Top Landing Spots for NBA's Best 2021 Free Agents
With under a month left in the 2020-21 NBA season, nearly a third of the league is already playing out the string, looking ahead to the offseason and all the hope it represents for better times ahead. In that sense, free agency is already kind of here—if not officially.
Finding the best destination for each free agent is a balancing act. The team has to be able to afford the player in question, of course, but fit also depends on meeting the needs of the roster and the overall organizational trajectory. Rebuilders don't need high-priced vets, and we'll avoid creating positional overlap where possible.
Finally, there's no point denying it: Some level of consideration goes to fun factor. We'll anchor our landing spots in reality, considering financial constraints and each franchise's needs. But part of the intrigue here lies in imagining which player-team pairings would be most exciting.
10. Lauri Markkanen, Restricted: San Antonio Spurs
The Chicago Bulls could have up to $37 million in spending power this offseason, though they won't need any of that to match an offer sheet for restricted free agent Lauri Markkanen.
Even with those advantages, it's difficult to imagine Chicago prioritizing the sweet-shooting forward's return. A roster that prominently features Nikola Vucevic and Zach LaVine is already defensively compromised. Markkanen's immobility and lack of impact on that end makes him a rough fit, a fact made more evident by his demotion to the bench last month. The Bulls also tried to move the No. 7 pick in the 2017 draft at the deadline.
Basically, it feels like the Finnisher's time is up.
Markkanen is a legitimate floor-spacer at the 4 and he's hitting a career-best 38.5 percent from deep this season. Solid on the catch (38.7 percent on spot-up threes) and sneakily dangerous on the move (among Bulls teammates, only LaVine averages more points per possession off screens), Markkanen could thrive in an offense with a history of unselfish play that keeps the ball hopping. All the better if his deep range could finally rid that particular team of its mid-range addiction.
Yes, we're talking about the San Antonio Spurs, who have the ability to clear the third-most cap room in the league this summer.
San Antonio shouldn't feel comfortable offering more than $15 million per season for a player with Markkanen's one-way game, and the old specter of Davis Bertans' chronic underutilization looms. But Jakob Poeltl is a fringe DPOY candidate in the middle, which could help minimize the negative impact of Markkanen's defense.
The fit makes sense here, and the Spurs tend to get the most out of limited players who have one or two useful skills.
9. Victor Oladipo, Unrestricted: Miami Heat
One might posit that this post-deadline stint with the Miami Heat is Victor Oladipo's "prove it" opportunity, but the two-time All-Star probably deserves another shot in a non-condensed, non-pandemic-compromised season.
That could come in 2021-22 when, hopefully, Oladipo can finally work his way past the lingering effects of his right quad tendon rupture. The Heat have Bird rights on the 2017-18 All-NBA guard, which means they won't need to dip into cap space to retain him.
Oladipo's injury history is real cause for concern, and Miami should be cautious. A two-year deal worth $50 million, with the second year as a team option or a partial guarantee could get it done. The Houston Rockets couldn't convince Oladipo to sign a two-year, $45.2 million extension after trading for him earlier this year, but perhaps the ongoing injury issues and the fact that Oladipo was long rumored to have his eyes on the Heat mean he'd be amenable to that level of compromise.
From an optics perspective, a $50 million deal looks fine and would represent a fair mitigation of risk for both sides. Oladipo also has to know the league has very limited 2021 cap space, and that teams with flexibility might not make a player with his health history their top spending priority.
It's hard to imagine where a better offer would come from.
This has been a little gloomier than intended, and we shouldn't look past the fact that a healthy Oladipo makes all the sense in the world for the Heat. At his best, he's a lights-out backcourt defender who can pierce the defense downhill and create for teammates. With Goran Dragic aging dramatically this season and Tyler Herro no longer looking like a surefire starter, there's a void that needs filling in the Heat's guard rotation.
8. Jarrett Allen, Restricted: Cleveland Cavaliers
Another incumbent team wins here (get used to it), as Jarrett Allen's best landing spot is the one he's already in.
The Cleveland Cavaliers got a steal of a deal on Allen, giving up a 2022 Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick and a future second to acquire the 23-year-old center. With a modest outlay like that, it wouldn't be disastrous for Allen to depart in free agency. But considering his obvious fit as a paint-protector and rim-roller on a young team with several other up-and-comers in his age range, the Cavs aren't letting him go.
Non-superstar centers almost never cash in anymore, so Cleveland won't have to break the bank retaining Allen, who's averaging 13.6 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.6 blocks on 61.9 percent shooting since coming aboard.
Collin Sexton and Darius Garland are an undersized backcourt combo, and they profile as the Cavs' main source of offense going forward. That means they'll play a lot and their defensive shortcomings will result in plenty of opponents getting into the lane, which means Cleveland needs a deterrent in there.
Allen is it. He's limiting opponents to 49.3 percent inside six feet, a figure bettered among high-volume rim-protectors by only Rudy Gobert, Jakob Poeltl and Myles Turner—all elite defensive weapons.
