There only a few weeks left (or a few losses for playoff purposes) in the 2020-21 NBA Season for players and coaches, but the job is never done for front offices. As MMH’s resident NBA salary cap accountant, I’ve narrowed down my list of the Top 21 Free Agents To-Be in this upcoming offseason and started attaching contract projections to their evaluations. Even lottery teams will be scouting this list to fill out next year’s hopefully improved roster. Once the NBA Finals are settled and free agency begins, we will revisit this list to see just how close I–and the MMH audience–were with our evaluations.
1. Kawhi Leonard has a Player Option for $36 million in his age 30 season. He will not be playing on a one-year lame-duck deal and will get a near-max extension from the Clippers that allows them one more big move to support the last years of his prime. I predict a three-year deal, with an option for a fourth, at a max level. If the Clippers balk at that deal, both the Lakers and Warriors can free up enough cap space to fit Kawhi into their aging contending cores. Less than a 1% chance Leonard takes less than a near-max deal or leaves the West Coast.
2. Chris Paul should be higher in MVP voting and will get another near-max, short-term deal to lead a fringe contender to the Conference Finals. He has that Player Option to stay in Phoenix and there is no reason not to sign up for one more year with this young Suns squad and Monty Williams. The top two free-agent talents are effectively off the board before the financial frenzy truly begins.
3. Mike Conley is making $34 million, but will be 33-years-old next season. As he looks for a ring, he will look for shorter two-year deals. If he signs a longer deal, he could be traded to a lottery team and left for dead. He will have to take less than $30 million, possibly even as low as $26 million, but Conley will have suitors looking to add his veteran leadership, playmaking, and shooting (40% from distance this season).
4. Victor Oladipo is worth more than the flat $21 million he has received for the last few years, but only on his best days. But when he is sitting on the sideline in a suit, he is just a tough contract to move that causes disgruntled-type rumors to circulate regardless of actual merit. Oladipo is going to be 29 and his all-star status was short-lived before he went down injured. He may get $29 million as he goes into his thirties, but the team that offers that deal is likely to regret it.
5. Jarrett Allen will likely have any offer sheet matched by the Cleveland Cavaliers. He can finish games with five dunks and five blocks on the stat sheet. He can defend the perimeter to a certain extent when asked. He could end the season averaging a double-double with a near 70% field goal rate. His last contract was for four years and worth $10 million. He will likely add a zero to that number this offseason.
6. John Collins–according to sources–rejected a $90 million contract extension before this season, expecting he will get the full max offer sheet on the open market. However, his defense has not caught up to his feel for the pick-and-roll. His jump shot has made it out to the three-point line, but I can’t see a smart front office going but a touch over $100 million to see if he pans out as a playoff-caliber player. He may even have to settle for less after playing this season with no security.
7. DeMar DeRozen was cast aside to make room for Kawhi Leonard for a reason. Though he can drop 20, he is also missing that last bit of something to push a contender to a championship. His 20 comes from a mid-range and post-up game that is too archaic for a modern shooting guard. Now in his thirties, I do not see DeRozen being more valuable than the next guard on the list, but he may get a few more million on his next contract.
8. Lonzo Ball has improved every year he has played. This year he is averaging career highs in PTS, FG%, 3PM, and FT%. He loves this team with Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram and isn’t the party-going type many assume, which leads to their expectations he will leave for NYC or LA. The Knicks and Bulls can pursue him but they’ll need to pay over-market value or approach the Pelicans with a Godfather sign-and-trade offer. If not, Ball’s $17-21 million contract will be moveable while still allowing him to grow his game in New Orleans.
9. Kyle Lowry is probably done in Toronto, sadly. He is 35-years-old but is the next best-proven point guard on the market after Chris Paul. Morey loves him and the Sixers pursued him at the trade deadline and are expected to take another swing this offseason. Should a team like the Pelicans offer him a deal to replace Lonzo Ball and Eric Bledsoe? He would cost less than the pair combined and provide steady leadership, all while giving room for Kira Lewis Jr. and Nickeil Alexander-Walker to prove themselves. The team would also have cap space to bring in a proven backup and room to sign some wing help using the MLE.
10. Andre Drummond will either prove his doubters wrong this postseason or expose all of his faults to the free agent market for good. Great in the paint, no shooting range at all. Can alter shots with his size, has inconsistent effort getting up and down the court. If he cannot make it work with LeBron and AD….he will get less than a million from the Lakers in his buyout contract and will be 28 next year. He has one big contract left if he can prove his worth. If not, MLE market is his best bet.
11. Serge Ibaka has a player option worth the full $9.7 million MLE. At 32, it is likely he has found his niche, though he could try and test the market again. Viewed through the eyes of the Pelicans since I cover them for Forbes, Ibaka at $10 million might have been a deal worth looking at a little harder.
