Dark-Horse Destinations for Top 2021 NBA Free Agents
While some free-agent destinations may seem predetermined, it's up to both the player and the agent to field every serious offer that is presented before finally signing a new contract.
The Miami Heat weren't the favorites to sign LeBron James in 2010. Kevin Durant shocked the world by joining the Golden State Warriors in 2016. And both surprised everyone by joining the Cleveland Cavaliers and Brooklyn Nets, respectively, years later.
Dark-horse destinations, although unlikely, need to be considered as potential landing spots.
While the following teams may only dream of landing these top 2021 free agents, all can present a good argument (cap space, winning environment, other stars to play next to) in a pitch this summer.
Note: Kawhi Leonard was not included here, as leaving his hometown of Los Angeles and the Clippers team he chose just two years ago was too wild to bring up any other potential destination.
Lonzo Ball: Oklahoma City Thunder
Lonzo Ball is a restricted free agent who recently stated he'd "love to be back" with the Pelicans next year, even though the two sides failed to negotiate an extension last offseason.
With New Orleans able to match any deal he receives, the 23-year-old point guard will most likely return, even if an offer comes from a New York Knicks team looking for a floor general.
Of course, the Oklahoma City Thunder could blow all of this up.
OKC is projected to have $51.4 million in cap space this summer, more than enough to offer Ball a max contract while still having money leftover. While New Orleans may be comfortable offering him $18-20 million per year, a rookie max extension at 25 percent of a $112 million salary cap would start at $28 million and quickly climb north of $30 million.
Even that number may give New Orleans pause.
A backcourt of Ball and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander would be quite good in OKC, with both guards standing 6'6" and able to operate on or off the ball. While it would get expensive quickly with a contract extension coming for Gilgeous-Alexander in 2022-23, that's the same year Al Horford's contract expires, leaving the Thunder in tremendous cap shape.
With few stars in free agency to spend money on, the Thunder could throw a max offer at Ball and make it difficult for the Pelicans to match.
Kyle Lowry: New York Knicks
By not trading Kyle Lowry, the Toronto Raptors kept the door open for the 35-year-old to re-sign this offseason. The two teams that were chasing him at the March 25 deadline—the Miami Heat (using cap space) and Philadelphia 76ers (sign-and-trade)—seem like potential homes for the Philly native as well.
While all three would be solid destinations for the six-time All-Star, the Knicks could be an intriguing option.
New York has the cap space (projected $53.2 million) to offer Lowry big money and is in need of a point guard, with Derrick Rose, Elfrid Payton and Frank Ntilikina all hitting free agency. The team also finished fourth in the East this year, well above Toronto (12th) and Miami (sixth).
Even if Lowry preferred to go to Philadelphia, the Raptors would have to agree to a sign-and-trade, a move that would put a hard cap on the 76ers' already expensive roster.
The Knicks would be a far easier negotiation and could offer Lowry $30 million per year.
Joining a core of Julius Randle, RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin could be appealing, especially since New York would have money left over to try to bring back Nerlens Noel, Alec Burks and/or Rose.
While New York isn't home, it isn't far from Philly. The two cities are separated by less than 100 miles, making for a short car ride or flight if Lowry wanted to move his family there.
DeMar DeRozan: Los Angeles Clippers
It's tough to pinpoint a dark-horse free-agent destination for DeMar DeRozan, as no team immediately jumps out as the favorite to sign the four-time All-Star.
As John Hollinger of The Athletic 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."
Returning to a Spurs team flush with cap space ($47.7 million) is an option. The Knicks and Dallas Mavericks are built to win now and have money to spend as well.
One team that doesn't have money to spare but could be home via sign-and-trade? The Clippers.
If Los Angeles falls short of an NBA title once again, it should be exploring all avenues to add a third star to Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The 6'6" DeRozan is versatile enough to play anywhere from point guard to power forward and would give the Clippers three of the best wings in all of basketball.
A deal would only work if the Spurs agree to a sign-and-trade since the Clippers are over the cap. After buying out LaMarcus Aldridge—and with veterans Patty Mills and Rudy Gay hitting free agency—San Antonio could be heading toward a youth movement and could agree to trade DeRozan in order to not lose him for nothing in free agency.
