“The 2021 NBA free agent class,” read one representative headline from Forbes last year, “could be historically stacked.” And indeed, it could have been—but what a difference a month makes.
Giannis Antetokounmpo announced he will sign a five-year extension with Milwaukee Tuesday, joining LeBron James and Paul George, and restricted-free-agents-to-be Jayson Tatum, Bam Adebayo, Donovan Mitchell, and De’Aaron Fox in avoiding the open market to stick with his current team.
Now, unless Kawhi Leonard leaves George and the Clippers behind by exercising his player option, the 2021 free agent class won’t reorient the league much more than the lackluster 2020 group did. As a reminder, almost all the best players in this truncated offseason—Anthony Davis, Brandon Ingram, Fred VanVleet, Davis Bertans, Joe Harris, and more—re-signed, and only one superstar was even nominally available.
Tuesday’s Giannis announcement is thus great news for the Bucks—and rotten news for everyone else, especially the teams that had structured their future cap sheet to retain maximum flexibility for the summer of 2021. That list includes teams ranging from the realistic Giannis suitors, like the Mavericks, Raptors, and Heat, as well as teams in the rebuilding stage, like the Knicks, Spurs, and Thunder.
What’s next for these clubs? Will the spurned contenders splurge on second-tier stars, as Charlotte did with Gordon Hayward? Will the rebuilders try for a sudden jumpstart, as Atlanta did with Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic? Or will players already signed to sizable contracts—hello, James Harden—prove more tradeable, with teams no longer hoarding the cap space they once thought they needed? Let’s dive into the remaining prospective free agent class, and all the implications therein.
First, let’s consider the actual players involved. The following set of lists includes every possible free agent next summer who was worth at least 3.0 wins above replacement last season, according to FiveThirtyEight’s advanced stats, split by type. (That figure correlates roughly with the top 100 players in the league last season.)
Unrestricted free agent: Rudy Gobert (11.1 wins above replacement last season), Kyle Lowry (9.9), Danny Green (6.6), Hassan Whiteside (6.1), Patty Mills (4.9), Dennis Schröder (4.7), Nemanja Bjelica (4.6), Alex Caruso (4.5), Tim Hardaway Jr. (4.4), P.J. Tucker (4.4), Daniel Theis (4.0), Wesley Matthews (3.9), Evan Fournier (3.7), DeMar DeRozan (3.3), JaVale McGee (3.3), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (3.2), Paul Millsap (3.2)
Restricted free agent: Duncan Robinson (7.5), Derrick White (5.3), Jarrett Allen (5.3), Devonte’ Graham (4.7), OG Anunoby (4.6), Jonathan Isaac (3.3)
Player option: Kawhi Leonard (14.9), Jrue Holiday (8.1), Chris Paul (7.9), Montrezl Harrell (6.0), Will Barton (5.1), Spencer Dinwiddie (4.0), Derrick Jones Jr. (3.8), Kris Dunn (3.4), Josh Richardson (3.2)
Team option: Goran Dragic (5.0)
The unrestricted free agent list evinces a precipitously steep drop-off after Gobert and Lowry—and maybe just Lowry, if Gobert signs an extension by next week. Nobody else in that group profiles as a future All-Star, and most profile best as sixth men on contending teams at this point.
The class of restricted free agents is similarly free of stars. Most top restricted free agents stick with their previous teams anyway, and if the Heat, now flush with cap space and no Giannis to court, signal they’ll re-sign Robinson, this group will look even less inspiring.
The option class is more lucrative, if only because Leonard could dominate next summer’s market as he did 2019’s. But it’s unclear how deep this group will actually be in seven months. Milwaukee’s next order of business is extending Holiday, given that the Bucks probably didn’t trade the motherlode for just one season of the sturdy guard. And even after an All-NBA campaign, it’s difficult to imagine Paul, now in Phoenix, giving up the $44.2 million he’d receive if he opts in to the final season of his contract.
Of course, these lists are not a holistic look at every potentially enticing free agent next summer. With promising fourth seasons, more players on rookie-scale contracts could intrigue in restricted free agency, like John Collins, Lonzo Ball, and Lauri Markkanen. And veterans like Victor Oladipo, Blake Griffin, and Otto Porter Jr. could command suitors if they return to form after missing most or all of last season with injuries. (Griffin, though, would need to be persuaded to forgo the final $39 million season on his current deal.)
But the general direction of the class has undoubtedly trended downward during extension season, with two MVPs removed from the board and all the best rookie-scale players signing for the long term. Complementary talent will still be available next summer for any contender looking to firm up the supporting cast around its stars, and the likes of Hardaway, Anunoby, and Barton will all receive eight-figure-per-year deals if they play well this season. But, Leonard aside, any team without no. 1 and 2 options already in place will be out of luck in free agency.
That leaves the trade market, where Harden—ironically, given his ongoing feud with the two-time MVP—might be the biggest individual winner of Giannis’s new deal. With Harden currently signed for two more seasons past this one (the first set in stone, the second subject to a player option), at more than $40 million per year, a team like Miami may not have wanted to add his contract with a Giannis pursuit still a possibility.
But now, if a rival can convince Houston to part with a player who clearly wants out, Harden is one of just two franchise-altering stars available in the next year. As that group grows more scarce around him, Harden looks ever more appealing, and the odds tilt ever more to a blockbuster trade. And if a Harden trade is more likely today than yesterday, several front offices need to accelerate their evaluative processes on the young players who would go to Houston in such a deal. How do the Heat feel now about losing Tyler Herro for Harden? Does Daryl Morey feel more inclined to give up Ben Simmons if he thinks Miami’s now a greater threat to swoop in first?
Beyond Harden, an increased focus on the trade market could lead to the next wave of agitation from, or at least speculation about, All-NBA-caliber trade candidates. With Russell Westbrook now in town, the Wizards ought to start the season on a winning note, lest the simmering Bradley Beal fervor reach a fever pitch. The same concept applies even with players signed to longer contracts on non-playoff teams, like Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker, because trade fodder and future speculation is what makes the NBA world go ’round.
The same goes for the free agency market, where Giannis’s extension means it’s on to the summer of 2022, when Harden, Beal, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Jimmy Butler, and Kyrie Irving could all become free agents. Hope springs eternal when imagining player movement and hypothetical superstar team-ups and roster fits. Even the Knicks might sign someone one of these years.