1 Player Every NBA Team Needs to Chase in 2021 Free Agency

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 24, 2021

1 Player Every NBA Team Needs to Chase in 2021 Free Agency

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    Rich Schultz/Associated Press

    With the NBA playoff field decided and 14 of the league's 30 teams officially in offseason mode, it's time to take a thorough look at 2021 free agency.

    Every team undoubtedly has its big board ready. Here, we'll suggest which name should sit near the top of it.

    Financial constraints abound in 2021 free agency, just like they do every year. We can't just say a team that's already deep into the tax should set its sights on a costly player if signing him would be impossible at his market rate.

    As a reminder, the New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs are the only three teams who'll definitely have enough space to sign a max player. The Dallas Mavericks can get close if Josh Richardson opts out.

    Four other teams can create substantial space, but not enough to be in the running for a max-level signee: the Charlotte Hornets, Toronto Raptors, Memphis Grizzlies and Miami Heat. Finally, the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, New Orleans Pelicans and Phoenix Suns have pathways to opening up more than the mid-level exception—but only if their own key free agents bolt and/or they don't add significant salary by drafting near the top of the lottery.

    In most cases, we'll be highlighting players in the MLE bracket. But to keep it interesting, we'll try to limit duplicate entries and be as flexible as possible with our suggestions. As long as a franchise can realistically clear enough space to pursue a costly free agent (and as long as it would actually make sense for said franchise to do so), we'll aim high in some cases.

Atlanta Hawks: Paul Millsap, Unrestricted

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Maybe the Atlanta Hawks' playoff exit (whenever that comes to pass) will put a finer point on the team's needs. But strange as it feels to say it, there's not any glaring hole on the roster right now.

    Once healthy, Bogdan Bogdanovic met expectations as an offensive steward who could keep things running with Trae Young on the bench. The wings have youth and depth, plus the potential for elite two-way production lurking in De'Andre Hunter. Clint Capela is a dominant defender up front, and Onyeka Okongwu should still be viewed as a potential top-notch, switchable backup at the 5.

    John Collins is a restricted free agent, but if Atlanta takes a hard line on what it's willing to offer (which it should), his departure wouldn't leave some unfillable void. If anything, it'd allow the Hawks to play more of their big wings at the forward spots, secure in the knowledge that Capela could handle all the traffic inside.

    So, with the roster looking solid long term...we're going sentimental.

    Paul Millsap is 36 years old and very near the end of a distinguished career. He's still a strong defender and trustworthy spot-up shooter who could fill some of Collins' vacated minutes with a lower-usage, savvier alternative. All four of Millsap's All-Star seasons came in Atlanta, and though his tenure there didn't end on ideal terms, he could close out his career where he played his best, imparting veteran wisdom to a relatively young Hawks squad that will need guidance to make a deeper playoff run in 2022.

Boston Celtics: Josh Hart, Restricted

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Boston Celtics' backup wings just weren't good enough this year.

    Semi Ojeleye defended ably and shot 36.7 percent on threes but continued to show very little off the dribble and as a passer. And for all his bulk, Ojeleye rebounded poorly at his position. Maybe Aaron Nesmith's progress in April and May indicates the rookie will be worthy of more minutes next year, but Boston might not want to bank on that.

    Enter Josh Hart, a restricted free agent who might slip a few rungs down the New Orleans Pelicans' priority ladder with Lonzo Ball likely to command much more interest and heftier offer sheets.

    Hart's season ended early with a thumb injury, but prior to going down, he validated his status as one of the NBA's absolute best rebounding wings. Many of Hart's 8.0 boards per game (in only 28.7 minutes) came as the result of his nonstop motor; he's full-go all the time. It's not a coincidence that Hart always manages to rebound his own team's missed free throws at ridiculous rates. He just never stops fighting for the ball.

    The 6'5" wing can space and slash, and he's much more comfortable with the rock in his hands than any of Boston's current reserves at the position. He only shot 32.6 percent from deep this past season, but he's at 34.8 percent for his career and never wastes possessions with mid-range attempts. 

    Sure to be sought after, it's hard to know what Hart will command on the market. But Boston needs someone just like him. The club would be wise to offer its entire taxpayer MLE and hope for the best.

Brooklyn Nets: Alex Caruso, Unrestricted

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    Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

    As long as James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are on the roster, the Brooklyn Nets will be attractive to ring-chasing free agents. That means Brooklyn can set its sights high, even if it'll be limited to the TPMLE and minimums.

    Its money will go further than most.

    Alex Caruso might not be splashy enough for the Nets, but his defensive impact, standstill shooting and comfort as a role player in a star-heavy system make him a great fit if bigger-name targets aren't interested.

