We are rapidly approaching the start of the 2021-22 NBA year with the Finals winding down and the Draft and free agency just weeks away. The Draft draws the most focus at the moment, in part because this is one of the more highly-anticipated draft classes in some time and teams will feel there’s an opportunity to bolster depth and add a rotation piece for the future no matter where they are picking in the first round.
Free agency arrives shortly after the Draft, however, and the decision on who to pick or what trades to potentially make always have to be done with what the plan is for free agency in mind. For some teams, that means going hunting for big name stars, while others will be working more on the margins, but front offices always have to keep the full picture in focus. For a number of teams, this summer will bring some key decisions on players from the 2017 NBA Draft who are hitting free agency for the first time as restricted free agents.
The restricted designation means their current teams have final say in whether they match an offer sheet or let them walk, and some decisions will be more difficult than others. Here, we’ll look at the 10 restricted free agents that figure to be the most interesting this summer, with some being locks to return (with the only question being at what price), while others could be pried away by other suitors if they’re willing to bid high enough.
John Collins, Atlanta Hawks
Given the Hawks’ run to the conference finals and the significant role Collins played for Atlanta in that stretch, it would seem an easy decision for the Hawks to simply bring him back. However, extension negotiations made it clear the difference in where the team thinks Collins’ value lies and what Collins himself is looking for. Ownership has said they want Collins back but at the right price, and if there is a team out there with lots of cap space — like the Spurs — who is willing to pay Collins’ max (~4 years, $120 million) it might be enough to make the Hawks balk.
I think Atlanta almost has to match on Collins even if that happens, because letting him walk doesn’t open up any real cap room to replace him and they simply can’t rely on Danilo Gallinari as the full-time guy at the four. Atlanta is worried about having to pay all of their young guys and knows they’ll have to make some hard choices, but given Collins is the one young guy who doesn’t play a position that’s redundant with any of their other youngsters, I don’t think he’s the one they can walk away from.
Bruce Brown, Brooklyn Nets
The Nets have to bring Bruce Brown back, this postseason showed his immense value to the team, but the question is whether a team wants to make the Nets pay significantly for that opportunity. There will be plenty of teams that look at Brown as a versatile defensive connector that could unlock a lot of things for them, and while the Nets likely weren’t expecting to have to break the bank on Brown prior to this season, he’s likely going to require a hefty tax bill to keep. That shouldn’t make for any real hard decisions in Brooklyn, particularly given how hard it’s going to be for them to build depth with outside signings, but I can guarantee you some other teams will want to make the Nets pay a little extra to keep their superteam intact.
Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets
This is, I think, where things get interesting. Graham is clearly the third guard in Charlotte now behind Terry Rozier and LaMelo Ball, and that might be a perfectly good role for him. After showing out in 2019-20, however, he saw a significant reduction in his role as a creator this season and if he feels that’s what he should be, then it wouldn’t be a surprise if he has interest in moving on. The Hornets would surely love to keep him because that trio is an excellent backcourt rotation, but they also seem likely to be more willing to walk away if the asking price gets too high because they have bigger needs to address elsewhere. With reports Graham could be in for a hefty payday, Charlotte might find itself with a very difficult decision.
Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls
Markkanen is maybe the most available RFA of the bigger names on the market this summer, as he simply has never found a consistent role in Chicago. It seems best for all parties to move on, but it remains to be seen what the actual market for Markkanen’s services are. The Finnish big man certainly brings offensive upside, particularly as a shooter, but he leaves plenty to be desired on the defensive end. Still, that shooting ability figures to intrigue someone and it’d be fairly shocking if the Bulls chose to match any kind of substantial offer sheet if it came.
Jarrett Allen, Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavs swooped in on the James Harden trade and came away with a gem in Allen, but now they have to pay up. Allen’s going to have plenty of teams interested in him and while the Cavs have no reason not to match most any offer, what he gets from Cleveland is going to set the bar for the upcoming run of extensions needed for their cavalcade of recent high draft picks — which is the biggest reason most expect Collin Sexton to be on the move this summer.
Talen Horton-Tucker, Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers love THT, so much so that they reportedly weren’t willing to part with him in Kyle Lowry trade talks, but now comes the opportunity for teams (like with Bruce Brown in Brooklyn) to lob big offer sheets at Horton-Tucker in order to see if the Lakers blink or are willing to pay a hefty tax price to retain their most intriguing young player. We’ll see if any team wants to put the pressure on L.A. with a big offer sheet, and we’ll also learn quickly just how much they value the young wing.
Duncan Robinson, Miami Heat
Everyone loves shooters, but where the market lands on Robinson is going to be very telling about how the league views the value of even an elite, mostly one-dimensional shooter. Robinson is as good a shooter as there is in the NBA who goes beyond static catch-and-shoots to hit shots at an exceptional rate on the move off handoffs and pindowns. That versatility in being able to get his shot off is important and makes him valuable, but less so than a player who can also create for himself off the bounce or who brings defensive upside as well. The Heat should be willing to match most anything for Robinson, but what makes him intriguing from a league-wide perspective is what it might tell us about how the NBA views that archetype of player in this moment.
Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans
Probably the RFA that has the most overlap between “most available” and “most coveted,” Ball is going to have plenty of suitors and seems unlikely to be brought back by the Pelicans so long as there is a fairly substantial offer made — especially after rumors emerged New Orleans will pursue Kyle Lowry. There will be at least one team that believes their situation can be the one to fully tap into Lonzo’s potential, building on the continued strides he’s made as a shooter in New Orleans and put him in a competent defensive scheme that can keep him engaged constantly in a way he’s not yet shown. Lonzo remains a tantalizing talent even if his unique combination of strengths and weaknesses don’t necessarily fit easily into player archetypes we are used to. Teams like the Bulls, Knicks, and others who are both in need of a lead guard and want to compete with a younger team figure to be heavily in the mix for Ball, and contenders with guard needs also surely to at least check in on him.
Josh Hart, New Orleans Pelicans
Hart has made clear that New Orleans is not where he wants to be any longer, and where the market shakes out for him is going to be interesting. He profiles as a solid rotation wing, capable of defending multiple positions while being a good rebounder. What will make or break Hart going forward is his jump shot, as his rookie year he was a near 40 percent shooter from three but has never come close to replicating that in the three seasons since. If he can find that shooting form again in a place that’s a better fit, then he could be a Donte DiVincenzo-like asset to a contender at a good value this offseason.
Zach Collins, Portland Trail Blazers
Collins has suffered another setback on the injury front, fracturing his foot once again and it’s possible that the cash-strapped Blazers don’t even extend him the qualifying offer as they need every available roster spot to try and make Damian Lillard happy. As such, Collins is a buy-low candidate for a team that has the time to be patient with him and hope that his injury history can be put in the past by getting him to a new situation. A team like the Hornets could look to give him a smaller, two-year deal to give him a place to rehab his way back from the foot injury and hope that it pays off with a healthy second year where he’s suddenly a bargain.