Early Heat Checks for NBA's Top 2022 Free Agents

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistOctober 28, 2021

Early Heat Checks for NBA's Top 2022 Free Agents

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    The 2021-22 NBA season is a contract year for a number of high-profile players. Big performances now could mean big paydays this summer. Failing to meet expectations could cost some of the following names millions.

    There won't be much cap space available, but there are still mechanisms (like the sign-and-trade) for hefty deals for the likes of James Harden, Bradley Beal, Zach LaVine and others.

    Have those and other top free agents made or lost money in this early portion of the season? It's probably too early to say definitively, but there are certainly signs for everyone on the list.

    Let's examine those signs, break out the imaginary thermometer and take some temperatures on upcoming free agents.

10. Collin Sexton (Restricted)

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The heat-check guard drawing the first heat check feels appropriate. With Darius Garland developing and Ricky Rubio now on the roster, Collin Sexton may be forced to lean even harder into that shooting guard mentality.

    Those two are undoubtedly more suited for the traditional point guard mold than Sexton is, and they've assumed the bulk of the distribution duties early on. Sexton's assist numbers, a concern over his first few NBA seasons, have consequently fallen from 4.4 in 2020-21 to 2.3 this season.

    That might not seem like much of a problem for a player with a career scoring average over 20, but Sexton's height (6'1") would almost pigeonhole him into some minutes at the 1 on most rosters. At the 2, where he spends most of his playing time with Cleveland, he's at an insurmountable physical disadvantage in many matchups.

    Still, even if Sexton struggles to move the needle in the right direction on defense, he's more than proven himself as a scorer. Beyond the aforementioned scoring average, Sexton has posted an above-average three-point percentage every year he's been in the league.

    Lack of defense and passing will probably keep him away from anything approaching max money, but Sexton will have suitors this summer.

    Temperature: Warm

9. Jusuf Nurkic

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    Steve Dykes/Associated Press

    Jusuf Nurkic's minutes and usage percentage haven't recovered to pre-injury levels, but he's still providing well-rounded contributions in a limited capacity.

    He's a dominant rebounder, underrated passer (3.8 assists per 75 possessions over the past five seasons) and theoretical floor spacer. Though he doesn't pile up block numbers like Rudy Gobert or Anthony Davis, Nurkic is a solid positional defender. At his size, sometimes simply taking up space inside is enough to help.

    If Nurkic really wants to shore up his value in free agency, though, transitioning that floor spacing from a theoretical benefit to a real one would go a long way.

    Over the past three seasons, he's attempted 0.9 threes per game and hit 34.9 percent of those attempts. If he could up that volume a tad and drive the percentage to around league average, he'd earn himself a bit more attention this summer.

    Temperature: Warm

8. Russell Westbrook (Player Option)

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    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    Russell Westbrook had, by far, his best game of the season in the Los Angeles Lakers' 125-121 win over the San Antonio Spurs on Monday.

    After averaging 12.0 points on 34.9 percent shooting (including 9.1 percent from three) through L.A.'s first three games, Westbrook exploded for 33 on 15-of-27 shooting against San Antonio.

    The obvious difference was that LeBron James didn't play on Monday. And though the Lakers won, that's a troubling sign for the team and anyone else who might be interested in Westbrook this summer.

    At this point in his career, it seems clear that the soon-to-be-33-year-old Westbrook probably shouldn't be the focal point of your offense. We've seen that model crash on numerous occasions, and Westbrook is now past his prime. Barring some dramatic shift in playing style or a miraculous improvement as a shooter, it won't suddenly become a recipe for contention.

    Instead, Westbrook probably needs to figure out how to thrive as the second or third guy in the pecking order. Individually, he's had some success in that regard with the Houston Rockets and Washington Wizards. But again, there wasn't a ton of team success in those experiments.

    Additionally, the early returns on his minutes alongside LeBron don't look too promising.

    It's too early to jump ship, though. After adjustment periods in Houston and Washington, Westbrook settled into typically Westbrook-ian production. It just remains to be seen whether LeBron and Anthony Davis can leverage that kind of production toward playoff wins.

    Temperature: Cool

7. Mitchell Robinson

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    Steven Ryan/Getty Images

    For the first two seasons of his career, Mitchell Robinson was an off-the-bench, per-possession marvel.

    Over the course of the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, Robinson averaged 14.1 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.7 blocks per 75 possessions, with a league-best 71.0 true shooting percentage. He was 35th in the NBA in box plus/minus during that span.

    Then, injuries and more minutes against starters took a toll on Robinson's numbers—advanced and otherwise. He only managed 31 appearances in 2020-21, and his block rate has plummeted to a career low in 2021-22.

    There's still reason to believe the 23-year-old Robinson can develop into a rim-running and -protecting force in the mold of Tyson Chandler or Rudy Gobert, but those expectations have been tempered just a bit.

    Temperature: Cool

6. Miles Bridges (Restricted)

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Miles Bridges has come flying into 2021-22 like Hansel crashing the funeral in Zoolander. Bridges is, as Mugatu put it, "so hot right now."

    After averaging 10.8 points and shooting 35.4 percent from three in his first three seasons, Bridges has already eclipsed the 30-point mark in two games this season. He came into 2021-22 with just three 30-point performances.

    Bridges is more than just a highlight-reel dunker now, though he still does plenty of that. His three-point stroke has become a reliable source of offense for the Charlotte Hornets. Also, his drives that don't end above the rim are far more dangerous than they were in years past.

