Updated 2021 NBA Free-Agent Big Board After Trade Deadline
With the NBA's trade deadline now behind us, plenty of teams, fans and analysts will look to the draft and free agency as the next sources of team-building hope.
This summer's draft class is loaded, and if a handful of players decline options ahead of the 2021-22 campaign, the same could be said for the free agents.
Whether unrestricted, restricted or under contract with a player option for next season, it's those free agents who are the focus of today's big board (the last installment 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, 2020-21 stats 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 prior to his injuries.
20. Montrezl Harrell
Montrezl Harrell's explosive energy makes him one of the game's top off-the-bench scorers, but his defense remains a concern.
Over the course of his playoff career, his teams are minus-16.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and plus-10.6 with him off.
19. Kelly Oubre Jr.
Kelly Oubre Jr.'s efficiency has bounced around like Tigger this season, but that may be because he's simply in the wrong role on this particular Golden State Warriors squad.
He's third on the team in field-goal attempts per game, and his three-point percentage has dropped to around his career norm after what may have been an outlier 35.2 percent in 2019-20.
On a team where he's the fourth or fifth option, and where he can focus more on defense, cutting and garbage points, the 25-year-old can still be a positively impactful wing. With Klay Thompson hopefully back in the rotation next season, maybe that team is the Warriors.
18. Josh Richardson
Like Oubre, Josh Richardson's fit on his new team has been far from seamless. His three-point accuracy continues to trend down (as it has since 2017-18), and his size (6'5") has made him a less useful defender than Dallas Mavericks fans likely anticipated.
Still, Richardson isn't long removed from the Heat version of himself, when he looked like a multipositional defender and floor-spacer who could create for others in a pinch. At 27, there's still time to rediscover that player.
17. Devonte' Graham
Devonte' Graham's career two-point percentage (39.5) is alarming, but the number of shots he gets up from three has helped him be one of the Charlotte Hornets' biggest pluses over the last two seasons.
In 33.3 minutes, Graham has averaged 8.8 three-point attempts while hitting an above-average percentage of those looks since the start of the 2019-20 campaign.
16. Spencer Dinwiddie
Missing most of 2020-21 with a torn ACL certainly won't help Spencer Dinwiddie's free-agency prospects, but potential suitors won't forget what he did last season.
Starting in place of the oft-injured Kyrie Irving, Dinwiddie averaged 20.6 points and tied for 30th in the league in offensive box plus/minus. Teams in need of a steady hand at the 1 will be interested.
15. Andre Drummond
Landing on the title-contending Los Angeles Lakers while LeBron James and Anthony Davis are out should give Andre Drummond a chance to work up his free-agency value ahead of this summer.
But with the game continually trending away from his '90s-big skill set, he may have to show some previously unseen versatility to land another big deal. Whether that's passing, an increased interest in being a rim-roller or something else, Drummond only has a few months to find it.
14. Duncan Robinson
His numbers aren't quite as eye-popping as they were last season, but Duncan Robinson remains one of the game's best floor-spacers. His off-ball movement and accuracy from three can still scramble a defense.
Over the last two seasons, the Miami Heat are plus-4.3 points per 100 possessions when Robinson plays and minus-3.5 when he sits.
13. Tim Hardaway Jr.
Another high-volume three-point shooter, Tim Hardaway Jr. can likely be trusted to do a bit more off the dribble than Robinson.
In addition to shooting 39.6 percent on 7.4 attempts per game over the last two seasons, Hardaway ranks in the 66th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler in 2020-21.
12. Norman Powell
Norman Powell may well find himself in the top 10 of this list by the end of this season. It appears that a change of scenery won't slow down his breakout campaign.
Powell is averaging 19.4 points and 2.8 threes while shooting 44.5 percent from three this season.
The most obvious knock on him might be his size (6'3") for a wing, but he certainly plays bigger than his listing.
11. Lauri Markkanen
It remains to be seen how well Lauri Markkanen will fit with Nikola Vucevic, but if the Chicago Bulls decide to move on from the stretch big, he'll likely have plenty of suitors.
Say what you will about the lack of rebounding and shot-blocking, but a 7-footer shooting 38.5 percent from three could open up offensive possibilities for a number of teams. If an opposing big has to stay with Markkanen outside, driving lanes suddenly look much more inviting.
