When it comes to player acquisition, free agency has become, if not an afterthought, a clear third oboe to the circus of the NBA Draft and the year-long pitter-pattering of trade rumors.
But winning players come in all shapes and sizes, depending on team needs. The Nuggets, for example, wouldn’t have the room or inclination to add a Kyrie Irving, but they will have a roster hole the exact size and shape of a Bruce Brown.
This isn’t a particularly star-studded free agency class, but it is deep with starter-level talent. Only eight teams project to have significant cap space as of now, however: Houston, San Antonio, Indiana, Detroit, Utah, Orlando, Oklahoma City, and Sacramento. Utah, Orlando, and OKC may flirt with some of the more talented free agents, but Sacramento is the only contender able to make a big splash (I’m sorry, Kings fans, but Draymond Green is only using you for leverage).
Many other teams will have exceptions available or could make more room if they wanted, however, so this has the potential to be a very weird and fun free agency period.
I’ve collected my favorite free agents below, the guys I’d target if I were a GM. This isn’t an exhaustive ranking. It’s a highlight of the six* players that 1) I think are a legitimate threat to move somewhere new and 2) can make an outsized impact for the teams that land them, grouped into rough tiers.
*A full list of the 10 winningest players is available to paid subscribers at basketballpoetry.com.
VanVleet is the cream of the point guard crop, even if most observers would put him a tick below James Harden or Kyrie Irving in a vacuum.
But VanVleet is a far better defensive player than either of those two, and he comes with none of the baggage. He’s a mean point-of-attack defender who’s strong enough to defend bigger guards or smaller wings when necessary.
Steady Freddy is an ideal complementary piece for any number of teams. His ability to be effective on or off the ball (39% on catch-and-shoot threes over the last three years) makes him a plug-and-play option in almost any offensive system. VanVleet uses his stout frame to set some vicious screens, too, an underrated ability in a league where it’s increasingly trendy to use guards as pick-setters. He’s a willing passer and quick decision-maker, and he’s a clever off-ball relocator:
Fred had a down year last year shooting the ball (and forgot how to make a layup), but part of that is due to playing on a spacing-constrained Raptors team where he was asked to carry too large of an offensive and minutes burden. VanVleet has always been better a bit lower in the pecking order — remember when he received a vote for Finals MVP? — and I’d expect his production to ramp up on a team with more juice.
But he’s also the veteran presence that a young team like Houston or San Antonio may crave to provide order to offenses that resemble daycares more than NBA-level scoring machines. Out of all the players here, he’s the one whose final destination is the hardest to predict.
Kuzma declined his player option with Washington and is an unrestricted free agent. A jack-of-all-trades with a championship ring from the 2020 Lakers on his hand, Kuzma would fit a lot of teams.
The NBA is a generalist’s league — players with glaring weaknesses on either side of the ball become playoff targets. Kuzma doesn’t have exceptional strengths, but he’s more than good enough on both ends to win playoff games (he played at least 19 minutes in all six 2020 Finals games and is a much better player now).
He’s a bit of a chucker (career 34% three-point shooter on big volume), but unlike James Bonds’ martinis, his confidence is never shaken. Kuz is a voracious rebounder and improved passer, and he’s also big (6’8”) and in his prime (about to turn 28 years old).
Unfortunately, he’s going to want a bag — those fits don’t come cheap — and teams in a position to make deep playoff runs won’t be able to afford him without some sort of sign-and-trade.
I’m a believer in Kuzma as a winning player. Still, given cap space constraints, the only contending-ish team I could see pushing for him would be Sacramento, where he’d directly address a team need as an upgrade over Harrison Barnes.
Splash Mountain was my Defensive Player of the Year, is one of the best boxer-outters in the NBA, and shot the best three-point percentage of his career last season (37.4%).
Brook isn’t for everyone; he can survive on the perimeter, but he’s best in the drop coverage he’s mastered in Milwaukee. He also has zero playmaking ability: when the ball gets to Lopez, it’s going up.
But he’s one of the best at the things he’s good at. Milwaukee wants to retain him, but their roster is old, very expensive, and just got blasted in the first round by an eight-seed. It’s likelier than not that Milwaukee brings back Brook, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see someone throw a big contract at him to test Milwaukee’s mettle.
Cam Johnson is conservatively listed at 6’8” and has shot 39% from deep in his career. He’s a prototypical 3-and-D wing on a team (Brooklyn) loaded with similar players.
You can’t have too many guys with size, shooting, and decent defense, but Brooklyn’s not a contender (yet) and Johnson is the exact archetype that every playoff team wants.
People will be shocked at the number Johnson commands on the free agency market. $100 million over four years isn’t out of the question. He’d be another player the Kings may kick the tires on once they return from their fruitless Draymond Green bear hunt.
He is a restricted free agent (meaning Brooklyn can match whatever offer he receives), which could restrict his contract value some. But I bet some team will force the Nets into a very hard decision.
Also: Johnson has a couple of monster poster dunks every season that come outta nowhere, so that’s fun!
Fresh off a superb run as the backup point guard/do-everything utility man for the champion Denver Nuggets, Brown will look to cash in on the first major payday of his career.
He’s the Flex-Tape of role players. Slap him on any hole; he’ll plug any leak. He’s a nifty passer, a bullet train in transition, a versatile defender, and a good screener. Brown even had a decent shooting season from outside, although that will never be his strength.
He’s also small for his skillset (6’4”) and requires some plus passers around him to take advantage of his canny cutting, which is one of the reasons he was such a great fit on the Nuggets. While they’d love to have him back, he may have played himself into too much money for Denver to keep him.
Strus is a career 37% three-point shooter, but that doesn’t do justice to the difficulty of his attempts. The majority of his shots are taken on the move and/or under duress, but the fearless Strus will always let it fly if there’s a sliver of daylight, and sometimes even if there’s not:
He’s more athletic than people realize and pressures a defense with constant, non-stop sprints around the court. Strus has plenty of experience playing either wing position and could even dabble as a small-ball power forward.
Strus’ defense is good enough; out of Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, and Strus, Strus is the one Miami coach Erik Spoelstra trusted most to be on the floor in defensive situations. Damning with faint praise, for sure, but also consider that he still played big playoff minutes for the Heat even when his shot completely abandoned him.
I’m unsure if they could pull it off, but Cleveland would be a perfect fit for Strus. Miami will make a play to retain him, too, but they’ll likely need to dump at least one major salary (Lowry, preferably) to have the room to keep Strus and/or Gabe Vincent. The Lakers, too, could badly use someone with Strus’ talents.