Updated 2021 NBA Free-Agency Big Board: Is Kawhi Leonard Up for Grabs?July 1, 2021
Updated 2021 NBA Free-Agency Big Board: Is Kawhi Leonard Up for Grabs?
We're still in the midst of the 2021 NBA playoffs, but the rumor mill is already churning.
Less than two weeks after Kemba Walker was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder, his new team is already looking to send him elsewhere. Portland Trail Blazers superstar Damian Lillard may push his way "out the door," according to Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes. And several franchises, including the Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz, have undergone significant front-office and coaching changes.
If this is the appetizer, the 2021 offseason could be quite a feast.
Of the three primary forms of team-building—free agency, trades and the draft—free agency is the focus here.
This year's class isn't likely to be star-studded (though some high-profile player options could change that), but there will certainly be difference-makers available.
Determining how to rank those who'll be available is largely a subjective exercise. Projection systems like those at FiveThirtyEight can help (and that one did), but the prediction game is always fraught.
Past numbers help too. The league's general continuing trend toward positionless basketball may influence the placement of a few players.
20. Andre Drummond
Andre Drummond was likely hoping to rehab his value when he signed with the high-profile Los Angeles Lakers. Unfortunately, he looked very much like a basketball dinosaur in both his 2020-21 stops, thanks to one-dimensional offense and an inability to move around the perimeter on defense.
Still, Drummond is an all-time great rebounder. If his next team can convince him to focus on being a rim runner and protector above all else, he may still be a positive contributor.
19. Montrezl Harrell
Another Lakers big who sometimes struggles in today's highly switchable game, Montrezl Harrell is a more dynamic option in the pick-and-roll than Drummond. In theory, he should hold up a little better against wings on defense, too.
His lack of size (6'7") for a center can be a problem, though. Even as small lineups like the ones deployed by the Los Angeles Clippers this postseason become more popular, rim protection is important to have.
18. Blake Griffin
Blake Griffin is a good example of a big who adapted to the leaguewide evolution that occurred over the course of his career. Even as age and injuries have affected his athleticism, Griffin's passing and the addition of a jump shot should make him a solid role player for the closing chapters of his career.
Of course—his resurgence with the Brooklyn Nets notwithstanding—health will be a concern for Griffin from now until the end of his career. That will be a consideration for whoever signs him next.
17. Dennis Schroder
Dennis Schroder may have been miscast as a starting point guard by the Atlanta Hawks and Los Angeles Lakers. His most efficient, and perhaps best, season was 2019-20, when he came off the bench and finished second in Sixth Man of the Year voting.
As part of second units, Schroder's tendency to sometimes dominate the ball is less of a problem. And backup defenders have a tougher time keeping him away from the rim.
16. Devonte' Graham (Restricted)
Devonte' Graham's raw production was somewhat muted by the arrivals of LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward, but he remains a solid playmaker and floor spacer whose overall impact on the Charlotte Hornets has been huge.
This season, they were plus-3.0 points per 100 possessions with Graham on the floor and minus-7.7 with him off.
Below-average effective field-goal percentages in each of his three seasons are concerning, but he'd instantly be one of the game's best backup guards if a team signed him for that role.
15. Norman Powell
Norman Powell is undersized (6'3") for a wing, but good volume and efficiency from three along with a little off-the-dribble pop make him an intriguing option for any team looking for scoring.
Over the past two seasons, he's averaged 17.5 points and 2.3 threes with a 40.6 three-point percentage.
14. Lauri Markkanen (Restricted)
Lauri Markkanen enters restricted free agency on what might be seen as a bit of a decline. His points per game, rebounding percentage and net-rating swing (the difference in a team's net points per 100 possessions when a given player is on or off the floor) have all declined in each of the past three seasons.
His size (7'0"), a career-high three-point percentage (40.2) and the fact that he's still just 24 should give him a few suitors this summer, though. He may not be an everyday starter, but his ability to space the floor can pull opposing bigs out of the paint.
13. Spencer Dinwiddie
Coming off a torn right ACL will impact Spencer Dinwiddie's prospects in free agency, but advances in medical science and better understanding of the recovery process mean that injury isn't the potential career-crusher it once was. Additionally, Dinwiddie's effectiveness wasn't solely dependent on athleticism, either.
