2021 NBA Free Agents: Predictions for Kawhi Leonard and More Top Stars

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 27, 2021

2021 NBA Free Agents: Predictions for Kawhi Leonard and More Top Stars

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    The 2021 NBA free-agent class had a chance to be historic.

    A wave of early extensions took that possibility off the table.

    But the remaining player pool could still feature one superstar, plus a handful of legitimate difference-makers. The upcoming free-agency maneuvers may not reshape the basketball landscape, but several signings will reverberate across the hoops world.

    We're breaking out the crystal ball to predict where these impact players will wind up.

Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers

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    It says something about this free-agent class but more about Kawhi Leonard that he has its top tier to himself despite facing a potentially lengthy recovery from a partially torn ACL.

    When healthy, he makes the very short list of the league's true elites. He's an all-galaxy defender who just netted nearly 25 points (plus over five assists) per game while flirting with the vaunted 50/40/90 shooting slash. Even if you bake in some absences—for injuries or load management—the 60-odd games he will give you should be spectacular.

    That's why every team with money to spend and win-now intentions will be closely monitoring his handling of a $36 million player option for next season. If there's the slightest indication he could be ready to move on from the Los Angeles Clippers, suitors will be ready to pounce.

    But there's nothing to suggest Leonard is seeking such a split, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. That might disappoint some, but it should surprise no one, as the L.A. native chose to come to the Clippers and handpicked Paul George as his running mate.

    Perhaps the real intrigue, then, is how Leonard chooses to proceed with the Clippers from a financial standpoint. He could exercise his player option and punt his future decision down the road, exercise the option and extend with the Clippers or opt out and lock in to a long-term deal.

    Prediction: Leonard exercises player option and extends with the Clippers.

Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns

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    Life is good for the Point God.

    Not as great as could be, of course, since Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns fell to the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA Finals. But still, he's 36 years old and, should he enter the market, would be one of the most coveted players on it.

    He doesn't have to go that route, though. He could simply exercise his player option for 2021-22 and collect a whopping $44.2 million to run it back with a Suns team that just fell two wins shy of a title and boasts a roster littered with younger players still ascending toward their primes.

    Pretty great option, right? But then again, this is probably the last big payday for Paul, so he might consider declining the option and inking a pact with a smaller annual salary but greater length.

    He could go championship chasing with his close friend LeBron James in L.A. Paul could take his talents to South Beach and team with Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo on the Miami Heat. Paul could even try his hand at fixing the New York Knicks' years-long problems at point guard.

    But if the Suns are ready to pony up, they can give him the most money, plus they just helped deliver the most successful season he has ever played.

    Prediction: Paul picks up player option and signs extension with Suns.

Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

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    For the past nine seasons, Kyle Lowry has ingrained himself into the fabric of the Toronto Raptors. During his tenure, he became their emotional and on-court leader, established himself as an All-Star and played a co-starring role in the organization's first championship run.

    But the 35-year-old might be ready to seek out greener pastures—and a massive payday—after the Raptors missed the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

    Lowry, a two-way whiz with a lethal long-range shot, will have no shortage of options on the open market. The Athletic's Shams Charania reported the Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans and Miami Heat are "expected to be top suitors" for the floor general.

    Lowry, who's reportedly seeking a three-year contract with a $30 million annual salary, per the Miami Herald's Barry Jackson and Anthony Chiang, would ideally pair a giant payday with better chances of winning than he has in Toronto. The Heat may be best equipped to give him that.

    Miami, which made the Finals in 2020, can offer something in the ballpark of $85 million for three seasons, and is led by one of Lowry's closest friends in Jimmy Butler. If the Heat put forth an offer in that range, it might be too great for Lowry to ignore.

    Prediction: Lowry signs three-year deal with the Heat.

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