Previewing NBA Free Agency for 2021's Top 20 Free Agents

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterJune 23, 2021

Previewing NBA Free Agency for 2021’s Top 20 Free Agents

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    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    With both of the NBA's conference finals upon us and Tuesday's draft lottery in the rearview, it's time to look ahead to what could be a fascinating offseason of free agency. 

    The following is a descending ranking of the top 20 free agents and their potential landing spots, ranked after months of discussions with NBA scouts, executives and agents.

    Theoretical destinations for the game's top free agents will be impacted by the draft, potential trades, player options and, most importantly, by what teams have spending power.

No. 20: Devonte' Graham: Charlotte Hornets (restricted)

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Graham's sophomore season was exceptional, but his role diminished in Charlotte with the emergence of Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball. 

    Graham's 7.5 assists per game two years ago—and just over 37.0 percent shooting from three the past couple of seasons—could make him valuable to a team looking to improve offensively. The Hornets could keep Graham as a sixth man, let him go outright or look to sign-and-trade him for value. 

    Don't be surprised if it's the third option. The Hornets need a starting center, and Graham could be the bait, possibly with the No. 11 pick in July's NBA draft.

    Theoretical destinations: Hornets, Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors

    Price range: $8-15 million starting salary

No. 19: Montrezl Harrell: Los Angeles Lakers (player option)

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Harrell is one of the best scoring tweener big men in the NBA, best suited for a bench role. He plays hard and shot 62.2 percent from the field for the Lakers, but he has some obvious weaknesses defensively.

    His player option is for $9.7 million, but he’s eligible to re-sign with the Lakers at up to $11.1 million via his non-Bird rights. His agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, will need to gauge the market accurately.

    Is there a free-agent destination that will pay more? If he opts in, will the Lakers feature him in a prominent role after his minutes shrunk in the postseason? If not, will they trade him to a team willing to do so?

    Whatever the answer, the deadline for his player-option decision is July 31.

    Theoretical destinations: Lakers, Hornets, Atlanta Hawks, Pacers, San Antonio Spurs, Raptors

    Price range: $9.7-15 million starting salary

No. 18: TJ McConnell: Indiana Pacers

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    McConnell is more of a true point guard than fellow free agent Alex Caruso, but while he's feisty, he's not quite as impactful on the defensive end. 

    McConnell averaged 6.6 assists in 26 minutes per game for the Pacers (along with 1.9 steals). He's not a shooter (32.9 percent from three on his career) but is very efficient closer to the basket (52.7 percent from two-point range).

    While McConnell probably isn't a regular starter, he can handle that role over an extended period if needed. Expect a long list of teams to try to pluck him away from Indiana.

    Theoretical destinations: Pacers, Dallas Mavericks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat, Hawks, Bulls, Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans, Raptors

    Price range: $8-15 million starting salary

No . 17: Alex Caruso, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Caruso is a valuable combo guard known for his defense, but he shot well for the Lakers last season. In the 2020 NBA Finals, Caruso got the start in the close-out Game 6 against the Heat. That's the kind of trust Lakers coach Frank Vogel has in him.

    Various teams will pursue, including contenders and those looking to jump from the lottery to the playoffs. Regardless, LeBron James may not let the Lakers lose Caruso.

    His price depends on how many of those inquiring teams have cap space. If none, then the most he's likely looking at, outside of the Lakers, is the $9.5 million mid-level exception.

    Theoretical destinations: Lakers, Mavericks, Cavaliers, Heat, Hawks, Bulls, Thunder, Grizzlies, Pelicans, Raptors

    Price range: $8-15 million starting salary

No. 16: Spencer Dinwiddie, Brooklyn Nets (player option)

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Dinwiddie has been sidelined since December with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Still, that's unlikely to stop him from opting out of his final year with the Nets at $12.3 million to pursue free agency. 

    If healthy, Dinwiddie is a starting-caliber point guard and will look to be compensated as one. Over 64 games through the 2019-20 campaign, Dinwiddie averaged 20.6 points and 6.8 assists.

