Ranking the Top 15 Bigs in 2021 NBA Free Agency

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJuly 23, 2021

Ranking the Top 15 Bigs in 2021 NBA Free Agency

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Just a couple of weeks shy of the official start of the NBA's 2021 free-agency period on August 2, there's still time to dive into this offseason's class of potential difference-makers.

    While this summer isn't loaded with available superstars, there are indeed difference-makers at every position.

    As the lines between traditional designations continue to blur, and positionless basketball takes hold, it makes less and less sense to separate them here.

    So, in anticipation of free agency, we'll provide lists of the top guards, forwards and bigs available. You might quibble over the classifications of a few players here and there. Some judgment calls were made. But for the most part, placement was pretty easy once the three categories were established.

    The subject we'll tackle here is the third one. And we'll include old-school 4s and 5s, rim runners and rim protectors, playmakers, floor spacers and everything in between. In a word, bigs.

    Of course, prognosticating is far from an exact science. And though age, size, advanced metrics and forecast systems like FiveThirtyEight's help, we can't avoid a hefty helping of subjectivity.

    When all those factors are tossed into the pot, the following stew eventually comes out.

15-11

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    Barry Gossage/Getty Images

    15. Cody Zeller

    Cody Zeller's basic numbers don't leap off the screen, but 9.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists is solid production for someone who played just 20.9 minutes.

    More importantly, Zeller has nearly a decade of NBA experience and has always been one of those "does the things that don't show up in the box score" players. Over the course of his career, his teams are plus-0.8 points per 100 possessions when Zeller is on the floor and minus-2.5 when he's off.

         

    14. Nerlens Noel

    Nerlens Noel has averaged just 18.1 minutes over the last four seasons, but he's productive in his limited playing time.

    Over the same stretch, he's averaged 11.2 points, 10.5 rebounds, 3.0 blocks and 2.0 steals per 75 possessions, with a well-above-average true shooting percentage.

    He doesn't pass much or space the floor at all, but he's a menacing defensive presence.

         

    13. Bobby Portis (Player Option)

    Despite a relatively small role for the NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks, Bobby Portis' stock made some significant gains this postseason.

    During his team's four-game winning streak to end the playoffs, he averaged 9.8 points and shot 46.2 percent from three while providing his teammates and the Milwaukee faithful with infectious energy.

         

    12. Enes Kanter

    Enes Kanter is basically on the opposite end of the offense-defense spectrum from Noel. With great footwork, a deep repertoire of post moves and an insatiable appetite for offensive rebounds, Kanter can score on just about anyone.

    For years, though, the knock on him was that he gave up more on defense than he produced on offense. That point should be harder to make now. Over the last two seasons, his teams were plus-6.0 points per 100 possessions with Kanter on the floor and plus-1.8 with him off.

         

    11. Paul Millsap

    Paul Millsap is heading into his age-36 season. His minutes per game have declined in each of the last four seasons, bottoming out at 20.8 in 2020-21.

    But he's still a basketball Swiss Army knife who can add experience to any roster and lead bench units.

    This past season, he put up 16.0 points, 8.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.1 blocks per 75 possessions.

10-6

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    Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    10. Andre Drummond

    Much of the attention paid to Andre Drummond the past few years has focused on what he doesn't do. And for a player making close to $30 million a year, it's fair to point out the lack of shooting, passing and other skills that many modern bigs bring to the floor.

    In the right role (and it may take some convincing to get Drummond to accept that), he can still be a plus player.

    He's an all-time great rebounder with the size and athleticism to be a solid rim runner. And he even showed some passing chops in 2017-18, when he averaged 3.9 assists prior to the arrival of Blake Griffin.

         

    9. Montrezl Harrell (Player Option)

    Montrezl Harrell is undersized and often the victim of mismatch hunting in the playoffs, but he knows exactly what he is and plays his role well.

    In the regular season, and against plenty of playoff matchups, he can dominate opposing bench units as a rim roller and offensive rebounder. And he's one of the those "plays every possession like it's his last" guys who can infect the rest of the team with energy.

         

    8. Serge Ibaka (Player Option)

    Kawhi Leonard's torn ACL was probably the death knell for the Los Angeles Clippers (though they still knocked off the top-seeded Utah Jazz without him), but the absence of Serge Ibaka shouldn't be overlooked.

    He made 1.0 threes and blocked 1.1 shots per game in just 23.3 minutes, making him a distinctly modern three-and-D big who raised the Clippers' ceiling and allowed them to play five-out on offense.

            

    7. Blake Griffin

    Any team considering Blake Griffin will undoubtedly be concerned about the injury history, but his brief stint with the Brooklyn Nets showed a versatile big man who can pilot bench units as a point forward.

    In 26 regular-season games with the Nets, he averaged 10.0 points, 2.4 assists and 1.2 threes in 21.5 minutes while shooting 38.3 percent from three.

    The old Blake who put the likes of Timofey Mozgov and Kendrick Perkins on posters is gone, but he deserves a ton of credit for an evolution that should prolong his career.

         

    6. Lauri Markkanen (Restricted)

    Like just about everyone else on this list, there are glaring flaws in Lauri Markkanen's game. For a 7-footer, his rebound and block rates are just bad. And he's not a great perimeter defender, either. But in 2020-21, he showed the potential to be a top-tier floor spacer.

