NBA: A look at the top free agents on the market

The free agent market in the NBA will continue to have a significant impact on teams vying for the title this year. The decision of some hitters could change the landscape a lot at the start of next season.

The league rules made overtime so veteran-friendly at a time when salaries were rising faster than the cap.

Still, a handful of standouts will be available when the NBA’s free agent season officially opens at 6:00 p.m. ET on Thursday. Players and teams can agree on contracts during this moratorium, but not before July 6th.

Kyrie Irving | leader | Brooklyn Networks

All eyes in the NBA will be on Kyrie Irving’s decision over the next few days, both in terms of how it will affect the market and how it will affect the future of Brooklyn teammate Kevin Durant.

Since only a handful of teams will have the space to accommodate Irving’s $36.9 million order, a rejection will likely put Irving out of business. However, it opens up a nightmare scenario for the Nets if Irving signs elsewhere and leaves Brooklyn for nothing.

That threat could help Irving find a prime target if he and the Nets can’t agree on a new contract.

Harden James | guard | Philadelphia 76ers

James Harden also has to decide by Wednesday whether he will accept the option year provided for in his contract. With Harden already earning more than the maximum salary (his option is $47.4 million), that decision really depends on how both parties want to structure his next contract.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported last week that Harden intends to exercise his option. He could also extend his contract with the 76ers by a few seasons at most.

Bradley Beal | guard | Washington Wizard

Even if Beal is content to extend his contract with the Wizards, he can still increase his salary to the projected maximum of $42.7 million for 2022-23. According to Wojnarowski, there’s a very good chance Beal will turn down the option and re-sign with Washington on a five-year, $248 million deal that would keep him in Washington until he was 33.

Zach LaVine | guard | Chicago Bulls

Zach Lavine was becoming a star player and the Bulls probably should have renegotiated his deal sooner, but instead chose Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso and DeMar DeRozan last summer.

Now Lavine can aim for a maximum value contract on the market.

However, the Bulls are the only team that can offer LaVine a five-year contract, a not inconsiderable option for the guard, who would then be 32 at the end of his contract.

Deandre Ayton | center | Phoenix Suns

After refusing to extend Ayton last fall, the Suns now face a difficult decision. You must make him a maximum offer during the limited freedom of action if you cannot find an amicable replacement.

Ayton remains one of the great mysteries of the NBA. Is he a multi-talent or just the product of a supportive environment alongside Chris Paul and Devin Booker?

The answer probably lies somewhere in between.

The Pistons appeared ready to make an offer for Ayton but ultimately selected Jalen Duren in the draft.

Ayton’s case is one of the most intriguing as the free agent season draws near.

Miles Bridges | Winger | Charlotte Hornets

Bridges’ stellar season, averaging 20.2 points per game, came on time.

Buyers can rejoice that Bridges’ season hasn’t been a fluke as his 3-point percentage has dropped to 33% after hitting 40% in 2020-21. Instead, Bridges has shown massive growth at just 24, causing attacks for herself and others.

Given Bridges’ ability to play any winger position, he will fit almost anywhere and will be a prime target when the market opens.

Collin Kuster | guard | Cleveland Cavaliers

In 2020-21, Sexton ranked 18th in the NBA with an average of 24.3 points per game. Of the 17 players before him, 16 were selected to the All-Star Game. Sexton did that in a season he turned 22, and typically players like that don’t make it into the free agent market.

Sexton’s situation was complicated by the way the Cavaliers played in his absence, having sustained a meniscus tear early last season. As a 6-foot-1 shooting guard, Sexton has obvious defensive flaws. Nonetheless, his scoring potential could see him earn a sizeable salary.

Anfernee Simons | leader | Portland Trail Blazer

Simons has taken full advantage of teammate Damian Lillard’s injury to show he poses a real offensive threat. Simons, who turned just 23 earlier this month, got the keys to Portland’s offense when Lillard was sidelined, averaging 22.0 points and 5.5 assists in 30 starts with impressive efficiency (.600 true shooting percentage).

The Blazers traded CJ McCollum to the New Orleans Pelicans, allowing Simons to fill McCollum’s role of playing alongside Lillard as the starting guard and supporting him at that point.

Simons will almost certainly return to Portland. The question is how close his new contract will be to the maximum allowed for players with less than seven years of experience: $30.5 million.

Jalen Brunson | leader | Dallas Mavericks

It’s telling that the free agent garnering the most attention prior to July 1 is a player who sat on the bench until last season and is now entering his prime (Brunson turns 26 in August). Starting alongside Luka Doncic, Brunson has shown he can be effective in a hybrid role, initiating the attack and positioning himself around another creator (he has a 37% success rate on 3-point shots).

Perhaps most importantly, Brunson improved his performance in the playoffs. He averaged 21.6 points after a disappointing first-round series against the Clippers in 2021, leaving observers questioning if he could hold his value against a top-flight defense.

The New York Knicks seem like a natural contender to win him, having recently hired his father (Rick Brunson) as an assistant coach.

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