10. Victor Oladipo
Victor Oladipo has already bought into the vaunted culture of the Miami Heat, telling reporters, "There's nothing like it," shortly after his acquisition.
If it can revive Oladipo back to his 2017-18 All-Star-level self (or even something close to that), he'll likely finish the season higher on lists like this, but his performance to this point brings some concern.
On the season, he has an effective field-goal percentage over five points shy of the league average. He's getting to the line at his lowest rate since 2016-17. And his defense is nowhere near as intimidating as it once was.
But in Miami, he'll be no higher than third in the team pecking order. And the two players above him, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, are among the game's best frontcourt playmakers.
Oladipo's job, demands of the culture aside, will undoubtedly be easier than it was with the Houston Rockets.
With all the attention commanded by Butler and Adebayo, Oladipo should get plenty of open looks every game. And if he can start knocking them down at a decent rate, he could earn himself another solid deal.
9. Jarrett Allen (Restricted)
Jarrett Allen has posted solid numbers (13.8 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocks) since the Cleveland Cavaliers acquired him earlier this season, but a 10-game stretch from February 10 to March 1 gave a glimpse of an even higher ceiling.
In those 10, Allen averaged 17.7 points, 12.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.8 blocks. He looked like a prototypical rim-running, rim-protecting 5. And that might be just what young guards Darius Garland and Collin Sexton need.
Both are above-average three-point shooters this season, but Allen's roll gravity could help them connect even more. When Allen cuts to the rim, defenses have to react to prevent the dunk. And when he pulls attention to the paint, the guards have a little extra space outside.
He still has plenty of work to do to be a reliable defensive anchor, but at 22 years old (soon 23), there's time to work on things like defending after a switch or knowing when to stay home rather than chasing a block.
8. Kyle Lowry
Kyle Lowry is on pace to become the seventh player in NBA history to average at least 17 points and seven assists in an age-34 (or older) season.
He may not be quite the defensive stalwart he was in his younger years, but he still has plenty to offer on the offensive end. And while his explosiveness will continue to slip as he ages into his late 30s, his shooting, savvy and vision aren't likely to go anywhere.
If Lowry continues to outperform Victor Oladipo over the rest of the season, Miami might even spend some of its incoming cap space on him.
"A source in [Jimmy] Butler's camp said that his main target was Kyle Lowry during the trade deadline, but Butler is open and excited to see what he and Oladipo can do together," Bleacher Report's Farbod Esnaashari wrote. "Lowry reportedly wants a two-year, $50 million contract in free agency, and a source in the Heat organization told Bleacher Report that the Heat believe they can acquire him in free agency."
Lowry was a culture-setter with the Toronto Raptors, and he seems like a perfect fit in Miami. His leadership and ability to space the floor would release a lot of the pressure currently on Butler and Bam Adebayo.
7. DeMar DeRozan
DeMar DeRozan is quietly having what might be the best season of his career with the San Antonio Spurs.
He's posting career bests in box plus/minus and assist percentage. His 59.1 true shooting percentage is the second-best mark of his career. And he's averaging 20.6 points, 7.2 assists and 4.4 rebounds in 33.8 minutes.
Some may be quick to point out his net-rating swing (I'm certainly guilty of this), and that's a fair criticism. For the 11th time in 12 seasons, his team has a worse point differential when he plays. But that stat, devoid of context, may not be fair to DeRozan this season.
The real culprit for San Antonio's struggles was likely the recently bought-out LaMarcus Aldridge, whose defensive prowess has fallen off a cliff over the last few seasons. When DeRozan has played without him, the Spurs are plus-1.3 points per 100 possessions.
The addition of point guard-level playmaking, as well as time spent as a nominal power forward, has unlocked another level for DeRozan. And teams in need of an offensive boost may come calling this summer.
6. Mike Conley
Injuries and an adjustment to a significantly different role and system stifled the impact of Mike Conley on the Utah Jazz in 2019-20, but his performance this season has belatedly warranted all the hype that followed his trade there.
FiveThirtyEight's catch-all metric, RAPTOR rating, folds box-score contributions and on-off data into one number. And Conley trails only Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and Kawhi Leonard.
When he's on the floor, the Jazz are playing like a 74-win team (yes, you read that right).
You may look at his basic numbers (16.4 points, 5.5 assists and 2.7 threes) and wonder how Conley is making that kind of impact. And often being paired with Rudy Gobert certainly helps. But when you watch the Jazz, it's not hard to recognize Conley's steady hand on offense and awareness on defense.
