Updated 2021 NBA Free-Agency Big Board
As we inch closer to this season's All-Star break and trade deadline, offseason team-building is becoming increasingly intriguing, especially for teams well outside title contention.
As squads start to slip in the standings, it's easy for their fans to wonder which upcoming free agent might be the key to finding the next tier.
Depending on the team, that might be a star, role player or younger prospect with untapped potential. You'll find all of the above in this updated top-20 big board (last month's can be found here).
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.
20. Kelly Olynyk
The Miami Heat are plus-0.8 points per 100 possessions with Kelly Olynyk on the floor and minus-8.3 with him off. The impact is due in large part to a multifaceted game that includes outside shooting, a little defense and a hint of playmaking.
With Olynyk pulling bigs out of the paint, slashers who share the floor with him have precious extra room inside.
19. Dennis Schroder
After a 2019-20 that was likely the best season of Dennis Schroder's career, most of his numbers have tailed off significantly as the starting point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Still, he has a quick first step and an ability to get to the rim in a heartbeat. If some team returns him to a sparkplug-off-the-bench role, perhaps he can recapture last season's efficiency against reserve defenders.
18. Montrezl Harrell
Another new Laker, Montrezl Harrell has also seen a decline in some of his raw numbers, but his efficiency has actually ticked up.
He'll likely never be the kind of big who can anchor a defense, but his intensity and ability to finish inside can swing games.
17. Spencer Dinwiddie (Player Option)
There is never a good time to suffer a torn ACL, but a potential contract year is worse than most others.
Spencer Dinwiddie can take the safe route and pick up his player option for next season, or he can enter free agency. If he does the latter, he'll be hoping teams remember how good he was starting in Kyrie Irving's stead during the 2019-20 campaign. That season, he averaged 20.6 points in 31.2 minutes and had a stellar plus-9.3 offensive rating swing.
16. Andre Drummond
According to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, the Cleveland Cavaliers plan to sit Andre Drummond until they can find a trade for him.
Assuming he and the organization are working together—and the reporting makes it sound like they are—Drummond may yet wind up on a team that would allow him to rehab his free-agent value.
If he focuses more on passing, rim-running and team defense at his next stop, he can be a winning player. He's still only 27 years old.
15. Duncan Robinson
Duncan Robinson is still one of the game's top floor-spacers, as evidenced by a second straight season with a sizable net rating swing, but a 5.3 percent drop in three-point percentage is fairly significant.
Outside shooting isn't all Robinson provides, but it's certainly where the bulk of his value comes from. If he can pull his percentage back closer to where it was in 2019-20, he'll probably rise higher on some teams' boards.
14. Josh Richardson
Josh Richardson's move to the Dallas Mavericks seemed like an ideal circumstance for both him and the team. The Mavs needed a boost in perimeter defense, and Richardson would surely benefit from the open looks created by Luka Doncic.
Unfortunately, things just haven't clicked for Richardson. He's 10-of-39 (25.6 percent) on wide-open threes (nearest defender is six-plus feet away). And Dallas' defense is significantly worse when he plays.
He's as high as he is here based on the theoretical version of himself.
13. Tim Hardaway Jr.
Tim Hardaway Jr., on the other hand, has fit like a glove in Dallas and alongside Doncic. Since the start of the 2019-20 campaign, the Mavs are plus-6.2 points per 100 possessions when both are on the floor and plus-0.7 when Doncic plays without THJ.
The latter's willingness and ability to space the floor for Luka's drives opens up the middle of the floor. And his release is one of the quickest among the game's dedicated outside shooters.
12. Lauri Markkanen
When he's been healthy, Lauri Markkanen, averaging 19.1 points and 2.9 threes with a 39.6 three-point percentage, has looked more like the fully actualized version of himself than ever before.
His defense still leaves a lot to be desired, though. The Chicago Bulls are surrendering 3.5 more points per 100 possessions when he plays.
A team that can surround him with plenty of perimeter defense may still be able to uncover a positively impactful stretch 5.
11. Kelly Oubre Jr.
Kelly Oubre Jr.'s season-long numbers may never fully recover from his horrendous start with the Golden State Warriors, but he has looked more like the player he was last season in recent weeks.
