NBA free-agency primer: The top players, worst values and best bargains

Yahoo Sports

NBA free agency opens at 6 p.m. ET on Sunday. With more than half the league hitting the market and a wealth of teams holding salary cap space — including both franchises in Los Angeles and New York — it should be a wild first week of July.

Teams cannot actually sign players until July 6 at 11 a.m. ET, when the league lifts its moratorium, but they can make handshake agreements in the meantime. Then, it’s just a matter of holding that handshake until pen hits paper. (Hi, DeAndre Jordan.)

We already know recently traded All-Stars Anthony Davis and Mike Conley are on the move, but who will join them? We tried to simplify the frenzy with a free-agency primer, sorting players most likely to swap teams into four Top 5 categories: the top players, the best mid-tier values, the most overvalued and the cheapest bargains.

Kawhi Leonard captured his second Finals MVP honor in leading Toronto to a title. (Getty Images)
Kawhi Leonard captured his second Finals MVP honor in leading Toronto to a title. (Getty Images)

Top 5 free agents

1. Kawhi Leonard

Incumbent team: Toronto Raptors

Chief competitor: Los Angeles Clippers

Rumored suitors: Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks

He is the NBA’s kingslayer. Leonard is the Finals MVP for the NBA’s last two unconventional champions, toppling super-teams led by LeBron James and Kevin Durant. This past season with the Raptors was proof that he can single-handedly swing a good team to a title. And he is still just 27 years old. Despite lingering concerns about the health of his right leg and how much load management it might take to get him through his next contract, pay him whatever he wants.

2. Kevin Durant

Incumbent team: Golden State Warriors

Chief competitor: New York Knicks

Rumored suitors: Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Clippers

In the aftermath of Durant’s torn Achilles tendon, multiple league sources told Yahoo Sports that the Warriors and Knicks are still expected to offer him max contracts despite his expected absence for all or most of next season. That means five years, $221 million from the Warriors or four years, $164 million from the Knicks. Other teams, namely the Nets and Celtics, may also be willing to pay $164 million for three years of an unknown percentage of pre-injury production from a 32-year-old Durant, which may still be worth the investment. That’s how good he is.

3. Kyrie Irving

Incumbent team: Boston Celtics

Chief competitor: Brooklyn Nets

Rumored suitors: Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks

Irving just enjoyed his best statistical season, but there is considerable risk in committing long-term to him as the best player on a team with title aspirations. The 27-year-old undoubtedly played a role in fracturing the Celtics’ locker room and all but quit on them in the playoffs, which is likely why the Nets are reportedly hesitant about signing Irving if he does not bring a superstar with him. Cleveland can attest to the benefits and drawbacks of employing him as a secondary star. Someone will meet Irving’s max contract demands, because he is an otherworldly talent.

4. Jimmy Butler

Incumbent team: Philadelphia 76ers

Chief competitor: Houston Rockets

Rumored suitors: Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat

As Philadelphia’s lone capable shot creator late in playoff games, Butler is worth more to the Sixers than anyone else, pushing them within four unfriendly bounces of the conference finals. He too carries baggage. Just ask Chicago and Minnesota. Butler’s brief Philadelphia stay has seen its share of challenges, too. The Rockets reportedly offered four first-round picks for Butler in October, and while they have no cap space, GM Daryl Morey is creative in his quest for star talent. Every other team one piece away from contention should also be scheming for his services.

5. Kemba Walker

Incumbent team: Charlotte Hornets

Chief competitor: Boston Celtics

Rumored suitors: Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks

Waker’s best season resulted in a third-team All-NBA selection, which puts him in line for a super-max extension from the Hornets worth $221 million over the next five years. The Hornets may not be willing to commit that much to a player who has led them into the lottery each of the last three years, and Walker may be willing to accept less than that to stay with a team built for middling. Where they are willing to compromise could determine whether the New York native tests the free-agency waters in Boston or anywhere else with loftier organizational goals than Charlotte.

