In or Out: Toughest Player-Option Decisions in 2021 NBA Free Agency
In most cases, it doesn't get any better for NBA free agents than having a player option. The level of control it imparts is rare, giving the player full power to return to his team or go elsewhere, to weigh the benefits of guaranteed money against the risks of trying for more.
Generally, the right decision is obvious. If the player performed well and figures to command more than his option is worth, he can decline it and pursue a multiyear contract, locking in more guaranteed cash. If the player disappointed and the market doesn't seem likely to pay him more than the salary of his option, he can pick it up and hope to rehabilitate his value ahead of the following season's free-agency period.
Kawhi Leonard ($36 million) and Chris Paul ($44.2 million) have player options that put them in a special class. They know they can opt out and earn much richer long-term deals.
For some, the call is tougher. Specifically, this year's free-agent class has six players with player options for 2021-22 worth $9-12 million, right in the neighborhood of the projected mid-level exception of $9.5 million. Now, they all must decide whether they can do better than that going forward.
It's a pure risk-reward calculation, and we've got some advice on what each potential free agent in this group should do.
Spencer Dinwiddie, Brooklyn Nets
Spencer Dinwiddie's 2020-21 season ended Dec. 27 after just three games, cut short by a torn ACL. Normally, a player in his position, coming off an injury that severe, would seem like a lock to take the guaranteed $12.3 million via his 2021-22 player option.
Based on what he told Shlomo Sprung of Forbes, that's not how Dinwiddie sees it: "$12 million isn't market value for a starting point guard. It's probably about half, $20-25. So obviously it's pretty concrete that I'm gonna opt out."
Dinwiddie averaged 20.6 points per game in his last healthy season and has the ability to run an offense with his off-the-dribble shooting and foul-drawing prowess. But he will not be a starting point guard if he returns to Brooklyn.
Kyrie Irving and James Harden are entrenched, deservedly, in the first-unit backcourt. It's likely the Nets will liberally rest their ball-dominant stars, and the fact that injuries prevented Irving, Harden and Kevin Durant from seeing much court time together this year suggests Dinwiddie might still find some decent minutes here and there.
But his on-ball game is clearly superfluous in Brooklyn. Barring something unforeseen, there won't be room for Dinwiddie to play a major role.
As scary as declining guaranteed money is for a player coming off a serious injury, it might be even more dangerous for Dinwiddie to stay with the Nets on the last year of his deal. If he appears diminished by injury or doesn't get enough playing time to put up solid numbers, his 2022 earning potential could head south.
If the Nets don't make the opt-in/opt-out decision moot by extending Dinwiddie, he's probably right to think testing the market is the best course.
Josh Richardson, Dallas Mavericks
Things didn't go well for Josh Richardson this year, as the 27-year-old continued his gentle three-season decline and ultimately lost his starting job to Tim Hardaway Jr. late in the 2020-21 season.
When he was acquired via trade with the Philadelphia 76ers, Richardson made all the sense in the world as an upgrade to Luka Doncic's supporting cast. His reputation as a fringe All-Defensive-caliber wing who had demonstrated perimeter accuracy and even a little downhill playmaking in the recent past seemed a perfect fit. He was, theoretically, a premium three-and-D addition.
In practice, he shot a career-low-tying 33.0 percent from deep, and Dallas defended worse with him on the floor.
Hardaway is an unrestricted free agent. If he were to leave Dallas, Richardson might more confidently stick around for his $11.6 million player option. At least then he'd have a clearer path to regaining his starting spot. Unfortunately for J-Rich, Marc Stein of the New York Times reports Dallas is confident in its ability to retain Hardaway.
If Richardson were to decline his option, he might land a multiyear deal at the MLE in a thin market. But it's worth wondering whether the league has given up on him returning to the form he showed in 2018-19 with the Miami Heat.
This one feels especially risky because a return to the Mavs might not necessarily provide Richardson with the opportunity to prove he's better than what he showed in 2020-21. That said, last year was easily the worst season of Richardson's career from a pure on-off split perspective. If he were to enter the free-agent market now, he'd be doing so at the nadir of his value.
Better to trust that he can perform better and boost his potential earning power ahead of unrestricted free agency in 2022.
Norman Powell, Portland Trail Blazers
This is the easiest call in the bunch.
First, the Portland Trail Blazers dealt promising youngster Gary Trent Jr. to get Norman Powell. That's not a price teams typically pay for a half-season rental. That gives Powell leverage, as Portland is already somewhat pot committed and also, just as importantly, won't have the cap space to replace a player of his caliber from the outside.
Second, Powell was really good for Portland!
