Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry highlight the top 10 NBA free agents of 2021

Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) drives between Memphis Grizzlies guard Desmond Bane (22) and center Xavier Tillman (2) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, in Memphis, Tenn. (Brandon Dill/AP)

At one point hailed as a game-changing free-agent class with the possibility of more than a few franchise-altering stars available, the 2021 free agent class isn’t nearly that. But it does feature plenty of options for players to improve themselves -- if even moderately.

There is, at the top of the class, a true transformational star in Kawhi Leonard, and then following after him is a large collection of dependable players who can all help swing a team’s fortunes in a more positive direction given the foundation is already there, and the fit is right.

The following is a list of the top 10 free agents that we feel are available, and a (long) list of other notable names to keep an eye on free agency.

This list comprises players who are unrestricted free agents (UFA), restricted free agents (RFA), have a player option (PO) for next season and a team option (TO) for next season.

Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers (PO)

The biggest fish to potentially catch in this year’s class, Leonard has a player option worth a little more than $36 million next season and could, theoretically, earn more than that should he decline his option and hit the open market.

If Leonard were to earn a maximum contract in free agency this year, assuming the salary cap is set at $112 million for next season, he’d be in line to earn to earn about $39.2 million next season.

Given his talent and what he’s proven he can do, Leonard is certainly deserving of a maximum contract. However, given the knee injury he suffered in the second round of the Clippers’ playoff run that knocked him out of the post-season and was later revealed to be a partially torn ACL in his right knee, it would be prudent for Leonard to exercise his player option, take that guaranteed money and hopefully get strong enough to make a run at some truly earth-shattering money in the summer of 2022.

Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors (UFA)

After a legendary nine-season run that saw him become, arguably, the greatest player in the history of the franchise, help the Raptors win their first-ever championship and, unquestionably, go down as one of the most beloved sporting icons in Toronto sports history, it’s looking like Lowry’s run with the Raptors is coming to a close.

Twice before Lowry has been a free agent with the Raptors, and he’s opted to remain with Toronto both of those times, but this go-around feels different.

When he was a free agent with the Raptors those previous times (in the summers of 2014 and 2017), though he was consistently an all-star during those years and had established himself as one of the game’s premier point guards, his market and reputation around the league wasn’t as high as it probably should’ve been, and the Raptors were among the only teams that recognized his value.

It took a while, but it would seem the secret’s out now on Lowry and he’s rumoured to be one of the hottest free agents on the market.

Even at 35 years of age, Lowry remains one of the most productive, defensively tough and, overall, best point guards in the NBA and should he be added to an existing strong core, he could be the piece that puts them over the top to win a championship.

Of course, there is always the chance the Raptors bring Lowry back, in which case that would be a good indication that the team still believes it has a championship window open, but odds are, with how strong Lowry’s market looks to be at the moment league-wide, the next time you see Lowry in Toronto it’ll be in a different uniform accepting a standing ovation from the Raptors faithful when his name is announced.

Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns (PO)

Paul has a player option worth $44.2 million for next season and -- as crazy as it may seem because of his advanced age of 36 -- Paul is likely going to opt out of that because he’s built a ton of momentum towards a longer-term contract at about $30 million annually.

Though he had a poor Finals, what he did for this young Suns team in helping carry them to the championship round looks to have convinced most of the league that he still has the goods. Paul has reportedly garnering interest from the likes of the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix.

As a result of the strong run Paul had, it’s also helped with the free agent market of Lowry, another veteran point guard who plays hardnosed defence and can change a team’s culture because of his leadership and intangibles, it’s helped with his market immensely.

Related reading: How Paul's revelatory playoffs perfectly teed up Lowry's off-season. Full story.

John Collins, Atlanta Hawks (RFA)

After the Hawks weren’t able to come to an agreement on a contract extension before last season, followed up by the apparent locker room woes in Atlanta between Collins and Trae Young, there was momentum building that the 23-year-old ultra-talented forward could be got in restricted free agency.

But after Nate McMillan came in and repaired the rift in the locker room, and then the Hawks went on their run to the conference final, it doesn’t look like Collins will be available anymore as he appears too important to the exciting core Atlanta is building right now with him and Young the linchpin cornerstones.

There’s always the chance offer sheets might come in, but odds are the Hawks will blow away any possible offer to retain Collins.

Mike Conley, Utah Jazz (UFA)

Conley didn’t have the kind of immediate impact many expected him to have when he signed that two-year deal with the Jazz in the summer of 2019, but he showed why he’s among the game’s premier leaders last season as he helped the Jazz to the best regular-season record in the league. Had he not gotten injured in the playoffs, maybe he could’ve prevented Utah from getting upset in the second round.

The latest buzz with Conley is he’s most likely to remain with Utah, but the Dallas Mavericks, looking to relieve some burden on Luka Doncic, are rumoured to be interested in a number of point guards, with Conley being among them.

DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs (UFA)

Seeing what DeRozan’s market ends up being will be very interesting.

One of the game’s best scorers and facilitators, DeRozan is undoubtedly among the best wings in the NBA. But he remains flawed as a player, too, continuing to be a minus-defender who isn't a threat from outside. On his career, he's shot just 28.1 per cent from three-point range.

He’s expressed interest in returning to his hometown team of the Lakers, but that fit doesn’t seem right as they need floor spacing -- especially after acquiring Russell Westbrook.

Looking around at other teams, while having a playmaking forward who can create his own shot is never a bad thing, in order to maximize his talents a team needs to be built around DeRozan to take advantage of that.