    His ask in free agency could be well over $20 million, but he'll need a team willing to bet that he'll quickly return to form after missing most of the year with the knee injury.

    Theoretical destinations: Bulls, Nets, Mavericks, Heat, Pelicans, Knicks, Raptors

    Price range: $15-20 million starting salary

No. 15: Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls (restricted)

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    The Bulls may not be willing to reinvest heavily in Markkanen, which would make him a desired target for teams looking for a seven-foot shooter. 

    This season, he averaged 13.6 points and 5.3 rebounds while shooting 40.2 percent from the three-point line on 5.8 attempts per night. But at just 24, Markkanen has struggled to stay healthy through most of his young career. 

    If he can get his body right, he could be a steal this offseason. As a restricted free agent, he could end up as a sign-and-trade option for the Bulls.

    Theoretical destinations: Mavericks, Spurs, Bulls, Hornets, Raptors, Thunder, Hawks (if they let Collins go)

    Price range: $10-18 million starting salary

No. 14: Richaun Holmes, Sacramento Kings

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Holmes is a somewhat underrated, low-maintenance big with greater mobility than other centers on the market (Allen, Drummond, etc.). 

    He's finishing a two-year deal with the Kings, who can only pay him up to roughly $10.3 million (via early Bird rights) after he averaged 14.2 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in 61 starts. 

    If other teams come with heftier offers, there's not much Sacramento can do. They may want to keep him but not have the means. If the Kings make separate trades to cut salary, like dealing Buddy Hield, that might change their cap positionbut they're not trading Hield specifically to keep Holmes.

    Theoretical destinations: Hornets, Knicks, Kings, Spurs

    Price range: $12-18 million starting salary

No. 13: Andre Drummond, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The Lakers picked up Drummond on the buyout market. The best L.A. can do to re-sign him is the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (roughly $9.5 million), but that would also trigger a hard cap (about $143 million) and limit how much the franchise can spend on the rest of the roster. 

    Drummond may be the best attainable traditional center. After joining the Lakers, the big man averaged 11.9 points, 10.2 rebounds and a block in 22 starts.

    The Hornets need a starting center. If they don't acquire one through trade, then Drummond could be a viable target. But he won't earn close to the $28 million he was making with the Cavaliers.

    Centers generally earn less in the NBA than guards and wings, unless they're at an All-Star level like Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert, Joel Embiid or Bam Adebayo. Drummond was an All-Star in 2015-16 and 2017-18, but he's not quite at that same level.

    Theoretical destinations: Lakers, Hornets, Knicks, Raptors

    Price range: $9.5-15 million starting salary

No. 12: Jarrett Allen, Cleveland Cavaliers (restricted)

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Allen is a young (23), athletic center who rebounds, blocks shots and finishes well at the basket. 

    After being traded to Cleveland from the Brooklyn Nets, Allen averaged 13.2 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 50 contests (41 starts). 

    Given the Cavaliers have the right of first refusal, Allen seems a lock to return. His fate may be a bit murkier with Cleveland winning the No. 3 pick in Tuesday's lottery. If the team drafts USC prospect Evan Mobley, would the Cavaliers groom him as a power forward who can share the court with Allen? Or as their cornerstone starting center?

    Cleveland could look to sign-and-trade Allen if it's the latter since he's a restricted free agent. 

    Theoretical destinations: Cavaliers, Hornets, Raptors, Knicks, Spurs

    Price range: $12-18 million starting salary

No. 11: Tim Hardaway Jr., Dallas Mavericks

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Hardaway's outside shooting was massive for the Mavericks, but the team needs to improve to advance deeper into the playoffs.

    The 29-year-old veteran shot 39.1 percent from three-point range over the regular season and 40.4 percent through seven playoff games. He has excellent chemistry with Dallas star Luka Doncic, which should prompt the team to keep him in the fold.

    Hardaway earned almost $19 million last season. He could get a raise if other teams try to pluck him from the Mavericks. If not, perhaps he returns for a slight discount in the first year of a new, long-term deal.

