2021 NBA Free Agents Who Need to Make a Splash in the Playoffs

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistApril 27, 2021

2021 NBA Free Agents Who Need to Make a Splash in the Playoffs

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    Marta Lavandier/Associated Press

    The Larry O'Brien Trophy isn't the only thing up for grabs when the NBA playoffs tip off.

    For some players, the postseason is a chance to bolster or redefine their value ahead of free agency. Not everybody needs this high-stakes sample size to solidify their next paydays. Certain soon-to-be free agents are max or near-max formalities. They will be the ones who dictate the market. A handful are just in line to get paid a handsome sum no matter what.

    Josh Richardson, for example, could stand to boost his offensive stock before hitting the open market. But his roller-coaster shooting won't prevent him from soliciting offers that make it smart to turn down his $11.6 million player option. Three-and-D archetypes remain among the most sought-after talents in the business, even if the "three" part of that equation is theoretical.

    This exercise will instead focus on players with an opportunity to make or break their next contracts with their postseason performance. Some are already in line for a major raise and need the playoffs to validate their improvement even further. Others will be looking to reinject life into their once-prominent value after falling off.

    Since the play-in tournament has made forecasting the postseason field a fuzzier process, only those on teams with a 50 percent chance or better of surviving the final cut, as per FiveThirtyEight, were considered for inclusion. And while these selections are not the only right answers, they're among the impending free agents worth watching the closest once the playoffs begin.

Torrey Craig, Phoenix Suns

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Torrey Craig arrived in Phoenix by way of the Milwaukee Bucks at the trade deadline...for the mega-expensive price of absolutely nothing (except cash). That deal has since turned into a coup for the Suns.

    Phoenix has not merely used Craig as a break-in-case-of-emergency wing. It's flat-out using him, period. (Abdel Nader's right knee injury did help open some minutes.)

    Craig is making the most of his opportunity. His 6.9 points per game don't leap off the page, but he's been a hyper-efficient accessory, draining 38.3 percent of his triples and 66.7 percent of his twos. He is a perfect 13-of-13 from the floor on cuts since joining the Suns and remains a breath of fresh air as the rare wing who will slip past defenses to crash the offensive glass.

    That scoring utility has allowed the Suns to play him without making any functional trade-offs. He's not some high-volume bucket-getter now, but this version of Craig isn't an offensive liability, either.

    Good thing, too. Phoenix has deployed him in a vast array of defensive matchups, sticking him on guards, wings and even a few bigs. He suddenly seems super important to various small-ball lineups and versus teams that can simultaneously roll out a pair of bigger wings.

    Will Craig's performances hold through the postseason? That's the potentially multimillion-dollar question. He is a career 35.9 percent shooter from deep in the playoffs but has never been someone defenses actively guard. He also canned just 26.2 percent of his treys during last year's postseason run with the Denver Nuggets.

    Failing to stretch the floor on offense no doubt contributed to Craig's lukewarm free-agent market last offseason. The Nuggets didn't bring him back, and he wound up settling for a one-year deal with the Bucks at the league minimum.

    Showing out with the Suns when it matters most should spare Craig from a similar fate this time around. Every team wants a wing defender who can hit unguarded threes in the playoffs. He's not going to earn himself tens of millions by proving he can stay on the floor, but a strong postseason could be the difference between another one-year flier and a longer-term contract that nets him a chunk of someone's mid-level exception.

Devonte' Graham, Charlotte Hornets (Restricted)

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Devonte' Graham wedged himself into last year's Most Improved Player discussion by averaging 18.2 points and 7.5 assists per game while establishing himself as a viable off-the-dribble three-point shooter and overall engine of the Charlotte Hornets offense.

    That ascension feels like forever ago.

    Circumstances have shifted in Charlotte, most notably with the arrivals of LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward and the rise of Malik Monk. Graham has missed time with a left knee and left quad issue, as well. But his drop-off is concerning enough that it can't be chalked up to spotty availability and moving goal posts.

    Graham is banging in just 29.5 percent of his pull-up three-pointers and has been only a tick better since the All-Star break. His super-long catch-and-shoot looks help open the floor, but the Hornets need him to put efficient pressure on the defense in more ways and at more levels.

    He's not. His struggles inside the arc are well-documented, but they're more pronounced this season. Among 325 players who have attempted at least 75 two-pointers, his 38 percent clip ranks...325th. The 0.65 points per possession he averages as a pick-and-roll ball-handler are the second-lowest out of everyone finishing more than four such plays per game.

    Smaller players have a tougher time converting shots through the trees, and Graham stands just 6'1". But a 40 percent conversion rate around the rim is legitimately problematic regardless of size and infinitely worse for someone who has seen one of his primary strengths trail off.

    Maybe a team gambles on the allure of Graham no matter how he finishes the season. His sheen from last year isn't completely gone, and someone who can at least force defenses to react off the bounce has inherent value. But if he's hoping to get a fat long-term contract, or to render himself indispensable to a team that has other creators and shot-makers, a strong playoff performance would go a long way.

    Whether he gets that chance is somewhat up in the air. The Hornets have a 54 percent chance of making the playoffs, per FiveThirtyEight, which is awfully close to a coin toss.

Nerlens Noel, New York Knicks

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    Elsa/Associated Press

    Nerlens Noel shouldn't need to be here. He is among the most impactful players on a surprisingly plucky New York Knicks team and has ranked among the NBA's best reserve bigs for a few years now. The disruptive and relentless length he brings to the defensive end isn't something new or obscure.

