Early Predictions for 2021's Top 10 NBA Free Agents
Once expected to have league-changing implications, the 2021 free-agency class doesn't appear as exciting anymore. Many of the former headliners, from Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday with the Bucks to LeBron James and Anthony Davis with the Lakers to Paul George with the Clippers, have inked gigantic contract extensions in the past year, drastically diminishing the market's possibilities.
However, that doesn't mean free agency is devoid of impact players this year. There are still plenty of potential signings that could make a difference in the standings while positively altering teams' futures in the process.
With all this in mind, let's take a look at next summer's top free agents and try to get an early read on where they might be headed. For context on who's making this top 10 and who's left out, we're using Andy Bailey's post-trade deadline free-agency big board.
10. Lauri Markkanen (Restricted): San Antonio Spurs
After a promising first several seasons in Chicago, Lauri Markkanen has plateaued and might be the fifth big man in the rotation after Nikola Vucevic, Thaddeus Young, Patrick Williams and Daniel Theis. Considering both that and the fact that he seemed disgruntled as early as last April, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Bulls pass on extending him this summer.
In this vein, Bleacher Report's A. Sherrod Blakely recently reported that the Spurs are expected to "make a strong offer" for Markkanen.
Putting aside what the definition of "strong" is in that scenario, the Spurs have historically been a great organization for players to grow into themselves, and having stagnated in virtually every area of the game these past two seasons, Markkanen could use a little rejuvenation. It just so happens that San Antonio is also in need of a floor-spacing big now that LaMarcus Aldridge is gone and Jakob Poeltl, while a quietly excellent defender and a player worth keeping for the long haul, is not a shooter.
Markkanen has shown flashes of true greatness over the years, most notably outdueling Kristaps Porzingis in Madison Square Garden as a rookie, but those sparks have become less and less frequent as Chicago has built around Zach LaVine and gotten closer to the postseason. In this vein, going to a team on the verge of a full-fledged youth movement like the Spurs seems like a smart decision, and playing for Gregg Popovich would be an added bonus.
9. Victor Oladipo: Boston Celtics
This year hasn't gone according to plan for Victor Oladipo.
He's played for three teams in the past four months, continues to look like a below-average starter, and suffered yet another leg injury just four games into his tenure with the Miami Heat. Oladipo declined a two-year, $45 million extension from the Rockets earlier this year. While it's understandable that he didn't want to play for a rebuilding team, that decision still looks worse every day, as it seems highly unlikely he'll get paid that much annually on the open market.
Of course, just because Oladipo is not worth a max contract right now doesn't mean he's done in the NBA. Surely, some team will talk itself into taking a chance on the two-time All Star, and one of those interested clubs might be the Boston Celtics.
Despite rostering Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart, Boston's lack of depth has been one of its biggest flaws this year. The team has won seven of its last 10 games but is still just 32-29, tied for sixth in the East, and doesn't have many pathways to significant improvement, given that (presumably) Tatum, Brown and Walker will all be on max or near-max contracts by the end of the summer.
Buying low on Oladipo, putting him in Brad Stevens' system and helping him play to his strengths might be just the low-risk, high-reward gamble the Celtics need to recharge their hopes of future contention.
8. Jarrett Allen (Restricted): Cleveland Cavaliers
After acquiring Jarrett Allen from the Nets in the James Harden deal, it was assumed that he would be the Cavaliers' center of the future, but that was made official after the team bought Andre Drummond out in March. Allen may not be the flashiest player in the world, but if this iteration of Cavaliers wants to be a playoff contender at any point, then he'll be vital.
Allen hasn't been as seamless a fit in Cleveland thus far as you might expect, but let's not get too worried about 38 games just yet. On paper, he's exactly the kind of center the team needs. On offense, the big man mostly stays out of the way, emerging to run pick-and-rolls at an elite level and using his enormous catch radius to finish alley-oops, a limited but valuable skill set that can only uplift Darius Garland and Collin Sexton's development as playmakers.
As for defense, Allen proved himself an unafraid and competent rim protector in Brooklyn, and when you're relying so heavily on two undersized guards who are virtually guaranteed to hemorrhage points in most scenarios, having a deterrent like Allen around the basket is necessary.
