Top Landing Spots for NBA's Best 2022 Free Agents

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistApril 2, 2022

Top Landing Spots for NBA's Best 2022 Free Agents

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    We may be near the eve of the NBA's 2022 postseason, but it's never too early to start thinking about what might happen in the summer.

    And though there isn't a lot of spending power available, you can never count out offseason player movement.

    According to Spotrac, there are just six teams projected to have any cap space, and there isn't a max contract spot between them. That means Bird rights (which gives incumbent teams the ability to go over the cap to sign their own guys) and various cap exceptions will be heavily trafficked avenues in July.

    Sign-and-trades and other cap wizardry could still open doors for big-name players to find new teams, but staying put is probably the safe bet for a lot of these guys.

    With that landscape in mind, let's look at the top potential landing spots for the best available free agents (as determined by yours truly). 

Malik Monk: Detroit Pistons

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    Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    Malik Monk has been one of the few bright spots from an otherwise disappointing 2021-22 campaign from the Los Angeles Lakers.

    The problem is that his production (13.4 points, 2.3 threes and a 39.1 percent three-point rate in 27.8 minutes per game) might price him out of a return to L.A.

    According to ESPN's Bobby Marks, the most the Lakers can offer Monk is a $6.3 million salary by way of the taxpayer's midlevel exception. And getting something better than that on the open market seems likely.

    A young team like the Detroit Pistons, in need of reliable shooters who can space the floor around Cade Cunningham, could almost certainly justify a three- or four-year deal with an annual salary that more than doubles what L.A. can give.

    And Detroit is one of those aforementioned organizations that has a little cap space to work with.

    The Cunningham-Killian Hayes pairing has been fascinating from a playmaking perspective, but it's getting increasingly difficult to imagine the latter scoring reliably in the NBA.

    And if Cade-Marvin Bagley III pick-and-rolls are flanked by marksmen like Monk and Saddiq Bey, the Pistons would be difficult to defend.

Anfernee Simons (Restricted): Portland Trail Blazers

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    Damian Lillard played his last game of the season on New Year's Eve, and his replacement in the lineup did a heck of an impression of the All-Star guard.

    Prior to that date, Anfernee Simons averaged 11.9 points and shot 37.3 percent from three. Those are solid numbers for a young reserve guard, but they don't leap off the screen.

    Once he became a permanent starter, though, his production skyrocketed. Over 27 starts from January 3 to the end of his campaign (Simons was also ruled out for the season in March), he averaged 23.4 points, 5.8 assists and 4.4 threes while shooting 42.3 percent from beyond the arc.

    His ascension from role player to 20-point-per-game scorer was not unlike that of CJ McCollum, who made a similar leap for the Portland Trail Blazers in 2015-16. But that similarity may also be cause for concern.

    Portland just traded McCollum in February, in part because the team seemed to have reached its ceiling with a backcourt that includes Lillard and another small, offense-first guard. Do the Blazers really want to run that back with Simons?

    According to HoopsHype's Michael Scotto, "Most people around the league think Simons will be retained by the Blazers."

    Of course, with a fully healthy roster, bringing the 6'3" Simons back might mean a return to the bench. Josh Hart, who came back to Portland in the McCollum deal, is more defensively inclined and averaged 19.9 points in 13 games with the Blazers.

    A three-guard lineup with him, Lillard and Simons makes some sense, but maximizing the youngest member of that trio, 22-year-old Simons, will likely mean more minutes with an undersized backcourt.

    Given the fact that he's a restricted free agent—meaning Portland could match any offer sheet he signs—and the lack of financially capable suitors, the Blazers will almost certainly go down that road again.

Mitchell Robinson: Portland Trail Blazers

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    Jusuf Nurkic has been a crucial part of the Blazers' regular-season success over the years. Over his five full seasons with the team, Portland was plus-6.9 points per 100 possessions when Lillard played with Nurkic and plus-1.6 when he played without the big man.