    It's just underappreciated.

    Then again, Noel isn't just battling against a meaningful performance that somehow flies under the radar. Backup bigs aren't glitzy. Even referring to Noel as one of the league's "best reserve bigs" stereotypes him into a role with finite upside.

    Pure centers have it hard enough on the open market. A big clearing 20 minutes per game for the first time since 2016-17 only exacerbates the problem. It suggests he cannot be useful over longer stretches.

    Noel is doing his damnedest to neuter that notion.

    People tend to belabor how many looks the Knicks surrender at the rim despite their top-five defensive standing. But that volume isn't so terrifying with Noel on the backline. Opponents are shooting just 50 percent when being challenged by him at the basket—the fourth stingiest mark among 62 players contesting at least four point-blank looks per game. He might lead the league in dunk-attempt blocks.

    And his value extends well outside the paint. Noel covers a ton of ground when defending pick-and-rolls; he can hold his own on switches and recover from the ball-handler to the basket in a flash. More than one-quarter of his blocks have come away from the rim, according to PBP Stats. Scant few bigs are also as adept at jumping passing lanes. He is on pace to notch the highest block rate of anyone in league history to have a steal rate above two.

    This rosiness doesn't spill over to the offensive end, where Noel has hands made of stone. His turnover percentage is more than double his usage rate, and he's not much of a threat to finish outside running the floor and hitting the offensive glass.

    That's ultimately fine. Noel's defensive impact transcends his offensive limitations. It matters more that he's currently thriving in a bigger role. Mitchell Robinson's fractured right foot has thrust Noel into the starting unit, and he's averaging over 27 minutes per game since the former went down.

    Barring what would be a surprising return from Robinson this season, Noel will enter the playoffs as the Knicks' starting center. And if they make noise because he's making his own noise, he'll have a better chance of signing the first sizable long-term deal of his career.

Victor Oladipo, Miami Heat

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    Marta Lavandier/Associated Press

    Showing out in the playoffs might simply mean showing up for Victor Oladipo. He appeared in just four games after getting traded to the Miami Heat before suffering a right knee injury, and the team has provided no definitive timetable for his return.

    At this point, it might not matter. Integrating a brand-new player during the middle of the season is difficult. With only 10 games remaining before the play-in tournament (or an outright playoff berth), the Heat would essentially be working him in on the fly when it matters most. They could simply punt on using him altogether. As the South Florida Sun Sentinel's Ira Winderman wrote, "Nothing over the past two weeks points toward Victor Oladipo being a viable playoff competitor."

    Getting healthy enough—something, obviously, beyond Oladipo's control—would be but part of the battle. Oladipo still needs to prove that he's closer to All-Star contributor than not ahead of free agency. That isn't a given.

    Talk of him recapturing form assumes he was on the permanent stardom track in the first place, or that his arrival just happened. Neither is true. Oladipo hasn't played at an All-Star level since 2018, and the 2017-18 campaign is the lone season in which he maintained an All-NBA level. Victor Oladipo the franchise cornerstone is, for now, very much a concept.

    Someone will pay him in free agency because the idea of his apex still tantalizes. A fully healthy Oladipo can put pressure on the rim, knock down difficult jumpers off the dribble, run some of the offense and break up plays away from the ball at the defensive end.

    Of course, a fully healthy Oladipo hasn't existed for more than two years. More cap space than high-end talent is available this summer, but it will be shocking if he sniffs anything near the max on a deal spanning more than two seasons.

    The playoffs are his chance to be a substantive difference-maker again—if he's ready to rock. And he doesn't need to log 30 minutes per game or entrench himself as the Heat's second crunch-time option to do it. Any net-positive impact he provides—particularly on the offense, where Miami is diciest—would be a boon for his offseason value.

Bobby Portis, Milwaukee Bucks (Player Option)

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Bobby Portis will have earned himself a significant raise over his $3.8 million player option if the season ended today. But the season doesn't end today, and the extent to which he nudges his pay grade could be contingent upon what he does in the playoffs for a Milwaukee Bucks team with championship aspirations.

    Keep doing what he's doing, and Portis will be fine. His 48.6 percent clip from beyond the arc is the best in the league. His fadeaway jumpers are far from bankable, but he's shooting a career-high 54.3 percent inside the arc and better than 48 percent on post-ups.

    Defenses have to plan around all levels when he screens. He can pop off picks for a jumper or slither into the lane for a push shot or finish at the basket. His 69 percent success rate at the rim is another career high.

    Portis' defense is...better. He can get caught ball-watching and doesn't always put up the strongest shot contests, but the motor is for the most part there. He can party crash passing lanes when he's not backpedaling, and there have been moments when he's held up on switches.

    Right now, Portis is something like the fourth- or fifth-best player on the Bucks. But the extent of his playoff value is unknown.

    Will he hold up under even more switching? Better yet, will he be part of Milwaukee's best lineups? A healthy P.J. Tucker allows head coach Mike Budenholzer to lean on Giannis Antetokounmpo-as-the-lone-big arrangements more often if he deems it necessary. That would limit the floor time and overall importance of Portis and Brook Lopez.

    This might be more of a final-five-minutes thing. And Portis doesn't need to be a crunch-time staple for his market value to go through the roof. He does, however, need to reinforce everything he's done during the regular season for the impression he's left so far to have real, lucrative staying power.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball ReferenceStathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate heading into Monday's games. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by NBA Math's Adam Fromal.