Restricted free agents are the highlight of 2021 NBA free agency

While the 2021 NBA free agency class isn’t loaded with star power, there’s plenty of talent worth pursing in restricted free agency.

The once-heralded 2021 NBA free agency class no longer packs the punch it once did.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Paul George, Rudy Gobert, Jrue Holiday, Jayson Tatum, Bam Adebayo and Donovan Mitchell all agreed to extensions with their respective teams within the past year, depleting the ranks of free agents who will be available this summer. Throw in Kawhi Leonard’s partial ACL tear and the likelihood that Chris Paul re-signs with the Phoenix Suns, and two 30-something point guards (Kyle Lowry and Mike Conley) might be the biggest remaining prizes on the free-agent market.

For teams that aren’t interested in win-now veterans such as Lowry, Conley or DeMar DeRozan, this year’s group of restricted free agents should hold far more intrigue.

John Collins turned down a four-year, $90 million extension offer from the Atlanta Hawks before the start of the season, according to Chris Kirschner and Sam Amick of The Athletic, as he has long fancied himself as being deserving of a max contract. Although his per-game production predictably dipped this year after the Hawks signed Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic in free agency last offseason, he played an integral role in their surprise run to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Collins told reporters that he hopes to re-sign with the Hawks this summer, but team owner Tony Ressler warned that they aren’t “going to be able to keep every single player that we want to keep.” With Trae Young and Kevin Huerter both eligible for an extension this summer and De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish not far behind, the Hawks have some difficult financial decisions to make over the next 12 months.

The Hawks still might be inclined to match any offer sheet Collins signs, if only to trade him later rather than lose him for nothing. Interested suitors should still put them to the test by handing him a nine-figure deal and seeing whether the Hawks have the stomach to match.

Lonzo Ball appears far more obtainable than Collins this summer. The New Orleans Pelicans hope “to make a huge offer” to Lowry, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, which would likely require them to relinquish their rights to Ball.

If the Pelicans succeed in their Lowry gambit, Ball shouldn’t have trouble finding a new home. After entering the NBA with questions about his jump shot, he knocked down a career-high 37.8 percent of his triples on 8.3 attempts per game this past season.

Ball doesn’t fit the traditional point guard archetype given his aversion to driving, drawing contact and getting to the free-throw line, but he thrives as a secondary playmaker. The New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls have long been linked to him, while a sign-and-trade could open additional landing spots.

The Cleveland Cavaliers appear intent on re-signing Jarrett Allen by all accounts, but it bears watching how the 2021 NBA Draft could affect that. After selecting Evan Mobley at No. 3, do the Cavaliers really want to hand Allen a new contract with an average annual value in the high teens or low 20s? If not, center-needy teams such as the Toronto Raptors should come calling.

Allen isn’t a stretch 5 by any means — he’s hit only 17 triples across his four NBA seasons — but he’s a bouncy big man who cleans the glass and protects the rim. Clint Capela’s success with the Atlanta Hawks this season suggests that offensively limited centers can still be useful when paired with dynamic pick-and-roll ball-handlers. That should be a boon to Allen’s free-agent market if he can’t come to terms with Cleveland.

The Raptors have their own restricted free agent to worry about in Gary Trent Jr., whom they acquired at the trade deadline for Norman Powell. League sources told HoopsHype’s Michael Scotto that he could command $18-20 million annually on a new deal.

In 23 starts with the Portland Trail Blazers prior to the trade, Trent averaged 18.0 points and 3.5 triples per game while shooting a scorching 39.7 percent from 3-point range. His shooting percentages dipped upon his arrival in Toronto (39.5 percent overall and 35.5 percent from deep), but he also logged only 47 minutes alongside Kyle Lowry in those 17 games. Teams in need of a sharpshooting 2-guard should throw a hefty offer sheet at him and dare the Raptors to match.

Timing will be of the essence for the Miami Heat, as they’ll need to spend their available cap space before they re-sign Duncan Robinson and/or Kendrick Nunn. Both players have cheap $4.7 million cap holds, which will enable the Heat to carve out roughly $20 million in cap space to spend elsewhere first, per Spotrac’s Keith Smith.

