The 10 Best NBA Free Agents Who Can Still Help Contenders

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistAugust 25, 2021

The 10 Best NBA Free Agents Who Can Still Help Contenders

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    A lack of available salary-cap space around the NBA made this a somewhat unusual free-agency period. Many players had to be acquired through sign-and-trades, minimum deals and cap exceptions.

    The squeeze potentially cost former Los Angeles Laker and new Boston Celtic Dennis Schroder close to $80 million. After turning down a long-term extension from L.A. last season, he saw that limited cap space snatched up by others before signing a $5.9 million deal with Boston.

    Lauri Markkanen is another free agent who may be looking at a reality that is quite a bit different than what he imagined heading into this offseason. And he remains unsigned. If he wants a deal that pays him more than the $6.7 million he made in the final year of his rookie contract, the restricted free agent will likely need a sign-and-trade.

    A number of trade exceptions around the league can absorb his new salary, though. Despite the lack of obvious spending power, there are still ways to add available talents like Markkanen, Paul Millsap and others.

    This late in the offseason, you're rarely going to find a star. But this slideshow provides a look at the top 10 players who can still make a difference on good teams.

    Of course, predicting how someone will perform in the future takes a healthy dose of subjectivity. Age, size, advanced metrics and projection systems like FiveThirtyEight's help, but the final order was determined by combining all of those factors with a feel for what the future holds.

10. Marquese Chriss

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    There isn't a good time for a significant injury, but the fact that Marquese Chriss' fractured leg came on the heels of a minor breakout in 2019-20 was a major momentum killer.

    In his first season with the Golden State Warriors, Chriss averaged 16.4 points, 11.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.2 steals per 75 possessions. He was second on the team in total wins over replacement player.

    Of course, one might chalk that up to a "good stats, bad team" situation, but Chriss showed enough of a multifaceted game to get a look from someone this offseason.

    He wouldn't be called upon to start at the 5 right away, but he can stack up traditional numbers against backups. He's a good finisher and rebounder who can also find open teammates at a decent rate for his position.

9. Shaquille Harrison

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    Teams around the league often seem to be in the market for more perimeter defense, and few players provide it as well as Shaquille Harrison.

    During his career, the fifth-year guard trails only Matisse Thybulle and Kris Dunn in steals per possession, and he's fifth in defensive box plus/minus, which is a "box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player's contribution to the team when that player is on the court," according to Basketball Reference, among players 6'7" or shorter.

    If you're looking to cool off someone on a heater, Harrison's length, athleticism and on-ball tenacity would be a heck of an option.

    Of course, basketball is about more than defense. And Harrison's struggles on the other end are why he has bounced around the league and remains unsigned.

    He's at just 47.9 percent from two-point range and 28.3 percent from three. If he could be anywhere near the 38.1 percent he shot from deep in 2019-20, he'd be a major value signing.

8. Denzel Valentine

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    The theme of "this player is one or two years removed from a solid season" continues. Only in Denzel Valentine's case, we have to stretch back to 2017-18.

    That season, the then-24-year-old Valentine averaged 13.7 points, 6.9 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 2.5 threes and 1.1 steals per 75 possessions, while shooting 38.6 percent from three.

    At 6'4", he's undersized, but that kind of Swiss Army knife production would help make up for that. The combination of passing and three-point shooting is particularly intriguing.

    Secondary creators can take some pressure off primary options, especially if they can check both of those boxes. The playmaking allows the star to work off the ball at times. And the shooting gives him an outlet when drives get stifled.

    Though we're talking about production from a few years ago, it might be worth a minimum contract to see if it's still in there.

7. Dante Exum

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    Terrible luck with injuries has been the biggest problem throughout Dante Exum's career. When healthy, he's been a top-tier perimeter defender who can beat almost anyone with a lightning-like first step (though he often struggled with whatever came after beating that first man).

    And after managing just six appearances in another injury-plagued campaign with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Houston Rockets in 2020-21, the 26-year-old Exum looked positively spry at the Tokyo Olympics.

    As a utility man for Australia's bronze-medal-winning Boomers, the 6'5" Exum averaged 9.0 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game, while shooting 6-of-10 from three. And he was clearly his team's best defender.

    Surely, some franchise's front office watched the tournament and wondered how that version of Exum would fit in with its reserves.