    Theoretical destinations: Mavericks, Spurs, Knicks, Grizzlies, Heat

    Price range: $15-20 million starting salary

No. 10: Norman Powell, Portland Trail Blazers (player option)

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    Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

    Expect Powell to opt out of his final year at $11.6 million for a more lucrative deal. The Trail Blazers acquired the 28-year-old wing in a midseason trade from the Raptors, and while he was a key contributor, Portland didn't advance beyond the first round.

    Powell has championship experience with the Raptors. He's instant offense, be it as a starter or reserve. Given the dearth of high-level wings in free agency, Powell could receive nearly $20 million.

    Will the Blazers reinvest if the price gets too high? Where does Powell want to play next as an unrestricted free agent?

    Theoretical destinations: Trail Blazers, Mavericks, Knicks

    Price range: $15-20 million starting salary

No. 9: Duncan Robinson, Miami Heat (restricted)

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Robinson is a 27-year-old elite perimeter shooter. Every contender needs shooting, and Robinson will be rewarded handsomely for his skill set. 

    Robinson posted 13.1 points per game on the year while shooting 40.8 percent from deep on 8.5 attempts. He's always moving and can get shots off on the catch exceptionally quickly.

    He may not get as high as a maximum contract, but he'll be the target of teams with cap room. The Heat can match any offer, but how high will they go?

    Theoretical destinations: Heat, Mavericks, Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies, Knicks

    Price range: $18-24 million starting salary

No. 8: Dennis Schroder, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    The Lakers and Schroder can avoid free agency altogether with an extension up to $86 million over four years. Los Angeles can offer more in August, but will it?

    Schroder didn't really deliver as the secondary scoring option once Anthony Davis went down with a groin injury in the first round of the playoffs against the Suns. Before Davis was hurt, L.A. had built up a 2-1 advantage over Phoenix, and then went on to lose three straight games. 

    Schroder still may have a place with the team as the tertiary option. Look for the (almost) 28-year-old guard to test the market for a more lucrative payday, whether that's with the Lakers or elsewhere.

    Theoretical destinations: Lakers, Knicks, Mavericks, Raptors, Bulls, Heat, Suns

    Price range: $18-24 million starting salary

No. 7: Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans (restricted)

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The Pelicans failed to make the playoffs and just fired their coach, Stan Van Gundy. It isn't easy to peg their direction, but letting one of the cornerstone pieces the franchise got back from the Los Angeles Lakers in the Anthony Davis trade leave for nothing seems unlikely. 

    Either they keep him outright or look to find him a new home via sign-and-trade. 

    Of the point guards on the list, Ball is the youngest, turning 24 before next season. He's a willing, multipositional defender and an improved shooter, but he’s less of a traditional point guard. His ability to score off the dribble and create in the pick-and-roll is limited.

    Teams have to overpay to get a restricted free agent (offering more than the original team will pay), and Ball could get in the $20 million range.

    Theoretical destinations: Pelicans, Bulls, Knicks, Mavericks, Raptors, Suns

    Price range: $20-$24 million starting salary

No. 6: DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    No, he's not a three-point shooter in a game where the three-point shot seems paramount. But DeRozan is still an elite NBA wing. On the season, he averaged 21.6 points, 4.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists while knocking down 51.5 percent of his two-point shots. 

    DeRozan earned $27.7 million this season but may struggle to find a team with that kind of cap room this summer. That may mean a pay cut, especially if he wants to join a contender.

    The Spurs could have real spending power this offseason without DeRozan. How much they are willing to pay to retain him (if they are willing) will be set by the market.

    Theoretical destinations: Spurs, Knicks, Mavericks

    Price range: $18-25 million starting salary

No. 5: John Collins, Atlanta Hawks (restricted)

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The Hawks are the surprise of the postseason, pushing past the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers and into the Eastern Conference Finals. Collins is a vital part, averaging 13.9 points and 8.3 rebounds while shooting 54.3 percent from the field and 38.9 percent from three-point range.