He's been the ultimate gap-filler for Utah on both ends, and he can still take over in a pinch.
Conley may be 33 years old, but this season suggests he's at least a few years away from a serious decline.
5. John Collins (Restricted)
The addition of Clint Capela has certainly helped the Atlanta Hawks, but his presence inside has suppressed John Collins' production a bit.
When Collins shares the floor with Capela, he averages 18.4 points and 7.7 rebounds per 75 possessions. When he plays without Capela, he's at 24.8 points and 10.7 boards per 75 possessions. He's a more efficient scorer without Capela too.
But what the production without Capela shows is that Collins can put up All-Star-level numbers. Combine that with his size that allows him to play the 4 or the 5 and above-average three-point percentage, and it starts to feel like a monster offer in restricted free agency is almost inevitable.
4. Lonzo Ball (Restricted)
Over the last few years, much has been made of the game getting smaller. Bruising power forwards like Charles Oakley have been phased out for years. Teams that devote a ton of possessions to posting up a center are rare. But it may not be entirely accurate to characterize this shift the way it often is.
Big men may just be more skilled than ever before, and any losses in size at the 4 and 5 may be offset by gains at the 1.
Big playmakers bring a number of advantages to the position, and Lonzo Ball is a good example of them. At 6'6", Ball can survey the floor from a slightly higher vantage point than smaller guards. And perhaps more importantly, he can defend multiple positions.
If his three-point percentage over the last two seasons (37.9 on 6.8 attempts) holds, Ball's combination of shooting, size, versatility and unselfishness will make him one of the game's most helpful players.
For the fourth time in four seasons, his team is better when he's on the floor. He may never average 20 points or 10 assists, but he just does so many things from possession to possession to win games.
3. Chris Paul (Player Option)
Chris Paul is posting a positive net-rating swing for the 15th straight season. Over the course of his career, his teams are plus-7.0 points per 100 possessions when he plays and minus-3.6 when he doesn't.
For context's sake, that 10.6-point swing is just shy of LeBron James' career mark of plus-11.3.
Wherever he goes, whoever he plays with, CP3 just brings more wins. And although he'll turn 36 in May, the raw production is still there too.
This season, Paul is at 15.9 points and 8.7 dimes (his highest mark in assists per game since 2016-17). As is the case with Kyle Lowry and Mike Conley, he's shown more than enough to convince someone to give him another multiyear deal.
Of course, Paul would have to decline a player option to even enter free agency. And leaving $44.2 million on the table, regardless of how good he's been this season, seems unlikely.
2. Jrue Holiday (Player Option)
While an extension with the Milwaukee Bucks may be likely for Jrue Holiday, it's not necessarily guaranteed. And if things somehow went sideways and Holiday entered free agency, he'd be one of the biggest names on the market.
The 6'3" guard plays bigger than his listed height. In fact, he spent nearly half his minutes at the 3 over his last three years with the New Orleans Pelicans. Wherever he's slotted, his defense causes problems for his matchup. And this season, his three-point shooting has made a comeback. His three-point percentage (38.6) is his highest mark since 2013-14.
Because of his defensive versatility, Holiday would be a plug-and-play upgrade on most teams, but he's a particularly good fit with the Bucks.
As the third option behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, Holiday often avoids the opposition's best perimeter defender. That and the unselfishness of the other two stars could certainly be contributing to the increased efficiency.
With no cap space to sign a replacement and all the picks Milwaukee gave up to acquire him, losing Holiday would be a disaster.
1. Kawhi Leonard (Player Option)
There's probably no way to measure this, but Kawhi Leonard must be having the quietest 26-6-5 season in NBA history.
In addition to the gaudy counting stats, Leonard is also posting a 56.8 effective field-goal percentage, his highest mark since 2013-14. And his perimeter defense, even if it's not at the Defensive Player of the Year levels from his past, can rattle just about any guard or wing in the league (when Kawhi decides to ratchet it up).
Perhaps the return of Terminator Kawhi for the postseason would dial up the hype surrounding his free agency, but that might also coincide with a deep playoff run. If those two things happen, Leonard declining his player option may be a bit less likely.
If the 29-year old did decide to enter the market, though, suitors would surely line up with max offers in hand.