Surprise Landing Spots for Top 2021 NBA Free Agents

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 4, 2021

Surprise Landing Spots for Top 2021 NBA Free Agents

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    For as much speculating as we do ahead of NBA free agency, we all still manage to get taken by surprise several times every offseason.

    We expect Kawhi Leonard to re-sign with the Los Angeles Clippers after he declines his player option, and we assume Chris Paul will do the same to stick with the Phoenix Suns. But free agency never goes exactly as planned. Just last year, Jerami Grant wound up with the Detroit Pistons and Christian Wood signed with the Houston Rockets. Neither of those developments seemed likely in the lead-up to free agency, but they wound up making sense in the end.

    Here, we'll suggest some unlikely (and even outlandish) destinations for the top available players. It'll be tricky to find landing spots that are financially possible, logistically plausible and yet still surprising. But threading that needle will at least be a fun thought exercise.

    The players in question are all among the top five free agents according to Andy Bailey's updated rankings.

    Yes, there'll be some stretches. The shock value is the point.

5. Mike Conley, Unrestricted: Dallas Mavericks

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Everything points to Mike Conley returning to the Utah Jazz.

    The veteran point guard loves it there, the on-court fit makes total sense, Utah is a contender and Conley has played exceptionally well in his second season with the franchise. He has no reason to leave, and the Jazz have no reason to want him gone.

    Suppose, though, that new Jazz owner Ryan Smith's willingness to pay the luxury tax—historically unusual in Utah—has its limits. Perhaps the Jazz don't want to spend wildly on a 33-year-old point guard who endured multiple hamstring strains this past season, and who might struggle against the aging curve on his next deal.

    In that (admittedly unlikely) scenario, Conley might seek out a destination that approximates what he's had in Utah the past two years—someplace where he's needed, where he can contend and where he can make upward of $25 million per season.

    The Dallas Mavericks might have bigger free-agent dreams, and they might also go deep enough in these 2021 playoffs to enter that rare class of teams that attracts ring-chasers at a discount. The $25 million they could clear might be better spent on several rotation players at below-market rates. With Luka Doncic looking very much like a guy focused on being the best player in the league over the next decade, opportunistic free agents should be lining up to play with him on the cheap.

    Still, Conley would be an undeniably good fit as a secondary playmaker. As great as Doncic is, Dallas should be concerned with the load he shoulders every night. Just because he can score or assist 31 of 37 field goals in a playoff game doesn't mean he should make a habit of it.

    If the Mavs could grab Conley on a relatively short deal, they could preserve some flexibility to take a crack at an upgrade in a couple of years...when Doncic will still only be 24.

    If Conley leaves the Jazz, it'll be at least as surprising as Leonard or Paul changing teams. But if the unthinkable happens, Dallas makes a lot of sense as an unexpected landing spot.

4. Lonzo Ball, Restricted: New Orleans Pelicans

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    The New Orleans Pelicans essentially set up a "We'd like to trade Lonzo Ball" hotline at the 2021 trade deadline, according to B/R's Jake Fischer, and just about everything the franchise has done over the past year suggests they don't view the guard as the third and final big-money piece behind Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram.

    They didn't extend him early like several other members of his draft class, and they tried to get something back for him prior to restricted free agency. That indicates New Orleans isn't planning to break the bank when matching an offer sheet.

    But...surprise! Lonzo is staying in this hypothetical.

    The Pelicans aren't off-base for questioning whether Ball is worth a major financial commitment. He's a role player who doesn't excel at creating his own shot, can't finish inside and has yet to consistently actualize his theoretical defensive potential.

    Consider, though, that Ball miraculously turned his greatest weakness, outside shooting, into a clear strength. The guy who shot 30.5 percent from deep and 45.1 percent from the foul line as a rookie just finished up his fourth season at 37.8 percent from distance (on serious volume at 8.3 attempts per game) and 78.1 percent on free throws.

    That level of improvement augurs well for Ball's future. If he could sort out his biggest weakness, surely he has the capacity to address smaller ones.

    The chances of Ball returning to New Orleans are slim, at least in part because his passing acumen and catch-and-shoot game makes him such a seamless fit on any roster. But if the Pelicans have a change of heart or suddenly decide Ball is worth believing in, it's not impossible to imagine him re-upping.

3. John Collins, Restricted: Charlotte Hornets

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    The Charlotte Hornets need a starting center and have their own free agents to worry about, with Devonte' Graham and Malik Monk both hitting the restricted market. But if they choose not to retain their incumbents and decide true centers are overrated (understandable after employing Bismack Biyombo and Cody Zeller), John Collins would represent an intriguing target.