Next 5: Klay Thompson (likely staying put), Kristaps Porzingis (restricted free agent), D’Angelo Russell, Al Horford, Khris Middleton (Bucks need him)

Clippers guard Patrick Beverley never relents, no matter the opponent. (Getty Images)
Clippers guard Patrick Beverley never relents, no matter the opponent. (Getty Images)

Top 5 value free agents

Trevor Ariza

We’re a year removed from Ariza being a key to Houston’s spread offense and switching defense, and what a year it’s been for the 33-year-old journeyman wing. He took a big payday to go to Phoenix, who dealt him to Washington, another team in a nosedive. With that experience behind him, a return to his role as a 3-and-D wing on a playoff team seems likely. Whoever signs him can hope the spacing provided by more talented teammates causes a spike in his 3-point shooting again.

Patrick Beverley

The 30-year-old All-Defensive guard pesters everyone from Damian Lillard to Kevin Durant. He has also shot 39.4 percent on nearly 1,000 3-point attempts over the last four seasons. That has the Mavs trying to pry him from a Clippers team angling for bigger fish. His experience is attractive to playoff teams, but their ability to sign him for something close to the midlevel exception may depend on whether a lottery team is willing to spend otherwise unused cap space on him setting their culture.

Dewayne Dedmon

The 7-footer emerged as a rim protector starting half a season alongside LaMarcus Aldridge on the 61-win San Antonio Spurs in 2016-17. He cashed that into a two-year, $14 million deal from the Atlanta Hawks, where he honed his jump shot in his late 20s. After attempting only one 3-pointer in his first four seasons, Dedmon made 83 of his 217 attempts (38.2 percent) in 2018-19. That’s all well worth another short-term pay raise from a team in need of a floor-spacing big. And who isn’t?

Austin Rivers

Overlooked in Houston’s six-game conference semifinals loss to Golden State: The flu that kept Rivers from playing in a Game 1 that came down to the final minute. The Rockets were 7.5 points per 100 possessions better with Rivers on the floor for the remainder of that series, a reflection of his in-case-of-emergency playmaking and defensive effort. He has survived seven seasons of unwarranted criticism for benefiting from nepotism to emerge as a reliable third guard on a contender.

Ricky Rubio

Once a teen sensation, the Spaniard is now a 28-year-old in search of his third NBA team in four years. When Utah dealt for Mike Conley last week, Rubio publicly thanked the fans, signaling the end to a two-year stint that looked much like his time in Minnesota — defensive intensity, dazzling playmaking and subpar shooting. He is still a solid point guard, and now that the four-year, $55 million contract he signed as a promising prospect has expired, his salary should reflect his ability.

Next 5: Seth Curry, Ed Davis, Danny Green, Wesley Matthews, Terrence Ross

Did Kevon Looney's playoff performance go from underrated to overvalued? (Getty Images)
Did Kevon Looney's playoff performance go from underrated to overvalued? (Getty Images)

Top 5 free agents about to be overpaid

Harrison Barnes

He fit well with the Warriors and was headed that way alongside the young Kings building blocks, but at what cost? Barnes opted out of the final season of the four-year, $94.4 million deal he signed in the spend-happy summer of 2016, which likely means he sees someone offering similar compensation beyond next season. That’s a lot, even for a guy who is good at the skills you want from a modern NBA player — chief among them the ability to space the floor and defend multiple positions.

Tobias Harris

Nearly half the league could have max cap space, and a few teams can create two max slots. With only a handful of true franchise-altering talents available and a few second-tier stars likely staying put, there will be a team that offers serious cash to Harris, who was a borderline All-Star last season. But the midseason trade that sent him from the Clippers to the Sixers should give suitors pause, because he disappeared at times in the playoffs for Philadelphia and wasn’t missed all that much in L.A.

