and some of the omissions were pretty painful. But a line has to be drawn somewhere.
20. Dennis Schroder
His scoring efficiency is way off from a career-best year in 2019-20, but Dennis Schroder has fit in pretty well as the third option for the title-contending Los Angeles Lakers. If they repeat, it isn't hard to imagine him re-signing on a team-friendly deal.
19. Otto Porter Jr.
He doesn't put up gaudy numbers, but Otto Porter Jr.'s size (6'8") and steady shooting (41.5 percent from three this season and 40.4 percent for his career) have made him a positive contributor over the majority of his career.
During his injury-riddled stint in Chicago, the Bulls are minus-0.2 points per 100 possessions with Porter on the floor and minus-6.8 with him off.
18. Duncan Robinson (Restricted)
With a 44.3 three-point percentage (on 8.3 attempts per game) over the last two seasons, Duncan Robinson is squarely in the "best floor-spacer in the game" conversation. Players like him, Davis Bertans and Joe Harris have proved valuable on the floor and in free agency (as evidenced by the deals the latter two signed this past offseason).
Over the last two seasons, the Miami Heat are plus-6.5 points per 100 possessions with Robinson on the floor and minus-5.4 with him off.
17. Devonte' Graham
Devonte' Graham's shooting numbers are a mess. He's at 31.5 percent from the field and 32.4 percent from three. Those won't stick, though. If he can get back to the level at which he played in 2019-20, some team (maybe even the incumbent Charlotte Hornets) will talk itself into offering him a decent deal.
16. Lonzo Ball
Few players personify the divide between traditional and advanced numbers quite like Lonzo Ball.
For his career, he's averaged a solid 10.8 points, 6.5 assists and 6.0 rebounds with a well-below-average true shooting percentage. The points-per-game crowd won't be impressed, but his teams have always been better with him on the floor.
If he ever manages to score with average efficiency (something for which we may always be hoping), he'll be one of the game's most useful players.
15. Tim Hardaway Jr.
There's certainly a benefit to being one of the favorite targets of Luka Doncic, but Tim Hardaway Jr. deserves plenty of credit for the way he's transformed his game.
This season, he's averaging career bests in points (18.7) and three-point attempts (9.0) per game while shooting 42.4 percent from deep.
The accuracy may dip a bit over the course of the year, but Hardaway has proved himself one of the game's best floor-spacers. He's also more trustworthy than Robinson, Bertans and Harris as a pick-and-roll ball-handler.
14. Spencer Dinwiddie
A torn ACL is a major bump in Spencer Dinwiddie's contract-year road, but he showed enough last season to warrant a good deal in 2021. Plus, ACL recovery isn't the bugaboo it used to be.
If he returns to the form he showed in 2019-20 when he averaged 20.6 points and 6.8 assists in Kyrie Irving's stead, he'll be, at the very least, one of the game's best backup guards.
13. DeMar DeRozan
DeMar DeRozan is on track for arguably his best season. He's posting career highs in box plus/minus and assist percentage while averaging 20.7 points, 6.7 assists and 5.7 rebounds.
For the 11th time in 12 seasons, though, his team is better with him off the floor. And the swing has been dramatic in 2020-21.
Defense is the biggest reason for the dropoff, so perhaps his next squad could talk him into a different role. Picking apart second units as a sixth man, against whom his defense may not be targeted as often, could be ideal for his post-prime years.
12. Mike Conley
Injuries and a new system made for a strange 2019-20 for Mike Conley. He averaged 14.4 points (his lowest mark since 2011-12) and posted a below-average effective field-goal percentage.
He's clearly fine with his surroundings now. His 16.8 points and 6.0 assists per game may not leap off the screen, but his 56.8 effective field-goal percentage and 42.2 three-point percentage do.
And his steady hand at the wheel has given him one of the game's best net rating swings during this early portion of the season. With a game that relies more on intelligence, feel and craft than athleticism, Conley's post-prime years should be plenty productive.
11. Andre Drummond
Not only does Andre Drummond not space the floor as a three-point shooter, but he's also converting just 49.2 percent of his two-point attempts this season. Over the course of his career, the 6'10" Drummond's two-point percentage ranks an uninspiring 28th among players his height or taller.
Still, he can sleepwalk his way to double-doubles, has the best rebounding percentage in NBA history and does a bit more as a passer than you might realize (2.4 assists per game over the last four seasons).
If some team can sell him on ditching the post-ups and getting his offense almost exclusively from rim-runs and offensive boards, he can still be a positive force in the increasingly positionless NBA.
10. Lauri Markkanen (Restricted)
Projected Wins Above Replacement Through 2024: 7.3
The idea of Lauri Markkanen has outperformed the player himself throughout his career.
He's a 7-footer who can shoot. That alone makes him intriguing in today's game. Over his four seasons, though, he's been exactly average from three-point range. And he posted below-average marks in box plus/minus in each of his campaigns leading up to this one.
