The 2022 NBA free agency period hasn’t even started yet, and the most intriguing player – or at least the one that could have sent the most ripple effects across the league – is reportedly already off the board.
It was gearing up to be a classic, crazy, #ThisLeague type of NBA off-season thanks to the potential of Kyrie Irving leaving the Brooklyn Nets, and the possibility that Kevin Durant might force his way out as a result.
Then, on Monday evening, The Athletic’s Shams Charania delivered a total buzzkill:
In theory, Irving opting in leaves open the possibility he could be traded, but if his desire to actually see this season through with the Nets is true:
No, we will not have an Irving-LeBron James reunion, nor is Russell Westbrook potentially joining Durant in Brooklyn, and Durant will not be traded to the Toronto Raptors or anyone else.
Thanks a lot, Shams.
We’ll put this on standby for now, though, because things can change in a hot minute any time throughout an NBA season, and unless Irving extends with the Nets he’ll walk straight to unrestricted free agency next summer so we can do this all over again next year. Think of it as postponing gratification.
For this year, it changes the entire off-season landscape, but luckily we still have several star free agents on the table to keep things interesting, with the RFA market particularly swirling with rumours.
One thing to keep in mind: only the Orlando Magic, Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons and San Antonio Spurs have cap space this off-season, but the NBA loves its sign-and-trades so there should still be a ton of movement.
Below is a list of both unrestricted and restricted free agents and players with player options alike, ordered with both stature and likelihood of moving in mind.
Team: Phoenix Suns
2021-22 cap hit: $12.6 million
He’s a 23-year-old No. 1 overall pick who played a pivotal role on both a 64-win team this season and an NBA Finals team last season… and he’s available?
The Deandre Ayton-Phoenix Suns situation is one of the more mind-boggling ones. Entering this season Ayton, like most top picks with his resume, wanted a max contract. But the Suns, owned by the infamously cheap Robert Sarver, did not want to give it to him. They still don’t.
Now it appears another team might.
Debate all you want about whether or not Ayton is actually worth a max contract, young players of his stature usually get paid by the team they’re drafted by.
The towering centre averaged 17.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and shot 63.4 per cent from the field this season. With the way he moves at his size, he can cause serious problems for opposing teams in today’s NBA.
On the other hand, sometimes he’s susceptible to fading into the background of a game. In Phoenix’s Game 7 loss to Dallas, he scored five points in 17 minutes and was benched, leading Monty Williams to say "it’s internal" when asked to explain the decision.
As far as suitors go, the Pistons were expected to make pursuing Ayton their top priority ahead of the NBA Draft with the $43 million in cap space created with a Jerami Grant trade, according to NBA Insider Marc Stein. But The Athletic’s James L. Edwards III reports that after successfully drafting guard Jaden Ivey and centre Jalen Duren, the Pistons will avoid throwing a max offer at Ayton or fellow RFA Miles Bridges to maintain cap flexibility moving forward.
The Atlanta Hawks, who are all but certainly moving off John Collins and could move off Clint Capela, are another team that’s reportedly interested — though apparently they’ll be unwilling to give Ayton the max.
The Raptors and Pacers are two other teams that have previously been reported as possible teams.
Should any of these teams make outright or sign-and-trade offers, max contract or not, it's a massive storyline.
The Suns collapsed to the Dallas Mavericks in the second round, but a reported COVID-19 outbreak may have played a role and the team is more than good enough to run it back with their current squad and contend for a title.
So if Ayton leaves on a sign-and-trade, what do they get back in return? And if he leaves through free agency, how will they bridge the gaps from his departure to keep their championship window open?
If he stays, how do they repair that relationship going into next season?
2. Zach LaVine
Team: Chicago Bulls
2021-22 cap hit: $19.5 million
The Chicago Bulls took a slight gamble offering Zach LaVine a four-year, $78-million deal back in 2018, but looking back it was an absolute steal.
Far more than just an NBA slam dunk competition winner, LaVine blossomed into one of the game’s best scorers and shooting guards in the Windy City, earning two all-star selections and averaging at least 23.7 points or more on very efficient shooting throughout those four years.