Not being able to shoot the three will almost certainly limit his market and he’ll likely have to take a significant pay cut over what he’s been making the last five years to land with a team he’d like to join.

Jarrett Allen, Cleveland Cavaliers (RFA)

Allen is one of the premier young bigs in the game. At only 23 years of age, Allen has proven himself an adept pick-and-roll threat, a strong rebounder, a shot-blocker and rim protector and a guy who can defend in space.

His qualifying offer comes in at a little over $7.7 million and he’s sure to get a raise, the question is how much and from who?

The Cavs opted to take USC big man Evan Mobley in this year’s draft, and while there’s been talk that both he and Allen will be able to co-exist with each other, if a team were to swoop in with a massive offer sheet to Allen, would the Cavaliers necessarily look to match it or completely blow that offer away?

The latest reporting had the Raptors connected and interested in Allen. With Lowry coming off the books and possibly more salary shedding with Toronto possibly opting to waive some non-guaranteed contracts on their books, they could make a gigantic offer to Allen, something that that would instantly shore up the team’s centre situation.

Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley (10) guards New Orleans Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball (2) during the second half during an NBA basketball game. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans (RFA)

Coming in at a qualifying offer of $14.9 million, Ball looks to be among the most likely RFAs in this class to change teams this year.

The Pelicans have widely been known to be interested in Lowry as they look for a more veteran leader to run things for them at the point, indicating that New Orleans won’t have much interest in any offer sheets that come Ball’s way.

The Raptors are actually among teams who are reportedly interested in Ball, so there might be a chance to pull off a rare double sign-and-trade between the Pelicans and Raptors where Toronto gets Ball and New Orleans gets Lowry.

Ball is an elite playmaker and, at six-foot-six, is a long and strong defender. His outside shot still leaves a lot to be desired, but from a defensive standpoint, he would fit really well with the kind of team the Raptors appear to be building -- one that wants to be able to switch everything on defence with a players who can defend multiple positions on the floor.

Norman Powell, Portland Trail Blazers (PO)

Norman Powell has a player option worth about $11.6 million for next season, something he will opt out of.

Powell has become one of the game’s deadliest three-point marksmen and most dangerous microwave scorers. Last season, split between the Raptors and Blazers, he shot 41.1 per cent from deep.

He’ll likely be seeing a contract in the $20 million-plus range annually and he’s going to get it, likely from the Blazers, whose top off-season priority – other than trying to assuage Damian Lillard – is re-signing Powell.

Duncan Robinson, Miami Heat (RFA)

Seeing what Robinson’s market develops into will be among the most interesting things to monitor in free agency.

Robinson is one of the NBA’s premier sharpshooters, enjoying a career three-point mark of 42.3 per cent across the three seasons he’s played, and can completely change games and series if he gets hot from behind the arc.

However, like many a marksman before him, he’s limited defensively and doesn’t bring much else to the table other than his incredible shooting stroke.

Is that enough to earn him $20 million annually?

We’re in an era where shooting is valued more than ever before, so he may just get that, from either the Heat or another team coming in with a big offer sheet looking to poach him.

Other noteworthy name to keep an eye on:

Carmelo Anthony (Portland Trail Blazers, UFA), Trevor Ariza (Miami Heat, UFA), Will Barton (Denver Nuggets, PO), Nicolas Batum (Los Angeles Clippers, UFA), Khem Birch (Toronto Raptors, UFA), Alex Caruso (Los Angeles Lakers, UFA), Torrey Craig (Phoenix Suns, UFA), Spencer Dinwiddie (Brooklyn Nets, PO), Terence Davis (Sacramento Kings, RFA), Goran Dragic (Miami Heat, TO), Andre Drummond (Los Angeles Lakers, UFA), Wayne Ellington (Detroit Pistons, UFA), Bryn Forbes (Milwaukee Bucks, PO), Evan Fournier (Boston Celtics, UFA), Rudy Gay (San Antonio Spurs, UFA), Devonte’ Graham (Charlotte Hornets, RFA), Danny Green (Philadelphia 76ers, UFA), Jeff Green (Brooklyn Nets, UFA), Blake Griffin (Brooklyn Nets, UFA), Tim Hardaway Jr. (Dallas Mavericks, UFA), Josh Hart (New Orleans Pelicans, RFA), Richaun Holmes (Sacramento Kings, UFA), Dwight Howard (Philadelphia 76ers, UFA), Serge Ibaka (Los Angeles Clippers, PO), Andre Iguodala (Miami Heat, TO), Enes Kanter (Portland Trail Blazers, UFA), Reggie Jackson (Los Angeles Clippers, UFA), Lauri Markannen (Chicago Bulls, RFA), Robin Lopez (Washington Wizards, UFA), Paul Millsap (Denver Nuggets, UFA), Nerlens Noel (New York Knicks, UFA), Kendrick Nunn (Miami Heat, RFA), Victor Oladipo (Miami Heat, UFA), Kelly Olynyk (Houston Rockets, UFA), Kelly Oubre Jr. (Golden State Warriors, UFA), Cameron Payne (Phoenix Suns, UFA), Otto Porter Jr. (Orlando Magic, UFA), Bobby Portis (Milwaukee Bucks, PO), JJ Reddick (Dallas Mavericks, UFA), Derrick Rose (New York Knicks, UFA) Dennis Schroder (Los Angeles Lakers, UFA), Daniel Theis (Chicago Bulls, UFA), Tristan Thompson (Boston Celtics, UFA), Gary Trent Jr. (Toronto Raptors, RFA), PJ Tucker (Milwaukee Bucks, UFA), Lou Williams (Atlanta Hawks, UFA).

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