    Of course, Caruso won't exactly be begging for a salary like the Nets can offer. He might be in a position to turn down Brooklyn's richest entreaty.

    Sources told ESPN's Brian Windhorst in March that Caruso could field offers for the full MLE of around $9.5 million per season. Considering he made just $2.7 million this year, Caruso seems like a safe bet to sign with whoever offers him the most money. That might still be the Los Angeles Lakers, who have his Bird rights.

    The Nets are going to run into this issue with virtually all of their targets. The point here is that Caruso is the type of player they should be chasing. Star-laden teams need guys who'll grind, defend and generally do the dirty work. Caruso has made a career by excelling in exactly those areas.

Charlotte Hornets: Richaun Holmes, Unrestricted

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Some part of deciding which free agent the Charlotte Hornets should target is really an exercise in imagination: Would LaMelo Ball have fun playing with this new toy?

    Another part is more practical: What do the Hornets need?

    Richaun Holmes—adept lob-catcher and energetic floor-runner—would give Ball an excellent target for his highlight passes. And there's no doubt the Hornets require major assistance at the 5.

    Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo, two great examples of Charlotte's penchant for rostering overpaid centers, come off the books this summer. Holmes is arguably the best available player at the position, which could drive up his price. You can practically sense Charlotte's urge to throw cash at another big.

    Within reason, Holmes will be worth the money.

    He's as good as there is from floater range, he's a solid shot-blocker and he rebounds well enough to sustain the Hornets' valuable grab-and-go attack. Though Holmes doesn't spread the floor as a shooter, he would be a better dive man than Charlotte had this year, providing vertical spacing, and he plays hard at both ends.

    It was frustrating to watch the Hornets' bigs, slow afoot and lacking in athleticism, limit the offense. Holmes would ease the restrictions, add athleticism and give Ball and a bevy of playmaking wings (Miles Bridges and Gordon Hayward) more setup options.

Chicago Bulls: Lonzo Ball, Restricted

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Assuming Lonzo Ball is going to command upward of $20 million per year, the Chicago Bulls can only get into the offer-sheet game by dumping Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky while also waving goodbye to Lauri Markkanen.

    The chances of landing Ball are slim, but the potential fit is good enough to make the effort worthwhile.

    If you're going to build an offense around Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic, you need the supporting pieces to be ace ball-movers who keep the offense humming with quick decisions. On defense, well...you need a miracle.

    Ball absolutely satisfies the offensive portion of the criteria. He's become one of the league's best catch-and-shoot weapons and would shred defenses that either left him alone or closed out too aggressively on his weak-side catches. Though not a typical pick-and-roll point guard, Ball's vision makes him a threat when attacking a recovering defense.

    He'd be even more dangerous finding LaVine and Patrick Williams running the lanes on his patented hit-ahead outlets.

    Ball is capable defensively—smart, opportunistic when hunting steals and long enough to handle guards and wings. He wouldn't make up for the issues created on D by the LaVine-Vucevic pairing, but who would?

Cleveland Cavaliers: Jarrett Allen, Restricted

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    This is the first time we're tagging a retention priority as a team's top free agent, but it won't be the last. In cases like this, where the Cleveland Cavaliers dealt for Jarrett Allen with the intention of keeping him as part of the long-term core, the urgency is high.

    You can't give up assets—even if Cleveland hardly broke the bank by moving bad money and a Milwaukee Bucks' first-rounder—and lose the return for nothing.

    Allen may only max out in the 10-15 range in a ranking of the league's best centers, but he's young (23) and checks boxes the Cavs need checked. A quality rim-protector who can catch lobs, score efficiently and control the glass (with the added bonus of a low foul rate), Allen can be an interior anchor who adds value on both ends. Cleveland's young guards and wings can play aggressive defense with Allen erasing mistakes behind them, and his ability to draw defenders as a roll man should increase perimeter breathing room.

    Sure, the bad optics of letting a key in-season acquisition leave are a consideration. But more than that, the Cavs need to target Allen because he fits their needs and timeline perfectly.

Dallas Mavericks: Kyle Lowry

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    Noah K. Murray/Associated Press

    The Dallas Mavericks would much rather see a 25-year-old max-worthy free agent on the market this offseason—one they could ink for multiple years and watch grow with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis.

    No such player exists.

    Kyle Lowry is a decade older than Dallas might like, but if he could be secured for a two-year deal worth somewhere in the $40-50 million range, the veteran point guard would be a perfect win-now component who could help the Mavs contend and then reset their search for a long-term star in a couple of years.

    Lowry would infuse the Mavs with veteran know-how, unrivaled competitive tenacity, offensive value on and off the ball and reliable defensive sturdiness in the backcourt. Age-based regression would be a concern, but Lowry is as clever as they come. If anyone could stay productive into his late 30s on the strength of guile alone, he's the guy.