In the first part of that deal, some suggested LaVine was a “good stats, bad team" guy who cared more about his own production than defence and overall team play, but any thought of that was squashed this past season after he showed more commitment on defence and blended in seamlessly while handing over the keys to the offence to DeMar DeRozan. Not to mention the role he played in Team USA’s gold medal win at the Tokyo Olympics last summer.
With all that comes the opportunity of a significant payday. LaVine is eligible for a five-year, $212 million deal from the Bulls or a four-year, $157 million from any other team once he hits the market.
LaVine said at the end of the season that he planned to “enjoy free agency,” and several teams have reportedly shown interest, but several reports suggest he will re-up in Chicago. We’ll see for sure on Thursday.
Team: Dallas Mavericks
2021-22 Cap Hit: $1.8 million
Remember when Luka Doncic missed the start of the NBA playoffs? Jalen Brunson and his agent probably do.
Brunson had already completed an impressive regular-season campaign, averaging 16.3 points and 4.8 assists while shooting over 50 per cent from the field and 37 per cent from three.
Then, without Doncic around, the point guard led the Dallas Mavericks to a 2-1 first-round lead over the Utah Jazz with back-to-back 41-point and 31-point performances in Games 2 and 3 – proving what he’s capable of with a larger responsibility on offence.
ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski has reported that Brunson wanted a four-year, $55 million extension with the Mavericks last off-season, but they never offered it — and Brunson made them pay with his performance this season. Now he’s walking to free agency, where the Knicks are clearing space to offer him a four-year deal worth at least $100 million, according to Stein.
Though a move to New York won’t turn the Knicks into any kind of contender, Brunson would slot in perfectly in the point guard spot alongside Julius Randle and R.J. Barrett, and could push for 20-plus points per game in an increased role. Brunson is also born just outside New York City in New Brunswick, NJ, Knicks president Leon Rose is his former agent and his father, Rick, is an assistant coach for the team. Feels like a good fit.
If Brunson leaves outright, it’s a serious loss for the Mavericks because
1. He’s a quality player, and
2. They’re well over the salary cap and won’t have a clear way of securing a secondary star to play alongside Doncic instead.
Stein reports it’s unclear how much the Mavericks are willing to match the Knicks, but they do have the advantage of being able to offer a fifth year on his deal.
4. Miles Bridges
Team: Charlotte Hornets
2021-22 Cap Hit: $5.4 million
Unlike Brunson, Miles Bridges reportedly received an extension offer from the Charlotte Hornets before the season — only he declined it. A four-year, $60-million deal apparently wasn’t enough. As of Monday the Hornets were not willing to present Bridges with a max contract, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst.
How Bridges’ free agency will unfold is now especially unclear as the forward was charged with a felony in Los Angeles on Wednesday, one day before free agency opens, according to a police document obtained by Sportsnet.
No other details about the charge were included in the document. He was arrested just before 2 p.m. PT, released on a $130,000 bail and is scheduled to appear in court on July 20.
5. James Harden
Team: Philadelphia 76ers
2021-22 Cap Hit: $44.3 million
Status: Player Option
James Harden lost a significant step last season.
That was clear when he was in Brooklyn, but chalked up to him being unmotivated there, and confirmed in Philadelphia, where he looked rejuvenated at times but ultimately underperformed. So what will his extension look like?
Daryl Morey waited months before trading Ben Simmons to get his man, and has an affection for Harden dating back to their Houston Rockets days, but would he really risk giving such a depreciating asset a whopping five-year, $270 max contract? At the same time, if Morey didn’t offer the max, would Harden bounce and leave him with nothing to show for Simmons?
Turns out, both parties are being somewhat reasonable with how the extension should look, because Harden is reportedly "headed toward" opting into his $47 million player option and extending by as many as two more years with the 76ers, according to Wojnarowski.
"It's a mutual lovefest, so we feel like we'll work it out," said Morey at the end of May.
For the 76ers, that decreases the risk. You hope Harden can at least approximate his best self for another couple of years while Joel Embiid is at his peak. And if he really deteriorates, you’re not locked in long-term.
Now the thing with Harden is he wouldn’t be able to actually sign this extension after opting in until August, which would give him another month or so to ponder forcing his way out of another franchise (I’m joking… sort of). In all seriousness, it does leave some time for things to possibly happen and for issues to come up, so it will be worth monitoring.
