Looking ahead to 2021 NBA free agency: When it starts and who matters

Ben Rohrbach
·7-min read

The NBA released dates and times for 2021 NBA free agency. What better time to take a look ahead at what should be another wild offseason in a league that has been dominated by player movement in recent years.

When does 2021 NBA free agency begin?

The NBA announced on Monday that 2021 free agency will open at 6 p.m. ET on Monday, Aug. 2, when teams and players can enter negotiations. Contracts can be officially signed at 12:01 p.m. ET on Aug. 6.

What is the salary cap for the 2021-22 season?

Players and owners reached an agreement last year that guaranteed the 2020-21 salary cap of $109.1 million would increase no less than 3% and no more than 10% for the 2021-22 campaign. The NBA projects next season's cap at the lower end of that spectrum at $112.4 million ($136.6 million luxury tax).

Who are the top unrestricted free agents?

The once-heralded 2021 free-agency class lost many of its highest-profile stars to longterm contract extensions over the past year. Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Paul George, Rudy Gobert and Jrue Holiday all received max deals, leaving the cupboard barer than many teams anticipated.

That is good news for the remaining free agents who will be happy to eat cap space cleared for bigger names. Only one superstar in his prime is still unsigned: Kawhi Leonard, who owns a $36 million player option to stay with the Los Angeles Clippers. With 10 years of NBA experience, he will be eligible for a starting salary worth 35% of the projected $112 million salary cap ($39.2 million). He is in a tier of his own.

"Obviously, if I'm healthy, the best decision is to decline the player option, but that doesn't mean I'm leaving or staying," Leonard told reporters in December of a player option that lords over the Clippers' future as a contender. “I’m focused on the season, like I said. We’ll talk about that when the time is right.”

Kawhi Leonard can become a free agent just two years into his tenure with the Clippers. (Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)
Kawhi Leonard can become a free agent just two years into his tenure with the Clippers. (Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

The next tier includes a handful of past-their-peak stars who would count as significant signings this summer, starting with Chris Paul. The 35-year-old point guard owns a $44.2 million option for next season with the Phoenix Suns. That is no longer the no-brainer to be picked up that it once was. This could be his last shot to secure a hefty longterm deal, and he will have his choice of teams with which to chase a ring.

Kyle Lowry, Mike Conley, DeMar DeRozan and Andre Drummond are out of options. They will be free agents this summer, and all four veterans may also be negotiating the final blockbuster deal of their careers. Fellow aging and impending free agents Goran Dragic, Blake Griffin and Paul Millsap passed that point.

Victor Oladipo is in another tier of his own. Twice traded this season, Oladipo is injured once again, having "tweaked the area around his previous quad injury," per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. That injury has limited Oladipo to 88 games over the past three years. He has yet to reestablish himself as the All-NBA talent who pushed LeBron James to seven games in the first round of the 2018 playoffs, but he is still not 30 years old.

What is restricted free agency?

Restricted free agents are coming off their rookie contracts. They remain largely under team control. They can seek deals from any team, but their incumbent team has the right to match any offer. For example, the Chicago Bulls matched the Sacramento Kings' four-year, $78 million offer to Zach LaVine in 2018. The Kings declined to match Bogdan Bogdanovic's four-year, $72 million deal from the Atlanta Hawks last year.

John Collins and the Atlanta Hawks were unable to reach an extension in December. (Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)
John Collins and the Atlanta Hawks were unable to reach an extension in December. (Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

Who are the top restricted free agents?

The biggest names in the 2017 draft class — those whose rookie contracts expire this year — have already signed extensions. Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, Bam Adebayo and De'Aaron Fox all inked max deals.

A handful of others forewent restricted free agency in favor of longterm security. OG Anunoby, Derrick White, Jonathan Isaac, Markelle Fultz, Luke Kennard, Kyle Kuzma also have their next contracts in place.

That leaves a handful more 2017 draftees who will receive varying degrees of interest: John Collins, Jarrett Allen, Lonzo Ball, Lauri Markkanen and Malik Monk. Collins turned down a $90 million offer in pursuit of a max extension, according to the Athletic's Sam Amick and Chris Kirschner. Allen and Ball will also be seeking deals that approach $100 million. Markkanen and Monk will be cheap by comparison.

Three more names to keep an eye on: Gary Trent Jr., Duncan Robinson and Mitchell Robinson. Trent's 2018 rookie deal expires at season's end, and his anticipated price tag was reportedly a reason for the Portland Trail Blazers trading him to the Toronto Raptors at the deadline. Duncan Robinson could command a similar figure. Mitchell Robinson's situation is unique. The New York Knicks hold a $1.8 million option on the injured center's contract for next season. Should they decline, he enters restricted free agency. Should they pick up his option, he either becomes eligible for an extension or enters 2022 unrestricted free agency.

Which teams have max cap space?

According to Spotrac, only three teams — the Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs — are likely to create enough cap space to give Leonard the max for a 10-year veteran. The Knicks are expected to be major players in free agency, given their stunning ascendance to relevancy this season.

The Toronto Raptors, Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat can clear enough to offer the $28.1 million max to Collins or another free agent with six years of experience or fewer. The Memphis Grizzlies are awfully close.

Among teams with an eye toward contention, the Dallas Mavericks can carve out the most cap space (almost $25 million). And if we have learned anything in recent years, it is that teams will get creative if they want to a free agent who commands more than their available space. Jimmy Butler and Gordon Hayward spring to mind as recent max-salaried players who found new homes through sign-and-trade deals.

Who else is available?

Anywhere from a quarter to a third of the league can enter free agency this summer, when half of NBA teams are projected to have $15 million or more in cap space. While a number of big names are off the market, many of the most talented role players will be competing for that cash in unrestricted free agency.

Among them are Dennis Schroder, Tim Hardaway Jr., Evan Fournier, Kelly Oubre, Richaun Holmes, Patty Mills, Lou Williams and P.J. Tucker. Serge Ibaka, Montrezl Harrell, Spencer Dinwiddie and Norman Powell also hold player options with the possibility of significant salary increases looming. 

Is 2021 free agency going to be crazy?

Expect nothing less from a league that has transformed its offseason into a headline-grabbing spectacle. The NBA is headed for another shortened offseason. The Finals could end as late as July 22. The draft is scheduled to follow a week later, and free agency opens four days after that — during the Tokyo Olympics.

If the NBA reverts to an October start date for the 2021-22 season, as expected, what was a three-month break between the end of the Finals and the start of training camp is trimmed to two. This after a seven-week layoff last offseason that has surely contributed to a rash of injuries and increased load management.

Free agents will be looking to secure their futures and get as much rest possible when Aug. 2 rolls around, so anticipate a flurry of activity that could begin with Leonard's player option as the first of many dominos.

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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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