Ranking the 10 Best Signings of 2021 NBA Free Agency

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 13, 2021

Ranking the 10 Best Signings of 2021 NBA Free Agency

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    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    The 2021 version of NBA free agency is effectively finished.

    As usual, a few players find themselves caught in restricted free agency (Lauri Markkanen, Josh Hart) and a handful of past-their-prime vets are presumably weighing their options (JJ Redick, Paul Millsap, Wesley Matthews).

    By and large, though, teams have spent the money they're going to spend. Some invested it more wisely than others.

    That's a subjective take, of course, but it weighs objective items like production, pay rate and potential to improve over the life of the pact. These aren't necessarily the 10 moves that improved teams the most or the ones with the greatest league-wide impact, but rather those offering the best marriage of economic and on-court value.

10. Reggie Bullock, Dallas Mavericks

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    The Contract: Three years, $30 million (partial guarantee on third season)

    On the surface, giving an eight-figure salary to a 30-year-old with a single-digit career scoring average maybe doesn't look like the best business decision. But the late-blooming Bullock—he wasn't a rotation regular until his fifth NBA season—is a reliable wing who can splash open shots and hold his own defensively.

    That skill set isn't cheap. It's more or less what netted Gary Trent Jr. a three-year, $54 million deal from the Toronto Raptors this summer.

    This past season, Bullock averaged a career-high 2.5 threes, which he connected on at a 41.0 percent clip, and posted a personal best with 2.3 defensive win shares. This is a smart investment for the Mavs to make, as they've long needed more two-way wings on the roster.

9. Jeff Green, Denver Nuggets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Contract: Two years, $10 million

    Green deserved some stability having already played for 10 different teams in his career, including eight in just the past six seasons. The Nuggets gave him that with a two-year commitment and handed him an overdue raise from his seemingly annual veteran's minimum pacts.

    And yet he's still worth more than his salary.

    He connects plenty of dots as a well-seasoned vet who adds value in multiple ways at both ends of the court. He plays and defends both the 4 and 5 spots, drains long-distance shots (a career-high 41.2 percent of them last season) and still has enough to juice to demolish defenders at the rim. The Nuggets will get significant mileage from him both alongside and in relief of MVP Nikola Jokic.

8. Kendrick Nunn, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    The Contract: Two years, $10.3 million (player option on second season)

    When The Athletic's John Hollinger projected pay rates for this year's free agents, he saw Nunn collecting a salary north of $11 million. The Lakers won't even have to pay him that much across two seasons, and they can thank their contending credentials and experienced roster for that.

    "Just that chance to go out there and win a ring. A good chance, a great chance to win a ring. I wanted to be in that position again and also just to help my teammates and learn from them," Nunn said of his decision, via Silver Screen & Roll. "I look at the roster around and I'm one of the younger guys, so I'm going to be a sponge to a lot of these guys in the locker room and just continue to grow and develop my game."

    Nunn could be a more consistently engaged defender and willing passer, but he's also someone who just averaged 14.6 points on 48.5/38.1/93.3 as an NBA sophomore. His scoring punch and shooting stroke are for real, and if the Lakers can help iron out the rest of this game, they'll turn this from a bargain to outright larceny—even if Nunn plays well enough the first season to opt out of the second.

7. Nicolas Batum, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    The Contract: Two years, $6.3 million

    After languishing for a year on the Kemba Walker-less Charlotte Hornets, Batum broke free in November, latched on with the Clippers and quickly reminded everyone of all the ways he positively impacts a winning team.

    Win-now shoppers took note. The Miami Heat, Golden State Warriors and Indiana Pacers all chased Batum in free agency, per Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

    But Batum returned to the Clippers on a more than reasonable rate that's closer to the minimum than the mid-level exception he could have commanded. The 32-year-old's best days might be behind him, but he's still a steady source of spacing (40.4 percent from three last season), secondary playmaking and defensive versatility.

6. Bobby Portis, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    The Contract: Two years, $8.9 million (player option on second season)

    For the second successive summer, Portis left money on the table to sign with the Bucks. Last time around, his decision helped Milwaukee capture its first NBA title in 50 years.

    He's the Bucks' biggest energizer, but he has more game than the label implies. It's hard to pick out the most impressive part of his 2020-21 stat sheet: was it his 52.3 field-goal percentage, 47.1 percent connection rate from three or his per-36-minutes supplies of 19.8 points and 12.2 rebounds?

    Milwaukee doesn't need to decide, because it's getting all of the above at a deeply discounted rate. And at this rate, if Portis declines his option for 2022-23, he'll apparently just circle back to the Bucks again. Signing Portis to this contract in the same summer Kelly Olynyk scored a three-year, $37 million deal and always-injured Zach Collins made $22 million is wild.

5. Bruce Brown, Brooklyn Nets

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    The Contract: One year, $4.7 million

    Brown was never going to be the easiest player to price in free agency, since so much of what he does takes place away from the stat sheet. He captained this season's Luke Walton All-Star Team, an annual exercise from ESPN's Zach Lowe spotlighting under-the-radar players who starred in their roles.