Of course, Allen's low-maintenance skill set would make him a boon to most teams around the NBA. But considering that the Texas alum is a restricted free agent and that the Cavaliers have partially oriented their roster around him, it would be foolish to predict him signing anywhere but Northeast Ohio.
7. Kyle Lowry: Miami Heat
Kyle Lowry's presence on the Toronto Raptors is now almost ceremonial. He's only played three games in the past month and all but said goodbye to the fans before the trade deadline, even phoning in Drake to tie a bow on the affair. It's not necessarily awkward that he's still with the club—after all, Lowry is perhaps the greatest player in franchise history—but his departure seems like a foregone conclusion.
So, where could Lowry end up? Well, there are a few options. The Philadelphia 76ers have been lurking as a landing spot for some time, as Lowry is a native of the area. He'd also fill a skill-based need for Doc Rivers' team, which lacks a high-level half-court shot creator. However, we're betting on the Miami Heat, who've slowly become an intriguing suitor for the six-time All Star.
One of the main reasons that Lowry and Miami are a great pairing is that he is apparently close friends with Jimmy Butler, and when you can keep your best player happy and improve your roster at the same time, you do it. However, Lowry also seems like a great fit in the Heat's vaunted culture, as he's been a great defender throughout his career and is willing to sacrifice his body, as evidenced by his reputation as the NBA's preeminent charge-taker.
It wouldn't be a surprise to see Lowry land in his hometown or any number of other reasonable options, but Miami seems to be a favorite right now.
6. DeMar DeRozan: Dallas Mavericks
Since last summer, the Spurs have seemed ready to fully turn their team over to Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Keldon Johnson and the rest of their young players.
This transition will likely push DeMar DeRozan out of the picture, but to his credit, he's evolved and been excellent this year, leading the team in scoring and assists while playing 68 percent of his minutes at power forward. The 31-year-old is still in his prime, and these recent skill-based improvements make him an intriguing fit on any number of contenders.
The Dallas Mavericks have been hunting for a third star ever since acquiring Kristaps Porzingis, but their search has only become more intense since Porzingis returned from injury as a badly diminished version of himself on defense.
DeRozan obviously wouldn't address Dallas' rim protection woes, but he would give the team another high-level scoring threat, something it desperately needs given how badly Rick Carlisle's offense collapses without Luka Doncic on the floor. The four-time All Star's improvement as a ball-handler would also hopefully jump-start ball movement on a team that currently ranks 28th in assist percentage.
DeRozan has largely fallen out of the national conversation since being on the wrong end of Toronto's celebrated Kawhi Leonard trade, but moving to a team like the Mavericks with a player as transcendent as Luka would be a nice opportunity to reinvent himself once more and hopefully contribute to a deep playoff contender in the process.
5. Mike Conley: Utah Jazz
If Mike Conley had duplicated his underwhelming first season in Utah this year, it might have made sense for him to move on and try to find new life as a second-unit leader on a contender. Thankfully, Conley's slow start with the Jazz seems to have been more a product of learning how to play with Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell than a skill-based decline, as the veteran has been better than ever this year.
Though Conley's counting stats are down, his efficiency and advanced stats are top-notch. The veteran is recording a career-best 55.2 effective field-goal percentage, has a dominant 99.7 defensive rating for one of the NBA's best defenses, and the Jazz are around 15 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court. Such sterling performance culminated in a long-overdue first All-Star berth, an accolade which was only bestowed after an injury to Devin Booker but should not be given any sort of asterisk by history.
This is all to say that there's no reason for Conley to go anywhere this summer. He left Memphis in pursuit of title contention and, after a year of adjustment, finds himself quarterbacking the West's top team by record. Utah doesn't have the star power of clubs like the Lakers, Clippers or even the Nuggets, but the Jazz might be the most coherent team in the conference. Conley is a major part of that.
There's almost no scenario in which he skips town.
4. John Collins (Restricted): Atlanta Hawks
There's been a strange detente between John Collins and the Hawks all season long. He rejected a contract extension before the season, got into a verbal spat with franchise player Trae Young earlier this year, and you could credibly argue that the big man is superfluous, given that De'Andre Hunter, Danilo Gallinari and Cam Reddish can all play power forward.