    Once Dallas got past all of its health-and-safety hindrances this season, it played like a fringe contender. Lowry could remove that qualifier and nudge the Mavs into the league's true top tier.

Denver Nuggets: Reggie Bullock, Unrestricted

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Reggie Bullock can hit a three (39.2 percent for his career, 41.0 percent this season) and guard his position on the wing.

    That's what the Denver Nuggets need after sending away Gary Harris in the Aaron Gordon deal. Actually, it's probably more accurate to say that's what the Nuggets needed even when Harris, who was frequently injured and never rediscovered his stellar 2017-18 form, was still on the roster.

    Bullock figures to command more than the $4.2 million he made in 2020-21 after proving his mettle on both ends for a surprising New York Knicks squad. Denver should be prepared to offer him the full TPMLE of about $5.9 million, knowing it may not be enough.

    With Jamal Murray set to miss most of the 2021-22 season following a torn ACL, you could argue the Nuggets need more dynamic scoring. But Nikola Jokic's elite facilitation kept Denver's offense humming after Murray went down, and Michael Porter Jr.'s ascent offers even more ballast in that area. Better to address that weak wing defense and surround Jokic with top-notch shooting.

Detroit Pistons: Devonte' Graham, Restricted

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    Killian Hayes won't be ready to take the reins next season—not after a rookie year all but lost to a hip injury. While there's something to be said for tossing 2020's No. 7 pick into the fire, which the Detroit Pistons basically did by starting Hayes in 18 of the 26 games he played, the point guard's struggles suggest a more gradual approach would be better.

    Devonte' Graham may not be in the Charlotte Hornets' long-term plans. They already have LaMelo Ball set in stone as the primary playmaker for the next decade, and Terry Rozier is coming off the best season of his career. Graham is a third guard for the Hornets, but he could start and provide real value for Detroit.

    Though undersized and a poor finisher near the bucket, Graham can hit threes off the dribble in pick-and-roll sets, and he's comfortable as a scorer either on or off the ball. His willingness to fire at high volume (10.4 three-point attempts per 36 minutes this year) would help the Pistons offense all by itself, pulling defenders out beyond the arc and improving spacing inside.

    He and Hayes would be a rough defensive combo, but Graham's off-ball game would provide the rookie more room to work in the pick-and-roll. And if Detroit wanted to bring Hayes along even more slowly, it could start Graham and deploy the former lottery pick against second units.

    Charlotte will have the final say, as Graham is restricted. But Detroit should be looking to swoop in and grab a player it needs more than the Hornets do.

Golden State Warriors: Patty Mills, Unrestricted

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Jordan Poole's second-year emergence positions him as a high-end sixth man going forward—one who should be able to keep an offense afloat with his scoring and playmaking. He's also been a dangerous option when sharing the floor with Stephen Curry, giving the Warriors a desperately needed secondary pass-shoot-dribble option.

    Though Golden State didn't give such looks a chance until later in the year, shared Curry-Poole minutes coincided with an offensive eruption. It's a wonder what happens when Steph isn't the only player on the floor who can threaten the defense on and off the ball.

    Patty Mills would allow the Warriors to feature two mobile, hot-shooting guards on the floor at all times. His energy off the bench remains unsurpassed at age 32. Mills flies around off the ball, firing on the catch when he has a window but also willingly keeping the flow steady by whipping quick passes when he's covered. He'd fit in perfectly with a Warriors scheme that has always been built around player movement and a willingness to trade a good shot for a great one.

    What's more, Golden State has suffered all year from a lack of savvy, experienced floor-readers. At its dynastic best, the Warriors offense was an intuitive, fluid operation—always two steps ahead of the defense. It had heaps of talent, sure, but the real key was the basketball intelligence of players like Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and even David West. Those types of vets—along with savants like Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Curry—read each other's actions at warp speed.

    Mills has that same intellect and experience with instant read-and-react offense. If he's willing to entertain an offer for the taxpayer's MLE, Golden State could make real progress toward getting its offense back above the league average.

Houston Rockets: Malik Monk, Restricted

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    The Houston Rockets hit big on Kevin Porter Jr., a distressed asset sent packing by the Cleveland Cavaliers, so they've got good reason to stay in the career rehabilitation business.

    Malik Monk isn't at the "give him away for free" stage Porter was. He only played 42 games this past season, but he drilled a career-best 40.1 percent of his threes and flashed the scoring potential that made him the 11th pick in 2017.

