2021 Free Agency
12 most intriguing free agents ahead of 2021-22 season
Breaking down several key players to follow during NBA free agency, which begins at 6 p.m. ET on Aug. 2.
After an unpredictable season in which the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns reached The Finals after absences of 47 and 28 years, respectively, it’s time to shake things up again.
The list below is not about quality or money, but intrigue. Some players are intriguing because of their own talent or development. Some are intriguing because of the team they played for this past season and how the player’s staying or going affects the franchise.
1. John Collins (Restricted), Atlanta Hawks
Collins bet on himself last year, reportedly turning down an extension offer from the Hawks. And that bet should pay off. With the Hawks adding veteran talent around their young core, his regular season numbers were down a bit, but Collins played a big role in the team reaching the Eastern Conference finals, and not just as a beneficiary of Trae Young’s playmaking. Collins made some big defensive plays and scored 1.18 points per possession on post-ups, the best mark among 11 players with at least 25 post-up possessions in the playoffs. The Hawks should want to keep Collins around long-term, but there’s some overlap with his skill set and some doubt about whether they’d match a max offer sheet. San Antonio, with a young core of guards and a thin frontline, is a potential suitor of intrigue.
Number to know: Collins was one of three players (Jalen Brunson and Nikola Jokic were the others) to shoot 70% or better on at least 100 shots in the restricted area and 50% or better on at least 100 mid-range attempts.
Related free agents: Jarrett Allen (Cavs) and Lauri Markkanen (Bulls) — The Cavs snagged Allen in the James Harden trade, but will now have to pay him to keep him a part of their young core. Markkanen seems much more likely to move, with the Bulls having upgraded at the “floor-spacing big” position at the trade deadline. The 24 year old shot a career-best 40.2% from 3-point range this season, one of four players to shoot 50% or better on at least 25 3-point attempts from each corner.
2. Kyle Lowry, Toronto
The last game before the trade deadline felt like Lowry’s last with the Raptors. But none of the contenders that were pursuing the 35-year-old point guard could agree on a deal with Toronto. Those same teams will likely continue the pursuit in August, though the mechanics of a sign-and-trade deal change things up (and probably eliminate the Lakers). The Heat and Knicks are two teams that have both the need for a point guard and the financial flexibility to make an offer for Lowry.
Number to know: This was the first season in his nine seasons with Toronto that the Raptors were better with Lowry off the floor (-0.2 points per 100 possessions) than they were with him on the floor (-0.3).
Related free agents: Mike Conley (Jazz) and Chris Paul (Suns) — Paul seems to have found a home in Phoenix with a young core that’s only going to get better, but he could still opt out of the last year of his current deal and sign a new one for up to three years. Conley (unrestricted and turning 34 in October) had a bounce-back season in Utah, but a lucrative re-sign could put the Jazz deep into the luxury tax.
3. DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs
DeRozan (who turns 32 in August) remains reticent to shoot 3-pointers. In fact, his 35-for-154 (22.7%) from 3-point range over the last three seasons is the worst mark among 365 players with at least 150 attempts over that time. But the last two seasons (true shooting percentages of 60.3% and 59.1%) have been the two most efficient scoring seasons of his career, with that 59.1% ranking 17th among 45 players with a usage rate of 25% or higher this season, just ahead of Trae Young (58.9%) and Luka Doncic (58.7%). DeRozan isn’t the playmaker that those guys are, but he’s taken a big step forward in that regard over the last few years. He needs to be complemented with shooting, but he can give a team a lot of punch offensively.
Related free agents: Rudy Gay and Patty Mills (Spurs) — As San Antonio turns its team over to a deep, young core, it has to make decisions on two vets who have anchored a solid bench group over the last four years. That bench did see some slippage this season, but Gay and Mills remain the type of player that contenders are looking for.
4. Kawhi Leonard (Player option), LA Clippers
Leonard’s right knee injury adds an unfortunate wrinkle to his free agency. The Clippers will obviously give him whatever he wants, but he has a few options, even if he’s not looking to relocate. He could opt in to his contract and become a free agent next year, he could opt in and extend his current contract, he could sign a new, short deal (one year plus another option), or he could sign a longer one (three or four years). What he does could indicate how much he believes in the franchise and his supporting cast.
Number to know: Leonard had a true shooting percentage of 67.9% in the playoffs, the highest mark in NBA history for a player who averaged at least 30 points in 10 or more playoff games (57 total player seasons).
Related free agents: Zach Collins (Blazers), Spencer Dinwiddie (Nets), Victor Oladipo (Heat), Justise Winslow (Grizzlies) — Like Leonard, Dinwiddie has a player option. And like Leonard, Dinwiddie suffered a partial tear to the ACL in his right knee. That happened in December, Dinwiddie should be ready to play at the start of next season, and his recovery could give us some clues as to what Leonard’s timeline looks like. When healthy, Dinwiddie is one of the best north-south attackers in the league, but he shot just 31% from 3-point range in 2019-20. After playing just four games with the Heat after they acquired him at the deadline, Oladipo may have to prove that he can stay healthy before signing anything other than a one-year, discounted deal. Collins (only 23 years old) has played 11 games over the last two seasons and just had a third surgery on his left ankle. Winslow ($13 million team option) is only 25, but had a very rough 27 games with the Grizzlies after returning from a 13-month absence.
