Focus on Free Agency: News & Rumor Roundup

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All eyes are on the NBA Finals and the upcoming Draft, but with free agency due to open on Aug. 2 a flurry of signings will soon alter the league's landscape. Today's column focuses on top-tier players who are (or could be) headed for free agency.

We'll begin with veteran point guard Mike Conley, who benefits from the fact that 2021 isn't replete with top-tier free agents. He's coming off an All-Star campaign (his first ever) with averages of 16.2 points (44.4% FGs, 85.2% FTs), 2.7 triples, 3.5 boards, 6.0 assists, 1.4 steals and only 1.9 turnovers. He averaged a modest 29.4 minutes per game yet still battled a hamstring injury during the second half of the season. As Conley approaches his 34th birthday, those sorts of soft-tissue injuries could be a gnawing concern for teams contemplating a lucrative multi-year offer. That could be a moot point if Utah is determined to retain him, which is the case according to beat writer Tony Jones. "From a Jazz point of view, there’s not much to debate," Jones wrote. "Sources tell The Athletic that Utah wants Conley back and will make every attempt to keep the All-Star in a Jazz uniform once free agency opens."

Fantasy take: Conley thrived with Utah and was a steady mid-round fantasy play despite playing sub-30 minutes per game. That's probably his ceiling at this point and it's hard to see a change of scenery improving his fantasy outlook -- after all, any increase in minutes and usage would come with a corresponding increase in injury/DNP risk. Ideally, Conley re-signs and helps the Jazz try to reclaim the top record in the West, only with a longer postseason shelf-life.

Kawhi Leonard has the option to earn $36.0 million in 2021-22 and then become an unrestricted free agent, or he can decline the option and immediately seek a long-term deal. The Clippers can ultimately pay him the most money and Marc Stein reports that re-signing with L.A. is still "the most likely scenario," but Leonard's decision-making is notoriously guarded. Adding another layer of uncertainty, Kawhi is also rehabbing from surgery to repair a partially torn ACL and his rehab will carry into the upcoming season. That makes him an extremely risky target on draft day since precautionary DNPs will be a fixture even after he's been cleared to play. Fantasy GMs' risk tolerance will be put to the test since he's a top-five fantasy talent when active, but has never played more than 74 games in a season and has played 60 or fewer in four straight seasons.

Fantasy take: As mentioned, the real crux of the matter is Kawhi's health. If he's cleared to play six months after his surgery, in January, he'd miss the first three months of the season. That's a best-case scenario. He'll assuredly have medical restrictions once he's playing, and will be a fantasy wildcard on draft night. The ideal scenario would be drafting a 'safe' and injury-free team in the early rounds, then adding Kawhi as a mid-round gamble. If your league has more than one IR spot, you can afford to be more aggressive. But if you're drafting him in a league with only one IR spot (or none), you'd better be extremely confident in the players you chose prior to the Klaw.

Kyle Lowry nearly left the Raptors at the trade deadline this past season, but ultimately Toronto held onto their franchise pillar. That still leaves Toronto with a thorny situation, as the 35-year-old Lowry is expected to command a hefty salary and doesn't exactly sound like he'll offer Toronto a discount. "To be honest with you, my family will be a major factor in this," said Lowry. "And also, money talks and years talk, let's be real ... I still have a lot more to give. I have a ton of basketball left in me."

Another complicating factor is that front-office architect Masai Ujiri is in the final year of his own contract and hasn't yet signed an extension. Lowry said that Ujiri's own decision "definitely will factor into" his thinking as a free agent. "The only reason I'm still [with Toronto] is because of him," Lowry said. "Part of the reason I re-signed here twice is because of him ... He didn't trade for me, but he is the one who paid me to stay twice and gave me the opportunity to continue to lead. He has helped me become a better person, a better basketball player."

Fantasy take: Lowry's production has remained elite into his mid-30s, though there are signs of slippage with 26 and 14 DNPs the past two seasons (granted, many of his DNPs last year were of the DNP-Tank variety). His steals also slipped to 1.0 per game, his lowest mark in a decade. To hear Lowry tell it, he's still near his physical prime. "Yeah, my age may not say that, but I still move and shake like a young spring chicken," he said after the 2020-21 season. "I feel great." Whichever team signs him may take a cautious route with his workload, but there's no reason K-Low can't still produce top-75 fantasy value in 32+ minutes per game. With a lowered ceiling, though, spending a top-50 pick on him may be a poor use of your fantasy-draft assets.

John Collins is a restricted free agent who has reportedly drawn interest from the Spurs, Mavs, Heat and Wolves. He's easily one of the top targets this offseason, aided by an image-burnishing postseason in which he adapted his game to the Hawks' personnel needs. He still might not land the max contract he desires, but it's possible another team will float that offer and see if the Hawks blink.

Fantasy take: a move away from Atlanta would likely be beneficial. Collins was simply less involved last season with a dip in usage (22.2%) and the lowest total rebound rate (12.5%) of his career. That rebound rate was barely top-100 in the league and was comparable to Torrey Craig, JaMychal Green and Gorgui Dieng. The obvious culprit is teammate Clint Capela, who led the NBA in rebound rate (23.0%) and remains under contract with Atlanta for 2021-22. Early-round value is within reach, but to get there Collins needs to reclaim some boards, boost his defensive numbers (0.5 steals, 1.0 blocks) and increase his usage from 21.8% to at least the mid-20s.

Lonzo Ball is a restricted FA but the Pelicans aren't exactly a lock to retain him. He's expected to draw interest from the Bulls and Clippers, while the Lakers would also reportedly be open to a reunion. The latter scenario would involve some serious financial gymnastics, but stranger things have happened. John Hollinger also mentions in The Athletic that New York is in play ("because they’re always the first place to start with free agents") and mentions the Mavericks, Heat and Raptors as other options.

Jarrett Allen is also restricted and his whereabouts depend on Cleveland's willingness to match hefty offer sheets. The Draft could shake things up, especially if Evan Mobley lands in Cleveland with the No. 3 pick, but even that might not dissuade them from paying Allen a truckload (they may view Mobley as compatible at power forward). ESPN's Bobby Marks mentioned in late June that the Raptors, Hornets and Knicks could give Allen huge offer sheets.

Lauri Markkanen can become a restricted free agent but could also hit the open market by declining Chicago's qualifying offer. Interested teams may need to view the former No. 7 overall pick as a minor reclamation project, as he's coming off a rough season in which he averaged 13.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.5 steals and 0.3 blocks in 25.8 minutes -- all career-low numbers. He was quietly efficient as a shooter with 48/40/82 splits, but also had borderline-unplayable stretches where he was hesitant offensively, timid rebounding the ball, and hapless defensively. That won't prevent multiple teams from pursuing him, with the Wolves reportedly showing some interest.

There isn't enough room to discuss them all here, but other high-level free agents include DeMar DeRozan, Andre Drummond, Devonte' Graham (restricted), Spencer Dinwiddie, Reggie Jackson, Dennis Schroder, Tim Hardaway Jr., Duncan Robinson, Victor Oladipo, Derrick Rose, Carmelo Anthony and Blake Griffin. Chris Paul could also opt for unrestricted free agency, but after leading the Suns to the Finals it would be stunning if he played anywhere other than Phoenix in 2021-22.

We'll have much more coverage of free agency and trades in the coming weeks! In the meantime, you can catch up on all things Finals and Draft-related with NBC Sports EDGE's live video podcasts, betting advice, columns, and of course our constantly-updated player news!