    Still, he's got 2019-20's suspension for violating the terms of the NBA/NBPA Anti-Drug Program on his record, and the stigma (fair or not) that comes with it. Monk has also battled injuries in three of his four seasons and, like Devonte' Graham, may not be part of Charlotte's big-picture plans.

    Houston should operate as if John Wall and Eric Gordon aren't even on the roster. Neither veteran has a role in the team's future, so adding another scoring guard in the wake of the Porter acquisition makes sense. This is a pure talent play.

    The Hornets have cap space and the right to match an offer sheet, which means it could be tough for Houston to pry Monk away. But an offer for the MLE of $9.5 million per season would more than double what Monk made in 2020-21. If Charlotte doesn't want to pay its fourth guard that much, the Rockets could snag him and hope for another buy-low success story in the Porter vein.

Indiana Pacers: Kendrick Nunn, Restricted

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    The Indiana Pacers have $89.9 million committed to their theoretical starting five—Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LeVert, TJ Warren, Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis—next year. With key rotation players Doug McDermott and T.J. McConnell both entering free agency, the rotation will have holes to fill on a budget.

    Bringing McConnell back should be a priority. But if Indy is willing to spend the full MLE, Kendrick Nunn would be the better get.

    Nunn is more of a combo guard, which would work just fine with Brogdon, LeVert and Warren all capable of orchestrating the offense. Ideally a backup, Nunn's comfort on and off the ball would make it easy to blend him into starter-led groups when not running the second unit.

    At 14.6 points per game on 59.6 percent true shooting with the Miami Heat in 2020-21, Nunn validated his status as a quality rotation scorer at the guard spot. The Pacers have been hoping Aaron Holiday would fill that role for a while, but his inconsistency and dreadful finishing inside the arc has prevented him from doing so.

    Nunn may field offers above what the Pacers can pay, but that shouldn't stop them from making him one of their top targets.

Los Angeles Clippers: Kawhi Leonard, Player Option

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    The expectation around the league is that Kawhi Leonard will opt out of the final year of his deal and re-sign with the Los Angeles Clippers this offseason, according to Sam Amick and John Hollinger of The Athletic.

    Expectations aren't certainties, though. With an agent telling Evan Massey of the Basketball Analysis Network that the Miami Heat would "intrigue" Leonard, Los Angeles absolutely cannot view retaining Leonard as a lock. The Heat seem to have a way of makings things happen, and if the Clippers come undone in the playoffs again, pairing up with Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo might start to sound pretty good. A sign-and-trade would be necessary to get it done—tricky, but not impossible.


    The Clippers need to treat Leonard like a player in need of convincing. Maybe that feels like overkill, especially because the two-time champ chose L.A. in the first place. But sentiments can change.

    If Leonard bolts, it would be a devastating blow to the Clippers organization, potentially setting it back years and making all these hopes of ascending to the league's glamorous upper echelon crumble. With stakes like those, no free agent matters more than Leonard.

Los Angeles Lakers: Talen Horton-Tucker, Restricted

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Some will clamor for Dennis Schroder here, and it's true the Los Angeles Lakers don't have the financial flexibility to easily replace their starting point guard with another $15-20 million per year signing. But Schroder, at that pay rate (or higher, which is possible given the deal he reportedly already turned down), just isn't a good value.

    It would hurt to let Schroder walk and have to backfill his spot with a cheap alternative, but the Lakers will always have a better shot than most to sign veterans at below-market rates as long as LeBron James is around.

    The thinking is similar with Montrezl Harrell.

    That leaves Talen Horton-Tucker, a 20-year-old two-way wing with serious length and emerging playmaking chops. THT is already a handful on defense—quick, hard to lose off the ball and sturdy enough to body up against larger wings. He might only be a three-point shot away from commanding $20 million per season.

    That's why the Lakers have to keep him. Horton-Tucker's growth in two seasons indicates he'll be ready for major minutes next year, and rotation-caliber two-way wings are far harder to find than inefficient, score-first point guards or undersized, offense-only centers. Whether the Lakers view THT as a key piece of the future or a useful asset to use in trade for a star, he projects to have much more value than either Schroder or Harrell.

    Offer sheets will be plentiful for a player with Horton-Tucker's combination of youth, position and promise. The Lakers need to be prepared to match a big one.

Memphis Grizzlies: Duncan Robinson, Restricted

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    This summer will be a great test of whether there's a cap on the market for shooting. Last offseason, Joe Harris got $75 million over four years. Davis Bertans agreed on a deal worth $80 million over five years.

    Duncan Robinson is next up, and the Memphis Grizzlies had better hope he doesn't blow past those enormous figures.

