Predicting Top Earners in 2021 NBA Free Agency

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 7, 2021

Predicting Top Earners in 2021 NBA Free Agency

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    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    Jrue Holiday's four-year maximum contract extension with the Milwaukee Bucks was the latest hit to the depth of the 2021 NBA free-agent market. The deal, which could be worth up to $160 million, per Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium, removed yet another top-flight star from the list of available talents.

    A class that once might have been headlined by LeBron James, Paul George, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Rudy Gobert may still include Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry. But the free-agent frenzy that was supposed to happen this summer is getting shorter on big names by the day.

    The twist: That's terrific news for anyone still on the market. Teams still have cash to spend, and they're going to use it on somebody.

    Just a heads-up that we excluded Chris Paul. He has a player option for 2021-22 that could get him into free agency, but it's hard to imagine his walking away from $44.2 million ahead of his age-36 season.

    Other than that, everyone—veterans to up-and-comers, unrestricted and restricted alike—was fair game.

    These are the free agents with the highest earning potential this offseason.

Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers (Player Option)

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    Kawhi Leonard has plans, and the next step is to opt out of the $36 million the Los Angeles Clippers owe him for 2021-22.

    That's not speculation. That's straight from the man himself.

    In December, Leonard told the Los Angeles Times' Andrew Greif, "Obviously, if I'm healthy, the best decision is to decline the player option, but that doesn't mean I'm leaving or staying."

    The 2021 offseason will mark the first time Leonard is eligible to sign a max deal as a 10-year vet. That comes with a salary bump to around $39.3 million for 2021-22, plus annual raises of up to 8 percent—if he sticks with the Clippers. Were Leonard to choose another team, he'd have to "settle" for a maximum of four years and 5 percent raises.

    The five-time All-Star can commit to a long-term deal with the Clips for up to five seasons, and considering he chose L.A. in free agency, it seems reasonable to assume a five-year max at the highest pay rate was the plan all along.

    Leonard could opt for a shorter term to preserve flexibility; even in situations in which a player hand-picked their team, you never know what things might look like in two or three years.

    Either way, no potential free agent has the earning power of the 29-year-old superstar wing.

John Collins, Atlanta Hawks (Restricted)

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    Hector Amezcua/Associated Press

    We know how much money John Collins isn't willing to accept on a new contract, as The Athletic's Chris Kirschner and Sam Amick reported the soon-to-be restricted free agent in December "left a deal worth more than $90 million on the table with the hopes that he would prove worthy of much more this offseason."

    The deal Collins reportedly turned down was less than the max he believes he's worth. Though there aren't many teams with the cap space to push a bowl-you-over offer sheet across the table, it only takes one to put the Atlanta Hawks in a tough decision.

    According to ESPN's Tim Bontemps, Atlanta is (somewhat grudgingly) prepared to pay Collins more than it offered him before the season. "They're worried he's getting maxed, and they're putting it out there they are willing to pay him if he gets a max but won't be thrilled about it," an Eastern Conference executive said.

    If the cap-space leaders—the Oklahoma City Thunder, New York Knicks or San Antonio Spurs—view Collins as a key building block in a market short on young stars, we know the floor for a Collins deal is $90 million. ESPN's Bobby Marks (via NBA Central) reported in February that teams will be ready to hit Collins with multiyear deals starting at $28 million per season. Given his youth and potential, those teams would likely want to lock down Collins for four years, which would mean blowing past that $90 million figure.

    Lonzo Ball, Lauri Markkanen, Jarrett Allen and the rest of the unextended 2017 draft class are also in the restricted boat, but none of those players has the chance to make as much as Collins.

Unrestricted Veterans

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

    According to Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer, when Kyle Lowry was a trade candidate prior to the deadline, he expected on his next deal "a two-year extension at a minimum $25 million a year."

    Lowry is 35, but he remains a high-end starter with championship experience and the clout to transform a locker room with his professionalism and competitiveness. His 17.0 points and 7.3 assists per game plus 39.4 percent clip from deep this season are hardly incidental to his value, but a team in need of an attitude overhaul might prize Lowry's intangibles even more than his numbers.

    At his desired price point, Lowry's suitors will be limited. But don't discount a return to the Toronto Raptors. If he desperately wanted to leave, he probably wouldn't have made an extension with his potential new team such a sticking point at the deadline.