On the other hand, it seems that winning is once again a cure-all. The Hawks have won 18 of their last 25 games, are currently fifth in the East, and ESPN's Brian Windhorst reported at the trade deadline that if Atlanta didn't trade Collins, it would match all bids to pry him away this offseason. Such a stance looks even better now that the 23-year-old is playing as well as ever, the Hawks are statistically better with him on the court, and lineups with Collins and Young record a 6.2 net rating, which would be third in the NBA if it were a team-wide stat.
Is Collins a perfect fit in Atlanta? Maybe not. His lack of defensive acuity might hurt the team in the playoffs, and his superlative lob-catching skills are redundant with Clint Capela's similar talents. But after years of building chemistry with Young and the rest of his teammates, things seem to finally be clicking into place for Collins and the Hawks.
It's only natural for the team to double down on this year's progress.
3. Lonzo Ball (Restricted): New Orleans Pelicans
As a restricted free agent, Lonzo Ball only has so much agency in determining his future. But why would the Pelicans let him walk right now, in the midst of the best basketball of his career?
The Athletic's Sam Amick recently reported that Ball is looking to earn $20 million annually. That may seem like quite a lot for a player who isn't a primary shot creator, but now that the Pelicans have unlocked Lonzo's seemingly ideal role, he's integral to the team's future as a contender.
Since February 1—around the time Zion Williamson became the team's lead playmaker—Lonzo has been on a tear, averaging 14.5 points, 6.1 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game while shooting 40.1 percent from three. He's struggled a bit since returning from injury, but let's chalk that up to rust more so than regression to the mean, as Zion remains a singular offensive force in the NBA and playing with the big man can only be a boon for Lonzo.
Despite Zion's extraordinary production of late, the Pelicans continue to be inconsistent and cause frustration among fans and observers. However, that's mostly because of their acquisitions of Eric Bledsoe and Steven Adams last offseason and has little to do with Lonzo.
When the time comes to pay the former second overall pick, New Orleans should pony up the money. He's the team's third-most important player going forward and an exciting agent of chaos.
2. Chris Paul (Player Option): Phoenix Suns
At the most basic level, Chris Paul will pick up his player option for two reasons. First, it's worth $44.2 million. Secondly, he literally engineered the latest collective bargaining agreement with this scenario in mind. And while those are both extremely compelling arguments on their own, Paul is also as good as ever and playing for one of the five best teams in the NBA.
It's somewhat forgotten, but the Suns were a mildly controversial inclusion in the bubble last summer, given that they were 26-39 before the league halted. However, a perfect 8-0 run in Orlando conjured hope in the team for the first time in years, and the acquisition of Paul immediately sent them over the top.
Phoenix has been dominant of late, winning 31 of its last 39 games and going 22-8 against teams with .500 records or better. It's fair to doubt the team's playoff chances, given that the youngsters haven't been there before and Paul has a famously checkered history in the postseason. On paper, though, the Suns are one of the best teams in the league right now, and Paul is one of the team's two best players.
A more interesting conversation around Paul's free agency will come next year, as he'll be set to hit the open market and Phoenix might be understandably hesitant to pay an aging point guard, no matter how good he currently is.
At the moment, though, he's a lock to stick around in the Valley of the Sun.
1. Kawhi Leonard (Player Option): Los Angeles Clippers
Sorry if this isn't interesting. But we're making predictions for where the best remaining free agents will sign, and it would be irresponsible to suggest that Kawhi Leonard is leaving Los Angeles.
It's anybody's guess as to why Kawhi hasn't extended yet, given that Paul George did so last year to the tune of four years and $190 million, but there's no real reason why he'd leave. The two-time Finals MVP signed with the Clippers largely because he wanted to return to his native Southern California, and the team has been as dominant in the regular season as he could have hoped for.
Sure, Los Angeles fell apart at the end of last year's Western Conference Semifinals, but it's not like the team was the overwhelming favorite to win that title. And the Clippers aren't leading the pack this year either.
Falling short of a championship does not automatically suggest something rotten at the heart of a roster, and Kawhi is doing his part to keep the Clippers in the conversation this year, leading the team in offensive rating and continuing to improve as a distributor.
Whether Kawhi is waiting to re-up because he's recruiting a third star under the radar and wants to keep cap space open or he's just being cautious, Los Angeles is obviously the wing's priority. As long as he and George are healthy—a real question, as they've only played 74 total games together over the last two seasons—Los Angeles is certainly a title contender.