    Memphis ranked 27th in three-point-attempt frequency and 21st in accuracy this past season. Had Jaren Jackson Jr. been available for more than 11 games, those rankings would have been better. But any team committed to a 1-5 combo with as little three-point shooting (and as great a need for a spaced floor) as Ja Morant and Jonas Valanciunas provide needs as much perimeter marksmanship as it can get.

    Robinson is an ace tough-shot maker who can tie defenses in knots with his constant sprinting around the floor. He drained 41.7 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes this season, a down year, which included a 37.7 percent hit rate against tight coverage.

    It would be almost impossible to account for Robinson's incessant curling and flaring off the ball while also devoting enough attention to keep Morant out of the lane. And on plays where Morant gets into the paint, help could never come from Robinson's man. That's a tantalizing symbiosis that could unlock new dimensions in the Grizzlies' attack, especially if Jackson is also healthy enough to pull a big man way out beyond the arc.

    Robinson is restricted and should be a retention priority for the Heat. Memphis will almost certainly have to make some additional moves to clear enough space for a competitive offer, but if there's even a small chance of landing one of the league's top shooters, it'll be worth the trouble.

Miami Heat: Talen Horton-Tucker, Restricted

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    Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

    The Heat have recently either drafted their talent (Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro) or dealt for it (Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragic), but it wasn't so long ago that they dominated free agency. Remember this?

    In the spirit of Miami's ambitious free-agency past, this is a plea for it to go big with an offer sheet for Talen Horton-Tucker, a wing with combo-guard skills who just feels like a "Heat Culture" guy. THT could replace Dragic's minutes if the veteran guard doesn't return while also adding much more two-way reliability in the backcourt—in case Herro's mildly disappointing second season is an indication he's not the budding star he appeared to be in 2019-20.

    The Heat can create significant cap space by declining team options on Dragic and Andre Iguodala, with even more room available if they let Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn walk. The cash necessary for THT might already be earmarked for Victor Oladipo, but in the wake of surgery on the quad that altered his career, the Heat might want to rethink their investment strategy.

    Horton-Tucker is a young up-and-comer, and Miami often sets its sights on established stars, but this move would have the added bonus of sticking it to the Lakers. L.A., Miami's Finals foe in 2020, would either have to match a fat offer or lose its most promising young player.

    The rangy wing would have to improve his three-point shot to function effectively with the perimeter-averse Butler, but if the prospect of Adebayo, Butler and THT strangling the life out of opposing offenses doesn't excite you, maybe check for a pulse.

Milwaukee Bucks: Danny Green, Unrestricted

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    Danny Green has to be on a contender. It's basically a rule.

    From the San Antonio Spurs (ring) to the Toronto Raptors (ring) to the Los Angeles Lakers (ring) to this year's Philadelphia 76ers (TBD), the veteran three-and-D poster boy doesn't mess with less than the best.

    Much will depend on whether Green's current team, the Sixers, goes as far as his last three. If Philly wins a championship and Green provides his usual two-way impact, the club will be highly motivated to run it back with the same roster. But maybe a postseason disappointment from the 76ers will force some tweaks, which would create an opportunity for the Milwaukee Bucks to sidle up to Green with an offer of the TPMLE. That would represent a pay cut from the $15.4 million Green earned this season, but the Bucks (depending on how things go) could offer a major role on what might be the 2021-22 title favorite.

    Regardless of how these playoffs conclude, Green should be a top target for Milwaukee. He could slot into the starting five, adding heaps of championship experience, while Donte DiVincenzo gets more tick with the second unit. Bryn Forbes and Pat Connaughton could slide down the depth chart a bit, strengthening the Bucks' backup corps.

    There are several veteran options for the chip-chasing Bucks, but can't you just close your eyes and see Green hitting a corner three to secure a playoff game in Milwaukee?

Minnesota Timberwolves: Kelly Oubre Jr., Unrestricted

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Kelly Oubre Jr. wasn't a great fit with the Golden State Warriors this year for reasons beyond his bone-chillingly frigid shooting to start the season.

    The lanky and explosive forward played with high energy and provided real value as an in-your-jersey defender against guards and wings, but his lack of feel grated against an offense predicated on quick reads and unselfishness. Oubre was often in the wrong place and habitually drove into multiple defenders, forcing low-percentage shots. He passed on just 19.2 percent of his drives, ranking dead last in that stat among Warriors who saw rotation minutes. 

    If there's a term even narrower than tunnel vision, it applies to Oubre.

    This is a bet that he'd function better on a team that runs a lot of spread pick-and-roll, which describes the Minnesota Timberwolves. With D'Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns initiating most of the offense and Anthony Edwards soaking up plenty of possessions himself, Oubre could space the floor (he's been adequate from deep after his awful start) and attack in straight lines against a defense shifted to stop the Wolves' stars. It would simplify his role and play to his strengths.