    The 24-year old averaged 13.6 points and 2.3 threes in 25.8 minutes while shooting 40.2 percent from three. He's approaching Davis Bertans or Duncan Robinson territory in terms of stretching defenses out. And he has plenty of time to develop into a more reliable defender.

5. Kelly Olynyk

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    For seven-and-a-half seasons, Kelly Olynyk just sort of quietly went about his business as a limited-usage stretch big who didn't get a ton of credit for the positive impact he's had on teams.

    Over the course of his career, his teams are plus-1.8 points per 100 possessions when he plays and minus-1.1 when he doesn't.

    Then, in 2020-21, he finally got a chance to fully showcase his talent following a trade to the tanking Houston Rockets.

    In 27 games for Houston, he averaged 19.0 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.8 threes and 1.4 steals per game (21.7 points, 9.6 boards, 4.7 assists, 2.1 threes and 1.6 steals per 75 possessions) while shooting 39.2 percent from three.

    It's fair to wonder if this was just a hot streak or a "good stats, bad team situation," but those marks aren't that far out of line with career norms that are adjusted for pace and playing time. 

    In his first seven seasons, Olynyk averaged 16.9 points, 8.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.0 threes per 75 possessions with a 37.3 three-point percentage. The uptick in 2020-21 may have as much to do with him being in his prime as it does with playing for the Rockets.

    But even if he comes down to earth a bit on his next contract, the well-rounded contributions he can make will be valuable somewhere.

4. Richaun Holmes

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Toiling away for the Sacramento Kings can severely impact the kind of attention an NBA player gets. Had Richaun Holmes put up the kind of numbers he did over the last two seasons for the Los Angeles Lakers or New York Knicks, his free agency would absolutely be drawing more analysis.

    Since the start of the 2019-20 campaign, Holmes has averaged 13.4 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in just 28.8 minutes per game. He shot 64.1 percent from the field. And his impact on Sacramento's bottom line was huge.

    When Holmes played, the Kings were plus-0.7 points per 100 possessions. When he didn't, they were minus-6.3.

    His athleticism and timing as a rim runner make him a devastating receiver out of pick-and-rolls. And he's even developed a lights-out runner from just outside the restricted area in case a big is in position to challenge him at the rim.

    Defensively, he's not the kind of anchor Rudy Gobert is (of course, few are), but he doesn't take plays off and will get plenty of highlight, send-it-into-the-stands blocks over the course of a season.

3. Jarrett Allen (Restricted)

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    As he wrapped up his rookie contract in 2020-21, Cleveland Cavaliers center Jarrett Allen started to look very much like the kind of rim-running and -protecting 5 who can survive in an NBA that increasingly demands centers do more.

    He isn't likely to ever space the floor as a three-point shooter or pick defenses apart as a high-post distributor, but he'll likely do the other things well enough to still be impactful.

    Over the last two seasons, he's put up 11.9 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 27.9 minutes.

    As the 23-year old continues to learn the intricacies of NBA defense—including knowing when to chase blocks, when to stay home, when to rotate, etc.—his impact on that end figures to grow, too.

    Part of the intrigue here is just how young he is.

2. Mitchell Robinson (Team Option)

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    It's hard to imagine the New York Knicks declining Mitchell Robinson's $1.8 million option for the 2021-22 season, but there may be some value in getting a longer-term deal done right now.

    If he does somehow hit the free-agency market, Robinson should be one of the most sought-after bigs. There are probably some concerns with his health (he's averaged 52.7 games per season in his career), but his ceiling as a Gobert- or Tyson Chandler-type 5 is high.

    No one in league history matched or exceeded Robinson's per-75-possession averages for points (13.4), rebounds (11.1) and blocks (3.3) through their age-22 seasons. And if you drop the criteria to 10, 10 and three, you add just eight names (including Gobert and Alonzo Mourning).

    Like Jarrett Allen, the 23-year-old Robinson probably has some developing to do in terms of the mechanics of defense and what to do if an immediate dunk isn't available after a catch, but his physical profile and athleticism are matched by very few across the league.

1. John Collins (Restricted)

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    So far, we've discussed big men who fit the old-school profile (Drummond), space the floor (Markkanen and Olynyk), rim-run (Holmes and Allen) and create a bit for others (Olynyk and Millsap). But no one here checks quite as many boxes as John Collins.

    In fact, of all the attributes analyzed for players 15 through 2, playmaking may be the only one Collins hasn't already proved himself to have. And since he turns 24 in September, it's safe to say there's still time to improve in that area.

    Other than that, Collins really can sort of shapeshift from one big-man archetype to another.

    He's an explosive leaper who can catch lobs out of pick-and-rolls or score on putbacks. He's hit 40.0 percent on 3.4 three-point attempts per game over the last two seasons. And he's averaged at least one block in three of his four NBA campaigns.

    When you put it all together, he has a statistical profile that puts him in pretty elite company. Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns are the only other players in league history to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, one block and one three per 75 possessions through their age-23 seasons (Nikola Jokic barely missed out with 0.9 blocks).

    Of course, adding the threes qualifier pretty much eliminates any big man who played prior to this era, but maybe that actually helps to better illustrate the point.

    In today's game, bigs are generally asked to bring a wider array of skills to the floor, and Collins does just that.

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