    When defenders are able to stay in front of Bridges, he's shown a willingness and ability to bully his way through them.

    With LaMelo Ball setting him up and Gordon Hayward seemingly comfortable to play the gap-filler role, there's no reason to think Bridges' high usage is going to disappear any time soon.

    In a league where positionless basketball is becoming more and more popular, a combo forward like Bridges could command a ton of interest this summer. If he keeps up this level of play throughout the season, he'll probably have to be bumped a little further up lists like this.

    Temperature: Hot

5. Deandre Ayton (Restricted)

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    Barry Gossage/Getty Images

    The 2018 draft class set an NBA record with over $1 billion in extensions signed ahead of the 2021-22 season. That didn't include the No. 1 pick, whose lack of a deal got as much attention as any contract that was signed.

    According to ESPN's Brian Windhorst, Deandre Ayton wanted the "Trae Young max" of five years and $172.6 million.

    "That's what his expectation was," Windhorst said on The Hoop Collective (starting at the 6:00 mark). "The Suns were not willing to give him a five-year contract."

    Now, Ayton will enter restricted free agency. Given the aforementioned lack of available cap space this summer, a max offer sheet may not be quite as likely as it seems, but it only takes one. The Phoenix Suns would almost certainly match any offer Ayton accepts, but we've seen competitors try to tie up teams' books in the past (never forget Allen Crabbe).

    Even if multiple monster offers aren't out there, Ayton surely wants to perform well in a contract year, and that hasn't really happened so far. His marks for points, rebounds, blocks and true shooting percentage are all down.

    The nature of restricted free agency and the lack of money out there are doing enough to fiddle with Ayton's free agency. He doesn't need to add a regression in production to that list of factors.

    Temperature: Cool

4. Kyrie Irving (Player Option)

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    New York's regulations on the COVID-19 vaccine, as well as the Brooklyn Nets' decision on Kyrie Irving's part-time player status have prevented him from playing a single minute of NBA action this season.

    Irving will be 30 next season, possibly coming off a lost year and on the heels of a five-year run packed with drama and lack of availability for the Boston Celtics and the Nets.

    For a team considering a run at Kyrie, there is so much more to consider than just what he does on the court. If he declines his player option, though, some teams will almost certainly still be interested.

    Since the start of the 2016-17 campaign, Irving has averaged 25.2 points, 6.0 assists and 2.7 threes with a 40.2 three-point percentage. He's one of the most dynamic scorers basketball has ever seen, top-30 all time in career BPM and still presumably in his prime.

    Temperature: Cold

3. Zach LaVine

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Give or take a little, Zach LaVine's basic production through the early portion of this season looks about the same as it did in 2020-21. And that's a good thing.

    Despite playing in one of the league's bigger media markets, LaVine's ascendance toward the top of the league as a scorer has almost felt quiet. For years, he was sort of painted as a George Costanza-style chucker. Then, all of the sudden, his efficiency skyrocketed in 2020-21.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo, Charles Barkley, Stephen Curry and Shaquille O'Neal are the only players in NBA history who've had seasons in which they matched or exceeded both of LaVine's marks in points per game (27.4) and effective field-goal percentage (59.6).

    Keeping up that kind of production, or at least staying close, certainly wouldn't hurt LaVine's market, but his scoring bona fides should be established in most minds now.

    Where LaVine could really change opinions of himself is on the other end.

    The Chicago Bulls are a much-better-than-expected fourth on defense this season, but their strength of schedule is in the bottom third of the league. LaVine has looked more engaged against opposing wings, but it will be interesting to see how that holds up against stiffer competition.

    Temperature: Warm

2. Bradley Beal (Player Option)

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    We've reached a point in the slideshow where temperature checks may not be all that meaningful.

    Barring a major injury or some catastrophic drop in productivity, LaVine, Bradley Beal and the final player below are likely cruising toward max deals from someone.

    Still, it's fair to point out that Beal has stumbled a bit out of the gate. He missed one game with a minor knee injury and his field-goal percentage is currently south of 40.

    One great performance could dramatically alter his numbers, but we can only assume that's coming right now.

    Temperature: Cool

1. James Harden (Player Option)

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    James Harden is off to a thoroughly un-James Harden start to the season.

    From his first season with the Houston Rockets to the end of the 2020-21 campaign (nine years), Harden averaged 10.2 free-throw attempts per game. This season, he's at just 3.0.

    He has a much different role on this team—operating more like a traditional point guard than he has in years past—but it's hard to ignore a recent rule change's impact.

    Offensive players have been abandoning their natural motions on shots, drives and other plays for years in attempts to draw fouls. Up until this season, they were often rewarded by officials. Now that they've been instructed that the "launch yourself into the defender like a guided missile" move isn't a defensive foul, some players are struggling to adjust.

    Harden himself agreed with coach Steve Nash's characterization that he's become the "poster boy" of the rule change. The results do too.

    Harden is averaging 17.3 points, his lowest mark since his days with the Oklahoma City Thunder. His 48.4 true shooting percentage would be, by far, a career low.

    As was said with Beal, one good game could make this all look a lot different, but it's bad at the moment.

    Still, Harden is one of the greatest offensive players of all time. He'll almost surely adjust to the rule changes and remain absurdly productive. Even without the scoring, his vision and passing will make him valuable for years to come.

    Regardless of what he's shown through a handful of 2021-22 games, it's hard to imagine him getting anything other than a max if he tests free agency. 

    Temperature: Cold