A year ago, the 2021 NBA free agent class looked absolutely loaded. But since then, several of the players who were on track to reach free agency this offseason have signed contract extensions with their respective teams, taking them off the market.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Rudy Gobert, Paul George, and Jrue Holiday were among the veteran stars who went this route since last fall. Several up-and-coming stars who would have been restricted free agents in 2021 also inked long-term extensions ahead of time, including Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, De’Aaron Fox, and Bam Adebayo.
That doesn’t mean there’s no talent left on the free agent market this summer, but the list is lacking the star power it once had. Most teams should be fine with that though, since only a small handful of clubs project to have anything close to maximum-salary cap room.
Below, we’ve taken a crack at ranking the top free agents for 2021. This list attempts to capture each player’s expected value on the 2021 free agent market, rather than simply ranking them based on their present-day on-court contributions. As such, younger players who figure to sign long-term contracts sometimes rank higher than a veteran who may not receive that same sort of commitment.
With all that in mind, here’s the first installment of our 2021 free agent power rankings:
- Kawhi Leonard, F, Clippers (player option): As a flurry of stars signed extensions last offseason, Kawhi was essentially the one who didn’t. While that has left Leonard as the clear-cut top free agent of ’21, it’s not worth reading much into — he was also the only one of those stars who simply wasn’t extension-eligible. There has long been an expectation that Leonard will simply re-up with the Clippers this offseason, but another early playoff exit could certainly affect the length of that next deal, even if he doesn’t want to jump ship.
- John Collins, F, Hawks (RFA): When the Hawks and Collins discussed a possible extension last fall, the team was offering more than $90MM+ over four years, but the big man was said to be seeking the max. A year later, it’ll be fascinating to see if Atlanta is more willing to meet Collins’ asking price or if the team will let him go out and get an offer sheet.
- Chris Paul, G, Suns (player option): At one point, Paul looked like a lock to pick up his $44MM player option for 2021/22. After an All-NBA caliber season in Phoenix though, he now appears more likely to take the Gordon Hayward route, turning down that option in favor of a multiyear deal worth more overall money, even if it pays him a little less next season. His shoulder contusion is ill-timed though, as it’s a stark reminder to the Suns and other potential suitors about the downside of investing heavily in a 36-year-old point guard with an injury history.
- Mike Conley, G, Jazz: While Conley doesn’t have as decorated a résumé as Paul or Kyle Lowry, he has one key advantage over his fellow All-Star free agent point guards — he’ll be just 33 years old when he reaches free agency, not 35 or 36. That should make him a safer bet for a lucrative three- or four-year commitment.
- Jarrett Allen, C, Cavaliers (RFA): The Cavaliers surrendered a first-round pick to acquire Allen earlier this year, so they clearly don’t plan to let him walk. A commitment of at least $20MM per year seems likely — that number could go higher if Cleveland faces any serious competition for Allen’s services.
- Lonzo Ball, G, Pelicans (RFA): Ball reportedly drew interest from the Knicks and Bulls at the trade deadline, and it’s safe to assume both teams will renew that interest this summer — New York and Chicago will have cap room available and are still seeking a long-term answer at point guard. If either team is convinced Ball is that answer, it will put a lot of pressure on the Pelicans, who have some cap issues to figure out.
- Kyle Lowry, G, Raptors: Of all the players on this list, Lowry’s value in free agency may be the most difficult to assess. He’s a top-five player among this year’s FAs, but he’s 35 years old, and teams with cap room and a hole at point guard may prefer a younger option. I won’t be shocked if Lowry gets a $25MM-per-year commitment, but I’m not sure any team will give him more than two guaranteed years.
- DeMar DeRozan, G/F, Spurs: DeRozan is 31 and should have more prime years left than Lowry, his old Raptors teammate. DeRozan is as talented a scorer from inside the arc as any wing in the NBA and has developed into a genuinely talented play-maker, but he’s also never developed a three-point shot and isn’t a strong defender, making him a tricky fit on certain rosters.
- Dennis Schröder, G, Lakers: Although a crowded free agent market for point guards won’t do Schröder any favors, he’s in a better position than several others due to the Lakers’ cap situation. Letting Schröder walk for nothing won’t create any extra spending power for L.A., since the team would still be over the cap. So Rob Pelinka‘s front office will be under pressure to either re-sign Schröder or get some value for him in a sign-and-trade. That could mean the Lakers end up paying a little for him than they’d like to.