Assuming DeRozan gets an annual salary somewhere between $20 million and $30 million per year, the Spurs could target some combination of Ivica Zubac ($7.5 million salary in 2021-22) Luke Kennard ($12.7 million), Patrick Beverley ($14.3 million) and Marcus Morris ($15.6 million).
The Clippers would have to send back enough salary to get under the apron (usually around $6 million above the luxury-tax line) since they'd be getting DeRozan through a sign-and-trade, thus hard-capping the team.
For DeRozan, a Southern California native, this would be an incredible opportunity to return close to home and play for a title contender once again.
Mike Conley: Miami Heat
It seems silly to even list another destination for Conley, who's thrived in Year 2 with the Jazz.
"Utah's got me," Conley told Tony Jones of The Athletic in February. "I was talking about this to my wife recently. We love it here. I don't think I can go anywhere else that plays the way we play. We'll see this offseason, because when that time comes there will definitely be a lot of chatter."
The 33-year-old has a starting job in Salt Lake City and will presumably compete for a title for years to come.
It's not the only place he could aim for a championship, however.
Conley would be fantastic running point guard for the Heat, sharing the floor with Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson (a restricted free agent). He'd fit right in as a high IQ, hard-working veteran who takes defense seriously.
While the Heat suffered an embarrassing first-round sweep at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks, adding an All-Star point guard in Conley could help Miami get back to the top of the East, especially with Adebayo (23) and Herro (21) only getting better.
Though Conley seems sold on the Jazz, the location and the fact that Florida has no income tax could be additional selling points.
John Collins: San Antonio Spurs
John Collins is likely to return to the Atlanta Hawks, as the restricted free agent has become an important part of their core.
While Atlanta was unwilling to give him a max rookie extension before the season started, it may not have a choice this summer.
Collins, 23, is one of the best free agents on the market. He's incredibly athletic, able to rise up and throw down lobs while averaging 17.6 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.0 blocks per game and shooting 39.9 percent from three on a team with a lot of depth.
While the Hawks' final offer to Collins was four years and $90 million ($22.5 million per year), it seems likely he'll get a max offer from a team with cap space this offseason given the lack of star power available.
Even though they've primarily built their franchise through the draft and trades, the Spurs would be a sneaky-good landing spot.
San Antonio primarily used DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay and Trey Lyles at power forward this season, and all are about to become free agents. The team is loaded with young guards and wings (Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson, Derrick White, Devin Vassell and Lonnie Walker IV) but is short on frontcourt talent.
The 6'9" forward fits the timeline of the young core and would give the Spurs a floor-spacing pick-and-roll big man to play off.
San Antonio has $47.7 million in projected cap space, meaning it could give Collins a max rookie extension that begins at $28 million a year, about $6 million more than the Hawks were willing to offer.
While the Hawks would probably match whatever offer Collins receives, the Spurs could make things uncomfortable for them or serve as a new home for the electric power forward.
Chris Paul: Dallas Mavericks
With the Phoenix Suns storming through the playoffs, it's hard to imagine Chris Paul leaving a team with an ever-improving core of Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton.
Paul may not even give himself the chance to leave, though he's expected to decline his player option, according to Bleacher Report's Eric Pincus.
"Paul has a $44.4 million player option, which according to several sources, he intends to decline with hopes of inking a new multiyear deal (perhaps in the $100 million range over three seasons)," Pincus wrote.
While that number may scare some teams off given Paul's age (36) and injury history, the Mavericks have long been a franchise willing to chase stars, for better or worse.
And CP3 has played well over the past two seasons with OKC and Phoenix, averaging 17.0 points, 7.8 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.5 steals over 140 starts. In the second-round series sweep of the Denver Nuggets this year, he averaged 25.5 points, 10.3 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 1.5 steals while shooting 62.7 percent from the field and 75 percent from beyond the arc.
The idea of pairing Paul with Luka Doncic should terrify the rest of the Western Conference, especially if the former can keep up this level of play for a few more years.
Kristaps Porzingis looks better suited for a third-star role, and the Mavs have enough role players (Maxi Kleber, Jalen Brunson, Dwight Powell, Dorian Finney-Smith) to make Dallas a true title contender behind Doncic and Paul.
If the Suns eventually flame out in the playoffs, Doncic could serve as one hell of a recruiter in free agency.