    He's a solid positional defender, a bruising rebounder and an underrated connector on offense (he's averaged 3.8 assists per 75 possessions in Portland).

    But Nurkic is a free agent this summer. And at the most recent trade deadline, when the Blazers moved Robert Covington, Norman Powell and McCollum, it sure seemed like an organizational pivot was on the way.

    If the team is committed to building a roster that can cover for the defensive limitations of Lillard and Simons, replacing Nurkic with Mitchell Robinson could make sense.

    And because of Robinson's somewhat stagnant last couple of seasons with the New York Knicks, Portland (projected to have around $20 million in cap space) might be able to afford him.

    For his career, Robinson has averaged 6.5 defensive rebounds, 3.1 blocks and 1.4 steals per 75 possessions.

Jalen Brunson: Dallas Mavericks

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    One of the benefits of having 6'7" Luka Doncic functioning as the point guard on offense is that he can be assigned to guard wings and forwards. That opens up defensive assignments for smaller players like Jalen Brunson and allows the Dallas Mavericks to deploy multiple playmakers on the other end.

    And this season, that has led to a lot of winning minutes.

    The Mavericks are:

    • plus-2.6 points per 100 possessions when Luka plays without Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie;
    • plus-2.8 points per 100 possessions when Luka plays with Brunson; and
    • plus-5.8 points per 100 possessions when Luka plays with both Brunson and Dinwiddie.

    The versatility of those multi-creator lineups makes the Mavericks difficult to defend. Shut off one valve to the rim and all three are capable of finding the right teammate to open another. Eventually, a good shot is almost always going to get through.

    That's part of why it's difficult to imagine Dallas letting Brunson go.

    With averages of 16.2 points and 4.9 assists from a secondary role, he'll surely have some suitors on the open market, but ESPN's Tim MacMahon has reported that Brunson's preference would be a return to the Mavs.

Deandre Ayton (Restricted): Phoenix Suns

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Extension negotiations between Deandre Ayton and the Phoenix Suns went haywire this past offseason, and he should have suitors in restricted free agency this summer.

    The Pistons, for example, would make sense for the 23-year-old big. A two-man game with him and Cade would cause all kinds of problems.

    But Phoenix declining to match whatever offer he gets, even if it's a max, almost certainly won't happen.

    Devin Booker and Chris Paul understandably get the bulk of the credit for the Suns' turnaround over the last few years, but Ayton has been integral too.

    Over the course of his four NBA seasons, the Suns' point differential is better when he's on the floor, and that's thanks to contributions on both ends.

    Ayton is nimble enough to survive on perimeter switches on defense. And his touch in and around the paint makes him a weapon in the middle of the floor.

    Over his first seasons, he's averaged 19.2 points, 12.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per 75 possessions. DeMarcus Cousins, Tim Duncan, Joel Embiid, Shaquille O'Neal and Karl-Anthony Towns are the only players in league history to match or exceed all three marks through their age-23 seasons.

Miles Bridges (Restricted): Charlotte Hornets

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    Rusty Jones/Associated Press

    Like Ayton, Miles Bridges will get plenty of attention from teams with cap space as he enters restricted free agency.

    In his first NBA contract year, Bridges put up career highs in points (20.3), rebounds (7.1) and assists (3.8) per game. And his impact on the Charlotte Hornets has been undeniable.

    With Bridges on the floor, Charlotte is plus-2.7 points per 100 possessions. It's minus-5.8 when he's off.

    That swing is, in part, the product of a lot of the typical abilities of three-and-D forwards. Bridges has the size (6'6") and athleticism to guard all over the floor and against various positions. His three-point percentage has fallen from 40.0 in 2020-21 to 32.9 this season, but he still makes enough to force defenders out there.

    What has driven his breakout, though, is his ability to play bully ball on drives. This season, he's attempting 5.2 shots out of drives per game and shooting 53.1 percent on those shots. Last season, those numbers were 48.2 percent on 2.1 driving attempts per contest.

