2022 NBA Free Agents with Most Money at Stake in PlayoffsApril 20, 2022
2022 NBA Free Agents with Most Money at Stake in Playoffs
The NBA playoffs can change everything for a player—including his paycheck.
The spotlight alone can swing future earnings multiple millions in either direction, but it's more than that. The playoffs reveal whether a player can perform (or not) under pressure, against the NBA's elites and in series where detailed game plans are specifically made to minimize opponents' strengths and exploit weaknesses.
For non-elite free agents—those who can't count max-money contracts as mere formalities—this is the ultimate sink-or-swim opportunity. Deliver, and they can name their price this summer; flop, and their pocketbooks will feel it.
James Harden, PG/SG, Philadelphia 76ers
In mid-February, Harden said he plans to pick up his $47.4 million player option for next season, per PhillyVoice's Kyle Neubeck, so he might not wind up being part of this year's free-agent pool. Even if he is, Philly might feel pot-committed to him and deem him worthy of a max contract regardless of how this postseason plays out.
If neither of those are true, though, the Beard will have as many eyeballs on him as anyone during the trek to the title. His numbers are down by volume and efficiency this season, his playoff track record is glaringly light on impact performances, he burned bridges on his way out of Brooklyn and Houston, and he'll turn 33 before next season tips off.
There's a scenario in which he exits the summer with a five-year max worth nearly $275 million, and another in which the market proves much more tepid than expected and he sees significantly less in years, salary or both.
Kyrie Irving, PG, Brooklyn Nets
As with Harden, Irving's ex-running mate in Brooklyn, there may not be much drama here. He has expressed a desire to stay with the Nets, and they may see no reason to change that. Irving has great chemistry with Kevin Durant, and he has at least met all expectations when he has played, if not exceeded them.
What makes him worth a mention, then? Well, he doesn't always play. This season, his vaccination status got in the way. Last season, he disappeared for a two-week sabbatical for personal reasons. The year prior, a shoulder injury got the better of him.
Irving hasn't played 70 regular-season games in one year since 2016-17, has never played more than 75 games in a season and has suited up in only 103 regular-season games since the start of 2019-20. He misses enough time to justify questioning if his on-court magic is worth everything else that comes with it, a question not easily answered by anyone mulling a max offer to him.
But the postseason presents another chance for him to answer with an emphatic "Yes!" If his first outing was any indication, he might do exactly that.
Jordan Poole, SG, Golden State Warriors
Poole isn't technically a free agent this summer, but he is eligible for a contract extension. And with each monster effort he puts forward—he's scored 59 points on 29 field-goal attempts through his first two career playoff outings—the cost of that extension spikes.
Back in February, Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle floated the possibility of an extension offer in the "four-year, $80 million range." Poole, who averaged 25.4 points on 49.5/44.4/89.9 shooting splits during the month of March, might make that amount look laughable by the time Golden State's playoff run wraps up.
His star is clearly ascending, and if he sustains anything close to this production on basketball's biggest stage, he could lock down a nine-figure deal with relative ease.
Chris Boucher, PF/C, Toronto Raptors
Chris Boucher is basketball's proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. There are nights when he resembles the future of NBA bigs, and others that make you wonder how he made it onto the floor.
Just check Toronto's first two tilts this postseason. In Game 1, he was an afterthought. He fouled out in fewer than 15 minutes and managed only seven points and two rebounds. But in Game 2, he pounced on the opportunity provided by Scottie Barnes' absence and popped for 17 points on 8-of-13 shooting, eight rebounds, two blocks and only one foul in 30 minutes.
Boucher has flashed the enviable combination of shot-blocking and floor-spacing, which made him one of only three players to average at least 1.5 threes and 1.5 blocks last season. Tack on his 38.3 percent shooting percentage from deep last season, and teams hoping to modernize their frontcourt will have a tough time forgetting those numbers.
However, Boucher has struggled providing a reliable presence, undone by everything from poor shot selection and missed rotations to limited activity on the glass and an inconsistent motor. His floor time fluctuates from 30-plus minutes to never getting off of the bench.