Kevon Looney

In his fourth season with the Warriors, Looney emerged as their most dependable center — a rim runner and protector who holds his own when switched onto guards in pick-and-roll defense. The league got a long look at his talent, and then saw how much his broken collarbone hindered Golden State in the Finals. He is 23 years old and will have his share of suitors who believe they can elevate him to an elite level. It seems just as likely, though, that Looney’s next team discovers he isn’t so great when he’s not surrounded by all-time shooters and a Defensive Player of the Year.

Julius Randle

The former top-10 pick left a lot of Lakers fans regretting his exit last season, when he averaged 21.4 points (60 true shooting percentage), 8.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists as a 24-year-old on a Pelicans team in turmoil. Randle chased stats for $8.6 million in hopes of more than doubling that this summer, when more teams have cap space to burn. Bidders should be warned that the Pelicans operated at league-low defensive levels whenever Randle was on the court without Anthony Davis.

Nikola Vucevic

The 7-footer just enjoyed a contract season for the averages, averaging career highs of 20.8 points, 12 rebounds and 3.8 assists for a team that made the playoffs for the first time in his seven seasons in Orlando. That’s what might scare teams off a max contract. Still, Vucevic shot 36.4 percent on almost three attempts per game from distance (after entering the season as a career 30.8 percent 3-point shooter), and Magic coach Steve Clifford showed you can build a top-10 defense with him as your starting center. Those are things a team with cap space can talk itself into.

Next 5: Rodney Hood, Nikola Mirotic, Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier, Jonas Valanciunas

It was good to see Joakim Noah on an NBA court again, even if in a limited role. (Getty Images)
It was good to see Joakim Noah on an NBA court again, even if in a limited role. (Getty Images)

Top 5 minimum-salaried free agents

Vince Carter

The 42-year-old is returning for a 22nd and final NBA season, so long as the league will have him. He has spent the past two seasons mentoring youth movements in Sacramento and Atlanta, but it’s high time his steady hand chases a ring before calling it quits. Carter shot nearly 40 percent on an average of four 3-point attempts over 76 games with the Hawks, and he showed enough athleticism to still throw down dunks on occasion and stay in front of opposing wings on the defensive end.

Darren Collison

It’s hard to gauge what the market will be for players like Collison, who played his last two seasons in Indiana for $10 million. With so many available players, will teams spend like crazy on top- and mid-tier talents, leaving only minimum deals and exception scraps for a 31-year-old with playoff aspirations? Or will teams save room in an effort to add depth, like a point guard who has shot 40 percent from distance for four straight seasons? If history is any indication, it may be the former.

Danuel House

He was somewhat of a savior for a reeling Rockets team, effectively filling the wing void left by Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute this past season. In 39 games split between a two-way contract and a standard NBA deal, the 6-foot-7 House shot better than 40 percent on nearly five 3-point attempts per game, and he can defend three positions. That’s all you can ask from a 26-year-old G League convert.

Joakim Noah

At 34 years old with a litany of leg ailments, he is no longer the Defensive Player of the Year that anchored Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls, but as he proved in Memphis this past season, he’s also not cooked in the way it seemed he might be before he was run out of New York. In limited minutes, he produced the sort of stats you would like to see from a backup big, and more importantly the Grizzlies’ defense operated at league-best levels when he was on the floor. He is nothing if not uber intense.

Isaiah Thomas

The two-time All-Star is still slowly grinding his way back from the hip injury that made him expendable by the Celtics, Cavaliers, Lakers and now Nuggets. Thomas returned from hip surgery to play 12 games in Denver before coach Mike Malone removed him from the playoff rotation. He was nowhere as explosive as he was when he submitted a legendary offensive season in 2016-17 — the kind of year that more than masks any defensive deficiencies for a 5-foot-9 dude — but he is still well worth a flier in hopes he can be a Sixth Man of the Year candidate again.

Next 5: Wilson Chandler, JaMychal Green, Robin Lopez, Elfrid Payton, Nik Stauskas

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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