Dinwiddie is a crafty 1 who can create shots for himself and others. And his size (6'5") make him a good candidate for switch-happy lineups.
12. Duncan Robinson (Restricted)
He wasn't as prolific as he was in 2019-20, but Duncan Robinson remains one of the game's premier floor-spacers. Over his past two seasons, he's averaged 13.3 points and 3.6 threes with a 42.7 three-point percentage.
He's not just pulling defenders away from the paint by standing in the corner, either. Robinson is also one of the game's best off-ball movers. That doesn't just help him get open looks; it bends defenses away from slashers or bigs who may be on the floor with him.
11. Tim Hardaway Jr.
Over the past two seasons, Tim Hardaway Jr.'s marks for points per game, threes per game and three-point percentage are matched or exceeded by just six players (Paul George, Stephen Curry, Zach LaVine, Damian Lillard, Terry Rozier and Jayson Tatum).
It might be fair to wonder how much of that production has to do with Luka Doncic creating open looks for him, but there's a symbiosis there. Teams with other ball-dominant creators may be eager to add a willing catch-and-shoot option like Hardaway to bail their guy out.
10. Kelly Olynyk
This probably seems high for a 30-year-old journeyman with a career average of 10.1 points, but Kelly Olynyk checks so many of the modern-big boxes.
In a featured role for the first time in his career, Olynyk averaged 19.0 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.8 threes in 27 games for the Houston Rockets. He shot 39.2 percent from three.
Of course, that may have been a hot streak, and it's fair to wonder if this is a "good stats, bad team" situation, but a center who can stretch the floor, create for wings and guards, and take up space inside on defense could boost almost any team's second unit.
9. Reggie Jackson
Speaking of recency bias, Reggie Jackson's run through this postseason has almost certainly made him some money.
And while he'll likely cool down from what he's doing now, postseason averages of 17.8 points and 3.1 threes, with a strong 40.8 three-point percentage, are nothing to sneeze at.
There's evidence to suggest the shooting is real, too. His three-point percentage has gradually increased over the course of his 10-year career. In a league heavily populated with playmaking wings, having a point guard with Jackson's catch-and-shoot prowess helps. Just ask Paul George.
8. Jarrett Allen (Restricted)
Jarrett Allen doesn't space the floor or do much distributing, but he has the potential to dominate within another center archetype.
Small ball is proving effective once again this postseason, but teams that can play in a variety of ways are in the best shape to contend for titles. And a rim runner and protector like Allen can rack up double-doubles against the majority of the league.
7. Kyle Lowry
Kyle Lowry turned 35 in March, but 17.2 points, 7.3 assists and 2.8 threes in 2020-21 suggest he still has something to offer during the twilight of his career.
He's had some trouble staying on the floor in recent years, but he has plenty of experience ceding possessions to superstar wings. And his playoff experience is invaluable.
6. Mike Conley
Mike Conley just made his first All-Star team in Year 14. He also shot a career-high 41.2 percent from three. When he was on the floor, the Utah Jazz had a point differential around that of a 74-win team (yes, 74).
But it's fair to wonder if Conley will be a bit of an injury risk from here on out. The 33-year old missed a significant portion of this postseason with a right hamstring injury that has nagged him for two seasons. If you go back a bit further, he's appeared in just 58.4 percent of his teams' regular-season games over the last four seasons.
5. DeMar DeRozan
The nearly constant refrain when analyzing DeMar DeRozan and his prospects in free agency has to do with his careerlong negative impact.
In 11 of his 12 seasons, his teams have had worse point differentials when he's on the floor. When you combine all 12, his teams are exactly even when he plays and plus-2.8 points per 100 possessions when he sits.
Context can explain away negative swings over certain stretches and in some cases—maybe even entire seasons. It's tough to explain away 12 years, though. That's quite a sample size.
Still, DeRozan may be in for a final few chapters of his career that could make it more difficult to parrot those stats.
With the San Antonio Spurs, his scoring efficiency and assist percentage both rocketed past the marks he set as a Toronto Raptor.