Though he won't offer much spacing and lacks the heft to bang with the bulkiest bigs, Allen is a quality starter with upside who shores up the weaknesses of the Cavs other core pieces.
7. Kyle Lowry, Unrestricted: Dallas Mavericks
The Dallas Mavericks can create as much as $34.4 million in space this offseason (before maxing out Luka Doncic on his inevitable extension). That means they've got the resources to give Kyle Lowry a minimum of two years at $25 million per season, which he was reportedly hoping for from any team potentially acquiring him at the deadline.
Lowry, 35, remains a highly productive player. He's averaging 17.1 points, 7.3 assists and 5.5 rebounds on a 43.7/39.1/88.0 shooting split, though his greatest value to Dallas or any other team comes in ways box-score stats fail to capture. His competitiveness and savvy, keys to several Toronto Raptors playoff runs and that 2019 championship, would make him an ideal culture-setter for a Mavs team whose best player is still only 21.
An ace secondary playmaker who has spent much of his career being the best player on the floor without dominating the ball, Lowry is an ideal fit with Dallas. He can space the court, attack from the weak side, conjure something-out-of-nothing possessions with his foul-drawing and make a major impact without dimming Doncic's shine.
Pessimists might note that at his age, Lowry could fall off in a hurry. But alongside an ultra-high-usage weapon like Doncic, he'd be in better position than ever before to pick his spots. On the court and in the locker room, Lowry would give the Mavericks everything they need.
6. DeMar DeRozan, Unrestricted: New York Knicks
This might feel like one of those typical New York Knicks situations where they target a big name who was probably overrated during his prime and is now toward the end of that phase anyway. But these Knicks aren't those Knicks anymore (hopefully), and DeMar DeRozan could make a real difference for a very simple reason.
New York can't score; DeRozan can.
Obviously, you don't fix an offense just by targeting a player with a high scoring average (DeRozan is at 21.1 this year; 20.1 for his career), and the four-time All-Star's aversion to three-point shooting definitely wouldn't address one of the Knicks' key failings this season. However, DeRozan has been above the league average in true shooting percentage in each of the past two seasons.
Whether putting opponents through the mid-post ringer or suckering them into fouls, DeRozan has maximized his efficiency despite playing an inherently inefficient style.
With Julius Randle's perimeter accuracy looking less flukey every day, DeRozan's lack of spacing would hurt less than you might think. And few teams are better equipped to offset his defensive ineptitude than the Knicks, whom head coach Tom Thibodeau has predictably molded into a top-three outfit on that end.
There's a general conception of the Knicks as a young, rebuilding team. That said, Thibodeau has always been a win-now coach and Randle, New York's best player, is in his seventh season at age 26. If DeRozan were going to stunt RJ Barrett's growth, maybe that would be a concern. But if anything, the 20-year-old lefty could benefit from another wing who would take some defensive attention away.
Excluding the Spurs, the Knicks have the means to give DeRozan more money than anyone but the Oklahoma City Thunder. They shouldn't exceed $25 million per year on a two- or three-season agreement, but few teams have the resources to beat that amount anyway.
5. Mike Conley, Unrestricted: Utah Jazz
It may have taken a year longer than either the Utah Jazz or Mike Conley hoped, but the veteran point guard's fit with the West's top-seeded team is now hand-in-glove perfect.
So you can see where this is going.
Conley likes life in Salt Lake City, and now that he's adjusted to a very different set of personnel than he was used to with the Memphis Grizzlies, he's playing as well as ever. In his 14th season, Conley is hitting a personal-best 41.6 percent of his threes and matching his career highs in assists and rebounds per 36 minutes.
He also got himself off the list of the best players in history to never make an All-Star game.
The Jazz are a legit contender and Conley's pick-and-roll decision-making is integral to solving the switching defenses that have given them so many problems in recent postseasons. Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell are the stars, but Conley is arguably just as vital to Utah's championship chances.
The Mavericks probably come closest, but there's not another team out there that can give Conley the combination of contention and competitive pay he'll get with the Jazz.
4. John Collins, Restricted: Atlanta Hawks
If the Spurs want to splurge, John Collins is a better option than Markkanen at the 4. But put your money on the 23-year-old forward returning to the Atlanta Hawks in restricted free agency.
That'll be the best result for both team and player.
Collins is still suspect defensively, but he's made strides on that end by quickening his reads and improving his positioning. The Hawks, for what it's worth, have been better on D with Collins on the floor in all four years of his career. And with Clint Capela anchoring the middle, Atlanta has a top-notch clean-up man to limit the damage of opponent blow-by drives.
Offensively, Collins doesn't need an advocate. His numbers are down a touch this season, as are his minutes, but he's still one of just seven players in the league averaging at least 21.0 points and 9.0 rebounds per 36 minutes while hitting at least 37.0 percent of his threes. You'll live with his tweener defensive status with offensive production like that.