    If Atlanta wasn't sure if it was going in the right direction, its playoff success should cement Collins as a part of its future. Naturally, he'll seek the max because that's what top free agents do. He's undoubtedly worth over $20 million as a starting power forward on a successful playoff team.

    At just 24 years old (in September), Collins should be the priority for the Hawks.

    Theoretical destinations: Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Mavericks, Spurs, Bulls, Raptors

    Price range: $22-$28 mil starting salary

No. 4: Mike Conley Jr., Utah Jazz

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    The Jazz are among the best teams in the league, and Conley is a vital part. He averaged 16.2 points and 6.0 assists this season, and his absence for all but one game against the Los Angeles Clippers (hamstring injury) was a significant problem for Utah. 

    Do the Jazz blame injuries for the loss and reinvest? Luxury tax concerns could push them in a different direction. Depending on what other suitors offer Conley, pencil him in to return to Utah, but don't mark it in ink. 

    Like Paul and Lowry, Conley is not a young guard (turning 34 before next season).

    Theoretical destinations:  Jazz, Bulls, Heat, Knicks, Mavericks, Suns

    Price range: $25 million per year

No. 3: Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Lowry, 35, seemed ready to be traded at the deadline, but Toronto couldn't get a deal done. The Raptors missed the playoffs this season, and most of the veterans from the championship run are gone (Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, etc.). 

    Still, Toronto has a talented young core and could look to keep Lowry around a few more years after he averaged 17.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game in 2020-21.

    Watching Chris Paul in Phoenix, up-and-coming teams like the Knicks and Bulls might hope Lowry can make a similar impact with his leadership. In addition, hopeful contenders like the Miami Heat and even the Mavericks could view him as the missing piece.

    Theoretical destinations: Raptors, Heat, Knicks, Bulls, Mavericks, Suns (if Paul leaves), Pelicans (if Lonzo Ball moves on)

    Price range: $25 million per year

No. 2: Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns (player option)

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The 36-year-old All-Star has elevated yet another team after moving from the Thunder to the Suns.

    Phoenix is one of the top remaining playoff contenders, but soon after the season's end, the franchise will await Paul's $44.2 million option decision. That may look like too much for any rational person to turn down, but it would make sense if Paul can lock in $100 million over the next three years. 

    The Suns will have both Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges extension-eligible this summer. The team may have some long-term luxury-tax concerns, but it should pay what it takes to contend in the NBA.

    Theoretical destinations: Suns, Knicks, Heat

    Price range: $33 million per year

No. 1: Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers (player option)

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Leonard's status just got a bit murkier with a knee injury that has him sidelined for an indeterminate period. If he's facing surgery, he may be more inclined to opt in to the final year of his contract at $36 million. But if the Clippers (or another organization) will max him out injured, perhaps opting out is inevitable. 

    Leonard chose the Clippers in 2019, in part, to play at home in Los Angeles. He could pull a Chris Paul, agreeing to opt-in conditional on a trade to a specific destination. Leaving would be a seismic shift.

    The buzz around the league is consistent; expect a return to the Clippers. But Leonard is not exactly the most communicative superstar in the NBA.

    Theoretical destinations: Clippers, Golden State Warriors, Mavericks, Heat, Knicks

    Price range: $39 million starting salary

             

    Honorable Mentions: Several players could have made the top 20, including the Clippers’ Reggie Jackson (off his tremendous shooting through the playoffs), Lakers' Talen Horton-Tucker (restricted), Knicks' Derrick Rose, Houston Rockets' Kelly Olynyk, Golden State Warriors' Kelly Oubre, Toronto's Gary Trent Jr. (restricted), Miami's Goran Dragic (team option), Atlanta's Lou Williams, Boston Celtics' Evan Fournier, Dallas' Josh Richardson (player option), Philadelphia 76ers' Danny Green and Dwight Howard, Phoenix’s Cameron Payne, New Orleans' Josh Hart (restricted) and Brooklyn's resurgent Blake Griffin. Prices could range from as low as $4 million to as high as $15 million (or more), unique to each situation.

    Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.

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