    Defensively, Oubre's length and activity would be hugely valuable additions to a Wolves team that needs all the help it can get on that end. His switchability could ensure a softer matchup for either Russell or Edwards on most nights.

    Oubre is a good player who struggled to find consistency in a system that didn't suit him. This is a bet he'll thrive on a team that only asks him to do what he does well.

New Orleans Pelicans: Tim Hardaway Jr., Unrestricted

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    Zion Williamson's emergence as an on-ball perimeter initiator should change a few things about the New Orleans Pelicans' roster construction plans. They don't necessarily need a conventional point guard if Zion is running the show, which puts the emphasis on surrounding him with capable shooters who can finish possessions on their own if the action breaks down.

    Tim Hardaway Jr. spent the last three years operating alongside Luka Doncic, a different sort of offensive engine than Williamson, but one who also controlled the action from a forward spot. He'd be perfectly suited to reprise that role with Zion and the Pels.

    New Orleans saddled itself with some ill-fitting pieces. Steven Adams isn't mobile or versatile enough, and Eric Bledsoe is also a suboptimal fit because of his suspect shooting. It wouldn't be the worst idea to prioritize keeping Lonzo Ball and throwing a line out to someone like Serge Ibaka. Perhaps even more obviously, the Pelicans need players who can defend.

    Still, it feels like New Orleans is set up to be an offensively dominant team with Zion at the helm. And adding a proven scoring threat on the wing—one who can get threes up at high volume and plays well off a superstar—would go a long way toward optimizing Williamson. 

New York Knicks: Lonzo Ball, Restricted

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Julius Randle (98th percentile) and RJ Barrett (87th) are both high-usage players at their positions, which means the New York Knicks should zero in on free agents who can impact the game without needing to handle the ball very often.

    A little statistical sleuthing will help isolate the right target—even if the header of this section spoils the answer. Just play along anyway.

    Only nine qualified players managed to post an assist rate north of 25.0 percent with a usage rate under 21.0 percent this season. Of those, Lonzo Ball was, by far, the best high-volume three-point shooter. He made over twice as many treys (at a 37.8 percent clip, no less) as the next-closest guy on the list, the Phoenix Suns' Cameron Payne.

    Finding the right free agent isn't just about filtering stats, but it's clear here that Ball is the ideal complement to a team that already has its offensive generators in place. He can spread the floor for both Randle and Barrett, set them up in half-court sets or in transition and otherwise stay out of the way while always remaining a threat.

    The Knicks defense is tied together, but Ball would provide some necessary connective tissue on the other end. 

Oklahoma City Thunder: Zach Collins, Restricted

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    It's hard to know exactly what the Oklahoma City Thunder's free-agency aims will be. With all of their financial flexibility and incoming draft picks, they could smash that upgrade button and initiate a lightning-fast rebuild at any second. No team has the capacity to sign, trade for or draft more talent than they do.

    Let's assume OKC holds off for at least one more rebuilding season, which means no major expenditures or win-now trades until at least the summer of 2022—at which point it will have probably just added another high lottery pick to the one coming in this year's draft.

    That would put the emphasis on youth, potential and cost control during 2021 free agency, and injury-plagued Zach Collins fits in all three categories. The 23-year-old played just 11 games in 2019-20 and missed all of this season recovering from a stress fracture in his ankle. When healthy, the 6'11" big man has shown flashes of long-range shooting, rim protection, intriguing perimeter agility and even some irrational confidence. Those are all compliments, even the last one.

    The Thunder love their projects, and they've historically favored good athletes they hope can learn key skills. The list of raw run-and-jump wings they've tried to mold into three-and-D starters is long, and Darius Bazley is another such example up front.

    Collins has some of that same physical promise, with the added bonus of evidence his shot isn't a "start from scratch" proposition. He hit 33.1 percent of his threes in 2018-19 and 36.8 in an abbreviated 2019-20.

    The Portland Trail Blazers might also still believe in Collins, but Oklahoma City can control restricted free-agency negotiations with its glut of cap space. That's not to say the Thunder should spend wildly or commit to Collins on a long deal, but he's the kind of flier they should be looking to take until they're ready to open up the war chest.

Orlando Magic: T.J. McConnell, Unrestricted

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    Doug McSchooler/Associated Press

    T.J. McConnell isn't a long-term answer at the point, but he'd give the Orlando Magic a reliable, high-energy steward who wouldn't get in the way of Cole Anthony or Markelle Fultz (once the latter makes it back from this year's torn ACL).

    I'm not personally convinced either of the Magic's young options project to be above-average starters at any point, but it's too early to act as if that's a certainty. So while it's tempting to suggest Orlando go out and find a costlier clear-cut starter at the point, maybe the better course is signing someone who'll stabilize the position, run the second unit and not break the bank.