His fit with Trae Young is another consideration. With those two on the floor together, the Hawks outscore opponents by 7.2 points per 100 possessions. When Young plays without Collins, Atlanta breaks even.
Collins declined an extension worth $90 million prior to the season, but it might not necessarily take more than that for the Hawks to keep him. With so few teams in possession of the space to make an offer that large, Atlanta can sit back and let the market dictate Collins' price and then match that number. That the Hawks didn't move Collins at the deadline suggests they're prepared to pay him what he's worth.
Worst case, the Hawks have to go a bit beyond the $90 million figure they were comfortable with in December to keep Collins, who is young enough at 23 to be a trade asset—even if he winds up making near the max.
3. Lonzo Ball, Restricted: Oklahoma City Thunder
We now know Lonzo Ball isn't a conventional pick-and-roll point guard, but he's turned himself into a three-and-D wing who makes a significant positive impact on his team's transition offense. That's a precious commodity that fits anywhere, especially considering the upside priced into a 23-year-old who's already improved so much and has terrific feel.
He's the kind of player you can trust to adapt to whatever situation he's in.
Ball makes sense in a New Orleans Pelicans offense led by Zion Williamson, but a failure to reach a preseason extension agreement and Ball's availability at the deadline suggest New Orleans isn't completely sold. With Williamson aboard and Brandon Ingram already maxed out, it's understandable that the Pels might want to aim a little higher with what will probably be their last significant salary slot.
With reported expectations of a $20 million annual salary, Ball, essentially a very good role player, isn't quite what the Pels need.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are a different story. There, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is in the Williamson role of unchallenged alpha. The difference is that OKC is woefully short on secondary playmaking—especially if the limited but useful Lu Dort is a part of the future core. Ball is a gifted passer who is probably overqualified as a weak-side floor-reader. He'd cut defenses to shreds if they overloaded to slow SGA's drives—which they would.
The Thunder are contortionist-in-a-sauna flexible, loaded with talent-adding avenues beyond their league-high cap space. They have several traded-player exceptions and a monumental pile of incoming draft picks. That said, I'm already on record advocating for them to leverage their offseason power by hunting restricted free agents.
Ball, who shouldn't cost anything close to the max and fits right into Oklahoma City's long-term rebuild, could find a great home with the Thunder.
2. Chris Paul, Player Option: Phoenix Suns
Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns have a good thing going, so don't expect either party to angle for a breakup.
Technically, CP3's $44.2 million player option for 2021-22 makes him the only one with the ability to end this successful partnership. Prior to the season, it would have seemed unthinkable for a 16-year vet to decline a salary that massive. But Paul's play this year proves his days as a franchise-transforming All-Star are nowhere near finished.
Really, we should have seen this coming. He took the Thunder to the playoffs last year.
The Suns could extend Paul now, like the Milwaukee Bucks did with Jrue Holiday, which would remove his ability to opt out. Or they could wait for him to opt in for 2021-22 and then add another two years, which would allow Paul to collect that hefty $44.2 million, plus guaranteed cash through 2023-24, his age-38 season.
The Mavericks and Knicks loom as dangerous alternatives. Both could offer three-year deals worth over $100 million ($110 million for Dallas and a max of $124 million for New York, per The Athletic's John Hollinger). Paul would boost the Mavs up to true title-threat status. He quickly figured out how to play with Devin Booker, so it stands to reason he and Luka Doncic could make things work.
In the end, Phoenix has the most options to retain CP3, plus the evidence produced this season that he fits perfectly in its system. The Suns have the league's best record since Feb. 1 and the youth of their key pieces—Booker (24), Deandre Ayton (22) and Mikal Bridges (24)—portends a lot of upside in the near future.
As long as the Suns are prepared to give Paul as much money as they can, there's no reason for him to go anywhere else.
1. Kawhi Leonard, Player Option: Los Angeles Clippers
It'd be fun to pretend there's uncertainty surrounding Kawhi Leonard's free agency, but the league's best potentially available player won't have a drama-filled summer.
Yes, Leonard has already confirmed that opting out of the $36 million he's owed for 2021-22 is his best move. Don't panic when he makes it. That's the fastest way for him to lock in a new deal as a 10-year vet, which can bump his max up to 35 percent of the Los Angeles Clippers' cap.
That projects to $39.3 million for 2021-22 with annual raises to follow.
Paul George inked a $190 million extension with the Clips in December. Considering Leonard basically hand-picked PG as his running mate during the 2019 offseason, it seems fair to conclude the two are a package deal. George's commitment seems like a precursor to Leonard's.
The Clippers' ability to give Leonard more money than anyone else, their status as top-flight contenders, the draw of Los Angeles and its proximity to Leonard's home in San Diego all make it hard to imagine him going anywhere.
If the Clips again suffer a collapse as deflating as the one in last year's playoffs, maybe the door for departure will open a crack. But even then, Leonard's options to cash in and win big like he can with L.A. will be limited.