And though his lack of three-point shooting and defense are still major weaknesses in today's game, he could thrive in the right role.
DeRozan may not see himself this way, but if he was your super sixth man piloting second-unit offenses, he could continue a late-career upward trajectory. Depending on matchups and the flow of the game, he could obviously finish when necessary, too.
4. Lonzo Ball (Restricted)
After his first couple of seasons, it looked like consistent shooting was about the only ingredient missing from Lonzo Ball's game.
He was instantly one of the game's better passers, particularly in transition, where his hit-ahead looks inspired teammates to run the floor. He was a good rebounder for a guard, and he showed signs of being a plus defender.
That one weakness was glaring, though. Skills don't get any more important than shooting, and Ball hit just 38.0 percent of his shots (including 31.5 percent from three) in those first two seasons.
His years with the New Orleans Pelicans should, at the very least, quiet those concerns.
Ball is coming off back-to-back seasons with an above-average three-point percentage, and his volume in 2020-21 (8.3 attempts per game) was just shy of noted floor-spacer Duncan Robinson (8.5).
If Ball is that kind of shooter going forward—and given the fact that he's just 23, there's reason to believe he can still improve—he has a chance to be a starting point guard for years to come.
When you factor in his size (6'6") and the ability to play in positionless lineups, it's easy to see why Ball will be one of the bigger names in this free-agent class.
3. John Collins (Restricted)
Trae Young has understandably garnered most of the attention for the Atlanta Hawks during this run to the Eastern Conference Finals and over the past three seasons, but John Collins has quietly gotten off to an excellent start, too.
For his career, he's averaging 16.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 0.9 threes in just 28.6 minutes per game. Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony towns and Joel Embiid are the only players in NBA history who matched or exceeded his per-possession marks in those numbers through their age-23 seasons.
With his explosive athleticism, Collins can dominate as a rim roller who finishes poster opportunities like the one he hammered on Embiid in the playoffs. He's also a pick-and-pop threat, though. Over the past two seasons, he's right at 40.0 percent on 3.4 three-point attempts per game.
Whether he's a 4, as he currently is alongside Clint Capela, or a smaller 5, Collins has a chance to be one of the game's most dynamic offensive bigs.
2. Chris Paul (Player Option)
Once upon a not-so-long-ago time, Chris Paul's massive contract—which will pay him $44.2 million next season, if he picks up the player option—was widely regarded as one of the least tradable in the league.
Then, somehow he was traded. First for Russell Westbrook, whose contract was seen as similarly burdensome. And then again for Ricky Rubio, Kelly Oubre Jr. and various other players and assets.
What he's done over the past two seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Phoenix Suns has made something that once seemed impossible now almost likely. If CP3 declines that option, it feels like a team—whether it's the Suns or someone else—would give him a two- or three-year deal that could make up for that $44.2 million.
Beyond the razor-sharp mid-range shooting, pinpoint passing and ability to completely engineer entire possessions, Paul would bring winning intangibles to any organization.
His leadership, experience and competitiveness drove each of his past two teams to much higher heights than anyone expected.
If the 36-year-old caps this run in Phoenix with a title, it would probably be difficult to leave, but suitors would be all over his agent for a chance to pay CP3 during what may be the final chapter of his career.
1. Kawhi Leonard (Player Option)
All of the talk about this being a lackluster group of free agents would be squashed in an instant if Kawhi Leonard declined his player option and signaled a willingness to sign with someone other than the Los Angeles Clippers.
Despite major health and "load management" concerns that have shelved him for a significant number of games in each of his past four seasons (including all of this year's conference finals), Leonard is the kind of talent who would take any team up a tier (and move several to contender status). Sure enough, The Ringer is reporting rival executives expect the Dallas Mavericks to make a run at Leonard this offseason.
Over the course of his career, he's shown an ability to be a dominant No. 1 scorer and a Defensive Player of the Year-caliber defender. He's led two different teams to Finals wins.
For years, the only missing ingredient was the willingness and ability to create for others. Well, that box is now checked, too. During his two seasons with the Clippers, Leonard has averaged 5.0 assists.