    The improvement in getting to the paint and collapsing defenses has made Bridges a more well-rounded player. And when surrounded by shooters like LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier, it's opened up some playmaking he hadn't previously shown.

    For Charlotte to move on from the combination of him and Ball after just two seasons wouldn't make a lot of sense. And though Bridges is sure to get a handsome offer from someone this summer, the Hornets almost have to match it.

Bradley Beal (Player Option): Washington Wizards

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    Bradley Beal could enter unrestricted free agency this summer, but he'd have to decline a $37.3 million player option.

    And barring a sign-and-trade, there aren't any teams that could afford the max deal he'd surely be after.

    So, even as rumors continue to swirl about Beal eventually leaving the Washington Wizards (as they have for years), the likeliest outcome is that he'll remain with the team.

    There's plenty for him to look forward to next season. Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija have shown decent development as potential three-and-D forwards. And Kristaps Porzingis looks like a solid option to make up one half of a two-man game with Beal.

    Having said all that, the smoke emerging from these rumors likely isn't going away any time soon.

    On a recent appearance on Draymond Green's podcast, Beal said that he wanted to win in Washington, but he also didn't close the door on leaving.

    "I want to do it here," Beal said (h/t CBS Sports). "But there also comes a point, Dray, that you also know that it becomes a business. And if you feel like the stars aren't aligned with that, then everybody's going to do what's best for them, regardless of what the money is."

James Harden (Player Option): Philadelphia 76ers

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    James Harden picking up his $46.9 million option for 2022-23 has felt like a foregone conclusion ever since the Philadelphia 76ers traded for him in February.

    "James Harden said that he plans to opt in to the final year of his contract but has not done so yet," The Athletic's Rich Hofmann wrote a few days after the deal. "'Everything happened so fast.'"

    Of course, an early meltdown in the playoffs could change things. If we've learned anything about Harden over the last couple of years, it's that satisfaction with his situation is unpredictable.

    After forcing his way out of both Houston and Brooklyn, though, you'd think he'd be intent on making it work with Joel Embiid and the Sixers. And a few months is far from enough time to know whether it worked, unless Philadelphia wins the title this summer.

Zach LaVine: Chicago Bulls

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    At the start of this season, NBC Sports' KC Johnson said on the HoopsHype podcast that "every indication I've been given both internally from [Zach LaVine's] side and the [Chicago Bulls] is this is a match made to move forward together." 

    And that was before Chicago cruised past its preseason over/under on March 26 despite facing significant injuries all season.

    When everyone was healthy, this team looked like a borderline contender. It was plus-6.8 points per 100 possessions when LaVine was on the floor with Lonzo Ball, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic. And there didn't seem to be any tension regarding who'd get the most possessions.

    Now, with so little cap space on the open market this summer, it makes sense for LaVine to re-sign and hope for better health for Ball and Alex Caruso in 2022-23.

Kyrie Irving (Player Option): Brooklyn Nets

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    Kyrie Irving has made and broken free-agency promises before. In October of 2018, he infamously told an arena full of Boston Celtics fans, "If you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing here."

    And of course, that season was his last in Boston.

    But Irving was traded to the Celtics. He picked the Brooklyn Nets. And he didn't go there alone. Kevin Durant came along with him, and Irving recently said he'd have a hard time leaving the superstar behind.

    "It has always been about being comfortable loving where I'm at, and I love it here," Irving recently told reporters. "Once that summertime hits, I know that we'll have some conversations; but there's no way I can leave my man seven anywhere.”

    Injuries and local COVID-19 regulations have limited the amount of time those two have been able to see together on the court this season, but the Nets play like a juggernaut when they're both on the floor.

    When they've both been playing without Harden, Brooklyn is plus-9.6 points per 100 possessions. The Nets and Irving should both be eager to see if that kind of dominance holds up over a larger sample size in future seasons.