He gave the Blazers a new downhill-attack dimension on offense, defended ably against tough wings and averaged 17.0 points per game and shot a respectable 36.1 percent from deep. Those numbers were both worse than the ones he posted for the Toronto Raptors prior to the trade, so there's even reason to trust he'll be better going forward.
Perhaps most critically, Powell was part of a five-man unit (alongside Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Robert Covington and Jusuf Nurkic) that roasted opponents by 21.7 points per 100 possessions, a truly elite figure.
Uncertainty reigns in Portland following a disappointing first-round playoff elimination, but there's nothing difficult about Powell's decision. He seems likely to approach an annual salary worth double the $11.6 million of his 2021-22 option.
Serge Ibaka, Los Angeles Clippers
At a glance, Serge Ibaka gave the Los Angeles Clippers what they paid for. Signed for the MLE last offseason, the 31-year-old averaged 11.1 points and 6.7 rebounds in just 23.3 minutes per game. His usage and scoring efficiency were roughly the same as they were in his 2019-20 season with the Toronto Raptors, and his block rate actually improved.
That would seem to make declining his $9.7 million player option an easy decision. But look closer, and you'll find some reasons Ibaka might consider choosing security over a return to the market.
He was basically a nonfactor after the All-Star break, limited to just 67 minutes over four games and struggling mightily to provide the stretch that made him such a hot commodity last offseason. Every player's situation is different, but when a 12th season includes signs of injury-related decline, it's not a great idea to assume the 13th will trend in a different direction.
That said, Ibaka's skill set should still be in high demand. There just aren't many centers with career averages of at least 2.0 blocks per game and a long-range hit rate of over 35.0 percent. In fact, there's only one other active player in that club: Myles Turner.
If he was worth the MLE last summer, he should be worth it again this time around—especially considering many believed he signed with the Clips for less than his market value. Ibaka could easily command a three-year deal worth over $30 million, which makes declining his option the right choice.
Derrick Jones Jr., Portland Trail Blazers
Derrick Jones Jr. seemed like a perfect fit at a great price when the Portland Trail Blazers inked him to a two-year, $19 million deal in November. A phenomenal athlete who shone in transition and keyed some suffocating zone defenses for the Miami Heat, Jones figured to boost the Blazers defense and supercharge their transition attack.
Instead, the 6'7" forward steadily saw his playing time decrease as the year progressed, ultimately losing his starting job in March and falling out of the regular rotation entirely by season's end. He averaged just 6.8 points per game, and despite maintaining elite shot-blocking and offensive rebound rates for a wing, Jones simply didn't make a consistent impact on either end.
As an aside, it might be time for teams to be a little more careful signing players who thrive in the Heat's militaristic, conditioning-heavy culture. Jones joins a lengthening list of players—Josh Richardson, James Johnson, Dion Waiters and plenty more—who get into peak shape and enjoy career years in Miami, only to never reach those levels again after leaving.
Jones isn't a shooter, and he didn't validate the defensive hype that built up during his time with the Heat. Maybe some risk-tolerant team would gamble $8-10 million on his athletic gifts, but it also wouldn't be a shock to see the 24-year-old field much lower offers after such a disappointing campaign.
Jones should take the $9.7 million he's owed for next year and hope whatever reshuffling the Blazers perform puts him in a better position to succeed.
Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Lakers
Montrezl Harrell is primarily an offensive player, yet during a playoff series against the Phoenix Suns in which the Los Angeles Lakers desperately needed scoring, the undersized center registered two DNPs and averaged just 9.8 minutes per game.
Anthony Davis was hurt, and bigs ahead of Harrell on the depth chart, Andre Drummond or Marc Gasol, didn't exactly set the world on fire, either. And still, he could hardly get off the bench. That series represented a low point for the 2019-20 Sixth Man of the Year; it made it clear the Lakers didn't believe he could contribute in the minutes that mattered most.
During the regular season, Harrell averaged 13.5 points and 6.2 boards while hitting 62.2 percent of his shots from the field—not bad at all for a bench player. But the Lakers were outscored by 3.2 points per 100 possessions with him in the game. It was foreseeable that Harrell's one-way play would make him tougher to use in the postseason, but the Lakers must be disappointed that he couldn't be the basketball equivalent of an innings-eating pitcher, someone who could soak up minutes against reserves to spell LeBron James and Davis during a physically taxing year.
Harrell isn't sure what he'll do with his player option yet, but this might be the rare situation where picking it up is riskier than declining it. If he goes through another season like 2020-21, in which he's not helpful during the year and is basically a 12th man in the playoffs, he might enter 2022 free agency with seriously diminished earning power.
One down year is easier to write off as an anomaly than two.
Harrell should decline his option, hope there's a team out there willing to pay at least the MLE for an undersized 5 who's had major offensive success in the past and part ways with a Lakers team that never quite found a way to maximize his specific skills.