After shooting an absurd 44.6 percent from deep on 8.3 attempts per game in the 2019-20 season, Robinson came back to earth a bit last year. However, he still drilled 40.8 percent of his 8.5 long-range attempts per game while starting all 72 games for Miami. If Joe Harris (four years, $75 million) and Davis Bertans (five years, $80 million) are any indication, he’ll likely be eyeing a deal worth $16-20 million annually.

Nunn stumbled out of the gates this past season, but he got going after rejoining the starting lineup permanently in early February. Over the ensuing 42 games, he averaged 15.1 points on 48.6 percent shooting, along with 3.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.4 made 3s per game while shooting 39.8 percent from deep.

Nunn’s arrest for domestic battery in 2016 may cause some front offices to turn their attention elsewhere in free agency. Those willing to overlook his past transgressions could put the Heat in a tough spot financially if they sign him to an offer sheet as soon as allowed.

Much like Miami, the Charlotte Hornets may need to stave off suitors for both Devonte’ Graham and Malik Monk. The former has started 97 games for them over the past two seasons, averaging 16.6 points, 6.5 assists and 3.4 triples per game, while the latter came into his own in 2020-21 after a rocky start to his NBA career.

Graham’s lack of efficiency may drive down his market — he’s a career 37.6 percent shooter — but his shot profile is largely to blame for that. A whopping 71.3 percent of his shot attempts came from downtown last season, and he hit those at a 37.5 percent clip.

Considering the premium that teams have put on playmaking and shooting, Graham should be on the radar for point guard-needy teams that miss out on their top-tier targets. With LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier already on the roster and No. 11 pick James Bouknight now set to join them, the Hornets might not have the stomach to match a hefty offer sheet for Graham, who profiles as a long-term backup for them.

Monk drilled a career-high 40.1 percent of his 3-point attempts this past season in Charlotte while launching 5.0 triples per game, which was a marked uptick over his first three seasons (32.2 percent shooting on 4.1 attempts per game). However, he’ll have a $7.0 million qualifying offer that comes with a $16.0 million cap hold, which could convince the Hornets to instead relinquish their rights to him.

Talen Horton-Tucker is still somewhat of a mystery box, having played fewer than 1,400 career minutes in 71 games across his two NBA seasons. That didn’t stop one Eastern Conference executive from telling Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus that he would “max him out.” (Of note: A max for Horton-Tucker couldn’t exceed roughly four years and $83 million.)

THT was outstanding in last year’s preseason, which helped him carve out a surprisingly substantial role with the defending champions. The Los Angeles Lakers will be alarmingly top-heavy once their trade for Russell Westbrook becomes official, so they might have no choice but to match any offer sheet for Horton-Tucker to round out their supporting cast.

Bruce Brown Jr. could likewise put the cap-strapped Brooklyn Nets in a pinch. His positional versatility enabled the Nets to roll out small-ball units with him as the de facto 5 at times, even though he stands only 6-foot-4 and 202 pounds.

The Nets are already more than $18 million over the projected $136.6 million luxury-tax threshold, and they also have to worry about re-signing Blake Griffin and Jeff Green. Other teams may not be able to utilize Brown in the same way Brooklyn did — how many other teams have three elite scorers such as Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden? — but it may be worth lobbing an offer sheet his way if only to weaken a championship favorite.

The intrigue among restricted free agents doesn’t stop there. Lauri Markkanen stalled out during his time with the Chicago Bulls, but 7-footers with long-range shooting ability will always have a market. Josh Hart appears eminently poachable as the Pelicans eye bigger upgrades in free agency. Svi Mykhailiuk is a career 36.2 percent shooter from deep who has bounced around three teams across his three NBA seasons.

As contenders focus their attention on win-now veterans, teams with longer-term windows should start lobbing offer sheets at younger restricted free agents. If their incumbent teams match, that may be one less threat to worry about in free agency down the line. If not, they’ll be locking up promising players just as they head into their primes.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball Reference. All salary information via Spotrac.

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