In 2020-21, however, he's starting to look like the fully realized version of himself. His three-point attempts and rebounds are up from last season. He's hitting 41.0 percent of his shots from downtown. And though his rim protection still leaves a lot to be desired, Chicago's defense is better with him on the floor.
There's a glaring caveat, though: He's only appeared in six games, and one or two off nights could send his numbers careening toward career norms.
The previous version may be best-served in a spacer-off-the-bench role. The one we've seen in this abbreviated stint, though, can alter the dynamics of a starting five. Slashers like Zach LaVine enjoy precious extra room to operate inside when big men have to chase someone like Markkanen around.
9. Kelly Oubre Jr.
Projected Wins Above Replacement Through 2024: 12.8
Kelly Oubre Jr. is surely hoping potential suitors don't judge him on his first six games with the Golden State Warriors since he averaged 9.7 points and shot 6.7 percent (yes, 6.7 percent) from three.
Since then, he's looked a bit more like the player he was for the Phoenix Suns in 2019-20, but the shooting efficiency is still far from where he or the Golden State Warriors probably want it to be.
It's everything else that makes Oubre such an intriguing wing.
At 6'7", he has decent size for his position. And his athleticism makes him a real weapon in transition and on cuts. He's not one of the game's premier perimeter defenders, but those same physical attributes at least make it possible to trust him in a switch-heavy scheme.
Like Ball, Oubre reaching his full potential is likely more about consistent shooting than anything else. Was the 35.2 percent he shot from deep last season an aberration? Will he hover around 30.0 percent for the rest of his career? Can he take another step forward and be a high-30s guy?
The answers to those questions will say a lot about Oubre's long-term outlook.
8. Josh Richardson
Projected Wins Above Replacement Through 2024: 15.3
He's slightly older and smaller than Oubre, but Josh Richardson is also more of a proven difference-maker. His connection with Luka Doncic hasn't clicked in as quickly as Hardaway's did, but there's plenty of time for that.
For now, his placement in the top 10 is more about what he's already done. With the Miami Heat, three of Richardson's four seasons featured above-average marks in both three-point percentage and defensive box plus/minus.
Those aren't perfect indicators of three-and-D prowess, but they're not bad, either. And if Richardson can recapture that form with the Mavericks, he should be in line for a decent deal in 2021.
Being able to switch all over the perimeter on one end and hit open catch-and-shoot opportunities on the other is critical in today's NBA. If you're not the center of your team's basketball universe (Richardson won't be), you have to be able to make things easier for the player who is.
7. Kyle Lowry
Projected Wins Above Replacement Through 2024: 23.7
It's gone somewhat under the radar (probably because of the Toronto Raptors' sub-.500 record), but Kyle Lowry is putting up All-Star numbers again. In his age-34 campaign, he's averaging 18.7 points, 7.1 assists, 6.0 rebounds, 3.0 threes and 1.1 steals.
Like Conley, Lowry has a game that should age relatively well. His low center of gravity, craftiness and leadership aren't going anywhere. Even as he creeps closer to his late 30s, he could maintain this kind of production for a few more years.
Even if a lost step or two eventually bumps him from the upper tier of point guards, the intangibles will likely help him remain a positive contributor.
6. Jarrett Allen (Restricted)
Projected Wins Above Replacement Through 2024: 16.5
The Brooklyn Nets have more than enough firepower with Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving on the roster. But the loss of Jarrett Allen, who went to the Cleveland Cavaliers as part of the Harden trade, could be a bigger deal than many realize.
DeAndre Jordan hasn't had a positive net rating swing since 2016-17. He'll still gobble up plenty of rebounds, but a lot of what he does on both ends of the floor looks like meandering these days.
Allen, on the other hand, is just starting to come into his own as a rim-rolling, rim-protecting 5 who can dominate a game without dominating the ball.
This season, he's averaging 11.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in just 26.7 minutes per game. Against All-NBA center Rudy Gobert, he set the tone in a win with 19 points, 18 rebounds, three steals and two blocks.
That's likely an outlier stat line, but he'll have more games with production in that neighborhood with the Cavs (especially if they trade Drummond or JaVale McGee). That'll drive up his value in free agency.
5. Victor Oladipo
Projected Wins Above Replacement Through 2024: 14.4
Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis were understandably getting most of the attention, but Victor Oladipo was quietly having a solid comeback season before his trade to the Houston Rockets.
Oladipo led the Indiana Pacers in usage and averaged 20.0 points and 4.2 assists. His efficiency wasn't at the level of his peak in 2017-18, but it was up comfortably from his last two injury-plagued campaigns.
If he can get his two-point percentage up, especially around the rim, Oladipo could be on track for a decent payday (especially given the lack of stars in this class).
That may take more time simply getting comfortable post-injury. Being in Houston might help, too. Head coach Stephen Silas is coming from a Dallas squad that prioritized shooting and wide lanes to the rim, and Christian Wood is the kind of big who can help on that front.
