The landscape of the 2021 free agency class has shifted dramatically since 2019. Many of the top players that were expected to become free agents have signed long-term extensions with their current teams. Such players include LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Paul George, Bradley Beal, Rudy Gobert, Draymond Green, and CJ McCollum.
Right now, 10 teams are projected to be able to generate at least $20 million in cap space. With names such as Antentokounmpo and Gobert recently coming off the board, there aren’t many players worthy of a maximum contract. Because of this, it’s possible that we see several of these cap space teams take on big money via trades or by re-signing their free agents if there aren’t any players they’re interested in. The lack of talent available could lead to a big payday for the top players who are entering free agency.
Here are the top free agents and extension-eligible players from the 2018 draft class who could potentially get a maximum contract.
Kawhi Leonard (Player Option: $36,016,200)
Leonard is the best player set to become a free agent once he declines his contract option at the end of the season. That may all just be a formality so he can re-sign with the Clippers on a new five-year maximum deal. Based on the $112.4 million salary cap projection, it would start him at $39.3 million just like Paul George, totaling $176.3 million over four years. Yes, maybe a contender like Mavericks, Heat, or his former Raptors could pursue him, but none of those teams are currently projected to generate enough cap space to give him his full maximum salary amount. Unless things go horribly wrong, look for the Los Angeles native to remain with the Clippers long-term.
Jrue Holiday (Player Option: $26,765,000)
Holiday is extension-eligible, so there’s a very strong chance he avoids 2021 free agency. When players are traded, they usually have a six-month trade restriction that limits players to three years (including the current season) and five percent raises in extensions with their new teams. That means Holiday can only sign a two-year extension right now worth $54.1 million, but it’s really only a one-year extension because his $26 million base player option would be replaced by a $26.4 million base salary. Because of the short season, that trade restriction has been cut in half. According to Bobby Marks of ESPN, starting on February 26, 2021, Holiday can extend with the Bucks for $135 million over four years. A contract with an average salary of $33.75 million that would pay him $37.4 million at age 35 might be enough to convince Holiday to skip free agency.
Oladipo, who is three seasons removed from his lone All-NBA season, is probably the best unrestricted free agent who could change teams next summer. After rupturing his quad in 2018-19, it took him a year to recover and is still getting back into form a year after that. Had he not suffered that injury, he might be a no-brainer maximum player. A strong 2020-21 season filled with good health could convince cap space teams to offer him a max or close to it. There has been speculation that he wants to join the Miami Heat, who could generate $24 million-to-$27 million in cap space while keeping the cap hold of Duncan Robinson. With Antetokounmpo off the board, the Heat could make a competitive four-year offer north of $100 million. He could also extend with the Pacers on a four-year $112.9 million contract, but it’s unclear if either side is interested in that.
John Collins (Restricted)
Collins believes he is a maximum player and held firm to that belief when he reportedly declined a four-year extension with the Hawks worth $90 million. He should definitely receive offers exceeding $100 million next offseason, and the maximum another team can offer him is $120.8 million over four years. The Hawks are going to be capped out for the foreseeable future now that they have Bogdan Bogdanovic and Clint Capela locked up, and Trae Young will presumably receive a maximum extension next summer. Several teams like the Bulls, Heat, Knicks, Thunder, and Spurs could all throw a maximum offer sheet at him and hope the Hawks don’t match. Unless they trade Collins this season, the Hawks won’t have any means to replace him next summer. Even if they think $120 million is too much for Collins, at least they don’t have to pay him the five-year $158 million maximum contract players such as Bam Adebayo and De’Aaron Fox received.
Luka Doncic (Extension-Eligible)
The first agreement in 2021 free agency may come between Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks on a five-year maximum extension. It is currently projected at $163 million but assuming he wins MVP this season or next season, or simply earns All-NBA honors this season, the total salary can reach $195.6 million. Look for Doncic to earn the higher maximum salary amount.
Lonzo Ball (Restricted)
Like Collins, Ball might also have a much higher sense of his worth than his current team does. A five-year maximum contract is out of the question right now, but could another team possibly offer him $120.8 million over four-years even if doesn’t make a significant leap this season? Ball has proven that he is a very good player in the NBA, but the potential to be an All-Star and All-Defensive guard could convince a team like the Knicks, Bulls, Mavericks, Thunder, or Raptors to sign him to a maximum offer sheet. This might also be necessary to get the Pelicans to let him go. Ideally, the Pelicans might want to keep Ball at around $20 million, an annual salary comparable to Malcolm Brogdon and Fred VanVleet. This is important in the long run because the maximum salaries of Brandon Ingram and presumably Zion Williamson can put the Pelicans deep in the luxury tax starting in 2023-24.
Trae Young (Extension-Eligible)
The question with Young isn’t if he is worth a maximum contract, but if he can qualify for the $195.6 million Designated Rookie Extension like Doncic is expected to get. All he needs is to earn All-NBA honors in 2021-22 or both 2020-21 and 2021-22 to qualify. With the Hawks looking like they should make the playoffs, combined with another strong statistical season and an All-Star appearance, that might be enough to convince voters to at least put him on 3rd Team All-NBA going forward. Like Doncic, his extension with the Hawks should be one of the first agreements in 2021 free agency.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Extension-Eligible)
Gilgeous-Alexander might not be as attractive a name as Doncic or Young but he might be the best player in the 2018 draft after them. Even if he isn’t named an All-Star this season, the Thunder clearly have a future one in him. Expect the Thunder to sign him to a maximum extension with provisions to earn the Designated Rookie Maximum should he meet the criteria next season.
Deandre Ayton (Extension-Eligible)
Ayton should at the very least earn a $100 million extension with the Suns next offseason. The Suns already have Devin Booker locked up and by the time Paul’s contract is up in 2022, they will have enough flexibility to give Ayton and Mikal Bridges lucrative contracts. He has all the opportunity to prove that he is a maximum player this season and Chris Paul could help magnify that.
Jaren Jackson Jr. (Extension-Eligible)
Jackson Jr. might only make a couple of All-Star games in his career, but he is undoubtedly one of the Grizzlies’ cornerstones, alongside Ja Morant. The Grizzlies have one of the cleanest cap sheets going forward with very little money guaranteed in 2022-23 when Jackson’s extension would kick in. Barring a huge leap this season, Jackson Jr. likely won’t get offered a full maximum contract next offseason but should get offered something close to it.