12. Spencer Dinwiddie has a player option that will look great for the ring chasing, but not for the bank account building. Dinwiddie can handle the ball and get his own shot when asked but that will never happen in Brooklyn. Not with Harden, Irving, and Durant. If Dinwiddie gets a ring this season at age 29, he should look to chase the dollars a few weeks after. If not, a $12 million player option isn’t a bad fallback plan.
13. Dennis Schröder has already turned down a four-year, $84 million deal. He will want more money and fewer years, so as to best get rich and keep control over his future. He will be 28 this offseason, can lead an offense, and is an underrated defender. He will not want to be shuffled around the league until he is 32 for nothing. Expect trade kickers galore (15%), and at least $90 million if he does sign a four-year deal. Especially if he gets hot during this Lakers title defense.
14. Duncan Robinson is a restricted free agent that some team will see as Diet Klay Thompson. He has a Qualifying Offer of $4.7 million, which is cheap compared to his talent. That’s why there was not much in the way of offers for him at the trade deadline. Robinson will fetch more than the MLE, but how much more? Miami didn’t want to find out but couldn’t find the right trade to avoid the headache. Robinson had a great NBA Finals bubble run, but has fallen off a bit since. Is his high ceiling near $16 million, or is it more like half of that?
15. Montrezl Harrell signed a below-market deal with the Lakers that he dubbed a “Business Decision” to gain a ring. He has a Player Option for the full $9.7 million MLE and that’s likely his limit going forward. When he switched Los Angeles locker rooms, Harrell’s offense became less important than his defense. The Clippers tailored their game to Harrell more than the Lakers have, and it is showing. It will show up on his next contract as well.
16. Paul Millsap is a coin flip. He could possibly retire, but he has looked good for the Denver Nuggets in his role. On the backside of his thirties, however, the Nuggets may want to spend that flat $10 million in cap space elsewhere. Millsap is a passable defender who can hit open shots when he actually gets open. Most contending teams will need more bang for their buck going forward. Millsap may decide a year or two on a lottery team waiting for a trade or buyout is not worth the hassles.
17. Lauri Markkanen is one of the NBA’s unicorns. You can either see him working for your team or you are glad your team is facing him. As a restricted free agent, he will want more than his $16 million qualifying offer cap hold. The Bulls will want to make a decision quickly so they can free up that huge cap hold. Markkanen is not long for Chicago, but how much will a team have to give up to add Lauri to their free-agent loot?
18. Kelly Oubre has made almost $30 million in the past two seasons. Another team will sign the 25-year old up for a three-year deal worth $40-50 million based on production alone but Oubre Jr.’s game is still improving. He is a career 32% three-point shooter. If his shot ever starts to fall consistently, he will be the steal of the offseason if signed to another mid-level deal.
19. Norman Powell has had a coming out party in Portland. He is shooting 44% from deep and dropping 18 points per game while helping to hold up opposing backcourts. The Trail Blazers backcourt duo of C.J. and Dame have been called “too small for playoff basketball” ever since Jrue Holiday’s point-and-laugh playoff sweep. He could be the piece that gets Portland over in a wide-open Western Conference this season. He also might realize this is the last good year to get a bigger deal. He will be 28 next season and could be an Unrestricted Free Agent in 2022. However, this is a weak free-agent class and his last best chance to cash in.
20. Tim Hardaway Jr. is averaging 16-3-2 next to Luka Doncic, shooting 44% overall and close to 40% from deep all season. He might have finally found a home in Dallas, but the Mavericks and Mark Cuban cannot afford to keep a 29-year-old replacement-level player on the cap sheet for $20 million. Hardaway Jr. is making $18,975,000 now.
21. Elfrid Payton is making only $5 million this season and may not be worth much more than that due to his terrible shooting streaks. Still, this Knicks season will boost his stock a bit. Will some lottery team give Payton a few million more to keep the seat warm for a promising young prospect, all in hopes that Payton has a breakout season? Best case scenario there is Payton is then traded at the deadline to some desperate playoff team for a future asset. Payton gets paid and has a chance to sharpen his shooting, the lottery team meets the salary floor while fielding a competent, but not quite competitive squad, and a contending team gets to wait out the process instead of doing something very Knicks-esque, like signing Payton to a $10 million deal that cancels out an exception while also mishandling Mitchell Robinson (who is out injured and did not make the list).
Just Missed The Cut Final Five Free Agents That Might Matter By Probably Taking Portions of Mid-Level Exception Contracts if Not Bi-Annual Exceptions: Gary Trent Jr., Goran Dragic, Richaun Holmes, JaMychal Green, Evan Fournier.