Wood does plenty of scoring inside, but that's generally as a vertical threat. Sabonis' back-to-the-basket game may have made it a bit more difficult for Oladipo to slash. With Wood launching from three, centers will have to leave the paint. That should lead to more shots at the rim without a rim-protector lurking.
4. John Collins (Restricted)
Projected Wins Above Replacement Through 2024: 13.5
John Collins is playing roughly five fewer minutes and taking three fewer shots per game this season. His seemingly downgraded role doesn't make a ton of sense from a basketball perspective.
Last season, he averaged 21.6 points and 10.1 rebounds while shooting 40.1 percent from three, and the Atlanta Hawks were better with him on the floor.
If his long-term future with Atlanta isn't assured, though, the decline in involvement would be a little easier to grasp.
The Hawks and Collins failed to reach an agreement on an extension prior to the season, and he was reportedly open in his criticism of franchise centerpiece Trae Young in a recent film session.
"Collins talked about the need to get into offensive sets more quickly and to limit all those early shot-clock attempts that leave his teammates on the outside looking in," Chris Kirschner and Sam Amick wrote for The Athletic. "He shared his desire to be more involved and expressed a desire for more ball involvement and flow on offense."
It's not ideal that this one leaked, but such film sessions aren't unusual in the NBA. Even still, it may be a window into the dynamic between Atlanta's top two young stars. And if a rift eventually develops, the Hawks would likely choose Young, the offensive hub who has already made an All-Star team.
That means a decent offer in restricted free agency could pry Collins away. And he's worth it. Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns are the only players in league history who have matched or exceeded his marks for points, rebounds, blocks and threes per 75 possessions through their first four seasons.
3. Chris Paul (Player Option)
Projected Wins Above Replacement Through 2024: 16.8
Chris Paul proved in 2019-20 that he still had plenty to give. In his lone season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he tutored Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to new heights, helped his team crush its over-under, averaged 17.6 points and 6.7 assists and posted one of the league's best net rating swings.
That was good enough for OKC to be able to trade the 35-year-old point guard with a monster contract to the Phoenix Suns in a deal that included a first-round pick.
As a team, Phoenix has been better since the trade, but Paul's numbers are starting to indicate a decline. A short hot streak could make things look dramatically different, but CP3 is posting his worst effective field-goal percentage since 2006-07 and the lowest scoring average of his career.
What's more, the Suns have been significantly better with Paul off the floor.
All this makes Paul turning down his $44.2 million option for 2021-22 seem wildly unlikely. Even if he rehabs his current numbers a bit, that kind of money would be tough for him to recoup on the open market.
2. Jrue Holiday
Projected Wins Above Replacement Through 2024: 24.6
Because he's now playing alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday's scoring and assist numbers will almost certainly be suppressed a bit this season. Raw numbers are far from the only source of his value, though.
What he provides defensively is borderline unparalleled. One of the game's best offensive players, Kevin Durant, explained further on JJ Redick's Old Man and the Three podcast:
"Jrue Holiday is solidified as probably the best defender in the league at the guard position. ... You put Jrue in any system, any coach is going to ask him to guard the best player. We played them in 2018, second round, and he guarded me the whole series. He was picking me up full court, he was guarding me in the post. Actually, it was tough to dribble on Jrue Holiday. He slides his feet so well, he's got good hands, he's strong, he's got good instincts. I gained a lot of respect for him in that series because he went from guarding me to Klay [Thompson] to Steph [Curry] to guarding Draymond [Green], neutralizing pick-and-rolls. He's special. He's special on that side of the ball."
With less responsibility on offense, Holiday's impact on the defensive end might be even greater. He won't be tasked with commanding as many individual possessions, instead reserving precious energy to slow down the opposition's top perimeter threat.
And his fit alongside the stars in Milwaukee means Holiday may never be a serious threat to leave. Shortly after Giannis signed his supermax, reports suggested Holiday might be in line for an extension of his own.
1. Kawhi Leonard (Player Option)
Projected Wins Above Replacement Through 2024: 42.7
Everything seems to be hunky-dory right now, but we're not far removed from the postseason meltdown that sent Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers home from the bubble before many expected. The Western Conference is still bursting with talent, and another early exit isn't out of the question.
If that leads to Kawhi declining his player option, this free-agent class will suddenly look a lot different. He's undoubtedly a franchise talent, the kind of player who'd instantly turn just about any suitor into a title contender.
This season, in addition to his typically stellar defense and scoring, Kawhi has seemingly addressed the only aspect of his game that might have been considered a weakness: playmaking.
After averaging 2.7 assists over the course of his first nine seasons, Leonard is dropping a career-high 5.9 dimes per game in 2020-21.
There will always be at least a hint of concern about his durability, but his game has no holes. If he makes himself available, some franchise will pay max money for a franchise-changing talent.