5. Lonzo Ball (Restricted), New Orleans Pelicans
Ball probably isn’t a top-15 starting point guard in regard to half-court offense. But his finishing at the rim and his 3-point shooting have both improved every season he’s been in the league, he’ll get you extra points with his transition passing, and he’s a big guard who can be a disruptive defender. The Pelicans do have two other young guards — Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kira Lewis Jr. — who could step into larger roles if the team isn’t willing to match a big offer sheet for Ball.
Number to know: Ball accounted for 41.3% of the Pelicans’ 3-pointers while he was on the floor, the fifth highest rate among 362 players who played at least 500 minutes.
Related free agents: Devonte’ Graham (Hornets), Frank Ntilikina (Knicks), and Kendrick Nunn (Heat) — Graham and Nunn are just three and two seasons, respectively, into their careers. The former second-round picks are already hitting the free-agent market and both (like Ball) are restricted. Ball’s brother pushed Graham to the bench, but that shouldn’t mean that he’s out of the picture in Charlotte. In fact, a sixth-man role may be ideal for an undersized scorer like the 26-year-old who struggles to score inside. Nunn had a strong finish to the regular season (averaging 15.9 points on 54% shooting over 18 games after regaining his starting role), but lost the starting job after struggling through the first two games of the first round. His cap hold is much less burdensome than the team option on Goran Dragic in regard to the Heat’s pursuit of free agents. Ntilikina (23) will probably be intriguing until he’s no longer in the league and could probably use a fresh start outside of New York.
6. Andre Drummond, Los Angeles Lakers
There was much ado about Drummond’s move to L.A. on the buyout market. And when the Lakers were eliminated in Game 6 of the first round, he was DNP’d, even though Anthony Davis played just five minutes. This comes after the Pistons basically traded Drummond for nothing in February of 2020 and after the Cavs bought him out at just 27 years old. It will be fascinating to see where he lands next and also how the Lakers retool after injuries derailed their championship defense.
Number to know: The Lakers played just 129 minutes (74 in the regular season, 55 in the playoffs) with LeBron James, Davis and Drummond on the floor together. They outscored their opponents by 6.9 points per 100 possessions (allowing just 104.4 per 100) in those 129 minutes.
Related free agents: Dwight Howard (76ers), Serge Ibaka (Clippers), Enes Kanter (Blazers), Robin Lopez (Wizards) — Howard had a lot more success in L.A. than Drummond, but didn’t help the Sixers much in the 2021 postseason. Kanter was similarly a liability in the playoffs after a strong regular season. Having played just four games since March 14. Ibaka may need to opt in to the final year of his current deal. Lopez, meanwhile, has seemingly reinvented himself as a jump-hook savant.
7. Dennis Schroder, Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers fascination continues with the starting point guard. Schroder gave L.A. more off-the-dribble creation alongside James (who turns 37 in December), but his numbers were down (both in regard to totals and efficiency) from the previous season in Oklahoma City and he wasn’t able to keep the offense afloat when James was off the floor. He saw the second biggest drop in assists per game from the regular season (5.8) to the playoffs (2.8) among 179 players who played in at least four playoff games.
Number to know: In the regular season, Schroder led the league with 1.4 secondary assists per game.
Related free agents: Alex Caruso (Lakers), Goran Dragic (Heat), Reggie Jackson (Clippers), T.J. McConnell (Pacers) and Cameron Payne (Suns) — Caruso has been a plus-minus star for the Lakers in each of his three seasons, but expanding his role (if Schroder were to leave) could be a tough ask. McConnell (second in deflections per 36 minutes) just had the best season of his career, while Jackson and Payne are coming off strong playoff performances. The Heat have a $19.4 million team option on Dragic that they would need to decline if they really want to go free agent shopping.
8. Richaun Holmes, Sacramento Kings
Holmes is another product of the process-era Sixers who’s developed into a pretty good player. And like Robert Covington, Jerami Grant, Christian Wood, and maybe McConnell (that’s two second rounders and three undrafted guys), he’s set to get paid pretty well. He was one of the most efficient roll men in the league, showed some short-roll playmaking skills, and ranked as one of the league’s best high-volume rim protectors.
Number to know: Holmes was one of two players (Nikola Jokic was the other) to shoot 70% or better on at least 200 attempts in the restricted area and 50% or better on at least 200 attempts elsewhere in the paint.