The Raptors may not stick around in the playoffs long enough for Boucher to change his narrative, but if he's able to maintain his Game 2 impact—Toronto lost the 30 minutes he played by a single point and the 18 minutes without him by 14—he could play his way into a not-insignificant salary. Otherwise, he's probably looking at a short-term, prove-it pact.
Bruce Brown, SG/SF, Brooklyn Nets
If the biggest wave Bruce Brown makes this playoffs is providing the Boston Celtics with bulletin-board material, then he probably won't collect a Powerball-sized paycheck this offseason.
But there's a chance for Brown to do so much more—and, subsequently, make so much more—on a Brooklyn Nets team often searching for solutions beyond megastars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Brown is the prototypical glue guy. While the importance of that role is universally appreciated, front offices aren't always enthused to splurge on that archetype, and it isn't one that often sends fanbases into a frenzy. If the 25-year-old's success stems more from subtleties than statistics, he might float far enough under the radar to keep his contract offers similarly muted.
However, Brown's post-All-Star-break surge highlighted the myriad ways in which he was leveling up. He averaged 14.7 points on 53.0/47.2/77.5 shooting, 5.9 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks, and the Nets were 8.0 points better per 100 possessions than they were without him.
"We all love how Bruce has been playing lately," Durant said earlier this month, per Zach Braziller of the New York Post. "... At this point I expect him to come out here and play well now."
If Brown perks up as a shooter and secondary playmaker this postseason, he could fetch a healthy sum in free agency. If he turns back into a defense-only pumpkin, he'll need to further hone his offensive craft in hopes of a future payday.
Jalen Brunson, PG, Dallas Mavericks
Jalen Brunson might not be a household name—although his 41-point eruption on Monday night might move him that direction—but he could be the best free agent to change teams this offseason. The New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers have all been linked to Brunson, per Dallas Basketball's Grant Afseth, and more suitors could emerge if he turns this postseason into his personal breakout showcase.
Monday's outing was helpful on that front, but he quietly needed a lift. While he wasn't quite a dud in Game 1 against the Utah Jazz, he still had as many shots as points (24 each) and didn't make a major dent as a playmaker (five assists in 41 minutes). He was also forced off of the floor in the 2021 playoffs (16.3 minutes per game) despite shooting well, as he couldn't find his footing as a defender or distributor.
"The guard is believed by many to be seeking near a four-year, $80 million contract," B/R's Eric Pincus reported in January. "That is a large number, especially for a player that several competing executives think is too big of a target defensively in the playoffs."
The 6'1", 190-pound Brunson pumped up his production across the board this season, but his numbers were more good than great (16.3 points and 4.8 assists in 31.9 minutes). Good players get paid in this league, but great ones cash the biggest checks.
If Brunson convinces even one team he's closer to the latter than the former, he could turn a lot of heads with the money he receives on his next deal.
Nic Claxton, C, Brooklyn Nets
Nic Claxton oozes tantalizing talent from his 6'11", 215-pound frame. You just don't always see it.
The puzzle for front offices to solve this summer is why that talent doesn't always reach the surface. Are injuries to blame? Could he capitalize on more chances on a less star-studded squad? Or is the inconsistency a sign of some issues within his skill set?
He might not answer those questions in the playoffs—especially if the Nets lose in the first round—but even if he fills in some cracks, that could be huge for his finances. Save for an outside shot, you could argue he has everything modern teams want from their center: length, mobility, turbo-charged athleticism, rim protection, switchability and above-the-rim finishing.
Even in a complementary role, Claxton's versatility shines. This season, he averaged 15.2 points, 9.8 rebounds, 1.9 blocks, 1.6 assists and 0.9 steals per 36 minutes. He's a good enough finisher to pump his points even higher and a skilled enough playmaker to handle more offense in an attack that doesn't run through the likes of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
With all of that said, though, Claxton is more of an idea than a reality at this point in his career. Although the Nets drafted him in 2019, he still hasn't played his 100th regular-season game. He's at 1,755 regular-season minutes for his career, a mark which nine different 2021 draftees have already cleared.
Decision-makers can't have a great feel for Claxton yet, but this is his chance to up that intrigue and convert that interest into cold, hard cash.
Statistics courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. Salary information via Spotrac.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.