    With the ability to clear around $26 million in space, Charlotte could slide a very competitive offer sheet across the table, forcing the Atlanta Hawks into a tough matching decision.

    Collins saw his role slightly reduced this past season as the Hawks made the jump from the lottery to the playoffs, but per-36-minute averages of 21.6 points and 9.1 rebounds with 39.9 percent three-point shooting showed his skills were undiminished. Add to that improving defensive awareness and a trimmed-down turnover rate, and it's easy to understand why the Hawks would want to bring the springy 23-year-old big man back.

    That Collins was integral to Atlanta eliminating the New York Knicks in the first round—posting plus-11, plus-17 and plus-14 on/off differentials in the final three games of the series, all Hawks wins—should only increase the chances he stays.

    Then again, the Hawks have Clint Capela locked in at center, Danilo Gallinari is still a quality scoring 4 and rookie Onyeka Okongwu could take a major step forward next season. With Trae Young certain to get a max extension and De'Andre Hunter looking worth serious cash when his time comes, the Hawks might not want to commit over $100 million to Collins.

    Charlotte could talk itself into small-ball looks with Collins and P.J. Washington sharing the court. Interior defense would be a challenge, but the Hornets could just bring back Biyombo or Zeller in reserve roles at a fraction of what they paid them last season. Old-school centers are only getting cheaper.

    In the end, Collins should want to stay in Atlanta, where there might be something special brewing. But it's hard to deny the allure of adding a floor-stretching frontcourt option who can run and finish lobs with LaMelo Ball at the controls.

2. Chris Paul, Player Option: New York Knicks

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The Phoenix Suns have a good thing going, and Chris Paul is a huge part of it. It's no coincidence they retook control of their series against the Los Angeles Lakers as Paul's bruised shoulder improved. His competitiveness is contagious, and his total control over a game's pace is critical to a relatively young Suns team.

    But suppose Paul declines his $44.2 million player option this summer because some team, not necessarily the Suns, has back-channeled its willingness to give him max money on a two-or-three-year deal. That's pure speculation, but it's easier to buy it knowing New York Knicks president Leon Rose was once CP3's agent.

    Suns owner Robert Sarver has kept the purse strings notoriously tight over the years, and he's looking at an offseason in which both Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges are extension eligible. It would be on-brand if Sarver drew a hard line on Paul's salary. The fact that backup point guard Cam Payne has played better than many starters at the position might also give Phoenix some cover if it decides not to pay Paul his market value.

    Considering CP3's age and Payne's ascendence, there's a non-zero chance the latter outproduces the former next year.

    The Knicks' first-round elimination was the result of ineffective offense. Julius Randle had a brilliant year but wasn't up to the task of being a primary creator in a playoff series. New York needs weapons that can generate their own looks and create them for others, which is basically what Paul has specialized in for his entire career.

    New York is set up to have maximum cap room, Paul is exactly the kind of marquee figure the franchise so often targets and few teams more desperately need a trustworthy offensive steward than this one.

    A cross-country move seems unlikely after Paul chose the Suns in part because he wanted to stay near his family in Los Angeles, but stranger things have happened.

1. Kawhi Leonard, Player Option: Miami Heat

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The first of many reasons Kawhi Leonard signing with the Miami Heat would stun the NBA is financial. Even if the Heat gut their roster of every non-guaranteed deal, restricted free-agent hold and team-option dollar, they can still only clear about $28 million in room beneath the cap.

    If Leonard goes to Miami, he will do it by taking a pay cut. Considering he's eligibile to sign a 10-year-veteran's max this summer—something that will play a key factor in his decision whether to decline his player option this summer—it's hard to believe he'd willingly leave cash on the table.

    Remember, too, Leonard chose the Los Angeles Clippers and hand-picked Paul George (who has already signed an extension) as his running mate. He basically built this organization into what it's become. Would he really walk away after just two years?

    That possibility only grows as the Clippers draw closer to elimination.

    What if L.A. gets bounced in the first round by the Dallas Mavericks, arguably an even worse result than its second-round collapse in last year's bubble? And what if the fallout from that potential embarrassment nudges the Clippers' oft-questioned and shaky chemistry over the edge into total irredeemability? 

    The door for Leonard to leave is going to be open. That's a fact. He has every financial incentive to decline that 2021-22 player option. Whether he walks out that door is a tougher question, and whether he'd be willing to walk into the Heat's is even hazier.

    It's possible, though, especially considering the creativity and resourcefulness Miami has so often shown in landing big names. The Heat always have a will, and they have generally found a way.

                         

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Salary info via Basketball Insiders.

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