2021 NBA Free Agents Most Likely to Change Teams This Offseason
The appeal of NBA free agency is the freshness. The renewal. The feeling that this new player, in this new place, will be better than he was before. The benefit of the doubt intensifies. New additions are great signings until proven otherwise.
This offseason, most of the biggest free-agent names in the league won't be on the move. That'll deny us those feelings of freshness and renewal of the highest magnitude. Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul, Mike Conley, John Collins, Victor Oladipo and Jarrett Allen all seem like safe bets to stick with their current teams.
Don't lose hope. A handful of notable free agents will change locales. Some, like Kyle Lowry, could impact the 2021-22 championship race. Others, like restricted free agents Lonzo Ball and Lauri Markkanen, could inject youthful energy into new teams that need a boost.
We've already taken a crack at projecting where the best landing spots are for several of these guys, but the focus here isn't so much on which different jerseys they'll be wearing next year. It's about explaining the reasons why those jerseys will change.
Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors, Unrestricted
According to Sam Amick of The Athletic, the Toronto Raptors tried to move Kyle Lowry at the trade deadline. So we have to start there in building the case that Lowry isn't long for the North.
The Raps had a will, which is understandable given the now-impending possibility of losing Lowry for nothing in free agency, but they couldn't find a suitable way. Their leverage isn't all the way gone, though. Toronto could move Lowry in a sign-and-trade exchange, which Amick reports is an avenue the Philadelphia 76ers are expected to pursue.
Lowry's demonstrated ability (at championship-winning levels) to play on and off the ball makes him a clean offensive fit anywhere. Defensively, he's active, intelligent and reliable against both backcourt spots. His mind and experience make him an asset on that end, too, even if his block and steal rates are declining in his mid-30s.
Slot him into the Sixers starting five, and they get scary, assuming they don't have to surrender too much in the hypothetical sign-and-trade. Lowry would supercharge the Dallas Mavericks, who could clear up to $35 million in space to sign him, though it shouldn't take quite that much.
The Miami Heat are also a realistic destination.
Toronto isn't out of it. The Raptors could run it back with Lowry on a short deal alongside their younger core of Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam. If they could find a productive two-way center and a little more wing depth, the Raps could erase this lost Tampa season and jump right back into the contender class.
In the end, it feels as if Toronto is ready to turn the page. Couple that with Lowry's likelihood of commanding multiple offers from high-end teams, and the greatest Raptor in history's days in Toronto are, well... history.*
*Until he re-signs a one-day deal to retire a Raptor and attend the unveiling of his statue, which will probably feature him stopping short and throwing his backside into a trailing defender to draw a shooting foul.
DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs, Unrestricted
The San Antonio Spurs are long on options at the wing. Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell would man the forward spots in an ideal future, with Derrick White and Lonnie Walker IV both perfectly capable of handling duties at the 2 or 3. Even point guard Dejounte Murray is rangy enough to provide another defensive option at those spots.
White is the old head in that group at 26. Murray is 24. Johnson, Walker and Vassell are all 22 or younger.
You see where this is going. The age-band writing is on the wall.
DeMar DeRozan, 31, doesn't fit with San Antonio's younger core. Add that to the likelihood he'll command a multiyear contract worth at least $20 million per season, plus the fact that the Spurs have been better with him on the bench in each of his three years with the team, and there's just not any worthwhile argument for retaining him.
Other organizations could put DeRozan's individual scoring and underrated playmaking (career-high 7.4 assists per game) to better use; San Antonio has the talent to compensate for his absence by committee—not to mention the potential to play much better defense with him excised from the rotation.
Finally, DeRozan hasn't really gotten the chance to explore free agency because he inked a rookie scale extension with the Toronto Raptors and then signed his next deal without even fielding offers from other teams. He's going to take a "wide open" approach this time, per Amick.
The Spurs should be fine with that.
Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans, Restricted
Jayson Tatum, De'Aaron Fox, Donovan Mitchell, Bam Adebayo and OG Anunoby all signed rookie-scale extensions prior to the 2020-21 season. Though Lonzo Ball isn't the only big name from the 2017 draft class without a locked-in deal, that fact is still relevant to his future with the New Orleans Pelicans.
If the Pels were sure Ball was a part of their core going forward, they would have acted like the Boston Celtics did with Tatum, the Utah Jazz with Mitchell, and on down the line.
It's also significant that New Orleans had its ears open on trade offers for Ball at the most recent deadline, and that his availability could continue into the offseason.
Per ESPN's Brian Windhorst and Andrew Lopez: "Ball was involved in trade discussions with several teams before last month’s trade deadline, with the LA Clippers, Chicago Bulls, Denver Nuggets and Atlanta Hawks among the teams showing interest, sources said. Some executives came away from those talks with the belief that Ball might be available in a sign-and-trade in the offseason as a restricted free agent."
As running mates for Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram go, the Pelicans could do a lot worse than a high-IQ passer who has quietly become an elite high-volume three-point shooter. That said, New Orleans might want to dream a little bigger than a "quality role-playing starter" with what might be its last big salary slot for a while.
Ball's catch-and-shoot game and keen passing make him a fit in any team's offense. The market for his services in restricted free agency will be robust. That the Pelicans didn't act in advance to take Ball off that market says a lot.
Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls, Restricted
Take everything about how the Pelicans haven't shown certainty on Ball, apply it to the Chicago Bulls and Lauri Markkanen, and then add in the fact that the fourth-year forward received a midseason role reduction.
Teams don't tend to move future cornerstones to the bench at this stage of their careers. If the jury might still be out on Ball, it seems to have reached a verdict on Markkanen. Very little of what's happened this season suggests Chicago sees him as a part of its future. That could change if the price to retain Markkanen in restricted free agency bottoms all the way out, but there figures to be at least some interest on the market.
The 7'0" forward has clear uses. He's hitting a career-best 39.1 percent of his threes overall, and though he almost never shoots them off the dribble, there's value in a player his size who can bury standstill treys with ease.
What an acquiring team would do with Markkanen on defense—he can't bang with 5s and isn't quick enough to stay in front of 4s—is an open question. But it's not so hard to imagine him excelling in a reduced role where his team could use him as a bench weapon and hide him from the most glaring matchup disadvantages.
The last factor to consider is Chicago's commitment to a pair of stellar scorers who also happen to be defensive minuses in Nikola Vucevic and Zach LaVine. Those are the Bulls' key figures. Markkanen's strength, scoring, isn't in nearly as much demand with those two around. And his weakness on D is even more damaging.
Markkanen has some game. It'll shine brighter someplace else.
Richaun Holmes, Sacramento Kings, Unrestricted
The best center on the market doesn't have the same expectations or earning potential as, say, the best three-and-D wing or playmaking point guard. But top-option status, even if it's at a position the league decreasingly wants to pay for, is still top-option status.
Demand for Richaun Holmes will be higher than it'll be for anyone at his position, but that's only half the reason he's likely to play for another team next year.
The other half has to do with the Sacramento Kings, who can't justify adding another costly long-term deal to their books.
De'Aaron Fox has his max extension; Buddy Hield and Harrison Barnes are inked to high-end starter contracts; Tyrese Haliburton has already shown enough to indicate he won't be a cheap keeper when he's due for a re-up down the line, and the Kings are sure to add another couple of expensive high-lottery picks between now and then. They can't be in the business of lavishing every decent rotation piece with big bucks—not with obligations like the ones they already have and the ones on the way.
Plus, consider the optics.
The Kings are egregiously, historically terrible on defense. While Holmes has been an on/off positive on that end (due largely to the ineptitude of his backups), Sacramento cannot respond to a season this dispiriting and a defense this atrocious by declaring, "Let's keep the band together!"
Holmes is active; he plays both ends with intensity and his floater is a form of modern art. He was a tremendous value to the Kings at $5 million per year, but the calculus changes if he's making two or three times that.