2021 NBA Free Agency: Ranking the Top 5 Players at Every Position
As the 2020-21 NBA season rounds into its home stretch, plenty of teams and players around the league are surely starting to think about free agency.
For individuals, it's a potential opportunity to sign for loads of money and long-term stability, as well as a chance to pick where you play and live.
For organizations, free agency is one of the primary forms of team-building. In addition to trades and the draft, this is where teams hope to find the players necessary to move from one tier of competition to another.
Barring the decline of some high-profile player options, this year's crop of free agents may not be as exciting as some groups from the past. However, help can be had at any of the game's five traditional positions.
Picking the top five at each position is largely a subjective exercise. In today's increasingly positionless game, just designating some players can be tricky. Play-by-play data from Basketball Reference helps, but modern players float around depth charts in ways they didn't previously. Accurately predicting where players will spend their time going forward is impossible. Ditto for how much value they'll provide in those spots.
So, instead of some forecasting statistical model like the ones created by FiveThirtyEight or Dunks and Threes, the following top fives will be more about feel (though the aforementioned tools certainly help).
5. Devonte' Graham (Restricted)
ESPN's real plus-minus (RPM) pegs Devonte' Graham as the second-best point guard in the league this season, behind only Stephen Curry. Few would argue that's actually the case, but the numbers must be capturing something good.
He may not be the superstar RPM suggests he is, but the 26-year old has proven himself a helpful player on both ends of the floor.
4. Kyle Lowry
Kyle Lowry's box plus/minus (BPM) has steadily declined since he posted a career-high 6.1 in 2016-17, which is to be expected from a smaller point guard in his mid-30s.
Still, even if his defense may be slipping a bit, Lowry is undoubtedly an offensive weapon who could contribute to a number of contenders. Luka Doncic, James Harden and Damian Lillard are the only players in the league this season who match or exceed Lowry's marks for threes and assists per game.
3. Mike Conley
Like my first couple games of the night playing pickup, Mike Conley apparently just needed a little bit of a warmup before he got going with the Utah Jazz.
After an up-and-down 2019-20 that was marred by injuries and the learning curve in Quin Snyder's system, Conley has been dynamite in 2020-21. He's shooting a career-high 41.6 percent from three and his net rating swing (the difference between a team's point differential when a given player is on or off the floor) ranks in the 93rd percentile.
Conley may be 33, but he can clearly still run an offense and generally stabilize a lineup.
2. Lonzo Ball (Restricted)
After a slow 10-game start in which he shot 28.2 percent from three, Lonzo Ball has looked darn near the fully realized version of himself that warranted a top-two pick in 2017.
Since those 10 games, Ball is averaging 15.3 points, 6.1 assists, 3.5 threes and 1.4 steals. Most notably, he's shooting 41.2 percent from three in those 31 contests.
The outside shot was likely the biggest concern on Ball coming out of UCLA. With that seemingly taken care of, the 23-year-old looks like he could be one of the game's best gap-fillers.
1. Chris Paul (Player Option)
Chris Paul is showing subtle signs of basketball aging, but few have fought off Father Time as effectively as he has over the past two seasons.
CP3 will be 36 in May but he's still a capable second option, averaging 15.8 points with above-average marks in both effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) and true shooting percentage (TS%). And his vision, passing accuracy and ability to manipulate defenders aren't likely to abandon him anytime soon.
If he declines his player option to sign with a powerhouse somewhere, Paul might even extend his elite effectiveness a bit longer. Imagine if he was able to attack teams' third- or fourth-best defenders.
5. Duncan Robinson (Restricted)
Duncan Robinson's effectiveness is heavily reliant on shooting, so an eFG% slip of over five points from last season to 2020-21 is significant.
Even if his 2019-20 ends up being a bit of a career outlier, though, there's no doubt Robinson is still one of the game's best floor spacers. And on teams whose stars don't make threes, like the Miami Heat, he can be particularly important.
With the way he moves off the ball and shoots off the catch, Robinson commands the attention of an athletic and high-IQ perimeter defender. Keeping whoever that is away from the paint works wonders for the rest of the lineup. And the points per possession on the shots he does get can cover for a lot of inefficiency around the rest of the roster.
4. Tim Hardaway Jr.
Another high-volume floor-spacer, Tim Hardaway Jr. can also provide a bit of pop off the dribble.
You may be somewhat aware of his 39.5 three-point percentage on 7.3 attempts over the past two seasons, but in 2020-21, he's also posting above-average efficiency as a pick-and-roll ball-handler.
You wouldn't want Hardaway to be your primary creator, but having wings who can initiate weakside actions and provide a handful of catch-and-shoot opportunities for the star are valuable.
3. Victor Oladipo
Victor Oladipo is dealing with another injury scare, but imaging following the latest incident reportedly revealed no additional structural damage. That's obviously good news, but Oladipo remains out and his injury history has reached a point that could scare some suitors away.