6. Bradley Beal
Team: Washington Wizards
2021-22 Cap Hit: $33.7 million
Status: Player Option
Here’s a name that seems to make these types of lists year after year.
Bradley Beal, a three-time all-star and two-time 30-plus point-per-game scorer, was long looked at as the possible gem of this free agency.
He just turned 30, the Wizards are bad and he hasn’t been past the first round of the playoffs since 2017 despite all his individual success. Perfect time for the prolific shooting guard to move on to a contender and make use of the last years of his prime, right?
Much like Harden and the 76ers, it appears Beal will be sticking with his Wizards, only he’s expected to decline his player option and sign a projected five-year, $248 million max contract, according to Wojnarowski.
With the Wizards unlikely to contend anytime soon, Beal signing would still be unlikely to quell any trade rumours — in this player empowerment era, players can take the money on the table and then force a move if they need to.
The signing would also be troubling from a Wizards perspective. Why shell out a five-year super-max contract for a 30-year-old Beal when they're nowhere near contending? A contract like that could become crippling in the future.
7. Collin Sexton
Team: Cleveland Cavaliers
2021-22 Cap Hit: $6.3 million
Yet another restricted free agent.
In 2020-21, Collin Sexton scored an efficient 24.3 points playing alongside Darius Garland in the "Sexland" backcourt. He then struggled to start this season and tore his meniscus 10 games in.
As the Cleveland Cavaliers recorded 44 wins with Garland, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen leading the way, he became somewhat of an afterthought. The fact they selected Ochai Agbaji, a senior guard out of Kansas, 14th overall isn’t the best indication the Cavaliers intend to keep Sexton around either.
Sexton, now fully recovered from his injury, will command roughly $20 million per year on the market, according to Charania, which could be a gamble, and the Cavaliers have already given the keys to the offence to Garland. Still, he’s young and a proven scorer who shows a ton of effort on the court. Several teams, the Wizards, Spurs, Pistons and Pacers among them, are reportedly interested.
Team: Portland Trail Blazers
2021-22 Cap Hit: $3.9 million
Last season was a write-off for the Trail Blazers, with franchise player Damian Lillard missing almost the entire season with an abdominal injury. The organization also underwent some major changes, trading away one of its best players in CJ McCollum.
Within it all, Anfernee Simons, a point guard who always showed his potential in Summer League without it fully translating to the regular season, finally broke through this season with 17.3 points and 3.9 assists per game. Those numbers jumped to 22.0 and 5.5 when he started. Now he’s due for a significant raise from his rookie deal.
The Trail Blazers are planning to reshape this roster around Lillard and already kicked that off by acquiring Grant. With McCollum gone, there’s room for Simons to plug into his role as Lillard’s second in command, but will another team that can give him a bigger role step up with an offer sheet?
9. Jusuf Nurkic
Team: Portland Trail Blazers
2021-22 Cap Hit: $12 million
Sticking with Portland, Jusuf Nurkic has been a key piece for the Blazers at centre – averaging 14.6 points over six seasons with the team. The problem is and has always been his ability to stay on the court, so the Blazers will have to weigh whether he's worth investing in.
Despite being a free agent, Nurkic has played his part in trying to poach Durant to Portland for the brief period it seemed like he may be available:
10. Bobby Portis
Team: Milwaukee Bucks
2021-22 Cap Hit: $4.3 million
Status: Player Option
The list drops off a little here, but within the long list of available role players this off-season is Bobby Portis, who's a knock-down shooter at the forward spot and a fan favourite thanks to the energy he brings on the court.
After averaging a career-high 14.6 points and 9.1 rebounds as a starter for the Milwaukee Bucks this season, Portis' $4.6 million player option for 2022-23 probably won’t cut it. Though even if he opts out, there’s a chance he could stay in Milwaukee.
Honourable mention: Bruce Brown (BKN), Marvin Bagley (DET), Mitchell Robinson (NYK), Malik Monk (LAL), Chris Boucher (TOR), Kevon Looney (GSW), Victor Oladipo (MIA), Tyus Jones (MEM), Mo Bamba (ORL), Gary Payton II (GSW), TJ Warren (IND), Nicholas Batum (LAC), PJ Tucker (MIA).