Predicting the 7 Biggest Steals in 2021 NBA Free Agency

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterApril 19, 2021

Predicting the 7 Biggest Steals in 2021 NBA Free Agency

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    While few NBA teams will have max cap space this offseason, there's still plenty of talent to be found for the price of a mid-level exception (or less).

    Perhaps no team nailed their value free-agent signings more than the New York Knicks last offseason, moves that have propelled them from one of the worst teams in the NBA to a legit playoff contender.

    Other franchises should already be assembling their big boards, looking at players that can be signed using an exception instead of gobbling up a huge chunk of cap space.

    The following seven players have all represented tremendous value this season, and have largely flown under the radar. They could be steals in the 2021 free-agent class as well.

Alec Burks, G/F

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    2020-21 Stats Per Game: 12.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.7 steals, 40.8 3P%, 25.8 minutes

    Current Salary: $6 million

    Age: 29

    The first of two current Knicks on this list, Burks has been worth every penny for New York.

    Primarily operating as the team's sixth man, Burks is third on the Knicks in scoring despite starting just five games. At 6'6" and 214 pounds he can play and defend multiple positions, logging time everywhere from point guard to power forward this season.

    He's become an excellent three-point shooter, knocking down a career-best 40.8 percent of his triples, including 44.7 percent of his pull-up threes. Having an offensive weapon like Burks who doesn't need an elite point guard to get him the ball and can instead generate points at will is a blessing for any team.

    Burks' stats are far from empty, as well.

    The Knicks are outsourcing opponents by a healthy 7.6 points per 100 possessions with Burks in the game, the best mark of his 10 seasons.

    Wings with size are in high demand in today's NBA. Burks could be a key under-the-radar pickup for a contender this offseason.

Jeff Green, F

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    2020-21 Stats Per Game: 10.3 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.5 steals, 41.0 3P%, 26.7 minutes

    Current Salary: $2.6 million

    Age: 34

    Green continues to contribute to playoff teams in sizable roles, yet hasn't signed anything but a veteran's minimum contract since the 2016-17 season. If history repeats itself, Green's next team will also get a steal.

    Brooklyn is now the 10th franchise the veteran forward has suited up for and the eighth where he's averaged double-digit scoring outputs. The difference between this version of Green and his first 12 seasons is a vastly improved outside shot.

    While he entered the season with just a 33.4 percent career mark from three, Green is up to 41.0 percent with the Nets, including 44.1 percent on catch-and-shoot threes. That's a higher mark than players like Stephen Curry, Danny Green, Duncan Robinson and others this season.

    Versatility has always been a big part of Green's game as well.

    His 6'8", 235-pound frame and elite athleticism have allowed him to play anywhere from small forward to center, switching as needed defensively.

    Need a starting power forward? Green can do that. How about a small-ball center to space the floor? No problem at all.

    An often overlooked part of Brooklyn's success this season, Green will likely sign another modest deal with a contender before making an inevitably large impact.

Isaiah Hartenstein, C

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    2020-21 Stats Per Game: 4.7 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.9 blocks, 55.0 FG%, 11.6 minutes

    Current Salary: $1.5 million

    Age: 22

    The most unknown player on this list, Hartenstein has finally started to showcase his overall game now that's he's found a bigger role with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

    Traded to the Cavs in a deal for JaVale McGee, the 7-foot Hartenstein has shown an expanded overall game, putting up 9.0 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.6 blocks while shooting 60.8 percent in his 20.1 minutes.

    "I think I can do a lot of things on the court that comes from passing, rolling, I can shoot the ball, I really haven't shown with Denver just because it wasn't my role over there," Hartenstein said, per The Athletic's Kelsey Russo.

    In his first start of the season, Hartenstein grabbed 14 rebounds and dished out seven assists in just 26 minutes while going up against Rudy Gobert and the Utah Jazz. He has good pick-and-pop potential and is converting 76.0 percent of his looks within three feet with the Cavaliers.

    With a $1.7 million player option for next season, Hartenstein will almost certainly choose not to opt in and instead sign a slightly bigger, longer deal either in Cleveland or somewhere else. Rebuilding teams should offer him a multi-year deal, drawing out more of that playmaking potential from a young center who spent the first half of the season studying behind Nikola Jokic.

T.J. McConnell, PG

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    Doug McSchooler/Associated Press

    2020-21 Stats Per Game: 8.0 points, 3.7 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.8 steals, 56.6 FG%, 25.5 minutes

    Current Salary: $3.5 million

    Age: 29

    McConnell has become a feisty, defensive-minded, pass-first point guard that every team should want coming off its bench.