- Norman Powell, G, Trail Blazers (player option): Powell picked a good time to have a career year. Even though his numbers dipped a little following his trade from Toronto to Portland, he finished the season with a career-best 18.6 PPG on .477/.411/.871 shooting. As a capable, versatile defender who just turned 28, Powell is in line for a nice raise on this year’s $10.9MM salary.
- Duncan Robinson, F, Heat (RFA): A career 42.3% shooter from three-point range, Robinson will hit the market a year after sharpshooters Joe Harris and Davis Bertans got long-term deals worth $16-18MM per year. There’s no reason for Robinson not to pursue a similar payday, though his restricted status will reduce his leverage.
- Richaun Holmes, C, Kings: With no star centers set to hit the market this summer, a reliable, ascendant player like Holmes could receive plenty of interest from teams looking for a solution up front. Holmes doesn’t stretch the floor at all, but he’s a talented rim runner, rebounder, and rim protector who is coming off a career year at age 27.
- Tim Hardaway Jr., G/F, Mavericks: Hardaway has substantially increased his stock over the last two seasons in Dallas by hitting 39.4% of 7.4 threes per game, well above his career mark. As long as there’s a belief that mark is sustainable, he should be one of the most popular wings on the market.
- Kelly Oubre, F, Warriors: Oubre is nearly four full years younger than Hardaway, but hasn’t shown the same consistency from beyond the arc, making just 31.6% of his attempts in 2020/21. His 69.5% mark from the free-throw line was also his worst since his rookie season. Those shooting rates and his unflattering on/off-court numbers may give suitors pause this summer.
- Lauri Markkanen, F, Bulls (RFA): Markkanen never really hit his stride in Chicago, as he dealt with a constant barrage of injuries and played for three different head coaches during his four years as a Bull. Still, he’s only 24 years old and there should be plenty of teams willing to roll the dice on a power forward who knocked down over 40% of his threes last season.
- Spencer Dinwiddie, G, Nets (player option): Dinwiddie’s health makes him a bit of a wild card. While he’s expected to decline his $12.3MM option, it’s unclear whether there will be much of a bidding war over a player who missed nearly the entire 2020/21 season due to a partial ACL tear and wasn’t an especially efficient scorer in ’19/20. He’s a tier below the point guards who are higher on this list.
- Evan Fournier, G, Celtics: Fournier was miscast as a go-to option in Orlando, but is a solid complementary scorer who can make outside shots and function as a secondary play-maker. His stint with Boston hasn’t increased his stock, but probably hasn’t hurt it either.
- Gary Trent Jr., G, Raptors (RFA): When the Raptors dealt Powell for Trent at the trade deadline, Powell’s looming payday was believed to be a primary factor. But Trent seems in line for a payday of his own, albeit perhaps a slightly more modest one. At age 22, he’s the youngest player on this list, and he averaged a career-high 15.3 PPG with a .385 3PT% in 2020/21 for Portland and Toronto.
- Devonte’ Graham, G, Hornets (RFA): LaMelo Ball‘s emergence in Charlotte could make Graham expendable. Still, the Hornets likely won’t want to let him get away for nothing. The 26-year-old can make his threes (37.4% over the last two seasons) and set up teammates for baskets (6.5 APG).
- Montrezl Harrell, C, Lakers (player option): After considering about 15 different players for this spot, I ultimately settled on Harrell, who remained extremely productive on offense and a force on the glass with his new team, but hasn’t always been an ideal fit for what the Lakers needed in the middle. If he opts out, a team like Charlotte would probably offer him a raise.
I started with a list of about 50 or 60 candidates for this list. Here are 15 of the players who were among the final cuts and would be strong contenders for the top 35 if we kept going:
- Bruce Brown, G/F, Nets (RFA)
- Alex Caruso, G, Lakers
- Hamidou Diallo, G, Pistons (RFA)
- Andre Drummond, C, Lakers
- Josh Hart, F, Pelicans (RFA)
- Talen Horton-Tucker, G, Lakers (RFA)
- Serge Ibaka, F/C, Clippers (player option)
- T.J. McConnell, G, Pacers
- Doug McDermott, F, Pacers
- Patty Mills, G, Spurs
- Nerlens Noel, F/C, Knicks
- Kendrick Nunn, G, Heat (RFA)
- Victor Oladipo, G, Heat
- Kelly Olynyk, F/C, Rockets
- Bobby Portis, F, Bucks (player option)
Mitchell Robinson (Knicks), Jalen Brunson (Mavericks), and Goran Dragic (Heat) are among the players who have team options for 2021/22 and would be candidates for this list if those options are declined. Since those decisions are out of their hands, they weren’t included here.
Photos courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.