NBA Teams Best Positioned for 2021 NBA Free Agency
While not star-heavy, the 2021 free-agent class does offer plenty of former All-Stars and high-level starters for teams that have kept their cap space open.
Having money to spend doesn't necessarily mean a franchise is one of the ones best positioned to win free agency, however. The Oklahoma City Thunder could have up to $61.4 million in space, yet have begun a total youth movement that veterans may want to avoid for at least a year or two.
The teams in the best shape for free agency should have a combination of cap space, a collection of quality players already under contract for net year and the ingredients to win in 2021-22, if they aren't already.
With all of these factors taken into consideration, these are the five teams best positioned for this year's free agency.
No. 5: Toronto Raptors
Max Cap Space: $34.2 million
Returning Players: Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Chris Boucher (non-guaranteed contract)
2020-21 Record: 27-39, 11th in East
The team with the worst record on this list, the Raptors should enjoy a boost simply by returning to Toronto next season, assuming restrictions have been lifted by then.
Kyle Lowry's $30.5 million expiring salary gives the Raptors some breathing room, and the team holds options on both Rodney Hood ($10.9 million) and Aron Baynes ($7.4 million). While there's a chance Lowry still comes back on a smaller deal, Hood and Baynes will almost certainly be released for cap space.
Boucher has a non-guaranteed deal, but at just $7 million he's a steal for the 2021-22 season. The 28-year-old center is enjoying a career year with averages of 13.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and a 38.9 percent mark from three in his 24.0 minutes.
Siakam has been an All-Star starter in the past, VanVleet is able to take over full-time point guard duties if Lowry leaves and Anunoby, 23, is becoming one of the better two-way players in the league. That's a tremendous starting four to join for outside free agents.
Gary Trent Jr.'s contract will have a lot to do with Toronto's offseason plans as well. The restricted free agent has played well since his trade to the Raptors (15.9 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.2 steals, 36.4 percent from three) and could be the team's long-term backcourt partner for VanVleet.
Trent only takes up $4.7 million in cap room on a qualifying offer, meaning the Raptors could use the rest of their space first before going over to give him a new deal.
No. 4: San Antonio Spurs
Max Cap Space: $51.8 million
Returning Players: Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson, Lonnie Walker IV, Derrick White, Devin Vassell, Jakob Poeltl
2020-21 Record: 31-34, 10th in West
Armed with the third-most cap space in the entire NBA, the Spurs could actually go star hunting this offseason.
The future of DeRozan will play a huge role in free agency, as the four-time All-Star should be one of the most sought after players on the market. As The Athletic's Sam Amick and John Hollinger wrote:
"A source with knowledge of DeRozan’s outlook said he’ll be taking a 'wide open' approach to free agency in terms of possible landing spots. But after these past three seasons in San Antonio, where he was asked to sacrifice on the scoring front and evolve as a playmaker in the process, the master of the midrange has put himself in prime position to take advantage of this well-earned reputation as a more versatile offensive threat."
Even if they lose DeRozan, the Spurs have built a solid young core. Murray and White are already on extensions, with Johnson, Walker, Vassell and Poeltl all looking like high-level starters, at least.
San Antonio needs some frontcourt help and could throw hefty offer sheets at players like John Collins or Lauri Markkanen, with unrestricted free agents Richaun Holmes, Andre Drummond, Serge Ibaka and Montrezl Harrell potentially on their radar as well. Outside of DeRozan, the Spurs will have to contemplate how much they want to pay Patty Mills and Rudy Gay to return to a franchise that's no longer a powerhouse in the West.
Playing for Gregg Popovich will always carry some appeal, as will the no state income tax in Texas. The Spurs are good, but probably not as attractive a destination as another team in their own state.
No. 3: Dallas Mavericks
Max Cap Space: $35.4 million
Returning Players: Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis, Jalen Brunson, Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, Josh Richardson (Player Option)
2020-21 Record: 37-28, 4th in West
The Mavericks don't possess the cap space of their fellow Texans, but the San Antonio Spurs don't have Luka Doncic to use as a recruiting tool, either.
How much cap space the Mavericks ultimately have will depend on Richardson and his $11.6 million player option. Dallas would probably prefer the 27-year-old not opt into his deal, giving the team a full max to play with before Doncic's rookie extension kicks in next year.
If Kristaps Porzingis can get healthy, the Mavs should be in title contention for the foreseeable future, a major selling point to free agents. Brunson, Finney-Smith and Kleber have all established themselves as high-level role players while Josh Green and Tyrell Terry carry upside.
Of course, Doncic is the key to Dallas' free agency success.
The 22-year-old is the best player on any team on this list, and the chance to play with a generational talent and future MVP should be appealing to all of the top names on the market.
No. 2: Miami Heat
Max Cap Space: $28.1 million
Returning Players: Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Precious Achiuwa, Goran Dragic (team option)
2020-21 Record: 35-31, 7th in East
The Heat effectively control their own cap space this offseason, a result of team options for Dragic ($19.4 million) and Andre Iguodala ($15.0 million).
Assuming they turn both down initially (even if new deals are eventually signed), Miami should be one of the premier destinations for veteran free agents looking to win a title.
A run to the Finals last year has shown the potential of this core, with Adebayo, Herro and Achiuwa only on an upward career trajectory.
Choosing not to give up any assets in a trade for Kyle Lowry at the deadline could certainly pay off if the Heat sign him outright this offseason, and players like DeMar DeRozan and John Collins would be premier targets as well.
Miami has their own free agent to pay as well, with Duncan Robinson likely eyeing the four-year, $75 million deal fellow sharpshooter Joe Harris got from the Brooklyn Nets last year. Robinson is restricted, so the Heat could use their cap space first before finding or matching a new deal for the 27-year-old forward.
Given their recent playoff success, the appeal of playing in South Beach and the near max cap space they could have to offer, only one team is better set up for free agency than the Heat.
No. 1: New York Knicks
Max Cap Space: $72.8 million
Returning Players: Julius Randle (partially guaranteed contract), RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley, Obi Toppin, Mitchell Robinson
2020-21 Record: 37-29, 4th in East
After what looked like one of the biggest free agency flops of the decade in 2019, the Knicks have rebounded incredibly well while setting themselves up to be the kings of the 2021 class.
No NBA team has more cap space than New York, leaving the door open to sign multiple players to max contracts if needed. While few (if any) teams could put together an offer to make Kawhi Leonard consider leaving the Los Angeles Clippers, the Knicks may be the only one. Imagine saying that a year ago.
Randle's contract is only guaranteed for $4 million for next season, but New York is obviously going to keep their MVP candidate at his $20.7 million salary. The rest of the core are all still on rookie contracts.
Barrett (17.6 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 39.6 percent from three) looks like a future star, while Robinson and Quickley could be high-level starters. If the Knicks can find someone to take on the final season of Kevin Knox's rookie deal, they can clear an additional $5.8 million.
The good vibes around the Knicks this season will only continue if they can secure home-court advantage in the first round and win a playoff series, something the franchise hasn't done since 2013.
While Leonard may be a pipe dream, New York should be a serious destination for players like Chris Paul, DeMar DeRozan, John Collins, Kyle Lowry, Lonzo Ball or any other top free agent.
Cap space numbers via RealGM's Keith Smith.