    Brown's versatility stood out even in this increasingly positionless league. He essentially functioned as both a screen-setting "big" on offense (as a 6'4", 202-pounder) and perimeter stopper at the other end. More than anything, he found ways to fit, be that attacking the glass, slipping through the cracks on offense or even supplying some secondary playmaking.

    "He's a glue guy," Jim Larranaga, Brown's coach at the University of Miami, told Lowe. "He's an amoeba. He changes form. He's the best rebounding guard I've ever coached."

    Brown is...well, too important to a winning team to get a salary of this size (his qualifying offer). He could rank even higher if the contract had any length to it, but the salary is such a bargain, he's still a top-five steal on a one-year deal.

4. Patty Mills, Brooklyn Nets

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    Darren Abate/Associated Press

    The Contract: Two years, $12.1 million (player option on second season)

    Back-to-back Nets? Have a summer, Sean Marks.

    Brown seemed likely to stick around in some capacity, but the move for Mills was a stunner—and a steal. Adding him to what was already the Association's most efficient attack feels unfair. Doing it for the modest rate of $6 million per season, and while keeping him away from the Lakers, is just masterful work by this front office.

    Mills comes to Brooklyn boasting a lethal long-range shot (career 38.8 percent), the ability to steer a second-team offense and loads of playoff experience, including a 2014 title run with the San Antonio Spurs. He could have a similar impact (albeit without quite the same numbers) as Derrick Rose, who's the same age as Mills, has a terrifying injury history and will cost the New York Knicks $43 million over the next three seasons.

    It's possible (if not probable) Mills outperforms his salary to the degree that declining his player option becomes a no-brainer. It's also possible (again, if not probable) his efforts will have contributed to a championship run, so you won't hear the Nets complaining.

3. Kemba Walker, New York Knicks

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    The Contract: Two years, $17.9 million

    Who wants to start with a disclaimer? Well, too bad, we're going there first to get a couple things out of the way.

    One, Walker's pay rate is distorted by his buy out from the Oklahoma City Thunder. His finances were taken care of before signing with the Knicks, so he didn't have to squeeze them for every dollar. Two, because he arrived late to free agency, a lot of win-now spenders had already completed their shopping. Maybe the Bronx native still would've taken a club-friendly contract from the Knicks, but his market wasn't what it could have been.

    With that out of the way...Wow. He might be 31 years old and in a lengthy battle with his left knee, but just—wow. When he's right, he's about as potent as they come. He wasn't 100 percent this past season (and often looked nowhere near it) and still found his way to 19.3 points, 3.0 three-pointers and 4.9 assists per game. For context, six other players hit those marks across the entire league.

    As good as the signings have been to this point, Walker is on a different tier. This is where it shifts from good value for a solid role player to great contract for a possible star. It's hard to imagine there were two better signings this summer, but Walker's age and ongoing knee issues kept him from climbing any higher.

2. Lonzo Ball, Chicago Bulls

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    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    The Contract: Four years, $80 million (player option on fourth season)

    The Bulls needed to find a ball-mover this offseason. Ideally, the player could defend multiple positions and splash three-balls, too. Oh, and if he could somehow fit their win-now timeline and still provide value when Patrick Williams hits this peak, that would be phenomenal.

    Well, somehow Chicago checked all of the above boxes while poaching a 23-year-old restricted free agent and paying him below-market money. Also, Ball is someone that New Orleans Pelicans' franchise player Zion Williamson publicly said he wanted them to keep.

    So...yeah, still not quite sure how the Bulls got this done. But kudos to Arturas Karnisovas and the rest of this front office for giving this group exactly what it needed.

    In the Windy City, Ball will liven up the transition attack, lock down the perimeter defensively and make life easier on Chicago's shot-creators (Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic and DeMar DeRozan) as a vastly improved outside shooter (37.6 percent since the start of last season). Ball can help the Bulls win now and perhaps reach centerpiece status down the line.

    If not for a buzzer-beating megabargain in Boston, this would've been the summer's best signing by a comfortable margin.

1. Dennis Schroder, Boston Celtics

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    Barry Gossage/Getty Images

    The Contract: One year, $5.9 million

    Schroder misreading of his market is Boston's big gain.

    Back in March, the point guard turned down a four-year, $84 million extension offer from the Lakers. The decision looks disastrous with hindsight, but at the time it was defensible—if a bit optimistic. If nothing else, L.A. seemed destined to pay him virtually whatever he wanted with no obvious means of replacing him. Then, the Lakers pulled off the stunning trade for Westbrook, the point guard market evaporated and, well, here we are.

    People can debate whether Schroder is worth a $20 million salary, but it wouldn't have been shocking to see someone give him that kind of coin. He's one of only 16 players to tally 6,000 points and 1,500 assists since the start of 2016-17, despite starting just 63 percent of his games over that five-season stretch. He's a potent offensive weapon, especially when his threes drop. They didn't fall enough last season but did plenty the previous year (125 triples at a 38.5 percent clip).

    In other words, his talents are worth more than $6 million—a lot more. This market might have disagreed, but most wouldn't. He could be the third-best player on the Celtics, a club that will expect to make the playoffs and could make some noise upon arrival. Their chances of doing so improved dramatically as soon as the ink dried on this summer's best signing.

                  

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. Contract information via Spotrac.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.

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