    McConnell is coming off a career year, having led the league in total steals despite playing a backup role. He's established himself as worthy of more than the minimum, but shooting limitations and his lack of size should keep his price well below the MLE.

    Maybe McConnell isn't an exciting target, but the Magic need someone to run the offense, put a charge into their backcourt defense and step into starting duties as a game manager if their younger options get overwhelmed. McConnell can handle all of that.

Philadelphia 76ers: Kyle Lowry, Unrestricted

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    Rich Schultz/Associated Press

    It's a little strange to set a target that will cost much more than the Philadelphia 76ers have the space to afford...but that's what sign-and-trade deals are for. And since Kyle Lowry is technically a free agent whom the Sixers should be trying to acquire, we're just going to go with it.

    Lowry and the Sixers seemed to be circling one another at the trade deadline, and it's fair to assume the mutual interest will persist. Maybe the results of the Sixers' playoff run will change things—increasing or reducing the urgency to add the veteran point guard, depending on how long Philly lasts—but this remains one of the better team-player fits imaginable.

    George Hill, Philadelphia's lower-cost alternative deadline acquisition, is on a partially guaranteed 2021-22 salary. So if the Lowry pursuit seems likely to end favorably, the Sixers can easily pivot—saving themselves some tax penalties. Hill will be in demand.

    Dangerous on or off the ball and still one of the league's sharpest defensive minds, Lowry would be an upgrade over the younger options in the 76ers' backcourt. And while he doesn't have free-agent-to-be Danny Green's size, Lowry is strong and competitive enough to check smaller wings. Whoever's most dangerous on the opposing team will still get the Ben Simmons treatment anyway, so Lowry's defensive lift will be relatively light.

    You worry about age and regression with a 35-year-old guard, but the Sixers' window is open now. They're exactly the kind of team that should take a risk on a short-term fix.

Phoenix Suns: Chris Paul, Player Option

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Normally, a 36-year-old player would get laughed out of the room for even considering declining a $44.2 million player option. But Chris Paul is not a normal 36-year-old player.

    CP3's 2020-21 season ranks among the best ever produced by a guard that deep into his career. Steve Nash owns the only other age-35 season with averages of at least 16.0 points and 8.0 assists with a true shooting percentage above 59.0 percent. The two-time MVP was nearly as good in his age-36 and 37 campaigns, which should give the Phoenix Suns confidence that, should they bring Paul back on a new deal, they'll get at least another year or two that resemble the one he just completed.

    Paul deserves much of the credit for Phoenix's banner year, and it'll be impossible for the Suns to replace what he provided on the open market. The Suns have to manage concerns about extensions for Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, and Devin Booker is already maxed out. Keeping Paul on a contract that pays him what he's worth over two or three years will incur eye-popping tax concerns for a franchise that hasn't historically been a frequent taxpayer.

    Still, Phoenix is a contender. If it wants to stay that way, bringing Paul back is a must.

Portland Trail Blazers: Norman Powell, Player Option

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    The Portland Trail Blazers project to be well over the 2021-22 cap, which means their avenues for adding outside talent in free agency are limited. That's probably why they swung a deal for Norman Powell, a player who can and should decline his player option for next year, but whom the Blazers can re-sign using Bird rights.

    That's going to get costly, but Portland had to know that when it acquired Powell. It's hard to believe the Blazers viewed him as a rental—especially considering it cost them Gary Trent Jr. to get him.

    It'd be nice if Portland could find itself a more modern, switchable center to unlock new defensive looks. But assuming Powell is back, it'll only have the TPMLE to throw at that problem.

    The Blazers, defined by their two undersized guards, have long had issues allocating resources and building a balanced roster. Those seem likely to persist with Powell in line to become the team's third player listed at 6'3" or under to earn at least $20 million per season.

Sacramento Kings: Nerlens Noel, Unrestricted

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Based solely on rim-protection numbers, Richaun Holmes and Nerlens Noel are nearly identical defensive centers. Holmes contested 479 shots inside six feet, while Noel was credited with 466 field goals defended at that range. Holmes held opponents to a 50.7 percent conversion rate, just barely better than Noel's 51.1 percent allowed.

    So if we can agree the Sacramento Kings need a center to stabilize what was the worst defense in the league, those figures might lead you to believe retaining Holmes, an unrestricted free agent, is just as good a plan as signing Noel, also unrestricted.

    A couple of distinctions show why that's not quite right.

    First, Holmes is a better offensive player who might wind up earning more than any center on the market. Sacramento can't afford to pay Holmes a significant salary—both because non-superstar centers are more replaceable than any other position, and also because of the team's existing commitments to De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and Harrison Barnes.

