2021 NBA free agency: All you need to know from Kawhi's option to Luka's extension

·9-min read

Well, aren't you lucky to have all your questions about NBA free agency answered in one place ...

When does NBA free agency begin?

Monday at 6 p.m. ET.

When can teams officially sign free agents?

The league's moratorium on contracts signings, during which the 2021-22 salary cap will be set, ends on Aug. 6 at 12:01 p.m. ET, when teams can begin making official the deals they agreed upon with free agents.

What are the salary cap and luxury tax line projections for next season?

$112 million and $136.6 million, respectively.

When is the last day players can make a decision on their contract options?

Players must pick up or decline their contract options for the 2021-22 season by Monday, respectively rejoining their teams for the final year of their current deal or becoming a free agent to seek a new one.

Who owns a player option for the 2021-22 season?

Two All-Stars own player options for 2021-22: Kawhi Leonard ($36 million) and Chris Paul ($44.2 million).

Leonard, who partially tore his right ACL in the playoffs, could seek long-term security in two forms. The 30-year-old two-time Finals MVP can pick up his $36 million option and sign a four-year, $181 million extension from the Los Angeles Clippers that runs through 2026. He can also decline his option for next season and seek a max deal in L.A. or elsewhere starting at $39.2 million and escalating to $175 million over four years. 

Declining his option and re-signing with the Clippers remains "the most likely scenario" for Leonard, per former New York Times scribe Marc Stein, now at Substack, but the two-time Defensive Player of the Year is famously cagey. The Dallas Mavericks, Miami Heat and New York Knicks are all expected to make a run at Leonard if he becomes a free agent, regardless of his injury, according to The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor.

Paul's $44.2 million salary at age 36 was once considered an albatross. After leading the Phoenix Suns to their first Finals appearance since 1993, Paul is suddenly set to comfortably pad his career earnings. The NBA's Over-38 rule prevents him from signing a four-year deal, but he can also either opt into his contract's final year and sign a two-year extension with the Suns or opt out and seek a three-year deal anywhere.

[ 2021 NBA draft: Everything you need to know from locks to sleepers ]

Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges are both due for extensions, so in order to avoid expensive luxury tax payments, the Suns will hope to sign Paul to a team-friendly deal that sharply declines in salary by 2024.

Both Paul and the Suns are keen on his return, according to Arizona Sports' John Gambadoro, but should he opt out, expect his former agent, Leon Rose, now the president of basketball operations for the Knicks, to be among the first to call about adding the services of an aging but resurgent Hall of Fame point guard.

Three other key contributors to marquee teams this past season own player options for next season: Serge Ibaka, Leonard's teammate on the Clippers; one-time Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell, now with the Los Angeles Lakers; and Bobby Portis, a cult Finals hero for the Milwaukee Bucks. To a lesser degree, Dallas Mavericks wing Josh Richardson also owns a player option for next season, and all four could put would-be contenders in precarious negotiating positions by securing more lucrative offers from their rivals.

An injured Kawhi Leonard is potentially the biggest name in an otherwise shallow NBA free agency pool. (Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
An injured Kawhi Leonard is potentially the biggest name in an otherwise shallow NBA free agency pool. (Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

What about team options?

Not many teams have outstanding options for the 2021-22 season on players under contract. Two to keep an eye on are Miami's Goran Dragic and Andre Iguodala, both awaiting word on respective $19.4 million and $15 million options that are set to expire Sunday. If the Heat decline both options, it would be a surefire sign that they expect to add a high-priced free agent over the summer. Picking up those options would kick the salary cap can down the road another year, when loads of All-NBA-caliber players can become free agents.

Which teams can create maximum salary cap space?

Most teams can package the necessary assets to shed enough salaries or sweeten a sign-and-trade deal for a willing max-salaried free agent, but realistically the New York Knicks and San Antonio Spurs are the only teams capable of creating the $39.2 million necessary to sign a 10-year veteran like Leonard into max cap space.

The Dallas Mavericks, Chicago Bulls and New Orleans Pelicans — after Monday's cap-cutting trade of Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe — can all approach that figure by renouncing their own free agents. (So can the Oklahoma City Thunder, but for reasons related to their rebuilding phase, they will likely act salary capped.)

The Heat and Charlotte Hornets can relatively easily climb north of $20 million in cap space, closer to the $27.8 million necessary to offer a max salary to restricted free agents coming off their rookie contracts.