Over his last 10 games, he's averaging 17.2 points and 2.3 threes with a 39.7 three-point percentage. His size and switchability on the wing would become plenty valuable if he can maintain above-average efficiency from three.
10. Victor Oladipo
Projected Wins Above Replacement Through 2024: 14.4
Victor Oladipo has slid a bit since our last big board, and there may be an argument for having him even lower.
Since he joined the Houston Rockets, he's at just 38.6 percent from the field and 29.9 percent from three. And injuries have made his availability sporadic. Given his history, that could be a major concern for potential free-agency suitors.
He's shown flashes of his old All-Star form, though. Houston's defense has been worlds better when he plays, and he's eclipsed 20 points in over half his appearances this season.
If he can find some consistency with his outside shot, he may be able to transition into more of a traditional three-and-D player over the rest of his career. And that shouldn't necessarily be seen as a slight.
Those players, especially if they can effectively attack a closeout from time to time, can be plenty valuable in today's perimeter-oriented NBA.
9. Kyle Lowry
Projected Wins Above Replacement Through 2024: 23.7
They're looking a bit more like their old selves in recent weeks, but the sub-.500 Toronto Raptors have been one of this season's bigger disappointments. It'd be tough to blame Kyle Lowry for that, though.
The point guard will turn 35 in March, but he's averaging 17.7 points, 6.4 assists, 5.4 assists and 2.8 threes while shooting 38.8 percent from deep.
And even though that age suggests he's nearing the end of what could be a Hall of Fame career, Lowry appears to have plenty left in the tank for a few more years of winning basketball. He's never been the kind of player who relies on above-the-rim athleticism or top-of-the-league lateral quickness. His game is more about strength, craftiness and basketball IQ.
8. Lonzo Ball (Restricted)
Projected Wins Above Replacement Through 2024: 24.2
FiveThirtyEight's projection system is very high on Lonzo Ball, but you'll have to forgive his placement outside the top 10 at the time of our last big board.
At that point in the season, he was averaging 11.9 points and 2.0 threes while shooting 38.7 percent from the field and 28.2 percent from three. Since then, he's taken off with 15.0 points and 3.4 threes per game to go with a 44.4 field-goal percentage and 43.5 three-point percentage.
His assist numbers are still well shy of where he was over his first three seasons, but his vision and unselfishness pop off the screen when you watch him play.
He's one of the game's top hit-ahead passers, and his versatility on defense makes him potentially positionless. If he keeps shooting the way he has for the last month, he'd be a plug-and-play option for just about any team in the league.
7. Jarrett Allen (Restricted)
Projected Wins Above Replacement Through 2024: 16.5
It didn't take long for Jarrett Allen to assume the Cleveland Cavaliers' team lead in 2020-21 wins over replacement player. Despite making significantly fewer appearances for the Wine and Gold, he's already overtaken Collin Sexton, Darius Garland and the rest of the roster.
The basic numbers that lead to that mark (13.2 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game) don't leap off the page, but Allen is emerging as a game-changing rim-runner and rim-protector. On a team with talent concentrated heavily at the guard spots, he's important.
Hard rolls to the rim out of pick-and-rolls can pull defenses away from the three-point line, which could give Sexton and others an extra split second outside. And when those perimeter players are dusted outside, it helps to have a shot-blocker like Allen waiting inside.
This all assumes Cleveland re-signs him, of course. Restricted free agency gives the Cavs the inside track, but his skills would lift a number of teams.
6. DeMar DeRozan
Projected Wins Above Replacement Through 2024: 2.3
It may not be too surprising to see the projection system so low on DeMar DeRozan. He's a career 20.0-point scorer, but he'll turn 32 before 2021-22 and is on track for his 11th season with a negative net rating swing (though that number is trending in the right direction this campaign).
It's still hard to ignore DeRozan's raw production in 2020-21. He's averaging 19.8 points, 6.9 assists and 5.0 rebounds, and he's even hitting the occasional three.
If he's signed by a team that can surround him with players who cover his defensive limitations, DeRozan may yet find his place in today's three-happy league.