    There are paths to Lowry's making $50-$75 million total, with a Toronto return being the most obvious one.

       

    DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs

    DeMar DeRozan is in the final season of a five-year, $139 million deal, and he can't expect his next contract to retain that level of annual value. Though he's undeniably gifted as a self-sufficient mid-range scorer, the league has to be hip to the fact that the San Antonio Spurs' net rating has been worse with him on the floor in each of his three seasons with the team.

    Rebuilders won't have much interest in a 31-year-old point-producer with a rep for suspect defense, which will limit DeRozan's options to more experienced teams that lack what he can provide on offense. Even that field feels thin.

    Still, a hefty pay cut could land DeRozan a three-year contract worth something like $60 million. And don't overlook the chance San Antonio will keep him around via Bird rights after using its cap space elsewhere, which could produce an even longer deal.

    The Spurs signed LaMarcus Aldridge to a three-year extension worth $72 million when he was 31, so this wouldn't be the first time they've shelled out to keep a veteran leader.

       

    Mike Conley, Utah Jazz

    Much depends on the outcome of the Utah Jazz's playoff run. If they make the Finals, which isn't a ridiculous thought for a squad that leads the league in record and net rating, Conley could return as part of a "keep the band together" offseason.

    Given the point guard's checkered health history and age (he'll turn 34 in October), Conley surely won't come close to matching this season's $34.5 million salary. But the Jazz could easily value him at $15-$20 million per season.

Dennis Schroder, Los Angeles Lakers (Unrestricted)

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Dennis Schroder will be in a class of one this offseason. He's essentially the only unrestricted, mid-20s starting-caliber point guard on the market. That's a valuable niche to occupy.

    Maybe that's why Schroder passed on the biggest in-season extension the Los Angeles Lakers could offer.

    "The most that Schroder can extend for under his current contract ... is four years and $84 million," ESPN's Brian Windhorst said on his Hoop Collective podcast. "... What I have been told ... is that the Lakers did indeed offer him that $84 million over four years. ... He said no to that extension."

    Schroder has been useful as a secondary distributor for the Lakers, and their lack of cap space means they won't be able to fill his role via free agency. This is a scenario The Athletic's John Hollinger likes to call the "Bird rights trap," wherein a capped-out team has to bite the bullet and overpay for a player it can't afford to lose and can't afford to replace. Marcus Morris Sr.'s deal with the Los Angeles Clippers is a recent example, and Schroder's potential next one with the Lakers could follow suit.

    Whether another team decides Schroder is its starting point guard of the future or the Lakers accept that they can't just let a key rotation piece walk, Schroder is in line for a contract worth upward of $100 million over four seasons.

    At worst, he might have to ink that four-year, $84 million pact Los Angeles offered. Even in that scenario, he will be one of free agency's biggest earners.

Victor Oladipo, Miami Heat (Unrestricted)

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    This one feels risky, as Victor Oladipo will have to prove he's still got some of that 2017-18 All-NBA form in him to cash in.

    Since returning from the torn quad that altered the course of his career, Oladipo has shown flashes of his old self but has mostly been an inefficient volume scorer. Of the 77 players who've attempted at least 500 field goals this season, Oladipo's 50.6 true shooting percentage ranks 73rd.

    Not great.

    The Miami Heat have revived careers before, so Oladipo is in the best possible place to get his game together. Considering how little Miami surrendered to acquire him from the Houston Rockets (basically salary dumps and swap rights), it's not a lock he'll re-sign. The Heat may be treating the rest of this season as an audition.

    If Oladipo looks his best, they might happily hand him a deal worth $25 million per season over three or four years. That pay rate may not align with Oladipo's hopes (he turned down a two-year extension worth $45.2 million from the Rockets), but it could be tough for him to do better on the open market.

    If the eight-year veteran disappoints with Miami, he might be stuck choosing between one-year make-good offers or multiyear deals worth around the mid-level exception. His potential salary range is broad, making concrete predictions difficult. But considering his possible earnings on the high end, which could bump up against $100 million, he belongs on this list.

       

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Stathead and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through games played Tuesday. Salary info via Basketball Insiders.