NBA Teams That Will Be Low-Key 2021 Free-Agent Destinations
The 2021 NBA free-agent class had a chance to be historic.
Then just about everyone who ranked as a difference-maker decided they would bypass the open market and ink early extensions instead.
The player pool hasn't dried up, but if Kawhi Leonard stays with the Los Angeles Clippers, which The Athletic's Sam Amick and John Hollinger reported is likely to happen "barring a dramatic turn of events," you'll be able to take a seat without getting your torso wet. A Leonard-free hierarchy would start with aging vets (Chris Paul, Mike Conley, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan) and young restricted free agents (John Collins, Jarrett Allen, Lonzo Ball).
Those players can definitely help and each will have suitors calling the second the market opens. Which phone calls they choose to answer might surprise you.
There are some natural, national brands sure to be in the discussion—the New York Knicks, Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat to name a few—but the following four clubs might hold more appeal than casual fans realize.
When Kemba Walker bounced out of Charlotte in 2019, the franchise faced a long, uncertain future without an obvious focus. Not even two years later, the Hornets have their buzz back and it's growing loud enough to potentially lure in another notable free agent—just like it did with Gordon Hayward this past season.
Charlotte could sit about $26 million below the cap line, based on projections from Amick and Hollinger, which is more than enough wiggle room to splurge. That opportunity could present itself if future hoopers-for-hire have been tracking the happenings with this squad.
Stardom is awaiting rookie LaMelo Ball. In his debut season, he's already one of just 13 players to average 15 points, six assists and five rebounds. Narrow the scope to his 21 starts, and he's up to 19 points, six dimes and five boards, making him one of 10 players to hit those marks.
Ball is the type of talent that other players should want to join. He's always looking to pass and rarely misses an open teammate. He doesn't have to dominate the ball, either, since his three-point shot is sharp enough to add value as a spot-up sniper (2.0 triples per night at a 37.5 percent clip).
"He's damn good to be his age," LeBron James said of Ball after a March matchup, per ESPN's Ramona Shelburne. "His speed, his quickness, his ability to make shots and baskets in the paint...and he's going to only get better."
Beyond Ball, the Hornets have a former All-Star in Hayward, who is comfortable in the spotlight but just as effective in a supporting role. Terry Rozier works on or off the ball, and his defensive motor is always revved. Miles Bridges bounces around like he's in a pair of moon boots. P.J. Washington is so good in his glue-guy role he might score a sponsorship with Elmer's.
This entire quintet is under contract for next season, and there's still cash to throw around. Go-to scorers and impact bigs should be itching for the opportunity to latch onto this rising roster.
Why should impact free agents give the Grizzlies a look? Well, first of all, this up-and-coming roster is already making waves without them.
Memphis is on a two-year run of outpacing expectations. Entering Sunday, this squad owns a better winning percentage than the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics as well as a better net rating than the Portland Trail Blazers. And that's all true despite the fact that Jaren Jackson Jr., a central support pillar in the post-grit-and-grind rebuild, has been out all season recovering from a meniscus tear.
It all starts with sophomore star Ja Morant, who is becoming the kind of floor general other stars want to run alongside. The No. 2 pick in 2019 draft has the explosion and skill to thrive in the spotlight, but he also has the vision and selflessness to take on support duties while someone else steers the ship. If the campaign closed today, he'd be only the sixth player in NBA history to average 17 points and seven assists in each of his first two seasons.
A healthy Jackson could hold equal appeal as a future teammate. He offers the unicorn blend of shooting (career 38.4 percent from three) and shot-blocking (2.0 blocks per 36 minutes), plus enough mobility to switch everything defensively and the handles to blow by defenders off the bounce.
Both building blocks are just 21 years old and have at least one more season on their rookie contracts. The Grizzlies should have the flexibility to chase just about anyone, especially if they decline a $13 million team option on the oft-injured Justise Winslow.
There are other draws to this franchise. A lot of the young core is locked up on cheap deals and they all look good in role-playing duties. This group has continued the small-market Grizzlies' tradition of outpacing expectations to stay competitive in the always-challenging Western Conference. Coach Taylor Jenkins keeps pulling the right strings. Memphis' barbecue is magical.
But Morant and Jackson are the main motivations. The right free-agent addition just might be chasing championships with that talented twosome sooner than later.
Whether or not the Raptors chase other top free agents hinges on what happens with their own.
Kyle Lowry, whose name bounced around before the trade deadline like an over-caffeinated kid on a trampoline, stayed put during swap season but hardly locked in his future beyond that. Toronto could marry its future with his, but the sides could just as easily decide they're better off apart.
"We are comfortable with whatever direction we go," Raptors president Masai Ujiri said after the deadline, per Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press. "Maybe we lost a chance here, but we gained a chance in some other things going forward. This team...could pivot in many different directions and this is where we find ourselves now."
If Lowry leaves—and with some financial maneuvering—Toronto could be in the ballpark of $25 million in cap space. If so, it should have the chance to splurge on one of the biggest and brightest stars on the market.
The Raptors aren't even two full years removed from a world championship. The coach who led that charge is still at the helm, as are several key contributors who have all elevated since. Pascal Siakam has an All-Star appearance and two seasons of 20-plus points per game under his belt. OG Anunoby makes the short list of the NBA's best three-and-D wings. Fred VanVleet is now an $85 million man and living up to that contract with nearly 20 points per game.
Give this roster another top-shelf ingredient and the Raptors might be able to cook up another championship recipe. That will surely sound ambitious for a 21-32 team, but Toronto actually has a positive net rating and a plus-.500 expected record.
If the Raptors can bring Ujiri back, they'd have an expert executive, a championship pedigree and a magnificent market to sell to free agents. They could absolutely be major players in 2021 free agency if that's the path they pursue.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans can craft quite the sales pitch for free-agent targets. However, it probably won't include Lonzo Ball, since a new deal for him in restricted free agency would effectively prevent the franchise from making other major purchases.
But if Ball isn't re-signed—remember, the Pels were taking trade calls in January, per The Athletic's Shams Charania—then New Orleans might have in the neighborhood of $20 million to throw around. That's enough to snag an impact piece eager to slot up alongside two of the best young stars in the game.
Zion Williamson is the top recruiting chip. He's a 6'7", 284-pound dunk machine who is apparently doubling as the Pels' new point guard. He masterfully held down the spot his last time out and promptly piled up 37 points, 15 boards and eight dimes in 35 minutes.
"I think that's where his future is in this game," Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy said, per ESPN's Andrew Lopez. "I really do. He just needs reps and more and more and we've increased it throughout the year giving him more and more opportunities. We'd like to give him more going forward."
The Pels have a second star in Brandon Ingram, who dazzles in secondary scoring and distributing roles. Tack on Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Kira Lewis Jr. and Jaxson Hayes, and this young roster holds serious intrigue even if Ball and Josh Hart—also scheduled for restricted free agency—leave this offseason.
Williamson has the potential to be the best player in the league. Ingram could be a perennial All-Star. No matter how the rest of the roster shapes up around them, New Orleans undoubtedly has a chance to be special.
With a decorated coach (Van Gundy) and lead executive (David Griffin), plus a unique city with killer cuisine, the Pelicans might have impact players flocking their way this summer.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.