    The sixth-year guard ranks 11th among all NBA point guards this season in assists per game despite making just two starts, and is first in steals per contest. Only Jimmy Butler (2.1 steals) has swiped more passes per game than McConnell in the league this year, with Matisse Thybulle the only player racking them up at a higher percentage (3.7 percent to 3.3 percent).

    Even though he's not a big three-point shooter (just 31 total attempts in 52 games this season), McConnell is a high-percentage shot-maker from inside the arc. Instead of shooting triples, McConnell prefers to drive and spray the ball out to teammates for threes.

    McConnell's assist percentage (34.8 percent) ranks 11th overall in the NBA, above players like LaMelo Ball, Ja Morant, DeMar DeRozan and Ben Simmons.

    With points guards like Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, Mike Conley Jr., Lonzo Ball, Goran Dragic and Dennis Schroder all potentially hitting free agency this offseason, McConnell should be available at a fraction of the cost.

JaVale McGee, C

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    2020-21 Stats Per Game: 7.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.1 blocks, 52.2 FG%, 14.7 minutes

    Current Salary: $4.2 million

    Age: 33

    Like Jeff Green, McGee just continues to play a big role for contenders while making a value-sized salary.

    McGee hasn't made over $4.2 million since the 2015-16 season, despite starting for three NBA champions while playing high-level defense.

    Out of 171 players who have faced 100 shots or more at the rim this season, McGee ranks first in opponent field goal percentage (47.2 percent). That mark is better than Rudy Gobert, Myles Turner, Giannis Antetokounmpo and other top defenders.

    While he can freestyle too often on offense at times, McGee is still a huge body in the middle (7'0", 270 pounds) who is athletic enough to finish dunks in the pick-and-roll or clean up easy offensive rebound opportunities.

    Averaging 18.6 points, 12.6 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per 36 minutes this season, McGee should once again be an ultra-efficient force in a contender's rotation while making the mid-level or less.

Patty Mills, PG

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    2020-21 Stats Per Game: 12.0 points, 2.5 assists, 1.0 turnovers, 38.8 3P%, 25.6 minutes

    Current Salary: $13.3 million

    Age: 32

    The highest-paid player on this list for the 2020-21 season, Mills is finishing up a four-year, $50 million deal with the Spurs.

    Given his age and mileage, he's unlikely to pull in a similar deal now unless San Antonio wants to reward Mills for his past 10 years of service.

    While the raw numbers won't blow anyone away, Mills has made a huge impact for a Spurs team that's still very much in the playoff hunt.

    The veteran guard has a sparking on/off rating of plus-11.2 this season, the sixth-highest mark in the entire NBA. For comparison, Jimmy Butler improves the Miami Heat by 11.2 points per 100 possessions as well, while LeBron James has an on/rating of plus-11.1 when he takes the court for the Los Angeles Lakers.

    Mills obviously doesn't possess the overall skill set of these stars, but he won't cost nearly as much, either.

    Logging 1,442 playoff minutes over 90 games for the Spurs, Mills gives any team a proven postseason warrior who can run an offense while also proving his worth as an off-ball threat (42.1 percent on catch-and-shoot threes this season).

    Mills will get overlooked in free agency given the amount of talent at the point guard position, even if few players have impacted winning as much this year.

Nerlens Noel, C

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    Elsa/Associated Press

    2020-21 Stats Per Game: 5.0 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.0 steals, 2.1 blocks, 60.2 FG%, 23.3 minutes

    Current Salary: $5 million

    Age: 27

    Noel is finally starting to get the recognition he deserves. He's perhaps the most important piece to a New York Knicks defense that ranks third in the NBA this season.

    An athletic, mobile defensive threat whether he's patrolling the paint or switching out on the perimeter, Noel has the quickness and hops to challenge shots that bigger, slower centers simply can't get to.

    Only Myles Turner has blocked a higher percentage of shots than Noel this season (9.3 percent to 8.9 percent), and opponents are shooting just 49.8 percent at the rim with Noel as the primary defender (fourth-best rate in the NBA among players who have faced 100 shot attempts or more).

    A lack of a premier offensive game has doomed Noel's financial well-being, however, as the $5 million contract he signed this past offseason is the highest of his eight-year career.

    Centers who don't post gaudy offensive numbers are severely underpaid in today's NBA and any team who signs Noel for under $10 million a year is getting a bargain.