Updated 2022 NBA Free-Agency Big Board

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistNovember 18, 2021

Updated 2022 NBA Free-Agency Big Board

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Now that we're a month into the 2021-22 NBA season, we have enough evidence to start backing up various claims about teams and players.

    There's still plenty of time for unusually hot and cold starts to correct themselves, but generally speaking, the numbers, roles and results are starting to feel real. And as lists like this one become more rooted in reliable information, it's easier to justify movement up or down the ladder.

    In the first few iterations of this season's free-agency big board, there was some hesitancy to drop players like Russell Westbrook or Kyrie Irving from their preseason posts.

    Now, given surges from others in the 2022 class of free agents, those moves are easier to make.

10. Jusuf Nurkic

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    An uncharacteristically bad start from Damian Lillard has captured most of the attention the Portland Trail Blazers are getting this season. That makes a lot of sense, given the rumors that surrounded the longtime face of the franchise this offseason.

    If he and the team continue to struggle, some of that noise about him moving on could resurface. On the other hand, a cold streak this long feels almost impossible for Lillard. The fact that the Blazers have a middle-of-the-road net rating in spite of that suggests they'll be fine in the long run.

    And if all the alarm bells are silenced, center Jusuf Nurkic might start to garner some more looks for another solid, well-rounded season.

    Nurkic rarely puts up the kind of individual stat lines that generate headlines or earn him national TV postgame interviews, but there's a steadiness to his production and impact that has consistently made Portland better as long as he's been there.

    This season, in just 24.3 minutes, Nurkic is averaging 11.1 rebounds, 10.6 points, 2.1 assists and 1.3 steals. The Blazers are plus-6.2 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor and minus-4.0 when he's off.

    If that on-off split remains on the right side of zero till the end of the campaign, it'll be Nurkic's fifth positive swing in five-plus seasons with Portland. An injury limited him to fewer than 300 minutes in the lone negative season.

    If Nurkic seriously tests the market in 2022, some team looking for a big who can dominate the glass, be in the right spots on defense, pass a little and score when opportunities arise will be interested.

9. Montrezl Harrell

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    This is Montrezl Harrell's first appearance on this season's big board, and if he keeps playing the way he is, he may rise a few more spots before we're done.

    Harrell was still top-50 in box plus/minus last season (BPM "... is a basketball 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), but he never quite seemed to fit in with the Los Angeles Lakers. And by the postseason, he was drawing DNP-CDs.

    In 2021-22, the fire, constant energy and pick-and-roll finishing that made Harrell the 2019-20 Sixth Man of the Year is back with a vengeance. He's averaging 18.0 points, 8.5 rebounds and a career-high 2.5 assists in just 28.5 minutes while shooting 63.6 percent from the field.

    And most importantly, he's an integral part of the Washington Wizards' unexpected first-place start to the campaign.

    The Wizards are 10-3 with Bradley Beal struggling in similar fashion to Lillard. Replacing Russell Westbrook with several role players led by Harrell and Spencer Dinwiddie has helped Washington more than survive as it awaits Beal's regression to the mean.

    And if Harrell keeps this up after Beal inevitably warms up, he'll continue to boost his value for this coming summer.

8. Russell Westbrook (Player Option)

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    If you just look at raw numbers, you might think Russell Westbrook is having a heck of a campaign for a 33-year-old player who's long relied on athleticism. In 35.5 minutes, Westbrook is averaging 19.4 points, 8.7 rebounds and 8.3 assists.

    It's tough to find a single advanced indicator that shows Westbrook is having a positive impact, though.

    He's posting what would be a career-low BPM of minus-2.6 (below replacement level) thanks in large part to an astronomical turnover rate and a true shooting percentage that's well below the league average.

    Regarding the former, Westbrook's 5.3 turnovers per 75 possessions is tied for the 11th-highest mark in the three-point era. And as far as the latter, there's probably no light at the end of the tunnel. Russ hasn't had an above-average true shooting percentage since 2016-17.

    Most importantly, all the missed shots, errant passes and ball mishandling have led to a dreadful impact on the Los Angeles Lakers' bottom line. With Westbrook on the floor, they're minus-7.1 points per 100 possessions. When he's off, they're plus-1.3.

    Now, having said all that, Westbrook got off to rough starts with both the Houston Rockets and Washington Wizards before turning things around (though not this rough). He and the Lakers have time to figure it out, but damage is already being done to his free-agency value.

    Russ would likely still expect a pretty big deal if he hits the market, but how many teams would sign up for massive usage, inefficient scoring, absent-minded defense and a two- or three-month adjustment period from a player entering his age-34 season?

7. Jalen Brunson

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    Matt Strasen/Associated Press

    Lest you think Jalen Brunson's placement ahead of Westbrook is disrespectful, take a look at the results of this blind poll. With voters unaware who the players behind the numbers were, it was obvious that Player A's 2021-22 production (Brunson) trounced Player B's (Westbrook). Then, consider the fact that Brunson is eight years younger, and his rise should be pretty easy to understand.

    Over the last three seasons, Brunson had sort of established himself as one of the game's better backup point guards. He wasn't going to do much to blow you away, but he took decent care of the ball, made solid decisions and hit threes at a respectable rate. That kind of steady-handedness was ideal for his role.

    But as Luka Doncic struggles with his efficiency in the early portion of the season, Brunson is showing he can scale his game up when needed.

    He's putting up a number of career highs, including points (15.1), assists (4.7), free throws and minutes per game, as well as BPM. And with him on the floor, the Dallas Mavericks have put up a point differential on par with a 65-win team. When he's off, the Mavs play like a five-win team (yes, five).