Still, he's shown some flashes this season—particularly with the Indiana Pacers—of his former All-Star self. If he can stay healthy, attack closeouts as a third or fourth option, hit threes at an average rate and spend time defending opposing stars, the next chapter of his career could be rosier than the last few.
The "if" at the start of that sentence is the operative word, though.
2. Norman Powell (Player Option)
Norman Powell's breakout season with the Toronto Raptors and Portland Trail Blazers could have him in line for a pretty decent raise over the $10.9 million he's making this season.
On the year, he's averaging 19.0 points and 2.7 threes while shooting 43.0 percent from three. And he's proven himself quite a ceiling-raiser for both teams.
The Raptors are plus-1.9 points per 100 possessions when Lowry and Fred VanVleet play without Powell, and they were plus-8.1 when they played with him. In Portland, the Blazers have a plus-2.9 net rating when Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum play without Powell and are plus-19.0 when the play with him.
1. DeMar DeRozan
Given his evolving role with the San Antonio Spurs, DeMar DeRozan probably could've been listed anywhere from shooting guard to power forward. That's big part of the appeal with his free agency.
After years as an almost 80s- or 90s-style 2-guard, DeRozan is now a positionless playmaker averaging a career-high 7.1 assists and often leading lineups as a nominal 4.
His off-ball defense and well-below-average marks in three-point percentage and eFG% remain a bit of a concern, but on the right team, he could be a serious floor-raiser.
5. Danny Green
Whenever Danny Green trends on Twitter, it seems to be for some individual substandard performance that's supposed to somehow represent what he typically does. The thing is, those buzz-generating stinkers are rarer than social media might suggest.
In reality, Green is once again doing what he's done throughout his career: hitting threes, effectively taking on tough defensive assignments and positively impacting the bottom line.
Of his 10 seasons as an NBA rotation player, Green has an above-average three-point percentage in nine, as well as a positive net rating swing in nine (just not the same nine). This season, he's shooting 41.4 percent from three and moving the Philadelphia 76ers' per-100-possession point differential 4.9 ticks in the right direction.
4. Will Barton
After one of the best seasons of his career was cut short by knee and back injuries in 2019-20, Will Barton has had something of an up-and-down 2020-21. In his past 10 games, though, he's averaging 13.2 points, 3.7 assists and 1.6 threes, while shooting 39.0 percent from three.
He looks more like the two-way havoc creator he was last season, and if that continues through the rest of this Denver Nuggets campaign with Jamal Murray sidelined by a torn left ACL, someone will want to pay the 30-year-old Barton to at least be a spark off the bench.
3. Evan Fournier
Toiling away in relative anonymity for the Orlando Magic, Evan Fournier now has a chance to showcase his offense for the high-profile Boston Celtics. If his production remains at the level it's been at since the start of the 2019-20 season, he'll likely cash in with a solid new contract this summer.
Since the start of last season, Stephen Curry, Paul George, Terry Rozier and Karl-Anthony Towns are the only players who match or exceed Fournier's marks for points per game, threes per game and three-point percentage.
2. Kelly Oubre Jr.
If you remove the nightmarish opening 10 games in which Kelly Oubre Jr. shot 13.7 percent from three, his numbers look more like what the Golden State Warriors may have expected from him this season.
For the rest of the campaign, he's at 16.6 points, 6.2 rebounds, 1.9 threes and 1.0 steals with a 36.1 three-point percentage.
In a role where he's the fourth or fifth option, instead of the third, that efficiency might tick up a bit more and he'd be able to focus more on defense.
He certainly has the length and physical tools necessary to contribute on that end, but more consistent effort and awareness would help.
1. Kawhi Leonard (Player Option)
Kawhi Leonard declining his player option with the Los Angeles Clippers would dramatically change this summer's free agency, but it might take a catastrophe for that to happen.
"While this league has certainly taught us to expect the unexpected, the truth is that Leonard is still widely, well, expected to re-sign with the Clippers," Sam Amick and John Hollinger wrote for The Athletic. "As it stands, that’s the word from Clippers sources and rival executives alike."
If, somehow, he did become available, teams would be scrambling for a meeting. The 29-year-old is a perennial MVP candidate who turns into basketball's version of Terminator in the playoffs. Even in this condensed season, we've heard a lot less about "load management" as it relates to Kawhi.
5. Paul Millsap
In his age-36 season, Paul Millsap remains a dependable defender and an increasingly dangerous three-point shooter. Over his past three seasons with the Denver Nuggets, he has an above-average defensive BPM and a 39.2 three-point percentage. He remains a decent passer for a 4, as well.
His playing time has decreased significantly, though. And going forward, it's tough to imagine him playing much more than the 22.1 minutes per game he's getting now.
But even in a reserve role, suitors could do a lot worse than the versatile veteran.
4. Rudy Gay
Like DeRozan, Rudy Gay has experienced something of a career renaissance with the San Antonio Spurs, where he has transitioned to playing mostly as a small-ball 4.