That may actually be with the San Antonio Spurs. In the minutes they've played with DeRozan on the floor and the rapidly declining LaMarcus Aldridge off, they are plus-4.5 points per 100 possessions. Perhaps he stays as the veteran mentor while Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson and Lonnie Walker IV continue to develop.
5. Mike Conley
Projected Wins Above Replacement Through 2024: 7.5
An injury-plagued and adjustment-laden 2019-20 suppressed Mike Conley's value, but he clearly understands his role with the Utah Jazz now.
After a decade-plus as the primary ball-handler with the Memphis Grizzlies, Conley had to get used to playing in a system that spreads the playmaking wealth around to several perimeter players. He had to develop lob chemistry with Rudy Gobert (Marc Gasol wasn't exactly an above-the-rim center), and he had to embrace his own three-point shooting a bit more.
He's done all that, and it's made him a plus-minus superstar.
Now, the primary concerns are age (he'll turn 34 before next season) and injuries (a nagging hamstring injury is back, though it's reportedly not as bad as 2019-20's).
4. John Collins (Restricted)
Projected Wins Above Replacement Through 2024: 13.5
The Atlanta Hawks have slipped quite a bit in recent weeks, though FiveThirtyEight's projections still give them a solid shot at the postseason. If they get there, John Collins will be one of the biggest reasons.
This season, Atlanta is plus-3.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and minus-9.6 with him off. In just 31.7 minutes per game, he's averaging 18.1 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.4 threes (with a 41.1 three-point percentage) and 1.0 blocks.
On paper, he looks like a nearly ideal playmaking 5 for the modern NBA. Playing him there full-time could be problematic for whatever defense he lands with, though.
On the season, the Hawks are giving up points in droves when Collins plays without Clint Capela. He has the athleticism to positively affect a defense, but he's slightly undersized (if you want him to be a center) and still gets caught out of position from time to time.
Regardless of position, though, the 23-year-old has provided more than enough raw production over his first four seasons to warrant interest from all over the league this summer.
3. Chris Paul (Player Option)
Projected Wins Above Replacement Through 2024: 16.8
For the second consecutive season, Chris Paul has taken a team from the lottery to the playoffs (assuming the Phoenix Suns, a near lock, make it). Even at 35, he remains a positively impactful player, which he's been since the early 2000s.
Over the course of his career, his teams are plus-6.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and minus-3.7 with him off. For context's sake, that 10.6-point swing is just shy of LeBron James' career mark of 11.3.
Of course, he's not as productive as he was during his prime, but it's clear his leadership, know-how and team-first approach will still be helpful for at least a few more years.
It's tough to imagine a player of his advanced years turning down a $44.2 million player option for 2021-22, but some squad might be willing to give him that amount over three or four years on a new deal.
2. Jrue Holiday
Projected Wins Above Replacement Through 2024: 24.6
Jrue Holiday may not be on this big board much longer. According to ESPN's Bobby Marks, he'll be eligible for a four-year extension on Feb. 26, and the Milwaukee Bucks may have already backed themselves into a corner there.
They gave up three first-round picks and two pick swaps to land the two-way guard. With or without him, they'll be over the cap next season, so surrendering all those assets, losing Holiday and not having any flexibility to replace him would be disastrous.
And while retaining him will certainly be expensive, he appears to be worth it.
This season, Milwaukee is plus-11.0 points per 100 possessions with Holiday on the floor, compared to plus-3.0 with him off. He's shooting 38.7 percent from three and averaging a league-leading 1.9 steals.
1. Kawhi Leonard (Player Option)
Projected Wins Above Replacement Through 2024: 42.7
Kawhi Leonard opting out of the final season of his deal with the Los Angeles Clippers would certainly be surprising, but the last several years of his career have been about as unpredictable as any stretch from an all-time great.
Prior to the 2017-18 season, Leonard looked content to be the next no-nonsense superstar in the San Antonio Spurs system. He was the perfect heir to Tim Duncan's throne.
Since then, he's forced his way out of San Antonio, won a title in his only season with the Toronto Raptors and orchestrated a team-up with Paul George in L.A. If things go sour, as they did in the 2020 postseason, perhaps he engineers another superteam elsewhere.
It may not be the likeliest outcome, but Leonard entering this class would change the whole summer. He'd instantly be the most coveted free agent on the market.