    If a team next summer is looking for some kind of alpha or No. 1 scorer, Brunson may not be the guy, but few point guards in the league fit the definition of "solid" quite as well as he does.

6. Kyrie Irving (Player Option)

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    If this big board was based entirely on pure talent, there would be an argument to have Kyrie Irving as high as second. Given James Harden's age and potential decline, he might even be first.

    Free-agency decisions depend on far more than talent, though. And any suitor will have to consider Irving's history of drama, chemistry issues and lack of availability (for various highly publicized reasons).

    "Brooklyn is probably the only team in the league that can carry him in the locker room, tolerate the PR demands, and maintain fan support," a league executive told HoopsHype's Michael Scotto.

    That quote came in response to questions about his trade value, but it isn't hard to stretch that logic to this summer.

    Still, it only takes one team. And for a team in need of a dynamic scorer, the lure of Kyrie might be too much to resist. At his peak, he went toe to toe with Stephen Curry and prevailed in the 2016 NBA Finals.

    If Irving enters free agency, it will have been six years and a number of non-basketball messes since that series, but some organization will likely convince itself that it could be the one to rediscover that magic.

5. Deandre Ayton (Restricted)

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    After the Phoenix Suns failed to sign him to an extension this offseason, Deandre Ayton said, "Obviously I'm disappointed, but I'm still trying to get us back to the Finals."

    Making good on the second part of that quote would likely eliminate the first and earn Ayton the kind of deal he sought prior to this season. But there are plenty of factors that could limit the size of his next contract.

    For one, facing the Los Angeles Lakers without Anthony Davis for much of the series, the Denver Nuggets without Jamal Murray for all of the series and the Los Angeles Clippers without Kawhi Leonard for all of the series isn't likely to happen again.

    The 2020-21 Suns were great, and they deserve plenty of credit for making the Finals. However, it's rare to get that many breaks in a single postseason. An earlier departure from the postseason this year is far from a given, but neither is a trip back to the game's biggest stage.

    If the Suns flame out early, that could affect Ayton's value. So could a relatively muted impact on the team. The big man has played only seven games so far, but Phoenix is significantly better when he's off the floor than on this season.

    A cap-strapped team in need of a big man might look at those on-off splits and per-game averages around 15 points and 10 rebounds and think it can find solid interior production for less than what Ayton will cost. Few teams will be able to carve out max contract space this summer anyway, so Phoenix might end up bidding against itself on him.

    Still, Ayton is a 6'11" player in his early 20s who can defend, move well, finish inside and has the potential to stretch the floor a bit as a mid-range shooter. It wouldn't be surprising if another organization works to manufacture the cap room necessary to land him.

4. Miles Bridges (Restricted)

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    There was some temptation to have Miles Bridges jump Deandre Ayton in the last set of free-agency rankings, in part because he might be able to do so literally. Now there's too much evidence to resist any longer.

    Bridges is averaging 21.5 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.5 threes. And he's doing so at a position of greater importance than Ayton.

    You can get decent center production from lower-profile players like Bridges' teammate, Mason Plumlee. Combo forwards who do what Bridges can—defend multiple positions, create a bit, hit open threes and put pressure on the rim—are harder to come by.

    And if Bridges maintains his production from the first month of the season, he's going to be among the most coveted players available on the free-agent market.

3. Bradley Beal (Player Option)

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    After averaging 30.9 points with a 52.6 effective field-goal percentage over the last two seasons, Bradley Beal is off to a sluggish start in 2021-22.

    His current mark of 23.3 points would be his lowest since 2017-18, and his 44.4 effective field-goal percentage would be a career low.

    Of course, it's hard to imagine those numbers holding. Beal will almost certainly start playing better, and it stands to reason that the Washington Wizards can at least maintain their current level of play if he does.

    Does that mean anyone would feel comfortable picking Beal over the likes of Kevin Durant or Giannis Antetokounmpo in a playoff series? Probably not.

    But after two straight years of threatening for a scoring title, Beal pushing the Wizards into a top-six seed would certainly boost his free-agent value.

2. Zach LaVine

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Prior to this season, there may have been some question regarding Zach LaVine's ability to scale back his game alongside other stars.

    In 2020-21, he averaged 27.4 points with an absurdly high 59.6 effective field-goal percentage, but it wouldn't have been hard to chalk a lot of that up to a "good stats, bad team" situation. Nikola Vucevic didn't arrive until the trade deadline, and no one else on the team last year averaged more than 15.1 points.

    After this offseason, LaVine now has to share the ball with Vuc, DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball. The early returns are just fine.

    LaVine's overall efficiency is down a tad, but he's still putting up 25.9 points and doing so for a good team. Knowing that he can coexist with other scorers like DeRozan while helping to secure wins should boost his already high free-agency stock this summer.

1. James Harden (Player Option)

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    Garett Fisbeck/Associated Press

    It's starting to seem like James Harden might not finish this season in the top spot on this list. That's the result of more than just his declining free-throw-attempt rate.

    Harden appears to have lost at least a half-step. Blow-bys on the perimeter are far less common. And with the drive being less of a threat, defenders are better able to guard against his step-back three.

    But even this version of Harden remains one of the game's best guards. He's averaging 19.8 points, 8.9 assists, 7.4 rebounds and 2.9 threes while shooting 38.9 from deep. And he's still showing off high-end vision and passing ability for kick-out and drop-off assists.

    Since Harden turned 32 in August, there may be some well-founded concerns about the start of an athletic decline. But if he hits the market next summer, plenty of teams will come calling.

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