    In addition to probably coming cheaper, Noel is also a far more disruptive force on D. His block and steal rates have been elite for years. Noel's ability to break up plays and get the action going the other way would unleash the blazing-fast Fox and a transition attack that few opponents could handle.

    To get themselves back to respectability, the Kings have to cause trouble on defense that propels them into fast-break opportunities. Holmes might be the better overall player, but Noel specializes in exactly what Sacramento needs.

San Antonio Spurs: Lauri Markkanen, Restricted

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    With DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay and Patty Mills all hitting free agency, the San Antonio Spurs are due for a youth movement.

    They're also due for a stylistic overhaul.

    Over the last six seasons, the Spurs have ranked first in mid-range attempt frequency three times while never finishing lower than fourth. Granted, with LaMarcus Aldridge and DeRozan around for most of that time, San Antonio was playing to the strengths of its biggest names. It was still a shaky strategy, though, and it's one the Spurs can now abandon.

    To that end, Lauri Markkanen makes for an intriguing target.

    The 7'0" former lottery pick saw his role reduced with the Bulls and seems likely to change teams in restricted free agency. Though limited defensively, Markkanen sits at 36.6 percent from deep for his career after draining 40.2 percent of his triples this season. At 24, he's also young enough to grow alongside the likes of Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV, Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell and the rest of San Antonio's developing core.

    Even if Markkanen never becomes more than a floor-spacing specialist, signing him would signal the Spurs are ready to embrace a style that capitalizes on that specialty. That would be a big deal after so many years spent ignoring the three-point line.

Toronto Raptors: Richaun Holmes, Unrestricted

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    Hector Amezcua/Associated Press

    Is this an overreaction to the Toronto Raptors seeing their 2020-21 season derailed for, among several other reasons, failing to adequately replace the departed Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka?

    Is it a major risk to set sights on a non-stretch, non-switch center who could command upward of $15 million per season in today's era?

    Might the Raps be better off going after Kyle Lowry's potential replacement—or even Lowry himself?

    Yes to all of the above...and yet, the Raptors have to do better than they did last offseason in the center department. Aron Baynes flopped, Chris Boucher wasn't ready for bulkier matchups, and late-season addition Khem Birch (bless him) was overstretched as a starter.

    Holmes can finish lobs, wall off the rim and run with Toronto's up-and-down attack. He's coming off averages of 14.2 points and 8.3 rebounds, he makes his free throws, and he's hit over 60.0 percent from the field in each of the last three seasons. And while Sacramento stunk overall, it was 6.1 points per 100 possessions better with Holmes in the game.

    The potential price of acquiring him could be prohibitive, but the Raptors would be remiss if they didn't put him near the top of their list.

Utah Jazz: Mike Conley, Unrestricted

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Mike Conley won't cost the Utah Jazz $34.5 million, his 2020-21 salary, next season.

    Though the veteran point guard finally made his first All-Star team and provides indispensable two-way punch for the contending Jazz, his health history and age (33) should knock at least $10 million per season off his annual pay rate.

    Utah doesn't have the flexibility to replace Conley with a comparable player on the free-agent market, so it may have to get comfortable with paying more than it would like. But the Jazz just finished up a dominant regular season as the West's top seed. You don't quibble over contract demands on a critical player when you're this successful.

    Plus, who's to say Conley, who has expressed his affinity for life in Salt Lake City, won't accept a modest discount to stay in a situation that works well—both for him and the team?

Washington Wizards: Spencer Dinwiddie, Player Option

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook are two of the four players who've averaged at least 34.0 minutes per game for the last five straight seasons. On one hand, that speaks to their durability. On the other, it should set off alarm bells. We live in the age of load management, and the Washington Wizards' two best players need breaks.

    Ish Smith manned the backup point guard spot in 2020-21, but his lack of size and poor shooting limited the Wizards on both ends. Raul Neto was productive, but he's a game-manager, not a needle-mover. Spencer Dinwiddie could soak up major minutes at either guard spot, spelling Beal and Westbrook when necessary and also playing alongside both in small but dangerous offensive lineups.

    There are some complicating factors. The 28-year-old has a $12.3 million player option for 2021-22, and he's long seemed like a player in search of a starting role.

    But suffering a torn ACL this past season might make Dinwiddie more likely to prioritize the security of a long-term deal. And it's hard to imagine one of the few teams with cap space would envision him as a $20-million-per-year starter in the wake of his injury. The Wizards could be competitive with a three-year offer at the MLE.

    They may not win the bidding war if Dinwiddie opts out, but they should give it a go.


    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through the end of the 2020-21 regular season. Salary info via Basketball Insiders.


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