Who are the five best unrestricted free agents?

  1. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

  2. Mike Conley, Utah Jazz

  3. DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs

  4. Victor Oladipo, Miami Heat

  5. Reggie Jackson, Los Angeles Clippers

The order of this list can be debated. Jackson and Lakers guard Dennis Schroder should command similar suitors and salary offers in free agency. Both may deserve to be ahead of Oladipo, considering two season-ending knee surgeries have limited the 29-year-old two-time All-Star to just 52 games since January 2019.

The Jazz "will make every attempt" to retain Conley, according to The Athletic's Tony Jones, but the same has not been reported of Lowry's Raptors or DeRozan's Spurs. In fact, the friends and former teammates could both pursue sign-and-trade possibilities in an attempt to reunite on a contender, namely the Lakers.

The unrestricted market is ripe with quality contributors who will vie for remaining cap space and available midlevel exceptions. Those names include Spencer Dinwiddie, Tim Hardaway Jr., Evan Fournier, Norman Powell, Will Barton, Derrick Rose, Cam Payne, Patty Mills, Richaun Holmes and Doug McDermott.

Six former All-Stars — Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, DeMarcus Cousins and Paul Millsap — are also free agents, although their name recognition far exceeds their value.

Kyle Lowry is among the few All-Stars likely to change teams this summer. (Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
Kyle Lowry is among the few All-Stars likely to change teams this summer. (Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

Which teams will not have the full midlevel exception?

Teams operating above the salary cap and $3.5 million below the luxury tax line can employ the full $9.5 million midlevel exception as a starting salary for free agents. A handful of taxpaying teams — the Clippers, Bucks, Jazz, Brooklyn Nets and Golden State Warriors — will be limited to the $5.9 million midlevel exception. Teams with space can spend freely up to the salary cap and own a $4.9 million room exception.

Because using the full midlevel exception hard-caps a team at the tax apron of roughly $142.6 million, at least six more teams, including the Lakers, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, may be constrained to the smaller taxpayer's exception, depending on how they handle negotiations with their own free agents.

Who are the five best restricted free agents?

1. John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

2. Jarrett Allen, Cleveland Cavaliers

3. Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans

4. Duncan Robinson, Miami Heat

5. Gary Trent Jr., Toronto Raptors

Restricted free agents can either re-sign with their own teams or sign an offer sheet from another team, which their incumbent team can then match or not. It would be surprising to see any of these five players change teams, save for maybe Ball — if the Pelicans manage to sign a superior point guard (i.e., Lowry). 

At least six more free agents — Lauri Markkanen, Devonte' Graham, Bruce Brown, Malik Monk, Josh Hart and Kendrick Nunn — would generate significant interest were it not for their restricted status. Even still, any one of them could command an offer sheet that makes the decision to retain him more difficult.

Teams with cap space have offered exorbitant contracts to restricted free agents, only to burden opponents financially. In 2017, the Nets employed this tactic with Otto Porter Jr. (again a free agent), only for the Washington Wizards to match his max salary and enter perpetual cap hell. Do not be surprised to see the same with Collins, whose young Hawks just surprised everyone by reaching the Eastern Conference finals.

Who is in line for a max contract extension this summer?

Expect Luka Doncic and Trae Young to accept max extension offers in short order from the Mavericks and Hawks, respectively. Given his playoff performance, Deandre Ayton likely earned himself the same offer at 6 p.m. ET on Monday, too. Decisions to max out Denver's Michael Porter Jr. and Oklahoma City's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander may not be so immediate, but they have shown enough to warrant that consideration.

Like Ayton, Suns teammate Mikal Bridges ensured himself of a raise in the $20 million range annually, whether the offer comes this year or next. Collin Sexton and Jaren Jackson Jr. will not come cheap, either.

Their 2018 draft class features a host more players who will also face a choice between the long-term security of a team-friendly extension this summer or a potentially higher payout in 2022 restricted free agency, including Mitchell Robinson, Jalen Brunson, Robert Williams III, Kevin Huerter and Miles Bridges.

Is there anything else we should know about 2021 free agency?

At least two All-NBA talents — Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal — can essentially freeze free agency with a trade demand in the coming days. Either scenario would refocus the efforts of every possible suitor, at least until each rules out the possibility of adding a franchise-altering superstar. The latest on both is that neither will ask out by Monday, but never say never, and that applies to just about everyone under contract.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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