6. Isaiah Hartenstein

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    Throughout his three-year career, Isaiah Hartenstein has been a per-possession machine. And a slight uptick in passing in 2020-21 should make him intriguing for any team in need of depth at center.

    As a backup for the Denver Nuggets and Cleveland Cavaliers, Hartenstein averaged 15.6 points, 12.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.6 blocks and 1.3 steals per 75 possessions.

    His ceiling might be reached as someone who does most of his damage as a rim-runner, but Hartenstein proved capable of a little more.

    He can block shots in rotation, pass out of crowded rolls to the rim and clean up the boards.

    And he's just 23 years old.

5. Jabari Parker

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    Jabari Parker was the No. 2 pick in the much-ballyhooed 2014 draft class. Seven years later, he's 19th among his draft classmates in career wins over replacement player (a few spots better than No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins).

    It's safe to say things haven't gone quite according to plan for the former blue chipper, and injuries (including two torn ACLs) had a lot to do with that.

    Still, on a minimum salary for the Boston Celtics in 2020-21, he showed flashes of the kind of scoring ability and versatility that made him such a high draft pick.

    He averaged 17.0 points per 75 possessions in 10 regular-season appearances with Boston and then hit double figures twice in the playoffs.

    Even with his explosiveness somewhat limited by the knee injuries, Parker can still bully his way to the rim. And a 37.1 three-point percentage in 2016-17 and 2017-18 may offer a sliver of hope for his jumper.

    As a heat-check-off-the-bench guy, Parker can help the right team.

4. Jarred Vanderbilt

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    Jarred Vanderbilt is the kind gap-filling forward most teams could use. The restricted free agent fights on the glass, defends and moves the ball without the reward of many scoring opportunities. And he took advantage of the few chances he got, posting a 61.2 true shooting percentage last season.

    He also averaged 11.4 boards, 10.7 points, 2.4 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.4 blocks per 75 possessions. And face-of-the-franchise Karl-Anthony Towns had a significantly better net rating when he shared the floor with Vanderbilt.

    At 6'9", he can also float from one position to another, which allowed the Minnesota Timberwolves to spare lesser defensive players from difficult assignments.

    And on top of it all, he's just 22 years old. So things he's missing, like an outside shot, could come along in time.

3. JJ Redick

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    JJ Redick is 37 years old and coming off what may have been the worst season of his career.

    He posted his worst BPM and his lowest three-point percentage since 2012-13. And one thing that helps some floor spacers last a bit longer after their athleticism wanes is size, which the 6'3" Redick doesn't have.

    In his defense, though, it can be difficult for a shooter to play at peak levels with a role as volatile as Redick's was last season. He was in and out of the rotations of both the New Orleans Pelicans and Dallas Mavericks and never quite got in a rhythm.

    In a defined, consistent role, he should still provide value by bending defenses with his off-ball movement and taking advantage of catch-and-shoot looks.

2. Paul Millsap

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    Like Redick, 36-year-old Paul Millsap is well past his prime. His average for minutes has gone down in each of his last four seasons, and he just scored fewer than 10 points per game for the first time since 2007-08.

    But in this limited role, he still provides plenty of value as a big who can play the 4 or 5, rebound a little, hit threes and even create for others.

    Per 75 possessions, he averaged a box score-stuffing 16.0 points, 8.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.6 threes, 1.6 steals and 1.1 blocks for the Denver Nuggets last season.

    He may not be able to contribute at that level for more than 20 to 25 minutes per game, but whatever team signs him likely isn't looking for more anyway.

1. Lauri Markkanen

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    After averaging 18.7 points in 32.3 minutes in 2018-19, Lauri Markkanen has seen his scoring and minutes averages decline in each of the last two seasons. He's never been an exceptional rebounder or rim protector for a 7-footer either.

    But Markkanen combines two simple elements that should make him an intriguing target throughout his career: size and shooting.

    Last season, he averaged a career-high 3.3 threes per 75 possessions and shot 40.2 percent from three. That kind of floor spacing opens up the lane for slashers.

    The fact that Markkanen is just 24 should be a selling point too. He'll never develop into a multifaceted big like Nikola Jokic or a defender like Rudy Gobert, but he still has plenty of time to make incremental gains in other parts of his game.


    Statistics via Basketball Reference and PBP Stats unless otherwise noted.