As he ages into his mid-30s, this is where Gay will continue to do the bulk of his damage. He's no longer quick enough to stay in front of smaller wings and guards, but may have a slight athletic advantage against some 4s.
More importantly, his shooting can pull bigger bodies away from the rim. Over the past three seasons, he's hit 37.4 percent of his threes and San Antonio's net rating is 4.3 points better when he plays.
3. Blake Griffin
It remains to be seen how long Blake Griffin can keep up his current level of play with the Brooklyn Nets, but it's clear he has more left in the tank than he showed with the Detroit Pistons.
In nine appearances with his new team, Griffin is averaging 14.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.7 threes per 75 possessions, with a 62.3 TS%.
The efficiency may wane a bit if he was expected to provide all that in a bigger role, but any team with the depth necessary to keep his minutes in check should be interested in his multifaceted game.
2. Lauri Markkanen (Restricted)
His rebounding and block percentages have both decreased in each of the past three seasons and he's struggled to stay healthy his whole career, but there's still understandable intrigue with Lauri Markkanen.
He's a seven-footer shooting 39.0 percent from three this season. In the right context, that alone can provide plenty of value. Dragging opposing centers out to the three-point line opens up the middle for everyone else. Markkanen just needs to be surrounded by solid perimeter defense to take full advantage of his game.
1. John Collins (Restricted)
Trae Young has understandably gotten the bulk of the attention headed toward the Atlanta Hawks young core, but John Collins has been plenty impressive himself.
He has averaged at least 20 points, nine rebounds and one three per 75 possessions in three of his first four seasons. Joel Embiid is the only player to do so in each of his first four campaigns.
Collins' ability to score above the rim or from behind the arc makes him a nearly ideal offensive big in today's game. He can seamlessly shift back and forth between pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop weapon.
On the other end, he may not be a Rudy Gobert-esque defensive anchor, but he's still just 23 years old. There's plenty of time for him to improve there.
5. Montrezl Harrell
Believe it or not, the center spot may have been the most difficult to whittle down to five names. There may not be many (if any) surefire future All-Stars in this bunch, but there are a number of solid role players. Arguments could be made for the inclusion Kelly Olynyk, Serge Ibaka, Richaun Holmes, Enes Kanter and more.
Despite a lack of size, outside shooting and defensive chops, Montrezl Harrell makes the top five over all of the above because of his explosive off-the-bench scoring ability.
Over the past three seasons, he's averaged 16.6 points on 60.3 percent shooting in just 26.3 minutes per game. He's a dynamic pick-and-roll finisher who doesn't necessarily have to dunk to score efficiently. He has a solid array of flip shots and floaters in case the defense is between him and the rim.
4. Bobby Portis (Player Option)
Bobby Portis is having, without question, his best NBA season, posting career highs in BPM, rebounding percentage, block percentage and TS%.
The most obvious reason for the impact is Portis' three-point shooting. He's put in 47.1 percent of his three-point attempts this season, which offsets the lack of outside efficiency from Antetokounmpo.
3. Andre Drummond
Andre Drummond came along 10-20 years too late. His size, athleticism and nose for the boards would've made him a perennial All-Star in the 90s or early 2000s, but a lack of perimeter skills quickly torpedoed his value in today's game.
In early 2020, he was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers for what amounted to little more than a 2023 second-round pick. Just over a year later, he was bought out by the Cavs. Now, he has a chance to rehab his free-agency market ahead of this summer.
If he can show just one or two more solidly above-average skills beyond the historically great rebounding, teams will come calling. The physical profile remains difficult to ignore, so ditching some post-ups in favor of rim runs could get teams talking.
Showing off some of the passing chops he displayed in 2017-18 wouldn't hurt either. Prior to Griffin's arrival on the Detroit Pistons that season, Drummond was averaging 3.9 assists per game.
2. Mitchell Robinson (Team Option)
The New York Knicks picking up Mitchell Robinson's team option once felt like a foregone conclusion, but injuries have made the decision a bit more difficult to predict.
Even if New York is scared off by the chance of recurring foot problems, it should probably pick up the option, though. It's only $1.8 million, and exercising it will make Robinson a restricted free agent in 2022.
If he starts to falter on the floor, or the foot issues remain, the Knicks can let him walk. If he can stay healthy and dominant around the rim, they can match any offer sheet he signs in 2022.
David Robinson, Dikembe Mutombo and Robert Williams (so far) are the only players in league history to match or exceed Robinson's career marks for points, rebounds and blocks per 75 possessions through their first three seasons.
1. Jarrett Allen (Restricted)
There are questions about the defense of Harrell and Portis, the adaptability of Drummond and the health of Robinson. Jarrett Allen isn't a sure thing, but he feels like a safer bet than the above on all those fronts.
This season, the 22-year-old is averaging 16.7 points, 12.7 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per 75 possessions, with a 67.6 TS%. He's even hit a few threes since being traded to the Cavs (just 5-of-12 attempts, but it's still something to think about).
In the modern NBA, centers who can protect the rim and draw in opposing defenses as a roller can be extremely valuable.