Related free agents: Khem Birch (Raptors), Montrezl Harrell (Lakers), Nerlens Noel (Knicks), Kelly Olynyk (Rockets) and Bobby Portis (Bucks) — With the older guys above and the younger guys here (though Olynyk is older than Kanter), the center market is pretty robust. This group has an array of skills. Harrell was the most efficient roll man in the league, Noel an elite defender (second with 4.91 steals + blocks per 36 minutes), Olynyk a playmaking floor-spacer, and Portis (who has a $3.8 million player option) a fan-favorite energy guy.
9. Tim Hardaway Jr., Dallas Mavericks
Hardaway was the Mavs’ most prolific 3-point shooter around Luka Doncic and began the postseason with 49 total points (shooting 11-for-17 from beyond the arc) as the Mavs took a 2-0 series lead over the Clippers. He’s probably the best “shooter” option among unrestricted free agents, so it would be hard to see Dallas letting him go, but the Mavs have already undergone some major changes and anything seems possible.
Number to know: Hardaway ranked seventh with 369 catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts in the regular season. The 40.9% he shot on catch-and-shoot 3s ranked 30th among 86 players who attempted at least 200.
Related free agents: Reggie Bullock and Alec Burks (Knicks), Bryn Forbes (Bucks), Danny Green (76ers), Doug McDermott (Pacers), Malik Monk (Hornets), Georges Niang (Jazz), JJ Redick (Mavs) and Duncan Robinson (Heat) — Robinson (the only player who has shot better than 40% on at least 1,000 3-point attempts over the last two seasons) is the best option here, but is a restricted free agent who the Heat obviously need to retain, given that their two best players don’t shoot very well from the perimeter. McDermott expanded his game, averaging 6.4 points on 70% shooting in the restricted area, this season. Redick’s value, meanwhile, went in the opposite direction.
10. Norman Powell (Player option), Portland Trail Blazers
Given the lack of teams with a lot of cap space and the Blazers’ (assumed) unwillingness to let a guy they just traded for walk out the door, it seems likely that Powell returns to Portland. He’s coming off a career season (18.6 points per game on an effective field goal percentage of 57.0%), just turned 28 years old, and could be the secondary scorer if Portland wants to get bigger (moving the 6-foot-3 Powell to the 2) and better defensively. The intrigue here is really about what becomes of the Blazers’ core with an increased urgency to build a true contender around Damian Lillard.
Number to know: Powell scored 0.477 points per touch, second most among 325 players with at least 1,000 touches.
Related free agents: Will Barton (Nuggets), Torrey Craig (Suns), Evan Fournier (Celtics), Josh Hart (Pelicans), Kelly Oubre Jr. (Warriors), Otto Porter Jr. (Magic), Josh Richardson (Mavs) and Gary Trent Jr. (Raptors) — This collection of wings is spicier (more varied skills) than the group of shooters above, but all (with the exception of Trent) had bumpy roads this past season, dealing with injures or COVID-related absences. Barton and Richardson have player options, while Trent is a restricted free agent.
11. Bruce Brown (Restricted), Brooklyn Nets
Brown was one of the most fascinating players in the league last season, often guarding the opponents’ best perimeter scorer while playing center (at 6-foot-4) on offense. He made himself some money by flourishing in his role, but it’s fair to wonder how he’d fit on another team. After James Harden and Kyrie Irving were injured in the playoffs, Brown’s inability to shoot outside of 15 feet or create his own shot did hurt the Nets’ Kevin-Durant-heavy offense.
Number to know: Brown had an effective field goal percentage of 57.6%, up from 48.0% in 2019-20. That was the fifth biggest jump among 183 players with at least 300 field goal attempts in each of the last two seasons.
Related free agents: Jeff Green and Blake Griffin (Nets) — The Nets’ supporting cast had its moments last season; Green shot a career-best 41.2% from 3-point range, while Griffin regained some of his bounce. But both of these guys had defensive issues and Green may not come with the same discount that he gave the Nets last season.
12. Nicolas Batum, LA Clippers
Having morphed into a prototypical 3-and-D forward that helps unlock small-ball lineups, Batum is the face of the group of veteran role players on the back end of their careers, seeking a new deal. He lost his starting power forward job midway through the regular season, but then started 10 games at center in the playoffs, when the Clippers scored almost 124 points per 100 possessions in 412 total minutes with him on the floor without DeMarcus Cousins, Serge Ibaka or Ivica Zubac.
Number to know: Batum shot 40.4% on catch-and-shoot 3s, a mark which ranked 34th among 86 players who attempted at least 200.
Related free agents: Carmelo Anthony (Blazers), Trevor Ariza and Andre Iguodala (Heat), Paul Millsap (Nuggets), Derrick Rose (Knicks), P.J. Tucker (Bucks) and Lou Williams (Hawks) — Consistency can be an issue and (as we saw with Rose in the playoffs) they probably can’t play big minutes anymore, but the old heads still have a role in this league and a certain level of intrigue in regard to their next move.
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